Friday, March 22, 2013

The Death of Ivan Ilych

The Death of Ivan Ilych by Leo Tolstoy

Two of my favorite literary works that discusses death or old age is Cicero's On Old Age and Leo Tolstoy's The Death of Ivan Ilych. I have read both of these works multiple times and I am sure I will read them many more times. That is the great thing about the great works. You can read them multiple times and still profit by them.

The Death of Ivan Ilych is about a man who is floating down the river of life without much thought to the great questions of life. Ivan Ilych sought to live a easy and pleasant life without any disturbances. For example, he began to dislike his marriage because he "began to think that marriage was going to disturb his easygoing, pleasant, gay, and always respectable life." He lived for appearances, not reality. Ivan was just cruising through life till disaster struck. He accidentally hurt himself while preparing a new house for his family. This accident would change his whole life. It made him to wrestle with the important questions of life, death, and the meaning of life. He came to the conclusion that the life he lived before the accident was all a lie.

The pain from this illness never left him. It also gave him a bad taste in his mouth. Is he speaking metaphorically about the life he had lived. He is frustrated because everyone living around him is living in denial, telling him he will get better. Only Gerasim is honest with him. Geraism is his servant who supports him in his illness. One of Ivan's friend tells Gerasim, "It's a sad affair, isn't it?" Gerasim speaking of his master's death, "It's God's will, we shall all come to it someday.

After Ivan's accident, he lost interest in his work and became more interested in his family. He wanted to show them pity, but the only one he felt comforted by was Gerasim. This servant accepted that everyone must die while everyone around Ivan were living in denial. They did not even recognize that this would happen to them too. Ivan began to accept the possibility of his own death. He even began to undergo a religious conversion with the taking of the sacrament. In the end, he felt sorry for his family and drew near to them.

In the end Ivan lost his fear of death. He actually welcomed it. Ivan says, "In the place of death there was light." He had made peace with death. He actually saw it as a passage to life. When he came to the end he said, "what joy."

The Death of Ivan Ilych is a great work because it helps us to focus on the important things of life. How should we live our life? Does life have meaning? Can I face death? It is a work worth reading multiple times.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Challenges to the Faith

