The Opioid Issue: Part 5

Part Five: Troubling Vital Signs

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The opioid epidemic is straining America’s health care and treatment resources, while opening the door for unscrupulous fraudsters to make money off those struggling to overcome addiction. How much more can emergency rooms handle? The most recent numbers from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), spanning 45 states, show nearly 143,000 ER visits for opioid overdoses over a 15-month period. That period ended in the third quarter of 2017 and represented a 30-percent jump from the same time span a year earlier.

“The staff isn’t sure what to do with [opioid overdose patients],” says Karl Benzio, M.D., a Christian psychiatrist and member of Focus on the Family’s Physicians Resource Council (PRC). “You don’t feel comfortable just discharging the person. The staff doesn’t know how dangerous the person is when they leave the doors, whether they will overdose—or worse—when they leave, how to find a responsible party to transfer the care and responsibility to.” Fellow PRC member W. David, Hager, M.D., agrees. “We’re seeing a lot of frustration among our providers with ‘frequent fliers,” says Hager, a practicing physician with Baptist Health Medical Group in Lexington, Kentucky. Both physicians point to different problems connected to the opioid crisis.

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Benzio notes that many overdose cases are complicated because ER staffs aren’t generally equipped to deal with mental or behavioral health. Many of those patients  should ideally be in a residential rehabilitation program, but are unable to secure health care insurance coverage. This leaves the medical personnel on the front lines of care facing a dilemma for which there are no simple answers. Between the rapid rise in overdose cases and the moral gray area of providing narcotics to so-called “frequent fliers,” America’s emergency rooms are in a precarious position when it comes to the opioid issue. The crisis threatens to break the backs of overworked ER staffs, whose efforts to help those in pain with long-term prescriptions may only be fueling the crisis.

FAKE TREATMENT CENTERS

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The overwhelming strain the opioid epidemic has placed on legitimate health care providers has also opened the doors for unscrupulous con artists looking for easy money. These fraudsters—and it’s not clear just how many there are across the country—run fake treatment centers preying on those seeking a way out of their opioid struggles.

“Several factors came together—so many people in need of addiction treatment and managed care to reduce their length of stay in the hospital—that there became a huge need for more addiction rehabs,” Benzio explains. “Certain states that had a high level of drug use made it very easy to open a rehab; not many restrictions, licensing issues or hoops to go through. Also, insurance plans needed a place to put someone who was in danger of overdosing but needed one-on-one monitoring, so entities put together minimally-trained people with a schedule and sold it to the insurance as a rehab.” With the potential to make big money and only vague criteria for what a “quality” treatment facility includes, many unqualified providers jumped into the rehab industry.

Cash from Treatment Centers

“A lot of people going through addiction thought, ‘Wow, I could put together a better program than that,’ so they developed their own after getting clean for 20 minutes,” says Benzio. Though he believes some who entered the rehab industry in this way truly wanted to help, others are outright shams and just billing insurance large sums. Some bill for services they don’t even provide. Some will encourage their patients to use drugs or supply them so they can continue to bill insurance. Many cannot get doctors or licensed therapists [on staff], which would make them accountable to higher state and national licensing standards.

UNSCRUPULOUS REHAB CENTER OPERATORS

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Somehow, even with all our laws pertaining to drug possession and use, we still find ourselves in a largely unregulated addiction treatment field. And even worse, the biggest driving force seems to be well-meaning legislation—like the Affordable Care and Parity Acts—which made treatment more accessible for more people, but unfortunately also opened the door for predators and frauds to get in on the action. They are unconscionably attempting to make a profit off our nation’s current drug epidemic with unethical and shocking practices like patient brokering, identity theft, kickbacks, and insurance fraud.

A behavioral healthcare survey on ethical concerns in the drug rehab industry identified patient brokering tactics in the form of money and gifts that some treatment centers are using to entice patients. Need sober living but can’t afford it? Some programs address this by offering free room and board and other amenities, then bill insurance excessively for unnecessary drug testing and other services to make up the cost. Sadly, many unregulated sober living homes have become unsafe and overcrowded “flophouses” where crimes like theft, human trafficking, prostitution, and illegal drug use are commonplace.

attorney retainer agreement Best of Covering Costs in Contingent Fee Agreements

We’re also seeing patients-turned-recruiters, people just out of treatment with very little time in recovery who can suddenly start making big money selling people they know to rehab centers, checking themselves into competitor programs to lure clients away, and collecting “finder’s fees” of $500 to $1,000 per patient or more. And if that doesn’t work, people are getting paid to relapse so that treatment centers can collect more insurance money. Shockingly, some of these practices are not per se illegal. And in situations where they are, states do not have the resources to regulate.

A Palm Beach Post investigation of the county’s $1 billion drug treatment industry found that testing the urine of recovering addicts is so lucrative that treatment centers are paying sober living homes for patients. Urine drug screen costs may be $6 once a week, but centers test every 48 hours and bill insurance companies $1,200 each time. You may have heard about treatment center owner Kenneth Chatman. A federal investigation targeted sober living homes and rehab centers founded by Chatman and others. Chatman appeared before a U.S. magistrate in West Palm Beach, Florida. The recovery businesses founded by Chatman provided illegal kickbacks, coerced residents into prostitution, threatened violence against patients, and submitted urine and saliva for screening even when no medical need existed.

It’s an exploitation of some of our nation’s most vulnerable individuals and it needs to stop!

FINDING REAL HELP

Amid a sea of get-rich-quick frauds, how can those struggling to overcome opioid addiction find genuine help? How can they—and their families—be sure they’re not scammed by fraudsters? Benzio says quality facilities have several standout features. He advises looking for those that are Christian-owned, apply the Bible to daily living, and emphasize the importance of growing in a relationship with God. Some of the other key elements include:

  • One of the owners is an accomplished clinician, such as a psychiatrist, counselor, or therapist. Clinicians with ownership stakes usually have professional reputations to maintain, an understanding of what great care looks like, and a desire to make clinical excellence a primary focus.
  • A psychiatrist sees the patient early in the admission process for detox purposes and to help diagnose underlying issues that contribute to the patient’s opioid use.
  • The treatment and residential facilities are located on the same campus, allowing for a higher level of accreditation and insurance approval.
  • Individual therapy is provided by masters-level and/or licensed therapists. Each patient receives several individual sessions per week.

A FAMILY AFFAIR

Between the overloaded hospitals, risky prescribing practices and minefield of rehab programs, the opioid epidemic is stretching and straining America’s health care resources like nothing we’ve ever seen. Tackling those (and many other) massive opioid-related issues will require innovative solutions.

Cece and Bobby Brown of Charleston, WV had a son who died four years ago at age 27. His parents describe him as being “just like the kid next door,” stating he was a trouble-free child who loved sports, music, skateboarding, and God. His mother said, “I sent him to college to get a degree, and he came home with an addiction.” Ryan struggled with opioids for seven years, surviving three overdoses along the way. But in April 2014, he had another—at the local mall. The Browns believe their son ran into an acquaintance there who gave him the heroin that snuffed out his life.

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The couple spent thousands on detox and rehabilitation programs for Ryan. What he really needed, they say, was a long-term facility where he could get clean for good. Instead, a typical cycle for Ryan would consist of seven days of detox and regular participation in outpatient programs, therapy groups and Narcotics Anonymous. That combination would keep him clean for about six weeks.

But he needed more.

Ryan was on waiting lists for two long-term treatment centers when he died. Having aged out of his parents’ insurance plan at 26, he had just received Medicaid benefits three days before his death. Most heartbreaking, his parents learned after his passing that a treatment facility that could have accepted Ryan was only three miles away. Now his parents can’t help but wonder, What if the wait times had been shorter, the coverage had come a bit earlier, and we had known about the facility nearby?

“That would’ve given opportunity. I can’t say that would have changed things, but opportunity is everything,” Cece says. Over the last four years, the Browns have made it their mission to make sure others with similar struggles in West Virginia have the opportunities Ryan didn’t.

INNOVATE FOR THE STATE

After a two-year effort led by Bobby and Cece, last year West Virginia lawmakers passed legislation creating the Ryan Brown Addiction Prevention and Recovery Fund. The Fund aims to expand the state’s capacity to help those struggling with opioids but lacking private insurance, Medicaid or Medicare coverage by blending public grants and private dollars. People can contribute charitable gifts.

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So far, the model has yielded promising results: The West Virginia Department of Health and Human Services has awarded $20.8 million through the Fund to nine long-term treatment facilities statewide. That’s already translated to 300 more West Virginians getting treatment than would’ve been the case otherwise. The Browns explain it’s just reality that many struggling with opioids have low-wage jobs that don’t offer insurance. Some, they say, have felonies that prevent them from securing jobs with better wages and benefits. But that doesn’t mean they should be left behind. Bobby said, “If they don’t want help, there’s nothing we can do. But if they do want help, we need to get them help.”

