Thursday, August 9, 2018

Grace and Truth

Grace and truth, effort or earning, works or faith, justice or mercy, these are the conundrums of my life. I know that Jesus came into this world full of grace and truth and ever since, we who follow his example have desired to be people of grace and truth. I can never seem to find the right balance nor live in the right place of tension between the two. The newspapers tell us that the elders of Willow Creek Church in Illinois know all too well that one can easily extend too much grace, demand too much truth, trust people too much, love people too little, and fail miserably at justice for all. There is no doubt in my mind that I would rather extend grace than mete out justice. I would rather love and forgive than hate and punish, but there is a part of me that realizes that when I forgive Sir John A. MacDonald for his part in “The Indian Act,” I am hurting those who were hurt by the ethnic cleansing brought about by the Indian Act. Some of my current friends are people whose culture and their very lives have been damaged by the Indian Act. How do I seek justice for all? How does God extend grace and justice to all? Could God ever forgive those who have hurt or killed huge populations of people? If God forgave Hitler, could the Jews ever forgive God?

Perhaps “the answers to these questions are more questions such as these.”[1] Perhaps we need to give up our obsession with getting what we deserve and take what we are given. Perhaps the answers are found in songs, poetry, stories, and parables. J.R.R. Tolkien once interpreted the actions of one of his characters in the following way.

“One tiny Hobbit against all the evil the world could muster. A sane being would have given up, but Samwise burned with a magnificent madness, a glowing obsession to surmount every obstacle, to find Frodo, destroy the Ring, and cleanse Middle Earth of its festering malignancy. He knew he would try again. Fail, perhaps. And try once more. A thousand, thousand times if need be, but he would not give up the quest.” – J.R.R. Tolkien

“Come, Mr. Frodo!' he cried. 'I can't carry it for you, but I can carry you and it as well. So up you get! Come on, Mr. Frodo dear! Sam will give you a ride. Just tell him where to go, and he'll go” ― J.R.R. TolkienThe Return of the King

Might all of us choose to be one tiny Hobbit, one cog in the massive mechanisms of the universe? What difference might we make by pursuing the one thing to which we are called? Do we desire to be a Hobbit or a powerful Lord of the Eldar? Each has their place and their work to be done. Can we be satisfied if God has made us the Hobbit type?

Some believe it is only great power that can hold evil in check, but that is not what I have found. I found it is the small everyday deeds of ordinary folk that keep the darkness at bay by small acts of kindness and love. - J.R.R. Tolkien

I wish I had more answers and less questions. It seems that as I age, the questions multiply but the answers only subtract. I am learning more, but as I learn more, I find that I know less, because I have found more questions to ask. The stories begin to answer the questions. The parables hold the key, if only I could understand them better. The poetry of life contains the entire universe. May Jesus lead us ever closer to knowing him and his mission in the world.

[1] “Socrates” song written by Mac McAnaly on the album Live and Learn, 1992.

Monday, July 30, 2018

Once Upon A Time, Long, Long Ago

Once upon a time, in a land far away, a King awoke and surveyed his kingdom from the highest tower of his palace. He saw fields with green crops beginning to bear fruit. He saw a land of peace where neighbours cared for neighbours and disputes were settled with little struggle. He saw sheep and cattle grazing and young calves kicking up their heels in the dance of new life. He saw people carrying loads of goods that they had grown or made in their homes as they headed to the markets to sell their surplus. He saw children laughing and playing in safe streets. In short, he saw that all was well. It made his heart glad to see such a joyful kingdom for he knew that it had not always been so. Just a few years ago, this was a land of strife and people had grumbled in their homes and complained in the streets about the state of their country. People had starved for lack of food, the waters of the land were not fit to drink, and people had been quick to blame the king and one another for the sad state of this place.

The King had then gathered together all of his household and his staff and they had begun to work a plan. They taught the people how to care for the land and the wells, and they helped them manage their crops and plan for the future. They had held meetings to teach and to listen to the people of the land. They had poured many hours of labour and much of the king’s own treasury into making the kingdom a good place to live. And now that things were going well, people thronged from all of the adjacent communities to see this land and to learn from the collective wisdom of the people.

A celebratory thought crossed the king’s mind and he told his staff to prepare a banquet. He thought, “We should celebrate what we have accomplished.” They would celebrate the best successes of the land. They would feast and drink and dance and enjoy the crops of the land. The invitations were sent and the preparations were made. 

When all was ready, the king sent his criers out into the kingdom to call the people to the table. The message was sent, “All is ready come to the banquet.” But the criers came back with tears in their eyes. The people are not coming, they have busied themselves with other things. Some are doing business with their new-found wealth, some are working in the fields for even greater profit, and some are celebrating new marriages and new alliances.

