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New York Times

A God Problem

by Peter Atterton

The Briefing

Thursday, April 4, 2019

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This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.

It's Thursday, April 4, 2019. I'm Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.

Part

Chicago elects openly gay, African-American woman as mayor: What this tells us about identity politics, the normalization of a new morality, and the defeat of the Chicago political machine

The nation's third largest city elected a new mayor on Tuesday, and the national and international media wasted no time getting to what they see as most newsworthy: the fact that Chicago has elected its first black woman as mayor. They added, of course, that she is not only the first black one, but the first black woman who is also openly gay and who also has a spouse, who appeared with her on victory night.

Analyzing the situation, we can understand why the media, following traditional patterns, would focus on those issues. Identity politics is what drives so much of the electoral politics in this country, as well as the larger culture. In this case, you have a demonstration of what the left would celebrate as intersectionality. Not only a woman as mayor, but an African American woman as mayor. Not only an African American woman as mayor, but an African American woman who is gay and who is married to another woman as the Chicago Mayor. Identity politics drives so much of what happens on America's campuses, increasingly in America's corporate culture and now in electoral politics. You can count on this being something that the media will focus on again and again and again, and we have looked at the process of moral normalization in the culture. How does that happen? A part of how it happens, a change in morality, making something now normalized, is presenting it to the American people one hallmark achievement after another, one milestone, one more set of very symbolic photographs to be shown to the American people. And it's not a coincidence perhaps that there is also the same kind of interest on the Democratic side of the 2020 presidential election. With one Democratic contender, South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, actually being celebrated quite openly for being himself openly gay and married to a man.

This is now being presented and celebrated by the mainstream media as the new American normal, thus the word normalization. This is how the process works. But looking at the election of the Chicago mayor, there's an even bigger story deeply rooted in American politics. It has to do with the fact that the woman who was elected mayor Lori Lightfoot, represented an insurgent campaign that should have had very little chance of success in the city of Chicago, given that city's political culture. In the end, in the runoff, Lightfoot defeated Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, another African American woman. What makes the story so interesting is to know that in the turmoil and tumult of Chicago politics, there were 13 candidates who began in the race. There's virtually no chance a Republican would be elected mayor of Chicago given the power of Chicago's democratic machine. The question is, what Democrat? Which party power in the city of Chicago would produce the winning mayoral candidate?

There has been in Chicago a very long tradition of what is known as machine politics, and in Chicago, the Democratic political machine has been a ruthless machine. So ruthless in fact that it often destroys its own, and that's what happened to the incumbent mayor of Chicago, Rahm Emanuel, who had been an official in the Bill Clinton administration and then a very high official in the administration of Barack Obama, also not coincidentally, largely identified with the city of Chicago. But Emanuel was destroyed because he ran into conflict with so many of the intractable problems in Chicago. That includes horrible relations between the Chicago police and the people, unbelievably deep and dangerous factions within the Democratic Party, and the fact that decades of democratic control has led to a pension crisis, even a larger financial crisis, that no mayor is going to be able to resolve, leaving the incumbent Democratic mayor, whomever that might be at any given moment, having to say “no” when the machine demands that he or she say “yes.” But the money is running out, and Chicago is facing a dramatic fiscal crisis.

Lori Lightfoot, who had been a federal prosecutor, was an outsider to electoral politics in Chicago and that should have meant she had no chance whatsoever. But running an insurgent campaign, she actually won. She defeated the candidate well identified with Chicago's political machine. For years, indeed for decades, there had been a mantra in Chicago politics that comes down to this, "We don't want nobody, nobody sent," which means some kind of political power broker is to send. They come with a label. They come with a tribal identity. They've been sent by this boss or that boss and nobody wants nobody that nobody didn't send. But Lori Lightfoot wasn't sent by anyone and that's what makes her election so very interesting. Even as the media are focusing upon her race, her gender, and her sexuality, in the long-term pattern of Chicago politics what makes her election interesting is that she defeated the Chicago Democratic political machine. That was something that virtually no one had predicted she could do.