The Browns are also grateful West Virginia has addressed another problem: In September 2015, the state launched a resource hotline to help those combating opioid addiction.  “We didn’t have a number to call to talk to anyone; didn’t know where to get help,” Bobby recalls. “Now that number has come out.” Those needing help can simply call 1-800-HELP-4WV—and thousands have.

Bobby and Cece say they feel honored to play a role in easing the burden the opioid epidemic has placed on the health care system, and to help families struggling with the weight of it all find solid answers. They’ve been part of several White House events aimed at finding solutions, and say they’ll continue to engage the Trump administration in the hopes of keeping the heat on. As a reminder of the epidemic’s devastating toll, Cece displayed a picture of Ryan at a round table discussion with First Lady Melania Trump earlier this year.

This needs to be about people, not politics.

Ghost Story

In a field near the lake
stands the ghost of a dead oak.
The ghost is black and very tall.
It never speaks or moves.
The sky wants to take it.
The earth wants to eat it.
But the ghost is strong, it does not want to move.
So it argues half its tongues into the dirt,
and grips hard against the sky’s glutton lung.
It whispers the other half into air,
and weathers the white earth’s thirst.
Like a frayed black suture it binds earth and sky together.
In this way the ghost stills its universe:
the sky can never rise nor the earth fall
out of their coupling’s grave jurisdiction.
The lake will breathe its atoms to the clouds,
the constellations will pageant
the lucky patterns of their composition
until they break and fade,
but the ghost will stand
contented with the silence,
with the snowfall,
with the stalemate of its own device.

-Art Zilleruelo

Christ Suffered and Died: To Unleash the Power of God in the Gospel

DURING THE WEEK LEADING up to Easter I will present seven distinct reasons why Christ suffered and died, culminating on Easter Sunday with To Reconcile Us to God. Today we look at Christ suffering and dying in order to unleash the power of God in the Gospel.

I am not ashamed of the Gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. (Romans 1:16)

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GOSPEL MEANS “GOOD NEWS.” It’s news before it’s theology. News is the reporting that something significant has happened. Good news is the announcement that something has happened that will make people happy. The Gospel is the best news, because what it reports can make people happy forever.

What the Gospel reports is the death and resurrection of Christ. The apostle Paul makes the news quality of the Gospel plain:

I would remind you… of the Gospel… that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day… and that he… appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive (1 Corinthians 15:1-7).

The heart of the Gospel is that “Christ died for our sins… was buried… was raised… and appeared to more than five hundred people.” The fact that he says many of these witnesses are still alive shows how factual the Gospel is. He meant that his readers could find some witnesses and query them. The Gospel is news about facts. And the facts were testable. There were witnesses of Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection life.

The tragic thing is that, for many, this good news seems foolish. Paul said, “The word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God” (1 Corinthians 1:18). This is the power that Christ died to unleash. “The Gospel… is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes” (Romans 1:16).

Why is the death of Christ not seen as good news by all? We must see it as true and good before we can believe it. So the question is: Why do some see it as true and good and others do not? One answer is given in 2 Corinthians 4:4: “The god of this world [Satan] has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the Gospel of the glory of Christ.” Besides that, sinful human nature itself is dead to true spiritual reality. “The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him” (1 Corinthians 2:14).

 

 

It’s Christmastime!

Wow, only two days til Christmas Day. The year went so fast I almost forgot there were twelve months. Sometimes the days seem to run together. Partly because of the limited daylight. It’s typical for office workers this time of year to go to work in the dark in the morning and come home after work in the dark. Add to that all the rushing around as Christmastime draws near. Time slips without seeming to move the hands on the clock.

When I was young, time seemed to stand still on Christmas Eve. About six o’clock on WNEP 16 out of Scranton, PA, up-to-the-minute tracking of Santa Claus on radar would begin. It always felt like bedtime would never get here. And when it did, I would never be able to get to sleep. It’s Christmastime, I would think. Santa’s coming. If I go to bed. If I close my eyes and give in to slumber. Impossible, is what I used to think as I looked at the clock again and again, hoping it was time. Everything moves like a snail. Funny, but none of the adults seemed to notice this time problem. They would eat and drink and sing and dance around the living room, smiling and toasting one another. They were oblivious. But how is this possible, I would wonder? How can they be so calm?

Santa’s coming. Quick, everyone. Finish your merriment and put the dishes in the dishwasher. Clean up. Get a plate of cookies and a glass of milk ready for Santa. He’s coming! Straighten up the living room. Move those extra chairs out of the way. Santa needs to put my new bike there. Oh wow, this is taking so long. I can’t stand this. I really can’t. The excitement is causing me to nearly tremble. I have to pee, but I’m afraid to tell anyone. Maybe I can wait til I go upstairs to brush my teeth. It’s as though I think time will slow down even more than it has already. Oh, I have to go now! No waiting til bedtime. Well, what can I do? Nothing. I look at the clock. I don’t believe the hour hand has moved more than a half inch. You’ve got to be kidding me!

After what feels like half a week, it’s finally time to go to bed. I run up the staircase, nearly slipping and planting my face in the carpet at the top of the steps. I dash into the bathroom and head straight to the toilet bowl. I barely get my snaps open before the water works begin. Without having to be told, I grab my toothbrush and get brushing. I know Santa’s watching. I’ve known that for a long time. Have to listen. Have to be good. He is always checking. Sometimes twice. I’ve been nice. I’ve not been naughty. I finish up and sprint to my room to climb in my bed. I am thinking that maybe I should skip my prayers tonight and go straight to sleep. But wait, Santa will know if I don’t say my prayers. So I fold my hands and I get started. Short, but sweet. Done in ten seconds. I reach up and kiss my mom goodnight. She tucks me in and I squeeze my eyes shut real tight, hoping that will cause me to go right to sleep. It doesn’t. My heart is pounding. I can feel it in my ears and in the ends of my fingers. I can’t help but thinking, This is going to be a long night.

Believe it or not, before I know it I am opening my eyes. I look at my clock. It’s six o’clock. At first, I’m thinking the clock never even moved. That it’s still the same time it was when I looked at the living room clock. Then it comes to me. It’s morning. I can’t imagine what might be waiting for me downstairs. I scream out loud. I can’t help myself. I just can’t. Mom shows up at my door grinning from ear to ear. Dad is standing behind her. Good. It’s time. No more waiting.

I nearly tumble down the steps as dad calls out, Take it easy Sport. I am not even all the way down the steps when I see the handle bars. Yep! Handle bars atop a brand new shiny bike. The bike is surrounded by dozens of presents. I am speechless. I took at mom and dad, and then I go sit on my new bike. Mom already has her Instamatic up to her eye, taking my picture. Dad says, Well, what do you think? I just grin and lean in to the handle bars, pretending I’m flying down Race Street hill, leaving a trail of flames behind me. Then I remember, there are presents to open. Man, this is just fantastic. I dive in, ripping at the wrapping paper. Present after present, I am blown away. I stop for a brief moment and think, This was well worth the wait.

Merry Christmas to everyone. Stay safe. Be healthy. Be thankful. And above all else, be patient. Because sometimes the clock just doesn’t seem to move at all.

Ho! Ho! Ho!

© Steven Barto 2014

Answering Jihad: A Better Way Forward Question #8 – Does Islam Need a Reformation?

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This is the eighth in a 17-week series from Answering Jihad: A Better Way Forward by Nabeel Qureshi, author of Seeking Allah, Finding Jesus. Weeks one through sixteen will cover sixteen questions people most commonly ask Qureshi about jihad and Islam. These questions explore the origins of jihad, the nature of jihad today, and the phenomenon of jihad in Judeo-Christian context. After answering these questions, Qureshi will conclude by proposing a response to jihad, in his view the best way forward. His concluding remarks will be presented in week seventeen.

You can order the book from Amazon by clicking here.

QUESTION #8 – DOES ISLAM NEED A REFORMATION?

QURESHI HAS HEARD MANY PEOPLE, frustrated by the increasing frequency and scale of Islamic terrorism, suggest that Islam needs a reformation. What they may not realize is that radical Islam is the Islamic reformation.

This might sound shocking, but consider: Just as the Protestant Reformation was an attempt to raze centuries of Catholic tradition and return to the canonical texts, so radical Islam is an attempt to raze centuries of traditions of various schools of Islamic thought and return to the canonical texts of the Qur’an and Muhammad’s life. This desire to return to the original form of Islam can be seen not only in the words of Sayyid Qutb, but also in his method. He focused almost entirely on references to the Qur’an. It is true also of the Muslim Brotherhood and ISIS today, whose publications and proclamations are punctuated by references to the Qur’an and hadith literature. Radical Muslim organizations are explicit in their aim to reform Islam.

