Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Making Sense of the Christian Faith

Session 3 Discussion Questions, "Missing the Mark"

1.  In what way does thinking about the human condition as being fundamentally insecure help you make sense of the world we live in?  What other ways of describing the human condition help you understand the problems and brokenness we see all around us?
2.  What are some of the ways in which we see ourselves and others trying to fill our "God-shaped hole?"  If it regularly doesn't work, why do you think we keep trying?  What are some of the problems that result from thinking we can fill our deep needs apart from God?
3.  A modern proverb says, "a little knowledge is a dangerous thing."  In what way does the biblical story seem to be saying that "desiring too much knowledge" is also dangerous?

Read Genesis 3:1-24; Matthew 4:1-11

1.  From where does temptation come in each story?
2.  What is the response to temptation?
3.  What role does trust in God play in each story?
4.  How does the text seem to view the human condition?
5.  Where do we see similar temptations in our own lives?  How can we respond to them in light of the message of the story?

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Making Sense of the Christian Faith

Session 2 Discussion Questions - "Original Blessing"

1.  Do you read the Bible as a devotional, as story that describes how things are, as history that explains how things came to be, as a confession of faith in the God of Scripture, or some combination?
2.  When you think of "creation," what comes to mind?  Is it a point in history?  Is it something that God does?  Is it something that we do?  What about the word creating?  How does moving from a noun (creation) to a verb (Creating) affect how you think about God's activity?
3.  If we extend "creation" to "cfreating and still sustaining," then where do you see God at work?  and where do you see God using humans - including you - to share in God's creative activity?

Read Luke 10:25-37

1.  How is the Samaritan serving as a steward of God's creation?
2.  Jesus lifts up the Samaritan as an example of someone who fulfills God's great commandments.  While we will spend more time discussing God's law in chapter four, for now it may be useful to consider how God's laws lead us to caring for our relationship with God, and our relationship with each other and creation.  Can you think of any laws - either in the Bible or in our world - that don't seem to be concerned with these two things?
3.  The Samaritan  extends his care for his neighbor by not only taking the man to the inn but also by paying the innkeeper to keep him for as long as necessary.  If we were to make this story contemporary, what other kinds of things might a "good Samaritan" do in this situation to care for neighbor?  (For example, we might advocate that lights were up on the road from Jericho to Jerusalem to make it more safe, or we might ask that more police be assigned to the roads, etc.)  Feel free to be creative.  Sometimes we most fully appropriate a biblical story by extending it into our own world and lives.

Making Sense of the Christian Faith

Session 1 Discussion Questions - "God Talk"

1. When have you felt most comfortable or at ease with your faith?  What were some of the factors that made it easy to believe?
2. Conversely, when has faith felt difficult or challenging?  When was it difficult to believe?  How did having other Christians around you help (or not) during this time?
3.  What are some of the adjectives that you might use to describe God?  Compassionate, loving, stern, just, tender?  What kind of picture do the words you choose offer you of God?  And where do you think your picture of God came from - Sunday school, your family, the Bible, experiences with and of other Christians?

Read Luke 24:1-35

1. Where do you see evidence of questions or doubt in these stories?  What do you make of them?  How are these doubts resolved?
2.  If the disciples had questions and doubts, how does that rflect on the questions and doubts we might bring to this study?  After reading these passages, how do you imagine the relationship between doubt and faith?
3.  Why do you think it seems that Luke emphasizes the believing community in his story about Jesus?  That is, Luke doesn't share any stories of an individual's encounter with the Risen Jesus.  Instead, Jesus appears to groups - of the disciples, of the two walking to Emmaus, etc.  What do you think this says about the importance of gathering with other Christians to talk about our shared faith?

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Getting to the Heart of Interfaith

November 10 Discussion Questions

Question 1.  The authors talk about the mountain of spiritual paths and spiritual purpose.  Can you identify with this image?  Where are you on that mountain?  Where would you wish to be?

Question 2.  In the oasis story, people tended to believe theirs was the only one connecting to the deepest source, just as in the early stages of the interfaith dialogue, some imagine that their faith alone is true.  How would you encourage people to appreciate that there are many traditions connected to a single Source of life?

Question 3. The authors present inclusive spirituality as a spirituality shared by many different faiths and traditions.  If this is so, what do you think is the value of having different religious traditions?

Question 4.  One of the controversial moments the authors describe involves the sharing of communion.  What were your impressions of this moment?  What are your feelings about this kind of interfaith sharing?

Question 5.  The end is always also the beginning.  As you think about what you have felt and learned during your reading of this book, how have you changed?  What new thoughts and ideas are emerging for you?  Where will you go from here? 

As you contemplate that question, what possibilities come to mind?  Can you imagine ways in which you can expand interfaith dialogue and understanding in your world?  What are your hopes for what this could bring about?

Getting to the Heart of Interfaith

October 27 Discussion Questions

Question 1.  As you read about the spiritual practices in this chapter, which appeal to you the most?  How can you imagine using them to deepen your interfaith understanding?

Question 2.  What spiritual practices do you have that the authors have not discussed?  How have they affected your life?

Question 3. Can you think of any things that you normally do in your life that are actually spiritual practices for you?  How do you experience them as spiritual practices?

Question 4.  The authors present spiritual practices from each of their traditions and believe such practices create the inclusiveness that supports positive change in the world.  How do your spiritual practices translate into compassionate action in the world?

Question 5.  You have seen how each of the Abrahamic traditions provides specific practices for helping us deepen our spiritual journey.  Can you imagine practices that are not tied to a particular religion, but could be shared by all?  What would it be like to see all of life as part of our spiritual practice?