Why did it happen? Well, in the long-term picture, it represents some of the transformations taking place in Chicago's political system. For one thing, there isn't enough money for the machine to continue to basically buy popularity and power by doling it out. You're also looking at deepened deadly factions fighting against one another. But there's another issue, and that is the fact that if you look at the city of Chicago, at the electorate, it is now about one third white, one third African American, and one third Latino and Hispanic. That's a very volatile kind of electorate and that means that the machine can't keep up with the changes in demographics. But in the short term, maybe even the very short term, there was something else. Sometimes there is just one incident that serves as a catalyst to trouble voters enough that they go outside the norm.

What might have been the short-term catalyst in Chicago? Well, the catalyst has a name, Jussie Smollett. The controversy over the fact that he was accused of multiple felonies for faking a hate crime against himself, the fact that those charges were dropped in a very suspicious manner has led to the old question that automatically arises in Chicago, who got bought. What kind of inside connections brought about this perceived intervention in the system of justice? The fact that Chicago authorities, Illinois authorities, and now federal authorities are looking into the case for possible investigation of misconduct. All this has led some voters to say, "Maybe we need someone from the outside,” and Lori Lightfoot was an electoral outsider. She was well known in Chicago, but primarily as a federal prosecutor and as the supervisor of the city's police board.

I'll give credit to the Chicago Tribune, the hometown paper for getting the story right in the opening sentence. "Lori Lightfoot won a resounding victory to become both the first African American woman and openly gay person elected mayor of Chicago dealing a stinging defeat to a political establishment that has reigned over city hall for decades." What does that look like? Well, just consider the fact that for over four decades, two men, both named Richard Daley, served as the powerful mayor of Chicago. This will be Richard Daley who served for 21 years ending in 1976 and his son, Richard M. Daley, who was mayor for another 22 years. Just think about one family in a political dynasty that ruled in what was the nation's second largest city and now its third largest city. There was another Daley in that class of 13 candidates who months ago was running for Chicago mayor. He didn't make it into the runoff, and that again tells us a very great deal about massive political transition, not only in the city of Chicago, but in the United States of America.

Part

The prophet of the Mormon church claims God directly reveals truth to him, demonstrating the radical difference between Evangelical and Mormon theology

But next on The Briefing, we're going to look at two different stories that tell us that sometimes theology makes it not only indirectly into the news, but directly into the headlines. For example, CNN in recent days has run a story about the Mormon church encouraging members to use its full name, but the story is actually a lot more interesting than that. It begins, and I quote, "When the messages come during the dark of the night, Richard M. Nelson reaches for his light and pen and takes dictation from the Lord. Oh dear, it's happening,” the president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints tells his wife, Wendy Nelson. “I just remain quiet and soon he's sitting up at the side of the table writing,” she said in a recent church video. “Sometimes,” this is CNN reporting, "sometimes the Spirit prompts the prophet's wife to leave the bed, though she'd rather sleep. One such morning, Wendy Nelson told Mormon leaders her husband emerged from the bedroom waving a yellow notebook."

President Nelson then said to his wife, "Wendy, you won't believe what's been happening for two hours. The Lord has given me detailed instructions on a process I am to follow." CNN then sites Nelson's wife as saying that the nighttime messages have increased exponentially since her 94-year-old husband became the president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, which as CNN notes, is widely known as the Mormon church. The president said, "One of the things the Spirit has repeatedly impressed upon my mind since my new calling as president of the church is how willing the Lord is to reveal his mind and will." Now, this specific news interest in this story is not so much theological on the part of CNN as it is observational. It's the fact that President Nelson recently announced to the Mormon Church that they should no longer use the word “Mormon.” Particularly, he wants to rename the church publicly by going back to the original name of the church as it was declared the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.

Now you would ask the question, why would someone tamper with a name that has been this official for so long? Mormon, by the way, was not the word chosen by Mormons. That's often the case by the way, in religion or in politics. Baptists didn't name themselves Baptists, they were given that name because of the centrality and uniqueness of the Baptist conviction on baptism and regenerate church membership. Methodists didn't intend to name themselves Methodists, others named them Methodists because of the specific method of their devotion. You can understand why the Lutherans are Lutherans, but you would have to understand church polity to understand why Presbyterians are Presbyterian and Episcopalians are Episcopalian. Pointing to the centrality of the Presbyterian amongst the Presbyterians and the bishop or episcopacy amongst the Episcopalians.

