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Separation of Church and State

Read Freedom of Religion, Just Not Here for some additional thoughts on this subject.

Some have taken a fight against legal acknowledgement of homosexual unions as a means to push their religious beliefs. But Adventists should not seek to push our religion in the government. Some time ago reading arguments regarding Prop 8 I saw one saying it was not mixing government and religion because they gave no religious reasoning for the law. But around the same time I heard the same arguments being applied to Sunday laws. They were not establishing Sunday as a religious day, but a time for families, a time to escape the hustle and bustle of our world. This should give Adventists pause.

Just as America did at its founding, Adventism holds the idea that government should not impose religion in high regard. This is not something we should abandon, to move towards compulsory religion over compelling religion, just because there’s the opportunity to enforce ideas we like.

Laws Free of Religion

I found a very interesting response to one article regarding homosexual marriage and church backed laws. The response followed the argument out of not having a religiously motivated laws. It pointed to history; how marriage, as a governmental institution, had been in place in both religious and areligious societies as a means of encouraging procreation. If we are to keep religion out of government, this is a perfectly reasonable argument in the debate over whether same sex marriages or unions should be legally recognized. If the purpose is procreation then only those marriages capable of producing offspring should be recognized.

Though on the flip side if government recognized unions were to be about caring for children, even through adoption, then homosexual marriage we also be valid from an areligious viewpoint. This would also mean childless marriages would not be recognized, and perhaps that single mothers should be recognized in some similar fashion.

If we are to keep religious reasoning out of the law then we should either be debating it on grounds like these or saying government should not recognize marriages at all. Such unions are between the couple, God, friends, or family. Just the recognition of the marriage institution could end up showing some religious preference. Perhaps this is best as either of the above two arguments, though separate from religious reasoning, could be favorable to a religious viewpoint, just like Prop 8 or Sunday laws could be.

Subtlety in Church/State Interactions

Another issue along these lines is the recent issue over Catholic groups being forced to provide contraceptives. Clearly this is something that goes against their religious teachings. And I have to admit I was surprised to find such silence on the issue from religious liberty groups, especially among my own church. Even though we have vast theological differences from Catholics, we should still stand for religious liberty regardless of whose liberty.

Very recently I found an article that gave me better perspective on why there was silence. The only reason the government had any say in what the Catholics did was because the Catholics were accepting government funding. They had crossed a tricky line where as a church organization they were now beholden to the government. If they wanted to get out of this obligation they could just stop receiving funding.

The author made a good point, that if you don’t want government meddling in your church, then let your church stand apart from any government support. But again this is tricky, as funding could end up being tied to obligations that are discriminatory to some religions. Contraceptives are viewed much more favorably in most protestant faiths, and so other churches could continue to receive the funding while the Catholics are placed at a financial disadvantage.

Where to Draw the Line?

The question for me is, when do I need to jump into the political process? What laws should I push for? And what laws should I stand against because of religious imposition, just as I would a Sunday law? It is difficult to say. Even the idea of rejecting state imposed religion is based on my religious principles, understanding how God allowed Adam and Eve to follow him or disobey.

I think for any person with a strong relationship with God it will be difficult to disentangle their religious principles from societal principles. Should I oppose welfare because it imposes Christ’s calling to feed the hungry on everyone through state taxes? Shouldn’t citizens have as much freedom to say who their money goes to as they do what day they worship on or whom they marry?

An Unbiased Government, Not Agnostic

In fact, regarding our founders, they were not opposed to the idea of religiously influenced laws, but rather government sponsored religion. This is why the Declaration of Independence talks about men’s rights “endowed by their Creator.” This is why Washington in his farewell address cautioned that “reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.” This is why the first amendment forbids laws either establishing religions or preventing their exercise rather than forbidding religious thought from influencing laws. Though with increased diversity in religious thought it becomes more difficult to walk the line of allowing religious influence while preventing religious bigotry in government.

