Ask a Christian, Part III

Man and God - The Sistine Chapel by Michaelangelo

I’ve been taking all matters God with a really great group of guys online lately, and it got me in the mood to discuss and, hopefully, explain a few more questions and misconceptions I’ve gotten and been seeing about the faith. And so here we are with the third edition of Ask A Christian.

Hopefully you find this interesting, and even if you still think the faith wacky, well, at least you’ll be better informed.

Let me say first that a lot of these focus on the Bible, which is a difficult book for anyone, devout or otherwise. It’s a collection of several books written by people centuries apart, so misunderstandings about among the faithful and the not. So keep this in mind as we delve into some of these.

“Why do you feel guilt about everything and impose unearned guilt on everyone? That’s sadistic and cruel!”

Well then, it’s a good thing that this isn’t what we believe. Everyone isn’t “guilty.”

See, Christians, at least the Orthodox denomination, don’t believe in “original guilt.” Original sin–the disobedience to God and the fall of man–happened. Christ then redeemed mankind.

The distinction is that man’s nature is fallen. All of us live with the consequences of the fall of man, sure–old age, sickness, death, the darker sides of human nature in all of its manifestations– we are not guilty.

“You always cry ‘out of context!’ when confronted with verses you don’t like. What a disingenuous cop-out!”

Then stop flinging verses at us that you don’t understand yourselves.

This is a multi-layered issue, and could be a post itself. I’ll try to provide a condensed version:

  1. The Bible isn’t a book. It’s a library. It is a collection of different books written at different times by different people for different reasons. There is Gospel, prophecy, history, myth, poetry, wisdom, letters…so context is required for everything. Which leads into point 2.
  2. Not all Christians believe “sola scriptura,” the idea held by many Protestant denominations that the Bible is perfect and a closed book and that all we need to know, and in order to interpret it, is in there. Catholic, Orthodox, Anglican, among other, denominations reject this. Even the Bible doesn’t indicate that scripture alone is the final word, which seems to invalidate the idea of sola scriptura, but I digress. I know I’ve opened a can of worms here, but like I said, this is condensed. So there is also tradition and practice, including that by the Apostles themselves. You know, those people who followed Jesus himself.
  3. The Bible, all of it, needs to be read many ways: literally, figuratively, scripturally, and so on. I’ve already written about how not all churches take the creation story literally, and 12th century Jewish scholar Moses Maimonides explained in his Guide for the Perplexed that everyone knew, for example, that the Book of Job is a metaphor. So it’s far more layered than naysayers like to admit.

When those who are trying to disprove Christianity toss random verses around, they’re engaging in sola scriptura-type interpretation without knowing what they’re citing actually means. It’s like tossing out the middle of a random sentence without knowing the rest of the words surrounding it, or what the excerpt actually is trying to convey.

And if you’re upset that there seems to be “an answer for everything,” that’s what thousands of years of serious study and tradition will do. Or it could be that the book is true… Continue reading “Ask a Christian, Part III”

Eight Insights About God, Man, and Creation from Moses Maimonides’ Guide for the Perplexed

Moses Maimonides - The Guide for the Perplexed cover

How does one “review” a dense, millennia-old treatise on Jewish philosophy and religion?

One doesn’t. But what one can do is share insights and particularly powerful ideas and concepts with another.

In The Guide for the Perplexed, written around 1190 in Moor-occupied Spain, Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon (aka Maimonides aka Rambam) writes to his student Rabbi Joseph ben Judah of Ceuta, to remove some of his confusions regarding certain aspects of faith and philosophy.

The Guide touches on many, many topics including:

  • The multiple meanings of Hebrew words and how to properly interpret the Torah (aka the first five books of the Old Testament)
  • Aristotelian philosophy: what Aristotle got right and wrong
  • Problems Maimonides sees with certain aspects of Islamic theology
  • The nature of God and proof of His existence
  • The nature of evil, and why it exists
  • Divine Providence
  • The nature of angels, prophecy (with a detailed discussion of Ezekiel) and dreams
  • Astronomy (as understood at the time) and the “spheres”
  • The purpose of God’s commandments

And yet instead of seeming disjointed, the Guide has as a constant thread two main themes:

  1. Discerning who God is and what He wants
  2. Achieving perfection, as much as possible, by coming to true knowledge of God

It’s heavy stuff, but it makes you appreciate the magic of the written word, and how one man’s letters nearly one thousand years ago still speak to us today, explaining mysteries and, as the title says, removing perplexities . . . or at least easing them and providing a way forward for further studies and thought.

