The Myth of Sisyphus

One of the oft quoted lines attributed to Socrates while on trial for his life is that “the unexamined life is not worth living.” To prove the point, he was willing to die rather than recant. This is why he drank the hemlock.

Centuries later, Albert Camus, a French existentialist philosopher examined his life and concluded that life is absurd. He argues his case in a few novels like, The Stranger, and The Fall, and in a collection of essays titled, The Myth of Sisyphus.

Sisyphus, you may recall, is the man of Greek myth, who after tricking Hades, the god of the underworld, was consigned to an Sisyphuseternity of rolling a huge bolder up a steep hill only to watch it roll down the hill again. He would then roll it up the hill again to watch it told back down the hill, ad infinitum.

Several interpreters throughout the years agree that this story depicts a meaningless repetition that was designed to drive him mad. Albert Camus, who concluded that life was absurd, elevated Sisyphus to the status of “absurd hero” (Wikipedia). I don’t know about the status of “hero.” I think such an eternity would soon drive me mad.

If we take Socrates’ advice and routinely examine our lives but without an appropriate standard against which we hold ourselves, then we may very well conclude with Mr. Camus that life is absurd.

A question philosophers like ask is whether a person can be good without God. I am persuaded that the answer is “no.” If there is no God, then there is no objective standard. If there is no objective standard then every standard is subjective. There is nothing about what I like or dislike that I could bind on another person, and vice versa. Thomas Warren used to argue that in such a case, you could not say, “Murder is wrong,” but only that, “I don’t like murder.”

Another man examined his life and came up with a very different conclusion. He explains, “I searched with my heart how to cheer my body with wine—my heart still guiding me with wisdom—and how to lay hold on folly, till I might see what was good for the children of man to do under heaven during the few days of their life” (Eccl. 2:3). He searched out everything looking for what is worthwhile in life. His conclusion: “The end if the matter; all has been heard. Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. for God will bring every deed into judgment with every secret thing, whether good or evil” (Eccl. 12:113, 14)

I agree with Socrates that “the unexamined life is not worth living.” What I would add is that our lives must be examined in light something, in particular, the word of God. Without God, life may very well be absurd. This is one of the main themes in the book of Ecclesiastes.

Have you examined your life lately? If so, according to what standard? And, what have you concluded?

Advertisements

Sin, Suffering, and the Existence of Evil

We usually think of our imagination as the faculty by which we “make up” things. It is the source of our make-believe world and of fantasy writers in “worldmaking.” It is the faculty by which we imagine unicorns and mountains made of gold. These are hybrids made out the real world in our mind.

It has been argued that the imagination is also the means by which we take all the parts of knowledge and make sense of them. It is the means by which we see the whole world; by which we connect the dots; by which we attempt to make sense of life.

Take for example, the issue of suffering. There are plenty of challenges to making sense of the world. Imagine a young woman, minding her own business, walking down her neighborhood street. A car pulls up and 4 or 5 young men get out of the car, pull sufferingher the ground and, one by one, molest her.

When I first met her, five years later, to wrestle with the issues this event created for her, I asked if she believed in God. She shook her head, “No.” For clarification, I asked, “So you say you know there is no God?” She thought for moment, and said, ‘It’s not that I don’t believe in Him. It’s just that I hate him.”

Whether a person ends up denying He exists or ends up hating Him, it does not take a genius to connect the two: that is the traumatic event with the conclusion.

This woman simplified the age-old philosophical argument against God, in practical terms; not in the technical language of the philosopher or theologian.

Thomas Warren wrote,

It is likely the case that no charge has been made with greater frequency or with more telling force against theism of the Judeo-Christian (biblical) tradition than that such them is unable to explain adequately the occurrence or the existence of evil. For some men the idea of omnipotent, omnibenevolent (perfectly good) God is simply ruled out by the enormous depth and far-reaching extent of human suffering and moral evil which these men at least think they see in the world (Have Atheists Proved There Is No God?, p. vii).

He concludes his introduction writing,

It is difficult, if indeed not impossible to imagine a challenge with more significance and implications (ibid. p. x).

All of the debates with atheists I have read or attended have been couched in abstract terms, and we have responded abstractly to them. I think that if we address the issue in light of the Story the Scriptures tell, we may be able to make as much sense out of it or more.

