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The nature of faith

June 4th, 2012 No comments

Since starting my job at Sevenstar Academy two years ago (time flies!), I have had the privilege of teaching four courses, three of which on different occasions, on an as-needed basis.  One of these courses, the one which I teach most often, is a fairly open-ended course – while the final exam looks for particular answers, I have the luxury of reviewing students’ opinions, encouraging and pressing them in their writing, and helping them to refine their thought process as they prepare their 1-2 page essay assignments.

The other two courses, each theology/doctrine courses, are fairly objective.  For the most part, it is a standard Arminian presentation, so  I don’t have a problem with most of it.  I also enjoy these courses because I have the opportunity to push students a bit, sometimes beyond what is communicated in the course material.  Often they will express an opinion that differs from the reading, and as long as they are also aware of the correct answer, I give them credit.

The early part of these courses, the second-semester doctrine course, is concerned with “defending” one’s faith.  Various arguments are used, such as Paschal’s wager, the “court-proof” argument as I call it (if the Gospels were written by eye-witnesses, their testimony would be held up as true in today’s legal system), and the fact that since Jesus’s bones have not been found, there is no concrete evidence against the idea of a resurrected Savior.

Recently, I have begun to scrutinize this type of theology.  I do not think the faith is this easily articulated.  No doubt, it is good for my high school students.  Most of them I judge to be fairly young in their faith – every once in a while, when the extra-inquisitive student comes along, I am able to go beyond what is written; otherwise, I tend to leave well enough alone – it is good that they have a sense of security in their faith as they grow and mature in their relationship with Christ.

Having these kinds of defenses is good for any Christian, really. But sooner or later, these types of arguments come up short.  Why?  Because they are theoretical only.  One of these arguments is, in a way, an argument against itself: though we certainly have not found the bones of Jesus (and our faith says we never will), neither can we “prove” that the resurrection happened.  There is no tangible evidence to support EITHER claim.

Valuable though apologetics is when articulating one’s faith to others, is it necessary for our own faith?  Some folks, no doubt, are comforted by the idea of having a logical argument in support of their faith at arm’s reach, ready to be articulated.

But for a personal faith, is it necessary?

Anyone who has spent any length of time in Christian circles is undoubtedly familiar with Hebrews 11:1:

“Now faith is sure of what we hope for and evidence of things we do not see.”

What is this verse saying?  It seems quite clear: Though we believe–and indeed, know–things to be true, the essence of faith is not needing these types of arguments to  have a personal, vibrant faith in Jesus Christ.

One of my younger friends asked me once, “Jon, how can we actually know for sure that what we have in history books actually happened?”

Good question.

We have plenty of artifacts, plenty of eye-witness accounts, letters, documents, and the like to suggest that history did happen.  But the fact is that since we did not live it ourselves, all of this evidence is ultimately questionable (now it should be understood that I don’t believe that a person with any common sense would deny that what is said to be “history” actually happened, and in fact, this is also one of the arguments to be use d for Christianity, since  again we do have these documents that claim to be eye-witness accounts).

One of the most profound truths of the Christian faith is also the most unsettling–it is that while witness of the Spirit that speaks of the truth of these things, one cannot get around this fact:

There is absolutely no empirical evidence to support the idea of the risen Christ.

We do have the eye-witness accounts presented in the Gospels, but a ney-sayer can just as easily write them off as fabrications.  We don’t have the bones of Jesus, but one could just as easily use the centuries-old argument that his body was stolen and is yet to be recovered.

Folks, this is what faith is.  Faith is the witness of the Holy Spirit in our lives, witnessing His truth that the events recounted in Scripture did actually happen.  Faith is believing, and in fact knowing something to be true when there ultimately is no hard-and-fast evidence.  Ultimately, the crux of Christianity is uncertain, yet certain.

That’s why I think these arguments for Christianity ultimately come up short, because (for me, at least) they are un-necessary.  I do not know beyond a shadow of a doubt that Jesus rose from the dead in a sense that can be proven.  But I do know that the Spirit of God speaks a faith into me that cannot be shaken, that is unproven yet proven by the witness of the Holy Spirit.  For me, THAT is the nature of faith–believing and knowing something to be true so that no logical argument is required.  Sure, such arguments help to articulate our faith to others, particularly when witnessing to non-believers, but as far as a personal faith, are they really necessary?

What does it say if we rely too much upon said arguments to prove our faith?  What does that say about the condition of our faith, that we must go to such lengths to prove it?

Anyway, these are just some thoughts I’ve been kicking around lately.  Some if not most have room for critique and criticism.  But, if nothing else, they make for good food-for-thought.


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A week in Israel!