MODERATE MUSLIM SCHOLARS VERSUS ISIS

This reality hit Qureshi when he read an open letter written by 120 Muslim scholars rebuking ISIS for their version of Islam (see http://lettertobaghdai.com). The letter starts with twenty-four points of “Executive Summary,” the very first point of which emphasizes that “fatwas must follow Islamic legal theory as defined in the Classical texts.” But ISIS does not grant authority to the legal theory of classical texts, the thoughts of the great Islamic jurists. They are returning to the foundational texts, the Qur’an, and the hadith. The same is true for virtually all radical Muslim groups. This letter was therefore impotent in bringing about any change within ISIS, as Qureshi was inclined to think its writers must have known before issuing it.

Yet one of the points of the letter shot so wide of the mark that Qureshi was surprised it was included. In the writers’ condemnation of sex slavery, unable to provide a single reference that Islam forbade the practice, they instead appealed to a modern consensus: “After a century of Muslim consensus on the prohibition of slavery, you have violated this; you have taken women as concubines and thus revived strife and sedition (fitnah), and corruption and lewdness on the earth. You have resuscitated something that the Shari’ah has worked tirelessly to undo and has been considered forbidden by consensus for over a century.” Imagine ISIS leaders laughing as they read this. Their whole purpose is to work against any consensus of modern Muslim scholars, especially if it contravenes the Qur’an and the example of Muhammad.

The Qur’an and hadith  contain many references to sex slavery. The Qur’an explicitly allows Muslim men to use their captive women for sex (23:6; 33:50; 70.30). The canonical hadith collections corroborate the practice, going so far as allowing it even if captive women are already married and their husbands remain alive, or if the women are about to be sold and could be impregnated (Sadith Bukhari 4138; Sahih Muslim 3371 and 3384; Sunan Abu Daud 2150). The Qur’an also explicitly confirms the former practice, teaching that captive women can be used as sex slaves even if they are married (4:24). The “century of Muslim consensus on the prohibition of slavery” is a departure from the foundations of Islam, and radical Islam is against such bidah, innovations in Islam.

Qureshi said, “To be clear, I am not arguing here against the legitimacy of an Islam that departs from its roots, but as long as Muslims try to return to the foundations of Islam, such modern consensuses will hold little authority over the teachings of the Qur’an and the example of Muhammad’s life. It is clear why ISIS does what it is doing; they are a part of the Islamic reformation.”

PROGRESSIVE ISLAM

The notion that reformation should lead to peaceful expressions of a religion is predicated on the assumption that the origins of that religion are peaceful. As Qureshi has demonstrated, that is not the case with Islam. Since violence is built into the very origins of Islam, the religion would need to be re-envisioned in order to produce a peaceful religion that is internally consistent. Emphasis would have to be drawn away from the Qur’an and Muhammad’s life, or the records of their contexts would need to be disavowed. This would not be a reformation but a progression of Islam.

Some Muslim thinkers have aimed to do just this. Fazlur Rahman, a Pakistani theologian of the mid-twentieth century, tried to impose humanist thought upon an Islamic framework, focusing on ethics and freedom. His method was to reconsider the historical authenticity of hadith, an essential component of the traditional foundations of Islam. He argued that hadith were formalized in the context of a living oral tradition; therefore, behavioral norms of Muslims of the time were formulated into the words and teachings of Muhammad. In other words, according to Rahman what we know as hadith are often simply the practices of ninth-century Muslims that have been petrified into an unchanging set of rules for all Muslims. Dispensing with the traditional foundations of Islam, Rahman offers novel understandings of the Qur’anic text, attempting to revolutionize the application of Islam.

Although this method might work in theory, Muslim culture tends to be too loyal to its heritage to allow for such a radical departure from tradition. Rahman was effectively exiled from Pakistan as an enemy of Islam. He continued his work in a context more amenable to progressive Islam, the United States. Rahman has passed away, and other Muslim scholars have taken up his mantle. One of his champions is Professor Ebrahim Moosa at Duke University, under whom Qureshi had the privilege to study Sharia for a short time. He and other Muslim scholars like him do not hesitate to denounce Islamic terrorism and to explore how Islam can be shaped to speak to our twenty-first-century context.

In Islam and the Modern World, coedited with Jeffrey Kenney, Moosa asks questions like, “What happens when the sacred book and the world seem to contradict one another?” He proposed an answer to this question in one of his lectures. Even early authorities of Sunni Islam altered the practice of Islam to fit their contexts. Umar, the companion of Muhammad and the second caliph of Islam, did not apply the Qur’anic mandate of giving his soldiers a percentage of the spoils of war booty. He decided to give them a salary instead, reshaping the practice of Islam to fit the needs of his context. If Umar was appointed by Allah, as Sunnis believe, and he could reframe a direct injunction of the Qur’an to fit his context, can we not do the same today as responsible Muslims.

In like manner, some Muslim thought leaders are attempting to progress Islam beyond its origins. Yet the fact remains unfortunately true that they are working against the current Muslim zeitgeist, which is focused on the vindication of Islam by return to its roots. Progressive Muslims have yet to obtain much of a foothold even in the West, let alone in Muslim-majority nations.

Qureshi said, “I hope I am wrong, but I doubt progressive Islam will ever have much sway among Muslims. Islam has always been grounded on obedience to Muhammad; that is the crux of the religion. Its cultural identity and religions practices are subsidiary to the commands of Muhammad, so the accounts of his life and teachings will always be foremost. Past successes of various schools of thought in progressing Islam away from Muhammad’s example were partly indebted to the inaccessibility of Islamic traditions to the average Muslims. On account of the Internet, that can no longer be the case, as the traditions are a click away (see, for example, http://sunnah.com). Progressive Muslim scholars aim to redefine Islam in its essence, to redirect its focus from the example of Muhammad to religious principles. Such a redefinition is far more difficult to accomplish than a reformation, which is why it is the latter that currently dominates the global scene.

CONCLUSION

As we reviewed in Question #5, the reason Muslims can be both devout and peaceful in spite of violent teachings in the Qur’an and hadith is that Muslim authorities have interpreted Islam in this manner for them, often in accordance with various schools of thought and centuries of accreted Islamic tradition. When Muslims wish to circumvent these authorities and return to the roots of their faith, whether due to disillusionment with current expressions of Islam or a desire to please Allah and win his favor, violent expressions of Islam are often the result.

It was this line of reasoning that let Sayyid Qutb to lay the foundations for radical Islam, and it was the same line of reasoning that led Abd al-Salam Faraj to intensify his view of jihad such that it became the cure for the ails of the Islamic world. The common denominator between these two founders of radical Islam was their zeal to follow Islam to their utmost, not as it was being practiced in the twentieth century but as it was established in the seventh century. Radical Islam is the Islamic reformation.

The endeavor to modernize Islam and make it relevant to the twenty-first century is called progressive Islam. Progressive Muslim thought leaders, thought few in number and limited in influence, are present and are working to recreate Islam’s religious framework from within. Indeed, that is what it would take for Islam to become devoted to peace – not a reformation but a re-imagination.

Thanks for reading.

Sorry this got posted after midnight, making it a day late. Please join me next Friday for Qureshi’s Question #9 –Who Are Al-Qaida, ISIS, and Boko Haram? It is important for me to state that I do not support the religion of Islam ideologically or theologically. I am a Christian, who is a novice scholar of comparative religious study and an apologist. Indeed, Nabeel Qureshi is no longer a Muslim, having converted to Christianity after his exhausting study on the question of violence and jihad in Islam.

 

Teenagers, Monkeys, and Mirrors – Developing Self-Image in a Cyber-Addicted Society

Inside her classroom at Coral Springs Charter High School, Susana H. was in distress. The Florida teacher, seven months pregnant, was suddenly experiencing labor contractions. She sat down in a desk chair and struggled to endure the pain – her mouth open, her eyes wide, one hand on her brow. That’s when one of her students, junior Malik W., pulled out his mobile phone. It was time for a selfie. In dreads, cap, and big sunglasses, he flashed a big happy-go-lucky grin for his camera while angling the lens to show his grimacing, pain-stricken teacher in the background. “Selfie with my teacher while she is having contractions,” he tweeted.

Selfies. They bring new meaning to the word self-conscious. These quick, seemingly innocent self-portraits – typically taken with a smartphone or webcam and shared via social media – serve many functions. They can be a preened vision of a public self, a bragging moment of accomplishment, a display of humor, or a declared irony to the world, almost a performance. The ubiquitous mobile phone with its mirror-image camera technology, makes self-portraits easy to take, delete, filter, or fix, and even easier to share.

Some kids would call what Malik in our example did, taking his own picture with a featured but unsuspecting person in the background, a kind of photobomb selfie. It’s a prank or joke. Photobomb moments are something like a tourist’s snapshot souvenirs. I was there. But this time, the background wasn’t Mount Rushmore or Niagara Falls. It was Malik’s teacher’s suffering. Whatever you call it, in the time it took for the teacher to reach the hospital to be examined by doctors, Malik’s pic was making the rounds on social media, first to other high school students at Coral Springs, and then quickly beyond. By evening, it was viral and had been retweeted by thousands. When asked later by local TV news reporters what possessed him, Malik said he was just hoping to record the unexpected event for himself and “for her.”

