Problem of Boundaries

Stephen W. Hiemstra, Living in Christ

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

Boundaries define who we are and who we are not. Undefended boundaries are an invitation to abuse and thievery. Whenever pain shows itself, we need to establish a new rule and defend it.

If our primary identity is in Christ, then we emulate Christ in all that we do, our duties in life are defined by Christ, and we act in all things expecting Christ’s return. Our boundaries reflect this life process both in our emotions and thinking.

The Good Samaritan

Cloud and Townsend (1992, 25) explain boundaries in these terms: 

“Just as homeowners set out physical property lines around their land, we need to set mental, physical, emotional, and spiritual boundaries for our lives to help us distinguish what is our responsibility and what isn’t.”

Cloud and Townsend apply their concept of boundaries in interpreting Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan.  Jesus tells this story in Luke’s Gospel:

A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and he fell among robbers, who stripped him and beat him and departed, leaving him half dead.  Now by chance a priest was going down that road, and when he saw him he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, as he journeyed, came to where he was, and when he saw him, he had compassion. He went to him and bound up his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he set him on his own animal and brought him to an inn and took care of him. And the next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper, saying, Take care of him, and whatever more you spend, I will repay you when I come back (Luke 10:30-35).

Why is this story about the Good Samaritan rather than about the Great Samaritan? The Samaritan did not walk on the other side of the road like the priest or the Levite, but he also did not drop everything and nurse the man back to health. Instead, the Samaritan focused on what he was able to do. Then, he delegated further assistance to the innkeeper and continued his trip (Cloud and Townsend 1992, 38-39). In other words, the Good Samaritan saved the man’s life and, still, displayed healthy boundaries.

A Personal Audit

Cloud (2008, 69) suggests that a good place to start working on boundaries is with an audit. The purpose of this audit is to measure where you spend your time, disconnects between time spent and personal values, and what personal issues contribute to the problem.  This method of analysis is reminiscent of what Miller and Rollnick (2002, 38) referred to as gap analysis—highlighting the discrepancy between present behavior and broader goals and values.

Christian Boundaries

The concept of boundaries sounds a lot like law which raises a deep theological controversy about the relationship between law and Gospel, particularly when Gospel is defined in highly licentious terms. In parsing this controversy it is helpful to recognize that in the Gospels the Pharisees are pictured presenting a narrow interpretation of law to make it doable while Jesus normally widens the interpretation making compliance impossible without God’s divine intervention. More generally, Jesus speaks about principles while the Pharisees speak about rules.

When law in the commandments are expressed in principle, sin is also a violation of the principle of love in relationships with God and with neighbor (Matt 22:36-40).  Matthew outlines Jesus providing five cases where Mosaic Law is enlarged by considering underlying attitudes rather than technical compliance:  murder, adultery, the taking of oaths, application of lex talionis, and love of neighbor.⁠1  Each is introduced with an expression:  “you have heard it said.”  The case of murder is illustrative:  

“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.” (Matt 5:21-22).  

In other words, the act of murder starts with an attitude of anger.  It is, therefore, sinful to become angry for the wrong reasons because it leads to murder and, implicitly, violates the attitude of love.

In this context, it is clear that Jesus is not relinquishing the law or diminishing it in any way, as Jesus says: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.” (Matt 5:17) In this context, fulfilling the law implies a more stringent condition than the law, not a more lenient one, where three states of nature are possible: noncompliance with law (transgression), technical compliance (Pharisee position), and fulfilling the law (Gospel). Contrasting law and Gospel would be to compare the latter two states.

By widening the law, Jesus makes it obvious that we must make room in our lives for God and live within his healthy boundaries. The Ten Commandments cannot therefore be abandoned; mere compliance is an indication that we have not centered our lives on Christ. The point is not to try to become the “Great Samaritan,” but rather to lean on the Holy Spirit to guide on what to do and what not to do.

References

Cloud, Henry.  2008. The One-Life Solution:  Reclaiming Your Personal Life While Achieving Greater Professional Success. New York:  HarperCollins.

Cloud, Henry and John Townsend. 1992. Boundaries: When to Say YES; When to Say NO; To Take Control of Your Life. Grand Rapids: Zondervan.

