A Typical Question about “Good” (Listening to the Saints – Aquinas)

Is something good because God says so?

Or does God say something good because it is?

This is a common question asked by all sorts of people.  I have had discussions about it on campus with students and driving in the car with friends.

If you say the second one is true then you are saying that God adheres to alaw that is above or greater than God.  This is a problem, because if God submits to some law then we should actually call this law “God”.

But if you say the first one, well, then murder and rape are not really bad.  If God just arbitrarily commanded certain things to be good or bad, then God could have chosen the opposite.  God could have commanded murder and rape to be good.   One of the problems here is that you cannot trust God.  Rather than loving or doing good, God just kind of does whatever God wants whether it is good or bad.  (If you listen to some Christians talk about how God can do whatever God wants, and other such rhetoric, I think this is a view many Christians hold, sadly).

Enter Thomas Aquinas, the Christian philosopher and theologian who lived in the 1200s.  He is probably the most influential person for Roman Catholicism.  I have been reading his Summa Theologica in bits and pieces for a few months now.  Aquinas speaks on the good:

“To be good belongs pre-eminently to God” (1, Q.6, Art.1)

“God is the supreme good simply, and not only as existing in any genus or order of things. For good is attributed to God, as was said in the preceding article, inasmuch as all desired perfections flow from Him as from the first cause” (1, Q.6, Art. 2)

According to Aquinas, God = good.  God could not say something evil is good; the good could not be other than what it is.  Yet God does not submit to a law above himself.  Rather, God’s nature is in accord with the good.

Thus, when Jesus (from a Christian perspective, our clearest image of who God is) says to forgive a person who harms you and to show love to your enemies, it is not as if the ideas of “love” and “forgiveness” are part of a higher moral law above God.  It is also not that God could have just as easily been in favor of “hate” and “holding a grudge”.  Rather, love and forgiveness are intimate to  who God is.

I think this is a helpful concept to grasp when Christians have discussions about God and morality and ethics among ourselves or when we attempt to state what we think to others.  In a few days I am going to think through what this means for us on a practical, day to day, level.

The last thing to say is I realize there are Biblical challenges in this, namely that in the Old Testament God commands things, such as the destruction of the Canaanites, which do not seem to be very good or loving.  At first glance it appears that sometimes God commands murder and other times God commands forgiveness.  That is a whole other question that deserves full treatment…another day.

The Mind Matters (or, not everyone leaves Christianity because Christians are jerks)

Why do people leave the Christian faith?  The answer often given is that there is some fault in the Christian community:

Christians are judgmental.

Christians are old-fashioned.  

Christians are not nice.

Christians are anti-everything

Certainly it is true that many people become disillusioned with faith because of bad experiences with Christians.

But not everybody.

I am reading a very challenging book called Why I Believed: Reflections of a Former Missionary.  The author, Kenneth Daniels, grew up in a strict, fundamentalist Christian church and spent years on the mission field in Africa before leaving the faith and becoming an atheist (for the record, Daniels prefers the term humanist).

Early in the book Daniels says more or less what I just said above: many people fault the Christian community for why Christians leave the faith.  But he says that for him it was the Christian community which kept him in the faith for so long.  Long after he no longer believed in the claims of Christianity he hung on because the community was so vital to his life:

I must emphasize again I have no ax to grind against Christians as people, even if I do not accept their beliefs. The most wonderful people I know are Christians. I have often heard believers assert that ex-Christians leave the faith primarily because of disappointments with the Christian community and not because of any deficiency in the gospel itself. Precisely the opposite was true for me: my desire to stay in fellowship with believers long served as an obstacle to my decision to leave the faith” (9-10).

Eventually Daniels had to be true to what he had come to believe and he left the church.  For Daniels it was about nothing other than the pursuit of truth: he no longer believed in Jesus, the Bible or God.  This book is completely focused on why he no longer believes and covers a lot of ground from the reliability of the Bible, miracles, hell and much more.

Books like this and people like Daniels should remind us that the mind matters.  We cannot leave behind thinking through the hard issues of faith.  If we offer a surface-level, shallow faith to the world we run the risk of losing the deep thinkers among us.

Having great music and fun programs that appeal to people’s desire for community and emotional attachment is a good thing.  But it cannot be the only thing.  Because sooner or later people begin to ask the hard questions and if they get no answers, or worse if they get shallow answers with little thought, they will drift away.

In my opinion, Daniels book is more challenging then those of the “new atheists” like Dawkins and Harris.  Daniels writes with kindness and knowledge as a former insider.  He does not hesitate to challenge faith where he sees it as illogical, which is most of the book, but the tone throughout is much friendlier then the so-called angry atheists.   Perhaps the new atheists can be brushed off as some guys who are just angry, Daniels and those like him cannot be brushed off as easily.