Challenges to the Faith
            One challenge to the faith is biblical criticism. Newton believes that the challenge of biblical criticism concerns “the nature of scripture and the nature of biblical revelation.” The Bible is both human and divine. The Bible did not fall from heaven. Biblical criticism deals with the human dimension of scripture: literary, historical, and hermeneutical. Newton notes that biblical criticism “seeks to use every valid means at our disposal to investigate and understand the purpose, meaning and application of the biblical text” (332). M. J. Brown thinks “It is possible to develop a love of learning and critical analysis at the same time deepening your personal faith commitments” (327). Brown is asserting that faith and reason are compatible. It implies that a Christian believer can pursue a life of the mind while pursuing a life of faith.
            Tucker also describes the challenges from theology and biblical studies in the academy. She thinks that doubting supernatural events, “apparent textual contradictions and the problem of evil” are the things that lead once-professing Christians to abandon their faith. She observes that two responses to skepticism of the scriptures are “lowering the truth standards” or “to dig in one’s heels and prove the truth of Christianity” (119). She also notes how some walk away from the ministry because of doubt; while others “honestly and openly acknowledge doubt and unbelief while at the same time affirming faith” and continuing in the ministry. Tucker notes how William James thought “unbelief is a shallow and unimaginative perspective that is overly dependent on science” (142). James is important because he shows how religious experience is a form of knowing.
            A second challenge to the faith is disappointment with God and other believers. Martin Marty lost his wife to a terminal illness. Marty spoke of the sense of absence in the ordeal. Marty claims there are two types of spirituality: a wintery sort and a summery one. Tucker summarizes Marty words: “The best answer Marty can offer is for people to come to terms with themselves and God. Those who are troubled by a sense of abandonment and silence need not struggle for a summery spirituality—nor need they contemplate the option of walking away from the faith. There is a place for them on the barren wintery landscape, where the January thaw may provide a welcome respite” (164).
            The church can also produce doubts. Its theology can teach that doubt is sinful. Second, members of the church can doubt the believer’s salvation since she struggles with doubt or it can consider the believer to be a second-class Christian. Third, the church can give unhelpful counsel. It can tell the believer to ignore it or just will it away. It could also tell believers to deny their minds or questions. The church should support believers who struggle with doubt. Studies have shown that young people who are not allowed the freedom to explore doubts are more likely to abandon the faith and are ill-prepared when the challenges to the Faith come.
            A third challenge is the problem of evil. Ruth Tucker became a Christian at a young age at an Evangelical church. She later would accept a call to missions. Then tragedy struck on September 23, 1969. On that horrible day her mother was killed in an automobile accident. Tucker says her whole world caved in. She was already struggling with doubts. She writes, “Already struggling with abstract doubts, I now had very personal doubts about the God I worshipped and how this incident, this accident, fit into my faith” (21). She thought about the Scripture that says that all things work together for good to those who love God. Tucker, however, did not feel that way. Tucker recalling her response to the event: “But no, no, no! I screamed, all things don’t work together for good. And in this case, if there is truly a God out there who is all powerful, why, O God, why, I asked, did you not prevent this terrible accident? (21)” The problem of evil and suffering usually pops up when discussing doubt and unbelief. Tucker states that the poetry of Emily Dickinson helped her to make sense of pain and suffering and belief in God. Dickinson in her poem, “I know He exists” writes, “I know He exists/ Somewhere—in Silence—He has hid his rare life/From our gross eyes.” The concept of the silence and absence of God is discussed throughout Tucker’s book. It is a reason to continue struggling for faith in the midst of doubt and unbelief.
            A fourth challenge is from science and philosophy. Tucker argues that there has always been doubt and unbelief among Christians. It is not a new thing. Tucker, however, asserts “never before have Christians who live in Christian cultures have been faced with belief systems suffused with philosophical and practical atheism” (96). Some of the leading challenges are from Nietzche, Voltaire, Hume, Kant, and Charles Darwin. Nietzche argued that belief was harmful. He also thought it could no longer be justified. Hume argued that we could no longer believe in miracles. Kant “rejected traditional proofs for the existence of God” (105). Dawkins thinks Darwin “made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist” (107). Darwin’s evolution “has profoundly influenced religious belief since the mid-nineteenth century” (108). Tucker shows how Emily Dickinson can help the believer struggling with doubt. “Dickinson was a doubter. Yet despite her struggles with Darwin’s theories and other scientific discoveries, her doubts never progressed to the point of unbelief” (110). This was not true for everyone. Tucker thinks Darwin’s theories did pave the way of unbelief for others.
            Flannery O’Connor wrote a letter to a college student, Alfred Corn, who was struggling with doubts. O’Connor observes: “I think that this experience you are having of losing your faith, or as you think, of having lost it, is an experience that in the long run belongs to faith. . . . As a freshman in college you are bombarded with new ideas . . . After a year of this, you think you cannot believe. You are just beginning to realize how difficult it is to have faith and the measure of a commitment to it, but you are too young to decide you don’t have faith because you feel you can’t believe. About the only way we know whether we believe or not is by what we do. . . . One result of the stimulation of your intellectual life that takes place in college is usually a shrinking of the imaginative life. . . . The intellectual difficulties have to be met, however, and you will be meeting them for the rest of your life. . . . If you want your faith, you have to work for it. It is a gift, but for very few is it a gift given without any demand for equal time devoted to its cultivation. For every book you read that is anti-Christian, make it your business to read one that presents the other side of the picture” (Tucker, 203). In another letter, O’Connor wrote: “What kept me a skeptic in college was precisely my Christian faith. It always said: wait, don’t bite on this, get a wider picture, continue to read.”

Faith, Doubt, and Unbelief Part 6

Strategies for Dealing with Doubt
            Newton suggests some strategies for dealing with doubt. The first one is that some issues require us to hold a “both/and position.” Some issues are not black and white. Second, we should be “healthy suspicious, skeptical” of “some” scholars, but not all of them who do not share our faith perspective. Third, students and scholars should maintain a strong link to a local church. “This will help keep our feet on solid ground and especially so if we can be involved in an active ministry—a practical outlet of service with ordinary people to help us process the things we are learning” (337). Fourth, we should remember the “past faithfulness of God.” Fifth, we should be “suspicious of new and ground-breaking methodologies’ (337). Raymond Brown speaking of the Jesus Seminar observed, “If we ever make Christian faith totally dependent on the latest scholarly interpretation of a text, it could change each week.” We should draw on the riches of the past and not be blinded by the new. Sixth, we should affirm the sovereignty of God.  I would add that we need to cultivate the virtue of humility and the hermeneutics of charity.
            We have seen that Christians do struggle with doubt. It is not a sin to doubt. As we have seen, even people in the Bible struggled with doubt. Doubt probably just means we are human. It is probably a permanent condition of our lives. Some people because of their physical, psychological, and emotional make-up will be more prone to doubt. Doubt can be beneficial. It is part of faith. It includes skepticism. We must not believe everything. Not everything is true. Faith in God requires a healthy skepticism. There is both constructive and destructive doubt. Destructive doubt can have negative consequences. Doubt does not necessarily cause us to abandon our faith. We chose to abandon the faith because of our doubts. We can choose otherwise. Doubt is part of the process of growing as a Christian. It is a painful process to grow in our faith through questioning. We do not need to be afraid of intellectual challenges to the faith. As Flannery O’Connor stated: “What kept me a skeptic in college was precisely my Christian faith. Itr always said: wait, don’t bite on this, get a wider picture, continue to read.” Faith and reason is not the same thing. Newman observed: “Do not suppose I have been speaking in disparagement of human reason: It is the way to faith; Its conclusions are often the very objects of faith . . . But still reason is one thing and faith is another. And reason can as little be made a substitute for faith, as faith can be made a substitute for reason. Ultimately, faith and reason are compatible. Faith is not a leap in the dark. It is a leap into the light.