God made the world out of His good pleasure displaying His great glory. Man failed his mission to glorify God, sin entered into the picture, and death through sin (Rom. 5:12). Also to be considered is our arch-enemy, the devil. C.S. Lewis wrote that we live in enemy occupied territory. We live in a war zone, and in wars there are casualties, fatalities, and collateral damage. This combined with the fact that in the Fall the whole creation was subjected to futility has much explanatory power. The storyline of Scripture goes a long way toward explaining why we sin and suffer.


To Be or Not to Be

In the prologue of John Milton’s epic poem, Paradise Lost, the poet seeks the Spirit’s help to aid him in his effort to “justify the ways of God to men.”

The poem begins,

Of Man’s first disobedience, and the fruit
Of that forbidden tree whose mortal taste
Brought death into the world, and all our woes
With loss of Eden, till one greater Man
Restore us, and regain the blissful seat…”

A very different book written by the existential philosopher, Albert Camus, begins on a very different note. The opening article in a collection of articles, The Myth of Sisyphus, begins on this sober note:

There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide. Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy.

The difference between the two authors is that the first appeals to biblical narrative to make sense of life. The second author makes his appeal to the absurdity of life, as he sees it. The first author argues from the vantage point of purpose; the second from the vantage point of no purpose.

That there is a God who made man for his purpose gives life dignity. So, the purpose of life can be assessed from this vantage point. The answer to Camus’ question about whether life is worth living or not worth living is answered through revelation, the Bible.


Conceptual Redundancy

I presented a lesson at the Ashland Lectures on the assigned topic, “Jesus: The Christ.” The word Christ means anointed. It is equivalent to the Old Testament term, Messiah. The study led me to conclude that the emphasis in the Bible is on Jesus being anointed as King.

In the beginning, God ruled over Israel as a King. Israel rejected Him from being King (1 Sam. 8), but through Jesus God rules and reigns as King once again.

Shortly after the lesson, Don Ruhl, privately asked me if I knew that Cliff Sabroe, the other speaker, was assigned the topic: “Jesus: The King.” I knew it early on when the assignments were handed out. But the fact of the matter is, to cover the material adequately, there was no other way to address the topic.

In any given lectureship program, there is bound to be some overlapping of material. Speakers do the best they can to minimize repetition. I apologized to Cliff for having trampled all over his topic, but as things played out, Cliff did not cover the topic the same way at all. His emphasis, as assigned and spelled out, was on the kingdom. The final splash screen of his Keynote presentation identified Jesus as the King of the kingdom.

I have spelled all this out to quote brother Steve Thorpe. Steve was a professor at Southern Oregon University (SOU) for years. When he heard what happened, he said that in education this is referred to as “conceptual redundancy.” Both lessons addressed the same basic topic of Jesus as King; Cliff’s through the concept of the kingdom, and mine through the concept of Jesus being anointed as King.

It may very well be said that the entire lectureship in Ashland was an exercise in “conceptual redundancy” because every lesson centered on Jesus. This is not a bad thing. In fact, it is a great way to teach and learn.

Can you think of any conceptual redundancy in the Bible?

SML


New or Adequate?

Eva BrannEva Brann is a tutor at St. John’s College. She introduced one of her latest books writing, “In thinking things out we should, I
think, not go for newness but adequacy.”

I think this is a good approach to Bible study as well. In our efforts to study any Bible book or topic, we should “not go fo
r newness but adequacy.” It cannot be “new” because what the Bible teaches, it has taught for thousands of years. It is old. This being the case, our work involves understanding more than novelty.

It may be the case that we come across a “new” or “fresh” understanding of what has already been written, but this new understanding does not change what was written. New findings, like the Dead Sea Scrolls, may help us understand the use of a word better, or have greater appreciation for an historic event. We may even come to a better understanding of something we read in the New  Testament by a greater understanding of what was written in the Old Testament. In that sense, it may be new…to us.

Is it the case that in our culture of “new and improved,” of “progress,” that we have come to disdain the “old?” Have you heard the old expression, “Old is mold!” Is that true? Eva Brann describes the kind of mentality tutors at St. John’s promote among their students. They try to cultivate a kind of mindset where students pursue truth as opposed to “novel inventions for display.”

