Archive for category Christianity

Marrying outside your faith

My thoughts on marrying outside my faith have grown from extremely naïve (of course, it’s fine!) to pragmatically cautious (is it really wise?). I dated a girl who was not at all religious for a short time and I realised that maintaining a relationship with someone outside your own faith is really hard. But I still think it’s possible and that, importantly, it is not wrong or sinful. This post on the blog I kissed my date goodnight got me thinking about the topic of interfaith relationships again (Here and here are two others to look at). Here are my views.

You have to think its ok (at least in principle)

I should probably add a caveat. It is not wrong or sinful unless your beliefs specifically prohibit it (for instance, as I understand it, many branches of Islam do not allow women to marry men of other faiths unless the latter convert). Even the Catholic church allows interfaith marriages (although there appear to be lots of rules, consisting mostly of asking the bishop for permission for various things, which I am sure most Catholics don’t care about). Let us thus assume you don’t think God will smite you if you marry outside your faith. Does that make it a good idea?

Why is it probably not a good idea?

Interfaith marriages (and relationships) have all the problems of more typical relationships, and several (significant) extra ones. Divorces rates are high for these marriages.

You will lose out on an important source of strength and support for your own faith. Even if your spouse accepts and supports that you have another faith, they can never support you in the same way that a spouse of the same faith would. You cannot grow in faith together.

You may have moral/ethical viewpoints that are not compatible. Shared faith is a simple heuristic for shared moral beliefs (but not a perfect one). Any workable marriage must have both partners share important moral values and they must be willing to live with the fact that their partner does not share certain other values. For instance, probably you will want your spouse to feel that adultery is wrong. To enter the relationship soundly you must feel that despite not having the same faith as you, your spouse shares most of the values which your faith leads you to cherish. (This is a necessary but not sufficient condition).

You must decide how to raise the children (if any). Pick a faith or have the children choose when the time is right. But some decision must be made, and it must be made before the marriage (and certainly before the children are born). You have to be content with the fact that your children may choose your spouse’s faith over yours (or none at all, even). I think an incredible amount of damage can be done to children if this is not handled well.

At crisis times you will tend to turn in different directions. It is during crises that all marriages are tested. An important way in which couples get through crises is often by turning to God, together. In an interfaith marriage, it may be that only one person turns to God, or the same view of God. It can lead to separation rather than bonding. It may make it harder to support one another as you have trouble finding common ground. One or both of you may get more support from outside your marriage than the other is comfortable with, which can lead to jealousy.

You will have important goals that differ. Shared goals are important in relationships. At least one potentially fulfilling shared goal is now eliminated: growing in (the same) faith together. You will need to find others, ones that are not shallow, but that nonetheless intersect with your spiritual lives (however you define your spirituality).

An important thing to remember is that none of the above problems are static. You do not just fix them once and then they stay away. No, people change as grow. New circumstances arise. You will continually be faced with all the above challenges in new forms and you must be willing to deal with them.

Why can it still work?

The above problems are, of course, huge. But they are not insurmountable. It is possible to be a fully committed Christian and grow in your faith with a spouse who is not (for instance). Raising children within an interfaith marriage can (potentially) be a beautiful gift to them, instilling a respect for other faiths and human freedom of choice that is so sorely lacking in society. It is possible to find comfort in your spouse’s love and respect in times of crisis even if they have a different faith.  I think it is awesome if one of the shared goals of a couple is growing in faith together. But it does not need to be – substitutes are possible.

Love does not recognise boundaries imposed by culture or faith. The important thing is that there is mutual respect in the relationship and a willingness to work together, to bend, if not to break. If your faith is important to you then an interfaith relationship will almost of necessity be very challenging. But, I think, it is also exactly when both partners are committed to their respective beliefs when such a marriage is most rewarding.

That said, I need to stress that I think making an interfaith relationship work is very hard and the chances of failures (despite the best intentions by both parties are high). I personally think I am very unlikely to find a person of another faith with whom I share enough values and goals to overcome the difficulties. 

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Christian Prayer Center scam

Sometimes you find things on the internet that fill you with a righteous rage. So it was when I friend send me the link to Christian Prayer Center accompanied by a sad smiley face. The site was not in good taste, but it seemed benign on the surface. Closer inspection revealed a scam that’s a mockery of Christianity. My friend’s instincts were spot-on. No prayers are made or answered at Christian Prayer Center.