Miller, William R. and Stephen Rollnick. 2002. Motivational Interviews: Preparing People for Change. New York: Guilford Press.

1 Matt 5:21, 5:27, 5:33, 5:38, and 5:43.

Problem of Boundaries

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Eric Michael Teitelman: The Trump-Cyrus Allusion

House_of_David

Today’s guest blogger is Eric Michael Teitelman of House of David Ministries (TheHouseOfDavid.org) in Haymarket, Virginia.

In this post, Eric shares an apocalyptic vision of what it means for President Trump to be the new King Cyrus. The original Cyrus was the King of Persia who allowed the City of Jerusalem and the Temple to be rebuilt after the Babylonian exile. Some call him the righteous gentile king, but according to Jewish tradition, Cyrus was the son of Esther and therefore Jewish.

Eric & Kim Teitelman, Jerusalem, Israel 2018

Pastor Eric Michael Teitelman is a Hebrew follower of Yeshua and an ordained bi-vocational pastor with the Southern Baptist Convention. He currently oversees the House of David Ministries—a Messianic and Hebraic itinerant teaching and worship ministry focused on building the Kingdom of God by bringing Jewish and Gentile Christians together as one new man in Christ Yeshua (Eph 2:14-16). He and his wife Kim live in Haymarket, Virginia.

Pastor Eric grew upin Bat Yam, Israel for much of his childhood. In 2002 after reading the New Testament, Pastor Eric received Yeshuaas His Lord and Savior. With a firm knowledge of Old and New Testament scriptureand a deep understanding of Jewish culture and rabbinical writings, he brings a unique Hebraic perspective to his teachings. 

Established in 2008, the House of David Ministries serves as a teaching resource to the body of Christ, helping Christians gain an understanding of their Hebraic foundation and spiritual heritage, embracing the church’s calling concerning the nation of Israel and understanding God’s kingdom purposes and prophetic promises for the church and Israel.

Dear brothers and sisters in Christ Yeshua:

In January 2017, my son and I attended the inauguration of President Donald John Trump. A friend had offered two of his silver zone tickets. How could we refuse this generous offer? After all, I did vote for Trump.

The rain held back, andthe temperatures were unseasonably warm for January. A gentle mist fell precisely at the time of Trump’s swearing in—a blessing of sorts. The opening prayers were powerful, and hearing the name of Jesus proclaimed over our nation lifted my spirit.

I carefully observed the face of each person standing on the platform. President Obama had his eyes tightly closed in deep introspection. President Bush Jr. had his eyes wide open and was smiling at the people around him. And President-elect Trump’s eyes were half open, maybe to focus on the events unfolding. Trump’s speech was well written, and he did a great job articulating his political points. However, somehow it left me feeling empty.

I was staring at the President the whole time, analyzing every word and looking for any reflection of humility or gentleness. No so. What I heard was a strong and nationalistic message that rang with inferences of economic prosperity and safety through American isolationism—an appeal to poor and middle-class Americans. “America first,” Trump stated as he promised to be the president of the people.

Outside the heavily barricaded perimeter of the National Mall, thousands of Americans were protesting our newly elected president. Street protestors and anarchists stormed the city, smashing windows, burning trash cans, and destroying vehicles. The police quickly responded in riot gear with tear gas, flash grenades, and rubber bullets. Was this our new America—a nation deeply divided by socioeconomic, race, gender, religious, and other social issues? Strangely, Washington D.C. on this day was also divided by concrete barricades and tall metal fencing.

My son and I walked for several hours trying to get to the presidential parade. We never made it due to the impassible maze of security checkpoints. Peering through the metal fencing, we could see the tightly packed rows of police officers lining both sides of Pennsylvania Avenue. They stood shoulder-to-shoulder, their arms firmly locked on their hips as they stared blankly at the sparse crowd.

Several months before the election, I had a dream where I was sitting in a library. The Lord spoke to me in His gentle voice and said, “Write the things I will show you that are to come.” I could see our nation torn in two. We had somehow become like two separate countries. The western half of our country was in total anarchy. Vigilante and militia armies roamed the streets trying to defend their communities. The eastern part of the U.S. was also deeply shaken, but slowly recovering.