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Getting to the Heart of Interfaith

October 20 Discussion Questions

Question 1.  The pastor, the rabbi, and the sheikh traveled together to the land holy to each of them, but each perceived it very differently.  The situation stimulated deeper conversation about some of the differences between them.  Have you ever been on such a journey?  When differences were discussed?  Did they help people get closer, or did they provoke anger and greater distance?

Question 2.  Pastor Don recognized the pain that has come to others from his Christian tradition.  Perhaps all traditions can identify with this in their past.  What are the difficulties that you perceive emerging from your religious tradition in the past or in the present?  What pain has it caused others?  Do you think such past pain can be healed?

Question 3.  Rabbi Ted was struck by the paradoxical impact of religious institutions.  He noted that although they develop to support a more universal spiritual experience, they tend to become focused on matters of their own survival.  Does this reflect your experience with institutions of your faith?  Are you aware of the purpose for which those institutions began?

Question 4.  Sheikh Jamal was the only Muslim on this trip to the Holy Land, and he was immediately singled out for special questioning upon landing.  To his surprise, the people from whom he had anticipated difficulty turned out to be supportive of his interfaith mission.  How would you have felt watching him being pulled aside by security officers?  Have you ever experienced unexpected hospitality?

Question 5.  Sheikh Jamal was pained by the violence on both sides of the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, and by the wall of separation that has been erected between the two peoples.  He wondered about the walls that we create in our own lives, and the acts of violence we commit in our own “holy land.”  Are you aware of walls you build in your own world?  How do you understand the walls of separation that people build to protect themselves from others?

Question 6.  Each experienced Israel and Palestine differently.  Which experiences did you most identify with?  With which did you have greatest difficulty?  Would you be interested in sharing such an interfaith journey – whether literally or metaphorically?  With whom?  What do you think it would take for you to prepare to move beyond “safe” territory to embark on such a journey?

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Getting to the Heart of Interfaith

October 13 Discussion Questions

Question 1.  The authors talk about what they really like about their respective traditions.  If you are a member of a faith tradition, can you share what especially appeals to you about your tradition?  If you do not identify with a formal religion, what do you especially like about the way you have chosen?

Question 2.  When you find things about your own path that you really like, do you feel that those things make your path better than any other?  How do you handle questions from others about this?

Question 3.  When you find awkward aspects of your path, do you find yourself avoiding them?  Explaining them away?  Can you share one aspect of your path that you find awkward?  How might you interpret this in a more universal way?

Question 4.  In what ways do you feel that your own path is misunderstood?  What would you like others to know about your beliefs?  Is there anything others do or say that particularly pains your?

Question 5.  Are there issues you have with aspects of another faith?  Would you be willing to share these concerns?  If another has such concerns about your faith, what could you do to respond without defensiveness?

Monday, September 26, 2011

Getting to the Heart of Interfaith

September 29 Discussion Questions

Question 1.  Pastor Don believes in the transformative nature of love.  In what ways have you experienced this?  How do you see this power of love as a universal value?

Question 2.  If Pastor Don sees love as the central focus of his Christian faith, does that mean Christianity “owns” love?  What if several traditions share a common focus?

Question 3.  Rabbi Ted talks about finding deeper meaning in words he had learned as a child.  Are there texts, songs, or stories in which you are now able to find deeper meaning than they had for you when you first learned them?  If so, how did that additional meaning become clear to your?

Question 4.  Rabbi Ted shared an event that helped open him to a fuller vision of his spiritual identity and through that, to deeper interfaith connections.  Are there events in your own life that have enabled you to understand what you share with those of other faiths and traditions?

Question 5.  Sheikh Jamal found himself experiencing the intensity of God’s compassion even when going through an extremely difficult time of loss.  When have you most been aware of universal compassion and love?  When have you felt most distant from that love?

Question 6.  Sheikh Jamal focuses on the virtue of compassion.  Do you think that every spiritual path needs to reflect this virtue?  Why?

Question 7.  If you were to focus on one central teaching that has impacted you in your life, what would it be?  How did you find that teaching?  What has it meant for you?

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Getting to the Heart of Interfaith

September 22 Discussion Questions

Question 1.  In Pastor Don’s journey to interfaith, he describes his experience of being born into privilege.  How do you relate to the issue of privilege in your own life?  Do you feel as if you are an “insider,” or do you experience yourself on the “outside,” looking in?

Question 2.  Have there been special moments in your own life when you became aware of the suffering of others?  What have been the consequences of those moments?

Question 3.  Rabbi Ted shared his experience when he realized that he was a minority and related some of the painful experiences associated with that realization.  Have you ever felt like a minority, an outsider, different?  How has that experience influenced you?

Question 4.  What is your relationship to some of the minorities in your community?  How do you feel when you think about approaching them?  What might your goals be in establishing such conversations?

Question 5.  Sheikh Jamal shared his very special relationship with his parents.  They were major teachers for him on his spiritual path.  How have your parents influenced your own spiritual path?  Are you following in their footsteps, or have you set out on your own?  How has this affected your relationship with your parents?

Question 6.  Sheikh Jamal said that, until 9/11, he never experienced discrimination as a Muslim, but he did experience discrimination as a person of color.  How have you been aware of discrimination in your own life?  Have you been able to allow your experience to sensitize you to the experience of others?

Question 7.  The three authors mentioned the synchronicities that brought them together.  How has synchronicity played a part in the significant relationships in your life?  Are you aware of the special but surprising moments of meeting you have experienced?

Question 8.  How have you become interested in issues of interfaith relations?  Is this an important subject for you?  What circumstances in your life have awakened your interest in other religions?

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Getting to the Heart of Interfaith

September 15 Discussion Questions

Question 1.  What does the word interfaith mean to you?

Question 2.  The stages of interfaith dialogue often begin with distrust and suspicion.  Are there any religious groups with whom you experience this kind of distrust?  What do you think might bridge the distance you feel?

