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GREG SHERIDAN’S “GOD IS GOOD FOR YOU”. A MAJOR BOOK WITH AN ODD FLAW

Greg Sheridan’s God is Good for You: A Defence of Christianity in Troubled Times is for multiple reasons a timely, important book easily recommended to believers and sceptics alike. Critical acclaim has immediately attached to it. I will however dwell chiefly on what I consider to be a hidden flaw that threatens its edifice and entails an error of understanding that ironically contributes to the kind of spiritual impasse for Christianity and the West that Sheridan is exercised about.

The book is the work of a successful Australian political journalist and it’s perhaps only his being well known and highly regarded that apologetic work of his kind could get past publishing within the current climate of opinion.  This climate is well evoked at the book’s outset and in conclusion. Sheridan even goes so far as to characterize Australia as effectively atheist or soon to be so. He regards the media today as almost the enemy (tending to ignore or misrepresent religion) and I won’t enlarge on quite how much I know that scandal to be true.

It is tempting to classify Sheridan’s offering with last year’s more secular bestseller, Douglas Murray’s The Strange Death of Europe. Both authors push back against a crisis in western thought and direction, Sheridan being more concerned with the extent of the erosion in faith and the glib dismissals of Christianity by often intolerant elites whose dismissals additionally entail a contempt for western civilisation at a dangerous moment for it. Sheridan demonstrates that this civilisation and often the best in it too, is far more dependent upon the faith than the average reader is likely to have been aware. (Especially Christian readers may finish shocked at how much they haven’t been told, that their leaders haven’t defended and even religious schools haven’t taught).

For many, both with and without faith, God is Good for You could be an education in itself for its range. It’s readably about history, philosophy, theology (including how to enjoy and profit from reading the Old Testament and not just the New), along with  many facts about society and even science you may not know. And there are meetings and interviews with various leaders of Australian society vis- a-vis faith. (The author is Catholic but very fair and open around non Catholic Christianities).

PASSING ON A FAITH

…..But none of this is quite my concern here which is rather with one, almost hidden point. It’s nevertheless a crucial one that opens upon something that potentially undermines, or at least confuses, the apologetic thrust of the whole book and reaches into one of the chief reasons Christianity is insufficiently defended or proclaimed, (or is wrongly proclaimed), and either way loses power and adherents after the manner Sheridan regrets and would redress.

St Paul asks “But how are they to call on one in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in one of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone to proclaim him?” (Rom 10:14). Sheridan would reasonably enough answer that a lot of belief is derived from family and school but for various reasons these are not currently vital sources for communicating Christianity and this must be faced. (It’s true many church schools may as well not be such!)

But despite his  quasi-evangelistic call to teach more and better, Sheridan has a surprise for us. Not only is his spouse a Sikh (I don’t wish to be personal but St Paul counsels believers should not be “unequally yoked” with unbelievers, 2 Cor 6:14) but more significantly since mixed marriages do inevitably occur,  in consequence it seems his three sons are of the religion too (p.90). This strikes a note more obviously counter to St Paul’s concern with raising one’s children in the instruction of the Lord (Eph 6:4).

Under elements of neo-Catholicism Sheridan somehow justifies his position, which includes attending Sikh services, by assuming that there can be great divine wisdom in non Christian religions  – theoretically Sikhism is monotheistic. So for Sheridan, while it’s perfectly true that Jesus is the saviour and even saves from hell (which he believes in since there must be “justice”), at the same time other systems can be true.

However reasonable this may sound, the position would for a start ignore that Sikhism, though monotheistic unlike the Hinduism it broke from, still teaches auto-salvation through multiple incarnations. In short, it denies grace, which is so original and radical in Christianity it distinguishes it from all other faiths as C.S. Lewis, one of Sheridan’s influences, affirmed when questioned on world religions. Christianity maintains evil is too engrained in life, nature and humans for anyone to reach perfection by their own efforts alone – and there’s anyway a limitation on the time for even  the best of would-be compensatory good works since we die once only and then is the judgment (Heb 9:27)!

A DISHARMONY OF FAITHS

It may be trendy or multiculturally convenient to maintain all the higher religions are essentially the same,  namely ways to God that make for love and peace. But it’s a far from obvious fact upon honest examination. Insisting upon it  ends in a fair deal of intellectual dishonesty, and that flight from any objective truth (or just the plain obvious) which is a part of the West’s sickness as Sheridan otherwise maintains.

Buddhism is theoretically atheistic and again allows no room for salvation as per Christianity; and the Buddhism of Burma, supposedly the religion’s purest, nearest-to-original form, when it comes to peace and toleration is clearly no paragon. Islam explicitly denies the divinity of Christ and the Koran enjoins execution and/or subjugation of infidels in stark contrast to the original Christian outlook like that of Tertullian, whom Sheridan cites, that though the gods of the pagans are demons, Christians are still to tolerate them in their beliefs. Polytheistic Hinduism is always hailed as a model of inclusiveness, but in its contemporary nationalist form under President Modi is anything but; it is currently turning a blind eye to the persecution of Christianity, the burning down of churches and beating even elderly worshippers senseless. (It belongs to the atheism and decadence of the West that the persecution of Christians outside the West is little reported or protested and concern with feminism enjoys more attention).

Even supposing claims are correct that God has supplied some vision to the higher religions, practically it doesn’t get through. At the grassroots in Asia people will say they are Buddhist or whatever, but  really they are  animists, devotees of local spirit or ancestral cults or gurus and shamans revered as though God (this somewhat happens among the Sikhs with their ten holy gurus).