Faith, Doubt, and Unbelief Part 5

Allport provides good advice on handling doubt: “Only a child who is assisted in revising his imagery and his theology to accommodate the day-by-day increase in experiences could escape the surge of doubt.” Cultivating the mind is important. Our faith must grow as we grow. As we cultivate our intellect, our faith must grow with it. One way to do this is to draw from great works of literature and Christian thought. Walker Percy said, “It is no small thing to turn your back on two thousand years of rational thinking and hard work and science and art and the Judeo-Christian tradition.”
            It is helpful to understand doubt as a process of growth. Newton suggests this by exploring Fowler’s stages of faith. He notes how Fowler”is convinced people move through stages of faith during their lives and that one of these stages involves criticism which he argues is not only acceptable but indeed necessary on a journey of faith” (333). It is true that people should move through stages in their faith and struggling with doubt is part of the journey. Fowler thinks that faith “is a process, rather than a state. He believes as faith matures, it becomes deeper and broader” (333).
            McGrath also thinks doubt is part of growing up in faith. He thinks doubt “is an invitation to grow in faith and understanding, rather than something we need to panic about or get preoccupied with” (Doubting, 12). He also thinks many Christians avoid talking about doubt. Other Christians “suppress their doubts” (13). McGrath believes that doubt is neither skepticism nor unbelief. He defines unbelief “as an act of the will, rather than a difficulty of understanding” (13-14). Doubt “often means asking questions or voicing uncertainties from the standpoint of faith” (14). “Faith and doubt aren’t mutually exclusive—but faith and unbelief are” (14). McGrath thinks that doubt “is probably a permanent feature of the Christian life” (14).
            Faith is like a growing plant. It must be cultivated. It is “easy to uproot a plant in its early stages of growth; once it has laid down roots, however, it is much harder to dislodge it. By failing to allow faith to take root by seriously thinking about their faith, some Christians make themselves vulnerable to doubt” (29). Faith is not static; it must grow. Faith needs both experience and understanding if it is to grow.
            Flannery O’Connor also wrote about growing in faith. She writes: “I think there is no greater suffering than what is caused by the doubts of those who want to believe. I know what this torment is, but I can only see it, in myself anyway, as the process by which faith is deepened. A faith that just accepts is a child’s faith and all right for children, but eventually you have to grow religiously as every other way, though some never do.” (Kelly James Clark, When Faith is not enough, 94).
                        Kelly James Clark thinks that doubt is not like a headache or a broken arm. It is more like “arthritis, nearsightedness, and the common cold” (96). These things are not “necessarily terminal ailments, but they are not easily curable either” (96). Clark is arguing for the idea that there are no quick cures from doubt. It seems to be a permanent fixture to the life of faith. The author notes, “These are ailments we simply must learn to live with, even though learning to live with them is not something we desire or welcome. So too with doubt: it is a malady that we shouldn’t relish or glorify, but we must make do with it” (96).
            Clark argues that we must follow whatever light we have, no matter how small. He writes: “The lights may be dim, but they are lights, and we must follow them. However faint and frail they may be, they are all we have to direct our paths” (103).
            T. S. Eliot wrote:
“These are only hints and guesses,
Hints followed by guesses, and the rest
Is prayer, observance, discipline, thought and action.
The hint half guessed, the gift half understood, is Incarnation” (106, Four Quartets, 33).

Monday, March 11, 2013

Chesterton: The Nightmare Goodness of God

Ralph C. Wood, Chesterton: The Nightmare Goodness of God. Baylor University Press, 2011.

Ralph Wood wrote a popular book on Flannery O' Connor. He now has written a good book on G. K. Chesterton. He has tried to write a book that shows both the strengths and weaknesses of Chesterton. One can tell he has great respect for Chesterton. Wood asserts that the word, Nightmare, "recurs throughout the work of G. K. Chesterton." Chesterton is often considered an optimist. Wood"s wants to show "that Chesterton makes his deepest affirmations about God and man and the world in the face of nightmarish unbelief." Wood is successful in showing "The Nightmarish Goodness of God" according to Chesterton. One does wonder if the picture is too dark.

