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Templeton Project: A Fire, a World of Unrighteousness

Back in October 2015 I wrote about the inauguration of the Abington Templeton Foundation (see here).  The project is now underway (see here) and I will be posting our writing here.

Check out the latest piece entitled “A Fire, a World of Unrighteousness.”

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In his epistle, James warns his readers that not many of them should become teachers, because God judges teachers with greater strictness.  He goes on to say that one who does not stumble with his tongue is perfect, for ability to control the tongue means one is able to control his whole body.  A small fire sets an entire forest ablaze as the tongue negatively affects the body that results in setting our whole life ablaze.  James describes the tongue as “a world of unrighteousness” and “a restless evil, full of poison.”  He further writes that the tongue blesses God and  curses those made in God’s image.  A tongue on fire cannot come from a good source.

It is very tempting to misuse the tongue.  All of us have done this at one time or another or regularly.  But, we must be aware of the unrighteousness it manifests.  The tongue does damage to others.  This misuse is not helpful in debate.  It is certainly harmful.  We must be careful what we say to other people including those we meet for an informal or formal discussion of our theological and philosdophical differences.  We will gain no ground by being disrespectful in what we say.  And, we are not to respond with disrespect those who disrespect us.  We are to set an example as disciples of Christ.  The world does not follow these rules.  Watch a half hour or less of 24/7 news to see.  Pinhead and other such nomenclature has become common in the conservative and liberal media and in government.  We are to discredit a perspective by discrediting the perspective, not the person.

James employs the word curse. To curse someone is more serious than calling a person a name.  A curse is a malediction calling down upon someone’s head God’s disfavor and ill-fortune.  In the Lucan version of the Beatitudes, Jesus recites blessings and curses.  “Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you shall be satisfied.”  “But woe to you who are full now, for you shall be hungry.”  (Luke 6: 21, 24 ESV)  Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, look! The fig tree that you cursed has withered.” (Mark 11: 21 ESV)

What should one do when one is confronted with wickedness and evil?  Should not the person be pointed out for what he/she is? Shouldn’t he be reminded of the judgment of God? Such judgments are most often not necessary, and we can misjudge; but, when evil needs to be identified, we must do so after careful consideration. People need to be reminded of God’s will and His  judgment, even Christians.  Judgment is the Law speaking.  We must hear the Law before we can receive the Gospel.

In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus associates the misuse of the tongue with anger.  “You have heard that it was said to those of old, “You shall not murder and whoever murders will be liable to judgment. But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool’ will be liable to the hell of fire.”  (Matthew 5: 21-2 ESV)   More on anger in the future.

I leave you with something James says near the beginning of his letter:  “If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this person’s religion is worthless.”  (James 1: 26 ESV)

Michael G. Tavella

July 15, 2019

Templeton Project: The Apostle on Mars Hill (Areopagus)

Back in October 2015 I wrote about the inauguration of the Abington Templeton Foundation (see here).  The project is now underway (see here) and I will be posting our writing here.

Check out the latest piece entitled “The Apostle on Mars Hill (Areopagus).”

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During his first missionary journey the Apostle Paul spent some time in Athens.  While there, he noticed with great dismay that “the city was full of idols.”  He had a dialogue with Jews in the synagogue and with people he met in the marketplace (agora in Greek).  In addition, he had a discussion with some Epicurean and Stoic philosophers who objected to Paul’s teaching of “foreign divinities.”

The Epicureans followed the philosophy of the fourth/third century B.C. materialist philosopher Epicurus.  In his view the world began by chance, the swerving of atoms into one another.  He held that pleasure, that is, freedom from fear and anxiety, was the highest goal of humans. The gods, if they exist, were of no significance to us as we were no significance to them.  He wished people to be free from fear of life and death.