FINDING THE PRIMORDIAL FAITH

It should be apparent from St Paul’s approach to Athenian paganism (Acts 17)  that he was not so much looking like some modern Christians to “dialogue” with existing faiths as guardians of  supplementary truths, as to uncover the world’s primordial faith, “the unknown god”, the creator who in world myth withdrew from human evil. In my The Great Circle: Asia, David and God Consciousness  https://goo.gl/ZHYQPw  I look into whether Asia, like Greece and the ancient West, ever had or has an unknown god, and the answer is yes. In some cases like the mostly Christian ethnic Karens of Burma (hated and persecuted by Burmese Buddhists),they had heroically waited centuries for the fulfilment of tribal visions that one day some stranger would arrive to bring them news of the true God.

Christianity is not a faith like Islam with a major conquest theme, but it is a religion of mission. Christ’s parting command, the so-called Great Commission, is to go and preach the gospel and to teach (Matt 26:16-20). Teaching rather than just rite and ritual as in most religions, is crucial to the Judaeo-Christian tradition and its notion of spiritual health. Otherwise it’s a case of “My people are destroyed through lack of knowledge” (Hos 4:6).

I would certainly agree with Sheridan that Christian religion is hardly being taught today, but would go further and maintain it has compromised its “evangelical” teaching task. It has done so to the point of substituting “the example” of charitable work alone to justify its existence, to cause least offence in a PC world and even perhaps to cover over what some may privately regard as the stigma of what the gospel message actually is, by emphasizing “unconditional love” to the exclusion of all else.

Undeniably Christianity is and teaches many things, but one still needs to be aware how at its core its message is one of deliverance from especially death and, by extension, hell’s destruction. Sheridan believes in hell while admitting to the difficulty most would feel as regards a perdition that’s eternal and/or apparently escaped from by an act of faith alone, two problems that receive astonishingly little treatment today given their controversial status within the whole.

A CORE DIFFICULTY

Actually, there is a perfectly simple, if nothing else logical reason to think of hell as eternal and it’s not, as per the Puritans, because God is so severe in righteous wrath against sinners he can never be appeased of their offence. It’s because, like heaven, hell stands outside of time in an intense eternal present (1).  God authored time which is a function of the (fallen, imperfect) material realm, and there will be a point at which God abolishes time along with the evil it permits. Where you are spiritually at that point fixes your essence into a single direction of will towards or against God.

It can seem reasonable enough to propose, and reassuring to believe, that evil souls will simply be annihilated (the sometimes chaotic contradictions of Pope Francis’ beliefs now countenance this along with atheists in heaven),( 2) , but to the extent God is “Lord/Author of Life” (Acts 3:15), divinity cannot destroy any immortal soul. Otherwise God becomes like Satan who Jesus says was “a murderer from the first” (Joh 8:44). God can only prevent and finish evil  through its exile and quarantine. It would follow the soul must, if need be, remain fixed in its (unregenerate) nature within the “eternity” which is outside time. This state, a very intense now, can well be portrayed as a sub-existence in tormenting “fire”, because everything exists through God and God is (spiritual) fire – albeit a lot more besides. But if God is rejected and separated from, there is only the divine fire left to subsist through, not the other elements which would render the fire creative and liveable rather than consuming and destructive.

Despite everything, Sheridan believes belief matters. It is important because no belief is exclusively rational but involves the will. It follows that for Christians to stress the importance of belief in Jesus is to stress that the will is and must be God-directed. This however allows Sheridan to argue that any talk about the claims of God upon us, or of deity being “jealous” around us, means we must be loyal and devoted to the Good. And this is something non Christians can unconsciously be, like the sheep in the parable of the sheep and the goats of Matt 25 where  the sheep are surprised to learn they had been serving Jesus by their actions all along.

TRUTH AND NAMING

There is truth in this perspective on the biblical picture of our destinies, but if taken too far it potentially undermines Christianity’s leading idea of any specifically “saving” belief and the obligation to  proclaim it.

Sheridan’s  universalist assumption is meaningful to the extent that many across history will never have known anything about Jesus and can hardly be condemned, especially not to hell, for that. As the apostle indicates at Athens, “the times of ignorance God overlooked but now he calls all people to repent”. (Acts 17:30). The statement is harmonious with another of the apostle’s claims that in the Last Judgement the thoughts of those outside the Law may condemn or excuse them before God (Rom 2:15). (And long before Paul Hebrew scripture has God declare: “I will have mercy upon whom I will have mercy” (Ex 33:19)  – a statement incidentally counter to all post-Thomas Merton trendy Catholic notions that heaven and hell are things we simply choose, not what God chooses or predestines). So there isn’t and never should have been, as per some lunatic medieval teachings, notions of automatic damnation for all except those souls who are baptized and  consciously, deliberately Christian.

But Sheridan’s universalist take on doctrine is misleading to the extent that being loyal to what you fancy as good (and which may not even be so) can never automatically amount to the same as being unconsciously devoted to the Christ self-described as “the Way, the Truth and the Life” (Joh 14:6). The gospel position is that Truth and Goodness are ultimately a name, not ideas. If you have the opportunity to connect to Christ then you should do so and in disregard of the claims of history, tradition and family upon you, salvation being linked to specifically calling upon the Name and especially in self-critical “repentance” (it means “mind change”). The original teaching  was always “Whoever calls upon the name of the Lord shall be saved” (Rom 10:13) and “there is no other name under heaven….by which we must be saved (Acts 4:12).

