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 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 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?