I think Daniel’s book should be read by Christians, especially pastors.  No matter what happens, it can only be good for our soul to allow our faith to be stretched by engaging the works of those who have left it.  I have appreciated works by Christian apologists, but I believe my faith is made stronger by reading well-thought out attacks on the faith.

Listening to the Saints – Teresa of Avila: The Interior Castle (part 3)

This is my third post on Teresa of Avila’s spiritual classic, The Interior Castle.  Read part one and part two.

Teresa of Avila’s writing is enriching to my soul.  She has gone down in history as one of the most influential of Christian mystics, but she exhibited great humility in her work, saying,  “If you find anything good in this book which helps you to learn to know Him better, you can be quite sure that it is His Majesty Who has said it, and if you find anything bad, that it has been said by me.

In a world of arrogance, such humility in a writing is refreshing.

I tend to be a people-pleaser, desiring to make everyone happy.  This is a problem when it is impossible to make everyone happy, as I have had to learn over and over.  My desire for all to like me is one of my deepest struggles.  Sometimes I fail at being a leader, hesitating to make the tough decision, for fear people will be upset.  I believe I have improved over the years, but I still have a long way to grow.

Teresa’s words are a good reminder that pleasing everyone, being well-spoken of, is not of ultimate importance: “to be well spoken of is only one trial more and a worse one than those already mentioned. For the soul sees quite clearly that if there is any good in it this is a gift of God, and not in the least due to itself, for only a short time previously it saw itself in dire poverty and plunged deep into sin”.

In Teresa’s day some sisters had amazing spiritual experiences that may have caused them to become quite arrogant.  Others may have looked at them with awe.  Teresa reminds us that spiritual experiences do not automatically make you better or more holy.  Such experiences are merely gifts from God that prepare us for continued service:

“let none of you imagine that, because a sister has had such experiences, she is any better than the rest; the Lord leads each of us as He sees we have need. Such experiences, if we use them aright, prepare us to be better servants of God; but sometimes it is the weakest whom God leads by this road; and so there is no ground here either for approval or for condemnation. We must base our judgments on the virtues. The saintliest will be she who serves Our Lord with the greatest mortification and humility and purity of conscience” 

This makes me think of how easy it is to be critical of others.  It is easy to find the one part of a book that I disagree with and tear it to shreds.  It makes me feel good to find a few things unorthodox or just wrong with a ministry that appears more successful then mine.  Is is comforting to mock famous leaders, pastors and authors for how they represent Christianity to the public.

It is more comfortable to ignore my own struggles.  Most of the time it is easy to present yourself to the world in the way you want people to perceive you.  After a while you start to believe your own hype.

Humility slips away as arrogance grows.  

I admire how great I am and criticize others.

I manage to please everybody and they all like me. 

Then it all falls apart and I am driven back into a confrontation with my own brokenness.  Teresa would say this is a good thing.  We need to be in touch with our true broken nature before we can accept God’s love:

It is absurd to think that we can enter Heaven without first entering our own souls — without getting to know ourselves, and reflecting upon the wretchedness of our nature and what we owe to God, and continually imploring His mercy.”

Books like Teresa’s drive me to the grace of God.  And that is a good thing.

Further Reflections on a week in Joplin

This was the first time I would have to go away for a while since we had Junia.  For that reason alone, I was not looking forward to the trip.  The students were excited.  But after nine of these trips I approach it as part of my job rather than something to be excited about.  I admit that is not a good thing.  Yet if I am honest, I would rather stay home with my wife and baby.

By the end of the trip I had to admit this had been one of the best mission trips I have been on since I started working with CSF.

(Don’t get me wrong, I sorely missed Emily and Junia!)

(And any alumni who read this don’t be offended, I said “one of the best” not “the best” 🙂

The group before we headed home

I give a lot of credit to this group of students.  They were just plain fun to be around.  I could offer many examples of goofy sayings and games from throughout the week, but instead I will talk about what we did Friday night.  We stayed in a church, eating our meals at tables set up in the sanctuary.  Each night we had a time of worship, led by two students on guitars.  Throughout the week we noticed these odd-looking things under the chairs…

Hymnals.

Someone joked that we should have a hymn sing.  By the end of the week the whole group thought it would be fun to spend an hour singing hymns out of a hymnal.  So we did.

It was kind of funny to see the students so excited for hymnals.  I guess there was a nostalgia for these old-fashioned, song-filled books.

I am not going to look too deeply into it.  I doubt that churches will or should start bringing hymnals back.  But I do think there is a respect for the past among many students that would enjoy the occasional “unplugged” service that their grandparents are used to.

A few other reflections:

*I was very impressed with how one student, Hannah, stepped up prior to the trip and just took over the meal planning.  She made a menu, a shopping list and cooked all our dinners.  I told her that will come in handy when I write a job recommendation one day!

*Driving vans is much better then buses, though I don’t think I’d want to go much further then we did.  The great thing about vans is freedom!  We took the students to where Kansas, Missouri and Oklahoma all come together and they loved it.  I never saw college students so excited about geography!  I also enjoyed the freedom of picking delicious food places on the trip: Cracker Barrel, Waffle House and Culvers.  No McDonalds, Burger King or Wendy’s.