Let’s start with most damning charge that can be laid. They charge for prayer. Almost as if it were like buying detergent. A quick Google revealed that others had come across this site before and had detailed the process. You actually have to submit prayer request before being told you have to pay for it. This is disgusting.

They sell an offensive book that suggests you can pray so that your prayer will always be answered. Here is the blurb:

Have you ever wondered why God answers some prayers faster than others?

Does it matter how specific we are in asking for what we need?

What can we do to guarantee that our prayers will be answered every time? 

If want to learn more about how to harness the fantastic power of prayer, I highly recommend “Miracles Through Prayer” by Pastor Randolph McFinn. 

This enlightening guide details the five principles of effective prayer. Using real-world examples and easy-to-follow instructions, it’s the perfect resource for both the loosely religious and the highly devout. It answers questions many of us have about how prayer works, how God responds to our requests, and how to always make sure our prayers get answered.

This book is available for a limited time through the Christian Prayer Center for 20% off the cover price plus FREE shipping. Order your copy today and unlock the full potential of prayer.

What I find interesting about scams like this is how subtle they are. There is a way to make sure your prayers are always answered: pray for God’s will to be done (I suppose there is room for debate about this). But this is not what they mean. They mean that if you prayer for, say, financial success, then this is what you will get. The testimonials on the website are mostly of the following nature:

“When I got in from work this evening, I received a letter from IRS: Certificate of Release of Federal Tax Lien. The letter stated that over 10,000 dollars of back taxes has been satisfied. Thank you for all your prayers and I look forward to successfully sharing the job I will be landing next Tuesday.” -Joyce C.

This is a “prosperity gospel”: the idea that following God leads to success in (material) life (it doesn’t! It leads to success in your spiritual life.) Perhaps the most disingenuous part of the blurb, for me at least, was this: “it’s the perfect resource for both the loosely religious and the highly devout.” It is of course not true that prayer is more effective for the “highly devout” (although you can argue their prayers tend to be more in-line with God’s will). What is disingenuous about this statement is that it implies its perfectly OK to be ‘loosely religious’, that God is perfectly fine with people bending his arm for favours and doesn’t care at all about the lives they lead.

I am not against books that teach people how to pray. I am not against people giving and receiving prayer requests. These are good things. But prayer is about talking to God, not getting things from him. And prayer is not a game of numbers. It doesn’t matter how many people pray for you. And it certainly doesn’t help to pay them. It is sad that there are people that will exploit our basic human need to connect with the divine.

I am posting this in the hope that it will help prevent a few gullible souls from falling prey to these prayer-thieves. In the meantime I will send off a little prayer for these charlatans: I do not pray that they may receive their just desserts; rather, that they may feel, truly feel, the guilt that comes with true repentance and that they will be forced themselves to pray, to the God they have abused, for forgiveness.

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A closed-minded Card

There has been a lot of controversy around the upcoming movie adaptation of the novel Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card. Card is a vocal critic of gay marriage and a member of the conservative Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints – he is a Mormon.  There has been a campaign to boycott the movie because it would help fund Scott Card and indirectly his anti-gay campaigns. The very liberal Huffington Post has expressed somewhat mild views on this topic here and I want to give mine.

My initial reaction to this was just to leave the man to his opinions. He has the right to express them and to campaign for them. Does it really matter if a good work of fiction was produced by a mind that differed with you in some important aspect?  Does that suddenly negate the value of the work? If Scott Card had been silent or at least less public about his opinions you would have been none the wiser. You don’t need to like a writer (or an actor for that matter) to appreciate their work and you certainly don’t need to agree with them.

People seem unable to accept that someone with such conservative views can produce such universally accepted works of art. This is a fallacy of course. Just because you have conservative views does not mean you lack imagination. It also does not mean that you are closed-minded. Being open-minded is about a willingness to listen; it is not about which opinion you happen to hold. There are many closed-minded people on the side of gay rights and many open-minded people who oppose it. I cannot speak for Mr Card, however.

That said, even I, as a somewhat conservative Christian, would feel uncomfortable supporting this campaign which produces adverts such as this one. I would still, however, defend the right of this organisation to exist and to make these advertisements. I voiced my views on gay marriage in this post (in a nutshell: I think it should be made legal independently of Biblical views on the matter).