With this emphasis to its doctrines Christianity has always had an edge of urgency about it (which has perhaps affected the drive and engagement of western civilisation) where its “proclamation” is concerned. This is because there is understood to be a real struggle within the mortal time frame which is a theatre for our possible deception or injury by the forces of evil. These forces are seen as ruling this world and are the main source of human suffering and even what principally Christ incarnated to confront (1 Joh 3:8)  So there is this dramatic undercurrent “… night is coming when no one can work” (Joh 9:4) and “today is the day of salvation” (2 Cor 6:2)… not your next incarnation or when you agnostically shuffle this mortal coil and find out what’s what!

SUFFERING, EVIL AND HADES

Though the supposedly definitive Nicene creed states, “we believe in all things visible and invisible”, plainly most Christians inhabit modern scientism’s materialist swamp alien to all mystery and don’t so believe. Sheridan rightly says if you can’t accept angels and demons you could have a hard time with Christianity and I agree. Certainly you’ll have a harder time explaining evil in the world (and a few miracles too) and Sheridan himself is weak in this area going little further than rather conventionally  to proclaim suffering a mystery and blaming the necessary existence of freewill which can’t be cancelled at every moment.

Reading him on the suffering theme I incidentally baulked at finding yet again the common error which has Jesus on the cross voicing doubt and despair at divine goodness in a sort of terribly human identification with us and human woes. Will even educated Christians never learn that Jesus was piously reciting from Israel’s death Psalm 22 (though now often seen as prophetic for his death)?  This  contains the forsaken cry, but any despair in Jesus’ case is part of the atonement sacrifice itself which involves temporary separation from the Father as he carries or becomes sin and  as such  undergoes what souls in hell must experience. This is “destruction” or  living death, severance from every source of the Good. Even atheists experience God indirectly in this life through whatever is good within it. Hell by contrast is Dante’s “Abandon hope”, the gospel’s “outer darkness”, final separation from the light – hence the sun itself is seen as dimming at the crucifixion.

Today, those who believe in an afterlife have decided most people just go to whatever or wherever heaven is (Sheridan quotes Australia’s former Prime Minister, the Catholic Tony Abbot, to the effect perhaps only Hitler and Stalin go to hell). But in the world of the New Testament,  the ancient West and arguably some other places like China, belief was that the soul, and just about everyone and everything including Lesbia’s sparrow, went to the prison of Hades and remained there. The gods did not spare or cure death though they might spare a few heroes to Elysian fields. Homer’s view of the afterlife in the Odyssey is particularly ghastly.  Blood alone brings  mournful ancestors to the surface and let’s them speak. Christianity arrived to confront this pessimism but Hades/Hell, though considerably challenged in their power  (Christ is seen as now having the keys to death and Hades) remain in place  and  I think if we are honest with the gospel  record, Hades/Hell is  seen as being – by and large – still the default fate of an unregenerate humanity….unless.

It is possible that if they even think about it at all,  deep down humanity even half believes and expects this negative outcome unless other influences from lively faith intervene. The last poems of D. H. Lawrence, for example, are surprisingly  depressing in this connection. He imagines his soul and that of others embarking for Hades,  but though he hopes “the oblivion god” may lead him to some kind of new dawn (reincarnate him?) it is hardly a strongly felt hope.

RESURRECTION FAITH

My father died some weeks ago and before this he had suddenly informed me as I put him to bed one evening, that this was the end and Jesus had told him he would soon take him to himself. The next day I couldn’t get him up  up or communicate with him, so he was taken to the hospital and passed away, faster than expected, within twenty four hours. Some people do have intimations of an end and some devout Christians might report an angelic message, but by any standards this experience and its claim, which took me off guard, could be considered a bit exceptional. But plainly it seemed downright extreme to those to whom I happened to mention it. I was impressed how much people couldn’t really deal with the subject of death, Jesus or the afterlife. It became clearer to me how little Australians (and probably many others in the West) believe or have any religious feeling. It’s the sort of thing should ring alarm bells for the churches;  but it doesn’t and it won’t because as Sheridan puts it, Christians seem to lack adequate “situational awareness” – some even imagining their society is somehow still Christian – leading to poor strategies(3).

Reading Sheridan, I was likewise impressed how little his Christians, even the devout, observant ones, seemed to have any clear notion of what form the afterlife might take and what mean and for whom, such as their relatives – the Christian afterlife is supposed to begin as a spirit in “paradise” such as Jesus promised to the penitent thief, which is a waiting place distinct from heaven and preceding the resurrection of the dead which entails the assumption of a new spiritual body akin to that of Christ after the resurrection.

I am not an evangelical, one of whose qualifications to be such would be belief in an inerrant as opposed to an inspired bible. However, when it comes to the afterlife I do sense that evangelicals are nearer to truth than the kind of hazy, confused modern Catholic and Anglican thinking represented by some of Sheridan’s interviewees like former PM  Tony Abbot. Beliefs like theirs neither quite help the self nor move the world, certainly represent no kind of gospel hope worth the proclaiming or like early Christians and  persecuted North Korean believers today, risking life and limb for. Abbot regrets that he doesn’t seem to hear from God. Again, I am not an evangelical to suggest such as Abbot should be hearing daily from Jesus (something surely reserved for the few, if any!),  but if he never has a few divine messages and intuitions there might be reasons. Belief should be clear, informed and committed if it is to work for you. There is such a thing as spiritual efficiency.

