The Redemption of Natural Philosophy

9 November 2018

In order to understand the place of science in the world, we need to define some terms.

Natural Philosophy: an investigation into the way the natural world is and the way it works. In ancient times, philosophers weren’t just concerned with intangibles or ethics or human nature, they were also concerned with how the world worked. So Aristotle, for example, expresses a natural philosophy.

Science: born out of natural philosophy, science is a particular way of investigating the natural world that relies on generating ideas about the world, generating predictions from those ideas, testing the predictions through repeatable experiments, and revising the ideas accordingly. Or so it says on the wrapper….

Scientists object to being lumped in with natural philosophy because they consider themselves vastly more rigorous than the natural philosophers, and insofar as they really are more rigorous, they have a point. But then, many scientists also regard naturalism as coextensive with ‘Science,’ and naturalism is a religious conviction not subject to scientific testing — so they’re natural philosophers. They just can’t help themselves. Religion gets into everything, and there is no neutrality.

Special Revelation: God telling us something particular. Sometimes questions about the world do address an area where God has spoken. For example, “Is it true that we’ll die if we eat this particular fruit?” As our experience in Eden demonstrates, when God has spoken to a point, it is wise to take His revelation into account.

False religion: various untrue ideas about spiritual things. The principal goal of these ideas is to suppress the truth in unrighteousness, to keep Yahweh out of human awareness.

We are obliged to hear special revelation. What God has shown us must be taken into account, period.

We are obliged to disregard false religion. We may not bow down to or in any wise serve idols, and ideas that exist to turn us away from Yahweh are to be rejected out of hand.

Science and natural philosophy, however, are a different matter, and have to be handled differently. Science and natural philosophy are always tied in with an overall worldview, and it matters which one they’re tied in with. Carl Sagan’s science is no more to be trusted than Lao Tzu’s natural philosophy — but no less, either. To the extent that they have observed the natural world accurately, they must be recognized. Paul requires it: “Whatever things are true…think on these things.” To the extent that they have failed to glorify Yahweh and be thankful, they have exalted themselves against the knowledge of God, and they must be cast down. Since we have to do both of these things, we are simply not permitted to discard them, nor to swallow them whole. We are required to seek the redemption of science and natural philosophy, to see these disciplines brought into obedience to Christ.

In the Western world, we like to lump science on the side of the angels, and demonize natural philosophy. Christians have adopted this into our theological schema very uncritically, such that Western medicine is appropriate for Christians (despite its pronounced tendency to murder babies) and acupuncture is not, because it’s not scientific and tied up with Taoism.

Well, sure it’s tied up with Taoism. Good thinkers always seek a consistent, integrated view of everything, and Chinese natural philosophers didn’t keep their Taoism locked in a box whilst they were observing the natural world. Whaddaya expect? Nor did Carl Sagan keep his atheism locked in a box when he looked through a telescope — but I don’t know even one Christian who thinks that means we should ignore what he saw. If we’re prepared to accept insights about the natural world from the round-eyed observer, then why are we so balky about the slant-eyed ones?

Frankly, I think it’s simple xenophobia. Our M.D. doesn’t believe that we have a soul, and that doesn’t bother us at all, because we’re used to it. An acupuncturist says something about yin and yang, and we lose our minds — without even stopping to find out what he meant. As communication improves and the world comes back together again, we need to learn to listen carefully rather than simply rejecting unfamiliar things out of hand. We might learn something.

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Steps Toward Recovery

2 November 2018

If we’re going to recover obedient healing ministry in the Church — healing that is biblically faithful, and actually works, then we’re going to have to give some thought to how we do this. What follows are some largely random reflections about doing it.

We aren’t going to get very far sitting on our collective butts thinking holy thoughts. Theory without practice is a disease, and too many of us have it. The only antidote is getting out there and trying things. See what happens in the world God actually made, not just what we think might happen if we actually, you know, did stuff.

We need to be active seekers and curators of experience. We need to try things, and we need to remember what happened — especially if it was something weird that we have no category for. The experiences that are way off the map — those are the ones that help us revise our maps. We aren’t going to learn much if we ignore the weird stuff.

