Category Archives: Sociology

God in a cave

Merry Christmas everyone!  The following is from Gilbert Keith (G.K.) Chesterton in The Everlasting Man. I’m not sure I get the fullness of all its meaning, to be honest, but it moves me closer to the awe and magic of Christmas every time I read it. It’s thick but worth wrestling through…

Excerpt: The Place that shepherds found was not an academy or an abstract republic; it was not a place of myths … explained or explained away. It was a place of dreams come true.

Traditions in art and literature and popular fable have quite sufficiently attested, as has been said, this particular paradox of the divine being in the cradle. Perhaps they have not so clearly emphasised the significance of the divine being in the cave. Curiously enough, indeed, tradition has not very clearly emphasised the cave. It is a familiar fact that the Bethlehem scene has been represented in every possible setting of time and country of landscape and architecture; and it is a wholly happy and admirable fact that men have conceived it as quite different according to their different individual traditions and tastes. But while all have realised that it was a stable, not so many have realised that it was a cave. Some critics have even been so silly as to suppose that there was some contradiction between the stable and the cave; in which case they cannot know much about caves or stables in Palestine. As they see differences that are not there it is needless to add that they do not see differences that are there. When a well-known critic says, for instance, that Christ being born in a rocky cavern is like Mithras having sprung alive out of a rock, it sounds like a parody upon comparative religion. There is such a thing as the point of a story, even if it is a story in the sense of a lie. And the notion of a hero appearing, like Pallas from the brain of Zeus, mature and without a mother, is obviously the very opposite of the idea of a god being born like an ordinary baby and entirely dependent on a mother.

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The last forfeit

DESPOTISM   –noun

  1. the rule of a despot; the exercise of absolute authority.
  2. absolute power or control; tyranny.
  3. an absolute or autocratic government.
  4. a country ruled by a despot (dictionary.com).

The following is an excerpt from Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, published in 1835:

It seems that if despotism came to be established in the democratic nations of our day, it would have other characteristics: it would be more extensive and milder, and it would degrade men without tormenting them…

When I think of the small passions of men of our day, the softness of their mores, the extent of their enlightenment, the purity of their religion, the mildness of their morality, their laborious and steady habits, the restraint that almost all preserve in vice as in virtue, I do not fear that in their chiefs they will find tyrants, but rather schoolmasters…

I want to imagine with what new features despotism could be produced in the world: I see an innumerable crowd of like and equal men who revolve on themselves without repose, procuring the small and vulgar pleasures with which they fill their souls…

Above these an immense tutelary power is elevated, which alone takes charge of assuring their enjoyments and watching over their fate. It is absolute, detailed, regular, far-seeing, and mild. It would resemble paternal power if, like that, it had for its object to prepare men for manhood; but on the contrary, it seeks only to keep them fixed irrevocably in childhood; it likes citizens to enjoy themselves provided that they think only of enjoying themselves. It willingly works for their happiness; but it wants to be the unique agent and sole arbiter of that; it provides for their security, foresees and secures their needs, facilitates their pleasures, conducts their principal affairs, directs their industry, regulates their estates, divides their inheritances; can it not take away from them entirely the trouble of thinking and the pain of living?

So it is that every day it renders the employment of free will less useful and more rare; it confines the action of the will in a smaller space and little by little steals the very use of it from each citizen…

Thus, after taking each individual by turns in its powerful hands and kneading him as it likes, the sovereign extends its arms over society as a whole; it covers its surface with a network of small, complicated, painstaking, uniform rules through which the most original minds and the most vigorous souls cannot clear a way to surpass the crowd; it does not break wills but it softens them, bends them, and directs them; it rarely forces one to act, but it constantly opposes itself to one’s acting; it does not destroy, it prevents things from being born; it does not tyrannize, it hinders, compromises, enervates, extinguishes, dazes, and finally reduces each nation to being nothing more than a herd of timid and industrious animals of which government is the shepherd…

I have always believed that this sort of regulated, mild, and peaceful servitude, whose picture I have just painted, could be combined better than one imagines with some of the external forms of freedom, and that it would not be impossible for it to be established in the very shadow of the sovereignty of the people (Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, volume two, part four, chapter six).