*On a personal note, it was nice to see some old friends who live in the area!

*Finally, it is always encouraging to see the students work together as a team!  I pray this teamwork continues as we seek to serve and love those around us on campus.

Hope in Joplin: CSF Spring Break 2012

This post is the first of two or three reflecting on Christian Student Fellowship’s Spring Break trip to Joplin, Missouri.

"Hope" High School

We drove past Joplin High School numerous times during our week there working with IDES.  They told us that after the tornado hit, destroying thousands of homes and killing nearly 200 people, the only letters remaining on the “Joplin High School” sign were “op“.

Someone added an “h” and an “e”.

Hope.

Hope rose in Joplin as the people there began rebuilding immediately.

Nearly one year later there is much rebuilding that still needs to be done.  Driving through the city you can clearly see the path the tornado took.  All that is left in some places are the concrete foundations.  But the rebuilding continues.

Everyone we saw thanked us profusely for spending our week in Joplin.  From our point of view, it was an honor to spend the week with such great people.

A group of fifteen went from Penn State Berks to work with IDES.  As I spoke with the students prior to the trip, many of them did not know much about Joplin.  Some did not even know there had been a tornado last year.  A natural disaster that levels an entire major city like Hurricane Katrina garners national attention for months, if not years.  A natural disaster that takes out a portion of a smaller city quickly fades from the news cycle.

Kojo holding the ladder so Jae does not blow off of it.

But while the news moves on to other things and the disaster fades from our national memory, many in Joplin are still in need of help.  As a pastor working with college students, I am proud of those who gave up their break to drive over 1,200 miles in cramped vans to help them.

You could say we did a lot for a group of mostly unskilled people: put up some siding, built a deck, painted a garage for a church (which is also used in their ministry to nursing homes and other places), caulked and began to paint another house, and helped a man move into his new apartment.  There was no lack of work and the students worked hard.

Of course, you could say we did very little.  How much can fifteen people do in five days to put a dent in the damage of a tremendous tornado?

Hannah and Raquel painting the ceiling of the garage.

That is where hope comes in.  There is hope in Joplin – hope in a restored future, a better tomorrow.

That’s good hope.

For many residents, this hope is firmly rooted in a good God who took on flesh, suffered and died in order to win his creation back.  Just as Jesus Christ rose from the dead three days later, so there is hope that all creation will be restored and the destruction from tornadoes (and hurricanes, tsunamis, etc.) will become only a memory.

Don’t Have An E-Reader? Get One!

Some people fear and lament an end to real, physical, paper books due to the growth of electronic readers.  I have had conversations with these people.  You probably have too.  Perhaps you are one of them.

I have to admit, there are times when I notice a book in a bookstore that I read on my Kindle and part of me says, “oh, that is how thick it is, its shape…cool.”  Other than that brief nostalgia, I love my Kindle.

Reading books on the Kindle has changed my reading life.  To demonstrate this, allow me to walk you through an average day:

6 AM – Wake up and go to the gym, read War and Peace on the eliptical (Kindle cost, $0; “real” book cost, $10)

9 AM – Put Junia down for a nap.  While holding her, read the Bible (on the Kindle) and John of the Cross’ Dark Night of the Soul (Kindle cost, $.99; “real book, $7.99).

2 PM – Arrive early to get taxes done (okay, this is not an average day).  Spend time reading The Information by James Gleick, checked out on the Kindle via the Reading library.

5 PM – On campus and preparing for this week’s Bible study.  For this I use, among other things,  Kenneth Bailey’s Paul through Mediterranean Eyes (Kindle cost when I got it was $9.12, “real” book is $17.99) and N.T. Wright’s Paul for Everyone (Kindle cost, $8.80; “real” book, 12.99).

10 PM – Before I go to sleep I may read a few pages of Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theoligica (Kindle cost, $.99; “real” book, $154.35), some of the first volume of Philip Schaff’s Church History (Kindle Cost for all eight volumes, $5.99; “real” book, used, $87.50) or Tony Jones’ Divine Intervention (snagged on the Kindle while on sale for $.99).

In summary, two reasons you should get an e-reader:

1. Lots of books that are very cheap.  This includes classics, which are experiencing a renaissance in electronic format.

2. You can carry all of those books with me anywhere you go.  I am about to head out with the college students for our Spring Break trip to Joplin, MO.  Rather than packing a bunch of books, I just need one small device.

Right now the only books I am not buying on the Kindle are:

1. Children’s books for Junia

2. Books whose e-books are way too expensive.  I do not want to spend more than $9.99 for an e-book, so when I got Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age I went with the used one for about $18.

3. Books I stumble across at the used bookstore that look interesting.

Other than that, I have trouble justifying spending more money to buy things that take up more space.