But the Mormons got the name Mormon because of their central claim to revelation in a book claimed to be the successor to the Old and New Testaments of the Christian Scriptures, known as of course, the book of Mormon. And over time, even as they had resisted being called merely Mormons, they began to call themselves Mormons. They began to name their own choir, such as the Mormon Tabernacle Choir using the name. They began to use the word Mormon and to accept that it had become more mainstream in American society. But President Nelson intends nonetheless to require the church to change itself by its nomenclature from top to bottom and here's the interesting thing, he has the authority to do so. As the president of the church, he is considered to be a living prophet. Revelation, it is claimed, continues directly from God through him to the church.

You can also note something politically interesting here. There has been considerable opposition to the president's declaration of this new revelation that the name of the church is supposed to be changed. There's opposition of course from outside the church. Most mainstream journalists have announced they're not going to follow that instruction. They're going to continue to refer to Mormons as Mormons. Why? Because as several journalistic authorities have noted, that's how Americans will recognize them. It would simply be journalistically confusing to go along with trying to change the name. But there has also been opposition from within Mormonism. For one thing, you've got major departments, academic departments, departments of Mormon studies and major Mormon universities who are now told they're supposed to change the entire name of their discipline. That's not likely to happen either. But you'll notice theologically what's most important here, it is the claim to direct divine revelation.

That's what makes this story fascinating, especially to Evangelical Christians. Here you have a man, a human being 94 years old, a 94-year-old white male in Utah, who is declaring that God speaks to him directly with binding authority upon all of the believers and adherence of his religious group. In this news article, CNN is trying to explain this. The article says, “Lots of religions talk about revelations,” going on to speak about the Scripture, "Latter-Day Saints, as they prefer to be called believe in continuing revelation. Their Canon,” that means the set of religious writings, “is open, ready to be revised or supplemented by its top cadre of leaders first among whom is the church's president who is considered a prophet, seer and revelator. In some circles, Nelson is simply called the prophet.”

Kathleen Flake, who is an expert on Mormonism at the University of Virginia, cited in the CNN article said, "President Nelson is more willing and probably more required to assert his revelatory authority. Required,” she said, "because he's making so many changes and because the church has faced so much push back."

Later in the article, speaking of President Nelson and his claim to be a prophet, to be the prophet and the seer and the revelator, she said, "There's no mistaking it, this is Moses in a business suit." Even later in the article, Steve Evans is quoted, he's a 46-year-old attorney who runs a website, By Common Consent, that deals with Mormonism. According to CNN he said many fellow Latter-Day Saints are energized by the president's revelations. "People feel like this is a very dynamic time in the church, and when you have a president who speaks openly about being led by God, that is very exciting. You feel like you have a purpose and that things are going in a positive direction."

But the CNN report continues that Evans also said that Nelson's revelations raise certain tensions in the church. When a president calls his decision God's will, that essentially ends any argument. Other Mormons revelations are often if not always, expect it to align with his priorities. Mica McGriggs, a psychologist and community activist said, "That top down style can lead to polarization within the church, particularly among millennials who take a more do it yourself approach to spirituality."

Going back to the name issue in Mormonism, the story only gets more interesting as CNN says of Nelson's reforms, “None has received as much attention as the revelation about the church's name. Church leaders say Mormon, which refers to a prophet who plays a pivotal role in the book of Mormon, he still holds a place of honor in the faith, but as a reference to Latter-Day Saints, it is according to these authorities and inaccuracy imposed by outsiders.” Here's where it gets more interesting. “Nelson has been forceful in his rejection of the Mormon nickname saying it offends God and represents a major victory for Satan.”

Here's the most important line. "He made a similar argument in 1990 when he was a church leader, but he was apparently rebuffed by superiors." Now, that's really interesting because now we are told the other Mormon leaders checked Mr. Nelson's plan to change the name of the church back in 1990 but that was then, and this is now. Then he was just a leader, now he is the prophet. Now he speaks and openly claims to speak with direct revelation from God. Who can trump that? Now, let's be honest, this raises a host of other interesting questions. What do Mormons believe that God wanted them to name themselves in the 1990s when they said no to Nelson's proposal? What does it mean that God, now we are told by President Nelson says yes? Well, here's where the Mormon theology of revelation gets only more interesting. It turns out that in the Mormon understanding, God can effectively change his mind.