Wow! This dream was in sharp contrast to the celebrations and cheers of our new president—confidence that America was now God’s chosen nation. I share these words with reservation as many white evangelical Christians are gleaming at the thought of Trump as their president, some even calling him a Cyrus—a type of Messiah or savior for America. Biblically, Cyrus was never given a decree to rebuild America. He was given a decree to rebuild Jerusalem.[i]Could the church have misunderstood?

The Lord spoke to me again after the inauguration. He said:

“Trump is a hammer and I hold him in my hands to bring forth both my goodness and severity for this nation.[ii]I will use Trump to protect Israel and to protect my true followers, but I will also use him to bring my hand of redemptive judgment against America, and against all who oppose me. Part of this judgment will come in the form of division, and Trump will bring division to this nation, for I am preparing the world for my soon return.”[iii]

Much of the church has been blinded and possibly deceived, somehow believing that Trump will save America—saved in spite of the millions of murdered unborn babies, saved from the history of violence against the First Nations People, saved from the scars and generational oppression of African slavery, and saved from a growing number of godless people who have placed themselves above Christ—demanding abortion, normalization of perverse lifestyles, and unrestrained access to drugs and other sinful lusts of the flesh.[iv]Oh no, this nation cannot survive the lawlessness that is spreading.[v]

Many say, how can a loving God judge this nation? I ask in return, how can a loving God forgo disciplining this nation? It is written, 

“For when Your judgments are in the earth, The inhabitants of the world will learn righteousness” (Isa 26:9). Therefore, we must remember that God’s judgmentsare always redemptive.[vi]“For whom the Lord loves He chastens, And scourges every son whom He receives” (Heb 12:6).

Where sin abounds, God’s grace abounds even more.[vii]Therefore, it is God’s grace to discipline this nation to bring the people back to Himself. For if the riots and the millions who marched against President Trump are any indications of the depth of division in this nation, then we have not seen the full wrath of God’s judgment poured out yet.

President Trump may be the hammer. However, only Jesus can bring the healing. In contrast to the division plaguing us, even within our Christian communities, will the church in America show the love of Christ in place of the hatred we see? And, will the church in America display the peace of God instead of violence that is ensuing?[viii]I pray we will, for if we repent and return to the Lord, He has promised to forgive us and heal our land.[ix]Only then will America become great again.

Amen!


[i]Isaiah 44:28.

[ii]Proverbs 21:1, Romans 11:22.

[iii]Matthew 10:34.

[iv]Jeremiah 22:17.

[v]2 Thessalonians 2:1-4.

[vi]1 Peter 4:17-18.

[vii]Romans 5:20.

[viii]Matthew 5:44.

[ix]2 Chronicles 7:14.

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Tradeoffs, Desires, and Temptations. Monday Monologues, February 11, 2019 (podcast)

Stephen W Hiemstra, 2018
Stephen W Hiemstra, 2018

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

In today’s podcast, I will offer a Decision Prayer and talk about Tradeoffs, Desires, and Temptations.

After listening, please click here to take a brief listener survey (10 questions).

To listen, click on the link below.

Hear the words; Walk the steps; Experience the joy!

Tradeoffs, Desires, and Temptations. Monday Monologues, February 11, 2019 (podcast)

Also see:

Monday Monologue On March 26, 2018 

Other ways to engage online:

Author site: http://www.StephenWHiemstra.net, Publisher site: http://www.T2Pneuma.com.

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Decision Prayer

Route 28, Manassas, Virginia
Route 28, Manassas, Virgina

by Stephen W. Hiemstra

Marvelous Counselor,

I come to you daily on my knees

creator of the universe

for who is like you–

you alone are worthy of all honor and praise.

Draw me into your presence,

though I am unworthy and sin beyond measure,

in the name of Jesus Christ,

who lived a sinless life and yet died on the cross

that we might be saved.

Thank you for another day

for health and family and blessings that I do not deserve,

but cherish greatly.

Grant me the blessing of your wisdom and the strength to act on it,

help me to travel your road when other roads beckon,

help me to share your blessings with others–even when I do not feel like it.