Question 3.  Sometimes we tolerate each other, but do not know very much about the beliefs and rituals of someone of another religion.  Have you ever been to a religious service of another faith?  If so, what did that feel like?  Have you ever welcomed another to an observance of your faith?  What was that experience like?

Question 4.  What other faiths would you like to learn more about?

Question 5.  What differences or concerns get in the way for you when you think about interfaith relations?  How might both your interests and concerns serve as a catalyst for your next step in exploring interfaith dialogue?

Question 6.  If you found something in another faith that resonated for you, would you be comfortable incorporating an aspect of that practice into your life and making it your own?  What might that look like?

Question 7.  Do you think that interfaith exploration can lead to a watering down of an individual’s faith identity?  If so, how?  Do you think such an exploration can deepen your faith identity?

Question 8.  What opportunities are there in your community for meeting people of other faiths?  Who might you take advantage of these and explore them further?

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Belief, by Francis S. Collins

May 19 – Alvin Plantinga & Antony Flew

Question 1.  Alvin Plantinga (whom I’ve never heard of) seems to be a pretty sharp guy.  He goes to great lengths to demonstrate the absurdity and contradictive nature of evolutionary naturalism.  Granted, this may fall under the category of “Who cares?” for the general populace, but there are some very interesting ancillary discussion pieces that we may find rather savory upon further inspection. 

According to Plantinga, naturalism (the idea that there is no such person as God or anything like God) makes atheism look like a half-baked effort…calling naturalism “high-octane atheism or perhaps atheism-plus.”  He notes that this mindset is extremely fashionable in the academy…even labeling it as “contemporary academic orthodoxy.”  Where do you see this present in our current culture, both inside and outside of academia?  What persons (and in what positions of influence/power) are most likely to possess and assert this belief?

Question 2.  Plantinga introduces naturalist philosopher Patricia Churchland, summing up her thesis this way:  “What she means is that natural selection doesn’t care about the truth or falsehood of your beliefs; it cares only about adaptive behavior.  Your beliefs may all be false, ridiculously false; if your behavior is adaptive, you will survive and reproduce.”  “All that really matters…is that the neurophysiology cause the right kind of behavior; whether it also causes true belief (rather than false belief) is irrelevant.”

Granted, this is not a theological discussion per se…but it does force us to examine both our history and our purpose as humans in a much different light.  Recognizing the grand diversity of beliefs and truth-claims that emerge out of the human experience, how do we respond, then, to what Plantinga calls the unreliable nature of our collective cognitive faculties?  (The answer, he suggests, is that evolutionary naturalism is therefore self-refuting.)

Question 3.  Fortunately, as Christians, we believe that our beliefs are not limited by the neurophysiology that caused or produced certain adaptive behaviors in us.  We are much more than the principle functions of Churchland’s four-part survival scheme as directed by our nervous systems (page 302).  How does this discussion not only allow, but especially encourage, our Christian understanding of “grace?”  How does grace allow us to believe, even when we fail to understand or agree on God’s activity?

Question 4.  Antony Flew is first and foremost a philosopher.  He is not a Christian and does not subscribe to any recognized religious affiliation.  As he writes at the conclusion of his article, “In short, my discovery of the Divine has been a pilgrimage of reason and not of faith.”  His arguments follow along the lines of natural theology and not any of the revealed religions.  He has no personal relationship with God.  As such, Flew simply argues for the conceptual justification of “infinite Intelligence,” as well as Divine intention and involvement with creation.  What are the pros and cons of such a position?  How does this differ from real faith?

Question 5.  On page 311, Flew identifies the three domains of scientific inquiry that intrigue him most: the origin of the laws of nature; how life emerged from non-life; and the origin of the universe.  How does the Christian faith allow for the scientific community to function as common partners in each of these dialogues?  What perspectives do we have in common?

Question 6.  Flew professes his admiration for both Aristotle and philosopher David Conway.  Toward the end, he writes, “Conway believes, and I concur, that it is possible to learn of the existence and nature of this Aristotelian God by the exercise of unaided human reason.”  While I’m sure that his aim is to disarm the many proponents of atheism, the effect of such statements also alienates Flew from the Christian community, which solidly recognizes faith in God as a matter of revelation, led by the Holy Spirit.  As Luther emphasized repeatedly, faith is unattainable by any amount of human effort or reasoning.  It is always God’s free gift to us.  Why is this contrast so important to recognize?  How does this insight serve to free us in receiving God’s unconditional grace?

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Belief...by Francis S. Collins

May 12 - G. K. Chesterton and Hans Küng

Question 1.  OK…is it just me, or does Chesterton’s writing style leave you a bit unsure as to where he’s coming from?  He does make some evocative statements, including liberal amounts of sarcasm and humor, but fails to fully explain his perspective…at least in terms that I can confidently interpret.  Perhaps this is simply due to the amount of change that has occurred since this was written.  In his opening portion on “The Suicide of Thought,” he states, “The modern world is not evil; in some ways the modern world is far too good.  It is full of wild and wasted virtues.  The virtues have gone mad because they have been isolated from each other and are wandering alone.”  How did you take this?  Do you agree?  Why or why not?

Question 2.  On the topic of humility, Chesterton writes, “A man was meant to be doubtful about himself, but undoubting about the truth; this has been exactly reversed.”   I found this discussion to be intriguing…how about you?  How does this confusion of roles and values play out in today’s culture?

Question 3.  Perhaps my favorite quote (p. 284) is this, “It is idle to talk always of the alternative of reason and faith.  Reason is itself a matter of faith.  It is an act of faith to assert that our thoughts have any relation to reality at all.”  That’s a loaded statement!  How do you see and experience this close relationship between reason and faith?  What potential caveats are necessary as we consider their dependency, yet also their individual characteristics?  How does this play into an attitude of proper humility?