It went viral mainly because people found it funny. BuzzFeed raved: “Behold! The greatest selfie of all time.” Was it funny? Sure, if you don’t take a moment to consider this act in a deeper way – and what it means to use a human being in distress as a visual joke in the background of a curated self-portrait shared on a public social network. There are more troubling trends to notice here – invasion of privacy, breach of good manners, absence of empathy, not to mention a demonstrated lack of respect for pregnancy, motherhood, and classroom setting, and a teacher’s authority. Let’s be honest: Nobody looks to teenagers as role models of civility and decorum. They can be jokesters, disrupters, provocateurs. Pushing the limits is what they do best. Why? In psychological terms, they are said to be forming self-concept, or identity, and enjoy experimenting with boundaries and taking risks.

They also crave feedback, which helps them figure out, eventually, who they are – and what the world expects of them. So when teenagers take selfies and share them, what are they hoping to discover? Probably themselves. Prior to the Internet, this crucial time of identity formation was spent in the real world – a more intimate greenhouse where feedback, both positive and negative, was received from a real-world audience of friends, family, and figures of authority. The social norms and what was expected of these developing human beings was fairly consistent. Twenty or thirty years ago, would a teenager have been allowed to take a photograph of a distressed teacher in a classroom and, without permission, been allowed to publish it in a magazine?

The Internet is now a primary adventure zone where teenagers interact, play, socialize, learn, experiment, take risks – and eventually figure out who they are. This blog post will try to grapple with this shift, and look at the impact of this new environment on youthful identity formation. Could growing up in cyberspace change a teenager’s sense of self? Why not?

WHY SO HEARTLESS, SELFIE?

The same year as Malik’s cyber-celebrity moment, another controversial selfie was seen by millions. A lovely young woman with long blond hair, aviator sunglasses, white knit scarf, and matching hat was caught in the act of posing for her own selfie while, behind her, a suicidal man was hanging on the rails of the Brooklyn Bridge. What, aside from basic psychopathic tendencies, would cause a person to be so cold and unfeeling about another human being’s emotional crisis? Let’s stop and contemplate this. Just as Malik made a joke of his teacher’s  moment of physical crisis, the young blond (she would remain anonymous), whether she planned to share her selfie with a wide audience or not, was apparently making fun of a stranger who was so emotionally troubled and confused that he wanted to end his life. Yes, her selfie seems more heartless than Malik’s selfie, but aren’t the sense of disengagement and lack of empathy eerily similar? The day after the Brooklyn Bridge incident, an observer’s photograph of the anonymous young woman took over the entire front page of the New York Post with the apt headline “SELFIE-ISH!”

This slap of disapproval only encouraged a new trend. In 2014, when traffic was stopped on a Los Angeles freeway due to a man threatening to jump from an overpass, a group of drivers left their cars to pose – big smiles – for group shots and selfies with the suicidal man in the distance behind them. The same year, a policeman in Istanbul was called to the scene of the Bosporus Bridge, where a desperate individual was clinging to the rails. The suicidal man jumped three hours later, but before he went, the officer took a selfie. The bridge and the jumper were in the background. More recently, in March 2016 – in perhaps the ultimate example of this trend – a hostage on an EgyptAir flight posed for a bizarre smiling selfie next to a hijacker in his suicide vest.

Let’s try to consider the mind-set of these people – not the distressed suicidal individuals, but the selfie-takers. Were they conscious of what they were doing? Or were they so lost, so separated from ethics and empathy, that they weren’t able to clearly consider their actions? Are they emotionally impaired, or has cyberspace impacted their judgment? A condition that results in lack of empathy toward another person’s distress is narcissism. This is a personality trait that exists to varying degrees in almost all human beings and can be facilitated by cyberspace. A little narcissism can be a good thing. Actors are famously perceived as the ultimate narcissists, and the psychologically healthier ones even crack jokes about it. They aren’t necessarily heartless people. But a narcissist’s desire to be noticed and become a focus of attention can override a concern for other people – and result in callousness about their suffering.

As with so many personality traits, psychologists have defined a spectrum of narcissism – generally assessed by the Narcissistic Personality Inventory (NPI). Individuals with high scores demonstrate an inflated sense of their own importance, grandiosity, extreme selfishness, enormous self-regard, and a deep need for admiration. Behind the mask of ultraconfidence, their self-esteem is very fragile and vulnerable to criticism. Why get into all of this? Because teenagers (as well as children) can display narcissistic-type traits due to the simple fact that their sense of self, or “self-concept,” is still being formed. They can seem to be uncaring about others because they are distracted by the work of creating an identity. Teenagers will try on new selves and new clothes and new hairstyles to the point of total disengagement with anything else going on in their family life or home. For a teenager, this sort of experimentation, along with risk-taking, is one way that identity is formed. Going too far is part of the process – almost a requirement.

Who am I today? Who do I want to be tomorrow morning? They look for answers in the feedback they receive from their peers. And today, to a greater and greater degree, this feedback happens online, not just from their friends but in free online astrological profiles, personality questionnaires, and a plethora of phone apps that will analyze their handwriting, music tastes, food preferences, and even bathing styles. Teenagers are consumed by their own reflections, in other words, hoping to figure out who they are. What happens when the bathroom mirror, where teens used to state at themselves, is replaced with a virtual mirror – a selfie that they just took with their phones?

MONKEYS AND MIRRORS

In a famous study done forty years ago, great apes – chimpanzees, orangutans, and gorillas – born in the wild were placed before a full-length mirror on a wall. At first, the wild chimps reacted as if another chimp had appeared in the room; they vocalized and made other threatening gestures at the mirror. After two or three days, they began to understand the image in the mirror as a reflection of themselves in some way. Interestingly, they began exploring their own bodies before the mirror – studying parts of themselves they hadn’t seen before, or couldn’t see without use of a mirror.

In psychology, one way to describe what happens in front of a mirror is called mirror-image stimulation, referring specifically to “a situation in which an organism is confronted with its own reflection in a mirror.” An animal that shows signs of recognizing the image in the mirror as it own is said to have “passed the mirror test,” which is strong evidence of having developed self-concept. This is not innate, but learned. Self-concept is used in human social psychology to describe how people think about, evaluate, or perceive themselves. The actual definition is “the individual’s belief about himself or herself, including the person’s attributes and who and what the self is.” A monkey that has self-concept demonstrates an awareness of a self that is separate and distinct from others, as well as constant.

What are teenagers learning about themselves by looking at their own selfies? Could this impact the development of self-concept? The study also raises this question: Could young people who have grown up with too much technology and not enough face-to-face interaction with peers remain more isolated, retreating to the comfort of their own digital reflection rather than turning to their friends or family for comfort and physical interaction? Could this cyber effect encourage children or young teenagers to lose interest in others – or never develop it in the first place? Since there hasn’t been time for proper developmental studies in this area, we just don’t know.

Humanistic psychologist Carl Rogers’s work is valuable in terms of illustrating how a young person develops identity. He described self-concept as having three components: (1) the view you have of yourself – or “self-image,” (2) how much value you place on your worth – or “self-esteem,” and (3) what you wish you were like – or “the ideal self.” Given the advent of social media, perhaps we need to add a fourth aspect of “self” Rogers didn’t consider. In today’s technology, identity appears to be increasingly developed through the gateway of a different self, a less tangible one, a digital creation.

Let’s call this “the cyber self” – or who you are in a digital context. This is the idealized self, the person you wish to be, and therefore an important aspect of self-concept. It is a potential new you that now manifests in a new environment, cyberspace. To an increasing extent, it is the virtual self that today’s teenager is busy assembling, creating, and experimenting with. Each year, as technology becomes a more dominant factor in the lives of teens, the cyber self is what interacts with others, needs a bigger time investment, and has the promise of becoming an overnight viral celebrity. The selfie is the frontline self, a highly manipulated artifact that has been created and curated for public consumption.

THE PSYCHOLOGY OF FEEDBACK

To understand feedback more deeply, we need to go way back to the work of sociologist Charles Horton Cooley in 1900, decades before the advent of the Internet or when monkeys were stuck in front of mirrors. Cooley came up with what he called the looking-glass theory. Cooley used the concept of a person studying his or her own reflection as a way to describe how individuals come to see or know themselves. In the case of Cooley’s looking glass, the information that we use to learn about ourselves isn’t provided in a mirror’s reflection. It is provided by others – their comments about us, the way they treat us, and things they say. In the looking-glass self, a person views himself or herself through others’ eyes and in turn gains identity. In other words, the human self-concept was dependent upon social feedback. Philosopher William James, the so-called father of psychology, expanded this idea by pointing out that individuals become different people, and express their identity in different ways, depending on whom they are with.