A spokesman for the church said, "God may have different intentions for the church at different times. That's baked into the notion, he said that the church can change." Now, a little bit of American and Mormon history would be very important here. Back at the dawn of the 1970s, the Mormon Church's official teaching is that African American men and boys were not eligible for the Aaronic priesthood, leadership in the church that was official church teaching. It was thus infallible based upon what was claimed to be a revelation from God through the Prophet. But that was a very awkward situation for the Mormon Church to be in, in the 1970s and thus there was a change in policy, a 180 degree turn. All of a sudden, African American men and boys were eligible for the Aaronic priesthood. But that raises a huge question. How? Well, it was claimed that this was a direct revelation from God given to the president of the church.

Well, did the previous president have a revelation from God? Did God change his mind? Effectively that's what they're saying. They are not saying that in their understanding that church was wrong in the early 1970s and was right later. They're saying that the church has always right because let me go back to the spokesman statement at CNN, "God may have different intentions for the church at different times." Again, he said, "That's baked into the notion that a church can change." Now, Christians need to step back for a moment and understand that Christianity is based upon a very clear revelation claim, but it is revelation given by God that is handed to us in the holy Scriptures and we do believe that the Scriptures, the 66 books of the Old and New Testament are a closed revelation in the sense that no words are going to be added to them.

Yes, Christianity in the Old and New Testaments believed in prophets, but here's the issue. We have their words in the text of Scripture. We have no living prophet through whom God is directly speaking to the church. But at this point, some Protestants, some evangelicals would ask, then isn't the Mormon prophet in this sense something like the Pope in the Roman Catholic Church? The answer to that would be no, not exactly. Here's a crucial difference. The papacy claims the right to determine the discernment of the Holy Scriptures and of divine revelation and the magisterium of the Roman Catholic Church claims that the Holy Spirit continues to inform and to illuminate the leaders of the Roman Catholic Church. But the claim is, and the claim has consistently been that the Roman Catholic Church has authority to develop doctrine in a way that is consistent. Now, let's be clear, Protestants do not believe that. That's one of the reasons why Protestants are Protestants. We do not believe in the papacy, but it is important to understand that the papacy in this sense is not like the Mormon first presidency.

What we're looking at in Mormonism is a direct claim of absolute unmediated revelation, continuing revelation in which God can effectively change his mind from one period to another. It's not even just a claim of continuous direction, there's an open acknowledgement of discontinuity. Again, Christians need to recognize that one of the central claims of revelation is that Mormonism was begun with direct revelation. It has to do, of course with the Angel Moroni and Joseph Smith and Peep Stones and Golden Plates, but it's also important to recognize that Mormons don't just look back to the beginnings of Mormonism. They actually look to the present for continuing revelation. We also need to understand the astounding claim of Mormonism, that it is a successor, a completion, a restoration. The claim of Mormonism is that original Christianity was lost before the emergence of Scripture and that the genuine priesthood was lost and the role of the Prophet was lost until they were restored nearly 2000 years later through God acting through Joseph Smith to establish what became known as the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.

There are other huge issues that distinguished Mormonism from Christianity. These would include belief in the Trinity and of course the very nature of the Gospel, but central to Mormonism is a claim of revelation that is directly at odds with the understanding of the believing biblical church. Of course, we can understand why it might be convenient in these changing times to have a church that can have a revelation changing with the times. That is not true of Christianity. We are after all called to contend for a faith once for all—the faith, once for all—delivered to the saints. But Christianity more than any other faith is based upon a direct claim to revelation, but it is a revelation given to us in Scripture. We believe that God does speak. We believe that God speaks right now, but we believe that God speaks through the Scriptures.