If you want to boycott the movie feel free to do so. I, however, will watch the movie (and I plan to read the book) because I respect Mr Card’s ability as a writer. He can make money from his work because it is good. What he does with that money is his concern and I shall oppose it by other means.

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Society at the end of the rainbow

Gay marriage is in the news again, this time because it is being debated in American courts once again. I for one cannot understand how bans on gay marriage have continued so long. In a court of law you can swear on the Bible, but you can’t use it to prove your case.

Support for Gay marriage has been rising, especially among the young.  At the same time religion has been waning.  There are, of course, many Christians who approve of gay marriage. There are very few, probably, who think that the issue of legality of gay marriage is entirely distinct from the issue of whether it is sinful.

I wonder what will happen. I think support for gay marriage will only grow. We are speedily heading to the end of a gay rainbow. Opponents of gay marriage are on the defensive, and that includes conservative Christians. To the “enlightened” they must seem like some cartoon villain, refusing to give up when the battle is already over. This The Oatmeal comic shows exactly what is happening.

Either the church will change to embrace gay marriage or the next generations will leave the church. Perhaps they’ll establish their own gay-friendly churches. Or perhaps Christianity will be discarded altogether.

I love the Church. I do not wish for it to be displaced. But I fear church intransigence, particularly that of the Catholic church, will drive the decline of faith in coming years. That would be alright, if it were in the name of a truly noble cause. If it were like driving money-changers from the temple. But who is the villain in this story? The myriad of gays asking for their love to be recognized?

Drawing from another Biblical reference: the writing is on the wall.  The writing this week took the form of the following picture, used as a profile picture by supporters of gay marriage. It’s message is simple, appealing: Equality. It’s not going away.


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The state, the church and the queers

Homosexuality is, perhaps, the single most important issue social issue facing the modern church. How the church handles it could be its end. But the obstacles to accepting gay marriage within the church are huge and I am not sure that they are insurmountable.


I must declare a bias. I grew up in just one of a handful countries that allows gay marriage, in South Africa, just as apartheid ended. My mind is coloured by the ideals of equality and freedom that the South African constitution upholds. As such, the idea of placing homosexual relationships on an equal footing with heterosexual ones seems natural to me. It is my default position. But it is based on culture more than theology.

I also suffer (as most humans do) from a confirmation bias – I easily dismiss anything that does not agree with my chosen conclusion. When I read this article about gay marriage being accepted in Sweden (the article itself is probably far from unbiased) I got a warm fuzzy feeling[1]. And when I watched this excellent BBC miniseries with two female lovers in the 19th century I rooted for the socially unacceptable couple.

But if you’re a Christian then you must think about homosexuality and gay marriage Biblically, at least in the context of the church. The church cannot make decisions based on culture alone.

Why gay marriage should be legal

I would like to give a somewhat different perspective on the gay marriage debate. I think gay marriage should be legalised – this is not to say that gay marriage is “right” (from a Biblical perspective), but rather that it is not something the state should care about. This is similar to the way I argued about abortion  (of course, I am not trying to equate the act of getting married to abortion).

Take the Bible out of the equation for a second. When you are talking about the State then you must do this. The state must be secular. By secular I do not mean “atheistic”. I mean that the state must be independent of any particular faith (or unbelief). All the arguments against gay marriage are based on religion and thus no longer count.

There does not seem to me to be any intrinsic difference between a heterosexual and homosexual union that should bias the state against the latter. Unless, of course, the state needs somehow to promote childbearing (but that could be better achieved by banning contraception) and with many alternative ways for homosexual couples to obtain children (sperm donors, surrogate mothers, adoption) this may be a nonissue anyway.

Homosexuality and Christianity

I confess, I would very much like for homosexuality to be compatible with Christianity. I want to see gay couples getting married in churches. I think this would be very good for the church (provided it is theologically justifiable). It would eliminate one of the greatest sources of criticism of the modern church. It would bring thousands upon thousands of gay men and women into the fold, people who currently feel rejected and marginalised. There would be love and acceptance rather than stern condemnation or even loving disapproval.

This is utopian. There are far too many Christians who believe that homosexuality is a sin for the Swedish situation (if it has not been exaggerated) to be replicated worldwide. And there is too little Biblical evidence to convince these people they are wrong. I cannot convince myself they are wrong, though I so dearly wish that they are.