The King was very sad for a moment. How could his people not see the importance of this banquet? Did they not see all that he and his staff had done for them? How did they become so fixated on the abundances of the land? Did they not see that there is a time for feasting and joyful banqueting?

The king’s sorrow lasted for just a moment and then he told his criers, “Go out into the new territories where the people have not yet been affected by the changes in the kingdom. Go to the places where the poor, the sick, the broken can be found. Invite them to join us. We will have a celebration greater than any seen before.” The criers said that they would do as he had said but there would still be room. The king said, “Make sure you look everywhere and ask everyone to attend. We do not want any to miss their invitation.”

So, the Great Banquet was held and all who came rejoiced and feasted. But, the king always knew it would have been a much better celebration if everyone had attended.

Saturday, July 14, 2018

God Rested

Then God looked over all he had made, and he saw that it was very good!
And evening passed and morning came, marking the sixth day.
So the creation of the heavens and the earth and everything in them was completed. On the seventh day God had finished his work of creation, so he rested from all his work. And God blessed the seventh day and declared it holy, because it was the day when he rested from all his work of creation.
Genesis 1:31-2:3 (NIV)

Take some time to read again the account of creation in Genesis chapters 1 and 2 of the Bible. Most of us think that we already know what it says, but I find that each reading reveals new insights. Genesis 1 and Genesis 2 each give the account of creation in different ways. Each offers rich insights into what God wants us to know about his creation, his place in the universe, our place in the universe, and the responsibility of each person, animal, and object in the story.

At one time, I thought that God was communicating to us that we are presently living in the seventh day. Genesis 2:2 says, “On the seventh day God had finished his work of creation, so he rested from all his work.” At one level, it sounds like God is finished once and for all and that he is now resting from the work of creation. That is not the case at all. 

Creation is most certainly continuing to happen. As I write these words, Kīlauea volcanoe on the island of Hawaii is spewing lava into the sea and adding to the size of the island. In 2013, a new island was formed in the Pacific Ocean just off of the coast of Japan. Currently, new stars and planets are being formed in the far reaches of space. Furthermore, new species of plants and animals are being discovered at a rapid pace. Some of these discoveries are in fact new species that have recently come into being.

So, what are we to make of the “rest of God?” What are these words communicating to us? Perhaps it is as simple as telling us that there is a time for work and that there is a time for rest. The Creator does not always spell out all of the implications of how we are to live, but he gives us grand principles and asks us to work out how we might live this out in our time. Humans have been working out the concept of sabbath rest ever since creation. In times when Jewish law was supreme, Sabbath was highly codified and legalized. Specific rules of what could and could not be done on the seventh day of the week were built into the society. Under the rule of the Babylonians, Assyrians, Romans, and other cultures, it was necessary to adjust how Sabbath was lived out. In recent history, as Christianity has sought to codify Sabbath regulations, we saw Sunday shopping rules enshrined in law, encroached upon, struck down, and now meaningless. Christians today find themselves in a place in time and culture where we each must reinterpret how we will appropriately live out a life of work and rest. Yet, the grand principle still applies: God’s best plan for us is a day of rest and six days of work.

Creation goes on and God’s principles of what is best for his people also go on. May we rejoice in an ever-changing universe, ever-changing culture, and the constant principles which guide our lives.

Friday, July 13, 2018

Existential Cowboy Music

This week is Stampede week in Calgary. It is a time when everyone and every band gets cowboyed-up. Doc Walker is a band that gets played almost exclusively on Country Radio but they do have songs that deal with real philosophical concepts. "Raining on the Moon" is a case in point. The perspective of this song is quite existential: "where we are, is everything we know, all we've got is the love that we show." In a blog a few days ago, I quoted some of the lyrics. Here are the rest. They speak of fake news, unbelievable occurrences, technological advances, and how our minds cope with it all. Take a look at these lyrics composed by Jude Cole. (Listen to the song here.)

Have you heard the news?
It's raining on the moon
The man in the tv said
It's raining on the moon
Even the scientists
Can't believe it's true
They're showing diagrams
And little moon cartoons
Where we are is everything we know
All we've got is the love that we show
There was a man who knew
That none of this was true
He swore by God above
The end was coming soon
Now there's a rocket bus
Leaves every afternoon
And funny little cars
Racing on the dunes
Where we are is everything we know
All we've got is the love that we show
Everyone aboard
It's raining on the moon
What would you stay here for?
It's raining on the moon!
Everyone aboard
It's raining on the moon
No worries anymore
It's raining on the moon!
Songwriters: Jude Cole / Jude Anthony Cole
Raining On The Moon lyrics © Warner/Chappell Music, Inc

Monday, July 9, 2018

Exploring New Frontiers

Have you heard the news?
It’s raining on the moon.
Man in the T.V. said,
It’s raining on the moon.

