Never Enough

Why is nothing in this life ever enough?

James Bond tells us that the world is not enough. Billionaire John D. Rockefeller is reputed to have said “Just a little bit more” when asked how much money was enough. While King of England, Henry VIII created a new church, the Anglicans, and made himself the supreme religious leader. Gibbons’ Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire chronicles an endless line of men and women from Europe, Africa, and Asia who stopped at nothing to grab the Imperial purple.

The past is no different from the present. Bashar al Assad in Syria has butchered thousands of his own people to retain the reins of power. Chief executives from Beijing to Ankara deceive and destroy in the name of virtue but ultimately to exalt themselves. The world of work can resemble gladiators in the Forum, with managers and employees at every level whispering, gossiping, flattering, threatening, shaming, and accusing subordinates, peers, and superiors to try to look good and get ahead.

This is not to say that all people and organizations are equally prone to such behavior. Some Roman emperors were crowned against their will and ruled with as much virtue as they could muster.  Some politicians energetically pursue the public good. Some billionaires, including John D. Rockefeller, are generous philanthropists. Some work teams and companies are honestly united around a common mission, truly get along, and generally treat each other well. Some leaders are genuinely inspirational and self-sacrificing, placing the needs of others before themselves.

Why does this conflict rage within us? As usual, the Bible has the answer. Proverbs 27:20 tells us that “Hell and destruction are never full, so the eyes of man are never satisfied.” Even the best of us, in our best moments, can think of something that we want. The innocent thoughts “I would like a little more…money, fame, power, good looks, or time off” or “I wish my spouse…” or “I wish my kids…” or “I wish…” can quickly turn into “I am dissatisfied.”

Dissatisfaction itself is not necessarily wrong. We should be dissatisfied with injustice and cruelty and do what we can to correct them. To oppose real evils done to others is the mandate of a follower of Christ.

But dissatisfaction is like a weed that soon grows out of control. Our dissatisfaction with morally wrongs quickly becomes dissatisfaction with things that we simply don’t like. Our indignation with genuine injustice rapidly morphs into anger at “people not giving us our due.” We spend time resenting our bosses for “unfair pay” or “lack of a promotion” and our coworkers for “trying to look good in front of the boss” and “making me look bad.” No matter what good things we receive – pay, promotions, people, and opportunities – they are overshadowed by our resentment at what we didn’t.

The root problem is that God has put eternity in our hearts (Ecclesiastes 3:11), but we think in terms of time. Since He is God, our Creator, our Sustainer, and the source of all that is good in the universe, we cannot be joyful outside Him. Innately prideful and unwilling to follow His moral laws, we want to be joyful in ourselves. God is eternal, but our focus is temporal. He is infinite, but our desires are finite. He wants to give us life forever and joy unbounded, but we want a bigger house, a shinier car, and a more important job. God offers the chance to praise Him, but we want to praise ourselves. He has set us a little lower than Himself, but we crave being higher than the guy or gal next door.

No matter what we get, it is never enough. Man tries to fill his soul, the part that craves the infinite, with the finite. We try to build bridges across the chasm separating us from God with money, power, fame, human relationships, and achievements. It never works, because only the infinite can fill the infinite, and only the eternal can fill the eternal.

Old Religious Movements

Man is and has always been incurably religious, much to the chagrin of the secularists, atheists, materialists, and naturalists who wish religion would go away. Many of these skeptics cannot understand why people in the 21st century still believe in these “fairy tales”, while religious believers cannot understand why people don’t believe in these “eternal truths”.

The MD Harris Institute has sections on Islam, the Religions of India, Buddhism, New Religious Movements, and other topics. However there are important religious movements not included. Animism, the ancient belief that everything has a spiritual essence that must be addressed, underlies all ancient tribal religions and is a large part of the practice of many major religions such as Christianity and Islam. Ancient mythologies such as Greek, Roman, Norse, Egyptian, and Sumerian, played an important role in history.

This section will include information on religious movements not included in other sections. Let us know if you have specific areas that you wish to know about.

Animism

Book Review – Aztec Thought and Culture

Book Review – The Portable North American Indian Reader

Book Review – The Religions of Oceania

book-review-understanding-folk-religions

Book Summary – African Religions and Philosophy

 

 

 

Calendars, Cultures, and Politics

People follow calendars, but they also create and use them to advance their personal and political agendas.

