Monday, January 12, 2015

Matthew

He sits beside the dusty road.
His face, his soul are caked with dust.
He slumps beneath guilt’s heavy load.
The glaring eyes, the jaws outthrust,
the scornful stares no longer burn;
accustomed to his people’s hate,
he dares not hope enough to yearn,
too dead to mourn his dying state.
Across his view some children run,
Leaping, laughing with delight.
Heads turn, and down the road there comes
a man with eyes alive with light
who smiles as the children play.
His footsteps trace a joyful dance.
The tax-collector looks away
and wishes for another chance.
He hears the dancing steps draw near.
He does not dare to raise his eyes.
He feels the weight of shame and fear,
but deep beneath the surface lies
a thirst for life, for love, for good,
for someone to call him to be
more. If only someone would.
The Teacher says, “Come, follow me.”

Friday, January 9, 2015

God is not a god (part 2)

In Part1 of this article, I argued that God in a monotheistic religion is a fundamentally different type of being than the gods of a polytheistic religion. This means that Christians who are talking to polytheists can use more or less the usual arguments for the existence of God to show that a being with the characteristics monotheists ascribe to God exists. It’s possible that this in itself might be enough to convert someone to monotheism. But if the polytheist says, “OK, your God exists, but so do mine,” I don’t think we need to convince them that their gods don’t exist. We just need to show why they should worship only the monotheistic God.

So why should everyone worship the monotheistic God instead of polytheistic gods? Simply put: He deserves it. If there is a supreme being, perfectly wise, powerful and good, who created everything, this being is supremely worthy of our devotion and worship. Moreover all monotheistic faiths insist that this supreme being has spoken and has forbidden worship of any other being. If God is perfectly good and all-knowing, He must have a good reason for giving this command. Even if we don’t understand His reasons, it seems reasonable to trust and obey Him.

It’s also pragmatically wise to worship the most powerful being out there. Many of the polytheists I’ve met are afraid that the gods will punish them if they refuse to perform the appropriate rituals. But isn’t an all-powerful being capable of protecting you from these lesser forces?

Moreover, Christians believe that our highest good is found in being in right relationship with God. This is the source of all true peace and joy and of energy to love others. If the polytheistic gods are good, wouldn’t they want their followers to receive these blessings, even if that meant giving up their chance to be worshipped? If the gods insist on their own worship at their followers’ expense, they are selfish and thus don’t deserve to be honored.

Some people object that the God of monotheism is selfish for not letting us worship anyone else. But this objection fails to hold up. We’re talking about a supremely wise, good and powerful being who created all things and offers his worshippers true happiness. This being deserves complete devotion from everything He created. There’s nothing wrong with insisting on what rightfully belongs to you, and in this case, worshiping the true God also brings created beings the best life possible.

In fact, given that our best life is found in following the true God, if God loves us He must want us to worship only Him. Worshipping anything other than God is inherently destructive. We were created to worship God, and when we put anything else ahead of him, we end up making poor decisions that hurt us and other people. For God to allow us to worship other gods would be like a human father allowing his child to drink bleach.

Ultimately, the supreme proof that God deserves our love is found in Jesus, and especially in the crucifixion. This is not a needy God who demands our service. This is a God who is willing to serve us, even if it costs Him His life. Coming face to face with love like this should inspire us to love Him back.


In the end, conversion is not a matter of intellectual arguments, though the arguments are useful and important. Conversion is a matter of meeting the good, wise, powerful, eternal God of love and choosing to follow Him.

Friday, January 2, 2015

God is not a god (part 1)

If you’re a Christian in a Western country, you can find an abundance of information about the common worldviews of the day. You’ll find massive numbers of arguments and counter-arguments for apologetics against atheism, postmodernism and to a lesser extent Mormonism and Islam. (Stand to Reason has some really good material on this.)

There’s just one problem: If you don’t live in the West and you’re talking to people with a different worldview than these, you don’t have a lot to work with. I discovered this when I lived in Taiwan and started talking to people who followed a polytheistic form of Buddhism. There’s not a whole lot of modern apologetics directed at polytheism.