The Stoics followed Zeno of Citium who lived at the same time as Epicurus. The words stoic/stoicism come from the Greek word for porch.  Zeno and his followers held their discussions at the Stoa Poikile (Painted Porch) in the marketplace at Athens. Several noted ancients, Marcus Aurelius, Epictetus, Seneca among others, followed this philosophy.  The Stoic was devoted to virtue, was indifferent to matters that did not involve truth and morality and lived at a distance from things in the world that did not carry moral weight.  Their theology professed a material god, imminent in the universe. The universe, made of fire, is one of an eternal series that come into existence and then dissolve, making way for another.  The Stoic desired to conform to universal Reason that allowed him to achieve inner calm

Paul stands before these philososphers who took exception to the doctrines reagrding Jesus and the resurrection from the dead.  These philosophers brought Paul to the Areopagus, (Mars Hill), where an Athenian court regularly met to learn what Paul’s “new teaching” was and meant.  Addressing those who had gathered, Paul compliments them for being religious. He mentions the altar in Athens that is dedicated “To the unknown god,” whom he says is the God he worships and proclaims.  The Apostle explains that God, who made the world, does not live in temples nor does He need maintenance from human beings, for He has created humans and given them what they need to live. God has allotted dwelling places for humans to live so that they may seek God who is not far away from them.  At this point he quotes a Greek philosopher and poet, Empedocles and Aratus to confirm what he has said.  He asserts that God cannot be of the substances of silver, gold, and stone.  While He has overlooked previous times of ignorance, God is now calling all people to repent.  The day will come when the world will be judge by One (Christ’s name is unmentioned in the text) who gives assurance of these things by His resurrection.  Some in the crowd mock the idea of the resurrection of the dead.

What do we learn from this text?  Paul shows respect for his audience though he is mocked.  The respect that we show to others in defense and witness should not be dependent on the attitude of those who oppose us. We should always be respectful (a very difficult thing to do). Paul finds a way to relate to his hearers.  He applauds the fact that they are religious (without flattery).  He points out the altar to the unknown god in Athens, using this example to speak of the true God whom he represents.  He quotes one of their philosophers and one of their poets.

Though most reject what he says, converts are made. Two in particular are mentioned by name.  Apologetics and witness naturally go together.

As apologists and witnesses we are to show respect for others.  We are to listen for where non-believers are in their lives and what they believe. Paul critiques idolatry without mocking such a belief.  We are to do the same with regard to the beliefs of others.  We can point out where those beliefs are wrong without making fun of the person who holds them.  We are to find ways to identify with others and show that we understand or want to understand their concerns.

Michael G. Tavella

July 15, 2019

Templeton Project: Waning Faith and Yearning Heart

Back in October 2015 I wrote about the inauguration of the Abington Templeton Foundation (see here).  The project is now underway (see here) and I will be posting our writing here.

Check out the latest piece entitled “Waning Faith and Yearning Heart.”

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The waning of Christian faith among the people, especially the intelligentsia did not happen over night.  In the middle of the nineteenth century Matthew Arnold wrote poems concerning this development.  His well-known “Dover Beach” and “Stanzas from the Grande Chartreuse” are prime examples of his own yearning in the midst of the waning of Christian faith in the West.

“Dover Beach” begins in exultation as the poet describes the sea and strand at night.  He beckons his beloved and the reader to come to the window to see this prodigy of nature–the moon, the calm sea, the vast cliffs on the bay.  But, the waves of the sea also announce a deep sadness.  Like Sophocles we hear “the ebb and flow Of human misery.”  The sea of faith was once “at the full.”  Now one can hear its receding roar.  Exultation turns to a melancholy the poet calls his beloved to share in order “to be true to one another.”  Let us admit then that the world “Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light, Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;”  The poet recognizes that we are “on a darkling plain Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight.” Arnold has a profound regret for the loss of faith that he knows cannot return, certainly not for him. One can feel intensely the emotional and spiritual pain that he feels. One may even feel it in himself.

