The Ghost in the Machine

July 26, 2013

The problem with materialism as a world view is that it reduces what it means to be human. If we are no more than a biological machine, can we trust our thoughts? Are our actions a matter of free will? Some evolutionary biologists have in fact embraced determinism. Is there a self that goes beyond the programming of the electrochemical impulses of our bodies?

Reductionism is a fine intellectual game to play, but it is very difficult to live consistently. An episode of the British crime show, Inspector Lewis, illustrates the tension. Detective Inspector Robbie Lewis is the no-nonsense policeman. His partner is Detective Sergeant James Hathaway. Hathaway is the intellectual who provides the show’s dialogue with the needed literary or classical music reference. Before becoming a detective. he had been a theology student at Cambridge. In the episode, “Fearful Symmetry,” there are two exchanges that I found intriguing.

A young Oxford student has been killed, and the detectives must visit the lab of Dr. Ezrin, a biologist.

Hathaway: What do you actually study here, Dr. Ezrin?

Dr. Ezrin:The parts of the brain relating to learning. – how data is imprinted and stored in the memory. Anything you’ve ever felt is down to microscopic variation in the electrochemical balance in here (pointing to his brain). Everything we are – love, hate, anger, jealousy, desire…

Hathaway: And the soul?

Dr. Ezrin: Sorry, there is no ghost in the machine. When the machine stops, we stop.

Later the detectives learn that after an affair Dr. Ezrin has been stalking a woman who has a connection to their murder case. He has even broken into her apartment.

Lewis: You’re aware, Dr. Ezrin, that stalking is an offense?

Dr. Ezrin: I’m not a stalker. Look I went to her place once or twice … just as a… I don’t know. I was jealous.

Hathaway: Those electrochemical impulses can be a nuisance.

Hathaway’s quip accents the problem of reductionism. None of us explain our behavior away by saying my electrochemical impulses made me do it. Especially when we are in the wrong, we give reasons why in this case, our behavior is allowable and understandable. All of us in conversation assume that there is a self that is above the electrochemical impulses going on in our brains. Historically, that self is called the soul. All of us behave as if there is a “ghost in the machine” despite what we may say intellectually.

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What Is Faith?

July 19, 2013

Since the wages of sin is death, it is very important to know how to receive the free gift which is eternal life. Paul begins Romans with this great statement of his theme: “For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek” (Romans 1:16, ESV). The gospel is clearly offered to all, but faith is a condition for receiving the gift. If the gospel was not offered to all, Paul could not claim, “For God shows no partiality” (Romans 2:11, ESV).

So what is faith? In English, we speak of belief, faith, and trust. Greek had one word group that covered that range of meaning. Belief or faith includes intellectual assent. Intellectual assent can especially be seen in phrases like “believe that”.

And without faith it is impossible to please him, for whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him. Hebrews 11:6, ESV

You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe- and shudder! James 2:19, ESV

The last quote clearly indicates that intellectual assent is not enough. The Bible also speaks of faith in the sense of trust. This can be seen in phrases that say believing in or on someone (e.g., “the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe” Romans 3:22, ESV).

Paul is also clear about how we acquire faith. “So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ (Romans 10:17, ESV). Faith is a response to testimony (see also John 20:30-31). Those who would argue from Ephesians 2:8 that faith is a gift have missed the point. The “this” in the passage points back to the whole process of salvation by grace conditioned by faith as clearly seen in the Greek grammar of the passage.

In Romans, Paul contrasts faith/trust with works/merit. We are either going to earn salvation by perfect law keeping, or we are going to have to trust in the saving work done for us by Christ. But perfect law keeping is only hypothetically possible since we can’t live it perfectly. “For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin” (Romans 3:20, ESV). We must trust what Jesus has done for us.