In the absolute sense, time is dictated by the rhythms of nature as determined by the Creator. In the past it was viewed as the distance in history (as opposed to geography) between events. In that mindset, the idea of saving time was ludicrous. Time progressed at its own rate and rhythm and man could do nothing to change those realities. Ancients often wanted tasks to be quick and efficient just like moderns do, and for many of the same reasons, to maximize the duration of pleasant experiences and minimize that of unpleasant ones. However, in the ancient mind time was not like money, which could be stored. It had to be used.

Calendars are a way of dividing time into days, fortnights (14 days), and years. They are unnecessary in hunter-gatherer societies but are vital in agricultural societies. Calendars require reading, and in many ways form the foundation on which math is built. They allow man to track the weather, record planting dates, and schedule religious festivals. Calendars allow travelers to track long trips, and help coordinate the movements of merchants with their caravans and generals with their armies. This article is a brief summary of calendars in world history, and how people use them to reflect themselves.

The idea that time can be divided has endured from the beginning of humanity. The movement of sun and moon divide time into roughly equal segments. These segments are known as days, fortnights, and years. The idea that time is linear, not circular, makes counting years important. It was no longer adequate to welcome a new year; royal bureaucrats labeled them “the first year of King XXXX”, “the third year of King YYYY”, etc. The invention of the clock in Medieval Europe brought the idea that time could be divided not only by natural rhythms but by human ones.  Combined, these ideas give modern man his view of time.

Since nations must cooperate with each other in trade and other areas, all modern countries measure their days as 24 hours long and fortnights as 14 days long. Years are also more or less than same all over the globe. Other characteristics of measuring time, such as the names of months and years, the location of holidays on the calendar, and the identity of the first year, are highly political.

The Julian calendar was instituted by Julius Caesar in 46 BC to align dates for military and economic purposes in the Roman Republic (509-27 BC). Extending from modern Portugal to Syria and Belgium to Egypt, the Republic confronted a bewildering array of calendars, including the original Roman calendar, and Greek, Egyptian, and Persian ones. Astronomers and mathematicians had long known that a year was 365.25 days long, but only with this period of peace imposed by Roman arms (Pax Romana) did anyone have the power to align the disparate time systems. Though technically Caesar’s reforms applied only to the Roman calendar, within a century calendars in other provinces of the Empire aligned themselves with his. Since the previous Roman year was only 355 days, 46 BC had to be extended for several weeks to allow 45 BC to begin on 1 January. Having 12 months, 365 days and an additional day every three or four years, the Julian calendar became the standard in the Roman and later, Western world.

In 1582 the Gregorian Calendar, which made small improvements to its Julian ancestor, was adopted throughout the European world, which included the colonies in North and South America, India and the trading islands of the Pacific. Since the 16th century marked the beginning of European global domination, by the 20th century, every nation on earth used the Gregorian calendar, at least internationally. The Gregorian calendar remains the most common calendar worldwide.

The Islamic Calendar is a lunar or luni-solar calendar, not a solar one, and includes 12 months with 354 days. The first year is 621, the year Muhammad and his few followers escaped Mecca to Medina. It is used for religious purposes and to date certain events. The abbreviation is AH (Latin Anno Hegirae, “the year of the Hijra”). Authors writing about Islam, for example, will often use two dates in their work. The first surviving evidence of use of this calendar is AD 643/AH 22. Islamic calendars differ throughout the world, with Turkey and Saudi Arabia using slightly different versions.

Other calendars abound, largely for religious and political purposes. The Hebrew Calendar is a luni-solar calendar used predominantly for Jewish religious observances.  The French Revolutionary Clock and Calendar were used from 1793 to 1805. Its purposes were to convert France to a decimal system and remove all traces of religion and royalty from French life.  In the North Korean (Juche) Calendar the first year is 1912, the birth year of the “Eternal Ruler” Kim Il Sung. It officially replaced the Gregorian calendar in North Korea on 9 September 1997 (Juche 86). Day and month stay the same but the year is calculated by subtracting 1912 from the current year.