We need to be biblically faithful. If Scripture gives us reason to expect something that is outside our experience (like, say, miraculous healing), then we need to lean into that. If Scripture tells us not to do something (like calling on other gods), we need to obey that.

At the same time, we need to pay careful attention to what the Bible does, and does not, say. Our deeply disobedient tradition will tend to protect itself by calling things “unbiblical” that are necessary and proper, but simply not attested in Scripture. Like, say, a particular tune for Psalm 23. There’s nothing biblical about assigning that particular tune to that particular psalm — but we have to use some tune, and if this one works, why not?

We need to pay attention to what we don’t know about first-century practice. The things that were obvious to them are opaque to us, because nobody ever wrote them down — things like order of service, specific details of church governmental structure, tunes for the Psalms, the exact technique for laying on hands, the selection of an oil for anointing, and so on — none of these things has been preserved for us in Scripture. But we have to do something.

We need to become masters of good and necessary consequence. If we are called to lay on hands, then we must lay hands in some manner. If we are called to anoint with oil, then we’re going to use some kind of oil. There’s nothing essentially biblical about resting a hand over the heart or using bergamot oil, but is there anything wrong with it?

We need to become masters of observation. If one manner of laying on hands has an effect that another manner does not, we should notice. If one oil has an effect that another does not, we should notice. Growing in skill means noticing these things, and doing what works better.

We need to pay attention to our whole family tree. Not every branch of the Church has been as disobedient in this area as we have been. We can learn from the experiences of other saints, widely separated from us in time, space, and ecclesiology — but united to us in Christ.

We have to be ruthlessly honest students of what works. An approach with an honorable pedigree may fail because (a) it just doesn’t work, (b) it requires skill or character we don’t have, (c) we misunderstood, or (d) some other reason we didn’t think of. But if it doesn’t work for us now, it doesn’t work for us now. We might revisit it later, with a better understanding. In the meantime, we’d better try something else.


Recovering Obedience: How It Works

26 October 2018

Jesus healed people. He taught His disciples to heal people. He told them they would do greater works than He — and they did. The early Church was known for its ability to heal. The Church today is not. Something has changed, and not for the better.

Early on, we were obedient to what Jesus had trained us to do. Somewhere along the way, we lost that habit of obedience, and today, the people who lean into healing ministry are an anomaly in the church. We think they’re weird, and look on them with suspicion. We’ll talk some other time about how this deplorable state of affairs came about, but today, I want to look at fixing it. When disobedience has become the tradition, and obedience is weird…that’s pretty much the definition of worldliness. What does it take to reverse that?

I had never really engaged that question until about 10 years ago. I was still a few years away from my paradigm shift on healing ministry, but God challenged me in the area of worship — specifically, singing psalms. Now in the modern church we sometimes draw on a psalm as inspiration for a worship song, but we don’t really sing the Psalms. This is a serious problem, because the New Testament three times says we should. So I was challenged that — as a matter of simple Christian obedience — I needed to become a Psalm-singing person. But I had no resources, no tradition to draw on. My church just didn’t do that. No church I’d ever been part of did.

So for the first time in my life, as a seminary-trained pastor, I embarked on a quest to obey the Bible in a way that was entirely outside my tradition. It was going to be life-changing, in three ways.

  1. The practice of immersing myself in the Psalms absolutely transformed my relationship with God. I became able to speak with God with complete honesty. Worship became much sweeter. Where once prayer had been the weak point of my spiritual life, it became a place of strength.
  2. This was the first time I had seriously contemplated that my tradition might be content with disobedience to the Scriptures, and might be seriously resistant to becoming obedient. Once I experienced that resistance in the area of worship music, I began to wonder if there were other areas where we had allowed our disobedient tradition to trump the Bible. Turns out, there were….
  3. I learned valuable lessons about the process of recovering obedience in an area where I — and my people — had once been so thoroughly disobedient that we couldn’t even imagine what obedience would look like.

