Monday, June 25, 2007

"I can only imagine..."

A few years ago I was at a retreat and the soloist sang a Mercy Me song called "I Can Only Imagine". It's about heaven and it brought tears to my eyes. The song is about trying to imagine how we'll respond when we go to heaven and are in God's presence. The chorus goes like this:

Surrounded by Your glory, what will my heart feel? Will I dance for you Jesus or in awe of you be still? Will I stand in your presence or to my knees will I fall? Will I sing hallelujah, will I be able to speak at all? I can only imagine.

Lately though, I've noticed that when Christians talk about heaven, there's a bit of hesitation - a little squirming in our seats. On the one hand, we've been taught to think that heaven is great - perfect, in fact! What's not to look forward to? After all, there will be no more pain or suffering or tears. No more sin. Evil will apparently be completely absent from heaven. We'll be free to worship God 24/7. It seems a bit heretical to even think that such an existence may be, well - a bit boring.

Sure, we joke about sleeping in and eating all the chocolate we want, but what's heaven REALLY going to be like? As I ponder this, I have a bunch of questions:

  • will we still have free will in heaven?
  • if we do, what will our choices be and what will prevent us from making the same mistakes humanity has always made?
  • if we don't, will we really be human?

Come to think of it, if Adam and Eve had obeyed God and resisted the lure of knowing good and evil (and thus, being like God), would they have lived on in the Garden of Eden in ignorance? Would we be innocent today, not knowing the difference between good and evil? Will heaven be a return to ignorance - I mean, innocence?

Or, will the context have shifted so dramatically that the only reality we know on earth - the perpetual battle between good and evil - will be transformed into a totally different reality? One beyond our knowing or even our imagination. But if this is possible, why have we had to go through all of human history with its injustices and abuses, greed, corruption, selfishness, etc.?

Will being "like Jesus" mean that we will choose not to do evil, even though we could? But how is that a fair scenario, if evil has been removed that is, if evil is absent, we can't really choose it and if we can't choose it, can we really be like Jesus in resisting evil and being obedient? So you see - lots of questions!

For the sake of this posting, the key one is this: will we have free will in heaven? Any thoughts? Until I hear from those who are wiser than I on this topic, I can only imagine...

Monday, June 11, 2007

The Triumph of Evil?

There's a quote that's been dogging me for some years now. Often attributed to an Anglo-Irish philosopher and statesman, Edmund Burke (1729-1797), the quote goes something like this: "All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing". It often appears as a tag line in emails from people who are very committed to a particular "cause" which they perceive to be unjust or immoral. Perhaps it's just me, but I've come to feel as though it serves as a wagging finger. The text of these emails has outlined a particular issue and the "triumph of evil" quote is a benediction of sorts - the ultimate raison d'etre for rolling up our sleeves and taking a stand against the forces of evil at work in our world.

So, I've been trying to figure out why this quote irks me. After all, it has a certain inherent wisdom, doesn't it? Slavery is often cited as an evil which was brought down by the actions of good men - most especially William Wilberforce, about whom a movie (Amazing Grace) has now been released to bring historical account to popular culture. Let me say unequivocably that I do not for a second wish to diminish the efforts of Wilberforce (or any other social or political activist) who has courageously taken a controversial stand and effected change in society. These men and women are rightly regarded as heroes. So, what's the problem?

Well, I guess there are two things. First, since we can never undo the intricate web of human action and inaction on any particular issue, we can't say with any certainty what the outcome would have been in the absence of the action or inaction of a certain person at a certain time. Had Wilberforce not challenged the British Parliament when he did, would the institution of slavery have persisted to this day? [As I say that, I'm quite conscious of the fact that the institution of slavery DOES exist today - in fact, National Geographic had a feature article on 21st Century Slaves a few years ago in which they reported: "There are more slaves today than were seized from Africa in four centuries of the trans-Atlantic slave trade. The modern commerce in humans rivals illegal drug trafficking in its global reach—and in the destruction of lives." (see for a taste of the article or go the library and look up the Sept. 2003 issue of the National Geographic). What would have happened if Wilberforce had not acted as he did? Well - we really don't know, do we. Again, let me stress that this is not a criticism of Wilberforce. Far from it! Rather, it's a plea for careful reflection.

The other thing has to do with this "triumph of evil" business. There are some details of my Christian faith that I'm not absolutely, totally, 100% sure about. I recently heard someone say that most of us might have our theology 80% correct. The problem is, we're not sure which 80% is right or, more importantly, which 20% is wrong!

What I want to say is this: the way I understand it - at the very heart of my faith - evil does not win, no matter how badly we behave or how inhumanely we treat one another on this earth. No matter how courageously we stand for justice or how meekly we watch injustices unfold. Certainly, if we do nothing when we could act or speak, we may fail to deliver someone from pain and suffering. But let's be clear on this one thing: Evil has already been defeated. Wasn't that the point of the cross? Really, if the only hope we have against evil is our (puny) efforts - our schemes, campaigns and strategies - we're in big trouble.

This is not a prescription for doing nothing, but a reality check. Let's not think of ourselves more highly than we ought. If we really want to be followers of Christ - disciples, apprentices - God doesn't expect us to save the world or even fix it. He does expect us to do the things Jesus taught us to do - to be faithful witnesses of the life that comes from obedience. To live according to the ethics of the kingdom and thus create a dynamic, life-embracing, counter culture. And then! When we Christians get this part down - and I mean, REALLY get this down, in spite of the push and pull of our culture of materialism and me-ism, then we will see what God can do with our systems and institutions of injustice!

The triumph of evil? I think not.

Friday, June 01, 2007

How do we know what we know?

There's a dinosaur on my desk at work - a tyrannasaurus rex - the king of the dinosaurs! It's there to remind me to be humble and not to get so attached to my understanding of truth that I don't continue to seek understanding. Truth, I firmly believe, is complex. You just think you get something figured out when new information surfaces. Something doesn't quite fit. That's what makes the pursuit of truth so exciting.

I have this image in my mind about the way we tend to claim "truth". It's like climbers who have scaled a mountain, or astronauts who have landed on a distant planet - they proudly plant their flag, claiming the "conquered" territory. We do the same sort of thing when we arrive at a deeper level of insight or understanding. We plant our flag. Problem is, too often we tend to camp out there - protecting our territory. This is TRUTH - maybe even THE TRUTH and we're ready to defend it. The climb, the search, the flight is over. We've arrived. Of course, while we're tied up defending truth, we stop looking.

So what's this got to do with the dinosaur on my desk? When my son went through a dinosaur phase, we had movies about dinosaurs, books, various dinosaur figures - the works. In the course of our "research" I can still remember the shock and disappointment I felt when I discovered that paleontologists really have to fill in a lot of blanks in order to give us the finished product. The fierce tyrannosaurus rex, for instance, is a composite of a few bones and a lot of imagination. Did you know that? On the basis of a few bones, paleontologists have re-created this amazing creature - they've fleshed him out, all based on a few bones. Shape, size, color, temperament, habitat, diet - all from a few bones!

We have this great book. It's a coffee table size - Dinosaur Skeletons and Other Prehistoric Animals by Jinny Johnson. On the cover flap it says this: "No one was around millions of years ago when dinosaurs roamed the earth. So how do we know about these amazing creatures? From discoveries of fossilized bones, scientists have pieced together a picture of how these incredible animals MAY have looked, and how they moved, fed, and fought." I added that emphasis on MAY... hm. Are you thinking what I'm thinking?

So, the dinosaur sits quietly on my desk, watching me work and reminding me to keep thinking, keep searching, keep seeking - even when where I'm at feels pretty right.