Now let’s fast-forward to the next century and do the math – and consider the psychology of this effect in cyberspace. If you have a repertoire of many selves – potentially as many as people who know you – social media could exponentially expand the number of selves you create. Is your “self” environmental-specific? Are you the same person on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp, SnapChat, and LinkedIn? Does this new explosion of selves cause a splintering of identity or, particularly for teenagers, who are going through critical stages of identity formation, cause developmental problems? And what about critical feedback? Presenting yourself to the whole world is a risky business. It’s hart to imagine an individual alive who hasn’t experienced some form of rejection, subtle or strong, embarrassing or humiliating. But you can also be accepted for the self you present – and feel rewarded by pleasant feelings of pride and affection.

Let’s imagine you have just turned thirteen. The five years ahead of you are a natural time for questioning and seeking. You’ll be trying new clothes, mannerisms, friends, interests, and pastimes. You’ll probably begin experimenting with what you think of as adult behavior. This helps you make sense of the self within, as you unconsciously piece together an identity, like a collage. You are working to create a constant, steady, reliable, knowable, and familiar self. What kind of information – or feedback – is the virtual mirror going to give you? In this regard, the cyber environment may be much more overwhelming than the real world. To begin with, the sheer number of “friends” has grown, and therefore the volume of feedback will be far greater. Prior to the Internet, a teenager would have a limited number of social groups to juggle – family and extended family, schoolmates, maybe neighbors. Now the number of social groups is potentially limitless.

The cyber self is always under construction, psychologically and digitally. Even while the real you is sleeping, the cyber you continues to exist. It is “always on” – evolving, updating, making friends, making connections, gaining followers, getting “likes,” and being tagged. I started this blog in December 2014. To date, I have 181 regular followers; however, 9,840 people from 93 countries have visited my blog since its inception. The constant source of feedback we receive today can create a sense of urgency, a continuous feedback loop, a sense of needing to invest more and more time in order to keep the virtual self current, relevant, and popular. This is especially true of a blog.

This may explain the obsessive interest among teens in curating their selfies. When the process of identity formation in real life becomes confusing and difficult to control, as it is for most teenagers at some point, what could be more satisfying than being able to perfectly calibrate and manage the portrait that the online world sees? To some extent, we all engage in image management, but it now begins at an earlier age, and in some cases before identity has been properly formed. This may lead to identity confusion. After all, which matters the most: Your real-world self or the one you’ve created online? Probably the one with the greater visibility.

CYBER MIGRATION

Amazingly, plastic surgery among teenagers is another area that has been impacted by the norms online. The easy curating of selfies may be linked to a rise in plastic surgery. According to a 2014 study by the American Academy of Facial Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery (AAFPRS), more than half of the facial surgeons polled reported an increase in cosmetic surgery for people under thirty. There is also a rise in children and teenagers requesting teeth whitening and veneers reported at dental clinics. “Social platforms like Instagram, SnapChat and the iPhone app Selfie.im force patients to hold a digital microscope up to their own image and often look at it with a more self-critical eye than ever before,” explains Dr. Edward Farrior, president of AAFPRS. “These images are often the first impressions young people put out there to prospective friends, romantic interests, and employers, and our patients want to put their best face forward.” Sadly, surgeons have reported that bullying is also a cause of children and teens asking for plastic surgery, usually as a result of being bullied rather than a way to prevent it.

Okay, so let’s put all these trends and technological developments together – from teenagers using apps to filter and “improve” the appearance of their selfies, to the  rise of plastic surgery among young people, the escalation in provocative self-presentation, and the quest for the perfect body. What do these developments tell us, given that we know human beings look to feedback in order to develop identity? Imagine for a moment the shy thirteen-year-old who feels uncomfortable speaking to others. For this child, posting a selfie will be easier and more rewarding – no actual contact! Now imagine that child progressing through the stages of identity formation and never having to practice being a human being on the stage of real life. This is what causes isolation in adulthood.

SELF-ACTUALIZATION

The cyber self, while it offers glimpses into who you are, is a literally detached self. This cyber self is like a hand puppet that is speaking for you but isn’t really you – and can actually be quite different from the authentic real-world you. In other words, the real you has turned the cyber you into an object: The selfie is proof of this objectification. By posting a selfie, you are required to experience yourself as an object that is presentable or not. You judge your selfie from a detached distance, even if it is posted impulsively. This self-objectification, and the sense of detachment from true self, could explain many of the negative behaviors seen online. It feeds disassociation. Detached from your cyber self, you can feel detached from your actions – and come to believe you aren’t truly accountable. Now let’s think about a teenager in the process of identity formation from the age of ten, eleven, twelve to late teens, a crucial window of time to create a strong foundation and sense of self. This process is critical to development, and can have an enormous impact on the rest of an individual’s life and sense of self-esteem.

Carl Rogers described “self-actualization” as an ongoing process of always striving to be one’s ideal self. A “self-actualized” person is one whose “ideal self” is congruent, or the same as, his or her perceived actual self or self-image. Rogers believed that this sense of being, or having become, the person you want to be is a good marker for happiness, and a sign of a fully functioning individual. If you accept his description of happiness, then it’s troubling to see the results of a survey of children and teens, ages eleven to sixteen, in which half agreed with this statement: “I find it easier to be myself on the Internet than when I am with people face-to-face.”

The transition from childhood to adulthood is a critical developmental phase, what psychologist Erik Erikson described as a “psychosocial stage.” For an awkward adolescent or teen, it may be a lot easier to avoid painful experiences performed on the stage of real life, but these are often important developmental milestones and come with consequences if missed. Identity may not be fully developed – and what one wants to do or “be,” in terms of a future adult role, may not be fully explored. Social coping skills may not be acquired. Learning to navigate the tension or lack of comfort that the real world sometimes brings is necessary for the developmental process, as youth explore  possibilities and begin to form their own identity based on their explorations.

Failure to successfully complete a psychosocial stage can also result in a reduced ability to complete further stages. For Erikson, the next stage is intimacy versus isolation, occurring between ages eighteen and forty, when individuals learn how to share more intimately with others and explore relationships that lead toward long-term commitments with someone other than a family member. Avoiding intimacy for fearing relationships or commitment can lead to isolation, loneliness, and often depression. This is why we need to talk more about the repercussions of teenagers failing to establish a sense of identity in real life as well as cyber life. The result of such a failure can be what Erikson calls “role confusion,” when young people become unsure about themselves or their place in society. Some experts believe contemporary boys are in crisis due to excessive use of technology. The digital self tends to become less and less like the real-life operator.

The cyber self is a masterful creation – funnier, wittier, better looking than the real self. But the problem lies with the vulnerability of this split-self existence. And it’s a serious problem. If you look at all the studies done over the past ten years on cyberbullying, you’ll see that few of the solutions and awareness campaigns have worked effectively. Each year, more teenagers are devastated, even destroyed, by experiencing bullying online. Why? Think of the time and energy that teenagers put into their cyber selves – the self-portraits they’ve painted. When the cyber self is attacked – called “stupid,” “ugly,” “a loner,” “a loser” – then this could cause a catastrophic inter-psychic conflict, an emotional clash of opposing impulses within oneself. Look at it this way: If the best version of you that technology can produce is rejected, how does that make you feel about the only self that’s left, your real one?

THE PRIVACY PARADOX

In real life, would a teenager girl walk around with a photograph of herself naked – and show everybody at school? Would she undress in class and pose suggestively? That’s what happens, potentially, every time a sext is sent. Besides impulsivity and narcissism, what are the other possible explanations for this disinhibited behavioral shift online? Teenagers exhibit a lack of concern about their privacy online. It’s an interesting shift because so often in the real world, many teens are self-conscious and tend to seek privacy. But online, something happens. Even teenagers who are well-versed in the dangers and have read stories of identity theft, sextortion, cyberbullying, cybercrimes, and worse, continue to share as though there is no risk.

I read an article in my hometown newspaper, The Daily Item, published online on May 7, 2017 regarding the Netflix mini-series Thirteen Reasons Why, based on Jay Asher’s book of the same name. I watched the show, which follows the final weeks of a high school girl who commits suicide. The writer of the Daily Item article interviewed local educators regarding Thirteen Reasons Why, specifically focusing on whether the young girl in the show justified her suicide and blame others, and whether the final scene was an unnecessarily graphic depiction of the act. The topic of teen suicide is one that is emotionally volatile, and is currently of much concern to educators.