As Paul explains this faith/trust, it does not exclude but includes repentance (Romans 2:4). It does not exclude but includes baptism (Romans 6:3). It does not exclude but includes confession (Romans 10:9). Given the argument of the letter, these things that Paul includes cannot be meritorious works but must be expressions of trust/faith. Finally, also note that for Paul faith/trust leads to obedience (Romans 1:5, 6:17, 16:26). Obedience is produced by faith. The person who trusts God will want to obey God.


The Misunderstood Commission

July 12, 2013

If I were to give you their names, you probably wouldn’t recognize the list: Shammua, Shaphat, Igal, Palti, Gaddiel, Gaddi, Ammiel, Sethur, Nahbi, and Geuel. Add two more names, Joshua and Caleb, and many Bible students would suddenly have a flash of recognition – the twelve spies.

The setting is after the Exodus from Egypt. Israel is in the wilderness. They are camped outside the Promised Land. The spy mission is God’s idea: “Send men to spy out the land of Canaan, which I am giving to the people of Israel” (Numbers 13:2, ESV). Moses also states their commission:

Go up into the Negeb and go up into the hill country, and see what the land is, and whether the people who dwell in it are strong or weak, whether they are few or many, and whether the land that they dwell in is good or bad, and whether the cities that they dwell in are camps or strongholds, and whether the land is rich or poor, and whether there are trees in it or not. Be of good courage and bring some of the fruit of the land. Numbers 13:17-20, ESV

It is interesting to note that in the commissioning of the spies the issue is never whether we can take the land or not. Taking the land is a given. God has promised.

The ten spies failed not because they reported strong peoples and fortified cities in the land. Their failure was saying, “We are not strong enough; we can’t do it.” The issue had never been Israel’s strength. The issue always was God’s strength, and what could be accomplished by faith. They misunderstood their commission.

We too have a commission – a great one in fact. It is about going into all the world, making disciples, baptizing, and teaching. It would be failure for us to say, “We are not strong enough; we can’t do it.” It is not about our strength. It is about God’s strength, and what can be accomplished by faith. For this commission too comes with a promise: “And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:20, ESV).


Peace LIke a River

July 5, 2013

With what are God’s requirements to be compared? Is God like a cosmic-Simon-says who is attempting to trip us up? Or is God more like a parent setting limits for the protection of his children? Listen to the instruction of Moses in Deuteronomy.

And the LORD commanded us to do all these statutes, to fear the LORD our God, for our good always, that he might preserve us alive, as we are this day. (Deuteronomy 6:24 ESV)

God is not a killjoy. His commandments are for our good, for our benefit. I’ve witnessed too many times people who rebelliously go their own way making a train wreck of their lives. Even my own experience tells me that the instructions of scripture are good for me (even when temptations want to lead me another direction). Blessings come from the path of righteousness.

Moses had warned Israel of this, but despite this warning, Israel paid for their stubbornness with the Babylonian captivity. Judgment came against them. In the midst of prophesying judgment, Isaiah pictured God’s lament that it could have been very different if they had listened.

This is what the LORD says–your Redeemer, the Holy One of Israel: “I am the LORD your God, who teaches you what is best for you, who directs you in the way you should go. If only you had paid attention to my commands, your peace would have been like a river, your righteousness like the waves of the sea” (Isaiah 48:17-18, NIV).

They could have had peace like a river. The land of Israel does not have many rivers. The land is semiarid with only marginal rainfall in many places. The land does have numerous wadis or dry riverbeds that flow with the runoff from the rains, but those are not constant. The image of a river is a picture of abundance. They could have had peace that was abundant and constant — peace like a river.

Righteousness could have characterized their lives so that it was like waves on the shore. Waves are rhythmical and repetitious. There is always a new wave coming to shore. Again, we see a picture of abundance. What is it like to live in a community where righteousness is the norm — a place where you expect it just like you do the next wave?

What about us? Do we stubbornly go our own way only to reap the consequences of our sinful decisions, or do we have peace like a river? Let us discover the blessings of a humble walk with God.