Question 4.  Hans Küng takes on an ancient, but lingering question, “Is religion merely wishful thinking?”  (Similarly, can Vikings fans really expect their boys to win the Super Bowl?)  Küng’s primary focus here is Freud’s contribution to this subject.  By and large, he dismisses Freud’s atheistic position, though validating some of his criticisms of the Church’s many abuses.  He states, “It is true that the wish alone does not contain within itself its fulfillment.”  And later he notes, “The existence of God must remain an open question.”  So, from your studies and observations, how do religion and psychology differ?  What traits and pursuits do they share?

Question 5.  Küng asks, “Can faith in science replace faith in God?”  He thinks not, stating, “But for innumerable people throughout the world belief in God has gained a new future, particularly in our time.”  He then asks, “Is there really an essential contradiction between science and belief in God?”  How do you respond to this ongoing question?

Question 6.  At the beginning of page 296, Küng argues that many in today’s culture turn neither toward science nor religion as a total explanation of reality.  “Between skepticism and affirmation we now find all too often not indeed a militant atheism, but one that is practical, everyday, and banal.”  He closes with a partial justification of Freud’s critique of religion, pointing to “defective forms of religion, the Church’s misuse of power, and the traditional image of God.”  How do we address such shortcomings to an ever-increasing attitude of skepticism in today’s world?  What are the ultimate strengths of the Christian faith that allow us to prevail in our witness to God in Christ?

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Belief, by Francis S. Collins

April 28 - Mahatma Gandhi and The Dalai Lama

Question 1.  In the beginning, Gandhi asserts, “Religion is not really what is grasped by the brain, but a heart grasp.”  He describes it as an inherent piece of our makeup as humans…thus, all possess it.  From there, he provides several “rules,” noting that strict adherence is required by all who seek to be a fellow member of his Institution.  These include: The Vow of Truth; Doctrine of Ahimsa; The Vow of Non-Thieving; The Vow of Fearlessness; and reflections on God. 

According to the first vow, Truth is not an option.  His example of the life of Prahlad was dramatic and extreme.  Most of us will not suffer similar torture and suffering for the sake of truth.  How do we understand the value and role of Truth today as Christians?  How does this compare with our culture’s flippant and casual attitude toward Truth?

Question 2.  Ahimsa means “non-killing.”  Gandhi broadens this definition to include any negative thought and action toward another…including enemies.  Obviously, this concept has never caught on with the rest of the world…which seems to prefer violence and retribution whenever possible.  Jesus taught a similar ethic of love and non-violence.  What, if any, might you regard as justifiable exceptions to this principle?

Question 3.  In his vow of “non-thieving,” Gandhi urges the sharing of one’s resources with those in need.  He implies that to retain more than one really needs is to “steal” it from another.  Again, this really hasn’t caught on too well in our capitalistic, consumer-based economy.  But progress is being made, especially through social agencies and religious institutions.  Where have you made progress in this area of your faith?  What opportunities are you aware of that might benefit others who wish to follow this path?

Question 4.  Gandhi maintains that “there is only One whom we have to fear, that is God.”  His discussion of God’s nature is humble and respectful…acknowledging the great mystery that pervades God’s spirit and presence in the cosmos.  God must rule the heart and transform it.  Our union with God is a joint effort in wrestling with and against evil…a continuous journey for which we can only strive with diligence and perseverance.  As best you can, describe your journey with God thus far.  How near or far do you feel from God, and why?  What would bring you closer?              

Question 5.  The Dalai Lama is obviously a well-educated person.  His basic thrust in this chapter emerges from a simple question: “Doe ethics have a place in science?”  What is your experience with the study and practice of ethics?  What are the dangers involved today with the exclusion of ethics from scientific forums?

Question 6.  The Dalai Lama explains the danger of “scientific materialism,” which, at its worst, leads to nihilism.  On the flip side, spirituality without the input of science can lead to a narrow-minded fundamentalism…also quite bad.  Obviously, the existence of both extremes is fully entrenched in their own preservation and pursuits.  Again as Christians, particularly the Lutheran expression, we attempt to see God at work in these ongoing dialogues.  What seem to be the most pressing issues of our day along this continuum?  What concerns you most as science advances and human needs continue to push for solutions and answers to human suffering?

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Belief...Francis S. Collins

April 14 Book Study
Thomas Merton, Dietrich Bonhoeffer,
Viktor Frankl, Mother Teresa

Question 1.  Merton rushes out of the gate with this bold statement, “Ultimately, the highest function of the human spirit is the work of the supernaturally transformed intelligence, in the beatific vision of God.  Love is both the starting point of contemplation and its fruition.” 

Merton is careful to explain that this grace comes to us through Christ.  He continues, “But what is the true nature of mystical contemplation?  Essentially, mystical experience is a vivid, conscious participation of our soul and of its faculties in the life, knowledge, and love of God Himself.” 

For most Christians, and certainly Lutherans, such language is murky and such experiences otherworldly.  How do we bridge the gap between Merton’s world and ours?  How might our patterns of spiritual “contemplation” be considered “mystical?”  Where do we have opportunity to grow in this area of spirituality and what steps might we take to move in such directions?

Question 2.  Bonhoeffer has been a model theologian for me over these many years.  His great emphasis on love from Matthew 5 is compelling, not for its simplicity and ease, but for its difficulty and demands.  As such, Bonhoeffer urges us to take up our crosses and follow Jesus.  It is something we do…in “simple, unreflecting obedience to the will of Christ.” 

When and where have you been the giver and/or the receiver of such love of late?  How does your faith allow and direct such obedience?  Give examples, please.

Question 3.  I recall studying Frankl’s work on “logotherapy” both as an undergraduate and graduate student.  This should not be confused with “Lego-Therapy,” which is far cheaper and more entertaining.  Frankl skips the appetizers and immediately serves the meat and potatoes portion of his diet. 