That third area is the one I want to focus on today. Let me briefly sketch what happened when I became a Psalm-singing Christian, and then I’ll pull some lessons out of that experience. In upcoming posts, I hope to look at how that experience might apply to recovering healing ministry.

As I said, the starting point was a relatively innocuous observation: three times in the New Testament, we are instructed that we ought to sing the psalms. It does not say that we should sing the biblical Psalms exclusively, but it clearly means we ought to sing at least the biblical Psalms. And as a leader in my commmunity, I had a responsibility to recover this obedience, first for myself, and then for the community I led. Which meant we were going to have to introduce Psalm-singing into our congregational worship. (To be clear, the Bible does not say we must sing Psalms in congregational worship, but since that is where Christians learn to sing, it was a matter of practical necessity. And anyway, it just makes sense — if we become a Psalm-singing people, then wouldn’t it be natural for us to sing the Psalms when we come together to sing?)

My first problem was, how do I even do that? When I open my Bible to the Psalms, nothing I see there suggests that I would sing them. There’s no music. The lyrics don’t look like lyrics, or have a rhythm to them. I could handle re-translating the Hebrew into something more like song lyrics…barely…but even if I could handle the lyrics, I’m not a songwriter. I clearly didn’t have the resources to do this all by myself. So I began to look around for help.

I found out that not all the branches of the Church had forsaken Psalm-singing. Some of the older traditions had retained a tradition of chanting the Psalms from very early times. It doesn’t sound anything like a song to modern ears, and I was certainly not going to be able to introduce it into congregational worship, but it was a start. Some other traditions recovered Psalm-singing during the Protestant Reformation: I discovered the Genevan Psalter, the Scots Free Church, and some others. Some of these traditions refused to use musical instruments. Some of them were committed to singing the Psalms exclusively. I disagreed with them on both of these points, but what they had to offer was still helpful. I didn’t need to agree with them on everything to profit from their obedience in an area where I had been disobedient.

I quickly discovered that I was not a good judge of what was going to work and what wasn’t. Some of what these other communities had to offer was a terrible fit for us — musically bad, poor translations, or just not singable. I mostly discovered what wouldn’t work by trying it. In the beginning, everything we did was clumsy. Let’s be honest — we were bad at this. Of course we were — we’ never done it before. We had to just keep going and trust that God would bless our faithfulness. He did, and we got better. Over time, we gained skill, and noticed that some things worked better than others — so we dumped what wasn’t working, and kept what was.

Over time, God blessed our faithfulness. God gave me access to some good musicians, and together we began to develop a corpus of singable work. We began to gain some strategies for consistently getting good music. One of the better ones was finding time-tested folk tunes, then translating Psalm lyrics to match the meter of the folk tune. We got some really good, really singable music that way. Over time, we began to be good judges (in advance) of what would work and what wouldn’t. We still don’t have the whole Psalter rendered in good poetry and good music (yet), but we have about a third of it in a form that’s poetically good, understandable, and singable. And we keep adding to the body of work.

Coming back to healing ministry, here are some lessons from the Psalm-singing experience that I expect to apply:

  1. I can’t do this all myself. I don’t know what I’m doing. My whole tradition doesn’t know what it’s doing.
  2. Our first attempts at obedience are going to be bad. (And some of them have been!) We will be clumsy and unskilled and ineffective. But God will be kind to us, and we will get better with practice.
  3. It’s not enough to cover myself with a verse and say I’m being obedient; it has to actually work. In the beginning I will be a terrible judge of what will work, so I’m just going to have to try different things and see. But I need to pay attention to the results.
  4. “It’s not working” is not a reason to give up. We can’t get more effective at something we’re not even trying. We keep going, and trust God to reward our obedience with increased skill and discernment. I’m not going to pray, “God, please show me how to be awesome at this, and then I will start trying to obey.” I’m going to pray, “God, I’m trying as best I can to be obedient. Please bless my honest attempts and guide me into more skillful obedience.”
  5. Not every branch of the Church’s family tree will be as sterile as mine in this area. Other Christians will have retained or rediscovered obedience, and they will have things that can help me. Those Christians will have their own areas of disobedience, misunderstanding, legalism, and so on. But I don’t have to agree with them on everything to profit from their obedience in this area.
  6. Not all the resources I need will be inside the Church. Folk culture tends to preserve things that work, even in areas where the Church isn’t really paying any attention.