Whatever laws we choose there will be some philosophical motivation that takes some stance toward religion, whether favorable or antagonistic to one, or antagonistic to all. Though rarely explicitly stated, I find many seem to think that if we went with atheistic or materialistic reasonings we would be free of religious prejudice. But in reality it would institute severe religious prejudice, and in fact many have lost their jobs for their personal religious beliefs because of such prejudice (you can watch Expelled for a somewhat heavy-handed cataloguing of many of these in education).

Further, from a materialistic philosophy, there would be no basis for many of the laws everyone values. I find that there would be no basis for any laws as materialism cannot speak to morality, and would at best, have to defer to popularity. But that can be just as oppressive as one church dictating the laws. We can’t actually exorcise belief based biases from the law, but should choose what biases we allow and ensure they are guided by a principle of not imposing beliefs on others.

What’s troubling is there is a tendency is towards the principle of “Do what you want as long as you don’t harm anyone else.” But this is also a central tenant of a religion: Satanism. Should it be good enough to say government is just there to keep us from hurting each other, but you’re on your own when it comes to helping each other? Though I don’t know if this would play out as government rests somewhat on the idea that we are working together for everyone’s betterment. And the idea of “do what you want but do no harm” is a false dichotomy as you can’t do whatever you want and expect it not to have some effect on others. Just try driving through a red light.

Where Does This Leave Me

I haven’t yet sorted out my opinions on this on how it plays into specific laws. I do need to recognize that because I am religious I will be influenced by religious thinking when it comes to laws I support. Thus I should be careful not to think I’ve dodged religious imposition by creating an areligious argument for my stance. The laws I support should only govern how individuals interact with those around them, but not dictate a relationship with God, for which God himself allowed liberty to pursue or neglect. But I should stand strongly to protect other people’s religious freedoms and let it be known that I do these not in contradiction to, but because of my faith. And I should give others the opportunity to enjoy the blessings I have by my faith through friendship and encouragement, not compulsion.


Reacting to Death

A comment in regard to the recent killings in Colorado has got me thinking. The person suggested, with the outcry against guns that perhaps we should ban cars too since they kill so many people (obviously a gun rights advocate). But why do we react so differently to a violent shooting than to a massive traffic accident?

The obvious answer is not just the death, but the attacker reveals something scary. That it is possible for a seemingly normal human being to act with such cold violence. It reminds me of a story about one outsider who stayed in Rwanda. While his family was still there he felt safe. He lived in a neighborhood where he could let his children roam free. But then, suddenly, the pent-up hatred is released and 8,000 people are dying every night.

I think this is something we should react to strongly. It’s important to recognize that secretly harbored hatreds, if clung to, can explode under the right circumstances. But I think there is something also very frightening in the traffic accident.

Yes it is horrifying to see a cold-blooded killer. When I started writing this I’d just heard about the Aurora theater shooting. But then there was the Wisconsin Sikh template. The Empire State building, and more. So many tragedies we have to be careful not to become calloused by them. But what about the recklessly indifferent? Traffic accidents are frequently the result of neglect. Someone is driving too fast, not paying attention to the road, driving when they can hardly stay awake, or when they are drunk. And though we try not to think about it, we know driving is an activity where mistakes put people’s lives on the line.

Yet how many of us have become calloused to the risks we are taking, pushing aside the twinges of guilt while speeding, texting, or trying to sneak ahead of the other car. We even get angry that the cops are so diligent at stopping speeders instead of “doing their jobs.”

We’re horrified at how the Aurora killer was so numb he stood outside of the movie theater and was taken without struggle. We’re shocked at how the killer in Oslo felt no remorse. But shouldn’t we feel a little twinge of fear when we look at ourselves  and find a potential accomplice to murder in our neglect of little safeties? Do we feel afraid when our negligence could cause injury? And if so, do we desire to change?


Who you are

Grandma is obviously losing her memory. We were playing Apples to Apples and she would forget what she played on many rounds. This can be scary to see, when so many older people don’t just lose their memory, but lose their minds. But there is something different and very encouraging about grandma. Despite getting older and not being as quick and healthy as she once was, she still has a smile on her face, and a positive attitude.

It makes you think. We’re in a world so eager to learn different facts, and be able to spout them off as some great accomplish but we will likely will lose these things some day. But a positive attitude, a kind smile, and a kind word, these when learned are something that can be kept. And more than that they can make a great difference in the lives of those around you.