Even the scientists
Can’t believe it’s true
They’re showing diagrams
And little moon cartoons

Where we are
Is everything we know
All we’ve got
Is the love we show[1]

We live in a time when it is almost possible to believe anything is possible. The lyrics of a song recorded by Doc Walker speak of the unbelievable times in which we live. Right now is a time of exploration unprecedented since 15th to 18th century European colonialism. Humans are preparing to investigate the solar system in ways never done before. Most will be done robotically; take for example the Europa Clipper ( that NASA plans to launch in 2022 to 2025. This mission will fly close to Jupiter’s moon Europa and take samples of its global ocean by flying through the geysers ejected from the moon surface. This will be an excellent opportunity to determine if microbial life exists below the moon’s icy surface or whether life could possibly exist there.

Lunar landers for Earth’s Moon are planned for 2019 through 2021 with the plan to use the Moon as a base of operations for trips to Mars and other parts of the solar system. Some of these trips will eventually include human flight as well.

Boeing and SpaceX are competing to be the first American companies to return to carrying crew for the International Space Station (ISS) and both anticipate crewed tests of their space-cabins by the end of 2018. This will prepare the United States for a return to leadership in human space exploration. At the same time, Russia is planning crewed flights in their new crew module for 2023 and lunar orbits for 2027.

Of course, Mars is the next big goal. SpaceX appears to be the present leader in the race with their development of the Big Falcon Rocket (BFR) which is slated to begin testing in 2019. This is a complete redesign of launching systems and space flight modules capable of interplanetary flight.

SpaceX, Boeing, and NASA may be the biggest and most vocal players in the race for space, but a number of other companies are quietly working on their own plans for robotic and human launches. Blue Orbit, Virgin Galactic, Ariane Space, Stratolaunch Systems, Orbital ATK, and the People’s Republic of China are all developing systems to compete with various aspects of technological prowess in the space race. One of these slumbering giants may yet rise to the forefront.

What did we learn from the New World Race in the 15thto 18thcenturies that may be applicable to the current competition? Are there ways in which the countries and companies of the world could collaborate to assist the entire human race? Where is there potential for conflict? Each of us has a part to play in the conversations that will occur in the years to come. May we seek peace and unity in the midst of grand achievements.

[1]Jude Anthony Cole, Raining On The Moon lyrics © Warner/Chappell Music, Inc

Friday, June 29, 2018

Grace and Effort

As I prepare a sermon for this Sunday on New Wine, I know I need to meditate upon this quote by Dallas Willard.

“Grace is not opposed to effort, it is opposed to earning. Earning is an attitude. Effort is an action. Grace, you know, does not just have to do with forgiveness of sins alone.”
― Dallas Willard, The Great Omission: Reclaiming Jesus's Essential Teachings on Discipleship, 2006, HarperOne.

The tensions of grace, effort, and earning are real. We must come to grips with how the three interact and are distinct. This conversation is essential to our spiritual health. May Jesus be gracious toward us as we “work out our salvation with fear and trembling.” (Philippians 2:12-13)

Wednesday, June 27, 2018

My Next Thirty Years

I think I'll take a moment to celebrate my age
The ending of an era and the turning of a page
Now it's time to focus in on where I go from here
Lord have mercy on my next thirty years…[1]

In a few days I will turn 58. Perhaps it is the proximity to 60 that has got me thinking about what my big goals are for the next few years. Life goals are certainly different at 58 than they were at 18, 28, 38… There are some things that I now recognize will not be accomplished this side of heaven. I am hoping for better coordination in eternity so that I might finally learn to play the guitar. (I am also hoping that I don’t have to learn the harp – that is way too much tuning.)

I suppose this is how people get on to writing memoirs – thinking about one’s own life is a slippery slope that soon has the writer believing that others would be interested in reading about their childhood, first date, and, for that matter, goals of life. Many of us spend time considering how we will be viewed by posterity. The question is, will anyone be remembered by posterity? Our obsession with the celebrity of the moment has been accelerating for many years.

“Fame, notes Braudy, has become so immediate that it has lost its posterity. We have a growing sense of impermanence. ‘With the media you have the sense that our entire definition of true fame is visibility. We eat people up a lot faster’ he contends….
If our gods are no longer permanent, if our heroes are murderers, if our political leaders are exposed as compulsive adulterers or tax evaders, then we can no longer fill ourselves up on them in quite the same way. Instead, we drown in information, and use it to allay the anxiety of a godless and ever-shifting culture. Our endless lust for stories derives in part from the pure pleasure of it—but also to distract us from our deeper anxieties.”[2]

That quote is enough to scare me away from celebrity status, or at least temper my drive toward being known in the world. Perhaps the goals for my next thirty years should be less about how I will be viewed by others and more about helping others find their voice and bettering their world. Phil Vassar’s song goes on to suggest that for his next thirty years he will focus on his family. 