July 3rd, 2011 1 comment

Here it is… the long-awaited Israel blog. A week’s worth of entries posted as one page in order to ease confusion. Enjoy, if you can. 🙂 Note that the bolded sections indicate further reflection after the completion of the blog – more will probably be added later.

Day 0
This is my first trip overseas, and already the adventure has begun! It was not too much trouble getting through the security checkpoints—take off the belt, take off the shoes, empty the pockets, put in bin, remove items, replace belt and shoes, and board the plane.

The adventure began during our supposed four-hour layover in Atlanta. After disembarking the plane coming from Cincinnati, we met for dinner. A group of friends and I (well, not so much I; mainly my friends) decided to go to TGI Friday’s. Not one of my favorite places, but majority rules, so I played along.

I ordered a Jack Daniels hamburger. The burger itself was marinated in Jack Daniels whiskey. The bourbon itself was slathered in Friday’s famous Jack Daniels sauce. “Sounds good!” I thought.
Boy was I wrong.
One might as well have put heated raspberry vinaigrette on my burger. It was disgusting. I ate half of it, and didn’t touch the fries. It was OK, though; subsequently after consuming half of the burger, I had lost my appetite.
Following the fiasco that was supposed to be my dinner, we returned to our gate, and I spent time reading Michener’s The Source and talking to friends. I am enjoying getting to know the high school kids on the trip.

I feel like they are getting more comfortable in relating to an older person, someone in between their age and an older adult.  I suppose this further confirms my calling to teach, except whereas it was once my goal to teach on the college level, I have decided that I would be more than content teaching High School Bible, even if it was for the rest of my life. I have found that I love relating to younger students, which was not exactly something that I was expecting while studying Bible a number of years ago.

Anyway, I digress. As we were talking, we heard that our flight had been delayed by one hour due to the plane needing mechanical repairs. “Great,” I thought. “The last thing I want to do is board a shoddily-built plane and run the risk of going down somewhere close to Asia.”
By this time, we were all were well passed tired. I continued talking to folks and reading, but some people were starting to get sleepy. Then the PA came on again: “We’re sorry,” they said, “but our plane has been delayed another 45 minutes. Excellent.

So, now the plane finally arrived “on time,” or at least when they said it was supposed to arrive the third time. We spent another half-hour to 45 minutes trying to board. So, by this time, our take-off time had been delayed 3.5 hours.

As I write this, finally, we are in the air bound for Tel-Aviv. Flight time is scheduled to be 10:54, putting us in Tel-Aviv around 6PM Israel time, 11AM EST, at which time I will publish this entry. We’ll go to dinner, followed promptly (in my case, at least) by bed, since I doubt I’m going to be able to sleep on this plane. As of 3:31 EST, most of the plane is wide awake and talking.

Tomorrow, we head for a ride on the Sea of Galilee (also called Lake Kineret. At least, I think that’s how you spell it). I am looking forward to this, as well as our de-briefing time following our trip. I am glad to be sharing this experience with my mentor from high school, as well as my closest friend. It is sort of a “coming of age” for me – my mentor was also my Hebrew teacher, who incidentally turned me on to Old Testament study, and I have been hooked ever since. The student has learned a lot, and I am now able to relate at least somewhat better with my old teachers.

Concerning my friend, I was thrilled when I found out that she and her family was also going on this trip. I am going to enjoy seeing how she processes this whole experience. In both of our cases, I predict both spiritual as well as personal growth.

Now it’s pushing 4AM, so I think I will wrap it up for now. I will be sure to write each day sharing my experiences in the Holy Land, along (hopefully) with pictures.


Blog: Day 1
Boy, was I a mess today. I didn’t sleep much on the plane, and I didn’t sleep much at night, either. We had to get up at 6:00am to be ready for breakfast at 7, and to leave at 8. The day, for me, was grueling. But we got to see some awesome things.

Unfortunately, you probably won’t be able to see these awesome things from me, because the view screen on my camera (or the chip under the screen?) cracked, so I can’t see where I’m shooting. I did my best, but with my luck they won’t be what I was “shooting” for. Actually, it would take an incredible amount of luck to be able to upload something even remotely salvagable.

Many of the sites we visited today I knew nothing about. But the highlight of the day, for me, was taking a boat ride on the Sea of Galilee. Dr. Nicholas hit on the theme of “chaos” in Scripture and other creation stories – Marduk taming a watery chaos monster in the Babylonian epic, God creating out of a “watery chaos” in Genesis 1, Jonah being cast overboard to calm the “chaos”, and finally, Jesus calming the chaos on the sea of Galilee in the New Testmaent saying, “Peace, be still.” Carried further, he has the power to calm even the most chaotic sorms of life, if we would only have faith.

This was an amazing day.