In the power of your Holy Spirit,

grant me grace and peace in the midst of anger and chaos,

In Jesus’ precious name, Amen.

Decision Prayer

Also see:

Books, Films, and Ministry

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Tradeoffs, Desires, and Temptations

Stephen W. Hiemstra, Living in Christ

“The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and instruction.” (Prov 1:7)

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

The Bibles teaches ethics through commandments, lists, proverbs, parables, prophecies, colorful stories, and admonitions, which renders any summary incomplete. Some of the more important  lessons can, however, be subtle. 

Be a Good Example

Consider the admonition Jesus offers in the Sermon on the Mount, right after presenting the Beatitudes:

“You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.” (Matt 5:14-16)

This admonition alludes to: “And God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light.” (Gen 1:3) We are to model God’s own behavior for the benefit of those around us. This makes perfect sense because we are created in God’s image (Gen 1:27), but for whose benefit are we doing this? As an inducement to live a holy life, keeping one eye on God and the other eye on how we appear to other people is a great motivator—if nothing more was said about behaving ethically, this is a great starting point.

Balance is a Virtue

The Ten Commandments are frequently a starting point for discussing community ethics, as they should be. But after giving Moses a second set of stone tables, after he broke the first set, we read:

“The LORD passed before him and proclaimed, The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation.”  (Exod 34:6-7)

Here God instructs Moses on how to interpret the Ten Commandments in view of God’s own character—God is merciful, gracious, patient, loving, and faithful. So if two commandments come in conflict, remember who God is and how he would deal with this conflict—one list (the commandments) is balanced by admonitions of a second list (the character traits). Another way to look at these two lists is that the commandments speak to the mind, while the character traits talk about the heart.

Start with the Heart

Jesus’ teaching also balances the heart and the mind. Consider this passage from the Sermon on the Mount:

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that  everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” (Matt 5:27-28)

Actually, Jesus places priority on the desires of the heart as the source of sin. In other words, do not consider yourself righteous simply because you have not yet had the opportunity to sin—manage your desires.

Dealing with Temptation

After his baptism but before he began his ministry, the Holy Spirit leads Jesus into the desert  where the Devil tempted him as recorded in the synoptic gospels.⁠1 Much like Adam and Eve are tempted with food, the devil starts by goading a hungry Jesus into turning a stone into bread. The devil tempts Jesus three times. Jesus cites scripture in response to each temptation. In the final temptation, the Devil’s temptation starts by misquoting scripture, but Jesus corrects the deception and resists the temptation.

Each temptation Jesus faces is a challenge facing all Christians, particularly leaders. Nouwen (2002, 7–8) summarizes these leadership challenges as the temptation to be relevant (provide food), to be spectacular (show your divinity), and to be powerful (take charge).

Family Tradeoffs

One of the defining characteristics of the Christian faith is honoring each individual regardless of age as being created in the image of God. The Apostle Paul’s writing is particularly clear on this point. He writes:

“There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Gal 3:28)

No ethic group is better than any other; no economic class is better than any other; and no gender is better than any other. But Paul goes further in his household codes:

“Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. Honor your father and mother (this is the first commandment with a promise), that it may go well with you and that you may live long in the land. Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.” (Eph 6:1-4)

He is essentially saying that because we are all created in the image of God, no age group is better than any other.  Neither a new born nor a senior standing at the gates of heaven is better than one another. Christians are to value life stages equally, honor the stage you are in, and not cling to any particular stage as if it were intrinsically preferred. 

In this sense, Christianity is a holistic faith that values maturity and embraces each stage of life with equal joy. This makes particular sense in a Christian context because our faith is rooted in history. Creation is the beginning and the second coming of Christ will be its end. Knowing the end is in Christ, we can journey through life in Christ.

The ethical example of family life in Christ is especially important because the family is the model for ethical behavior in the church. We are all brothers and sisters under one father, Jesus Christ.

1 Mark 1:12-13 gives a brief overview while Matt 4:1-11 and Luke 4:1-13 are longer. The Luke version has the most detail. The second and third questions posed by Satan appear in different order in Matthew and Luke.