Our real “hunger” as humans is centered on our search for meaning.  The key, he suggests, is always maintaining a worthwhile goal.  The absence of such a goal(s) creates an “existential vacuum,” otherwise experienced as boredom.  This, of course, leads to all kinds of shenanigans, as he aptly points out.  In the end, we must pursue these goals according to our own path. 

How successful have you been in pursuing such goals of late?  How have you assisted others by enabling them to “actualize their potentialities?”  (Or, in redneck vernacular:  “Git ‘r done?”)

Question 4.  Mother Teresa is less of an author and more of an author-ity on the synthesis of faith and love.  As a champion for the poor, she illustrates the broad scope of poverty beyond mere physical means…pointing to the poverty in spirit we all wrestle with at times. 

If possible, share your attempts to confront your own “poverty” and what steps have been most beneficial in recognizing and addressing this greatest of human struggles.  Where have you discovered opportunities to function as Mother Teresa to others in their need?

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Belief, by Francis S. Collins

March 31 – C. S. Lewis & Alister McGrath

Question 1.  Discussions of miracles have always been touchy, due to their very personal and subjective nature.  C. S. Lewis provides an honest examination of this phenomenon, urging an attitude of open-mindedness to that which we presently don’t or can’t fully comprehend.  His two required conditions for experiencing a miracle include belief in the normal stability of nature and belief in some reality beyond nature (which can neither be proved nor disproved by experience).  The difficulty, as I see it, is that we can never reach agreement on a uniform definition of either of these two requirements. 

What has your approach and understanding of miracles been over the years, and what personal experiences and learning helped to shape your current thinking on this?  Do you agree/disagree with Lewis’ suppositions and conclusions?  Why?

Question 2.  As Lewis notes, skepticism is a necessary and appropriate response in this arena, since claims of miracles, by definition, run the gamut.  For example, I have trouble lending credibility to various sightings of fuzzy images of Mary showing up on the surface of stale food in someone’s refrigerator or on some unusual-shaped vegetable growing in someone’s garden.  These tend to give miracles a bad name, discouraging a much broader attitude toward understanding the miraculous nature of life all around us.  As Lewis rightly points out, “There is an activity of God displayed throughout creation…which men refuse to recognize.  The miracles done by God incarnate, living as a man in Palestine, perform the very same things as this wholesale activity, but at a different speed and on a smaller scale.” 

How, then, does this life – creation itself – reveal a “reality beyond nature?”  How do you perceive the natural order yoked to the creative and ever-sustaining hand of God?

Question 3.  Lewis writes, “The point is that for our ancestors the universe was a picture: for modern physics it is a story….an incomplete story.”  His analogy of Humpty Dumpty’s falling from the wall was clever…exposing the limitations of science to fully observe or claim the boundaries of nature and God’s activity within all of creation.  “These Signs do not take us away from reality; they recall us to it – recall us from our dream world of ‘ifs and ands’ to the stunning actuality of everything that is real.  They are the focal points at which more reality becomes visible than we ordinarily see at once.”  Paul’s voice from scripture echoes here, “Now we see in a mirror dimly, but then we shall see face to face.”  Lewis concludes, “Divine reality is like a fugue…it becomes at once a magnet to which truth and glory come rushing from all levels of being.” 

So, which lines or parts of this complex multi-layered musical arrangement we call “reality” lead you into a greater appreciation for divine influence?  Where has such music emerged for you and what led you to take notice and hear it?  Working from this definition, where are you most likely to encounter the miraculous on a sustained life-giving basis?

Question 4.  In “Trying to Make Sense of Things,” Alister McGrath introduces us to the value of clues, which he defines as “an observation that sets off a way of thinking about a problem.”  Of course, clues may be obvious to some, while overlooked by others.  He applies this discussion toward the universe and our place within it.  Such clues include the natural sciences, “fine-tuning” of the universe, and the deep human longing for significance.  Which of these clues resonate with your experience and observations?  Did these clues prove conclusive to you?

Question 5.  McGrath also acknowledges how certain other clues seem to point away from God, leading to ambiguity.  He rules out atheism as a credible conclusion, due to the lack of available evidence to support such claims.  “We have to learn to live in an untidy world in which we are not certain of everything – a world in which there are unanswered question.”

Take a moment and consider this statement.  What are those specific questions that elude complete answers?  Why are we so uneasy with this unavoidable ambiguity?  What does this say about us?

Question 6.  Ultimately, McGrath says, there are few things that can be known with absolute certainty.  “In other words, they are true by definition.”  In referring to Tennyson, he directs us toward “a leap of faith – a recognition that the clues to the meaning of the universe do not provide an invincible case for a meaningless cosmos or one brought into being by a caring and loving God.” 

What role does faith play in the absence of answers?  What issues, theological or otherwise, do you address through faith alone (in the absence of proof)?  What led you to make this decision or choice?  What continues to sustain you in this approach?

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Belief...by Francis S. Collins

March 24 – Paul Brand & John Polkinghorne

Question 1.  Paul Brand certainly is not a “household brand” name (sorry for the bad pun…but hey, I’m not here this week to endure the groaning)!  I was struck by his sense of humility as a doctor, as well as his deep appreciation for the irreplaceable value of another person’s presence in times of crisis.  This guy is certainly not like House, the egotistical TV doctor.  I wished his article could have been longer (not to be confused, of course, with preaching).  His enduring story of Mrs. Twigg elicited warmth and respect.  Brand characterizes that drama “as a parable of the conflicting strains of human helplessness and divine power within us.  What mattered was my presence…willingness…and contact.”

Recall a time when you functioned in a similar role or situation…either as Mrs. Twigg or Paul Brand.  What particular emotions did you feel?  How did you relate to the person opposite you in that one-on-one moment?  What specific value did you place on that person, as well as yourself?