A similar theme is found in “Stanzas from the Grande Chartreuse.”  This poem was inspired by a honeymoon trip to the great monastery and mother house of the Carthusian Order, located in the Chartreuse Mountains near Grenoble.  Arnold describes the hike, guide-led, up the mountain to the monastery and then the monastery and its religious activity.  The poet asks, why is he in this place?  He remembers his teachers who taught him the truth that involves leaving behind Christian faith.  Though he is in this religious place, he does not deny this loss.  He came only to lament it as an ancient Greek or Roman might do at the collapse of the ancient religion of the many gods.  As the ancient pagan religion, Greek, Roman, or Runic, has passed, so is the Christian faith passing.  Arnold stands beside the ancients to shed tears that the old faith is dead, paganism for them; Christianity for him.  An old faith has passed away; a new faith has not yet been born.  Ironically, he asks for the help of the monks.  He would grieve among the last believers.  Like an army, described vividly in the poem, society moves onward. The poet wishes that the desert of monastic life be left in peace.

The conflict continues even unto the twenty-first century.  Full-scale secularism has been born; Christianity has not died.  While in the West the numbers of Christians has waned, an explosion of Christian faith has occurred in the Third World. The American Church is showing new vitality despite the waning numbers. The funeral is premature.  Arnold’s tears were shed long before the final illness, death, and the funeral.  Those who believe highly doubt that there will be obsequies.

The apologetic task of the Church continues in the face of a strident, but faltering secularism. Mr. Arnold is a great poet whom this writer much appreciates.  But, his vision of a passing and dead faith is premature.  The Christian apologist and witness need not be melancholic over the idea that Christianity will inevitably disappear from the earth.  The modern ebbing of faith, if it is ebbing, may be an episode in human history that will pass away.  Or, it will remain until the end when Christ will return to gather his people.  If the gates of hell will not prevail against the Church, neither will modern secularism and unbelief.  The apologist and witness must often pray for confidence and hope and must rest assured in the final victory of Christ.

Michael G. Tavella

July 13, 2019

Templeton Project: Questions Unbelievers (especially Atheists) May Ask in Dialogue

Back in October 2015 I wrote about the inauguration of the Abington Templeton Foundation (see here).  The project is now underway (see here) and I will be posting our writing here.

Check out the latest piece entitled “Questions Unbelievers (especially Atheists) May Ask in Dialogue.”

See also:


What questions may unbelievers (especially atheists) ask you in a dialogue or conversation?  Here are a few:

Why is there so much suffering in my life and in the world?  (Subset:  Why is my mother dying?  Why is my daughter on drugs?  Why did all of those people die in that earthquake?  Why doesn’t God prevent war)?

I can’t see God. How do I know He exists?

Tell me why natural science is not sufficient to explain all that we can know and need to know?

Religion (the Church) holds back progress.  Don’t we need to be freed from such a superstition?  Defend your answer.

Why has the Church been behind so much violence and death (the Crusades are a prime example)?

I have tried to believe, but have not been successful.  Why?

Why hasn’t God answered my prayers?

These and other questions unbelievers ask.  At least some of these questions Christians ask.  These are some of the perennial questions that come from doubt about the reality of God or cause doubt.  As we continue on in our journey we will add questions to this brief article.  Don’t forget to check back.

In a previous article, we commended the biblical idea that the Holy Spirit gives us the words to say when we are defending and witnessing to the faith.  Do we need to study despite what the Scriptures say about the power of the Holy Spirit?  Yes, a Christian must always be intent on learning from the Bible and other literature. We should not use the Holy Spirit as an excuse to be intellectually and spiritually lazy.

Michael G. Tavella

July 6, 2019

Templeton Project: Deep Conviction and Commitment

Back in October 2015 I wrote about the inauguration of the Abington Templeton Foundation (see here).  The project is now underway (see here) and I will be posting our writing here.

Check out the latest piece entitled “Deep Conviction and Commitment.”

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A fundamental factor in the interface of those with very differing views about the nature of the world and our place in it, especially the believer with the atheist, is the deep conviction and commitment that the parties bring to the table.  The stakes are high in any conversation whether formal or informal.  We put before other individuals what we believe and practice in this life.  Those beliefs could change because of others’ strength of argument.  We are guided in this life by what we believe. Our being is immersed in it.  The motto of Phi Beta Kappa, the college honor society, is “Philosophy is the pilot of life.” Indeed, without our deep religious conviction we are lost on the tumultuous seas of this world.  The loss of our conviction and commitment as believers would be disturbing and disorienting.

