Horrendous Evils and the Goodness of God

The writers over at Mere Orthodoxy often have some interesting things to say. This one caught my eye. It’s a letter to a friend who struggles with belief in the goodness of God; something many of us struggle with sooner or later. This letter gives some very wise advice, I think, and presents a thoughtful personal perspective.

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Hearing God, by Dallas Willard

Dallas Willard’s book, Hearing God: Developing a Conversational Relationship with God, has the most practical, wise and biblically sound reading I have ever done on the subject of divine guidance. It’s a book worth reading over and again for those who wrestle with the problems of how God communicates with us personally: Is it presumptuous to think that God would want to communicate with us directly? Isn’t the Bible an entirely sufficient revelation of God’s will for any and all Christians? What is the relationship between the Bible and more personal forms of communication from God? How do we reliably distinguish the voice of God from our own thoughts and desires? What if something which I believe God is telling me later proves to be mistaken? Willard deals with these issues in very perceptive and insightful ways, not with pat answers and formulas. (Though he does provide one formula at the end of the book, it’s for “living with God’s voice”, not for getting God to speak with us on matters that may concern us.)

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Richard John Neuhaus In Defense of Death

Quite by accident yesterday I came across a reprint of New York Times columnist David Brooks’ editorial “In Defense of Death” in the Columbus Dispatch. It’s a tribute of sorts to Richard John Neuhaus, a theologian and Catholic priest who died on January 8. Neuhaus was the editor of First Things, “The Journal of Religion, Culture and Public Life.” I was a regular reader of that journal for the first several years of its publication and came to value the unique and intelligent, if often controversial, perspective of its writers on the role of religion in public life. Neuhaus book, The Naked Public Square, though somewhat of a rambling and disorganized read, was very important to me in my early thinking on the relationship between religious belief and public political discourse. It helped me realize that there can and must be a defensible and sustainable middle ground between the extreme positions that would favor either theocracy or an entirely secular state and that most of the freedoms we take for granted in this country depend upon maintaining that balance. In the last several years my primary concerns have been drawn to other things but I have been glad to be able to browse back issues of First Things occasionally on their web site. One of those other concerns of mine has been how people of faith come to terms with, and conquer their fear of, the inevitability of their own death. Brooks’ editorial is an awe inspiring account of how this happened in the life of Fr. Neuhaus. It’s well worth reading. So is Neuhaus’ essay, mentioned by Brooks, “Born Toward Dying.”

[Edit: 22 March 2009] Christianity Today recently published a remembrance of Neuhaus’ life in the March 2009 issue. You can find it online here.

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Where Is Our Hope?

Where is our hope?” is the title of a recent posting on Scot McKnight’s blog, Jesus Creed, and it sums up pretty accurately my own preferred attitude toward the coming November elections. I try to make informed decisions when I vote. I try to listen to advocates for both sides and read different points of view. It often happens that the more I do this the less clear my choices seem to get. It’s especially difficult when I’m surrounded by so many people who believe the choices are clear. I marvel at, and sometimes envy, their certitude on the matter. Eventually I come to what I think is a reasonably confident decision according to my own conscience and, in the process, a hopefully respectful attitude toward those who disagree with it. I think it’s helpful to understand McKnight’s use of the theological term eschatology in the meaningful sense of what we view as being of ultimate importance, the means by which God fulfills his purpose for humankind. It’s important to me to remember that politics is not my faith, my ultimate source of hope. My faith informs my political choices but it is not identical with them. I sometimes wish I could split my vote and give different candidates a percentage. Maybe if we could do this it would relive the pressure that so many seem to feel in seeing their own, and everyones else’s, vote as an expression of 100% confidence in a candidate. We wouldn’t be so tempted to only listen to one side and disparage the other. But maybe the better solution is just to realize that we must often make difficult choices in this world, make them as responsibly as we can and live as best we can with the ambiguity and uncertainty knowing that our ultimate hopes lie above and beyond them.

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What’s New?

Sandy3.jpg Sandy is a new member of our family, adopted by us about seven weeks ago. I wasn’t sure I was ready for another dog so soon after Sheila but Sandy needed a home and we had a big vacancy. She’s an Australian/Border Terrier mix, a little shy and unfriendly to strangers and other female dogs, but she’s very affectionate and playful when she gets to know you. She’s learned pretty well to get along with Jessica and Lucas’ boxer, Bella, on their visits. She also did well at a big party we had this weekend to celebrate a “milestone” birthday for Mary Beth and my completion of seminary. It was a great backyard party where we enjoyed seeing many family members and friends.

