11/13/15

From Darkness to Light

© andreiuc88 | stockfresh.com

© andreiuc88 | stockfresh.com

Douglas Moo said Romans 1:21 was the “missing link” for Paul’s argument in Romans 1:20, where he said those who suppress the truth God reveals about himself in creation have no excuse for their actions. “For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened” (Romans 1:21). In other words, if you deny or suppress what creation reveals about God, you will never truly understand it. What’s more, your failure to understand is inexcusable because it should have been quite plain to you.

According to Robert Mounce, we can reasonably expect that knowing God should lead us to honor him as God, since He plainly gives all people the basic requirements for life, regardless of their relationship to him. Their response should be gratitude, “But people choose to ignore God and come up with their own version of reality. By rejecting the knowledge of the true God, religion is born.” Mounce’s sense of religion here  seems to be a revision of Edmund/Edward Tylor’s definition of religion as follows: “the belief in spiritual beings” other than the true God. This turning from the revealed truth of God to a personal interpretation of that revealed truth has been described as “the triumph of gods over God.”

The sense of “God as you understand him” in Twelve Step recovery strikes off in two separate directions when the truth about God in creation is encountered. One is compatible with the Romans Road, and one is not. God as you understand Him is essentially “God as I am willing to accept” or “God as I am able to comprehend” Him. This first sense can be portrayed by the word “god” within a circle representing the person’s understanding. This sense of  “god” becomes a projection or manifestation of a purely human attempt to explain reality.

small god

The alternate sense, and one that is compatible with the Romans Road, is a circle of understanding that is infinitesimally smaller than God Himself. Something that looks like what follows: the representation of our understanding as a circle barely discernable with the “O” of God.

big GodThe distinction between these two “understandings” of God is illustrated in Anselm’s Ontological Argument for God’s Existence. Anselm said that even a fool can conceive of the idea of “god” as an absolutely perfect being; a being greater than anything we can imagine or conceive. But if this idea exists in our understanding, “then it can be conceived to exist in reality; which is greater.” So if someone accepts that God is greater than our ability to imagine Him, He must exist in reality because existing in reality is greater than merely existing in the imagination. “Hence, there is no doubt that there exists a being, than which nothing greater can be conceived, and it exists both in the understanding and in reality.” Brian Davies and G. R. Evans noted in Anselm of Canterbury: The Major Works that Anselm believed:

God cannot be thought of simply as a concept people have. He [Anselm] thinks people who deny God’s existence can nevertheless be thought of as having some concept of God, for so he says, they have some idea of what it is whose existence they deny.

If reflecting on the meaning of the word ‘God’ shows that God necessarily exists in reality and not just in the mind as an idea of him, then someone who denies there is a God is ultimately proposing what must necessarily be false. Anselm saw his argument for the existence of God as paving the way for serious reflection on what we mean when we use the word ‘God.’ He also believed his ‘proof’ showed that God was what Christians believed God to be. But according to Romans, if this knowledge doesn’t lead the individual to honor and give thanks to God, it is not saving knowledge of God (Romans 1:16, 21).

So if this knowledge does not lead to reverence and gratitude towards God, then it “falls far short of what is necessary to establish a relationship” with God. In Romans 1:21 Paul points to what will happen with an understanding of God based solely on the knowledge of God revealed in creation—your thinking becomes futile; and your foolish heart becomes darkened. Whatever your initial capacity to reason about God may have been, whatever initial knowledge of creation you might have had, failing to acknowledge God’s hand in it means your thinking about it will ultimately be in vain; futile.

You can understand God to be greater than your ability to imagine Him, but still not have that knowledge lead you to worship Him. It requires the light of the gospel. Knowledge of God that does not lead you to honor and give thanks to Him leads to futile thinking and darkened, foolish hearts. Douglas Moo commented that at the very center of every person where the knowledge of God must be embraced is darkness. If the knowledge of God is to have any positive effects, then only the light of the gospel can penetrate that darkness.