It does not take much for us to get angry at an interlocutor with an opposing view because of the risks to us.  We may come to the point of thinking to ourselves, “Before my eyes my world is falling apart.”  Now it is true that critical examination of one’s views is a good thing.  We can review our perspective and assumptions and come forth with a clearer mind and stronger faith.  But, we do not want to come forth from such a conversation without God.  He is the foundation and hope of our lives.

We must remember that the atheist may also have deep religious convictions about the world.  It may be that we will unsettle him. His life’s purpose has depended on the idea that the universe as a mechanical and material system is all that there is. There is no God; we do not have souls.  But, this is exactly what we are trying to do, unsettle him.  We wish the other to have hope, not despair.  If the believer changes his mind, the atheist moves from despair to hope.  The apologist is the instrument by which the Word of God comes to the committed atheist and others.

We have and will be defending the faith and witnessing to Christ before those who have deep conviction and commitments against Christian belief.  We must act with “gentleness and respect,” and, at the same time, convince those with whom we speak to confess the Light of the world.  (See Charles Taylor. A Secular Age for much more on what was presented here).

Michael G. Tavella

July 4, 2019

Templeton Project: On Listening to God and One Another

Back in October 2015 I wrote about the inauguration of the Abington Templeton Foundation (see here).  The project is now underway (see here) and I will be posting our writing here.

Check out the latest piece entitled “On Listening to God and One Another.”

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“Listen to me, you who pursue righteousness, you who seek the Lord . . .” (Isaiah 51: 1 ESV) In the scene of the Transfiguration, the Father calls on us to listen to the Son.  The voice from the cloud says, “This is my beloved Son, listen to him.” (Mark 9: 7b ESV)   We are to listen to the words of the Lord.  In these words are wisdom and righteousness.

We are also to listen carefully to the words of others, not that they always are words righteousness and truth.  They are not.  The ” . . . tongue is a fire, a world of unrighteousness.”  (James 3: 6 ESV)  So we are to discern and distinguish the words of others for truth and untruth.  To do this, carefullistening is required.

We must listen so that we understand as thoroughly as possible what the other person is saying.  We can not respond to that person with accuracy if we do not listen to attain accuracy.  No understanding can be achieved without careful listening.  To listen carefully is an instance of love of neighbor and love of the enemy.

We must take seriously instances when we are corrected by another in our listening. “I did not say this, I said that.”  We must consider such responses seriously, not brushing them off as mere obfuscations.  The goal is to get an accurate picture of what the other is saying.  We would wish the same for ourselves.  We must seek understanding, not a confirmation of our prejudices.

What are some simple rules to follow?

  1.  Prayer that you may be an instrument of God. As Saint Francis’ great prayer says, “Grant that we may not so much seek  . . . “to be understood as to understand.” (Lutheran Book of Worship, Pew Edition, p 48).
  2. Ask the Lord to open your ears.
  3. Listen to what God has to say to you.  Many passages of the Holy Scriptures will help you in this.
  4. When in dialogue with another in an informal or formal setting, be intent on understanding what he/she had to say. You may help clarify their own thinking. Ask questions to clarify for yourself.  When necessary, repeat what is said to you to confirm whether you are hearing correctly or incorrectly.
  5. Do not use a strategy of misrepresentation or rely on a straw man.
  6. Do not be tempted to entertain a crowd at the expense of truth.  Humor can be used effectively without falling into such temptation.
  7. Keep as a goal, especially in formal debate, of clarity of both or several points of view whether they are right or wrong.
  8. Understand our own limitations as well as those of the other person.  Sometimes, we do not intend to misunderstand.  We just do.
  9. Listen to the Word of the Lord.  Again, listen to the Word of the Lord for guidance and truth.  Frequent reading of Scriptures with a deep intention to understand them will help.