But the earliest Christians were surrounded by polytheists. It’s no surprise then, that early apologists were more helpful than later ones in dealing with this challenge. (I found Tertullian’s arguments against Marcion particularly helpful.) The following is my attempt to formulate a strategy for debates with polytheists.

On the surface, the claim that there is one God and the claim that there are many gods seem pretty similar. But the differences go deeper than basic math. Actually, the type of being posited by monotheists is completely different from the type of beings posited by polytheists.

Monotheism holds that there is a single being who created everything else in existence, who is infinitely powerful, all-knowing and completely good. This being has always existed and will always exist and cannot in any way be diminished. This God is also a person (not an impersonal force) and thus is capable of making free choices and communicating with people. In short, the God of all monotheistic religions is the supreme being – the greatest being in existence, by definition.

In polytheism, however, gods are like humans only greater. They are extremely powerful but not infinitely powerful; each controls an area of life, but some can impinge on others’ areas, since life is complicated. For example, the Greek god Ares was the god of war, but other gods like Zeus also influenced battles. The gods were still way more powerful and more knowledgeable than human beings, so it was important to be on their good side. In most polytheistic systems, the gods are involved in the creation of the world, but it’s sort of a team effort. (The creation stories vary between religions.) Gods in polytheistic systems also tend not to be eternal. Most polytheistic religions have myths explaining how the gods came to be. Thus, polytheistic gods are really powerful, but they’re not infinite like the monotheistic God is. It’s just a different concept.

Actually, it’s logically impossible for more than one being to fit the monotheistic characterization of God. Monotheists define God as the greatest possible being (or at a minimum, the greatest existent being). There cannot be two greatest beings, by definition.

Another way of thinking about this is by looking at the idea of omnipotence. There cannot be more than one omnipotent being. To illustrate this, let’s try to imagine two “omnipotent” beings with the (very creative) names A and B. A intends to move a rock to the north, while at the same moment, B intends to move it to the south. Where does the rock go? If it goes to the north, B is not omnipotent, but if it goes to the south, A is not omnipotent. If the forces cancel each other out so that the rock does not move, neither being is omnipotent. The only way around this is for A and B to agree on everything all the time, in which case either one is subservient or they’re actually the same being.

So if I were going to have a conversation with a polytheist, I’d start by asking whether a being that fits the monotheistic definition of God exists. If the polytheist is inclined to say no, you can pull out all the arguments for God’s existence that have been articulated by really smart people elsewhere.

But it’s possible that they’ll say, “Yes, your God exists, but my gods exist, too.” At this point, I don’t think it’s necessary to prove that the polytheistic deities don’t exist. We just need to persuade them to worship our God instead of the polytheistic deities.

It’s logically possible that there is a single omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent, etc. being (God) and also lesser supernatural being with real but limited powers (gods). Many early Christians actually held this view. They thought the Roman gods were actually demons.

Note that this view is not henotheism. Henotheism is the belief that multiple gods exist but the group one is part of worships only one. It places the worshipped god and the non-worshipped gods on the same level. In contrast, a view that places the worshipped God in a different category than the non-worshiped gods is still monotheism, because it attributes to only one being the traits ascribed to the monotheistic God. In fact, arguably the polytheistic gods shouldn’t even be called “gods” on this view, since they are no longer on top of the metaphysical food chain.

Next question: Why should anyone give up the gods they’ve been worshipping and worship ours instead? I have some ideas about that, but since this post is already pretty long, that will have to wait for part 2.

In the meantime, for those of you who have experience with evangelism in polytheistic cultures: How do you go about it? I like my approach, but I don’t really have anyone to try it out with, so I’d be really interested in hearing about your experiences.