I have operated under the notion that as a preacher, I am a slave to the text. The text is not to be used by me however I choose to use it. Everyone is a slave to the text. We cannot simply use texts of Scripture the way we choose. We should not seek “novel inventions for display.” Our motives would be suspect in this case.

Eva Brann has tapped into an important approach to study: “In thinking things out we should, I think, not go for newness but adequacy.” What constitutes adequacy in Bible study? That is the topic of volumes upon volumes, but to put it simply, it involves gathering all the evidence and reasoning correctly concerning it.

This should eliminate the pressure some preachers and teachers may feel to come up with something “new.” We do not need to invent anything. We do not need to be novel, original, or unique. We need to be faithful. We need to study Scripture adequately.


The Wisdom of Israel

the-judgment-of-solomon-1519

I have devoted the better part of the past ten years looking at the story dimension of the Bible—the largest portion of Scripture. In my recent book, Turning Points, I state that the Story is the thread connecting Genesis to Revelation and every book in between; that the Story “…provides the context for the individual doctrines by which we do business.” I would like to elaborate on how the non-narrative parts of the Bible relate to or depend on the narrative portions by looking at the book of Proverbs.

Proverbs is classified as wisdom literature. It was a book that guided the nation of Israel into the light where practical living is concerned. The book begins by telling the reader its purpose:

The proverbs of Solomon, son of David, king of Israel: To know wisdom and instruction, to understand words of insight, to receive instruction in wise dealing, in righteousness, justice, and equity; to give prudence to the simple, knowledge discretion to the youth— Let the wise hear and increase in learning, and the one who understands obtain guidance, to understand a proverb and a saying,’the words of the wise and their riddles (Proverbs 1:1-6, ESV).

Perhaps the theme of the book is stated in the next line:

The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and instruction (1:7).

The first nine chapters contain a number of lectures in the form of a father teaching his son. (See 1:8, 10; 2:1; 3:1, 11; 4:1, 10, 20; 5:1, 7; 6:1, 20; 7:1, 24; 8:32). Chapter 10 begins, “The proverbs of Solomon.” Beginning with chapter 10 we find the short pithy statements the book is known for.

How does this non-narrative book of wisdom relate to the narrative portions of the Bible? Read Deuteronomy 4:1-8, and you will find the answer.

Moses says to Israel,

And now, O Israel, listen to the statutes and the rules that I am teaching you, and do them, that you may live, and go in and take possession of the land that the Lord, the God of your fathers, is giving you (4:1).

He emphasizes the importance of listening and doing the statutes and rules taught in the next few lines.

Then, Moses says,

Keep them and do them, for that will be your wisdom and your understanding in the sight of the peoples, who, when they hear all these statutes, will say, ‘Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people.’ For what great nation is there that has a god so near to it as the Lord our God is to us, whoever we call upon him? And what great nation is there, that has statutes and rules so righteous as all this law that I set before you today? (Deut. 4:6-8).

Of course, Moses is telling the children of Israel how their faithful response to the Law will affect the Gentiles, but Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and the Song of Solomon will also turn Jerusalem into a city set on a hill whose light cannot be hid.

God’s overall plan was to make right the things that went wrong in the beginning (Genesis 3). He eventually chose Abraham, then Isaac, then Jacob and his twelve sons to remedy man’s deplorable situation. Israel, as a nation, would be a nation of priests to the nations around them (Exodus 19:5, 6). The way they lived, and what they taught, would attract the nations to the true and living God. It would lead the nations around Israel to say “Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people.”

Did they succeed? Yes and No. In the early part of 1 Kings, there is the splendid example of Solomon. The Queen of Sheba heard about his wisdom and the splendor of his kingdom, and concluded that these “rumors” were exaggerations. She took a trip to Jerusalem to see for herself and left concluding that the half had not yet been told. On the other hand, the nations of Israel and her kings became a part of the problem by becoming more like the nations around them. They failed to live according to the light given to them. They were not the light of the world or a city set on a hill in the way God intended. The potential was there, but Israel became part of the problem, rather than part of the solution.

Do you see any parallel between the nation of Israel in the Old Testament and the church today? Does the way we live attract the people around us to seek God through His Son? If there is a parallel, are we failing or succeeding?