Important part of the Answer

I was recently asked a question with a fairly obvious answer. It didn’t take being an expert, and was so plain that the asker realized they should have thought of it. But had I answered the question quickly I would have answered incorrectly.

Though the answer was simple I thought a different question had been asked. Thankfully, I was listening close enough to catch a little detail given. What I thought was asked was a common question, the obvious question, and I had often heard it before. Yet the heart of the matter was in that little detail. It was only when I asked about that detail that I understood what was the real issue.

It is a good reminder that the most important part in giving an answer is not the answer, but listening and understanding.


Free Will

Reading NOVA’s short series on the The Science of Free Will was interesting, but the general perspective on free will is problematic. The experiments mentioned placed too much trust in their methods, making assumptions such as people can accurately note the moment of a decision with precision under a second. They also laid too much weight on trivial actions that wouldn’t require engaging the will to decide, looking at questions of “when” not “whether,” and matters more of reflex than deliberation. But the key problem is that the core of the argument is that if we can observe it, then free will doesn’t exist.

The first problem with this is that we may not know whether what we are observing is the cause or the effect. If we see a group of neurons firing are they the cause of the decision, or the effect? Recent discoveries allow us to see how the brain is engaged, but are we just viewing an earlier stage in the decision-action process? It’s really no different from asking someone to make a decision between two items. Then to claim, after seeing their hand move right and predicting they will choose the rightmost item, that the decision was in the hand. It was not free will. But now we are making such attributions to neurons rather than hands.

A sanctuary is given for free will in randomness. If at some point in the decision-making process we could observe something completely random man could escape from being a purely predictable automaton. This, however, only makes us non-deterministic. Free will would still be destroyed as we exercise no will over that which is random. Further, though we call the will “free,” this does not imply it is unpredictable. If a man is able to control his choices then it stands to reason he would be largely consistent in his exercise of that control. So observing something random would not reveal free will.

Another key issue lies in that science is essentially constrained to that which is observable. And scientists often assert they will observe what has not yet been proven. Famously, billions of dollars have been spent on the Large Hadron Collider in expectation of finding the hypothetical Higgs boson particle. Many other predictions are made, and many without any mathematical models to base their faith on like with the LHC. More close to our subject, Kurzweil predicts we will see technological intelligence surpass human intelligence within 40 years.

The assumption that if we observe free will it will evaporate to reveal only mechanical actors, combined with this belief that we can eventually observe all things necessarily condemns free will to eventually be discredited. But this belief is highly naive as there remains plenty of mystery in science. Most famously is the double slit experiment where the mere act of trying to observe what happens changes what happens. This mystery may some day be revealed, but it stands to reason that the potential tools this physical world provides may come with inherit limits as to what they can observe.

Ultimately, I believe, free will must be in this realm of mystery for the naturalist. For them everything is governed by the physical laws. Yet if man, composed of natural elements, is to somehow influence the natural elements of himself; to guide the chemical reactions in his brain rather than being subject to them and exercise a free choice, then that is something in the realm of miracles. An interesting question, then, is can these scientist perform an experiment to test for the free will that is not in vain? If free will does exist, will we be able to see it is necessary for observed effects even though we cannot see the will itself? Or will the natural world appear to fully explain outcomes, as the ripples of the will in the natural world appear to be causes unto themselves? More important, I think, is whether we choose to live as though we can exercise free will, or think ourselves helpless prisoners of a body.


What he suffered for us

Three things struck me when reading through Mark’s account of the passion.

And when she saw Peter warming himself. . . — Mark 14:67

This seems like a pretty minor point, but right before Peter denied Christ he was found trying to stay warm. There’s nothing wrong with staying warm, or wanting to stay warm. It is a necessary thing. But we know, even if it’s just a chilly night, when a guy is walking with a girl he should offer his jacket, placing her comfort above his own. Yet here we find Peter with his master and Lord, who is more than chilly. His very life is at stake here, and yet Peter’s thoughts are turning to himself.