If you look at the Bible you will see:

  • At best the Bible is silent about Gay marriage
  • If not silent, it has nothing positive to say about it.
  • At worst, it condemns it.

For the people who are sure that the last point is the truth, I would remind you of one thing: God loves everyone. He loves sinners. Even if homosexuality is a sin (and I am not saying it is), it does not and never will negate salvation. A believer is saved. Period.

(Of course, if you have a well-substantiated opinion on homosexuality and gay marriage I would love to hear it. Please leave a comment.)

[1] Aside: it seems to have become fashionable to depict homosexual causes with lesbian couples. As a man I don’t mind this, but let us not be misled by pictures that do not affect us, or by pictures that do.

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The God in our language

Do you listen to the things you say? I listen to what people say and their words do not always reflect their beliefs. Atheists call upon God and Christians who otherwise profess things to be the will of God blame things on luck or coincidence when it is convenient.

Admittedly, it’s often hardly their fault. Our language has evolved this way. It’s hard to make utterances completely congruent with your beliefs – in fact people might think you’re a little strange. If your friend is about to write a big exam, do you say

a)      Good luck,

b)      May the will of God let you succeed, or

c)       Your hard work will pay off

Everyone says a) at least some of the time, even if their beliefs are more consistent with b) or c). “Good luck” is just something one says. In some sense it’s lost its meaning. No one thinks they can control whimsical chance. If you’re a Christian, perhaps the best thing to say is “God speed”, which literally means “let God prosper you”, but this now has connotations of impending doom (thanks, probably, to movies and the US military) and so your friend may lose heart entirely.

When you narrowly avoid disaster, do you say

a)      Thank God,

b)      Thank goodness,

c)       I was lucky, or

d)      It was God’s will

At different points you may find yourself saying more one of the above.  Even Atheists like to say
“Thank God” and they don’t seem to see the irony. I think you should only thank God if you really mean to thank God. But then, should we avoid thanking goodness? I think the world is random (designed that way) and so I see no problem in blaming things on luck – as long as by luck you mean probability or chance.

When something upsets you, do you say

a)      f***

b)      Jesus Christ

c)       Mary mother of God

d)      Darn

e)      Shit

I say “flip”. It’s less coarse than any of the above, but its purpose is pretty much the same: A thoughtless word expressed in anger.  Why do we want to be profane when things go wrong? Perhaps we want blame the God whose name we invoke, even if we foreswear His existence.  Perhaps we want to punish the universe for our predicament (as if it cares). Perhaps we don’t think at all.

There is a particular usage of words that some Christians like and which I avoid. They may say things such as

a)      I felt God say to me…

b)      The spirit moved me…

c)       I had a calling…

d)      I just felt something…

d) is probably the most honest. There is probably nothing wrong with a) to c), but unless you make it clear that you’re just interpreting your circumstances, your thoughts, your dreams, or your feelings, you can mislead people.

When someone sneezes, do you say “bless you?”
Are lovers fated to be together?
When you meet someone in an unexpected place, is it a coincidence?
Is getting that promotion an answer to your prayers or did you deserve it?
Is it a miracle or an as yet unexplained mystery?

Our language betrays us.  In some sense, as Christians, God is alive in our language, in how we interpret the world. A cynic might say God only exists in our language. When I say something is a miracle, I acknowledge God’s power over reality. But does that mean I should pepper my language with references to God? If God wills I will go to such and such a place and make money…

I think we should practice make our language consistent with what we really mean in every circumstance. Atheists should not thank God. If I think something is a coincidence or just pure luck I shall call it that.  Leave it to someone else to say it is the will of God, if that is what they mean.

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100_4048 100_4040 100_4026 100_4058 100_4018 100_4012I attended “Carnaval” this weekend, which is basically a huge party in February, celebrated in the South of the Netherlands. The South of the Netherlands is (of course) historically Catholic. Carnaval is meant to be a big party before the fasting of Lent (like Shrove Tuesday, I suppose). Of course in the Netherlands (almost) no one is religious so it is basically just a big excuse to party.