References

Nouwen, Henri J.M. 2002. In the Name of Jesus: Reflections on Christian Leadership. New York: Crossroad Publishing Company. 

Tradeoffs, Desires, and Temptations

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Author site: http://www.StephenWHiemstra.net, Publisher site: http://www.T2Pneuma.com.

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Smith: To Plato’s Cave and Back, Part 2

Huston Smith. 2001. Why Religion Matters: The Fate of the Human Spirit in an Age of Disbelief. New York: Harper Collins.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

Some people simply cannot look up. Sunshine and glimmering stars pose no attraction like plain old dirt. Now, I am not talking about farm folks whose relationship with the soil is almost mystical. No, soil is not the same thing as dirt. Dirt is an urban plague more like weeds in a flower garden or the stuff under fingernails. Dirt is a frame of mind—a cynicism that cuts to the core. 

Introduction

In Why Religion Matters, Huston Smith writes:

“Materialism holds that only matter exists [like dirt].Naturalism grants that subjective experiences—thoughts and feelings—are different from matter and cannot be reduced to it, while insisting that they are totally dependent on it.”(83)

Smith likens this philosophical presupposition of modernism and postmodernism as like the man who pulls his window shades down so that he can only see the lawn.

In part one of this review I have outlined Smith arguments and the structure of the book. In part two, I will look at his arguments in more detail.

Modernity’s Tunnel

The tunnel is an analogy to Plato’s cave where prisoners are chained to a wall so that the light at the end of the tunnel casts shadows in front of them that they mistake for reality. After a prisoner escapes, learns that reality does not consist of the shadows as believed and returns to inform his fellow prisoners, they refuse to believe him and murder him, a reference to Socrates.

Smith writes:

“It is by now a Sunday-supplement [a newspaper analogy] commonplace that the… modernization of the world is accompanied by a spiritual malaise that has come to be called alienation…At its most fundamental level, the diagnosis of alienation is based on the view that modernization forces upon us a world that, although baptized as real by science, is denuded of all humanly recognizable qualities: beauty and ugliness, love and hate, passion and fulfillment, salvation and damnation.”(2)

Smith has no problem with science as a method of inquiry, but he rails against scientism that attempts to convert the method into a worldview. He sees scientism adding two corollaries to science:

“first, that the scientific method is, if not the only reliable method of getting at truth, then at least the most reliable method; and second, that the things science deals with—material entities—are the most fundamental things that exist.”(59-60)

I am reminded of the story of the drunk who loses his keys one night and only searches in the light around the lamppost supposing that the keys could only be there.

Traditional verses Modern and Postmodern Worldviews

Smith sees five fundamental points of contention between the traditional and modern/postmodern worlds views.

  1. “In the traditional, religious views spirit as fundamental and matter derivative…The scientific worldview turns this picture on its head…
  2. In the religious worldview human beings are the less who have derived from the more [created in the image of God]. Trailing clouds of glory, they carry within themselves traces of their noble origins…Science reverses this etiology, positioning humanity as the more that has derived from the less [grown up germs] …
  3. The traditional worldview points towards a happy ending: the scientific worldview does not…
  4. …the traditional world is meaningful throughout. In scientific worldview, meaning is only skin-deep, ‘skin’ here signifying biological organisms on a single speck in the sidereal universe…
  5. Finally, in the traditional world, people feel at home. They belong to their world, for they are made of the same spirituality sentient stuff that the world is made of…Nothing like this sense of belonging can be derived from the scientific worldview.”(34-38)

Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem

Since I first read Smith’s book in 2002, I have cited one reference repeatedly—to Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem from mathematics. Smith writes:

“From Aristotle to Turing, mathematicians have tried to establish systems that are complete. Gödel smashed that dream. His famous Incompleteness Theorem states that in a formal system satisfying certain precise conditions, there will always be at least one undecidable proposition—that is, a proposition such that neither it nor its negation is provable within the system. Jacques Derrida’s denial of any single meaning in a text sounds like a direct extension of this.”(89)

In practical terms, the human mind is a nearly complete system such that depression is a turning inward on itself and losing the necessary external reference point necessary for stability. This is why the therapy for depression is to break out of the usual routine, which offers such an external reference point.  Other applications of this theorem can be cited in economics, computer science, and other logical fields.