Moses Maimonides statue Cordoba, Spain

Regular readers of Amatopia know that I am a Christian and don’t shy about writing on religious topics, so if that isn’t your bag, you have been warned. But even though Maimonides was Jewish, there is much overlap between Judaism and Christianity–same God, same creation stories, same traditions, similar rites (or at least the meaning behind them) and much of the same general theology and philosophy about God and man.

Obviously, Christians accept Christ as the promised Messiah and Son of God described in Jewish prophecy and Jews regard Him as a prophet and religious leader, but not Divine.

But the point remains: Christians can get a lot out of The Guide for the Perplexed. And even if you are not Christian, Jewish, or religious at all, Maimonides is a powerful thinker you will get a lot out of reading. Here are eight of my favorite takeaways from The Guide for the Perplexed:

Continue reading “Eight Insights About God, Man, and Creation from Moses Maimonides’ Guide for the Perplexed

No One Can Do the Work For You

People want to be told what to do. This is a fact, despite our protestations to the contrary. Many of us crave leadership, reassurance, a direction.

But when when we get this, we resent the fact that we still have to do the work to get where we want to be.

Otherwise, we resent that we’re being led by the nose and micromanaged.

We’re a fickle species, aren’t we? Especially when it comes to the King of All Topics to Be Avoided: religion.

Me, I’m not a very good listener.

I had an interesting conversation the other night with two co-workers, one who is a Catholic and the other who had actually studied and trained to be a Catholic priest, but ended up not taking his vows.

The discussion was far-ranging, covering things like the nature of belief, why rituals and rites are important, where morality comes from, and the vital role played by tradition and study versus personal interpretations of Scripture.

But what I started thinking about after this conversation really got my mind abuzz.

One attack used by opponents of religion (though their ire strangely always seems focused only on Christianity…) is the idea that, if God were real, why would He allow any suffering on Earth? “Show us a sign, losers!” they demand, as though God is a puppet to dispense blessings, or a slot-machine that just the right prayer worded just the right way can force to give a winning spin.

Such a deity would be a puppet master, treating humanity the way that lots of pagan gods, from the Greeks to the Norse to the Egyptians did.

He would be telling us what to do…and make us do it.

Instead, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Joseph, of Jesus and John, Peter and Mary and Paul lets us figure things out on our own. He may give leadership and guidance, but instead of fastening us with a leash, He opens the door and let’s us make our own ways through the wilds of the world.

Why is that?

I think a lot about how our interactions with others mirror God’s interactions with his creation. Even the Deists viewed him as a “Watchmaker,” so to speak, setting the machine in motion and hiding behind the scenes.

Think of God as a Father: The way He relates to us, his “children,” if you will, is a model of how we should relate to our own children as parents. Particularly the example of Jesus (“Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.”)

A good parent isn’t one who coddles their children. This ensures that the child will grow up to be a fearful and risk-averse adult, always appealing to authority for help, unable to make anything resembling an adult decision.

But what about being a teacher? It sounds kind of similar, doesn’t it?

Continue reading “No One Can Do the Work For You”

Ask a Christian, Part II

I had a classmate in school. She was part European and part Arab, and spent time growing up in both parts of the world. 

She was an atheist, and explained that the sectarian violence she saw while living in Lebanon had convinced her that there was nothing good whatsoever about religion.

During one section of our studies taught by a futurist–one of the most fascinating people I had ever met, actually–we were tying to gameplan how things may look 500, 100, and even 50 years from now.

I was in a group with this particular classmate, who predicted that in 50 years, religion wouldn’t matter, and would indeed vanish entirely from the face of the Earth.

“Fifty years?” I said, and I’m paraphrasing here so bear with me. “There are a few billion people who might disagree with that!”

In fact, I further propounded that, no matter how “modern” we get, religion probably won’t ever entirely go away.

Anyway, we had an interesting, very civil group discussion. But one thing this classmate said to me those years ago still resonates.

“You’re Orthodox, aren’t you? I’ve been to a few churches. That’s really…heavy.” She said the word “heavy” as if she felt the weight just speaking it.

I had no good answer then, and indeed didn’t know if I had to answer, since she didn’t seem to be saying it as an insult. Now, though, I realize what my answer to such a charge is:

Of course it’s “heavy.” Why wouldn’t it be?

How couldn’t matters of the soul, of eternity, of the literal meaning of life, not be heavy, regardless of what faith you belong?

This, perhaps, is what most non-Christians don’t get about us. Maybe we’re just wired a different way, but if you want to understand why we’re preoccupied with these sort of things, it’s because eternity is a very, very long time.