My next thirty years will be the best years of my life
Raise a little family and hang out with my wife
Spend precious moments with the ones that I hold dear
Make up for lost time here, in my next thirty years
In my next thirty years.[3]

This is certainly a noble goal for all, and it is the primary concern of one approaching 30. At 58 there are still many ways to help my family and encourage them in their growth; but now it is much more about modelling a lifestyle that reflects concern for the rest of the world. What if I spent the next thirty years of my life seeking freedom for those in prison, recovery of sight for the blind, and release for those who are oppressed? What effect might my small life have on the attitudes of my family, those around me, and the world in general? I will certainly continue to aim high, for as Longfellow has said, “If you would hit the mark, you must aim a little above it: Every arrow that flies feels the attraction of earth.”[4] But, at 58, I have a greater recognition of my small place in the universe. I will no longer seek celebrity status, but rather my place in the universe, the family of humanity, and the Body of Christ. Perhaps I can more readily accept my place among others. Emerson once said, “Accept the place the divine providence has found for you, the society of your contemporaries, the connection of events.”[5] This too is a goal worthy of one approaching 60. So, let us celebrate our age, wherever we find ourselves. May our good Lord give us the grace to see ourselves as others see us[6] and may others see us as those who care for others.

[1]Phil Vassar, My Next Thirty Years,” words and music by Phil Vassar “from the album Greatest Hits Also recorded by Tim McGraw.
[2]The Culture of Celebrity” in Psychology Today, By Jill Neimark, published May 1, 1995,
[3]Phil Vassar, My Next Thirty Years,” words and music by Phil Vassar “from the album Greatest Hits
[4]Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
[5]Ralph Waldo Emerson
[6]Oh, would some Power give us the gift
To see ourselves as others see us!
It would from many a blunder free us,
And foolish notion:
What airs in dress and gait would leave us,
And even devotion!
Robert Burns, “To A Louse,” 1786.

Sunday, June 17, 2018

Robots and Wisdom

It may well be that the time has come to make three fictional laws, actual laws in our world. Perhaps the United Nations could be given authority over Artificial Intelligence and could enforce Isaac Asimov’s “Three Laws of Robotics.” Two articles in the news today bring to mind the need for greater regulation in the areas of Artificial Intelligence (AI) and “outer space frontier development."[1] We now need the “laws of robotics.” You may not remember these famous literary laws from Asimov’s short-story, “Runaround.” Allow me to refresh our memories:

  1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
  2. A robot must obey the orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
  3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Laws.[2]

These laws would prevent the kind of military drones now being contemplated by the Pentagon as they discuss policy with Google and other leading AI industrialists.[3] It would be very easy for drones and AI drones to take over conventional warfare. Such laws, if written into international law, would have the potential to demilitarize the AI and Space frontiers and prevent us from reverting to a “wild-west” mentality in these spheres of influence. The UN (including the little known United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs [UNOOSA]) would need to be given authority to oversee and gain cooperation from member nations - and therein lies the difficulty. The recent launch of a swarm of private artificial intelligence satellites, each about 10 centimetres across, demonstrates how difficult it is to enforce the laws. These recently launched satellites are so tiny that they cannot be tracked and could pose a navigational hazard for the International Space Station (ISS) and other satellites encircling the globe. Swarm Technologies was denied permission to launch these satellites from within the United States, so they found a carrier in India willing to send them aloft.

So, if we can’t enforce the rules, laws, and guidelines already in place, how could we enforce the three laws of robotics? Yet, it seems we must try. My recent Bible readings addressed the topic of “good judgement.” What does good judgement look like in some of these recent developments? I leave that for the reader to meditate upon as we read the following excerpt from the book of Proverbs.

Proverbs 4:4-9
My father taught me,
“Take my words to heart.
    Follow my commands, and you will live.
Get wisdom; develop good judgment.
    Don’t forget my words or turn away from them.
Don’t turn your back on wisdom, for she will protect you.
    Love her, and she will guard you.
Getting wisdom is the wisest thing you can do!
    And whatever else you do, develop good judgment.
If you prize wisdom, she will make you great.
    Embrace her, and she will honor you.
She will place a lovely wreath on your head;
    she will present you with a beautiful crown.”