Assessment

Huston Smith’s Why Religions Matteris a captivating book. Smith is a master story teller with an encyclopedic grasp of world religions, philosophy, and potpourri. My first reading influenced my thinking profoundly; my second reading after seminary proved equally interesting.

Smith: To Plato’s Cave and Back, Part 2

Also see:

Smith: To Plato’s Cave and Back, Part 1

Books, Films, and Ministry

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Author site: http://www.StephenWHiemstra.net, Publisher site: http://www.T2Pneuma.com.

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Limits to Progress. Monday Monologues, February 5, 2019 (podcast)

Stephen W Hiemstra, 2018
Stephen W Hiemstra, 2018

In today’s podcast, I will offer a G328 Prayer and talk about Limits to Progress.

After listening, please click here to take a brief listener survey (10 questions).

To listen, click on the link below.

Hear the words; Walk the steps; Experience the joy!

Limits to Progress. Monday Monologues, February 5, 2019 (podcast)

Also see:

Monday Monologue On March 26, 2018 

Other ways to engage online:

Author site: http://www.StephenWHiemstra.net, Publisher site: http://www.T2Pneuma.com.

Newsletter: http://bit.ly/Welcome_NY_2019

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G328 Prayer

Diane's Painting

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

Almighty Father, Beloved Son, Spirit of Truth,

All honor and glory are yours

light of our world

in whose image we were created.

Thank you for sending your son, Jesus Christ,

into the world to reconcile us to you

that we might be reconciled to one another.

Forgive our divisions, our ruminations about the past hurts and

our speed in blaming each other for what we ourselves failed to do.

In the power of your Holy Spirit,

bring us together

help us to find unity in your community

where there is no ethnicity, no male or female, no class

to divide us any longer.

In Jesus’ precious name, Amen.

G328 Prayer

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Limits to Progress

Stephen W. Hiemstra, Simple Faith

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

The idea of progress arose out of the technological euphoria of the modern era and entered theology in the nineteenth century with the euphoria over the abolition of black slave trading and ownership. The idea that progress is an inevitable and irreversible force remains, however, economically and culturally tenuous. 

While the specific reasons for economic and cultural backsliding will always be unique, the general reason to be suspicious of economic and cultural progress is that progress is a cultural artifact that changes with circumstances.

If cultural progress an historical anomaly, especially in view of the economic stagnation that many Americans face, what conditions support it?

Economic Progress

Standards of living that were rising with the increasing rationalization of different industries and regions have come to an end with the construction of the interstate highway system, national media, national banking, and the internet.  In this context, rationalization means the opening up of local markets to competition from outside firms and the destruction of the local cultures through universal education consisting of both new knowledge and indoctrination.

If science can tame the natural world and put it to work in the service of humanity, then standards of living should rise. However, diminishing returns to new investment will be reached at some point as the cost of implementing new ideas rises. From that point forward, additional growth can only come from demographic growth and technological innovation. Falling fertility rates and poor choices with respect to education and public expenditures suggests that we are not focused on making public policy choices consistent with growth.

In an environment of slower growth, social groups will compete increasingly for limited resources and opportunities—this can get nasty, as we have seen. Outside of deliberate policies to focus economic resources on the most productive investments and to maintain equal opportunities for all groups, standards of living will decline for all but favored groups able to maintain and expand their relative position. This competition makes it increasingly unlikely that everyone will share in economic progress.

Cultural Progress

The abolition of black slavery in the nineteenth century is a source of pride for many people. In my case, I am named for my great, great grandfather, Stephen DeKock, who as a young man volunteered to fight in the American Civil War. Success in abolishing slavery motivated latter efforts to expand voting rights to women and minorities, to prohibit alcohol consumption, and to extend rights more recently to homosexuals. 

A byproduct of the Civil War seldom mentioned in this context was the development of large corporate firms that supplied Northern troops and major advances in weapons of mass destruction—iron clad ships, submarines, the gatling gun, and repeating rifles. Modern warfare (war on civilians) is said to have begun with Sherman’s march to the sea in Georgia that helped starve the Confederacy into submission. These innovations helped pave the way for the United States to become a super power (the American empire) over the decades that followed and, as a consequence, fueled the economic expansion that led to the economic and social progress than we enjoy as Americans.