Michael G. Tavella

July 1, 2019

Templeton Project: The Holy Spirit as Apologist

Back in October 2015 I wrote about the inauguration of the Abington Templeton Foundation (see here).  The project is now underway (see here) and I will be posting our writing here.

Check out the latest piece entitled “The Holy Spirit as Apologist.”

See also:


In what is called “The Synoptic Apocalypse” (found in variant forms in all three Gospels) as presented in Mark, Jesus says, “”But be on your guard. For they will deliver you over to councils, and you will be beaten in synagogues, and you will stand before governors and kings for my sake, to bear witness before them.  And the gospel must first be proclaimed to all nations. And when they bring you to trial and deliver you over, do not be anxious beforehand what you are to say, but say whatever is given to you in that hour, for it is not you who speak , but the Holy Spirit.”  (Mark 13: 9-11 ESV)   In a similar passage in Luke the word defense is used: ” . . . they will lay hands on you and persecute you, delivering you up to the synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors for my name’s sake.  This will be an opportunity to bear witness. Settle it therefore in your minds not to meditate before how to answer, for I will give you a mouth and wisdom, which none of your adversaries will be able to withstand or contradict.” (Luke 21: 12-15 ESV)  The phrase “how to answer” translates the verb that can also be translated as “to prepare your defense.” (NRSV) In Luke 12 we find the same Greek verb.  “And when they bring you before the synagogues and the rulers and the authorities, do not be anxious about how you should defend yourself or what you should say, for the Holy Spirit will teach you in that very hour what you ought to say.” (Luke 12: 11-12 ESV) It is in the latter part of Luke’s work, Acts, that we have Paul’s defense before those in authority.  Both the verb and noun for defense are found there.

The passage about the Holy Spirit as the guide in Mark is found in other places, not in the apocalypse, in Matthew and Luke (Matthew 10: 17-21 and Luke 12: 11-12).  The idea is that the Holy Spirit will be speaking through the one who is making his defense (Luke is the one who actually uses the verb for defense). Christians are to be confident that their defense comes from the Holy Spirit. As Luke describes, the Holy Spirit is our mouth.

We are not to avoid defending the faith, because we do not feel confident to do this.  The Spirit is behind our words. He teaches us as we speak!  In the biblical text there are no reservations about this fact,, but should we have reservations?  ls the Holy Spirit really speaking through me?  We are sinners and may get it wrong. Much we do not know.  Again, we may get it wrong. No advice about this concern does Jesus give us.  We need only ask the heavenly Father, who gives all good things, to grant us the Holy Spirit for this task (Luke 11: 13).

In our witness and defense we call on the Holy Spirit to guide our words with confidence that He will.  He will speak through us with the message and defense of the Gospel.  We can rely on Christ’s Word: “When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth ‘ ‘ ‘ (John 16: 13 ESV)

Michael G. Tavella

July 1, 2019

Templeton Project: Jesus and His Opponents in the Gospel according to Saint Matthew

Back in October 2015 I wrote about the inauguration of the Abington Templeton Foundation (see here).  The project is now underway (see here) and I will be posting our writing here.

Check out the latest piece entitled “Jesus and His Opponents in the Gospel according to Saint Matthew.”

See also:


In the Synoptic Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, Jesus engages in controversy with His opponents.  These controversy narratives are short encounters, ending with a definitive statement by Jesus. The Pharisees and the Saduccees test Jesus (Matthew 16: 1), and the Pharisees accuse Him of working for Satan (Matthew 12: 22ff).  These two groups, representing different views on the interpretation of the Law, oppose Jesus throughout the Gospel.

Only a few times in Matthew are Jesus’ opponents called brood of vipers, first by John the Baptist.  He condemns the Pharisees and Sadducees for not bearing “fruit in keeping with repentance” (Matthew 3: 9 ESV) and for relying on Abraham, their ancestor, for their standing before God. Those who do not bear good fruit are “thrown into the fire.” (Matthew 3: 10 ESV)  Those who profess strong religious conviction are lacking in repentance, indicated by the failure to bear fruit.