There are probably some other lessons in there, too, but these are the ones that occur to me right now.


The World is Magic

19 October 2018

I am a Christian. I believe the Bible, all the way through.

Therefore, of necessity, I believe in magic. I believe in the bad kind — which I steer well clear of, of course — the witch at En Dor calling up the dead, the prophets of Ba’al cutting themselves to get their god’s attention, sacrificing a living baby to sexual freedom Molech, and so on. Vile stuff.

But I also believe in the good kind: multiplying bread and fish, walking on water, parting the seas, calling down fire or food from the clear blue sky.

And not all of it is “nice.” Moses’ serpent devours the serpents made by the Egyptian sorcerers. Elijah stops the rain, and won’t bring it back for three whole years. Walk around the walls and shout, and Jericho’s defenses crumble. Moses holds his staff over the battlefield, and Israel prevails. Joshua orders the sun and moon to stand still so Israel can crush her enemies.

Why does this sort of thing work?

A better question might be: why not? The whole world is spoken into existence to start with. It didn’t evolve in place by inexorable natural process; the world is magic from the word go. (Actually, the word was “Light!”) The things which are seen are not made of the things which are visible.

Which is to say that the materialist conception of the physical world is wrong, all the way down. It’s not true “as far as it goes,” but missing an additional layer of spiritual truth. Richard Dawkins is wrong about Newtonian physics, he’s wrong about quantum physics, he’s wrong about the nature of the rock under his feet and the sun over his head and the air in his lungs. He says those things are just there, matter in motion. We know those things are words. They were spoken into existence by God and continue to be upheld by the Word of His power, and that is a difference that goes all the way down.

For what it’s worth, here’s some other good discussions on the subject:

DRTV: It’s a Magical World

N D Wilson and Doug Wilson on Magic in Literature

N D Wilson and Doug Wilson on Magic, Part 2


“Above All Your Name”

28 September 2018

Over time I have noticed a trend in my understanding of Scripture. I can’t figure out what a passage means. It seems odd, or an odd way of saying something. Then one day, I see God do the thing that the passage is talking about, and suddenly it couldn’t be any clearer — it’s exactly the right way of describing what happened.

So Psalm 138 has baffled me for years. What could it possibly mean to say to God, “You have magnified Your word above all Your name”?

Let’s look at the whole first movement of the psalm:

I will praise You with my whole heart;

Before the gods I will sing praises to You.

I will worship toward Your holy temple,

And praise Your name

For Your lovingkindness and Your truth

For You have magnified Your word above all Your name.

In the day when I cried out, You answered me,

And made me bold with strength in my soul.

The speaker is in a foreign land. He sings the praises of Yahweh in front of the demonic powers of that place. Think Daniel, praying toward Jerusalem in Babylon.

So what does it mean in this foreign sojourn that God has magnified His word above His name? I didn’t know until I saw it happen: pagans following the word of God, not out of obedience to Him but because it’s good advice and their lives are better off when they do it. They may have encountered the principle — Sabbath rest, tithing, generosity, what have you — as a word of advice from a friend, or as a principle from inner witness, or whatever. They don’t attribute it to God because they don’t know it came from Him.

Because He has magnified His word above His name. He is willing for people to know what to do without Him getting immediate credit for it. More people know how to live than know that He is the source of direction — that is what it means to have the law written on your heart.

The second half of Psalm 138 says

All the kings of the earth shall praise You, O Yahweh,

When they hear the words of Your mouth.

Yes, they shall sing of the ways of Yahweh,

For Yahweh’s glory is great.

Though Yahweh is on high,

He still regards the lowly;

But He knows the proud from afar.