The abolition of black slavery is unlikely to be reversed, but slavery itself has not so much gone away as been re-defined. Many former slaves in the rural South in American became share croppers who were technically free, but caught in debt to their former masters. During much of the twentieth century, American men were involuntarily drafted in the military and forced to fight in foreign wars from the First and Second World Wars to the wars in Korea and Vietnam. For women caught up in gangs, drugs, and prostitution, a different kind of slavery exists that never really went away.

While nasty institutions like slavery, debt-enslavement, and prostitution will probably continue to exist in the shadows of society, major reversals in the number of slaves occurred during the Second World War. Nazi Germany rounded up millions of Jews, political dissidents, and undesired groups and placed them in concentration camps where many were worked to death. Japan had similar policies and the U.S. had its own internment camps. Today such camps continue in communist countries, like North Korea.

The point of raising these examples is, not to throw salt in old wounds, but to highlight the tenuous nature historically of human rights and notions like progress. If progress is a cultural artifact and can be reversed by changing circumstances, it is not inevitable or irreversible. The key question is what foundation supports these rights and progress itself?

Cultural Reversal

For those who believe in progress, the biblical support is slim because of original sin and our fallen nature both individually and collectively. The most apt metaphor for progress is found in the Book of Genesis with the story of the Tower of Babel (Gen 11:1-9), but other metaphors can be found. 

Although we are created in the image of God, original sin polluted both our hearts and minds instilling in us a rebellious spirit. Cain, best known for murdering his brother Abel, started the first city mentioned in the Bible (Gen 4:8, 17). Human sin, after Adam and Eve left the Garden of Eden, grew to the point that God destroyed most of humanity with a flood (Gen 5:5). However, starting out fresh with a new family, Noah’s, proved not to improve the faithfulness of humanity after the original sin of Adam and Eve (Gen 3:6). Even Jacob’s sons, the fathers of the Nation of Israel, sinned in selling their brother, Joseph, as a slave to the Egyptians (Gen 37:28). 

What should we conclude from the witness of Genesis? The idea of adding fallen human beings together in forming a community will somehow result in progress towards righteousness is not to be expected. The biblical expectation cited earlier is the Deuteronomic cycle: doing evil, angering YHWH enough to produce historical subjugation, crying to the Lord in need, and raising up a deliverer (Deut 30; Brueggemann 2016, 59). This is not an endorsement of cultural progress, but rather of divine intervention in spite of the proclivity of human beings to sin.

From my earlier model of culture, reversal of progress is expected when any culture comes under stress. The dying culture then takes on more attributes of a traditional culture. These reversals normally occur on the outbreak of war or during economic crises. However, large corporations that now dominate markets throughout the world frequently have traditional cultures that profoundly influence their employees from morning to night. Democratic rights such as free speech are routinely denied corporate employees and even legislatively mandated employee rights, such as unionization rights and whistler-blower protections, are dead-letter for employees unable to afford legal counsel. Consequently, the inevitable, irreversible cultural progress is not expected and the progress that we have witnessed should be seen as a gift from God, not a natural right.

Christian Foundations

The only glimmer of hope cited in the Bible is the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ that led to the giving of the Holy Spirit and the founding of the church (Act 2:1-4). Yet, outside of faith even the church is a fallen institution as we read in the first three chapters of Revelation.

The warning in Revelation of special concern to the postmodern church is the letter to the church at Laodicea. John writes:

“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. For you say, I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing, not realizing that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked.” (Rev 3:15-17)

We could imagine the postmodern church sharing in tribulations similar to those articulated in Deuteronomic cycle that applied earlier to the Nation of Israel. More generally, Revelation talks about a great tribulation (Rev 7:14) that will occur before the second coming of Christ. This tribulation has all the markings of a reversal of cultural progress and should serve as a reminder that our only hope is in Christ.