St Paul suggests that if you don’t believe in the resurrection your faith is futile (1 Cor 15:17); you might as well eat, drink and be merry and tomorrow die. I don’t like, and don’t think it’s quite possible, to go too far in deciding who is a “real” Christian by such standards as they’re highly orthodox, terribly “born again” , very prayerful or whatever. But I am coming to the conclusion that to possess some deep conviction of “the sure and certain hope of resurrection” could well be a litmus test for the definition. Unquestionably it was almost the central, original formula for Christian belief and identity:  “if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved” (Rom 10:9).

If nothing else Sheridan’s book can make you think about many things and essential ones. I will always wonder whether his book doesn’t arise from a kind of half unconscious penitential compensation towards society for what the author doesn’t seem to have been convincing his own offspring about in what could be deemed a dereliction of Christian duty. But  this doesn’t detract from the objective importance of the book’s information, statements and remarkable honesty.

NOTES

(1)  Conventional depictions of hell and some NDE accounts (of whatever validity), do seem to include a sense of time along with the possible anachronism  of free roaming, tormenting demons. Time in this case, along with any demonic freedom, would be a property of the pre/ temporal hell which is ultimately thrown into “the lake of fire” (Rev 20:14),at the end of time,  the true hell which is existence through God as “fire” alone.

(2)  I evoke Francis’  contradictions in two satirical poems, Heaven for All  https://wp.me/p2v96G-8y  and Ichabod or Papal Glory Departing, https://wp.me/p4kNWg-6c  (These poems incidentally allow the possibility that some of the issues Sheridan raises are in fact end of era, “end of days” type matters, a fulfilment of Christ’s anticipation of a loss of faith towards the end (Luk 18:8).  

(3) The remarkable blindness of churches  to the spiritual, and even just social situation, is reflected in the way over recent decades they have relentlessly targeted the gay issue, first just opposing the gay minority’s right to exist, then opposing gay marriage as a threat to family and society.  Ironically, if they wanted to criticize and reform society towards more Christian lifestyles, it is the vast un marriage of heterosexuals which should have been their primary concern. It is precisely amid the loosened  or non family friendly structures of a permissive society that children are not raised to any religious beliefs and just pleasure or the convenient become central life values. Yet how often did clergy seriously preach against the drifting, the unattached or the serially divorced? Almost never. It was only gay marriage was unnatural and unholy; and this targeting  of a minority only further alienated society from the churches seen as bastions of arbitrarily undemocratic views. This feature of modern social history is a good illustration of Christ’s words that the children of this world are wiser in their generation than the children of light (Luk 16:8). (The previous article entered on this blog, Today’s Christian Image Problem is relevant to the question of lack of “situational awareness”).

 

 

 
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Posted by on August 14, 2018 in Mysteries, religion

 

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9 REASONS BILLY GRAHAM IS WRONG ABOUT “HOROSCOPES”

billygraham    Horoscope

9 REASONS BILLY GRAHAM IS WRONG ABOUT “HOROSCOPES”

A recent article in The Christian Post (June 8th) had the now elderly Billy Graham (or perhaps it was his staff or his son Franklin) declaring God to be opposed to “horoscopes” (i.e. astrology). Here are 9 reasons why the Bible, still less God, is not opposed to the subject.

1) According to Billy Graham who regards “horoscopes” as  a mystical/magical proceedure belonging with the forbidden “divination” of Deut 18:10, for Christians to seek guidance from astrologers is akin to King Saul visiting the witch of Endor. However, if that understanding of the matter were valid, astrology would never feature so strongly in the Jewish Talmud, nor would the highly observant Essenes have sought signs of the Messiah in the heavens.

2) Astrology as we know it from especially the Greeks is not “divination”. It did not even exist in the times of the Old Testament and its prophets who do condemn forecasting from new moons. The latter however refers to what is called “omen astrology” which involved gazing at the sky and uttering oracles. “Divination” is precisely what depends upon chance (as in reading tea leaves of shuffling cards), and/or just intuition with perhaps assistance from familiar spirits.

3) Standard astrology is about as occult as reading a train timetable. It is empirical, mathematical and depends chiefly upon a study of cycles of the planets and general symbolism. The kind of events and issues observed to feature under one set of positions are assumed to occur under similar or same positions – it is the principle indicated biblically by Eccl 1:9 that declares what has been will be so that there is nothing (fully) new under the sun but only “a time to be born and die” etc.as in the famous poem of time in  Chapter 3..

4) The fact that magi (astrologers) came to Christ’s birth should give Christians pause to consider that astrology might have something to teach and contribute to belief..

5) Billy Graham assumes the stars exist simply to the glory of God. They exist for more. The Bible declares they exist for signs (Gen 14 :1) and Ps 19 maintains that the night skies utter knowledge (Ps 19:2). What speech, what knowledge? Do Christians even bother to ask?

6) The Psalms also maintain that God both names the stars (Ps 147:4) and knows in advance every day of our lives (Ps 139: 16). While the latter statement can be taken by faith, the closest to any objective proof for the idea lies in astrological patterns like diurnals and the various transits of planets across the natal chart which can indicate active and stay-at-home days, excitement and nothing much happening, sometimes a turning point.

7) The previous point bespeaks fate. Evangelicals stubbornly maintain like Graham that if astrology were true there would be no free will. This is misleading and false. There is fate and fate. There are birth patterns which indicate active and prominent lives, others lives more hidden and withdrawn; but within the basic natal outline there are always choices. Attitudes and actions under certain patterns can affect the immediate situation and even the positive or negative experience of subsequent situations. People do not so much go to (or at least don’t obtain from) astrologers the “guidance” such as Graham wants believers go to bible and God for, as simple insight into their character and the nature of events they encounter.