As Paul has already said in verse 1:18 of Romans, the wrath of God is revealed against individuals who suppress the truth of what God has revealed. You need more than just an understanding of God as a being greater than anything we can imagine or conceive to have a relationship with “the God of the preachers.” John Calvin said of the individuals Paul described in Romans 1:21, “They quickly choked by their own depravity the seed of right knowledge, before it grew up to ripeness.” Robert Mounce put it this way:

To turn from the light of revelation is to head into darkness. Sin inevitably results in a darkening of some aspect of human existence. In a moral universe it is impossible to turn from the truth of God and not suffer the consequences. Ignorance is the result of a choice. People who do not “know” God are those who have made that choice. Understanding God requires a moral decision, not additional information.

According to the Reformation Study Bible, God will not allow human beings to entirely suppress their sense of God. Even in a fallen world people have a conscience; they have some sense of right and wrong. “When conscience speaks in these terms it speaks with the voice of God.” And I think this is true for the Twelve Steps. By meditating on what ‘God as I understand Him’ means, perhaps someone will have a deeper appreciation of what Christians believe God to be.

If you’re interested, more articles from this series can be found under the link for “The Romans Road of Recovery.” “A Common Spiritual Path” (01) and “The Romans Road of Recovery” (02) will introduce this series of articles. If you began by reading one that came from the middle or the end of the series, try reading them before reading others. Follow the numerical listing of the articles (i.e., 01, 02, etc.), if you want to read them in the order they were originally intended. This article is “04,” the fourth one in the series. Enjoy.

07/31/15

A Common Spiritual Path

© Weldon Schloneger | 123RF.com

© Weldon Schloneger | 123RF.com

A self-identification as having no religious affiliation was the big news in a study by the Pew Research Center, the 2014 U.S. Religious Landscape Survey. “The number of religiously unaffiliated adults has increased by roughly 19 million since 2007.” Those individuals who are religiously unaffiliated generally are less religiously active, but many believe in God and even pray on occasion. According to the Religious Landscape Survey, “Many people who are unaffiliated with a religion believe in God, pray at least occasionally and think of themselves as spiritual people.”

This spiritual, but not religious group of individuals—those indicating that they have no particular religious affiliation, reported as “nothing in particular” in the survey—are the third largest “religious” group in the U.S. behind Evangelical Protestants (25.4%) and Catholics (20.8%); Nothing in particulars (15.8%). So there is a large group of Americans who are not atheists or agnostics; nor are they religious. I wouldn’t be surprised if a significant percentage of this group were active within 12 Step groups like Alcoholics Anonymous.

For a number of years I have been struck by the fact that there are both religious and nonreligious individuals who are critical of the presumed religiosity of Alcoholics Anonymous (A.A.). Nonreligious critics see it as too religious; religious ones believe it isn’t religious enough. Ironically, A.A. and other Twelve Step recovery programs modeled after it consistently claim they not religious at all.

Historical, religious influences upon A.A. are readily acknowledged by the organization, as are its nonreligious influences. Somewhere in the mix is the claim that it is a spiritual, but not religious program—a claim that is too often dismissed by its critics without an understanding of its origins and meaning. At the center of this debate are the Twelve Steps themselves, whose treatment of God is the flashpoint for both sides.

A.A. was founded in 1935, in the midst of a full social and cultural retreat away from the influence of Christian religious belief on American life. Doctrine, dogma and creeds were found to be increasingly irrelevant after the so-called Scopes Monkey Trial of 1925. In the Scopes Trial, a high school biology teacher named John Scopes was found guilty of violating Tennessee’s Butler Act, which made it unlawful to teach evolution. The trial pitted modernists, who saw Christian religion as consistent with evolution, against fundamentalists who believed that evolution was contrary to Scripture and Christian belief and therefore should not be taught in public schools.

In many ways, the issues debated in the Scopes trial now haunt the dispute over A.A. and the Twelve Steps. And it seems these concerns can be articulated within three basic questions. First, is there a place for God in the practice of addiction recovery? Second, is Twelve Step recovery consistent with the Christian religion? Third, should Christians holding to the importance of the Bible as the rule for faith and life participate in Twelve Step recovery programs?