[1]See, “How we can prevent outer space from becoming the Wild West?”; Nicole Mortillaro, CBC News, Jun 17, 2018,
Also see, “Is Google's new set of principles enough to calm fears over militarized A.I.?”; Ramona Pringle, CBC News,  Jun 16, 2018,
[2]Asimov, Isaac (1950). "Runaround". I, Robot (hardcover) (The Isaac Asimov Collection ed.). New York City: Doubleday. p. 40. ISBN 0-385-42304-7. This is an exact transcription of the laws. They also appear in the front of the book, and in both places there is no "to" in the 2nd law.
[3] See, “Is Google's new set of principles enough to calm fears over militarized A.I.?”; Ramona Pringle, CBC News,  Jun 16, 2018,

Thursday, June 14, 2018

Chromosome 2

Human Chromosome 2 is an interesting example of evidence that suggests God used evolution to create humanity. Darrel Falk has made a series of YouTube videos that explain why he believes that Chromosome 2 is evidence for God using evolutionary processes.[1] Here I will explain the basic concepts and leave it to the reader to investigate further.

To understand this evidence, we must first understand a little bit about genetics, chromosomes, and DNA. Chromosomes are the structures that keep our DNA organized. In every cell of our bodies there are strings of 3 billion base pairs of DNA. DNA is a string of adenine (A), guanine (G), cytosine (C), and thymine (T) molecules strung together in a variety of combinations that can be represented like this:

(Click on images to enlarge)

Notice that the strings of molecules can be put together in many permutations and allow for an amazing amount of information to be stored in this format. The image shown above is a representation of one side of the DNA ladder. DNA pairs in such a way that A pairs with T and C pairs with G, so the two sides of a DNA double helix can be represented in the following way:

Chromosomes organize and constrain this DNA into discreet packages that allow the DNA to be copied, moved around, and accurately passed from one cell division to another and from one generation to the next. The ends of the chromosomes have distinct DNA structures called telomeres. In humans, the sequence of these telomeres is a number of repeats of TTAGGG and these telomeres prevent DNA from unraveling, much like the tips on the end of shoelaces prevent our shoelaces from fraying. Chromosomes have centromeric structures near the centre of the chromosomes where proteins look for specific conformations or shapes of DNA on the chromosome to grab the chromosomes and pull them in a specific direction when cell division such as mitosis or meiosis occurs (two forms of cell division in which the appropriate amount of DNA must be segregated into each cell).

Most humans have 23 pairs or a total of 46 chromosomes that look something like this when painted with fluorescent dyes:

Telomeric structures would be at the ends of each chromosome and centromeric structures would be at the darkened and pinched-in point generally toward the middle of the chromosome.

Different species of animals have different numbers of chromosomes. Here is a list of some animals and their chromosome number. I will continue to speak of the number of pairs of chromosomes in the typical animal, rather than the total number of chromosomes.
Mice have 20 pairs of chromosomes;
horses, 32 pairs;
donkeys, 31;
cows, 30;
tigers, 19;
lions, 19;
orangutans, 24;
gorillas, 24;
chimpanzees, 24;
and bonobos (pygmy chimpanzees), 24 pairs.

These last four entries represent the great apes and are especially interesting to the rest of this article and we will pursue this topic more in the next few paragraphs. But before we get there, let me remind the reader that plants also have distinct numbers of chromosomes and we could list some of those as well. The coffee plant has 22 pairs of chromosomes whereas the pineapple has 25 pairs. The number of pairs of chromosomes is one mechanism that acts as a boundary between species and prevents the crossing of one species with another. There are a few rare exceptions such as horses and donkeys in which cross-breeding is possible despite different chromosomal numbers, but for the most part, such crossings fail. This is sufficient background regarding our DNA and its packaging into chromosomes to remind us that our bodies are fearfully and wonderfully made and that there is still much to learn about how the mechanisms of genetics work.

Now we come to the interesting instance of human Chromosome 2. As noted above, humans have 23 pairs of chromosomes while the great apes have 24 pairs. If we look closely at and compare the chromosomes of humans and the great apes, a good deal of similarity is noted. G-banding patterns are a crude method of looking at the overall structure of chromosomes, but they are instructive in showing the similarities of chromosomes. Traditionally, this G-banding technique has been used to uniquely identify and arrange each of our 23 pairs of chromosomes.

Of particular note is the similarity between human chromosome 2 and ape chromosomes 12 and 13. The picture below shows the similarity in banding patterns of the human chromosome 2 compared to the banding patterns of two chimpanzee chromosomes.

What becomes immediately apparent at a crude structural level (and is further borne out in the actual DNA sequence of the chromosomes) is that human Chromosome 2 looks like a fusion of two chimp chromosomes. In fact, as we analyse the DNA sequence of human Chromosome 2, we find telomeric repetitive structures in the middle of Chromosome 2 (when they should only be at the ends of the chromosome) and a second, non-functional, centromeric structure where one would expect it would be if the chromosome resulted from a fusion event.