We also aren’t satisfied with the explanation that everything just happened and continues to happen for no reason whatsoever, nor with the certianty that humanity will ever know, and indeed might know now, everything about everything, ever. This seems…arrogant to us. 

So to help with this and a few other things, I’m back with another edition of Ask a Christian to maybe explain some of this heavy stuff we’re so preoccupied with, as well as a few other common misconceptions.  Continue reading “Ask a Christian, Part II”

What Should We Listen To “From the Mouths of Babes”?

Today is Palm Sunday, marking Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem at the beginning of Passover. It marks the beginning of Holy Week, Jesus’ final ministry, the Last Supper, His passion, crucifixion, and Resurrection. 

It also kicks off the season of “Muslims bombing churches in the Middle East,” but I digress. 

Maybe I should write about this instead of my intended topic–after all, we’re suddenly beating the war drums over Syria because the President was supposedly swayed by his daughter’s heartbreak over the latest gas attack. What about this? This, also, has been going on for years. Is it the type of weapon deployed that makes the difference here?

Yeah, I’m heated. 

But this does tie into what I wanted to write about in a way. 

According to Matthew, as Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a donkey and the people spread palms and their garments on the ground as though he were their king, the children in the Temple cried out, “Hosanna to the son of David!”

Indignant, the chief priests and scribes asked Christ if He heard, and to which He responded,

“[H]ave you never read, ‘Out of the mouths of babes and sucklings, you have brought perfect praise’?”

This has entered the culture as the saying, “From the mouth of babes,” denoting that children have some kind of wisdom to offer. 

So what gives? What does this mean? When do we listen to children? Even adult ones? Continue reading “What Should We Listen To “From the Mouths of Babes”?”

Heart and Treasure

For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.

Matthew 6:21

Financial discipline has always been a little bit of a problem with me. Not that I’m delinquent on any bills–I have never missed one in my life, whether it be rent, mortgage, car, utility, Internet, credit card, insurance–but I don’t really save.
I also ran into some tough times of joblessness, and took time during one bout of joblessness to go back to school. And how does one fund this, even with a wonderful wife who works very hard?

Why, by selling personal possessions, using savings, and going into debt.

What kind of debt? Credit card debt.

Now, this credit card saved me a few times, and as I said I have never missed a payment. It’s just been difficult to pay off the whole thing, even though I (a) use it for staples like things my son needs, gas, food, clothes, (b) use it for situational things that come up (birthday or other gifts for family, medical bills, car repair), and (c) pay more than the minimum due every single month.

But I am yet to get it down to zero.

Just as a way of background, in my previous job-search blog, lost unfortunately to the sands of time, I wrote about this issue a little over a year ago when I had just started this current job. I had saved some of my posts in Word format, so they aren’t totally lost in the ashes of an inadvertently deleted WordPress blog:

Regarding food, let’s just say that it’s been a little tough, given my penchant for the stuff, but it’ll be good seeing as how I really would like to lose a stubborn 20 or so pounds I put on since I last shed a whole bunch of weight. I figure $150 should keep me going for a month, provided that I don’t eat out too much, buy coffee outside of the house, lay off of the alcohol and the cigars, and generally spend frugally

*     *     *

All told, I’m doing alright so far. Food-wise, I’ve been portioning everything out and meal-planning well in advance. Here’s what I did: I bought a three-pack of pork chops, a four pack of chicken breast, two cucumbers, six tomatoes, a bag of onions, a little garlic, three bags of frozen vegetables, a rotisserie chicken, salt, pepper, lemon pepper, four cans of tuna fish, four boxes of soup, a dozen eggs, a bag of apples, a half-gallon of milk, a half-gallon of orange juice, a box of cereal, and a huge can of coffee. Most, if not all, of this was store brand, and good Lord is the price difference shocking! And guess what? There is barely a perceptible difference in taste. I swear I saved over thirty bucks just by buying generics.

So I hard-boiled the eggs to have for breakfast, ate half of the rotisserie chicken that day, the other half the next, grilled three pork chops with onions and steamed the broccoli which, so far, has lasted me two days and will suffice again for dinner tomorrow. I’ve also been portioning out my salad because, come on! Greek boy’s gotta have his salad. And then an apple serves as desert. A little Spartan, yes, but I have family from there and I need to be as frugal as possible. I’m trying really hard to turn over a new leaf now that I have a job that pays MORE than I could have gotten right out of undergrad, pay down my debts, and save. The idea isn’t to just save a nickel, it’s to make a buck while saving a nickel!

As you can see, this has been a concern of mine for a while. Continue reading “Heart and Treasure”