That’s right, four years of part-time study at Ashland Seminary is finished. I enjoyed very much my last course in the theology of C. S. Lewis. It’s good to have all the work over with, but I enjoyed the experience quite a bit, the sense of accomplishment it produced and being immersed in the challenging study of so many interesting subjects. I will miss it. I’ve come away with the feeling like I’ve just gotten a good taste of some very deep subjects and experiences that have whetted my appetite for a life of continued learning and application.

I’ve hardly had time to miss seminary before entering another study program called Wellstreams. I see this as a continuation of my seminary studies in spiritual formation along a more personal, less formal route.

Our son, Bryan, is off to study in Spain for a semester. He’s writing his own blog on the experience.

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Skeptical Inquirer


“If only atheists were the skeptics they think they are.”

This article presents an interesting challenge to nonbelievers and believers alike, I think. Based on some of the published thoughts of the great mathematician and thinker, Blaise Pascal, Edward Tingley makes an interesting point about skeptics who claim to be interested in the truth about God. The real seeker for truth will follow the path wherever it leads. Tingley says that most skeptics abandon the search when the material evidence runs out, but base their conclusions of the unknowability or nonexistence of God on just the same lack of evidence that they claim believers base their faith upon. They “prefer their own commitments over reason.”

That belief in God is not irrational (contrary to reason), and shouldn’t be so, is a fairly easy position to defend and one that is conceded by many thoughtful nonbelievers. The real issue is that logical argument based on empirical evidence (that which can be perceived by the five physical senses according to the methods of the physical sciences) does not compel belief. Unbelief is also a rational position and a simpler one since it supposedly doesn’t rely on conjecture, but limits itself to the more tangible possibilities of natural science. But the question true skeptics should be asking is, “What reason do I have to subordinate the possibility of GodÂ’s existence to the powers of my senses?” If the search for God reasonably leads beyond material evidence into the ways known only by the heart, committed seekers are bound to follow. But rather than facing the facts, many atheists and agnostics unwittingly and irrationally limiting their choices to those that suit them:

We are told we should face the facts. Well here they are: The only world in which strictly empirical evidence is the road that we should take in our views about God is a world in which God either shows himself by such evidence or simply does not exist. Those are the options that the agnostic and the atheist like, and it is because they like them that they never pay any attention to the further fact that accompanies these: God might await us down another road. There are three options, not two.

In a world in which God both exists and hides, relying upon conclusive evidence is the way to be wrong about God. Reason delivers three options, but the agnostic and the atheist are not listening to reason; they hear only the options they like, and simply pick the one that suits them.

… It is not true at all that he cannot believe without evidence; he has already done so, having arrived at his commitment to evidence without evidence. Evidence is not his only vehicle of locomotion, and he should admit it. He should notice what his heart is already doing for him, when he lets it.

The whole article is well worth reading and thinking over. I really haven’t done it justice here. But I said at the beginning that this article presents a challenge for believers as well as unbelievers and I want to say something about that. This isn’t something explicitly stated in the article, but I think it’s true because many believers have a tendency to limit their understanding of God by confining it to beliefs with which they are most comfortable. Many Christians, especially those who like to indulge the unbelievers in debates over the evidence, fall into the trap of confining their commitment to God to rational beliefs. They too prefer to spend most of their time below the tree line, content with a relationship with God that fits well with their own understanding and desires rather than follow the ways of the heart up toward the summit, “onto the icy slopes out past the limit of concrete evidence” where our footing is less sure and the risks to our comfort are greater in pursuit of the reward of intimacy with God. There is no passion to know God, only to know truths about Him. We need to follow our hearts where our heads can’t take us.

All this is no excuse for irrational religion. Our rational faculties are a gift from God, meant to be used well. They serve to guide the heart, but they have limits that the heart is able to surpass. If we choose to follow God only within those limits, are we really much better off than the unbelievers? Pascal had a brilliant mind and was also a passionate believer. We can learn as much from him as the skeptics can.

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Sheila 1992 – 2008

ToSheilaBryanMay07.jpgday is a very sad day in our household. We lost a special friend and family member. Our 15 year old Australian Terrier, Sheila (that is my son holding her in the picture), took her last trip to the vet today. She had been getting us ready for this for over a year now. She had diabetes for the last five years and her health has steadily deteriorated since then. Last year before Easter she became very sick and I was sure we’d lose her then but she recovered and gave us one more year. Though her eyesight and hearing were almost gone and she didn’t have much energy, she still liked to be held and have her back scratched. She no longer greeted us when we’d come home from work, but she seemed to know we were there. She couldn’t climb stairs but seemed content enough to eat and sleep and wander around the house or back yard bumping into things. She was always able to find her food and water and her bed when she needed them. There was nothing wrong with her nose.

