Matthew 19

“When the disciples heard this, they were greatly astonished and asked, ‘Who then can be saved?'” -Matthew 19:25

“How we deal with death is at least as important as how we deal with life, wouldn’t you say?” -Captain James T. Kirk

graveIn the part of the church world in which I serve, it is not uncommon to refer to someone’s entry into the Christian faith as “getting saved.”  Though years of seminary have made me often refer to this as “becoming a Christian” or “converting,” there is something powerful about the starkness of this vernacular phrase.

Thinking about crossing the line one faith and getting saved illuminates some things. It points to a human need for salvation, the possibility and path of salvation, and the reality that there may be someone or something that can actually do the saving.  Here in Matthew 19 the disciples wrestle with such topics.  They hear Jesus talk about the difficulties of the rich entering Heaven and they begin to wonder if anyone can be saved.

The question of eternity and our own personal final destinations are, in many ways, never far from us.  One accident, one medical situation, one moment of stupidity or violence, and life can be gone.  Understandably, most people prefer not to dwell on the inevitable for very long, focusing instead on other things.  Death stalks us all, in otmaxresdefaulther words, so there’s no use whining about it.

The matter of who can be saved from death is not just a Christian one.  Nor is it a necessarily religious one.  Confronting the inevitable end of this life is something that human beings deal with variously: via science, medicine, distraction, philosophy, and, of course, religion.  The answers we choose to embrace are different, but the fact that such answers are needed in the first place points to one reality: this life will one day be over.

We know, that–all things being equal–we will die, both as individuals and as a human race.  If science is our only guide, we must accept that this world will eventually end, whether by human hand or natural occurrence.  Even if we manage the planet in the best way possible, the sun will go nova in five or six billion years.  And if humanity survives that?  Well, eventually the universe may come to its conclusion with a “big smash” of all there is collapsing together or via a “cold death” in which entropy wears out all the potential energy of everything.  A bang or a whimper, it seems.

Not too optimistic, huh?  Picturing both the eventual end of everything and my own life’s countdown is, well, depressing.  salvation1If death is the end of consciousness and being, well, that’s one of the saddest things I’ve ever heard.  And if death actually takes us to an eternity either forever separated from our true home with God or eternally present in communion with God, that’s profoundly emotion-inducing as well.

I say all of this to remember that the question of “who then can be saved?” is not just a question for preachers.  It is a human question.  Whether death is a hard stop on our existence or entry into a plane the reality of which has eternal consequences, it can be a scary thing.  No matter what we think happens after death, it seems hardwired in us not to want to die.  Death is wrong, somehow.  It is an enemy.

Despite what the perceptible patterns of this brokedown world and our faltering bodies say, “with God all things are possible” (Matthew 19:26).  As a Christian, I know that God has made a way for life beyond death in Jesus Christ, and it is not just available for me but all who believe and accept it (John 3:16).  I offer this as the answer for all people, even as I’m well aware that not all accept this.

Here’s a question I’m interested in, then: what about those of you who aren’t Christians or who aren’t even particularlythese-eternal-questions concerned with matters of faith?  Honestly and humbly, I want to know how you approach death.  What do you think about it?  How do you deal with it?  Do you ever ask yourself how you might be saved, either from the sheer extinction of being or as you move into eternity?  As death is a common human experience, I think these are legitimate and real questions around which we could dialogue. If you’re interested in sharing, I really want to know what you think about death and end of life: how you approach it, what you believe, and why you choose to believe that as opposed to other answers.  For those who may participate, thank you in advance.

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Grumpy Old Man

allen.diogenes200wYesterday I was saddened to hear the news that Diogenes Allen had died.  As the former Stuart Professor of Philosophy at Princeton Theological Seminary, Dr. Allen had the opportunity to impact hundreds of young minds…including mine.  During my very first semester in graduate school, I took his class “Prolegomena for Theology,” a course for which he had literally written the book.  It was tough.  Probably one of the toughest classes I have ever taken in my entire life.  I struggled for the grade I received.  The material was intense–covering a broad range of philosophy and theology over time.  Allen?  He was pretty tough as well.  He was grumpy, demanding, and under no circumstances “suffered fools.”