And for those of you who don't, the distinction between the God of monotheism and the gods of polytheism is still relevant. It refutes the atheist claim that atheists reject belief in God for the same reason monotheists reject belief in, say, the Greek gods. But, of course, the kind of being in question here is completely different. This also answers the claim that Christianity is just a rehashing of older myths about dying and rising gods. Christianity presents God as a fundamentally different type of being than do the myths it was supposedly based on. Thus,  the distinction here is relevant even within Western culture.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Ten Side Effects of Living in Taiwan

Now that I’m back in the U.S., I’ve noticed some things about me that have changed due to my time away. Here’s a short list:

1.      I often need to be reminded to tip in restaurants.
2.      I feel a little surprised when shoe stores have my size.
3.      Over half my stories start, “When I was in Taiwan …”
4.      But I can’t start these stories any other way, because the fact I was in Taiwan is somehow essential to them.
5.      When I hear the word “foreigner” in any context, I somehow feel like the word is referring to me.
6.      I feel homesick for a place where I was never considered a local.
7.      These feelings of homesickness are often triggered by seeing a 7-11.
8.      But if I go into that 7-11, I will inevitably be disappointed by the poor tea selection.
9.      When talking to strangers, I find myself restructuring sentences to avoid difficult words, only to realize that, yes, other grad students do know the term lingua franca.
10.   I get ridiculously excited about things like colorful autumn leaves and frost.


Obviously, these are not the most important take-aways from my time in Taiwan, but they are real. So if you want to travel overseas, be warned: your opinion of 7-11 will never be the same!

Monday, July 7, 2014

On Religious Parades

Before I went to Taiwan, I always thought of idols in one of three ways. Either they were gods worshipped in the distant past, they were modern pop stars as in “American Idol” or they were things that Christians today put ahead of God, such as money or having a good reputation. But after moving to Asia I realized that idolatry, in the most literal sense of the word, is alive and thriving in many places.

One Sunday night at around 8:00 p.m., the street outside my house exploded. If I lived anywhere else, I would probably have thought there was a gunfight. But in Taiwan, I assumed that it was just firecrackers. The bangs were accompanied by loud, raucous music. It was so noisy that I found myself putting my hands over my ears to stop them from hurting.

Apparently that was the night of a religious festival, probably a local deity’s birthday. These festivals are usually celebrated with parades, and this one started right outside my apartment.

The parade featured people in elaborate costumes, which represent either deities or protective spirits, that dance while music is played. People also carry the statues of the deities, which normally rest in temples, through the streets. These statues rest in elaborate boxes carried on poles by teams of people, kind of like a sedan chair. Traditionally the carriers bounce the boxes to give the deities a more enjoyable ride.

This parade also had fireworks, not just firecrackers, as well as a truck that was playing Western music, such as “Trouble” by Taylor Swift. (I wish that were a joke.) As they were getting ready before it started, I also spotted a flat-bed truck with a pole and a young woman who looked like she was going to be dancing on it.

My first reaction was frustration and anger at the noise. The sound was almost causing me physical pain, and there was no way I could get anything done with that cacophony outside.

But then my conscience caught up with me, and I thought of God. It was as if the Holy Spirit said to me, “How do you think I feel?” I realized that this parade, which in my mind was nothing more than a nuisance that should be shut down with a noise ordinance, was actually much more. It was an expression of a false religion, an act of worship given to a god that cannot save. Moreover, in worshipping this idol, the people there were despising and ignoring their Creator, who I love dearly.

Acting on impulse, I went downstairs to get a closer look. That was when I saw the costumed people dancing and posing in the street. There was a police officer directing traffic around the parade. And I saw a crowd of young men walk by, carrying the box with the idol, my frustration at the noise began to fade. I wondered what was going through their minds, whether they really believed they were holding a god or whether they were just participating in a fun cultural activity. I wondered the same about all the people in the parade.

Taiwan is quite highly developed as a whole. It has great public transportation, some very impressive buildings, and goods from all over the world. Almost all the young people have smartphones, and they tend to act surprised when they learn I don’t have one. And yet the country is still in the grip of superstition and pagan religious practices.