Day 2

I didn’t write the second or third day, but I remember something of significance from day two.  We went to Elias Chacour’s school in Ibilin.  Elias Chacour has done wonders to bridge the Israeli-Palestinian divide.  The school and teachers go out of their way to teach students about peace between the two sides, before they head out to the Army.  Every Israeli is required to serve three years in the Army.  Naturally, once they fight for the army for three years, they are usually pretty well “pro-Israel” concerning the whole matter.

One of the things that Elias (Chacour’s godson) said was that he did not want to become “the Jews’ Jew.” A lot of folks on the tour thought he was making a comparison to the holocaust, but I’m not sure.  He may have been referring only to the spirit of mistreatment that was going on in that time period–i.e., the Jews were treated as (before the holocaust) second-class citizens.

I’m not sure which way he meant.  If it’s the first, though he be fighting for peace, he is still human and is understandably a little bit frustrated, maybe even hateful towards Israel for the things she has done to oppress his people.  And in some cases, rightfully so.  So, I do not hold that statement against him, even if it was a little harsh. If it’s the second, then I don’ t find anything wrong with the statement at all.

Day 4

So, I haven’t been as consistent with this as I would have liked. I’ve learned many things on this trip, most educational, but some annoying. For instance, today I found out that the hotel where I am staying charges $12 for THREE HOURS of Internet access! For crying out loud, the hotel in Boson charged $7 for the whole day.

Oy veh!
So, a summation of the trip since my last entry. Some of the sites we go to I don’t really care about, like Nazareth villiage, a reconstructed/re-enacted villiage of what Jesus’s life would have been like. We have enough remains to speculate on how this area might have looked, but it still seemed a bit out-of-place watching folks dress up to weave at a loom, or construct a primitive saw. I definitely don’t want to make it my life’s ambition to entertain tourists. I appear to be in a rather searly mood tonight, so next topic…
TODAY was our first day in Jerusalem! We got to see some very cool sites – the Wesetern (also called Wailing) wall in Jerusalem was pretty cool – we saw a lot of people praying, and I took the opportunity to pray there as well. That was pretty cool.

Lots of steps in this area, but we haven’t gotten to the heart of the Old City where all of the steps are – that’s tomorrow, or the day after, or something. I don’t know… each day is a surprise, since I lost my schedule. 
After stopping by the western wall, we began our journey to the stages of the via dolorosa, Latin for “Way of suffering.” The first stage was the Garden of Gethsemane. Contrary to popular belief, the Garden of Gethsemane was not a mere garden, but a whole SWATH of land in the Gethsemane area. That was surprising. In any case, we apparently have a pretty good guess at the area where Jesus knelt and wept, praying that his cup may pass – the Church of Agony is a dark, somber church that sets the mood quite well . It is very somber, and I got teary. I wonder to myself how it would feel going to that church every week!?

It was stage two (at least, I think it was stage two), that really impressed me. We have found Caiphas’s house. How do we kn.

Day 5

Today, we started off by going to Qumran! This is the site where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found in 1947. We have determined that the scrolls were being kept by a community of scribes, but there is debate as to how old these scrolls are. The community lived about 29 AD, during the time of John the Baptist. The name of these people were called the Essenes. But there is debate as to exactly how old these scrolls are. Most say that Qumran’s greatest treasure, the Great Isaiah Scroll, was written approxomately 100 BC. Nearly a century before Christ! And, it is nearly identical to the best texts we have available today.

Prior to this discovery, no one could prove the authenticity of the Bible. It is neat to be able to find that what we have as our text has been carefully preserved over time.

Day 6
What a start to the day. We started out by going to the Temple Mount. Years ago, the Temple was the property of the Jews before finally being conquered by the Muslims. The Jewish temple was razed, and the Muslims built the Dome of the Rock in its place. Still, the place is regarded as a holy place by both sides.

Next, we went the the Church of St Anne, who is alleged to be the mother of Mary. The church is built around the place where she is believed to have been born—where she was born, and where she grew up. Following this, we headed to the site which is believed to be the upper room, where Jesus and his disciples gathered and had the passover meal together. Here, Christ redefined the traditional meaning of the Jewiash passover—whereas for the Jews passover commemorated the Angel of Death sparing the Hebrew firstborn (following a meal of unleavened bread and wine, the bread became the body, and the wine became the blood of Christ. This was a fairly emotional time for me, as I stopped in the room and thought about the last days of Christ’s life.

Next, we went to David’s tomb. This was cool, from an Old Testament perspective. This is the area where David is believed to be buried, though we are not sure EXACTLY where he was buried. There is also a cool monument built in his honor, reading simply Davidhammelekh , “David the King.”

