Sunday, January 23, 2011

A Question of Worldview (or two)

I had a few extra slots in my schedule after finishing classes for my major, so I decided to take a fun class on ancient Chinese religion.  (I have a kind of weird idea of “fun.”)  My professor grew up in China but studied in India, which apparently led to some interesting cultural interactions.

According to my professor, Indians almost always asked him two main questions, which I think are very revealing about Indian culture and worldview and how it differs from American culture.  The first was “Why don’t Chinese people believe in God?” and the second was, “Why did the Chinese change from a Communist economy to the one they have now (which encourages business but still has tight governmental controls in many areas)?”  I don’t think either of these questions would be asked in America for a number of reasons. 

I would be quite surprised if an American asked a Chinese person why the Chinese don’t believe in God because, although the majority of Americans believe in God, atheists are plentiful and vocal enough that most of us have been exposed to them and don’t find their views too surprising.  India, by contrast, is one of the most religious nations in the world, so a country where the majority of people do not believe in God would seem extremely strange to them.  Also, Americans would be unlikely to raise the topic of religious differences with a complete stranger because these discussions get so heated so quickly.  One thing I learned in China is that although Americans have a reputation for being very blunt and straightforward, we actually have a lot of taboos that do not exist in other countries.  I do know some people who would ask a complete stranger why they hold to their religious beliefs, but they are considered the exception rather than the rule.

Another factor may be the pervasive influence of secularism even among religious believers.  We tend to consider one’s religious beliefs (or lack thereof) to be a personal matter that it would be very rude to question.  This is even more the case when the beliefs in question are shared by most members of society, because then it becomes a “cultural difference” which we are very interested in respecting.  The Indians, on the other hand, have a robust religion that they expect to be a part of public life.  As a Christian who believes Hinduism to be false (a phrase which should be redundant but isn’t), I have somewhat mixed feelings about this.  I completely disagree with their answers to religious questions, but at least they recognize the importance of these questions, unlike many in America.

The question about why China switched to a semi-Capitalist economy surprised my professor as much as it did me.  The simplest answer is that Communism wasn’t working.  It had resulted in a stagnant economy and massive starvation, particularly when it was strictly enforced, a policy ironically called the Great Leap Forward.  My teacher explained to the Indians that the Chinese wanted to live a more comfortable, prosperous lifestyle, and that the best way to achieve that was to allow free trade.

This seems perfectly understandable to me, and (I assume) to any other American, but it did not make sense to Indians steeped in a Hindu worldview.  Hinduism believes that the material world is an illusion and that the goal of life is to let go of this illusion and become one with spiritual reality.  This means that the Hindus considered pursuing material wealth, as the Chinese were doing, both foolish and immoral.

Although this conversation took place between proponents of two worldviews neither of which I hold, I thought it was interesting to see the way philosophical and religious ideas played out in this bit of cultural interaction. 

Monday, January 10, 2011

Loving God is Living the Truth

In my devotions recently, I came across one of the more famous verses in the Old Testament.  Jews call it the Shema (from the first word of the text, which means “hear”) while Christians know it mostly from Matthew 22, where Jesus cites it as the greatest commandment in the Mosaic law.

The verse goes as follows: “Hear, O Israel, the LORD our God, the LORD is one.  You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.” Deuteronomy 6:4-5.

I’ve read this passage many times, but this time, the connection between the two verses stood out to me.  The first half of the command asks the Israelites to “hear,” or listen and pay attention to the fact that God is one, a belief which set ancient Israelite religion apart from the polytheism of the nations around them.  Then, they are commanded to love God with all their heart, soul, and strength.  We could try to tease out the implications of what the words “heart” “soul” and “might” mean, but I think that the main focus of the verse is actually the word “all.”  Listing heart, soul, and mind serves to emphasize the completeness of the devotion to God this verse commands, but the point is that we should give Him all of ourselves.

The first half of the passage makes a statement “the LORD is one,” that describes an objective fact about the world.  Then, it calls us to live in a way that reflects that objective fact.  Ultimately, only a god is worthy of our love.  Since there is only one God, this means that that God is worthy of all our love. 

I don’t mean that we should not love anything other than God, but that we should love everything else for God’s sake.  When Jesus quotes this command as the greatest commandment, he immediately adds that the command to love one’s neighbor as oneself is “like it.”  This relates to the fact that people are made in the image of God, so loving other people is a way of expressing our love for God.  In fact, in some sense we may even be able to “love” other gifts God has given us, such as the natural world, appreciating them because they remind us of God.  Ultimately, though, loving anything in a way that detracts from love of God rather than expressing love for God is idolatry.

