One Disciple

The reflections of one disciple of Jesus on his journey in God's grace.

Month: February, 2015

The Eternal Ceiling

I was just a boy when one lazy afternoon I lay down on the couch, closed my eyes, and starting thinking, “What if there was nothing?” I focused on that thought, n o t h i n g. What would that mean? I mentally removed things as I worked toward nothing. Then suddenly a chill came over me as I came to one final thing to remove.  If I did I would lose my mind. I quickly opened my eyes and went to find something to do. Aristotle said that “Nothing is what a rock dreams about.” That afternoon I almost became a rock.

Wondering what was before is part of being human. Trying to imagine nothing is trying to imagine what was before what is. The problem is in that premise. If something was before what is then we still must ask what was before what was etc. until we find the ultimate, the absolute. In a conversation with two Mormon missionaries I interrupted them to ask about their doctrine of the god of the planet earth. “As I understand it, this god is actually the son of another god of another planet, who is also the son of a god of another planet, and so on. Where did the first god come from?” They hesitated, then said, “Those are complex things that we cannot get into.”

In contrast to the refusal of the Mormon missionaries to explain to me their doctrine Dr. Oliphant takes us boldly into the heart of Christian doctrine of God. I am listening to a course from Westminster Seminary by Dr. Scott Oliphant titled, The Doctrine of God. This is a study of what was before, the absolute. In the first class Dr. Oliphant warned us that it would be very challenging to our thinking and might even make some in the class angry. I recall it was either during the class on the Communicatio Idiomatum or the class on The Extra Calvinisticum, one of the young men questioning Dr. Oliphant on the divine and human natures of Christ was clearly upset. He had hit the wall, the divine ceiling, beyond which neither he nor Dr. Oliphant could go.

Lest we think this is a problem unique to religion we must stop a moment and realize the atheist faces the same challenge. Years ago a neighbor boy loaned my son a movie called Contact a movie conceived by Carl Sagan. The plot centered on a young scientist using SETI to make contact with a higher life form than us. There it was Dr. Sagan was looking for a god too. Yet I expect that ultimately Dr. Sagan and most atheists believe in the eternality of matter. Matter may cycle from one big bang to another but inert, impersonal, matter is all there is or ever was, “In the beginning there was matter.” Naturally this means that for humanity there is no more meaning in life than there is in the dreams of a rock. I believe it was Christopher Hitchens who said, “We must get over this childish idea of purpose.”

Purpose comes from meaning which can only come from an absolute being, the one beyond which there is not. The list of what is beyond us, beyond our understanding, beyond our ability to grasp, is without limit so we are clearly not any kind of an absolute. We can learn and become more knowledgeable but God cannot. Cornelius Van Til put it this way, “God thinks what He is and He is what he thinks.” Dr. Oliphant added this from Aristotle who said the Highest Thing is thought thinking itself but since this thinking could not be on things outside itself or it would not be the Highest Thing then the only thought the Highest Thing could think is itself. Wow! You might want to think on that for a bit, I still am. There is that heavenly ceiling again, “bam!”
So we have just thought about the omniscient God which leads always to worship:

Job’s Confession
42 Then Job answered the LORD:
2 “I know that you can do all things;
no purpose of yours can be thwarted;
3 you asked,
‘Who is this who darkens counsel
without knowledge?’
But I have declared without understanding
things too wonderful for me to know.
4 You said,
‘Pay attention, and I will speak;
I will question you, and you will answer me.’
5 I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear,
but now my eye has seen you.
6 Therefore I despise myself,
and I repent in dust and ashes!

Twenty Sheep Too Many

“It is wrong that Bill Gates has all those billions of dollars!” said *Francisco, a friend of mine from Bolivia. We were in the midst of a discussion on economics. He continued, “The government should take some of it away from him.” I asked why and he responded with, “It is too much. No one should have that much money!”

Some weeks later I was sitting with Edgar and we were talking about life in the Andes. He said, “There is a lot of robbery in Peru. In Peru a man who works hard, and doesn’t sell sheep to buy beer for fiestas, will have money to increase his flock until one day he has twenty sheep. His neighbor, with five sheep, tells him to sell a ewe, buy beer and come to a fiesta but the frugal neighbor with the large flock politely refuses. This continues until one day the man with five sheep says to himself, “Why does he have twenty sheep and I only have five?” He then finds some friends and at night they steal some of the sheep from his frugal neighbor. He may also go to the police and accuse his frugal neighbor of stealing sheep. The police will arrest the man and by the time he pays lawyers and court costs he will have been forced to sell many of his sheep.” Apparently once the poor man had “leveled the playing field” he was content or at least drunk.

These two conversations are talking about the same thing, what do we do when someone has too much? Somewhere between five sheep and eighty-one billion dollars there is a line in the sand that should not be crossed and if it is then someone must do something about it. Really? When I mentioned my conversation with *Francisco to some American friends their response was, “But doesn’t he know about all the charitable work Bill Gates does?” This argument actually agrees with *Francisco but provides an exception if the better off person is voluntarily generous. My question is, “And if he isn’t?” The exception for charitableness is basically in agreement with *Francisco and the thief with five sheep. There is a core problem with the view held by my brother *Francisco and the thieving Peruvian which is not addressed by an exception for charitable giving, that is these views do not start with charity.

In Leviticus 19:18 the LORD tells us, “ shall love your neighbor as yourself.” This command is the summation of a series of requirements before it. The farmer and the vineyard man were to be a little sloppy in their harvesting so that some would be left behind for the poor. On the other hand thievery, robbery, slander and injustice in court are absolutely prohibited. Now just in case someone might say this applies only among the Israelites we must remember how God interprets neighbor; see Good Samaritan Luke 10:29 and Sermon on the Mount Matthew 5:43-48. If I start with loving my neighbor as myself I stop begrudging his good fortune and bewailing my difficulties.

The problem with lines in the sand is that we erase them and redraw them according to our fallen standards. I cannot say when God has given too much to someone and not enough to someone else. The day that I can make the sunrise and set I might think about it. Thankfully that day will never come. May I love my neighbor as myself and not keep count of his flock.

P.S. A good friend of mine from Lima once laughed when I suggested that the Linux OS is a good option for the poor in Peru. I asked why he laughed, he replied “Windows only costs $5 in Peru!”

*not his real name