There was really nothing Peter could do, but it seems strange that his thoughts were not so consumed with the fate of his Lord and friend that he even considered his own coldness. And when his thoughts turned to himself the temptation came. He was tried to see whether he would consider his Savior or himself first. Three times he placed himself first.

Truly, wanting to stay warm is such a small thing. But when I start to place myself first, even in the smallest things, I soon find I’m forgetting God in things that really matter. When I ask God “why did I do this again?” I can almost always look back and see at the start I was spending a little too much time finding funny things on-line, or chaffing against policies at work that cause needless work. Those little indulgences of self soon lead to bigger ones.

Similarly, before Jesus’ capture He finds Peter sleeping. “Simon, sleepest thou? Couldest not thou watch one hour?” In Jesus’ words I can’t help but think back to Peter’s bold declaration that he would stand by Jesus though all others should fall away. And yet his big declaration quickly fell before little temptations of being tired and cold. If I truly hate the big sins, then I should hate the little ones even more. And I should not wait until the big challenges come before appealing to the power of Christ in my weakness.

The second point was how Pilate deferred to the people in regard to Jesus’ fate. Though not touched on in Mark’s account, it brought to mind how Pilate washed his hands of his act. Yet Pilate was the only one who had the power to release Jesus. He washed his hands of the decision, and yet he was the only one who could make it. He alone had authority from Rome, and he alone could condemn a prisoner to the cross. Likewise, there is only one person who has power in the decisions of our own lives, and that is us. Others may try to sway us, but ultimately the responsibility is ours.

Will we let others make our decisions for us? Will we let them make our decisions about Christ and things of eternal consequence? We have to make decisions every day for Jesus. It is not just accepting him into our lives, but allowing him to lead our lives each step of the way. I know that he has led me well so far, and I want to continue to choose Jesus and choose him in all things.

The last point always strikes me, and hopefully always will.

Abba, Father, all things are possible unto thee; take away this cup from me: nevertheless not what I will, but what thou wilt. –Mark 14:35.

Jesus had to suffer so much for our salvation. Yet in His moment of prayer His thoughts are turned away from Himself. Even knowing His Father could take away the cup, for all things are possible with God, He is willing to submit to His will not to take it away.

This puts into such stark contrast the actions of Peter, of Pilate, and of myself. Christ was willing to undergo far more than the loss of a little sleep, getting a little cold, or an angry populace. He suffered scourging, crucifixion, and death all for me. Yet how often am I unwilling to suffer what we would laugh to even call “suffering” for Him, even knowing it is what is best for me?

But the encouragement is that Jesus died not just to show a stark contrast with our lives, condemning us. Rather he died that we may live with him being freed from sin.

Know ye not , that so many of us as were baptized into Jesus Christ were baptized into his death? Therefore we are buried with him by baptism into death: that like as Christ was raised up from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life. For if we have been planted together in the likeness of his death, we shall be also in the likeness of his resurrection: Knowing this, that our old man is crucified with him, that the body of sin might be destroyed, that henceforth we should not serve sin. For he that is dead is freed from sin. Now if we be dead with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with him: Knowing that Christ being raised from the dead dieth no more; death hath no more dominion over him. For in that he died, he died unto sin once: but in that he liveth, he liveth unto God. Likewise reckon ye also yourselves to be dead indeed unto sin, but alive unto God through Jesus Christ our Lord. –Romans 6:3-11


The quickness of his return

Studying this weeks Sabbath school lesson I considered how often we say “Jesus is coming soon.” But when I looked “soon” is not an adjective that is ever applied to the second coming (at least not in the KJV). What I found is that Jesus comes “quickly.” I was surprised to realize the familiar phrase was not a Biblical one and looked a little closer to see if the idea it conveyed was there or not.

“Jesus is coming soon” is often something said for encouragement to believers. “This life is tough, but take heart, these trials will soon pass when we are caught up in the clouds.” But the first two times we read that Jesus comes quickly it is a warning, and not related to the second coming.