Part

Is belief in God incoherent? So argues an article in the New York Times

But finally, when we are talking about theology and the headlines, here's one that hit you right in the face, a recent article at the New York Times. “A God Problem” is the headline. It's by Peter Atherton, a professor of philosophy. The subhead in the article: "Perfect, all-powerful, all-knowing: the idea of the deity most Westerners except is actually not coherent." That sounds like a problem. It would be indeed a problem if we hold to an incoherent theology if our vision of God, our concept of God is incoherent. Incoherent is not a good word, that is not a compliment. We don't want to be incoherent and we certainly don't want to hold to incoherent beliefs, but what in the world does it mean? Well, coherent means holding together. Goes back to cohaerent, the Latin saying that it holds together. We want to have a worldview, a system of beliefs that would hold together and furthermore, we want to hold together ourselves as we communicate, held together thoughts.

The point being made by this professor of philosophy in this article is that the Christian, the traditional theistic belief in God is problematic because it's not coherent. It doesn't hold together. That means it holds incompatible if not inconsistent claims. He puts it this way, "If you look up God in a dictionary, the first entry you will find will be something along the lines of a being believed to be infinitely perfect, wise and powerful Creator and Ruler of the universe. Certainly, if applied to non-western context, the definition will be puzzling, but in a western context, this is how philosophers have traditionally understood 'God.'" God's put in quotation marks. "In fact, this conception of God is sometimes known as the God of the philosophers." He then says, "As a philosopher myself, I'd like to focus on a specific question. Does the idea of a morally perfect, all-powerful, all-knowing God make sense? Does it hold together when we examine logically?"

Well, of course he wouldn't write the article if he believed yes, he's writing the article because he claims no. He says that it is not coherent to hold to a morally perfect, all-powerful, all-knowing God, it's incoherent. But of course, the Bible reveals a God who is morally perfect, all-powerful and all-knowing. This philosopher says that is incoherent. What's the point he's making? Well, it's not a new point. It's certainly not new, even in an article like this. It's the claim that God can't be all-knowing because for one thing, he really can't know the decisions that human beings haven't yet made, that according to the philosophers and the argument goes, he can't be all-powerful and all-loving because the world around us reflects evil and suffering, that would not be possible if God is simultaneously all-powerful and all-loving. Thus, says this philosopher is incoherent to believe in a morally perfect and omnipotent and omniscient God.

Well, is it? If it is indeed incoherent then Christianity falls apart? Well, one of the things we need to notice is a certain amount of humility. Seriously-minded, very thoughtful people had been struggling with these questions for over 2000 years. You really don't have to worry that all of a sudden after two millennia and more, a philosopher's going to write a brief article in the New York Times arguing conclusively that historic theism is incoherent. Effectively saying that all those millions and millions of believers in God throughout all the centuries have simply been diluted, they simply needed to have their thoughts clarified by an article from a philosopher in the New York Times in the year 2019. Don't worry about that.

But there's another very basic problem we have to see it in this article and it's timely to recognize it. There are many people who think that when we talk about God as being morally perfect, it means that God's qualified as morally perfect, and we as human creatures will stipulate what those qualifications must be. But we have to understand that biblical theism, the God of the Bible, doesn't match up to a perfect set of qualifications to be perfect. He is perfect, and we only know what perfect is by looking at Him. There is no external moral criteria or standard by which we judge God. The philosophers might try to do that. They might hold symposia and write books on it, but in reality, God cannot be measured by our understanding of moral perfection. And to claim that God's knowledge is somehow limited by the fact that we don't even know our mind yet, it's simply reveals how limited our minds are and how infinite God's mind is.

At the end of his article, Professor Atherton helpfully points to the 17th century French theologian and philosopher, Blaise Pascal, who declared his own belief in God as being "God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob, not of the philosophers and scholars." He wasn't saying that nothing can be learned from the philosophers and scholars, but he is pointing to something that takes us back to the story before about revelation, our understanding of God is entirely dependent upon God's speaking to us. We are entirely dependent upon God's self-revelation, and thus in our own way, we take our own stand with Pascal and stand with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob, with the prophets and with the apostles and with all the saints throughout the ages, equally dependent upon God's gift of revelation. And who expected the New York Times to bring up these issues in the year of our Lord 2019?

Thanks for listening to The Briefing.

For more information, go to my website at AlbertMohler.com. You can follow me on Twitter by going to twitter.com/albertmohler. For information on the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, go to sbts.edu. For information on Boyce College, just go to boycecollege.com.

I'll meet you again tomorrow for The Briefing.

R. Albert Mohler, Jr.

R. Albert Mohler, Jr.

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