I’m not usually one to complain about other cultures. I’m all for experiencing and learning about new kinds of food, music, clothing, art, etc. Finding out about other countries can make our lives much more interesting. I also think Chinese culture has a lot of values it can teach us in the West, such as the importance of caring for one’s parents.

But religion doesn’t fall into either of those categories. It isn’t a morally neutral thing you can add into your life, like trying a new food or buying some calligraphy to hang on your wall. It isn’t even a moral statement everyone can recognize intuitively, accept and act on.

No, religion is fundamentally a statement of the way the world works. And that means if any religion is true, anyone who rejects it is believing a lie. I think Christianity is true. (If I didn’t, I would not be a Christian.) And if I’m right, these people are not only wasting their time; they’re actively insulting the God of the universe by choosing to worship something else.

After a few minutes, I turned away from the parade because I was choking up. The sight of so many people so lost and confused broke my heart. It was humbling for me to realize how little I cared about my Taiwanese neighbors. At first I didn’t care what these people were doing, as long as they didn’t interrupt my quiet evening at home. 


But for those of us who love the Lord, idolatry is not just a nuisance. It is a sin against God and a tragedy for people. If we listen with the ears of Christ, the sounds of the parade are really a cry for help.

Monday, June 30, 2014

Dear Taiwan: A Love Letter

Dear Taiwan,

            When I first met you, I was like many graduates, young, excited, idealistic and nervous. Any blind date is frightening, and I had committed to spending two years with you. When I arrived, I had been traveling for almost 20 hours, and my mind was filled with a cloud of weariness almost as thick as the humid air.

As I traveled along your highways, I stared out the car window looking for something, anything, that would mark you as the exotic, interesting place I hoped for. At first, there was nothing. Then the driver pointed out Taipei 101, a strangely-shaped tower in the distance. But the first thrill of excitement to break through my exhaustion came with the sight of the Grand Hotel. Tall and majestic, its red and gold façade had all the elegance I had admired in your mainland sister, and at that moment, I knew that you had something to offer.

The years passed, and I became more and more familiar with the bustle of your streets, the grandeur of your mountains, the colors of your flowers, the flavors of your food and the welcoming smiles of your people. As friends introduced me to delight after delight, I realized with a thrill what a beautiful and interesting place you are.

You possess beautiful scenery: gorges, waterfalls and mountains, some of which meet the Pacific ocean in rocky beaches. Your forests are filled with flowers, animals and butterflies. And all of this is just a few miles from bustling cities where almost anything can be purchased from one of the convenience stores that sit on practically every block. I’ve always been more fond of the wilderness than of the city, but who could complain about a city that has a mountain range with several hiking trails in its center, as Taipei does?

And then there’s the food. You introduced me to fruits I had never tasted before – mango, guava, dragon fruit and pomelo to name a few. And even those I knew were sweeter. I often wondered whether the pineapple was fruit or candy, and your cherry tomatoes actually tasted like a fruit (which, biologically, I guess they are).

Then there are the many local delicacies I tried. Scallion pancakes fried and wrapped around eggs or other fillings, small dumplings filled with soup, noodles with sesame sauce and so many more than I could name. I loved your nearly infinite variety of teas– black, green, oolong and more mixed with milk or various kinds of fruit. Then you add tapioca, coconut jelly, fruit pieces or other things which I only know Chinese names for in the bottom of the cup. Now, we did have some disagreements over food, mostly when you misunderstood my home culture, but the hundreds of delicious meals you treated me to more than make up for the few bizarre ones.

Speaking of disagreements, I must admit that our first year together was a bit rocky. I’d never lived on my own, you see, certainly not while working full-time. And it did take a while for me to get used to you. But at those moments when I felt most homesick, when I most wanted to get on a plane and fly back to somewhere familiar, you would show me some unique aspect of your life that I hadn’t seen before. You would charm me with a building or a food I hadn’t yet tried, and I would remember that although I had left good things behind, the place I had come to was also good.