What this suggests is somewhere in the evolutionary development of humans, a fusion event occurred which resulted in the reduction of the number of chromosomes to 23 pairs for the humans and human-like species, while the great apes continue to have 24 pairs. The following diagram represents the phylogeny (or family-tree) with regard to this one feature (note, this diagram speaks of 46 and 48 chromosomes rather than 23 and 24 pairs). The question mark next to Neanderthals in the diagram represents the fact that, although the chromosomal number for humans and Denisovans has been experimentally confirmed, we do not presently have DNA of sufficient quality from Neanderthals to experimentally confirm that Neanderthals indeed had 23 pairs of chromosomes.[2]


Such evidence supports the idea that God used an evolutionary process to create species including the human species. It would indicate that we share a common ancestor with the great apes and that at a certain point in the evolutionary process our line diverged from the family tree of our ape cousins. It does not detract from God as creator and does offer insight into the mechanisms he used as he created.

A blog of this nature can only whet the reader’s appetite for further investigation into such topics. As previously stated, Darrel Falk’s YouTube videos may be the next place to turn for further understanding. The BioLogos website at is always a great resource. Perhaps this blog might also open doors for respectful conversation, logical analysis, and a hunger and thirst for truth wherever it may be found. God is indeed the great creator and the mechanisms of biology are no surprise to him. We can continue to be confident that he is guiding the universe and guiding his revelation to those who seek him.

[1] Darrel Falk series of YouTube videos regarding the human chromosome 2 fusion:
[2] See “Denisovans, Humans and the Chromosome 2 Fusion” September 06, 2012, BioLogos Blog, Dennis Venema,
[3] The diagram is from “Denisovans, Humans and the Chromosome 2 Fusion” September 06, 2012, BioLogos Blog, Dennis Venema,

Thursday, June 7, 2018

Really Comfortable

I didn’t go to religion to make me happy. I always knew a bottle of Port would do that. If you want a religion to make you feel really comfortable, I certainly don’t recommend Christianity.
–C. S. Lewis, God in the Dock

Friday, June 1, 2018

The Crucifixion

I am tempted to create a blog post by simply stringing together a series of Fleming Rutledge quotes. The words she uses are often adequate to spark the mind and generate combustion. However, I shall do more than that; I shall interact with some of her writings on the atonement rendered by the death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. Much of what I write here will stem from my reading of The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ, Fleming Rutledge, Eerdmans, 2017. But, some thoughts will have their origin in other writings and interviews with Rutledge.

Fleming Rutledge is an Episcopalian Priest in the grand tradition of preacher, theologian, author, and scholar. She has written much, preached much, and said much in interviews for many publications, but her greatest work is The Crucifixion, published in 2017. She says that it has taken her a lifetime to write this book. Others consider it a landmark book and it has given Rutledge a significant platform from which to speak. The most significant theme of the book is stated this way,

“From beginning to end, the Holy Scriptures testify that the predicament of fallen humanity is so serious, so grave, so irremediable from within, that nothing short of divine intervention can rectify it.”
Fleming Rutledge, The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ, p. 127.

She goes on to say that,
“If we think of Christian theology and ethics purely in terms of forgiveness, we will have neglected a central aspect of God’s own character and will be in no position to understand the cross in its fullest dimension.”
Fleming Rutledge, The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ, p. 131.

Her theology is not one that suggests we can achieve human happiness or self-actualization through human achievement. She is clear that the only hope for humankind is the cross of Christ and the intercession of God. God has clearly entered into history in the incarnation, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and Rutledge sees this as the only hope of a world gone wrong.

“The New Testament writings all presuppose that the fallen human race and the equally fallen created order are sick unto death beyond human resourcefulness.”
Fleming Rutledge, The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ, p. 141.

And yet, our deeds are not without hope, and one sees in her words, threads of other conversations heard in other places. Rutledge says,
“Here is an important distinction with far-reaching implications for Christian behavior. The deeds of Christians in this present time — however insignificant they may seem, however “vain” they may appear to those who value worldly success — are already being built into God’s advancing kingdom.”
Fleming Rutledge, The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ, p. 14.

Tolkien had words like Rutledge in The Silmarillion, when he said,
I am Ilúvatar, those things that ye have sung, I will show them forth, that ye may see what ye have done. And thou, Melkor, shalt see that no theme may be played that hath not its uttermost source in me, nor can any alter the music in my despite. For he that attempteth this shall prove but mine instrument in the devising of things more wonderful, which he himself hath not imagined.
J.R.R. Tolkien, The Silmarillion, p. 15-18.