In spite of all her ailments it’s been hard to let her go. We hoped she would go on her own, but when her insulin supply ran out the decision was put into our hands. The drug company stopped making the type of insulin that we were using for her over a year ago and we bought up all that we could find before it became unavailable. Switching her over to another type could have caused her a lot of problems. We didn’t want to put her through that on top of everything else she suffers with so today we took her to the vet and were with her as she passed on calmly and peacefully.

Good bye old friend. We got you as a pup when our kids were young and they grew up with you. You are a part of many happy memories that we have of those years. Now the kids are grown and gone from our home and we are very sad to have to say good bye to you. You added so much fun and unexpected entertainment to the mix of our lives. If I slept in too late you would barge into my room greeting me with happy barking and jump up on the bed to lick my face. You liked to play fetch with the tennis ball, but not outside. That was strictly an indoor game. Outside you would run around and play with the kids, the long fur around your face swept back by the breeze as you ran. You were cute and cuddly but no lap dog, always on the go, full of energy until your later years (but you never stopped being cute and cuddly).


During the most depressing years of my life, when I was going though great difficulties, you were my companion on many late night walks that were full of prayers and tears and I shall never forget those times. Thank you for helping me get through them. Our late walks got to be such a habit that you wouldn’t go to bed until I did no matter how late I stayed up. You were there with me in case I needed a walk. Most nights I did, though sometimes I just felt like I needed to reward your patience. I especially remember the one glorious night just before Christmas when we happened to wander off our usual course for some reason and found one of the streets in our neighborhood lined for a long way with brightly lit luminaries. It was so beautiful, such a blessed experience that so easily could have been missed. As you got older our walks got slower, less frequent, and shorter until a walk to the corner was about all we could manage. Still, my walks won’t be the same without you.

I don’t know if dogs go to heaven, but it sure seems like that is the place from which they are sent to us. They give us so much love and acceptance in return for so little in the way of basic care and feeding. It’s no wonder we become so attached to them that it hurts so much to let them go. There’s a short little prayer that says, “Lord, make me the kind of person that my dog thinks I am.” That says a lot. The things we learn from our dogs could make us much better people.

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Bible Places

In August of 1999 my family took an unforgettable trip to Israel with other members of our church to visit some of the many interesting archeological and historical sites in that country, the birthplace of the Christian faith. It was very good to learn more about the time and places of Jesus’ life and ministry in context. I came away with a renewed appreciation for the historical significance of my faith and a lasting desire to learn more.

One of the best places on the Web for news of an historical nature about the Holy Land is Todd Bolen’s Bible Places website and blog. They are a great educational resource. It has been especially helpful in setting the record straight on sensational news media controversies like “The Tomb of Jesus” and 60 Minutes’ recent treatment of the James Ossuary. It’s interesting to see how the popular media take sides in each of these cases; how much more skeptical they are of the authenticity of the James Ossuary than they are of the Jesus Family Tomb. The common slant is one to undermine the historical basis for the Christian faith. This seems to be their way of observing Easter for us. From these accounts the bias seems deliberate, not due to ignorance or sloppy editing of interviews. I wonder how much damage this sort of thing does to the public opinion of Christianity. Discovery Communications (who bills itself as “The number-one nonfiction media company“) and CBS certainly command a wider audience than the rebuttals ever will, but those of us with any stake in the truth will always dig deeper. For those who do, sad to say, it’s not surprising that there is so much distrust of the popular news media these days.

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Reflections on Surgery and Holy Week

In all of my life I have never had to have an internal surgical procedure. That changed in late February. I guess I was overdue. I discovered that I needed to get a couple of hernias patched. These days this surgery is considered a low risk, outpatient procedure and I had a lot of confidence in the surgeon and the surgical method he would use so I wasn’t terribly worried or scared. Still, finding out for the first time that you are going to be laid out on a table, knocked out for a few hours and… was a little disconcerting. I’ll spare you the medical details. Anyone who has been through this knows them already. Those who haven’t probably don’t care to know them. I’m more interested in looking at the spiritual side of the experience: how to make the best of it. Read on if you’re interested.

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