In a lengthy passage in Matthew 23 Jesus condemns the hypocrisy of the Pharisees.  At its beginning Jesus advises the people to “practice and observe whatever they tell you–but not what they do. for they preach but do not practice.” (Matthew 23: 2 ESV)  Later in the text they are called hypocrites. (Matthew 23: 13 ESV)  The word, hypocrite, comes from the Greek stage.  The actor was one who hid his own personality as he played a role in the theater.  In the Gospels a hypocrite is one who hides himself behind a mask of pretension, of being something he is not, that is, repentant and obedient to the Lord.  They are motivated by status and praise.

The piety of the Pharisees and the Saduccees was a sham, hiding what they really were. Jesus describes the hypocrite in the Sermon on the Mount.  “Thus, when you give to the needy, sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be praised by others.”  (Matthew 6: 2 ESV)  Jesus’ opponents from the religious establishment hide behind a mask.  In Matthew the epithet is found mostly in the Sermon on the Mount and in Matthew 23 where Jesus emphatically condemns the religious leaders.

The Pharisees are also called blind guides, because they teach falsely (Matthew 15: 10ff).  The scribes and Pharisees are called hypocrites and blind guides in Matthew 23.  There again Jesus accuses them of teaching erroneously.

In Matthew 5: 21ff, verses in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus warns against anger.  He radicalizes the Old Testament commandment against murder by prohibiting anger. Those who do not refrain from anger have opened themselves to judgment.  The same is true for those who insult a brother or call him a fool. But, Jesus also calls people fools.  Does He contradict His own teachings?

In Matthew 25 Jesus speaks of the wise and foolish virgins.  The wise are prepared to meet their Lord when He returns while the foolish are not. At the end of the Sermon on the Mount Jesus contrasts the wise one “who hears these words of mine and does them” with the foolish one  “who hears these words of mine and does not do them.”(Matthew 7: 24 ESV)  Fool/foolish are apt words to describe those who do not follow the teachings of Jesus.  The wise/fool dichotomy is found in various places in the Holy Scriptures (see Proverbs).  When used as an insult, such a label as fool is namecalling, but not so when it describes an actual condition of a person who opposes God’s will.

Jesus calls the religious leaders fools, hypocrites, blind guides, and a brood of vipers.  Is this language appropriate when we make a defense?  We could say that since Jesus is Son of God, He does not have to follow the same standards as He calls us to follow. In Matthew Jesus is the lawgiver who teaches according to the divine will.  For Him to transgress what He teaches would make Him liable to the charge of hypocrisy.  But, Jesus calls HIs opposition what they truly are.  On them falls divine judgment, and Jesus announces this judgment.

These epithets, or labels, accurately describe Jesus’ foes.  The opponents are condemned for their disobedience and opposition to the divine will.   They are not names used to make fun of the antagonist and insult HIm.  The names Jesus uses are not intended to ridicule but to warn the religious leaders of divine judgment.  Most epithets do not fulfill this purpose, but are meant to disarm and insult.

In our own encounters when we are called on to make a defense of our faith, we are to refrain from abusive names.  We may use names that are accurate in their description and that call the other to heed the untruth he is promoting.  When we discover that we have been inaccurate or wrong in such use, we are to express our regrets to our opponent.  Such names used to address others in apologetic discourse should be used very sparingly.

MIchael Tavella

July 1, 2019

Templeton Project: Christ, Culture, and Christians

Back in October 2015 I wrote about the inauguration of the Abington Templeton Foundation (see here).  The project is now underway (see here) and I will be posting our writing here.

Check out the latest piece entitled “Christ, Culture, and Christians.”

See also:


On the sixth day according to the Book of Genesis, God created human beings. After a time, God observed that it was not good for the man, called Adam, to be alone.  Causing a deep sleep to come over him, God formed a wife for him out of his rib.  Adam called her Eve, “the mother of all living.” Shortly thereafter, Adam and Eve were thrown out of the Garden for disobeying God’s command not to eat of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.  The gates of Paradise were closed against them.  The cherubim and the swirling sword prevented their return.

