Archives For Conversion

Jews Following Jesus

March 4, 2014 — 9 Comments

interfaithJewish poetry is breathtaking. The Psalms have nourished people of faith, as well as secularists, for millennia. C.S. Lewis wrote this about the providence of God in using the Jewish people as his conduit for blessing the world.

My enjoyment of the Psalms has been greatly increased lately. The point has been made before, but let me make it again: what an admirable thing it is in the divine economy that the sacred literature of the world should have been entrusted to a people whose poetry, depending largely on parallelism, should remain poetry in any language you translate it into.

He alluded to this in a letter to Sister Penelope, an Anglican nun and writer. In 1941 she sent him a copy of her new book, Windows on Jerusalem: A Study in the Mystery of Redemption. Lewis responded with gratitude. (Contemporary authors will find the detail of Lewis’ informal critique of her book illustrative of what he brought to the meetings of the Inklings.)

Thank you very much for the book. It has given me real help. What I particularly enjoy in all your work, specially this, is the avoidance of that curious drabness which characterises so many ‘little books on religion.’ Partly it is due to your Hebraic background which I envy you: partly, no doubt, to deeper causes.

Things that particularly pleased me were the true meanings of Beloved (p. 8) and Son (p. 9), the whole account of the Transfiguration (pp. 16 et seq), the passage on Sacrifice (p. 32), the passage ‘This was a shock’ (on p. 35), on our inability to understand sin (41 and 47), the very important bit about Hebrew & Roman ideas of ransom (52, 53): the really splendid account of how God can’t help deceiving the devil (56) and the allegorical close. There are, in fact, a good many Gifford Lectures and other such weighty tomes out of which I’ve got less meat (and indeed less efficient cookery!).

Judaism & Christianity

Jews and Christians have a complex relationship. This is even more true for Jewish people who come to accept Jesus as the promised Messiah. For most Jews, this automatically results in their expulsion from the Jewish community. However, for a growing number, there is a more gracious attitude developing.

A recent survey conducted by the Pew Research Center revealed some interesting statistics. Note the percentage of United States Jews considering the following to be essential:

Remembering the Holocaust – 73%

Leading an Ethical & Moral Life – 69%

Caring about Israel – 43%

Having a Good Sense of Humor – 42%

Observing Jewish Law – 19%

Here is the most surprising part of the survey. Thirty-four percent of American Jews consider believing Jesus is the Messiah, is compatible with being Jewish.

Let me repeat that . . . 34% of Jews in the United States (35% of the ultra-Orthodox Jews) believe that “Messianic Jews” remain Jewish.

I find that amazing. I also find it encouraging, since it’s consistent with the understanding of the Jews in first century Judea who worshipped beside the followers of Jesus in Jerusalem until its fall.

Some years ago I heard a lecture by a prominent Jewish theologian who described how historical Judaism rarely rejected those who considered any particular rabbi to be the Messiah. Apparently this remains true today, as some modern Jews, for example, consider  Menachem Mendel Schneerson (1902-1994) to be the Messiah.

Returning to the case of Jesus of Nazareth, the improving attitude is encouraging to see. In part, because most Messianic Jews say accepting Jesus as the Messiah has made them more Jewish. By that, most mean that they now practice the traditions of their Jewish heritage more faithfully than they previously did.

Following his conversion, C.S. Lewis grew in his positive consideration of the Jewish faith and people. In 1933, as Hitler’s hatred for Judaism became more evident, he wrote in a letter:

I might agree that the Allies are partly to blame, but nothing can fully excuse the iniquity of Hitler’s persecution of the Jews, or the absurdity of his theoretical position. Did you see that he said “The Jews have made no contribution to human culture and in crushing them I am doing the will of the Lord.”

Now as the whole idea of the “Will of the Lord” is precisely what the world owes to the Jews, the blaspheming tyrant has just fixed his absurdity for all to see in a single sentence, and shown that he is as contemptible for his stupidity as he is detestable for his cruelty. For the German people as a whole we ought to have charity: but for dictators, “Nordic” tyrants and so on . . .