When that didn’t work, there were always people by my side, encouraging me and comforting me. I remember an elderly woman giving me a hug and saying, “If you miss your family, I will be your Taiwanese grandmother. So don’t be sad.” I remember friends sitting with me over long cups of coffee while I shared about my life. I remember adventures taken with individuals and groups up mountains, through city streets, to hole-in-the wall cafés, shops and flower festivals that I never could have found alone.

Taiwanese people were incredibly kind and willing to help. Once I dropped my wallet in a MRT (subway) station, and it was turned in to the information desk with all my money still inside. I lost count of the times strangers came up to me and asked if I was lost.

There are so many things I could say about you, Taiwan; so many things that you have taught me; so many ways you made my life with you convenient and comfortable. I have fallen deeply in love with you, Taiwan, so much so that it broke my heart to leave you. Our three years together have changed my life in ways I am only beginning to understand. Thank you, Taiwan. Though I have moved back to America, I will never forget you.

It would break my heart to say goodbye, so let me end with your own language: Taiwan, 再見 (zai jian). It literally means “see again,” and I sincerely hope I will.

                                                                                        Love
                                                                                        Elizabeth Sunshine
                                            孫麗希

Saturday, April 19, 2014

One Does Not Simply Walk Into Heaven

Yesterday morning I saw a news report about former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg, which quoted him as saying, “I am telling you if there is a God, when I get to heaven I’m not stopping to be interviewed. I am heading straight in. I have earned my place in heaven.”

I think this is a pretty clear expression of most Americans’ thoughts about heaven. It’s not based on any particular religion (Bloomberg doesn’t even sound sure that God exists). But there’s a general sense that God is nice and will let people into heaven because they volunteered or donated money or did political work meant to help people or just were a nice person.

I wish it were that simple, but it’s not. One does not simply walk into heaven. To do that you would need to be perfect, and we aren’t. And if God simply overlooked the things we did wrong, it would violate His justice and make heaven less perfect in the process.

I can relate to the thought process that Bloomberg used. I thought more or less the same way when I was younger. At the time, I wasn’t really focused on getting to heaven. But I desperately wanted to know that God was pleased with me, and I thought that was something I can earn.

Do you think God is pleased with you? Maybe you’re certain that you’ve done enough good things to make God happy. Or maybe you’re thinking, “No, God isn’t pleased with me.” Maybe you’ve done something terrible in the past and you just can’t forget it. Or maybe you haven’t done anything really bad, but you know you’re not good enough. I fell into that last category.

I was always a “good girl.” I didn’t do drugs or steal or do anything that’s usually considered really bad. But I knew I didn’t measure up to what God wanted.

I sometimes argued with my brother or my parents. Occasionally I lied to teachers about whether I’d done my homework. I grew up going to church, so I knew God wanted me to be loving and friendly. But I was really shy, so I avoided my classmates instead.

These may seem like little things, but I felt terrible about them. They showed that inside, I wasn’t as good as I wanted to be. At church, I kept committing to follow God, and I kept falling short. I was convinced that God was disappointed in me because I was disappointed in myself. I also wasn’t sure I had really been forgiven because I knew that receiving God’s forgiveness should change my life, and my life wasn’t changing.

Finally, when I was 14, I went to a church camp. They told me the news I had heard so many times before: That Jesus had died for me and taken the punishment I deserved for my sins. He rose from the dead and now offered me forgiveness. I just had to receive it.

I prayed and told God that I couldn’t live a good life on my own. As good as I might have looked on the outside, I was really messed up inside. I asked Him to forgive and change me.

That was when I finally realized that God doesn’t save us because of good things we’ve done or because He knows we’ll do good things in the future. He saves us just because He loves us.

After I asked God to change me, He did. I began to want to pray and read the Bible. I became more patient and loving, and I gradually stopped being so shy. But the best thing is knowing that God is pleased with me. And I can be sure that when I die I can simply walk into heaven. But it’s not because I’ve earned it. It’s because Jesus earned it for me.