Many individuals have answered the first question with a resounding “No!” and organized intentionally nonreligious support groups such as: Rational Recovery, SMART Recovery, Secular Organizations for Sobriety, and Women for Sobriety. On the other hand, many Christians believe there is a place for God in recovery. But they question if Twelve Step recovery is consistent with Scripture and feel that Christians should be cautious about participating in groups that do not explicitly affirm that Jesus is Lord. So they organized faith-based support groups that reach out to the still-suffering addict and alcoholic from a self consciously Christian perspective. Some of these include: Alcoholics for Christ, Alcoholics Victorious, Celebrate Recovery, Christians in Recovery, and Overcomers Outreach. Then there are the Twelve Step-based groups that answer “yes” to all three questions: Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous, Cocaine Anonymous, Marijuana Anonymous, Gamblers Anonymous, Emotions Anonymous, Sex Addicts Anonymous, Overeaters Anonymous, Clutterers Anonymous, and many more.

My own answers to these three questions would be nuanced. With regards to the first question, is there a place for God in addiction recovery, I would answer with a resounding “Yes”! I’d also reject the charge that such an affirmation makes Twelve Step addiction recovery inherently religious. The supposed religiosity of the Twelve Steps rests upon the premise that any belief in a Supreme, Transcendent Being is inherently religious. A.A., which originated the Twelve Steps, held that belief in some sort of God was normal. The A.A. Big Book said: “Deep down in every man, woman, and child, is the fundamental idea of God.” Twelve Step recovery believes that a religion takes this fundamental belief in God and the rituals that accompany it, and then institutionalizes them. See “What Does Religious Mean?,” “Spiritual, Not Religious Experience,”  and “The God of the Preachers” for more on these distinctions.

With regard to the second question, is Christianity consistent with the Twelve Steps, I would say it is and it isn’t. There are many parallels between Christianity and Twelve Step recovery. Yet Biblical Christianity makes an explicit claim that Jesus Christ alone is the way to God: “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:7). When Christians hold that these words are infallible, that along with all the remaining words of the Bible they are the very breath of God, then compromising them as A.A. does is considered to be a serious break with orthodox Christian belief.

Lastly, I would say that Bible believing Christians can and should participate in non-Christian Twelve Step groups. But I would add that this participation is not a substitute for their fellowship with other members of the body of Christ. Christian faith matures within the context of fellowship with other Christians. Members of A.A. know this is true for alcoholics as well. Recovery matures within the context of fellowship with other recovering alcoholics. Sadly, Christian fellowship alone is often not vibrant enough for addicts and alcoholics to establish and then maintain their abstinence and sobriety. Their recovery can be strengthened within the fellowship of Twelve Step-based groups.

I plan to use the book of Romans as the anchor point for a series of articles that will illustrate how there is a common spiritual path upon which Christians and individuals can travel together—at least for part of their journeys. So there are two primary audiences to whom this series of articles is written: bible-believing Christians who find participation in Twelve Step groups helpful and even necessary for their recovery, and members of Twelve Step groups who desire to grow spiritually within the context of Christian fellowship.

I hope to demonstrate to both groups that they can do so without fear of compromising either their Christian faith or their recovery. Religious critics of A.A. can also gain an understanding of what is meant by its claim to be a spiritual, but not religious program. And perhaps soften their opposition to Christians participating in Twelve Step recovery. There is a richness and depth to the compatibility of Twelve Step recovery and Scripture that proceeds from the deep structure of Scripture.

But the concerns that will be addressed here are not just those encountered by Christians involved in self-help groups based upon the Twelve Steps. Increasingly, Western culture itself has become “spiritual, but not religious” in a way that builds upon the view of religion and spirituality found in the Twelve Steps. I think the 2014 U.S. Religious Landscape Survey illustrates this. Americans in particular have historically had diverse opinions on what it means to be “one nation under God” that fits with the idea being spiritual but not religious. Self-defined higher powers and the subjective experience of transcendence articulated in the writings of William James have become a basis for the spirituality of millions of individuals.

The same religious and theological challenges encountered as we journey along the path of recovery through the book of Romans occur repeatedly when discussing the relevance of Christianity to the lives of the millions of spiritual, not religious individuals who sit beside us on planes and in coffee shops; who live in our neighborhoods; who commute to work with us; and who even sit in the church pews beside us on Sunday.

If you’re interested, more articles from this series can be found under the link for “The Romans Road of Recovery.” “A Common Spiritual Path” (01) and “The Romans Road of Recovery” (02) will introduce this series of articles. If you began by reading one that came from the middle or the end of the series, try reading them before reading others. Follow the numerical listing of the articles (i.e., 01, 02, etc.), if you want to read them in the order they were originally written. This article is “01,” the first one Enjoy.