Yet even in the midst of such cantankerous teaching, Allen found a way to inspire and draw the best out of us.  His grumpiness and demands for excellence causes us to want to achieve…and I’m not alone in feeling this way. As my Facebook feed attested yesterday, many of my fellow PTS alumni join me in mourning the loss of such a singular professor.

Over seven years since I started the only course I ever took with him I still value what I learned, philosophy-for-understanding-theology-diogenes-allen-paperback-cover-artboth in curricular content and wisdom.  In those early days at Princeton, Allen’s class made me feel like a true graduate student even as I struggled with the question of whether or not I wanted to go on to such goals in the first place.  I’ve particularly remembered something he said about the world of academics all those years ago.  A token of realism to all of us overachievers with pipe dreams of PhDs in our eyes that constituted permission to be who God intended (I paraphrase): “Academics is like a sport.  It isn’t for everyone.  But if you’re not meant to be involved in higher academics, don’t go out for the team.”  Though I myself did end up trying out for the “team,” the honesty and time-worn wisdom of Allen’s statement has reminded me that such goals were not–and are not–the only thing in life.  They are just a thing, like so many other things can be worth doing under the right circumstances.

I could say more, but for today I’ll just say this: If I can have a fraction of the impact on my students that Diogenes Allen had, I’ll be a happy man.

Ayn Rand for President?

At last night’s session of the Republican National Convention, we heard some well-delivered speeches by former Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice and 2012 vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan.  The latter railed strongly against the Obama economic policies and “central planners” of our time.  While apparently some of his facts are in question (see here and here), he nevertheless performed strongly and delivered some real zingers.

While Paul Ryan is now a heroic figure to many on the conservative side, his appreciation of the conservative economic philosopher, social thinker, and atheist Ayn Rand (1905-1982) has caused some to wonder whether he is an appropriate choice for a party so heavily favored by people of religious faith.  The question of Ayn Rand and Jesus has been mentioned again and again.

I’ve just finished reading a recent biography of Rand entitled Goddess of the Market: Ayn Rand and the American Right, written by University of Virginia historian Jennifer Burns.  I commend the book to you as a well-written, academic, yet accessible take on a fascinatingly strange woman of compelling ideas.  Though I’ve not read any of Rand’s work, based on my reading of her biography I’d have to agree that being a complete Randian and a Christian are mutually exclusive propositions. Rand was, to begin with, a rather militant atheist who felt that self-interest was the key to advancing society.  Altruism (in other words, a good deal of the stuff Jesus talks about) for her was a great flaw that derailed the course of prosperity and economic development.  All of this detail, of course, in the midst of a fascinating story about a woman with a complicated existence.

So then, is this an attack piece?  Am I saying that Paul Ryan should be avoided at all costs?  That because he has expressed an admiration for Rand that he is as thorough-going an atheist as she is?  No.  Holding free-market economic ideas similar to hers does not require the same personality or militant atheism; it is a completely acceptable position to have.  Being a capitalist or libertarian in varying degrees need not completely cast you out of Christian communion.  It does mean, however, that Ryan should be asked continued questions about how “Randian” he is.  How cold his ideas of competition, free-market policies, and self-interest really are, and whether his Catholic faith–and the Americans who would vote for him–are compatible with these beliefs.

Paul Ryan aside, one of the interesting things I’ve learned from reading Goddess of the Market is this: in contrast to what we normally hear about Communism being the great atheistic system in the world, Ayn Rand provides a clear example of militant capitalism being just as God-denying.  If two vastly dissimilar set of beliefs can be religiously united against Christianity, might they both not have the potentially for existing in a Christian fashion as well?

Christian Communism and Christian Capitalism.  Now that’s something to think about.