Russia retained the Julian Calendar (orthodox version) until 14 Feb 1918. After the communists took over in November of that year, they developed the Soviet Union Calendar and implemented it from 1929-1940. In keeping with Communist efforts at modernization and productivity, it implemented continuous 5 and 6 day work weeks, unlike the interrupted seven day week (Sundays off) in the Western World.

These are only a few of the many calendars that have been and are being used around the world. Calendars must be aligned to foster trade, communication and security within and between regions. However, they are also a reflection of the times and the people that implement them. Different peoples celebrate different holidays at different times. Even using a Gregorian calendar, New Years in the West is 1 January, but in Iran it is Nowruz (the first day of Spring), 19, 20, 21 or 22 March.

While no man can change time, every people has used its calendar to reflect its religion, politics, culture, and values. Having begun millennia ago, it is not likely to change now. While continuing to follow a standard to facilitate the activity of the modern world, we can enjoy the individuality of people groups, past and present, by looking at their calendar.

Sacralism and Calvin’s Geneva

John Calvin, the Frenchman who became one of the most famous Christian theologians and controversial figures in history, initially wanted nothing more from life than to study and write in ivory tower academia in the 16th century. Intrigued by the nascent Reformation, he first fled Paris to avoid punishment for heresy, and then was shamed by reformed French evangelist William Farel into serving in the church in Geneva, Switzerland, a city of corruption in a land of libertines.

Most religions are sacral, meaning that they are tied to a certain ethnic group and geographic location. To be a Sumerian was to live in Mesopotamia, follow Sumerian culture and worship Sumerian deities such as Anu, Enki and Inanna. To be an Egyptian was to live along the Nile, speak Egyptian and worship Orisis, Isis and Anubis. To be a Hebrew was to live in Palestine, follow the Law of Moses and serve Jehovah. The early Christian church broke this mold, with believers in every people group, and every location in much of the world. The civic religion was emperor worship, intended to unify to the Empire against threats within and without, and the main cause of Christian persecution was that believers did not join the civic religion. Thus they were guilty of treason.

When Constantine adopted Christianity, however, faith in Jesus became the civic religion in the Roman Empire. For the first time, Christianity became sacral. While this gave governmental legitimacy to the organized Church and stopped official persecution, it also tied the new faith to a particular group of people, the Romans, and a particular location, the Empire. The Church was comprised not only those who believed but also of those who did not believe, provided they lived in the right geographic location. Groups like the Donatists rebelled against this old thinking, but Christendom, the kingdom of Christianity, became the predominant view of the Church for one thousand years. With threats from the Muslim world ever present, Christian thinkers joined those from every other culture in history and tied the State to the Church.

With the Reformation this question resurfaced; is the Church comprised of everyone in a certain place or is the Church everyone who believes in Christ? Fearful of destruction from Catholic or Muslim, the Reformers took the path of Christendom, the unity of Church and State.

Geneva was migrating into the Protestant camp, and therefore needed religious leaders to assume political power. As a result Calvin, with his amazing command of Scriptures and knowledge of theology, became a political leader. Consistent with his beliefs, Calvin led the city council to enact rigid laws of conduct, making illegal such common practices as drunkenness, cursing and dancing. He also enacted and enforced a curfew. This was not popular and so he was forced in flee after serving from 1536-1538.

From 1538 to 1541 Calvin ministered in Strasburg, France, married Idelette Storder de Bure, and enjoyed some of his best years. Because of deteriorating conditions in the city and despite opposition from the Catholics and the now freed libertines in Geneva, the city council in Geneva asked Calvin to resume leadership in 1541. The first few years were difficult, with a series of conflicts ending in the execution of Michael Servetus. With that event, the opposition collapsed and Calvin was the undisputed leader of Geneva until his death in 1564. On Calvin’s second tour in Geneva, he was even stricter than the first.

Calvin was the judge of Geneva, and the Bible was the guide. His Ecclesiastical Ordinances enlisted pastors to preach, doctors to teach, elders to discipline and deacons to serve. His Consistory was an ecclesiastical court.

In its libertine phase, it is easy to imagine how Geneva was and to compare it to libertine cities in the United States. Immorality, drunkenness, and other sorts of debauchery were the order of the day.