Olivia Masser, director of the Milton Public Library, believes Asher’s story Thirteen Reasons Why unwisely portrays Hanna Baker as a martyr. Masser admits that the story raises awareness of the serious issues of sexual assault, cyberbullying and teen suicide. As Phillips, Brown and Stonestreet (2008) indicate, “…there exists a ‘quiet desperation’ that drives humanity to think about the question, ‘Does life have meaning?’” This question is faced by every teenager growing up in America. Certainly, when Hanna is sexually assaulted and bullied, and photographs are posted online that make her look “easy,” she is already struggling to find her way at a young age. She asks the ultimate question, “Why am I here?” What meaning was left in her otherwise meaningless life now that she’d been raped, bullied (including online), and labeled a “slut?”

According to Danah Boyd, the TED Talk celebrity and visiting professor at New York University, most teenagers scrutinize what they post online very carefully. In her book It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens, Boyd argues that teens adjust what they present online depending on the audience they want to impress Everything is calibrated for a specific purpose – to look cool, or tough, or hot. When it suits them, teenagers can be enormously savvy about how to protect the things they want kept private, mostly from their parents. For example, they might not care if Facebook knows their religion, but they do care if their parents find out about their sex life.

CONCLUDING REMARKS

We just might owe teenagers an apology. We are failing to protect and defend them in cyberspace. Period. We are failing to understand and therefore protect their developing selves. Tech companies have made billions of dollars while looking the other way. Opportunistically, they have jumped in to offer solutions to emerging obstacles, creating social platforms such as SnapChat, Wickr, Confide, and the German-based Sicher, where risqué images can be sent and viewed. While they supposedly can disappear almost as soon as they are posted, in fact there are many ways they can be saved. Do teenagers need to explore and have adventures? Yes. And we should let them. But the risks in the cyber environment are real.

And what about the more nuanced and much-harder-to-study risk of harm to a developing identity? Juggling two selves, the real one and the cyber one, is a lot to expect of young individuals who are still figuring things out, about themselves and the world. We are likely a decade away from seeing the cyber effect on psychological and emotional well-being and the formation of a sturdy and sustainable self. We can see signs and clues coming already in the new norms of sexting, the obsession with the cyber self, premature sexualization, the plastic surgery among younger people, the escalation of body and eating disorders, and the rise of narcissistic behavior (if not true narcissistic personality disorder). These trends should be cause for alarm. Narcissism and excessive self-involvement are both known attributes of those who suffer chronic unhappiness.

A teenager may think he or she is creating a better “self,” a better object with each selfie. Every selfie taken, and improved upon, causes an erosion or dismissal of the true self. With each selfie taken, and invested in, the true self is diminished. In a way, it’s similar to the phobia in Amish tradition that each portrait photograph robs the soul. Adolescents are naturally prone to “storm and stress,” during which kids will often experience mood swings, fight with parents, and engage in risky or dangerous behavior. We can’t blame the Internet for that. But we can wake up and see that it’s even more important to protect them there.

And, parents of teenagers, if you find a sext, sit down and talk about it. Resist the urge to shut down or confiscate all your son’s or daughter’s devices. The point at which you banish your teenager to his or her bedroom – hating themselves, hating you, and hating their lives – and take away their phone and computer, you are depriving them of their entire support system. That can be too hard. They need to vent. They need to reach out to friends. Let them. And finally, if anything goes wrong in their cyber life, tell them not to try to handle it on their own. That’s what parents of teenagers are for.

References

Aiken, M., PhD. (2016). The cyber effect: A pioneering cyberpsychologist explains how human behavior changes online. New York, NY: Random House

Asher, J. (2007). Thirteen reasons why. New York, NY: Razorbill

Phillips, W., Brown, W., and Stonestreet, J. (2008) Making sense of your world: A biblical worldview, second edition. Salem, WI: Sheffield Publishing.

 

Answering Jihad: A Better Way Forward Question #3 – What is Jihad?

answering jihad

This is the third in a 17-week series from Answering Jihad: A Better Way Forward by Nabeel Qureshi, author of Seeking Allah, Finding Jesus. Weeks one through sixteen will cover sixteen questions people most commonly ask Qureshi about jihad. These questions explore the origins of jihad, the nature of jihad today, and the phenomenon of jihad in Judeo-Christian context. After answering these questions, Qureshi will conclude by proposing a response to jihad, in his view the best way forward. His concluding remarks will be presented in week seventeen.

You can order the book from Amazon by clicking here.

QUESTION #3 – WHAT IS JIHAD?

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THE ENCYCLOPEDIA OF ISLAM defines jihad in this way: “In law, according to general doctrine and in historical tradition, the jihad consists of military action with the object of the expansion of Islam and, if need be, of its defense.” This is a fairly standard definition of jihad among scholars of Islam in the West.

In broader Muslim literature there appears to be no such widely accepted definition, but that makes sense given the various kinds of jihad and the myriad application of the term found in classical and modern Islamic literature. The primary meaning of jihad as used by pre-modern Muslim jurists is “warfare with spiritual significance.” This definition appeals more to Qureshi than the standard scholarly definition, because it reflects the reality of a less than rigid use of the term.

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The popular definition of jihad as “Islamic holy war” is misleading. The words holy war are charged with connotations of the Christian Crusades, but the impetus and theological justification of the Crusades were markedly different from jihad, as Qureshi will explore in Question 17.

THE DEVELOPING DOCTRINE OF JIHAD

Part of the reason why jihad is so difficult to define is that the Arabic word itself means “strife” or “struggle,” and it is not always used in a doctrinal sense. The Qur’an appears to use the term to mean a “struggle for spiritual purposes,” at times remaining ambiguous about whether a violent or non-violent struggle is in view. In fact, some verses do use the word jihad as a purely spiritual struggle, such as Surah 22:78.

The Qur’an frequently uses the word in reference to a violent struggle for spiritual purposes. A clear example of this is a discussion of warfare in Surah 2:216-218, which culminates in Allah’s approval of those who undertake this jihad: “Warfare is prescribed for you, though you dislike it… Behold, those who believe, emigrate, and undertake jihad, these have hope of the mercy of Allah.” It is incorrect to argue, as do some apologists for Islam in the West, that the word can only refer to a spiritual struggle. Even in the Qur’an that is demonstrably false, let alone in the tradition of Muhammad’s life.

In fact, when it comes to the hadith, far and away the most frequent context of jihad is violent physical struggle. Qureshi will explore this issue further in Question 4, which will be published here next Friday. But for now, we will merely note that this meaning makes sense when we consider the time during which the canonical hadith collections were compiled, which was at the pinnacle of Islamic conquests. The Muslim community then preserved those traditions that were most relevant to them. In so doing, they solidified the term jihad in the direction of a violent spiritual struggle.

By the time of the great Muslim jurists, the generations that founded various schools of Islamic thought and enumerated codes of Sharia, jihad had developed into a fairly systematized doctrine of warfare. Conditions and rules of jihad conduct had been developed based on the relevant verses of the Qur’an and hadith traditions of Muhammad. For example, jihad could not be the endeavor of a rogue Muslim, but had to be formally declared by a legitimate authority among the Muslim people, most likely the caliph, the leader of the Muslims. [So much for validation of the “lone wolf” ISIS sympathizers.] The impetus for jihad must be of critical importance for the religion of Islam itself, or at least for a great number of Muslims. The causes ought to be specified prior to engaging in warfare, as well as the terms for resolution. These rules of conduct explain why al-Qaeda regularly broadcasted proclamations of jihad with Usama Bin Laden prominently displayed as an authority, airing lists of grievances against the West and demands for the cessation of hostilities. The endeavor was not simply for dramatic purposes, but also to fulfill the classical conditions for appropriately launching jihad.

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There are other requirements of jihad that classical jurists upheld, conditions that were grounded in Muhammad’s teachings for the sake of humane warfare. These included refraining from killing non-combatants or looting their property, restraint from disfiguring the corpses of fallen enemies, prohibitions against scorched-earth policies, and more. Depending on the jurist, treatments of jihad differed in exact rules and emphases. Although many jurists appeared concerned with combatant conduct for legalistic purposes, by the classical era of Islam there was a definite concern for moral warfare and attempts to limit collateral damage by some jurists.

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Of course, the mere enumeration of rules of jihad did not necessitate their enforcement, and it is clear that Muslims did not always follow them. For example, non-combatants were frequently slaughtered in eighth- and ninth-century Islamic conquests. In addition, Muslim-on-Muslim jihad was proclaimed at times during the classical era, even though these pronouncements should have been categorized as non-jihad hostilities. To be clear, examples of Muslim-on-Muslim violence in the past were not the same as contemporary Muslim-on-Muslim jihad, which is often rationalized by accusing enemies of being apostates. This is a modern development, though with ancient roots, as Qureshi will demonstrate in Question 7.

Although the concept of jihad continues to develop to this day, one theme remains consistent. Because jihad is a struggle for spiritual purposes, a mujahid enjoys the benefit of Allah’s blessing. This promise is in the Qur’an itself, and it partially explains the prevalence of jihad throughout Islamic history, especially among those most zealous for Allah’s approval.