Limits To Progress

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Smith: To Plato’s Cave and Back, Part 1

Huston Smith. 2001. Why Religion Matters: The Fate of the Human Spirit in an Age of Disbelief. New York: Harper Collins.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

Often the toughest part of any controversy is to ask the right question. Asking good questions requires deep knowledge of the subject, proper timing, and good intuition. In the scientific method,[1]the most challenging step is the first one where a felt need is converted into an hypothesis. Everyone can complain about needs, but it takes knowledge, timing, and intuition to form a working hypothesis.

Introduction

In Why Religion Matters, Huston Smith writes:

“In different ways, the East and the West are go

ing through a single common crisis whose cause is the spiritual condition of the modern world. That condition is characterized by loss—the loss of religious certainties and of transcendence with its larger horizons…The world lost its human dimension…” (1)

We are in a spiritual crisis characterized by a lost sense of God’s transcendence. The culprit? Smith writes:

“modern Westerners who, forsaking clear thinking have allowed ourselves to become so obsessed with life’s material underpinnings that we have written science a blank check…This is cause of our spiritual crisis.”(4)

While Western civilization could have accepted the benefits of scientific inquiry, but retained its traditions; it did not. Instead, it accepted materialism and shunned metaphysics that strives to explain everything not explainable through empirical observation and testing.

Three Philosophical Periods

Smith (11-22) outlines three philosophical periods—traditional, modern, and postmodern—focused primarily on their metaphysical assumptions and the principal problems that they addressed. The traditional period focused on the religious problem—how do we related to the cosmos? The modern period focused on problem of nature—providing food and shelter. The postmodern period has focused on the social problem—how we get along with one another. 

Smith chief issue with the modern and postmodern periods is that they are metaphysically handicapped. Focusing only on looking down, they have left us unable to find meaning in life and deprived the living of their humanity. Here we discover Smith’s reason for writing:

“I am convinced that whatever transpires in other domains of life—politics, living standards, environmental conditions, interpersonal relationships, the arts—we will be better off if we extricate ourselves from the world view we have unwittingly slipped into and replace it with a more generous and accurate one. That, and that only, is the concern of this book.”(24)

Smith is, of course, commending a traditional worldview with God at the center of our universe. (21-22).

Background and Organization 

Huston Cummings Smith (1919 – 2016)was born in China in a missionary family. He attended Central Methodist University and the University of Chicago. He taught religious studies at a number of schools, including Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

Smith writes in sixteen chapters in two parts:

PART ONE: MODERNITY’s TUNNEL

  1. Who’s Right about Reality: Traditionalists, Modernists, or the Postmoderns?
  2. The Great Outdoors and the Tunnel within It
  3. The Tunnel as Such
  4. The Tunnel’s Floor: Scientism
  5. The Tunnel’s Left Wall: Higher Education
  6. The Tunnel’s Roof: The Media
  7. The Tunnel’s Right Wall: The Law

PART TWO: THE LIGHT AT THE TUNNEL’S END

  • Light
  • Is Light Increasing: Two Scenarios
  • Discerning the Signs of the Times
  • Three Sciences and the Road Ahead
  • Terms for the Détente
  • This Ambiguous World
  • The Big Picture
  • Spiritual Personality Types
  • Spirit

These chapters are preceded by acknowledgments, preface, and introduction and followed by an epilogue and Indices.

The tunnel is an analogy to Plato’s cave where prisoners are chained to a wall so that the light at the end of the tunnel casts shadows in front of them that they mistake for reality. After a prisoner escapes, learns that reality does not consist of the shadows as believed and returns to inform his fellow prisoners, they refuse to believe him and murder him, a reference to Socrates.

Assessment

Huston Smith’s Why Religions Matteris a captivating book. Smith is a master story teller with an encyclopedic grasp of world religions, philosophy, and potpourri. My first reading influenced my thinking profoundly; my second reading after seminary proved equally interesting.

In part one of this review I have outlined Smith arguments and the structure of the book. In part two, I will look at his arguments in more detail.



[1]The scientific method consists of a number of steps in problem solving: felt need, hypothesis, data gathering, analysis, decision, implementation responsibility bearing.

Smith: To Plato’s Cave and Back, Part 1

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Author site: http://www.StephenWHiemstra.net, Publisher site: http://www.T2Pneuma.com.

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