And from Mark Steyn:

That’s how great nations die—not by war or conquest, but bit by bit, until one day you wake up and you don’t need to sign a formal instrument of surrender because you did it piecemeal over the last ten years (Mark Steyn, America Alone).

Personal independence and responsibility represent the only path to maintaining a liberal democracy in a form that preserves freedom of will and human dignity.  I hope and pray we think carefully before surrendering that independence and asking the state to take that responsibility from us.  It would stand to be the last forfeit; for after this, forfeit is no longer within our personal purview.

Happy Independence Day.

The problem of good in the world (Part 1/3): the image of God

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For everything God created is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving1 Timothy 4:4

For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities-his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuseRomans 1:20

They exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshipped and served created things rather than the CreatorRomans 1:25a

In Are all truth’s equal? I touched on the idea that God is a knowable God—and that the world is an expression of God’s character—that there exist both physical laws and spiritual laws that show us who God is, what He is like. It was a point in a broader discussion of whether there are any true Truths—or truths that apply to everyone at all times. Modern thinkers have trended away from the idea of any universal or findable truth of this sort in favor of a more relativistic approach that argues what is right for one person may not be right for another—or what is right at one time may not be right at all times.

It is my contention that there is a true Truth. But rather than a set of doctrines or abstractions, the true Truth is a person—a knowable God who started history, guides the present and controls the future. It is the Judeo/Christian God who created us and who also came into the world as the person of Jesus Christ.

I won’t repeat my case (here) for knowable truth here, but will rather try to expand on the nature of this Truth and pull that together with some threads of our discussion of the significance of the world and our lives (here) to help develop a framework for understanding the nature of the world and our humanity, the devolution of human history leaving broken versions of both and God’s plan for restoration. Let’s look at it in three parts (which I’ll post in serial fashion):

  1. the image of God:  what the character  of God tells us about the nature of human beings and the created world
  2. good that consumes:  the effects of treasuring the good things of this world
  3. the end that has begun:  the already, but not-yet of restoration

Perhaps at the expense of literary suspense, I will start by stating what I hope I can show—that God is a relational God who made us to know Him and gave us a world full of things that point to his love and goodness; but that we have tended to love those good things more than the God to which they point. Yet in spite of our infatuation with the good in place of the Consummate, God promises to restore the Creation to its intended state; and that process has already begun.

Nature of God and what it tells us about who we are

Consider the account of creation presented in Genesis 1-2 (portions omitted):

Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, in our likeness, and let them rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air, over the livestock, over the earth, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.”

So God created man in His image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.”

God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and over every living creature that moves on the ground.

Then God said “I give you every seed-bearing plant on the face of the whole earth and every tree that has fruit with seed in it. They will be yours for food. And to all the beasts of the earth, and all the birds of the air and all the creatures that move on the ground—everything that has the breath of life in it. I give every green plant for food.” And it was so.

God saw all that he had made, and it was very good. (Genesis 1:26-31a).

Now the Lord God had planted a garden in the East, in Eden; and there he put the man he had formed. And the Lord God made all kinds of trees grow out of the ground—trees that were pleasing to the eye and good for food. (Genesis 2:8-9a).

“The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it” (Genesis 1:15).

“The Lord God said, “It is not good for man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him.”

… So the Lord caused Adam to fall into a deep sleep; and while he was sleeping he took one of the man’s ribs and closed up the place with flesh. Then the Lord God made a woman from the rib he had taken out of the man, and he brought her to the man.

The man said, “This is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called ‘woman’ for she was taken out of man.”

For this reason the man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and they will become one flesh. (Genesis 2:18,20b-24)

The Christian teaching of the Trinity or Triune God—a God that exists as three persons but is One God—has always evaded me. Catch the ‘us’ in “Let us make man in our image”. The best I have heard it explained is that the Father, Son (Jesus) and Holy Spirit are like water which can be found in three states (liquid, gas and solid) but is still a single entity (it should be said that God more impressively takes the three forms simultaneously!). This was a largely esoteric discussion for me, until I heard someone suggest what it tells us about God—that God’s very nature is relational. It means that the God who was here to put the stars in place did so as team—(probably high fiving all along the way!).

The implication of a God, not just outwardly relational, but also inwardly relational reveals to us His motivation for creating us—which in turn tells us a tremendous amount about who we are. Let me try to show you what I mean.