I don’t really understand why some venerate the place where the Shepherds whom Gabriel spoke to proclaiming the birth of Chkrist. More interesting to me was seeing the ruins of a 4th-6th century Byzantine church. That was pretty cool. Now we’re on our way to Bethlehem!
…And Bethlehem was pretty cool. One of my favorite things to see was St. Jlerome’s grave and living space. St. Jerome was the one responsible for translating the extant Hebrew and Greek Bibles into a Latin version, also called the Vulgate. I got a picture with his statue.

Of course, the most popular site in Bethlehem is the birthplace of Jesus. Since this was Sunday, I knew it would be crowded. Even though the tour guide said it wasn’t that crowded, we still waited in line for nearly two hours to walk inside to the little shrines that had been set up over the place where the manger and the birth site were (in Catholic tradition, they are different, though each site is close to the other).
I was excited to finally be able to get close to what I was sure was “holy ground”—if not this particular place, then at least somewhere relatively close to it. What I found when I got there was a very elaborate, gold-covered shrines, with hordes of people packed into lines like sardines trying to see, to kiss, to touch these objects. The hundreds (thousands??) of people that packed the room waited in line to see where Jesus was born.

Maybe my heart isn’t in the right spot, but it seemed like something was missing. Chaos seemed to outshine the holiness of that place. Pushing and shoving just to get a a look or a touch at an object? Something was wrong.

I understand Catholic and Orthodox iconography—people use images of the divine and supernatural in order to catch a glimpse and to be lifted up into “that world”—to more fully identify with God. Contrary to popular (though misguided) protestant belief, Catholics and Orthodox don’t “worship” these images—they are but a means by which we come to God.

My sentiments seemed to be echoed by everyone in our group. This was not a holy place. This was a tourist attraction bolstered by the Sunday morning mass. Well, it IS a holy place! But it was so overshadowed by chaos, by shoving, pushing, and yelling (the noise was unbearable) that connection to God was nigh impossible. I say “nigh” because there was a moment where I was looking into the small cave-like area where the manger was held, touched the ground and crossed my forehead (I am a little partial to that oft-forgotten element of liturgy).

In spite of everything that had gone on, God touched me. Mind you, it felt slight, but it was there. I only wish we had more time, didn’t have to rush for the sake of over-eager busybodies, and could really take time to ourselves to reflect, meditate and pray. I should have known better. 🙂

Finally, we went to the Israeli Museum, where we saw the model of Jerusalem. Quite accurate, and quite impressive. We then went into the Museum, and this was my favorite part of the day—the Dead Sea Scrolls exhibit! These are my favorite things to study and learn about. Unfortunately, we were not allowed to take pictures, though the Great Isaiah scroll replica was quite amazing. So ended our second-to-last day in Israel.

Day 7
It was a blur of a day. We toured the stations of the via dolorosa. It was pretty cool to what is traditionally held as Christ’s last journey before his death. The journey culminates at the Holy Sepulchre, a huge church with shrines set up to commemorate the site of the Crucifixion, where Mary laid Jesus’s body after being on the cross, and the tomb (hence the name Holy Sepulchre). I think that it is plausible that this is actually the place where it all happened – depending on how much stock one places on church tradition, one may or may not believe this to be the “actual” place. The church even has the rock where the cross was, along with a hole (the exact spot??) in which the cross was stuck. I’m not sure about that one.

We stopped for lunch at a pretty cool restaurant – we got to eat on a roof with a neat view of Jerusalem.  The food was good, too.  Rather than walk around and go shopping after lunch for an hour, I opted to just sit on the roof and take in the scenery.  This site also demonstrated my prowess at the Hebrew language – I asked how much waters were up there, and the lady gave me a curious glace.  It is debatable which second statement got her attention, either “WATER!” or “Mayim!” but she responded “Oh! Ten shekels!” $3 for a bottle of water?  No thanks… 🙂

This was not the end of the day, however. After having some free time, we went to see the Garden Tomb. This is a relatively recfent discovery based on the idea that “Golgotha”, “place of the skull”, referrers not to a place where people were killed, but a formation of a skull in a huge rock. I’m not sure about this, but I suppose it is possible. In any case, it has a tomb, with a stone. Since this place lacks the energy of the former site, and is therefore quite calm and relatively lackluster, one would love to believe that this site, and not the Holy Sepulchre church, is where Christ died. Again, however, I tend to think that church tradition wins out here.

The highlight of the day, though, was taking communion together. Following singing “And Can it Be”, I prayed. I got lots of compliments, but I don’t really like being complimented on prayers.  First, it makes me feel awkward because I have a known ego problem.  Second, I like to think that I’m not the one praying anyway. Still, it was a powerful time – tears were shed, and it was a fitting end to the trip. I hope that we are all able, to some extent, to carry out what we have experienced here out beyond our stay in Israel.

I am going to try to add pictures later. They’re not mine, but they’re good!

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