All of the civilized people of the world share Lewis’ revulsion with Hitler and his agenda. In that we definitely agree with the vast majority of Jews who regard “Remembering the Holocaust” as something essential.

Postscript:

As positive a sign as the 34% support of Messianic Jews remaining Jewish is, the survey includes a more sobering corollary. Exactly twice that number, 68%, agreed that you can remain Jewish even if you don’t believe in the existence of God. Shocking. But that’s a subject for another day.

csl and kingAuthor Stephen King surprised quite a few fans during a recent PBS interview when he expressed his belief in the universe’s intelligent design. In nature and the cosmos, like theist C.S. Lewis before him, he views a creation so complex and wondrous that he thinks it makes more sense to believe in a divine power than to dismiss faith.

During the interview, King said,

I choose to believe it, yeah. I think that . . . there’s no downside to that, and the downside—if you say, well, OK, I don’t believe in God, there’s no evidence of God—then you’re missing the stars in the sky, and you’re missing the sunrises and sunsets, and you’re missing the fact that bees pollinate all these crops and keep us alive and the way that everything seems to work together at the same time.

In an essay, “Christianity and Culture,” C.S. Lewis alludes to the “Theist” phase of his own life. He points out how limiting a faith that recognizes God only abstractly, in his handiwork, can be.

There is an easy transition from Theism to Pantheism; but there is also a blessed transition in the other direction. For some souls I believe, for my own I remember, Wordsworthian contemplation can be the first and lowest form of recognition that there is something outside ourselves which demands reverence.

To return to Pantheistic errors about the nature of this something would, for a Christian, be very bad. But once again, for “the man coming up from below” the Wordsworthian experience is an advance. Even if he goes no further he has escaped the worst arrogance of materialism: if he goes on he will be converted.

King is, of course, far from what one would properly call a “person of faith.”** Still, it may be that he is presently moving in a positive direction. The following words reveal his yearning for hope, criticism of institutional religion, and his as yet unanswered questions about why God allows suffering in our world.

It’s certainly a subject that’s interested me, and I think it interests me more the older that I get. And I think we’d all like to believe that after we shuffle off this mortal coil, that there’s going to be something on the other side because for most of us, I know for me, life is so rich, so colorful and sensual and full of good things, things to read, things to eat, things to watch, places to go, new experiences, that I don’t want to think that you just go to darkness. . . .

But as far as God and church and religion and . . . that sort of thing, I kind of always felt that organized religion was just basically a theological insurance scam where they’re saying if you spend time with us, guess what, you’re going to live forever, you’re going to go to some other plain where you’re going to be so happy, you’ll just be happy all the time, which is also kind of a scary idea to me. . . .

Everything is sort of built in a way that to me suggests intelligent design. But at the same time there’s a lot of things in life where you say to yourself, well, if this is God’s plan, it’s very peculiar. And you have to wonder about that guy’s personality, the big guy’s personality. . . . What I’m saying now is I choose to believe in God, but I have serious doubts.

For many intelligent people, like C.S. Lewis and Stephen King, coming to faith cannot be severed from their reason. They desire to make sense of the world. Some, sadly, determine that human beings perish forever with their final breath. With that worldview, using King’s words, “you just go to darkness.”

Fortunately many others—brilliant and simple people alike, for God shows no partiality—possess true wisdom and heed the words of Jesus, that he is the way, the truth and the life. Both of these writers experienced an ineffective exposure to the church when they were young. Unfortunately, it served as more of an inoculation than a foundation.

Eventually C.S. Lewis followed that path from theism to Christianity. It’s not impossible that Stephen King may, as well.

_____

* A full transcript of the PBS interview is available here.

** In the interview, King “commends” the entertainment value of enthusiastic, emotionally-charged preaching, while disparaging his own mainline upbringing.

I went to a Methodist church for years as a kid, and Methodist youth fellowship on Thursday nights, and it was all pretty – you know, think of a bottle of soda with the cap off for 24 hours. There weren’t very many bubbles left in that stuff by then. It was pretty – it was Yankee religion, Terry, and there’s really not much in the world that’s any more boring than that. They tell you that you’re going to go to hell, and you’re half-asleep.