Question 2.  Brand goes on to relate this common experience to Jesus and his body, the Church.  “We are what Jesus left on earth.”  We are that body.  No one portrays this image more vividly and repeatedly than the Apostle Paul.  Brand’s closing example of the restoration of an English cathedral and its hand-less statue of Jesus further punctuates his point, “Christ has no hands but ours.”  What do you take from Brand’s writing as you examine your openness and availability to others?  Is there room for growth of “presence?”  If so, where?

Question 3.  John Polkinghorne is back, folks…including his gifted and lofty thoughts.  In his introduction on Faith, JP sets the stage initially by contrasting science and faith.  He acknowledges the differences of procedure, the similarities of intention, and the unavoidable tensions that emerge between the two communities.  He notes that “Scientists…live in the intellectual present.”  While, “Theologians have to live within a historical tradition.”  Why is this so?  What might this possibly mean? 

Question 4.  Moving on to God and Creator, JP discusses the stumbling blocks of conceptualizing God as the invisible Magician who tinkers with the universe…and of God’s nature as a cipher for the rational order of the universe.  He notes, “…the nature of faith is that it is a commitment and response to the real.”  In defining our aesthetic experiences in life, JP provides three criteria.  First, they refer to realms…that are culturally influenced.  Second, the acknowledgement of value plays an important role.  And third, "the status of value is fundamental to any metaphysical enterprise, such as the exploration of faith in God the creator.”  He concludes, “We are simply what we choose to make of ourselves.”  Lost yet? 

So…what is it about “truth,” whether scientific or theological, that precludes universal assent or agreement?  Is not truth, to a large degree, parochial both in its nature and its application?

Question 5.  In Perspectives on Reality, JP launches into a multi-faceted examination of metaphysics.  Specifically, he argues for monotheistic metaphysics…since “it provides the most satisfactory reconciliation of the views from the widest range of windows to which we have access.”  I have no specific question for us to ponder here.  Perhaps we could simply entertain the use of the more common term, “open-mindedness.”  But how open-minded should we be prepared to be…and at what risk?

Question 6.  In Window onto Reality: Light and Darkness, JP presents seven metaphysical windows whose views bear upon the question of belief in God the creator (pages 209-213).  These include: Cosmic order; cosmic fruitfulness; the dawning of consciousness; religious experience; moral evil; physical evil; and futility. 

Since these are inter-connected windows, examine both their individual and common values to us as Christians.  In essence, they form a narrative description of life as we’ve come to know it.  Consider one or two of these “windows” and consider why you’re drawn to look through them.  What is their value to you?  How do they work in unison with the other windows of reality?

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Belief...by Francis S. Collins

March 17 – Tim Keller & Martin Luther King, Jr.

Question 1.  Keller seeks to expose a rationale for not intellectually supporting Christianity.  Christians and churches seem to provide ample ammunition.  The first hang-up is character flaws.  This critique typically excludes grace from the equation, either out of sheer ignorance or disagreement.  What, in your opinion, is the proper tension here?  How do we find balance between “performance” and “acceptance” as Christian human beings?

Question 2.  The second hang-up (intellectually) is the correlation between religion and violence (war).  Historically, we can make no excuses.  Human behavior, for better or worse, continues unabated in spite of professed religious beliefs.  Where have you witnessed this behavior, both from afar and near?  What is the driving motivation for such tactics?  Why does it continue to fail?

Question 3.  The third hang-up is fanaticism (e.g., Cubs fans).  Why do such folks behave in such a manner?  I agree with Keller when he states, “It’s not because they are too Christian but because they are not Christian enough.”  Why is this statement to powerfully true?  Again, where have you witnessed fanaticism locally?  A family member, a co-worker, a neighbor?  How might we best respond to this approach?

Question 4.  Keller notes that Christian “self-correction” is achieved by justice in Jesus’ name, citing the abolition of slavery and the Civil Right Movement as examples.  Dietrich Bonhoeffer also draws mention here.  Where, in your experience have you seen individual Christians and churches address evil by stepping forth in acts of justice?  Where have you participated is such efforts at any level?  What did you learn from your experience?

Question 5.  Martin Luther King, Jr. needs no introduction.  We are more familiar with his speeches than with his writing.  I love the way he comes out swinging: “Nothing pains some people more than having to think.”  Amen, brother!  The term, “soft-minded” (a rather kind term, don’t you think?), seems an ever-growing apt description of our culture at-large.  It continues to get us into all kinds of trouble…one that “purchases its own spiritual death on an installment plan.”  Tough-mindedness is preferable, of course.  Where are we losing ground in this country and where are we gaining ground?  How does Christianity play a role here?

Question 6.  King yokes tough-mindedness to tenderheartedness.  Such is the nature and character of God.  The third component is nonviolent resistance, in order that unjust systems might effectively be opposed.  Jesus is our ultimate model.  Consider the contrast between Egypt and Libya…why one nation succeeded and the other continues to struggle.  What is the key to success with nonviolent resistance?  How does our Christian faith equip us with the moral strength and endurance to face injustice and violence?

Monday, March 7, 2011

Belief, by Francis S. Collins

March 10 – Desmond Tutu & Elie Wiesel

Question 1.  Tutu’s basic premise is that God believes in us.  “Indeed, God is transforming the world now – through us – because God loves us.”  Tutu states that his confidence is not in the present circumstances but in the laws of God’s universe…a moral universe that finally triumphs over evil.  As such, where do you see this transformation occurring around you and around the world?  How might we better recognize and lift up such transformation?