THE USE OF TERROR

Although the Qur’an probably does not envision something similar to twenty-first century terrorism, it does command Muslims to use terror and spread fear: “Prepare against them all the strength and war horses that you can to strike terror into the enemies of Allah and your enemies.” This teaching of the Qur’an is corroborated through the hadith, as Muhammad said, “I have been made victorious with terror.” (Sahih al-Bukhari 4.52.220). Casting fear into the heart of Allah’s enemies is thus enjoined in the Qur’an and has a precedent in Muhammad’s life.

THE GREATER JIHAD AND THE LESSER JIHAD

A regular feature in Western scholarly discussions about jihad is the distinction between the greater jihad and the lesser jihad. The account reads: “A number of fighters came to the Messenger of Allah, and he said: ‘You have done well in coming from the lesser jihad to the greater jihad.’ They said: ‘What is the greater jihad?’ He said: ‘For the servant [of God] to fight his passions.'” (Al-Bayhaqi, Al-Zuhd al-Kabir). From this tradition, a number of scholars and apologists defend the notion that jihad ought to be primarily understood as a spiritual struggle and secondarily understood as a physical one.

Although Sufi Muslims did develop the notion of “greater jihad” beginning in the twelfth century, there are significant problems with using the quotation above as a proof text for the primacy of peaceful jihad. Perhaps the most significant problem is that the Qur’an teaches the exact opposite. In Surah 4:95, the Qur’an says, “Not equal are those believers who are sedentary, other than the disabled, and those who undertake jihad in the cause of Allah with their wealth and their lives. Allah has granted a grade higher to those who strive with their wealth and lives than to those who sit.” The exemption for the disabled makes the verse particularly clear. Physical fighting is more virtuous than not, according to the Qur’an.

This may be why none of the canonical collections of hadith include the tradition of the greater jihad; those compilers either did not know the hadith or considered it too dubious for inclusion in their collections. As Muslim scholars assert, and as Western scholars ought to agree, it is inappropriate to look at an entire doctrine through the lens of a single hadith, especially if that tradition is not in any of the canonical collections. The fact that the tradition directly contravenes a Qur’anic teaching should put the matter out of dispute: The notion that spiritual jihad is greater than physical jihad has no place in the foundations of Islam.

THE “SIXTH PILLAR” OF ISLAM

On the contrary, physical jihad was given such a place of prominence in the foundations of Islam that it has been honorifically referred to by some Muslim scholars as “the sixth pillar.” The Five Pillars of Islam are the minimum practices incumbent on all Muslims: proclaiming the shahada, reciting daily prayers, paying alms, fasting during Ramadan, and performing the pilgrimage to Mecca. However, in the canonical hadith collections, a great emphasis is also placed on the Muslim’s duty to participate in jihad. Perhaps this is why, even in the earliest categorized hadith collections, the sections on jihad usually followed immediately after the sections on the Five Pillars. These traditions, as we shall see ahead, seem to imply that fighting is a requisite duty of all who are able.

CONCLUSION

Though the word jihad literally means “struggle,” and the Qur’an at times uses it in a spiritual context, the primary use of the word has always implied a physical struggle for spiritual purposes. The doctrine of jihad has been developing from the time of the Qur’an until today, in the classical era being expounded to include a code of conduct with injunctions designed to preserve innocent lives and lesson collateral damage. These rules, however, have not always been enforced.

The portrayal of jihad as primarily a spiritual endeavor, often by referring to the tradition of the “greater jihad,” is inconsistent with the Qur’an, the canonical hadith collections, Islamic history, and classical Islamic hermeneutics. It is an argument that has little grounding in reality. On the contrary, the foundations of Islam consistently portray jihad as primarily a physical struggle, as will be explored in Question 4 next Friday.

Thanks for reading.

Please join me next Friday for Qureshi’s Question #4 – Is Jihad in the Qur’an and the Life of Muhammad? It is important for me to state that I do not support the religion of Islam ideologically or theologically. I am a Christian, who is a novice scholar of comparative religious study and an apologist. Indeed, Nabeel Qureshi is no longer a Muslim, having converted to Christianity after his exhausting study on the question of violence and jihad in Islam.

Answering Jihad: A Better Way Forward Question #2 – Is Islam a Religion of Peace?

answering jihad

This is the second in a 17-week series from Answering Jihad: A Better Way Forward by Nabeel Qureshi, author of Seeking Allah, Finding Jesus. Weeks one through sixteen will cover sixteen questions people most commonly ask Qureshi about jihad. These questions explore the origins of jihad, the nature of jihad today, and the phenomenon of jihad in Judeo-Christian context. After answering these questions, Qureshi will conclude by proposing a response to jihad, in his view the best way forward. His concluding remarks will be presented in week seventeen.

You can order the book from Amazon by clicking here.

QUESTION #2 – IS ISLAM A RELIGION OF PEACE?

Nabeel Qureshi writes, “Since I was born, I was taught by imams and my family that Islam is a religion of peace. What is surprising, in retrospect, is that this popular slogan may not have been around much earlier than that.”

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THE MEANING OF THE WORD ISLAM

Mark Durie, a research scholar of Linguistics and Islam at Melbourne School of Theology, informs us in an article for the Independent Journal, “Islam was first called the ‘religion of peace’ as late as 1930, in the title of a book published in India… The phrase was slow to take off, but by the 1970s it was appearing more and more frequently in the writings of Muslims for Western audiences.”

Whether or not one agrees that the slogan first appeared in the twentieth century, it is beyond dispute that the Qur’an never says, “Islam is the religion of peace,” nor do the traditions of Muhammad. This common misconception may stem from another, the oft-repeated assertion that the word Islam means “peace.” It does not. The Arabic word Islam means “surrender,” though it is related to the word for peace, which is salaam. Durie sheds light on the nature of the relationship and the origin of the word Islam: “The word Islam is based upon a military metaphor. Derived from aslama, ‘surrender,’ its primary meaning is to make oneself safe (salama) through surrender. In its original meaning, a Muslim was someone who surrendered in warfare.”

In an Islamic community, Muslims are taught that the “surrender” of Islam was a submission of one’s will and life to Allah, which Qureshi argues is noble and does not connote violence. But to contend that the word Islam signifies peace in the absence of violence is incorrect. Islam signifies a peace after violence, or under the threat of it. According to Islamic tradition, that is how Muhammad himself used the word. His warning to neighboring tribes is famous: Aslim taslam, which means, “If you surrender, you will have peace.” It was a play on words, as aslim also connotes becoming Muslim: “If you convert, you will have safety through surrender.”

So the word Islam refers to the peace that comes from surrender. Peaceful Muslim communities today present that imagery as a spiritual peace with Allah, but records of Muhammad’s life indicate that the notion of submission was also used in military contexts.

FROM ETYMOLOGY TO HISTORY

A more appropriate avenue for answering whether Islam is a religion of peace is the life and teachings of its prophet, Muhammad. The Qur’an and the traditions (hadith) of Islam’s prophet are far more definitive than the etymology of the word Islam. Qureshi plans a more in-depth discussion in Question #4, but suffice it to say for now that no one can honestly deny the presence of violence in both the Qur’an and the life of Muhammad. From the time Muhammad first obtained a following that could successfully fight, he launched raids and battles every year until he died. According to David Cook in Understanding Jihad, he commissioned or personally participated in eighty-six battles during that time, which is more than nine battles a year.

The Qur’an refers often to these campaigns, many times in approbation. For example, Chapter 8 of the Qur’an is about the Muslims’ first major battle, the Battle of Badr, and it teaches that Allah is the one who led the Muslims, that he compelled the Muslims to attack the Meccans, that he supplied them with angelic assistance, and that he was the one who slew the Meccans through the hands of the Muslims. There is no avoiding the presence and even the glorification of violence in this chapter, or elsewhere throughout Islam’s origins.

The battles of the early Muslim community seem to have escalated in a crescendo toward the end of Muhammad’s life, not halting with his death, but rather catapulting into global proportions. As soon as the prophet Muhammad died, there came the apostate wars, then the overthrow of Persia, and then the campaigns of Egypt and beyond. Within two centuries of the advent of Islam, Muslim conquests expanded Islamic territory from the shores of the Atlantic well into the valleys of India. At the end of that era, the most influential hadith collectors gathered whole books documenting Muhammad’s conduct and commands during times of warfare. Shortly after them, the great Islamic jurists systematically codified Sharia, Islamic law, devoting whole branches of jurisprudence to the proper practice of warfare.

For these reasons, no one can claim that “Islam is a religion of peace” in the sense that the religion has been historically devoid of violence, neither in its origins nor in the history of the global Muslim community. Apart from the first thirteen years of Islamic history, when there were not enough Muslims to fight, Islam has always had an elaborate practice or doctrine of war.