Seeking the Living

March 31, 2013 — 9 Comments

tombOne of the readings at our celebration of the Resurrection, this Easter morning, came from the Gospel according to Saint Luke. It included the powerful words of the angels waiting beside the empty tomb. To Mary Magdalene and the other women who had arrived to complete the ceremonial preparations for Jesus’ burial, they said: “Why do you seek the living among the dead?”

That’s precisely what separates Christianity from every other religious faith; for two millennia, Jesus’ disciples have followed a resurrected and living Lord.

This is what non-Christians are ultimately unable to fathom. Christianity is far more than the adoption of a particular lifestyle. It is infinitely more than a cognitive acquiescence a set of doctrines. It is nothing less than a dynamic, living relationship with our Creator through his only begotten Son.

Many regard Jesus as a great teacher from an ancient epoch—whose words are worthy of preserving. This is a good thing . . . but it’s not Christianity.

Many consider Jesus the model of a noble life—and strive to emulate his compassion and humility. This too is a good thing . . . but it’s not Christianity.

Many regard Jesus as an object of superstition—and they spout religious jargon while living hypocritical lives utterly devoted to their carnal appetites. This is not a good thing . . . and it’s most certainly not Christianity.

C.S. Lewis refers to this inherent inability to “persuade” an unbeliever to see beyond Christianity as a creedal profession or even a simple lifestyle and comprehend it as a relationship.

Our opponents, then, have a perfect right to dispute with us about the grounds of our original assent. But they must not accuse us of sheer insanity if, after the assent has been given, our adherence to it is no longer proportioned to every fluctuation of the apparent evidence. They cannot of course be expected to know on what assurance feeds, and how it revives and is always rising from its ashes.

They cannot be expected to see how the quality of the object which we think we are beginning to know by acquaintance drives us to the view that if this were a delusion then we should have to say that the universe had produced no real thing of comparable value and that all explanations of the delusion seemed somehow less important than the thing explained.

That is knowledge we cannot communicate. But they can see how the assent, of necessity, moves us from the logic of speculative thought into what might perhaps be called the logic of personal relations. What would, up till then, have been variations simply of opinion become variations of conduct by a person to a Person. Credere Deum esse turns into Credere in Deum. And Deum here is this God, the increasingly knowable Lord. (C.S. Lewis, “On Obstinacy in Belief”).

Ultimately, inviting others to share the joy and peace that we disciples of Jesus know—undeserving as all of us are—is not about persuasion. It is about introducing them to Jesus.

It’s about echoing the words of the angels in that Judean cemetery. “Don’t seek Jesus among the dead. He is risen and living, and he offers eternal life to all who call upon his name.”

On Death’s Specter

May 14, 2012 — 8 Comments

Death is an unpleasant subject. And the knowledge that each of us is destined to face our own, has the potential to overshadow the countless joys this life offers.

Virtually everyone reading this has lost a loved one to death . . . and some reading this may have been informed by doctors that their own days may be limited. If you find yourself counting down in years, months, or weeks, may God strengthen you and pour upon you an overflowing portion of his divine peace. The Scriptures refer to God’s peace in circumstances of great personal trial as a “peace which passes understanding.” And that is precisely what I pray he provides for you.

Those of us who are Christians find ourselves in a bit of a tension. We believe in Jesus’ resurrection, and his promise to raise us to new life as well. So, in that sense death is a defeated “enemy.” It no longer has the final word. In fact, passing through the portal of death actually allows us to enter into the presence of the Lord! Nevertheless, we dread the prospect of dying. Too seldom do people pass peacefully in their sleep.

C.S. Lewis experienced an illness which brought him near to death. Yet he recovered . . . with mixed feelings. Five weeks before his death he wrote to his friend Arthur Greeves:

Tho’ I am by no means unhappy I can’t help feeling it was rather a pity I did revive in July. I mean, having been glided so painlessly up to the Gate it seems hard to have it shut in one’s face and know that the whole process must some day be gone thro’ again, and perhaps far less pleasantly! Poor Lazarus! But God knows best.