What they are both saying is that, even our flawed, or sinful, or poorly aimed actions are capable of redemption, and can be woven into the tapestry of the will of God. The crucifixion, though not necessary at the creation of the universe, was required because of the sinful propensity of every human alive and every human that has ever lived. God saw this propensity, and saw that our actions had created the need for the cross; so, he sorrowfully wove it into the pattern of the universe such that,

“The crucifixion is the touchstone of Christian authenticity, the unique feature by which everything else, including the resurrection, is given its true significance. The resurrection is not a set piece. It is not an isolated demonstration of divine dazzlement. It is not to be detached from its abhorrent first act. The resurrection is, precisely, the vindication of a man who was crucified. Without the cross at the center of the Christian proclamation, the Jesus story can be treated as just another story about a charismatic spiritual figure. It is the crucifixion that marks out Christianity as something definitively different in the history of religion. It is in the crucifixion that the nature of God is truly revealed. … we can assert that the crucifixion is the most important historical event that has ever happened. The resurrection, being a transhistorical event planted within history, does not cancel out the contradiction and shame of the cross in this present life; rather, the resurrection ratifies the cross as the way “until he comes.”
Fleming Rutledge, The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ, p. 44.

In The Crucifixion, and also in her other works, Rutledge even goes so far as to say that Jesus’ descent into Hell was a necessary aspect of his death on the cross.

"The Old Testament God" is the one who has come down from his throne on high into the world of sinful human flesh and of his own free will and decision has come under his own judgment in order to deliver us from everlasting condemnation and bring us into eternal life. He has not required human sacrifice; he has himself become the human sacrifice. He has not turned us over and forsaken us; he was himself turned over and forsaken. This is what the Old Testament prophet Isaiah says: Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that made us whole, and with his stripes we are healed. (53:4-5)”
Fleming Rutledge, And God Spoke to Abraham: Preaching from the Old Testament, p. ?

Notice Rutledge’s carefully chosen words here. She is purposely saying that it was God who died on the cross. She distinguishes an important concept by saying this rather than speaking of God’s Son dying on the cross. This does indeed differentiate the crucifixion from child-abuse (some have disparagingly suggested such an explanation of the cross) and Rutledge emphasises how it was God, who came to earth as a human; it was God who suffered; it was God who died; it was God who paid the price; it was God who descended into Hell to set free the captives.

Rutledge goes on to say that,  

“We have to come to terms with what seems to be godforsakenness in the world. Many people find that difficult or even impossible. And people who find it difficult or impossible will probably not come to church on Good Friday and will concentrate on the happy aspect of the faith. But I think that’s too bad, because the real depth and strength of the faith is its facing of the worst, and the fact that Jesus faced and endured the worst is ultimately, for many, the only comfort we have in the extremities of the kind of situations that I’m talking about.

The only comfort we have is that Jesus was there before us and that somehow, he wrested away the power of death and sin precisely in his abandonment. How that happened, I can’t say. But the entire proclamation of the church, of the New Testament witnesses, is that that is what happened. Precisely out of the abandonment, he descended into hell.”
Fleming Rutledge, “Interview with Rev. Fleming Rutledge”[1]

Rutledge is a gift to the church at this time in history. I encourage all to read her writings and particularly her latest, The Crucifixion.

[1] Fleming Rutledge, “Interview with Rev. Fleming Rutledge,” Religion and Ethics News Weekly, April 19, 2013,

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

The Ubiquitous Nature of AI

The definition of a Turing Test, as developed by Alan Turing, is an interaction in which “a human evaluator judges natural language conversations between a human and a machine designed to generate human-like responses.”(1) The human evaluator would see if they could distinguish which voice was human and which was machine. Google just revealed their new Duplex AI systems. You can see a video here. Listen in on the conversation between human and machine and see if you could tell which was which if you were not “in on the charade.”

Artificial intelligence, or AI, is rapidly becoming more and more prevalent. Take for example, the little ads at the bottom of an or .com page. When I look at my page, it has a section entitled, “Inspired by your shopping trends.” In there I see a selection of books it is suggesting I might like to buy. I don’t just use Amazon for books, but apparently that is what I have mostly done in recent weeks. As I look through the suggestions, Amazon has done a good job of selecting books for me. I don’t own any of those books and many of them are ones I would like to read. Those were all selected by an AI. AI is presently capable of keeping inventory of what is in my refrigerator and keeping the shelves stocked by placing the orders. I don’t presently have a fridge hooked up to the internet, but there is a good chance that the next one I buy will come equipped with wifi capability whether I plan to use it or not.

Don Pittis at CBC News makes the point that it is only a matter of time before AI will simply suggest that we should purchase something, and we will comply. Amazon is already looking at having certain items delivered to our homes before we order them just in case we want them. They rely upon our heightened interest in the product and can afford to have us turn it down and send it back.