It is, however, a singular party. People dress up in insane costumes (I was a Viking with a saxophone) and there is a big parade with massive floats. My photos do not do justice to the size of these floats. Some seemed to be three stories high and they all had moving parts and blasted “foutmuziek” so my eardrums nearly burst. I awe at the amount of planning and dedication that had to go into these things.

The towns where I went get new names specially for Carnaval season, for instance Prinsenbeek, a small town near Breda, is known as “Boemeldonck”. The best parade is in Prinsenbeek rather than the larger city of Breda. Carnaval is a festival for country folk.

As with any festival, alcohol is paramount. Many of the floats were beer-themed. (Others were lewd. Some bordered on improper – for instance making fun of the church. They were all quite fun, and I do not think there was any ill intent). Many of course use the festival as an opportunity to drink more than anything else. I missed this part of Carnaval (by choice) and I instead have the memory of a fun time with some crazily dressed Dutchies.

While having fun and walking through town I did notice the remnants of the religion that this festival came out of: A Catholic church and some posters advertising the love of Jesus. Wouldn’t it be awesome if people could celebrate with love of God and with love for each other? The latter I experienced first-hand.  I am most grateful for the residents of Breda and Prinsenbeek who hosted me – they were most gracious and loving. I hope that the love of God will return in time. I also hope that Carnaval retains its risqué yet fun-loving quality. It seems more sincere that way.

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What would you pay for immortality?

There are people who (or claim to) have accepted their mortality. They are perfectly comfortable with the idea of dying. They may be Christians certain of their salvation or atheists certain of nothingness (which as one of my atheist friends has pointed out is not something to be feared because you won’t be around to experience it). I am not one of these people. Death – no matter where it leads – is scary and I would like to avoid it. There are people who think that we may able to do just that pretty soon, for instance Aubrey de Grey in this Ted talk.

Throughout time people have been obsessed with the idea of immortality. And it always comes at a cost.

Would you make a pact with the devil? (In the Coldfire Trilogy by C.S. Friedman the Neocount of Merentha ritually sacrifices his family to dark forces to attain immortality). Even if this were possible, I do not think I would do this. I don’t want to be evil.

Would you become a vampire? I would consider this. What would I give up: food, sun, heat, fertility. I would need to find a way to drink blood without killing anyone, of course. But all in all, it’s a bargain I could make.

Would you give up your future wages? Probably not all of your wages. But if life-extension therapies were possible,  they would come at a cost. If they were privately funded, a payment of a part of one’s future wages seems likely (this could also be via a loan you take out). I would do so. My guess is, though, that should rejuvenation therapies be invented there would be a period in which only the rich can afford them – during this time the cost of the therapies would relate to willingness to pay – i.e. they would be extremely expensive because some millionaires would give up much of their wealth.  But eventually the therapies would be seen as a right, and government would step in, set up some kind of insurance, probably with taxation funding everything.

Would you give up movement? What if the only way to be immortal would be to become a brain in a jar, hooked up to some computer that accepts your input? If I could be ensured of enough stimulation, I would in fact consider this, if I were near the end of my life. But think, if the stimulus were turned off, what hell would you be living?

Would you give up an organic body? Robin Hanson, an economist, thinks that we may soon be able to copy human consciousness into machines. So technically, not you, but a robot copy of you could live forever (in fact many millions of robot copies of you could live forever). Would you care about this robot-you? Would it have a soul? It would think like you, feel like you, act like you. Would it be alive?

Would you accept living in harsh conditions? I mean would you be willing to take a drastic drop in your living standard. This may be because you have to give up much of your future wages. In the world envisioned by Hanson, living standards would fall because these robots could potentially be mass-produced, drastically increasing the supply of labour.  You may find yourself a miniaturised robot confined to work in a kind of farm with billions of other little robots. You may never see nature again. To live forever, I would be willing to accept rather drastic reductions in lifestyle, I think.

Would you give up your faith? Living forever does not quite fit with the Bible. Being able to copy the human conscience into machines seriously undermines faith. I think this is a bit of a reverse Pascal’s wager: if living forever being possible means there is no God, then it’s better to try to live forever. If you fail, you could still go to heaven (That is, unless God decides to punish the doubters, but I don’t think God works like that). Otherwise, you’re still alive. If you’re an atheist, this is not a problem for you. But for theists, faith may be an integral part of their lives. An immortal life without meaning – is that a life at all? Nevertheless, I would rather wrestle with the existential implications of a very long-lived life than have no life at all. I would, after-all, have a very long time to figure things out.