The reason we should no longer fear death is because it has no power over those whose sins have been borne by the Messiah. Those who have not experienced this grace may rightfully fear the day of accounting that awaits humanity. Jesus invites all people—even the most sinful and vile people we can imagine—to yield to him and trade their inheritance of death for his righteousness and the gift of eternal life.

That means there is nothing that you have done that is so evil God cannot forgive it. Simply ask him to.

One way this experience of salvation is described in the Bible is as a resurrection. Jesus said to one of his disciples, “I am the resurrection and the life ‘Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die.’” (John 11:25). Jesus is distinguishing between the two deaths. Physical, where this finite body fails . . . and spiritual death, where those who have ignored God’s mercy spend eternity separated from it.

Another aspect of this transformation is found in the fact that through conversion we die to the power of sin over us, and participate (even in this physical life) in Christ’s resurrected life. (Baptism is a “sign” of this, as the immersion is “burial” and rising from the waters is rebirth.) As Paul of Tarsus assures believers: “For if we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord. So then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s.” (Romans 14:8).

C.S. Lewis bluntly put it this way: “Die before you die. There is no chance after that.” (Till We Have Faces).

Which brings us to the peculiar image above. It comes from some classical text and whenever I’ve encountered it over the years, I’ve always considered it rather odd that the illustrator decided to portray this skeleton in the posture of prayer. It’s actually a bit disconcerting, since death and decay have nothing to do with our Lord who is the way, the truth and the life.

If we haven’t said our prayers in this mortal life, as Lewis reminds us, we will lack the voice and opportunity to do so in the next.

Besides, knowing Christ is not something with benefits only in the next life. Walking through life in his light makes our days here all the more pleasant and joyful. As I look back on my own life I recognize numerous ways in which his hand directed my path. Had I lived for my own selfish appetites the person I would be today would little resemble the Christian me. Thank God that he delivered me from becoming that man.

I haven’t forgotten. Well, I have forgotten far too many things in recent years, but I didn’t forget my recent “promise” to address the challenging subject of the distinction between agnosticism and atheism. Last week I wrote: “I suspect that the intimately personal nature of God’s love for us is one of the things that moves some people from agnosticism to atheism.”

It’s not my desire to offend anyone with the discussion which follows. After all, God loves the “lost” just as much as he loves those who have surrendered their lives to him. In fact, there’s an amazing passage that hints at how the rescue of one of those who has “strayed” is even more exciting to the hosts of heaven than the faithfulness of his dedicated disciples. (Check out verses 12-14 in chapter 18 of the Gospel according to Matthew . . . and remember what I have said in the past about how eager any of your Christian acquaintances will be to provide you with a copy of the Bible if you don’t already have one.)

Every soul is precious to God. And yet, many don’t recognize that fact. Many worship false gods (religious and secular). Among those who deny the existence of supernatural deities, there are essentially two camps. Agnostics who (technically) do not deny God’s existence, but merely profess that it is unknowable. Thus they personally remain unpersuaded. Atheists, on the alternative hand, are more adamant about denying God’s existence. Some, in fact, make a living by stridently refuting God himself and all things holy.

Intuitively, most people assume agnostics are not quite as distant from faith as are atheists. After all, agnostics are generally more polite and respectful toward those of us who naively cling to such superstitions . . . right? Atheists, by contrast, tend to ridicule those who would worship a God who laid down his very life, and died a human death.

Take, for example, what is arguably the earliest surviving illustration of Christ’s crucifixion. The illustration above was carved on an ancient plaster wall near Palatine Hill.

It’s a bit difficult to discern, but historical consensus sees the graffito as a pagan insult directed towards a Greek Christian. The scribbled inscription reads: “Alexamenos worships [his] god.” The crucified figure on the cross clearly bears the head of a donkey. The Church Father Tertullian wrote in the second century of slanders alleging Christians followed just such a deity.

Would something like this be likelier to come from the mind of an agnostic, or an atheist?

Agnostics would rarely summon the energy to rail against God like this. However, atheists sometimes feel so imposed upon by God’s children that they lash out with invectives.