8) Astrology is a symbol system that helps us to read and understand the hidden order of reality – the sort of order that scripture points to. Any doubt that the main impulses and lines of history follow celestial cycles should be dispelled by the work of an academic like Richard Tarnas in Cosmos and Psyche (2006). It is lamentable that there are Christians, (like Billy Graham’s daughter Ann Lotz) who presume to speak about “the end times” without even knowing or including such perspectives as the fact we are living at the end of the age (aion) of Pisces, the fishes, to whose beginning the birth of Christ approximately corresponded. Everything from flood and tsunami to fish everywhere dying along coastlines bespeaks the extremes, mostly negative, of the water and seas sign of Pisces arrived in era terms at the equivalent of the last degree of its sign. (The last degrees of any sign are notably extreme and 29 Pisces is traditionally very unfortunate, associated with violence, drowning, suicides and addiction, all the sort of issues presently concerning us).

9) Just as magi came to the birth of the messiah that prophets had foretold, so astrology can and should complement religion, at any rate its more prophetic/charismatic side. Astrology can predict or at least project various situations. The wilder claims of some would-be prophets could be questioned or modified as regards timing and likelihood if astrology were considered and in conclusion I will mention a couple of instances.

Claiming as I exceptionally do to know when Christ was born, I have been able to forecast when Jesus would likely be notably in the news as for example when in 2002 news came from Jerusalem that the so-called James ossuary box with the inscription, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus had been discovered. This if authentic (which it has belatedly been declared to be) would be the only artefact as opposed to text witnessing to Jesus.

I write this on the verge of Britan’s Brexit referendum. Astrologers have been unusually and extremely divided about the final result for reasons I needn’t detail but which suggest a rather neck and neck issue. But apart from the fact astrology can always describe a situation even if and when it cannot precisely predict its outcome, this much is plain. On the standard chart for Britain, among other things a full moon has fallen ahead of the vote conjunct a natal Uranus (rebellion, revolution, separation) opposite the natal Europa asteroid. Just by itself this marks an opposition reflective of Britain’s perennially awkward relation to the continent and even a promise as early as 1066 that there would be a Europe-separative Reformation in religion since the Uranus is in the ninth house not only of the foreign but of any religious issues. The asteroids, not even known or seen back in 1066 or at the birth of Christ, nonetheless prove eloquent today of many things. In some sense all time and language between the stars are one.

Faced with this are we to say as would Evangelicals (or the Catholic catechism which also opposes astrology) that none of what we read in the heavens reflects a divine mind or purpose, is not a case of the night skies uttering knowledge? Evangelicals especially have made a paper Pope of their bible (often the faulty KJV). Frequently read without attention to historical and cultural factors they have used scripture to make knockdown arguments where a range of sensitive issues are concerned, arguments of the kind Franklin Graham (whom many regard as undoing his father’s heritage) increasingly specializes in.

Typically, Graham cites the condemnation of Is. 47:13 as saying “ Let their astrologers stand forth….” A modern translation like the NRSV places a note to indicate it is not certain what the word is, which of course it isn’t certain because astrologers as we know them did not exist for Isaiah to condemn. But the same translation does include, as Graham doesn’t, the vital point that whoever is involved makes forecasts at new moons, which tells us this is not regular astrology which is far from reserving its kind of forecasts to such times.

It would be little short of a needed revolution of spiritual consciousness if the churches could admit elements of astrology to its understanding of existence, its theologies and the character of its leaders – even within the limited realm of sun signism it actually means something for their theology, politics and attitudes to money that Luther was born under Scorpio and Calvin under Cancer (as are Billy and Franklin Graham respectively).  However I am not exactly optimistic that notable revolution  is going to occur. I have not written to the Billy Graham org to express my  radical divergence of view as regards astrology. I know I wouldn’t get an answer. Like American businesses and self-help theories negative responses stand to be ignored, and won’t get past the minders. In fact I know of an astrologer who years ago tried to plead the case of astrology, but never received an acknowledgement from the Graham org. So….that is the point of putting the above thoughts within the humble format of a blog.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 
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Posted by on June 23, 2016 in religion

 

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CAN ANY GOOD COME OUT OF AMERICAN RELIGION?

AMCH

CAN ANY GOOD COME OUT OF AMERICAN RELIGION?

The title could seem overstated, even impertinent directed upon such a large phenomenon as a nation’s predominant religion, but especially in its more conservative and evangelical wing American Christianity can itself be remarkably given to the overblown, aggressive or emotionally intrusive statement. Thus it’s not possible for some to maintain Obama has been wrong  or misguided about, say, marriage equality, rather it has to be he has “blasphemed God!”! Even for a believer (or even the Pope) to be just concerned with welfare and poverty issues could cause him or her to be judged and dismissed as “a Marxist”.

Because despite everything I believe American Christianity does represent and preserve a few beliefs and ideas in danger of being forgotten or overlooked elsewhere, I shall first define what I mean by “American Christianity” and before pointing to some good things catalogue the  real, sometimes major blemishes. This is needed because one notices how inside and outside America, most admirers of the positives seem in their enthusiasm to find it too easy uncritically to absorb, even cheerfully export, the negatives. (Asian and African churches particularly have not been helped by that tendency).

Granted if one is to generalize, American Christianity is highly diverse. Its Catholicism alone is of a unique, sometimes quasi-Protestant or very protesting variety. However, my main concern is what is covered by what broadly descends and from the first from Calvinism and Presbytery or else is close in its “evangelical” belief system to the widespread Bible-believing Baptist tradition still much represented in the South. Together these streams often combine in what gets labelled “the Religious Right”. Both these traditions, though increasingly questioned or abandoned by the young, remain widespread in terms of influence and to the extent both have things too unexamined about them, for a toxic influence.