Remember therefore from whence thou art fallen, and repent, and do the first works; or else I will come unto thee quickly, and will remove thy candlestick out of his place, except thou repent. – Revelation 2:5 KJV

So hast thou also them that hold the doctrine of the Nicolaitans, which thing I hate. Repent; or else I will come unto thee quickly, and will fight against them with the sword of my mouth. – Revelation 2:15,16 KJV

Speaking to the church of Ephesus, Jesus warns that if they do not repent and return to their first works of love he will remove their candlestick, their position as a source of light, and he will do so quickly. Likewise the church of Pergamos is called to repent, or else Christ will fight against those following after a false doctrine. A softer warning is given to the church of Philadelphia who does not need to repent, but must continue on their current course to keep their blessing. “Behold, I come quickly: hold that fast which thou hast, that no man take thy crown.” Revelation 3:11 KJV

The quickness of Jesus here is not for comfort but for caution. We find the same idea in Revelation 3:3.

Remember therefore how thou hast received and heard, and hold fast, and repent. If therefore thou shalt not watch, I will come on thee as a thief, and thou shalt not know what hour I will come upon thee. – Revelation 3:3 KJV

Now the focus is on the unexpectedness of the coming. Though Jesus’ purpose is to give us life and not steal, if we are unprepared for his coming we will find all has been lost. This same message applies to the second coming in which Jesus comes both quickly (Revelation 22:7,12,20) and as a thief (Matthew 24:43,44, Luke 12:39,40, 1 Thessalonians 5:1-4, 2 Peter 3:10, Revelation 16:15). Likewise this same message is given to warn and not to comfort.

There is a danger in taking comfort that Jesus is coming soon as it appeals to our selfish nature. We don’t need to fully rely on God in the dangers of this world because he’ll come and whisk us away before things get too bad. We don’t need to put in the hard work of building a stable foundation for future generations because there won’t be any. We don’t need to take that mission call to build a network of health centers because Jesus will come before we can even get started.

I’ve heard stories of places that have had to rebuild for great expense because building were made cheaply as no one thought they needed to last. I’ve met a student who struggled spiritually, unprepared to face adult life, because he thought Jesus would have come before he went to college. And I, though perhaps not consciously, have passed over dreams because they seemed too grand to accomplish in a short time.

When we consider Jesus’ coming it should not be looked at in a selfish light, looking to get out of the hard work and escape the trials of this world because the nearness of his coming will cut short the work. Rather our focus should be on souls, and seeing that none is surprised by the quickness of his coming. If there is any delay, it is because God desires that more would repent and turn to him (2 Peter 3:9). And if there is any hastening, it is because the gospel has gone to more to give them the opportunity to choose Christ (Matthew 24:14).

If the quickness of his coming is not a comfort but a warning, then what are we called to? Numerous times we are called to watch (Matthew 24: 42,43, Mark 13:32-37, 1 Thessalonians 5:6, Revelation 16:15). This isn’t a call to watch for the visible signs of his return. Every eye will see him (Revelation 1:7) so there is no need. Further, the disciples were called away from looking up into heaven after Christ’s ascension (Acts 1:11). Rather we see watching in connection with being awake and ready. Like a parent waiting for their child to come home at night, they meet them at the door when they first arrive. They are ready for their return because they have been ready the entire time that they waited.

There are many ways in which we can be ready, but one is striking as it connects with the imagery of a thief.

Sell that ye have, and give alms; provide yourselves bags which wax not old, a treasure in the heavens that faileth not, where no thief approacheth, neither moth corrupteth.
And this know, that if the goodman of the house had known what hour the thief would come, he would have watched, and not have suffered his house to be broken through. – Luke 12:33,39 KJV

Though Jesus is like a thief because of the unexpectedness of his coming, not because he steals from us, there will still be a great loss for those who are unprepared. The loss will be greater than if our whole house was laid bare. If we lay up our treasures on Earth they will all be lost when Jesus comes. But worse yet, we will be lost with them (Luke 12:45,46).

Instead we are called to use our money, our profession, our time, our skills, and all that we have, not for ourselves. We are to use it for others that they too may enjoy fellowship with God, and have eternity to live with him. By focusing every detail of our life on serving others for Jesus we will always be ready, always watching for his return. And we will be ready to join him in heaven.

For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also. – Luke 12:34 KJV

May 2018
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