My younger brother was married to a wonderful woman several years ago and they recently had their first baby (bear with me here). It was a joy to participate in the ceremony with them as it was to watch them fall in love with one another and nurture that relationship over the years that preceded the wedding. These two are tight. They (obviously) live together and they work together (for the second consecutive job). I can remember watching my brother dictate a school paper as his (then) girlfriend typed away for him on the computer—now that’s teamwork! So it was no surprise that shortly after making vows to spend the rest of their lives together—the two becoming one flesh—that they began thinking about having a child, a child that would share their name and their love.

The idea is that as a man and a woman come together in this way, a circle of two is built that is nurturing and unified—a home. And that unity tends to become something larger, something that compels itself to be shared.

In a much larger (albeit harder to understand) way, I humbly suggest it was much the same with God. We know from God’s Goodness that the relationships within the Trinity aren’t just tight; they’re perfect—perfect love, perfect harmony—a perfect home. Ah, but no one yet to live in it!

Then God said, “Let us make man in our image…”

God’s decision to create people was not a science experiment, as some have suggested (watch the very end of Men in Black). It wasn’t that He got so bored that he decided he needed pet people. He didn’t create us to fill a need in His life, but rather to fill us with His life that was overflowing—to share the love and community he already had.

God was so enraptured with the relational love within Him that He wanted to grow it by sharing it—and He created us to be the recipients of that love. He invited us into that relationship; the Home for which we were built (will discuss the idea of our perfect home in a future post).

It’s important to note that God, being somewhat clever, in addition to consummately loving, first took the time to conceive of and build a universe and a world for us. And after creating Adam and Eve and giving them names, he gave them roles of significance, putting them in the garden and asking them to cultivate it.

God is loving and relational—He poured out his love on us as He made us and invited us into community with Him. Genesis tells us that He created us in His image, so understanding God’s nature should tell us something meaningful about our own. Douglas Moo, discussing what it means to be created in God’s image concludes that it tells us three main things (plus an extension of the third), each relational: how we are meant to relate to God, how we are meant to relate to one another and how we are meant to relate to the physical world (Nature in the New Creation, Wheaton College). Let’s explore each of these briefly as they offer considerable insight as to who we are:

1.  We were designed for relationship with God (vertical relationship). We will see a bit later in the text, God looking for Adam in the Garden, calling out to him: “Where are you?”

This is probably the most obvious deduction from the discussion so far so I won’t belabor the point, but God created us to invite us into a relationship with Him, to share in the unity of the Trinity—to find our ultimate home in Him. He is a historical and knowable God who wants us to know Him!

2.  We were designed for relationships with one another (horizontal relationships). It is not good for man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him.

God did not take up His permanent dwelling with Adam on earth, but rather created Eve. Just as God is inviting us into his circle, so he built in us a desire to share that love with others. When we are experiencing the love God wants to pour into us through the vertical relationship, it is inevitable that we will then move out and share it in horizontal relationships.

3.  Things in the world are good. God saw all that he had made, and it was very good/For everything God created is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving/For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities-his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse.

If God created us out of love and built a world for us in which to live, then it only makes sense that the things in the world are good—all of them.  Creation itself bears the mark of God.  Just as the spiritual realm is an expression of His nature (discussed here) so too is the physical world (have you never seen a sunset or a landscape so beautiful that you knew for a split second God had created it?).  Understood correctly, all of creation points us to the Creator.

3b. Culture is inherently good. The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it.

God planted the garden, but asked Adam to cultivate and shape it. That’s what culture is—it’s the cultivation of the raw materials of this earth and God allows us to, wants us to, even commands us to participate in that process! Culture was God’s idea and we should regard it highly, even when it’s not one with which we feel a particular connection.

With an understanding of ourselves as those made in the image of a loving God, and of a good creation designed for us and pointing us to Him, we may wonder why we experience so much pain.  In fact, many have concluded that what I have written here cannot be true because of all the pain or evil in the world.  As the argument goes: God may be loving, but not all-powerful; or God may be all-powerful, but not loving—but he cannot be both.  For if He were both, there would be no pain or evil in the world. While I cannot satisfy the question of God’s permission of evil in the world, I’d like to address the part we play.  Evil is a difficult question, but I think it’s the good that kills us.

part 2 here. part 3 here.