SOME NEGATIVES:

THE CALVINISTIC ELEMENT

Together Calvin and Calvinism are almost what was most controversial about Reformation Protestantism. Calvin instituted a mini inquisition in Geneva teaching people to spy on one another. Calvinist Americans (originally from Scotland where Calvinism took strong root) retain a questionable habit of labelling, judging and testing fellow believers ( and wider society) while themselves chasing respectability and success to the point they are St Paul’s men-pleasers (Eph 6:6). But worse, overturning the beliefs of centuries and ignoring that Christ taught riches could be a stumbling block to attaining the Kingdom, Calvin taught that prosperity and success were the mark you belonged to the righteous elect and enjoyed divine favour.

The consequent emphasis upon material success has sown the seeds which would flower in contemporary prosperity gospel, a kind of legitimized religious materialism and even greed recently obscenely symbolized by preacher Creflo Dollar’s 69 million dollar private jet to help him bring people the gospel. There is something in all this that recalls the condemned Church of Laodicea which declares, “I am rich, I have prospered and I have need of nothing” (Rev 3:17). In reality, however, even Calvin’s prosperous children need something and it’s to support or to be supported by the traditional party of the wealthy in politics, the Republicans, in order to impress their beliefs and agendas upon the masses. The irony of this is just not seen.

THE BAPTIST INPUT

Despite some liberal policies – support of separation of church and state, women preachers, some reasonable scope for divorce – the Baptist/evangelical strain which in modern times has produced the archetypal Billy Graham, has been hamstrung upon its Koranic style treatment of “God’s Word”. Here the Bible becomes an inerrant authority, an authority which can assume the role of a Paper Pope and almost more infallibly. Any human quirks or weaknesses in the record are simply not seen. St Paul and others don’t write inspired documents, they simply repeat what God says much as Mohammed claimed to receive the Koran. References to “God’s Word” at least implies complete direct dictation.

It follows that the mainstream of Baptist/Evangelical churches read the bible at face value literally. Poetry and ambiguity, cultural and historical filtering don’t count (who cares about poetry in America and a day means 24 hours only doesn’t it?)…..unless and until by selective reading it suddenly does count. Thus today there are evangelicals of the plain sense school prepared to preach that “as in the days of Noah they were marrying and giving in marriage” (Luk 17:27) has to mean Noah’s contemporaries were pushing gay marriage. How? Why? Remind  these same people that the “covenant” David and Jonathan had was a berith which can mean marriage or inform them that one of the ancient meanings of “eunuch” that Jesus said some are naturally born, was the nearest thing to the modern “gay”, and you would be accused of special pleading or worse.

Biblical literalism excused or justified the South’s slavery historically, but selective reading still abounds. Paul gets suitably ignored about women covering their heads or men obeying political authority (American independence was born of ignoring St Paul!); but whatever the apostle may have meant in Romans 1 about Roman morals it’s living proof “homosexuality”, (though the bible knows no such word), is the final barometer of morality and national life. Tolerate marriage equality and you go the way of Rome and divine judgement falls! Making your gay offspring homeless is perfectly OK. The long history of bullying and violence directed against gays or those thought not masculine enough everywhere from schoolyard to high street  has never been protested but even been deemed inevitable by those same literalists who will scream like stuck pigs about persecution and diminution of their rights under secularism.

Hawthorn’s Scarlet Letter might as well to be attached to every gay or seeming gay in those corners of the land where heteronormative Christianity rules and regards the disposition not as an inspiration for the likes of Michelangelo but a living curse. (Gay is envisaged as nothing but drug and alcohol fuelled sex addiction around bars or perhaps a demonic  possession). Besides which, sinners have no real rights in democracies, only conservative Christians should own democracy…or just rule the land. But that’s only one issue.

Despite Jesus’ relative pacifism and “put down your sword”, religious rights for literalists include carrying guns according to the constitution. (You might need to fight an evil government or the  forces of Antichrist!). The connection between gun laws and America’s internationally exceptionally elevated crime and murder rates is just not seen; such connections are only made by evil unbelievers! Disciples of Jesus are as good as gun-toting soldiers. Again the irony, even eccentricity of all this is not seen.

THE RULE OF “GOD’S WORD”, A WEAKNESS OPPOSED TO THE SPIRIT

Even given a less face value, more consistent reading of scriptures which educated conservatives do allow, should the Bible ever assume the almost Paper Pope authority evangelicals give it to the point they will almost hit people over the head and dismiss them and any contrary  argument with what the inerrant “Word of God” declares? Even for those of us who consider scripture precious, we must say, no.

I always cite how the apostle Peter denies vision itself to protest to God what he is shown is against scripture (Acts 10). Long before him the daughters of Zelophehad successfully petition against what they deemed unjust to them in details relating to the (revealed) Law (Num 27). The fact is one cannot adequately read and apply scriptures to absolutely all people, situations and times always, especially not without some illumination. Try it and you may finish up with policies like the most rigid rulings of conservative Catholicism whose guide is less scripture than philosophical formulae according to Thomas Aquinas and scholasticism.