So, as I noted above, the gut feeling of most observers would be to say vocal atheists are farther from God than their kindred disbelievers. However—I am convinced that is not the case!

Ironically, it is the tepid individual who lacks any serious conviction who is in greater danger of perishing without seeing God. This is due to the fact that agnostics have, as a rule, come to grips with the fact that there may or may not be a God . . . but they are content to proceed through life without caring much either way. To them the issue is rather trivial, in a sense, since they rarely lose sleep over it.

This is not true of the atheist, who recognizes that the matter is of the utmost importance; that’s why he is not content to simply ignore it. If God truly exists—they comprehend in the core of their being—nothing could be of greater significance.

Agnostics typically have an unreasoned impression that if there is a God, he is probably benevolent, and most likely more concerned with other elements of the universe he created than their small life. They echo the thinking of liberal “Deists” who imagined God as a distant “watchmaker” who set creation in motion and then left it forgotten on the shelf. This Great Watchmaker is not threatening. He isn’t angry at us, because he doesn’t even deign to notice us. He remains oblivious to humanity, just as we presumably live out our lives anonymous to him.

Atheists don’t want to believe in God, because of their overwhelming doubt. Simultaneously, they recognize that the stakes of the gamble are enormous. Eternal, in fact. And they resent God for placing them in this difficult predicament. Why can’t he just make his existence undeniably evident? Faith is the leap they are unwilling to take. But, by the same rational premise, the wise among them realize that in opting against theism, they are actually placing their faith in an equally unprovable tenet. And this has a tendency to make some of them mildly cranky.

Which brings us back to my suspicion that “the intimately personal nature of God’s love for us is one of the things that moves some people from agnosticism to atheism.” You see, when someone deeply ponders the mystery of whether there is a Creator, they understand he would never have created a sentient being with this yearning to cleave to him, without possessing a compassion for them in return.

Agnostics walk about like spiritual zombies, pursuing their various interests. Atheists, though, are tormented by the nagging “fear” that a loving God just may exist. Certainly, they do whatever they can to exorcize the notion, and they publicly celebrate their liberation from ancient and medieval superstitions, but unlike their unaffected agnostic relations, they have recognized the enormity of their choice. Oh to be a blissfully ignorant agnostic, the more thoughtful might muse.

Sadly (from their present perspective), the lot of the atheist is to be closer to God than the agnostic. Atheists may rail against their Maker, but the agnostic’s spiritual indifference causes them to drift farther and farther from the Truth.

The Scriptures offer a parallel to this distinction in the description of one of the early Christian churches. Apparently the believer in Laodicea had grown lackadaisical about their faith and lived lives that differed little from their pagan and agnostic neighbors. The Lord’s judgment of them begins: “I know your works: you are neither cold nor hot. Would that you were either cold or hot! So, because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth.”

Strange, it seems to us, that God might prefer a militant atheistic mindset to an aimless agnostic worldview. But the amazing truth is that, in most cases, atheists are closer to the kingdom of God than their disinterested peers.

In Surprised by Joy, C.S. Lewis describes his own pre-Christian disposition. The grandson of an Anglican priest, he had consciously rejected the faith. Yet, as the possibility of its truth grew more real to him as an adult, he reacted against it. He clearly describes his condition as differing from that of the lukewarm agnostics I’ve described above.

Amiable agnostics will talk cheerfully about “man’s search for God.” To me, as I was then, they might as well have talked about the mouse’s search for the cat.

In the same volume he elaborates on the sentiments I’ve been describing.

I was at this time living, like so many Atheists or Antitheists, in a whirl of contradictions. I maintained that God did not exist. I was also very angry with God for not existing. I was equally angry with Him for creating a world.

So, if you consider yourself “angry with God for not existing,” you may be closer to meeting him than you ever imagined. If you do follow C.S. Lewis’ example, heaven will host a more resounding celebration for you than it does for the ninety-nine who have always remained part of his flock. And, if you’re a dispassionate agnostic who is weakly amused by this thought . . . my sincere prayer is that you, my friend, would become either hot or cold!