Would you give up those closest to you? What if your spouse felt the path to immortality was wrong, immoral, or for some reason the therapies would not work on them? Would you carry on your life alone? I think I would. Life goes on, after all.

I do not know if humans will ever be able to achieve an indefinite lifespan. I am also not particularly keen on being the first guinea pig for these therapies. However, if they become viable, and if I can afford them, I will be standing in line. I am of course just presenting just one point of view (a mostly rational one, I think). I find the religious questions raised by the possibility of immortal or artificial life interesting, but I am not about to give up Faith any time soon.

If the devil offered me forever
	I would consider
If I could pay for a drink from the water of life
	I would sell all I had
If I had to give up bread and drink your blood instead
	I could do that
If I had to live in a body of metal and circuits, without limbs
	I would, if it delayed oblivion
If I had to leave you behind, if I had to leave everyone behind
	my heart would break, but I would do it
I would take
	eternal life
	jump into the singularity
even if it cost me
	Faith and Heaven
		yes, even the reality of my soul

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Let’s talk about abstinence

Here follows a gratuitous (and poorly gimped) picture in a shameless attempt to capture your attention:


Now for some serious life-thoughts. The 40-year-old virgin , I am led to believe, is a movie about a man in his forties who is still a virgin. I have so far refused to watch the movie – mainly because the title seems suggest being a 40-year old virgin is somehow shameful.  This post is, however, not about the movie. It is about this: people are taking longer and longer to get married, and if they’re Christian (in a more-or-less traditional sense that is) they are taking longer and longer to have sex.

These Christians (at least in the Western world) live in a society in which the average age of losing one’s virginity is probably below 20. To be 30 or 40, single, still waiting for mr(s) right, can feel shameful.  It is not the same as a taking a vow of celibacy (as Catholic priests do) because the intention was never to abstain from sex completely: it was to wait for marriage. And there is perhaps only cold comfort in the knowledge that you have acted according to your highly cherished beliefs.

By the secular one may be viewed as pitiable for being unable to “get laid”, or as stupid for not making use of (or finding) opportunities to engage in a clearly pleasurable activity. Within the church community you may be surrounded by younger couples (some even with Children), churchgoers who pity you (behind your back) for still being unmarried, and well-meant comments such as “I can’t believe some guy/girl has snatched you yet” or “I can’t believe you’re still single” probably don’t help.

I take the above comments from the blog I kissed my date goodnight1. in which a 32-year old woman reflects on her experience with Christian dating. With Christianity in decline in the Western world, the pool of eligible partners for these long-time singles shrinks (unless they are willing to consider inter-religious relationships). The Christian dating process (if you consider Christian dating to be viable at all) seems to have additional complexities. The common way dating is portrayed on television and in movies (that is American television and movies) in which dating seems to go hand-in-hand (so to speak) with sex can put off devout Christian singles.  Indeed there is even a book I kissed dating goodbye (which I have not read), which outlines an alternative closer to traditional courting for Christians.

I know little about dating, so don’t read my blog for dating advice. The truth is, though, dating is probably the best way for these singles to meet potential partners. And indeed,  Christians seem to have found ways to adapt the secular dating methods. I often find, on that I am presented with advertisements for Christian dating sites, none of which I have used, at least not yet. However, I am single, and I may be single for a while still. I may yet turn to dating sites, speed dating, or some other nifty dating gimmick.

One “solution” to the problem of “40-year-old virgins” is, of course, to just change your opinion about pre-marital sex and join the world – date like you’re in the movies. Better yet, date like you’re in Grey’s Anatomy (those doctors have a lot of sex). One could even try to justify it Biblically (the outrage).  But I don’t think this is the way to go.

I am a single man, waiting for that one special person. The idea of uncommitted sex fills me with dread. (The book SuperFreakonomics informs me that in 1930s America 20% of men lost their virginity to prostitutes , which is horrifying. Now 70% of men have sex before they marry, which is not much better). For now at least, I am committed to the lifestyle I have chosen. If you are waiting too, you are not alone.

1. Disclaimer: the I kissed my date goodnight blog is about dating, not about sex. I do not presume to know anything about anyone’s sex life other than my own

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