It is hardly surprising that in recent ecumenical decades evangelicalism has become almost Catholic on abortion. It used to be some exceptions like rape were deemed permissible. Now for pro-lifers every women is supposed to preserve life at all costs as though before modern times the number of women and foetuses who died in childbirth was not truly enormous in the course of just nature. If God could allow so much infant mortality that medicine alone has diminished, God is surely capable of excusing termination of life in the case of the traumatized, the life threatened, or those who feel contaminated by sexual abuse whose effects may well be lasting for the future child anyway. Is it Christian charity to want to jail doctors or victims for doing the practical or merciful?

This irrational absolutism has prevented true and just laws being instituted because the whole subject becomes polarized into  either/or, “murder” against life alternatives rather than a matter of proper exceptions. (I accept that abortion on demand and for convenience is against life but that’s another matter).

Given that the Spirit (who is said to lead into all truth, Joh 16:13) is not a vivid part of the evangelical’s Trinity, it follows that we will often find conservative believers absent from common sense or charity not to say any exalted Truth. Many conservatives would even deny the Spirit any place in the life of the church and are vehemently opposed to charismatic trends of whatever sort. It can even be heresy to assume the Spirit is present beyond the times of the apostles.

And so we have the contradiction of “born again” Christians dubiously claiming colourful conversations with Jesus yet without aid from the Spirit or hearing God’s voice (memorization of bible influences the substance of many “conversations”). I, like many, was (unnecessarily given his background) surprised to learn that even Billy Graham denies having ever heard God’s voice. While I don’t believe anyone, short maybe of extreme saints, will hear from any member of the Trinity on a frequent basis, as per my Cosmic Father (https://goo.gl/o7YqtJ), I do believe one can and even should hear from God….now and again and with real communication, not just repeating a believer’s remembered scripture verses.

So here one touches on the blindspots, contradictions and even cruelties which American Christianity can manifest. But rather than continue as one could, to change the subject, what about the positives?

SOME POSITIVES:

EVANGELISM

America of the adverts is also  the America of evangelism. Beyond all the potential abuses, caring enough about people and beliefs to go out and preach to strangers and argue for one’s convictions is to a degree commendable. It’s because some churches like The Church of England seem incapable of persuasion, apologetics, dynamic preaching that they cannot recoup their massive losses and confront indifference. Even a former Archbishop of Canterbury has recently opined his church will be extinct in around a generation. This isn’t good enough, including because to preach the gospel, to make disciples, is part of Christ’s own parting commission to followers (Matt 28:19 ). Not everyone can evangelize any more than they have a voice to sing a hymn (St Paul calls evangelization a gift) but many could and can reach out and they should make some effort if they are to call themselves Christians.

A SENSE OF SALVATION

It may be expressed and described in different ways, but what is preached by many American churches, especially the more traditionally revivalist, is a form of “salvation” which involves a deliverance from potential damnation. This means that if persons aren’t sidetracked into prosperity gospels and even if and when believers need to recall a few social and political issues, still the religious issues will remain primarily spiritual and visionary. They need to be that whether to make a real impression or to be at all close to the gospel as originally preached. Social and political gospels may satisfy for a while, but ultimately people want and expect to deal in ultimate issues, life, death and the beyond.

Like it or not,Jesus referred to loss of soul and the threat of hell quite frequently (45 gospel verses refer to it). Not of course in the style of the hell fire sermon of James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist which is morbid/obsessive, but nonetheless succinctly and firmly. Quite how and why hell could and should exist at all and if and how it belongs to justice is a major issue. I explore it in my Cosmic Father (https://goo.gl/o7YqtJ ) not always supplying regular answers and not Calvinistic ones; the subject is beyond present scope but I would say this much here. Ideas and attitudes essential to Christianity begin to weaken outside of a view to an eternal loss. It is for example more possible and just reasonable to forgive to the uttermost if absolute hell is the prospect of your worst enemy. It is at the time that American Christianity is beginning to weaken and youth abandoning it that you will read books like “evangelical” Rob Bell’s Love Wins which preaches a certain universalism and disposes of more dire possibilities around the soul.

A SYMPATHY FOR ISRAEL

Far from universal among American churches though it is, and sometimes exaggerated into a kind of Zionism where it appears, nonetheless few national churches have as much feeling as America’s whether for the Jewish origins of Christianity or the importance of modern Israel in the larger spiritual picture of things. It is as though American Christianity had to make up for the history of western Christian anti-Semitism. Certainly somebody needed to make up for it because it was never acceptable and was a serious heresy when it swerved with Augustine and others into what is called supersessionism or replacement theology. This makes out that OT prophecies regarding Israel are either invalid or apply to the Church instead.

Surely nothing could be further from the intended truth. If replacement were the case Jesus would have rejected more than date setting when, for example, he is reported in Acts 1:6 as refusing the disciples’ question about when he would see to the re-establishment of Israel, i.e. political Israel, the messianic kingdom, the Millennial reign he had not set up during his ministry.

Christians are not obliged to agree with everything modern Israel says and does, but they should perceive history and providence, prophecy and the turning of the ages in the establishment of modern Israel. Anything else risks becoming, as it has done among some Eastern Orthodox Christians and others, a kind of unacceptable anti-Semitism with refusal of a proper witness to God’s purposes in history.

In certain respects some traditional churches are closer to the Muslims (whose Koran is strongly against all Jews) than Christian doctrine and it may be their fate is to be swallowed up by Islam if they can’t distinguish themselves more in some areas of belief. (Let’s not forget that Pope John Paul 11 astonishingly, perhaps just ignorantly, kissed the same Koran which often declares against the Jews with whom, like Christians, one should never be friends and [according to Surah IX, v. 30] Jews are simply “perverse” so that Allah is opposed to them.