The call to love God with all of ourselves is actually a call to live in a way that corresponds to reality.  Since “that which corresponds to reality” is the definition of truth, this means that fundamentally, God is calling us to live truth.  As Psalm 51:6 says, “Behold, you delight in truth in the inward being, and you teach me wisdom in the secret heart.”

I found this insight especially striking since we tend to think of truth as an abstract concept that we search for in universities isolated from daily life.  It’s easy to forget that truth is an inherently practical concept; by definition it relates to the real world outside our heads.

This also means that God’s command, as harsh as it may sound, is actually for our own good.  After all, if we aren’t living out the truth, we are living for a lie, which is a disastrous waste of our time on Earth.

The Image of God and Restoration

My dad has been publishing articles in a series on the image of God -- what it means that people are created in God's image, and what effect that has on different aspects of theology and life. The latest one is on restoration of the created order.  You can read the latest article here or go here to read the whole series.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

The Soul of Courage

I usually begin my vacations with a massive list of books I intend to read, of which I actually read two or three.  During winter break this year, the first book on my list was The Cost of Discipleship by Dietrich Bonhoeffer.  My edition of this book began with a memoir written by Bonhoeffer’s brother-in-law.

Normally, I find biographical information about authors mildly interesting, but not particularly important to the topic that caused me to read the book in the first place.  In this case, however, Bonhoeffer’s life story was deeply entwined with the content of the book.

Bonhoeffer was a pastor in Germany during World War II.  He was an active leader in organizing Christians against the Nazis.  When war broke out, his friends persuaded him to go to the United States, but he quickly returned to Germany, saying that if he did not stay and suffer with his people, he would have no right to participate in the reconstruction of German Christianity after the war.  Ultimately, was arrested for participating in a plot to assassinate Hitler and sent to a concentration camp where he died.

The Cost of Discipleship discusses the Sermon on the Mount in great detail, emphasizing Jesus’ extreme demands on those whom He calls to follow Him.  Bonhoeffer’s interpretation of some of the texts calls for sacrifices which I would be tempted to dismiss as hyperbole.  But knowing that the author of these words was so willing to sacrifice for God and others demonstrates that he lived up to his beliefs and did not see them as exaggerations.

One part of the memoir that particularly struck me was the description of Bonhoeffer in prison, which says that “his own concern in prison was to get permission to minister to the sick and to his fellow prisoners.”  He provided those around him with comfort and practical help, and appeared completely fearless, even when the prisons were being bombed.  Reading the description, I was filled with admiration and began imagining what it might be like to have that level of confidence in God and love for others.

Then, I came to a depiction of what it was actually like, a poem written by Bonhoeffer in prison:

Who am I?

Who am I? They often tell me
I stepped from my cell’s confinement
calmly, cheerfully, firmly,
like a Squire from his country house.

Who am I? They often tell me
I used to speak to my warders
freely and friendly and clearly,
as though it were mine to command.

Who am I? They also tell me
I bore the days of misfortune
equably, smilingly, proudly
like one accustomed to win

Am I then really that which other men tell of?
Or am I only what I myself know of myself?
Restless and longing and sick, like a bird in a cage,
struggling for breath, as though hands were compressing my throat
yearning for colors, for flowers, for the voices of birds,
thirsting for words of kindness, for neighborliness,
tossing in expectation of great events,
powerlessly trembling for friends at an infinite distance,
weary and empty at praying, at thinking, at making,
faint, and ready to say farewell to it all.

Who am I? This or the Other?
Am I one person to-day and to-morrow another?
Am I both at once? A hypocrite before others,
and before myself a contemptible, woebegone weakling?
Or is something within me still like a beaten army
fleeing in disorder from victory already achieved?

Who am I?  They mock me, these lonely questions of mine.
Whoever I am, Thou knowest, O God, I am thine!

This glimpse into Bonhoeffer’s soul prevented me from viewing him as a hero, a giant, or a spiritual icon far beyond what ordinary people could hope to become.  His confidence and love did not come from some immunity to pain.  He was not as content in prison as outside, but he loved Jesus enough to imitate Him even in the midst of suffering.

In fact, Bonhoeffer was not fearless, as I wrote earlier; he was courageous, which is far better.  Rather than being without fear, he felt the fear and pain of his circumstances, faced them, and conquered them.  I find the existence of people like him to be incredibly encouraging, because it means that it is possible to feel pain and fear and to continue to trust God and love both God and others.