The Twelve Spies

grapesThere is a fascinating account told in the book of Numbers about 12 spies sent into the Promised Land to see how fruitful the land was; how strong its people were; and whether they dwelt in tents or strongholds. Twelve spies were sent, one from each of the 12 tribes of Israel (Numbers 13:1-16).

They spied out the land for 40 days. Here was their report: “We came to the land to which you sent us. It flows with milk and honey, and this is its fruit. However, the people who dwell in the land are strong, and the cities are fortified and very large. And besides, we saw the descendants of Anak there. The Amalekites dwell in the land of the Negeb. The Hittites, the Jebusites, and the Amorites dwell in the hill country. And The Canaanites dwell by the sea, and along the Jordan.” The report started out on a positive note, but the tune changes with the word “However.” A string of reasons are given for not entering the land.

But, Caleb quiets the people and says, “Let us go up at once and occupy it, for we are well able to overcome it.”

But the other spies said, “We are not able to go up against the people, for they are stronger than we are.” Later, they characterize the land as one “…that devours its inhabitants, and all the people that we saw in it are of great height. And there we saw the Nephilim (the sons of Anak, who come from the Nephilim), and we seemed to ourselves like grasshoppers, and so we seemed to them” (Nu. 13:32, 33).

Moses characterizes the report of the 10 spies as “a bad report” (13:32). What was it about their report that was bad? It is not as if they lied about the land or its inhabitants. Caleb could have just as easily said that the other men had misrepresented what they saw in the land. It would have also been counterproductive to return with grapes as evidence of this land of milk and honey.  If we can figure out why their report was “bad,” we will have discovered the purpose and value of the story.

If we do not see the story in light of the larger story of the Bible, I may almost say, there is no way to figure out why the report of the 10 spies is judged as “bad.” I say “almost” because the answer is hinted at in verse one. “The Lord spoke to Moses, saying, ‘Send men to spy out the land of Canaan, which I am giving to the people of Israel.”

In the broader story of Israel, which begins with God’s call of Abraham (Genesis 12), the Lord promised to give Abraham land. The land consisted of everything between the great river, the Euphrates River, and the River of Egypt. Abraham left his father’s home and settled in the Promised Land. But, you will remember, there was a famine that ultimately brought the descendants of Abraham to Egypt. They remained in Egypt for over 400 years. After the Lord delivered Israel from Egypt, they received the Law on Mt. Sinai. It is after the giving of the Law that Moses sent the twelve spies into the land, the Promised Land. This is the Land the Lord promised to Abraham, and at the beginning of Numbers 13, is giving to the people of Israel once again.

Here is the point: if God is giving you land, there is nothing to be afraid of when you enter that land. Even if its inhabitants are so big they make you feel like grasshoppers, there is nothing to fear. Herein, is the reason the report the majority of the spies gave is “bad.” They were discouraging Israel from taking possession of land God promised to give them—in fact, had already given them through their great great grandfather Abraham.

The report so discouraged Israel that the entire congregation raised a loud cry, and the people wept that night. They grumbled against Moses and Aaron, and said, “Would that we had died in the land of Egypt! Or would that we had died in this wilderness! Why is the Lord bringing us into this land, to fall by the sword? Our wives and our little ones will become a prey. Would it not be better for us to go back to Egypt?” And they said to one another, “Let us choose a leader and go back to Egypt.” (See Numbers 14:1-4).

Results

The spies were in the land for 40 days. The Lord determined that Israel would wander in the wilderness one year for each day they were spying out the land. So, for 40 years, Israel wandered in the wilderness. Of all the adults, 20 years and older, all but two died in the wilderness. Put another way, only two adults, 20 years and older, entered the Promised Land. Do you know who they were? Joshua and Caleb, two of the 12 spies of our story, but two spies who did not stand with the 10 who gave the bad report.

The writer of Hebrews looks back at this period of Israel’s history and writes, “For who were those who heard and yet rebelled? Was it not all those who left Egypt led by Moses? And with whom was he provoked for forty years? Was it not with those who sinned, whose bodies fell in the wilderness? And to whom did he swear that they would not enter his rest, but to those who were disobedient? So we see that they were unable to enter because of unbelief.” (Heb 3:16-18).

The report of the 10 spies was “bad” not because it lacked facts, but because it lacked faith. Caleb’s exhortation was energized by faith.