Question 2.  Tutu emphasizes the personal and individual love for each human being…no one is exempt or irredeemable.  He raises the question, “So why does God, then, permit us to do evil to one another?”  He responds by noting the biblical caricature of us as a mixture of good and bad…that they are inseparable to our nature.  Yet, God continues to believe in us…even relying on us to help shape this world that God is ever redeeming.  How does God’s view of us help shape our attitudes and opinions of those we simply write off or dismiss as incurable human beings?  How might we further broaden our self-imposed boundaries on forgiveness to better exemplify the limitless grace of God?

Question 3.  Tutu says that suffering is not optional…it can either embitter or ennoble.  Seeing the larger purpose of our suffering leads to transformation and thus becomes redemptive….providing opportunities for emotional, spiritual, and moral growth.  Citing the incredible journey of Nelson Mandela, we’re encouraged to stretch our imaginations and our faith in considering new avenues of growth through suffering.  Where have you see such transformation in your life…either voluntary or involuntary?  Where are you most drawn to recognize and participate in addressing the overwhelming suffering around us?

Question 4.  Elie Wiesel responds to a barrage of pointed and difficult questions.  His replies are short and candid.  Rather than attempt to summarize each of them, I’ll simply refer to a few that I appreciated.  Please list your own in your small groups.  On the subject of evil, Wiesel acknowledges the tragic absurdity of the human condition (p. 158-159)…citing “there was no barrier in Christianity preventing the killers from doing their evil.  What we are seeing today…is a failure of humanity, including politics, commitment, philosophy, and art.”  When asked whether this meaninglessness can be reconciled with the meaning of religious faith, Wiesel asserts “that faith must be tested.”  In fact, “there is nothing so whole as broken faith…but it must not remain severed or sundered.”  We must ultimately recover and rediscover the faith of our Masters.  Give example of people you know who have taken this courageous path.  If possible, please offer your own stories of this journey from anguish to recovery to rediscovery.

Question 5.  On page 160, Wiesel says, “Chaos is worse than chance, worse than anything, because if there is chaos, then Good is not good and Evil is boundless.”  He then encourages us to face our daily decision to choose Covenant over chance.  Assuming that this is not a routine inner dialogue for us on a daily basis, how might we more purposefully engage our thoughts and attitudes to better reflect our faith position in our daily activities & encounters?

Question 6.  In the section on “Responsibility and Meaning,” Wiesel notes the utter centrality of the ancient wisdom that permeates Scripture.  Such an ethic provides the “laws that govern the relations between human beings.  So long as these ethics are not explored, shared, and adopted, we are in danger.”  He then notes the great progress made in medicine, the sciences, nuclear physics, and computer technology.  “But in philosophy, literature, poetry, religion, and morality (see Charlie Sheen), there has been very little progress at all.”  What, in your opinion, has ultimately led to this predicament?  What can be done to address it?

Question 7.  In his final thoughts, Wiesel states, “Hatred is Evil and Evil dwells in hatred.  The two go hand in hand.”  “Let good be good and evil be evil; then we know that we must serve one and combat the other.  So it is very serious when evil takes on the appearance of good.”  Being morally bankrupt as a society, how can we tell the difference?  What are the greatest individual as well as systemic forms of evil today?  How, in faith, do we combat them?

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Belief, by Francis S. Collins

February 24 Discussion

Question 1.  Keith Ward introduces us to the difficult task of defining religion…where, as he aptly states, “almost anything goes.”  Along with the “Jedi Knight” response of numerous Brits, American culture has produced its own proud assortment of offshoot religions.  Can you name some of the more notorious examples?  Ward cites Edward Herbert’s five innate elements of a religion at the bottom of page 126.  What, in your opinion, constitutes a “religion?”  Why are these of value to you?

Question 2.  Ward writes that, “For the unbeliever, this whole religious quest must be based on an illusion.  The trouble is that the illusion does not seem to be fading away...firmly rooted in human nature.”  Objections to religion involve scientific, psychological, and social rationalizations.  How does each of these function as an opportunity to dismiss or avoid the greater mystery of the divine?

Question 3.   Lindsley invites us down a path of discourse few of us have ever traveled.  “If there are no absolutes, then we cannot say anything really is evil or, for that matter, good.  The problem is, we know better.”  As C.S. Lewis points out, “If there is a real evil, then we must have a fixed standard of good by which we judge it to be evil.  This absolute standard of goodness suggests a God who is himself this absolute, infinite standard.”  Aside from religious our faith-based instruction, when did you become aware of the real presence of evil?  Under what circumstances did you experience this evil and to what did you ascribe its origins?

Question 4.  Lindsley continues with Arthur Leff’s assertion, “that there is no normative system of ethics based in anything other than the bare assertion of human will.  The common cultural move will not work because of what he called ‘the grand sez who.’”  He then raises the question, “Under what circumstances can someone propose an ethical statement that withstands the cosmic ‘Says who?’”  He also adds, “If law cannot be in God…then the only possible alternative is to say that the law is in us – one of us, some of us, all of us.”  First, where do we see such paradigms in operation around the world today?  Second, what are the implications of such mindsets, who believe like Leff, “There is no such thing as an unchallengeable evaluative system”?

Question 5.  From there, Lindsley says, “If someone is not yet willing to admit that evil exists, perhaps that person could be gently moved toward the logical conclusion of his or her false assumptions.”  How well has that worked in the hallowed halls of Congress?!  Citing the viewpoints of Rorty, morality boils down to “sentiment”…meaning individual preferences and tastes.  But whose…and on what basis?  As for us…who makes these decisions on our behalf today?  What are the boundaries of your own personal sense of morality and how do you define them?

Question 6.  Finally, Lindsley points out the weaknesses of New Age beliefs: “This leads to the conclusion that matter, time, and space, and the distinctions between true and false, good and evil, are illusory as well.”  His mention of Neopaganism is just downright creepy…so let’s just move on. 