God will not allow His word to forever remain anonymous. Because He is humble and He loves us, He is willing for people to say, “Wow! That’s a great idea!” and not know, at first, where it came from.

But as it is the glory of God to conceal a matter, so it is the glory of kings to search it out. Kings want to know where the good ideas come from, because where there’s one, often there’s more. As they investigate, they will find Yahweh, because whoever seeks Yahweh (knowingly or not) will find Him. And when they do, they will praise Him.


A Cautionary Letter

7 September 2018

The Discernment Committee of the Tribe of Levi
Horus Street
Pithom, Egypt

Aaron ben-Amram
Goshen, Egypt

Dear Mr. ben-Amram,

We thank you for notifying us about the practices in which you and your brother Moses are engaged. In these turbulent times, many people have grown confused about the worship of the Most High. The Discernment Committee exists to educate Israel about the proper worship of the Almighty, and to expose the many pagan practices that have infiltrated the congregation of Israel.

Unfortunately the practices of your brother fall into this category. Upon review of our history, we find no precedent for any of the so-called “revelations” that your brother brings to the table. The God of Abraham spoke to Abraham face to face, as a man speaks to his friend, and to the other patriarchs in dreams. There is no precedent whatsoever for the Almighty speaking out of a burning bush, still less some paranormal bush that was “burning but not consumed,” whatever that means.

Moreover, the “miracles” that your brother brings to validate his “revelations” are the furthest thing from the sort of uplifting and worshipful miracles that might genuinely befit the Most High. These signs your brother brings — turning his hand leprous, turning water into blood—are disturbing, morbid, and frankly just bizarre. And again, there is just no precedent of the Almighty doing such things.

As to the matter of turning sticks into snakes, well…if I might be frank, a Levite of your education ought to know better. You know our troubled history with the serpent, and the very idea of validating some sort of connection with the Almighty by turning your walking stick into the symbol of Satan…well, surely you’re not that tone deaf. This is not the work of the God of Abraham.

Moreover, our research indicates that this snake-stick demonstration is a practice of the Egyptian sorcerers Jannes and Jambres, among other local occultists. These men are worshippers of a variety of false gods, entities that you and I know to be demonic in nature. Surely you can see that participating in such an occult practice opens a wide door to the demonic in your own life, and we would urge you to immediately repent of and renounce your involvement in this grave sin.

If you’ll forgive a personal note here, I knew your late father, may he rest in the bosom of Abraham, and he would be deeply grieved to see his sons carrying on in such a manner. Moses always was a bit impulsive, so perhaps it’s understandable. But for you, Aaron, to get caught up in this…I just don’t know what to say. You and your sister Miriam have always been the sensible ones. May the Most High forgive me for saying so, but I’m honestly glad your father didn’t live to see you getting carried away by Moses’ nonsense. Amram was always rightly proud of you, and this would have just broken his heart.

But recriminations won’t solve anything, and we need to find a way to move forward. I’m afraid the best-case scenario here is that your brother has serious mental health issues. Four decades alone in the desert would be a strain for anyone, and it’s not implausible that his frustrated lifelong desire to be the liberator of Israel finally caused a psychotic break. As awful as it sounds to say so, I sincerely hope this is the case. Our people have always made excellent psychiatrists, and there is some hope that with lengthy therapy, your brother could be delivered from his delusions and return to a somewhat normal life. If indeed they are delusions. I sincerely hope they are, because the alternative is to take your brother’s account at face value.

In that case, some entity known as “I am” spoke to your brother from a burning bush and induced him to perform these morbid and bizarre pagan practices. Given the pagan associations of these practices, we can only conclude that the entity known as “I am” is a demon, and for your own safety, we would urge you to have no further contact with your brother while he is under the influence of this unclean spirit.

We maintain a resource list of mental health professionals and exorcists for concerned families in your unfortunate situation. Please find it enclosed. I urge you to consult with one or more of them regarding next steps for your brother.

We pray that the Almighty’s mercy will cover you and your family during this very difficult time.

Sincerely,
Yochanan ben-Zacharias
Communications Director
Discernment Committee of the Tribe of Levi