In its strict phase under the leadership of Calvin, it is hard to imagine such a city today. It is easy to picture a small group of Christians which is extremely strict, forbidding drinking, dancing, and staying out late. My children went to a Christian school in Germany where swinging your legs in chapel was a punishable offense. However, it is difficult to imagine this for an entire society. The diversity of society, the rejection of authority, and embrace of equality, and the advances in communication make it increasingly difficult for one man and a small group of men to impose such unpopular measures.

The carnage of the Thirty Years War (1618-1648), the advance of literacy and printing, and the Enlightenment cast doubt on the sacralist assumption, that everyone in a given area must share a religion to ensure domestic tranquility and international security. The experiment of the United States proved that assumption to be false. However, many countries have retained their sacralist religious tendencies, unifying the spiritual and secular. Islam is a sacralist religion, and so to renounce Islam is to be a traitor to family and country. An acquaintance told me the other day that one of the biggest problems for Christian growth in Thailand was that the natives believed that since they were Thai, they had to be Buddhist. I have heard similar sentiments from Indians as well as Native Americans regarding their “native” religions.

John Calvin’s Geneva moved from Catholic to Protestant but not from the unity of State and Church to the separation of State and Church, the New Testament model. This took many more centuries to accomplish.

For more information on Christian Sacralism, please see The Reformers and Their Stepchildren by Leonard Verduin.

Restoring Apostate Christians during the Roman Persecutions

Christians had been persecuted in the Roman Empire since the Apostles, but the persecution under Emperors Decius and Valerian was more widespread and severe than before. Simply for bearing the name of Jesus, Christians faced loss of position, confiscation of property, rejection by pagan family members, and even death. Many Christians stood strong in the faith, but many lost their courage under the pressure, denied Christ, and even sacrificed to idols. The Plague of Cyprian, most likely caused by smallpox, created further suffering and confusion. After the death of Decius in 251 the persecution slackened and people who denied Christ expected to be restored to fellowship.

The gospel of Jesus Christ is truly the Pearl of Great Price. Nothing in the universe is as valuable as what the Lord has given those who love Him. People who denied Christ under threat of persecution, and Cyprian suggested that many rushed to deny Him, even without being personally confronted, showed painful contempt for the treasure bought at the highest price, His blood. Their sin was great, and they should not have been easily restored to the church.

On the other hand, Jesus on the cross interceded for those who were crucifying Him, saying “Father, forgive them. They don’t know what they are doing.” Jesus asked forgiveness for the perpetrators of the greatest crime in human history. With such an example, how could His followers deny restoration to a truly repentant man, regardless of what they had done?

Unlike man, the Lord knows the heart. The challenge before us is to know the Lord so well that He reveals to us the heart of each man. Person by person, He will reveal, in accordance with His word, what His people should do.

The main question was whether apostates lost their salvation and when, if ever, they could be restored to communion at the church. Salvation was lost, because it was essentially impossible to be saved without being in communion with the church. As Cyprian said “A person cannot have God as his father who does not have the church as his mother.” There were three positions regarding this question

1. Laxism – apostate Christians could return to full communion in the church immediately.
2. Rigorism (Novatian) – apostate Christians could never be restored to full communion in the church.
3. Cyprian’s middle course
a. Apostate Christians who sacrificed to idols would not be reconciled to the church until the moment of death.
b. Apostate Christians who got a certificate of sacrifice but didn’t actually do it could be reconciled after a long time period.
c. Apostate Christians who thought of denying Christ but didn’t actually deny Him could confess to the bishop and then be reconciled.

Cyprian harshly condemned the apostates, writing “How can they follow Christ, who are held back by the chain of their wealth? They are bond slaves of their money.” (Treatise 3, On the Lapsed). Despite his contempt, he saw the need to devise a way to appropriately bring them back into fellowship while not minimizing the seriousness of their crime.

That this issue divided the church is obvious. Many of those in the congregation whose loved ones died for their faith probably detested even the sight of the smug apostates and could not bear to worship with them. Still, the unity of the church was vital, and Cyprian’s plan to reconcile the apostates would help preserve unity. He wrote “Christ gave us peace; He bade us be in agreement, and of one mind.” (Treatise 1, On the Unity of the Church). As Jesus prayed in John 17, Cyprian highly valued unity in His church.