Chapter one discusses one of Chesterton's most popular work, Orthodoxy. It is one of my favorite books of Chesterton. Wood critiques in this chapter Chesterton battle with evolution. In chapter two and three, Chesteron's views on patriotism and militarism is discussed. Other chapters discusses Islam, the decline of the west, civilization, torture and another popular work of Chesterton, The Man Who was Thursday.

Chesterton is a good book that shows how Chesterton has something to say to the twenty-first century. Wood does a good job in showing both the strengths and weaknesses of Chesterton. The book emphasizes how Chesterton encountered nightmarish unbelief. One wonders if the joy of Chesterton is absent. The book ends with The Man who was Thursday which seems to leave the reader with a dark picture of life.    

Hank the Cowdog : The Big Question

John R. Erickson, Hank the Cowdog: The Big Question. Maverick Books, 2012.

The Big Question is the most recent book of the Hank the CowDog series. This series has provided excellent family entertainment for my family the last few years. In this newest addition, it is the day before Christmas. Loper and Sally May have left Slim in charge of the ranch. Loper and his family have gone to visit relatives for Christmas. It seems like it will be a peaceful Christmas until a snow storm blows through. The cows get out and it is up to Slim, Hank, Drover, and Miss Viola to rescue them.

The series is written at a fourth grade level but it will be interesting to the whole family. I have read all sixty of the Hank books to my family and we love the series. I read the same ones over and over. John Erickson has been writing the series since 1984. He is a real cowboy who lives in the Texas Panhandle. It is a series that kids would want to read on their own too.

The Poetry of Piety

The Poetry of Piety: An Annotated Anthology of Christian Poetry by Ben Witherington III and Christopher Mead Armitage. Baker Academic, 2002.

I try to read books in various genres: fiction, non-fiction, essays, epics, plays, history, and others. I read poetry not too often. One of the books I read recently argued that poetry should be part of our reading diet. I agreed with the author and began looking for a way to incorporate reading poetry into my reading schedule. My favorite time to read is early in the morning. It is at this time I like to read the Bible, a prayer book, and from one of the Great Books of the Western Civilization. I agree with Lewis on the importance of reading the old books, books from every century. Recently, I ahve been reading from John Calvin's Institutes of the Christian Religion. 

I found The Poetry of Piety on the shelves recently. I was familiar with Ben Witherington. I have read some of his books with great profit. There are 28 chapters in Poetry of Piety. It contains poems that would be familiar to many Christians. Some of the authors included are: George Herbert, John Donne, Phyllis Wheatley, John Henry Newman, C.S. Lewis and others. Some chapters have multiple poems. There are multiple poems for John Donne, George Herbert, and Gerald Manley Hopkins. Christpher Armitage explains the structure of the poem and Witherington discusses the theological meaning of the poem.

One of my favorite poems is Newman's "Lead Kindly Light:"

Lead, kindly light, amid the encircling gloom,
Lead thou me on;
The night is dark, and I am far from home

Another one I like is "The Apologist's Prayer by C. S. Lewis:

 From all my lame defeats and oh! much more
From all the victories I seem to score;
From cleverness shot forth on thy behalf . . .
From all my proofs of thy divinity,
Thou, who wouldst give no sign, deliver me.

Faith, Doubt, and Unbelief Part 4

Ronald Habermas thinks Christians have mistakenly looked at doubt as something to be avoided at all costs. In his paper, “Doubt is a Four Letter Word,” he states that “most Christians claim that queries about faith are negative, writing off all forms of doubt as the antithesis of belief’ (402). He disagrees with this assumption. In his paper, he distinguishes between constructive and destructive doubt. He thinks the religious leaders during the time of Jesus illustrate destructive doubt. These leaders displayed a cynical nature and “sought entrapment [of Jesus] through his own words and deeds” (403). Constructive doubt was illustrated by Doubting Thomas and John the Baptist. They sought answers to their questions. Habermas makes an important point about Thomas: “The primary issue that Doubting Thomas confronted faces many non-believers today: the perceived need personally to validate all facts of the Risen Lord before accepting the Gospel” (404). This can be a stumbling block to both believers and non-believers. Non-believers can be unwilling to accept the Gospel till they validate everything about Jesus before believing in Him. The question is can we believe without having all our questions answered?
            Habermas argues that doubt can be beneficial. He quotes from Tenneyson: “There live more honest faith in honest doubt, believe me, than in half the creeds” (408). Habermas believes these words have been confirmed multiple times in research studies. He notes how participants in these studies have overwhelmingly stated that their faith was “made stronger by questioning early beliefs” (408).