God commanded humanity and all creatures to “be fruitful and multiply.”  After their expulsion from Eden, Adam and Eve had children. Sin increased in the world through their son, Cain, and other descendents of the original couple. The early chapters of Genesis (Genesis 1-11),called the primeval history, deal with the increase of sin.

Humanity increased, forming tribes and nations with various languages and customs.  The writer of Genesis explains that different languages came about by God’s command at the Tower of Babel because of the sin of human being’s trying to become like God.  They intended to build a structure that would reach to the heavens, a prideful and arrogant thing. Many different cultures and languages resulted from this dispersion.

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines culture as “the integrated pattern of human knowledge, belief, and behavior that depends upon the capacity for learning and transmitting knowledge to succeeding generations . . . the customary beliefs, social forms, and material traits of a racial, religious, or social group . . . the set of shared attitudes, values, conventions, or social practices associated with a particular field, activity, or societal characteristic.”

When God created a helpmate for Adam, Eve, to join Adam and commanded them to participate in the ongoing development of creation by bearing offspring, God effectively established culture.  Culture is intrinsic to human beings who are by their very nature culture-creating, culture-bearing, and culture-perpetuating beings. Human beings have founded many cultures and developed and subsequently transmitted them to succeeding generations. God declared His creation to be “good” and upon seeing His creation of human beings that includes culture, described it as “very good.”

But, things went wrong.  Adam and Eve disobeyed God, an act that got them cast out of Paradise. Culture was affected and infected by this act of disobedience (see Genesis 4)  The solution for sin, the Bible tells us, is our salvation in Jesus Christ.

Christ, a Greek word meaning “anointed one,”  taken from the Hebrew word, Mashiach, is a title applied to Jesus of Nazareth.  The mission of Jesus, the incarnate Word of God, was, and remains, the establishment of His eternal kingdom.  Through HIs willing sacrifice on the cross, he redeemed humanity.  Those who believe in Him are saved.

He redeemed humanity from what?  The Holy Scriptures make it clear that human beings were created to enjoy a perfect existence; however, tragically, we turned our backs to God through our disobedience and sin, the setting up of ourselves as idols above God.  This event, part of every human life, beginning with Adam and Eve, who set it in motion, is called the Fall in Christian doctrine and theology.  Human beings fell from perfect and sinless communion with God to a broken relationship.  The implications of the Fall permeate every aspect of human life.  We are now subject to sin, death, the world, and the power of the devil.  The culture is subject to the disastrous effects of the Fall; because, it has negatively affected those called to form “pattern[s] of human knowledge, belief, and behavior.”

The Gospel of John often uses the term, “the world,” to describe human culture as fallen, steeped in idolatry as a result of our disobedience to God. Our idolatry puts other gods before the true God. The world is opposed to the will of God.

Jesus contrasts His peace with that of the peace offered by the world when he says “peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you.  Not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid.” (John 14: 27)  He draws a stark contrast between the world and Christians when He says “if you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world; but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you.” (John 15: 19) and “I have given them your word, and the world has hated them because they are not of the world, just as I am not of the world . . .They are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. (John 17: 14, 16)

Human culture had been negatively impacted by the Fall.  It is the context for the world opposed to God, darkness, and the work of Satan. This fact poses a significant challenge to Christians as they both pursue a life in and with Christ, but do so within our imperfect and fallen culture.

Christians also belong to a subculture, the Church.  Unfortunately even inside the Church, we are impacted by the fall into sin.  Despite the fact that Christ founded the Church, Christians struggle with the influence of sin in their subculture.