“Which is true or good?” he asks.  The answer to that question takes us right back where we started: the existence of evil.  The Christian faith and others have built entire theological doctrinal systems upon this fundamental belief.  In the end, each of must decide…for all spirituality is deeply personal.  How has this assigned reading either challenged or broadened your perspective on the scope of evil?  Where do you still have questions or uncertainty, as we all do?

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Belief...by Francis S. Collins

February 17 Discussion

Question 1.  Dorothy Sayers invites us to re-think our reading and interpretation of the scriptural narrative through different lenses.  She seeks to engage our imaginations by reading a bit between the lines.  She notes “it was Cyrus and Ahasuerus who prodded me into the belated conviction that history was all of a piece, and that the Bible was part of it.”  She confronts certain Bible critics for their “very leisurely mental growth”…ouch!  What is she getting at in this critique? 

Question 2.  In her “Memoirs of Jesus Christ,” Sayers goes after “the journalese jargon to which we have grown accustomed!”  The “root of the trouble is to be found…in the collapse of dogma.”  She then gives us “Prophet’s Smile,” and “The Persona Dei: The Image of Truth,” as further invitations to imagine the “real” nature and behavior of Jesus and God…the latter piece being profoundly insightful and moving.  How did you receive her argument and how does it channel our focus on reading Scripture?  How does “The Persona Dei” further illustrate our sin and God’s redemptive action in Christ? 

Question 3.  John Stott begins with the fundamental question, “Why should Christians use their minds?”  He answers by siding with Paul, who says, “Our war is not fought with weapons of flesh…”  Stott adds, “This is a battle of ideas, God’s truth overthrowing the lies of men.  Do we believe in the power of the truth?”  Do you agree with Stott?  If so, what is the relationship between ideas and truth?

Question 4.  Stott directs our nature as humans as related to the divine image.  What separates us from other creatures with brains is our ability to “understand.”  This capacity is naturally delayed in the teenage years, but eventually blossoms (but not for all).  So, what exactly do we “understand” about ourselves and God?  Why is there such diversity of thought on this subject?

Question 5.  David Trueblood begins with a discussion on the means of verification…not real exciting, I know.  But it gets better when he asserts, “In many areas of experience there is no such thing as rigorous proof and we have to content ourselves with what is called the weight of evidence.”  What do you consider to be the “weight of evidence” for Christianity?  What specific “evidence” matters most to you and why does it carry such weight?

Question 6.  Trueblood then claims that a new quality of life should be publicly observable.  In regards to religious experience, how is this most commonly demonstrated?  How is your faith “publicly observable?”  What specifically might others notice in you that would provide “evidence” of your Christian faith?  What such evidence do you see in those at your table with you this morning?

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Belief...by Francis S. Collins

February 10 Discussion – Os Guinness & Madeleine L’Engle

Question 1.  Os Guinness…let’s go with OG for short.  (Kind of sounds like a caveman, doesn’t it?)  OG launches this essay with a chilling narration of Primo Levi’s tragic life and eventual demise.  We are immediately captivated and saddened by the end result of temporary survival, followed by ultimate self-destruction.  Describe the initial impact this story had on you as you read it.  In what ways could you identify with Levi as he struggled to bear the burden of “witnessing” to others?  How do you differ from Levi in matters of faith as a buoy or raft from which to cling on the turbulent high seas of life?

Question 2.  The myth of Sisyphus (p. 75) offers a powerful and poignant lens through which to portray our individual struggles to persevere and persist.  Both in relationships and vocation, we find ourselves pushing multiple stones uphill…only to repeat the process again and again.  What have some of those “stones” been in your life?  Why did you continue to push them?  What was at stake for you?

Question 3.  OG suggests the alternative to such a fate:  “It is that truth, like meaning as a whole, is not for us to create, but for us to discover.”  What we discover, he suggests, is that truth is grounded and anchored in God’s own reality and truthfulness.  Forget pragmatism, subjectivism, and relativism…which can only be partial and provisional.  What are the limitations and weaknesses of each of these?  Why are they so compelling? What are you “discovering” about the world, yourself, and God that illuminate greater truth and meaning?

Question 4.  “Without truth we are all vulnerable to manipulation.”  OG goes on to expose the gruesome and disgusting details of the manipulative life of Picasso.   OG’s subsequent discussion of freedom, particularly as misconstrued and abused in America, depicts a sobering analysis of denial and self-deceit with regard to liberty (p. 84-86).  As you review these statements again, which of them hits the target most directly?  What is your emerging picture of freedom and truth?

Question 5.  Madeleine L’Engle…let’s go with ME for short.  (Yes, it’s all about ME, folks!)  ME perpetuates this discussion by stating that truth is both frightening and demanding.  Literalism often confuses truth and fact.  She elaborates on the value and necessity of story to convey truth.  She labels literalism as a terrible crippler: tending to let us off the hook…and the cross!  Why are mere facts rendered impotent against the superior depth and power of stories?  

I would venture to say that stories convey a greater meaning and mystery that flow out of our intricate relationships with God and one another.  Stories move us out of the isolation of mere facts and into the broader community of stories and shared observations.  Facts alone – and our dubious interpretations and use of them – can often limit our understanding and growth.  Facts and mystery do not sit kindly at the same table.  As such, faith invites us into the greater mystery of both the natural and the divine…thus allowing questions, not answers, to be the conduit or pathway to revelation and truth.  Describe your position and movement along this continuum between reliance on fact and faith.  What is contributing most to your growth?

Question 6.  Finally, ME acknowledges that we have become “vocabulary-deprived.”  No argument there!  Reasons abound for this, yet the situation worsens in this country.  How can we, the church, address this dilemma via our stories and our Christian witness?  Are we free to lift up and wrestle openly with life’s ultimate questions…comfortable then to trust in the One who is the Answer?