All of the biggest tech companies in the world are investing the majority of their money and energy into developing AI. Much of this will be a great help to humanity, but, we all know that AI has a dark side. There is a potential for AI to take us places we should not go and as some writers and thinkers have warned, has the potential to make us its slave (either figuratively or literally). If you want to see more on what some are predicting, check out here “Robotic Laws”, here “Ex Machina”, here “Her”, here “Elon Musk”, here "Sam Harris", or here “The Matrix”.

How do you feel about the ever-expanding presence of AI? What sorts of boundaries would you like to see put in place?

(1) See Wikipedia, Turing test, 

Saturday, May 19, 2018

The Music of the Ainur

J.R.R. Tolkien, the author of The HobbitThe Lord of the Rings, and The Silmarillion is widely recognized as a great writer. He was also a faithful Catholic whose theology appears in his writings in poetic ways. His description of the way evil came into the world, as seen in the opening chapter of The Silmarillion is a work of art infused with theology. Here I quote a portion of Tolkien's creation story:

There was Eru, the One, who in Arda is called Ilúvatar and he made first the Ainur, the Holy Ones, that were the offspring of his thought, and they were with him before aught else was made. And he spoke to them, propounding to them themes of music; and they sang before him, and he was glad. But for a long while they sang only each alone, or but few together, while the rest hearkened; for each comprehended only that part of the mind of Ilúvatar from which he came, and in the understanding of their brethren they grew but slowly. Yet ever as they listened they came to deeper understanding, and increased in unison and harmony.
And it came to pass that Ilúvatar called together all the Ainur and declared to them a mighty theme, unfolding to them things greater and more wonderful than he had yet revealed; and the glory of its beginning and the splendour of its end amazed the Ainur, so that they bowed before Ilúvatar and were silent.
Then Ilúvatar said to them: 'Of the theme that I have declared to you, I will now that ye make in harmony together a Great Music. And since I have kindled you with the Flame Imperishable, ye shall show forth your powers in adorning this theme, each with his own thoughts and devices, if he will. But I will sit and hearken, and be glad that through you great beauty has been wakened into song.'

But now Ilúvatar sat and hearkened, and for a great while it seemed good to him, for in the music there were no flaws. But as the theme progressed, it came into the heart of Melkor to interweave matters of his own imagining that were not in accord with the theme of Ilúvatar; for he sought therein to increase the power and glory of the part assigned to himself. To Melkor among the Ainur had been given the greatest gifts of power and knowledge, and he had a share in the gifts of all the gifts of his brethren. He had often gone alone into the void places seeking the Imperishable Flame; for desire grew hot within him to bring into Being things of his own, and it seemed to him that Ilúvatar took no thought for the Void, and he was impatient of its emptiness. Yet he found not the Fire, for it is with Ilúvatar. But being alone he had begun to conceive thoughts of his own unlike those of his brethren.

Then Ilúvatar spoke, and he said: ‘Mighty are the Ainur, and mightiest among them is Melkor; but that he may know, and all the Ainur, that I am Ilúvatar, those things that ye have sung, I will show them forth, that ye may see what ye have done. And thou, Melkor, shalt see that no theme may be played that hath not its uttermost source in me, nor can any alter the music in my despite. For he that attempteth this shall prove but mine instrument in the devising of things more wonderful, which he himself hath not imagined.(1)

I should leave the words of Tolkien to themselves and allow the reader to grasp the beauty and complexity of the theology that is revealed in these poetic words. Yet, the words are old enough and strange enough to require some explanation and so I will do my best to enlighten the logic that is contained in Tolkien’s creativity. 

In this account of how evil entered the world, it is through the pride and self-promotion of one of the Creator’s created beings. Melkor, here one will draw parallels to Satan, becomes impatient with the creation timeline of the Creator and begins to imagine himself creating Beings and things. He does not have the power to create things on his own, but he begins to weave his ideas into the songs rather than content himself with the themes of the Creator. He creates discord and disharmony and begins to pull more of his brethren along with him.

The Creator allows the discord for just a moment and then stops the music. He tells the Ainur - his created beings who were charged with singing the music of creation - that he will allow their songs to come into being. Even Melkor’s songs will be represented in the creation. Yet, the Creator’s theme shall be sung, and his will shall be done; the Creator will use the songs of Melkor to devise things more wonderful than Melkor or any other Ainur could imagine. For the Creator is the source of all and his will shall prevail.

Tolkien knew that poetry and metaphor were better suited to explaining the great themes of God than pure logic. May his words and further poetry continue to help us as we struggle to understand the great mysteries of God and the universe God created.

(1) Tolkien, J.R.R. The Silmarillion. London: Harper Collins Publishers, 1994, p.15-18.