How do Christ and culture relate? (See H. Richard Niebuhr, Christ and Culture and D.A. Carson, Christ and Culture Revisited) The first thing to recognize is that some sort of culture–regardless of whether one is a Christian, atheist, devotee of another religion, or pagan–is impossible for humans to avoid.  Any community of people forms a culture and, to that end, has language, cuisine, musical forms, a system of etiquette, style of dress, dance, architecture, entertainment, literature, ethnic customs and outlook among other things. Culture is fallen, because human beings are fallen. It is “the world” insofar as it is in opposition to God in Christ and hates the Church, the people of God.  The Church is burdened with sin; but, at the same time, is the place where the redeemed dwell.  Saint Augustine describes two societies: the earthly city and the heavenly city.  The Church is a pilgrim people, whose sins are in the process of being cleansed, as we fare toward the heavenly city.  We are pilgrims seeking the destination of the kingdom of heaven.

The Christian who wishes not to be “of the world,” must come to terms with the fact that he will in significant ways engage with culture and deal with sin in the congregation he belongs to.  Even those Christians that are the most withdrawn from the world, like the Amish or a monastic community, will engage with the culture and the opposition to Christ and His Church in it. They cannot seal themselves off from culture. They will also struggle with their own sin. Therefore, Christians must come to terms with culture and with how to live in and with it.  But also, Christians must avoid fraternizing too closely with culture such that we become indistinguishable from the world, as some denominations have done in recent times.  The Church itself is a culture that opposes the world.

The Church recognizes that culture should be subservient to the Lordship of Christ.  The Church neither completely withdraws from culture, nor capitulates to it.  To do either would cause great harm to her life in the world that is her mission field.

Most Christians live in an uneasy paradox, seeking the grace of perserverance against the world and asking Christ to sustain us through our interaction with it. Culture is fallen, yet impossible to avoid. Although culture is subject to the Fall, it is an overstatement to suggest that it is entirely corrupted by the Fall, that it is entirely evil to the extent that Christians may not participate in it at all. It serves as a medium through which the Gospel is communicated to those outside the Church.  Through the ages goodness and virtue have been described and sought in cultures by philosophers, poets, theologians, and others.  In The Divine Comedy Virgil, the pagan Roman, is chosen to guide Dante along part of the way to heaven.

The Church and Christians need to have a reasonable and sober view that recognizes that culture is essentially human and is good in its origination, yet is also a result of the Fall.  We must use our faith as a guide to decide how, when, and where to participate and not to participate.

The Church and individual Christians must discern where culture is consistent with Christ, where it has departed from the truth, and what remedies are possible this side of the fulfillment of the kingdom of heaven.  But, the most important concern of the Church is to reflect Christ in the life of the City of God in pilgrimage.  We pray for the Church in the words of a Collect taken from The Book of Common Prayer, “O gracious Father, we humbly beseech thee for thy holy Catholic Church; that thou wouldest be pleased to fill it with all truth, in all peace.  Where it is corrupt, purify it; where it is in error, direct it; where in any thing it is amiss, reform it.  Where it is right, establish it; where it is in want, provide for it; where it is divided, reunite it; for the sake of him who died and rose again, and ever liveth to make intercession for us, Jesus Christ, thy Son, our Lord.  Amen.

How does this article relate to the theme of this blog, which is, ways to engage in respectful conversation with those who disagree with our faith, especially atheists?  It introduces the divide that exists between secularists in the culture and the faithful in Christ. Christians and unbelievers would bring to the table great differences regarding the meaning of life, the way to live, relationship to the culture, priorities, and commitments.  A lot is at stake when we would sit down together.  Anger could be quite apparent in such encounters.  It would not be too difficult for a discussion to turn into a quarrel. (More on anger later). Contempt for the other may also be brought to such meetings.  The gap is wide between contemporary American culture and the Church and even wider between the contemporary culture (called the world in its sinful and rebellious aspects) and Christ.

In future articles H. Richard Niebuhr’s Christ and Culture and D.A. Carson’s Christ and Culture Revisited will be reviewed.

James Cushing

Templeton Project: Unbelievers

Back in October 2015 I wrote about the inauguration of the Abington Templeton Foundation (see here).  The project is now underway (see here) and I will be posting our writing here.

Check out the latest piece entitled “Unbelievers.”

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