A SENSE OF IMMEDIACY AND APOCALYPSE

Americans have little sense of history, but less anchored to tradition and the past they are more open to the possibilities of the future. This includes embracing the much misunderstood, too little considered issue of apocalypse and Second Advent. Again it is anyway supposed to be only Christian to be awaiting the Advent which is awaited two ways, first archetypally in a state of general readiness (because there is a sense in which the divine is always coming to us and we are to be ready for it) but, more literally, there is a point in time in which God absolutely intervenes in history and returns.

Although liberal scepticism has it Jesus wrongly expected to return within a generation this is not really so likely, especially not if he told his disciples on leaving he would be with them till the end of the aion (era). What era? For American Christians it is the end of “the Church age”, but for some of us (inevitably charged with heresy, divination or whatever!) this could plausibly alternatively or additionally be the end of the age of the current age of Pisces with whose beginning the birth of Christ and the arrival of the Magi (astrologers) corresponded. Accordingly, though plainly some people keep date setting, dreaming Second Advent and rapture (itself a rather American obsession but with surely some basis in otherwise incomprehensible or ignored claims of Jesus and Paul about a sudden disappearance), it is not wrong per se to look at world events and ask questions about where we may stand in terms of history and possible last things…. Which leads me to a related point which is re “prophetic” perspective.

A “PROPHETIC” OUTLOOK

There are always two kinds of prophecy, the prophecy which seriously foretells (this tends to be rare and is a gift and vocation) and the prophecy which is more like commentary on events from the religious/biblical standpoint and there is not enough of that in the churches. Whether one agrees with what was said or not, an interesting recent example has proceeded from Billy Graham’s daughter Ann Lotz Graham who has been saying that God “allows” – not the same as positively wishes and wills – terrorist attacks and natural disasters because they are also wake-up calls for people.

The point is an important one, (again reaching into theology beyond present scope) but believers and even the world do need to be told, and in a way that voices for the traditional and liturgical churches rarely if ever do, that spiritual forces are at work in events and must be engaged. In an evil world God’s so-called “wrath” is more like his withdrawal of a degree of protection that must always be prayed for and sometimes earned by suitable personal and social reform (repentance). “Ah Assyria, rod of my anger” (Is 10:5) says Isaiah about what is to occur for a faithless Israel. This kind of discernment needs to have a greater part in contemporary religious discourse.

It is of course something that risks misuse and ironically Ann Lotz’s less imaginative brother Franklin Graham can be a leading abuser. He works a bully pulpit which doesn’t seem to have understood the kind of principles his sister refers to. For example, instead of being open to the possibility that Obama is a rod of God’s anger and that the shocking Christian American history of violence and discrimination against gays is being allowed, judged or repaid when Christians defending their business rights against gays now get (unjustly) treated in the courts, nothing is ever seen except insults to God and Christians who are being or who will be shortly persecuted.

But supposing God will be deaf to conservative prayers until real repentance and changed outlooks are evinced? Franklin G’s perspective has been shockingly, inexcusably wrong when he can even praise Putin of Russia’s treatment of the gay issue (fascist gangs freely roam the streets attacking and torturing those who might be gay). Could God possibly approve Graham’s wrong minded, ill informed bully pulpit nonsense? Addressing every issue, hurling threats in all directions, his poorly disguised egotism should relent and let others prophetically speak about any judgement God might intend upon America.

EXPERIMENT AND DEMOCRACY

Not all experiment works and not every novelty is valuable, but we should be open to the new or at least not be stuck in a rut. The gospels constantly challenge to new and radical perspectives, to ongoing self and social criticism. One would hardly imagine so to judge from the appearance, style and practices of much Christianity, some of which is even stuck into the Catholic motto, semper idem (always the same). It is the American churches which are really prepared to experiment, change and adapt, and not just to obtain more funds but at least sometimes to discover what spiritually works, what occasions success, influence, a change to lives, a healing of mind or body. Such things matter or they should do to churches. Religion is not just about eternal security but a few temporal risks and what I would call “spiritual efficiency” and letting faith work.

In certain respects tradition, so valued in some churches, is almost religion’s greatest enemy preventing the church from hearing “what the Spirit is saying to the churches”, that refrain in the early chapters in Revelation, and meaning. what the Spirit is saying now and into the future, saying without only quoting previous scriptures or repeating familiar prayers and chants of the centuries. While main traditions of the faith may not be wholly disregarded or excluded just as the bible cannot be denied in the general direction and essence of its meaning, some variation on a theme and development is also required. The openness of America religion can be risky but is meaningful. Of course it needs to be part of and interact with a degree of democracy too, and here we come back to a potential American weakness.

Yes, the people and culture are democratic but not quite so much as they imagine. There is something polarizing and polarized about American society as in its history of race relations and there is something which seems to encourage situations in which, as the wife of someone in politics in America once said to me, “everyone persecutes everyone else in the end”.

So, I admit the possibility that such as the new secularism and emphasis upon gay rights may create a situation of discrimination for Christians (who once reckoned to discriminate against all and any sexual variation). I touched on this in McCleary’s Additions and the article, Something Wrong with American LGBT http://wp.me/p4kNWg-8a . True democracy must always go a fair way to tolerating what it doesn’t particularly like, want or approve. Otherwise it’s not democracy but sharia or fascism under another name. But to the extent American Christianity is able to find the grace to tolerate, then, as against the increasing cynicism and dismissal that American religion is generating around the world, I do think it still has some lessons to teach us.

 
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Posted by on July 4, 2015 in religion

 

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