IN WHAT WAY MIGHT ISLAM BE A RELIGION OF PEACE?

Qureshi says, “In my experience, most Muslims who repeat this slogan have not critically considered the history of Islam. Those who have and [who] continue to say it mean it in one of two senses: a spiritual sense or an idealized sense.” In the spiritual sense, it is understood that Islam brings peace to a person through personal discipline, a right relationship with other Muslims, and submission toward the Creator, Allah. This sense of the slogan is irrelevant as a response to violent jihad.

In the idealized sense, it is generally meant that Islam brings peace to this world. Though battles have been fought, they were fought out of necessity. Ideally, the goal that Islam strives for is peace throughout the world. According to this sense, Islam can be a religion of peace despite the presence of war, so this sense of the slogan is also irrelevant as a response to violent jihad. (Some who espouse this view argue that the wars in the foundation of Islam were defensive endeavors, and argument that Qureshi will consider in Question #4.)

THE WEST AND THE RELIGION OF PEACE

Unfortunately, neither of these more viable and nuanced approaches appears to be in mind when Western media and Western leaders proclaim that Islam is a religion of peace. Rather, such proclamations appear to be little more than attempts to change public perception of Islam, albeit for a noble cause such as precluding retaliation against innocent Muslims. We often hear the loudest proclamations of Islam’s peacefulness in the wake of the most heinous jihadist violence. President George W. Bush called Islam peaceful after September 11. Prime Minister Tony Blair called Islam a peaceful religion after the July 7 London bombings. President François Hollande make the same proclamation after the Charlie Hebdo massacre. This regular juxtaposition of extreme Islamic violence with a strong insistence that Islam is a religion of peace is obviously jarring, and not just to Westerners.

The Syrian Sheikh Ramadan al-Buti, considered one of the most influential traditionalist Sunni scholars in the world today, saw an insistence on Islam’s peacefulness as an effort by the West to emasculate Islam. If Western leaders and Western media repeat it enough, perhaps Muslims themselves will begin to believe it. He asserted in The Jurisprudence of the Prophetic Biography that the West was seeking to “erase the notion of jihad from the minds of all Muslims.” In asserting this position, the sheikh showed characteristic Middle Eastern candor in his assessment of peace and violence in Islam. Tragically, he was himself killed by a suicide bomb in 2013.

CONCLUSION

Instead of seeking to redefine Islam, Qureshi believes we should consider more thoughtful and honest approaches. The question of whether Islam can be a religion of peace in spiritual or idealized senses ought to be considered, but the implication that Islam is a religion devoid of violence is simply false. The frequent proclamations by leaders and media members of Islam’s peacefulness may be well-intended, but more is needed than good intentions.

Instead, Qureshi says, “We must open our eyes and not allow ourselves to remain blind to evident facts in our attempts to either protect or sway Muslims. Though violence is writ large throughout the pages of Islamic history, including in its foundations, that does not mean our Muslim neighbors are violent. Muslims deserve to be treated with the kindness and respect due to all people.” In fact, their journeys may be leading many of them to confront Islam’s violence for the first time, as Qureshi’s journey once did, and they, too, may be approaching a critical three-pronged fork in the road.

Qureshi concludes, “May our eyes and our arms both be open to them.”

Please join me next Friday for Qureshi’s Question #3 – What is Jihad? It is important for me to state that I do not support the religion of Islam ideologically or theologically. I am a Christian, who is a novice scholar of comparative religious study and an apologist. Indeed, Nabeel Qureshi is no longer a Muslim, having converted to Christianity after his exhausting study on the question of violence and jihad in Islam.

God Calls Us to Service But We Make the Decision to Answer His Call

God gave Moses the dream of leading the children of Israel out of 400 years of slavery, but Moses had to make the decision to confront Pharaoh. God gave Noah the dream of saving the world from the flood, but Noah had to make the decision to build the ark. God gave Abraham the dream of building a new nation, but Abraham had to make the decision to leave everything he had and go out into the unknown. Just like these men, you will never realize God’s dream for your life until you come to the point of making a decision and stepping out in faith.

It is helpful to understand the call of God in three distinct ways.

First, there is the call to be a Christian. The God of creation invites us to respond to His love. This call comes through Jesus, who invites us to be His disciples and to know the Father through Him. To be Christian is to respond to this call to know and love God, and to love and serve others. It becomes, then, the fundamental fact of our lives; everything about us is understood in light of this call. Every aspect of our lives flows out and finds meaning in light of the fact that we are a called people. And the church – the Body of Christ – is made up of “called” ones.

Second, for each individual there is a specific call – a defining purpose or mission, a reason for being. Every individual is called of God to respond through service in the world. Each person has a unique calling in this second sense. We cannot understand this second meaning of call except in the light of the first. When we fulfill our specific vocation, we are living out the full implications of what it means to follow Jesus. Therefore, while we all have a general call to love God and neighbor, we each follow our Lord differently, for though He calls us all to follow Him, once we accept His call we are each honored with a unique call that is integrally a part of what it means to follow Him. The second experience of being called is derived from the first.

Third, there is the call that we face each day in response to the multiple demands on our lives – our immediate duties and responsibilities. The call to be reliable and trustworthy when my family needs me, or to volunteer during our church’s annual baseball and softball clinic as part of the meet-and-great team assigned to parents and grandparents of the kids enrolled in the clinic, or to respond to some specific need presented before me. These are my tasks – not in the sense of burdens, but as those things that are placed before me today by God. It may be nothing more complicated than helping my elderly neighbor put her groceries away. But that is what God has for me today. I would not speak of these as my vocation (which is closer to the second meaning of call), but they are nevertheless the duties and responsibilities God calls me to today.

Calling, or vocation, is much deeper and all-encompassing than career or occupation. Indeed, there are some who may not even begin to discover their vocation until after they have retired from a career. It is a sheer gift if we are able to fulfill our vocations through an occupation. But for many, a job is a means of supporting life and family; it is often a matter of getting whatever work might be available. We need to discern our vocations and then also discern how God is calling us, within the complexities and demands of this world, to fulfill these vocations. The pivotal issue is one of self-knowledge and of living out our lives in a way that is consistent with who we are, as individuals.

KNOW YOURSELF

The key to finding your specific calling is simply “know yourself.” This is implicit in what we read in Romans 12:3: “For through the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think more highly of himself than he ought to think; but to think so as to have sound judgment, as God has allotted to each a measure of faith.” (NASB) The Apostle Paul calls us to look at ourselves with “sound judgment.” God has granted grace to each of us, so we can take an honest, critical and discerning look at ourselves. Indeed, it is not an overstatement to observe that when it comes to answering the question What is God’s vocation on my life there are really two critical questions. The first: Who am I? And the second: Am I willing to live in humble acceptance of the call of God?

Make an appraisal of yourself – an honest assessment. Think of yourself in truth. Who are you? What makes you unique? How has God called you? We are not all the same. In fact, Paul compares the church to a body (Romans 12:4-5), with different gifts, differing contributions, differing abilities. Vocational identity is found in discerning who we are within this mix. What is the ability, the talent, the deep passion that God has given you? Where is it that God is calling you to make a difference for Him in the church and in the world? Consider and think of yourself with honesty; make a sound judgment.

If we seek to be anything other than who we are, we live a lie. To know ourselves and to be true to ourselves is to be true to how God has made us. How He has crafted our personalities. How He has given us ability and talent and passion. God will call us to serve Him in the church and in the world. But this calling will always be consistent with who we are, with who He has created us to be. A.W. Tozer calls this “living with freedom from pretense.” His comment captures it well, for in living truthfully we no longer live with a mask, a façade, but rather with a deep honesty about who we are and who God has created us to be. During a period of my rebellion and doubt, my favorite song was The Stranger by Billy Joel.

Well, we all have a face
That we hide away forever
And we take them out
And show ourselves when everyone has gone
Some are satin, some are steel
Some are silk and some are leather
They’re the faces of a stranger
But we’d love to try them on

I think that Billy Joel’s “stranger” is similar to what psychologist Carl Jung called the archetypal shadow self. The part we disown, usually because it is disapproved of by our family, our spouse, or society in general. Anything that contradicts our “public image” gets consigned to the shadow. Unfortunately, the shadow self contains enormous energy and alternate possibilities that we ignore at our own peril. We need to acknowledge the “disowned” parts of our personality and seek to heal our brokenness through Jesus Christ. If we don’t, the dissociated aspects of ourselves, like hungry dogs locked in the basement, can wreak havoc when released. We truly have no idea what can happen when we deny and continually suppress defects of character that need to be healed.

“IF I HAD MY DRUTHERS.”

Ask yourself, If I were able to only do or be one thing, what would it be? A follow-up question might be, What do I long for more than anything?  What brings me joy? It is important to get to the root of the matter. It is not what you imagine might bring you joy; it is seeking what fundamentally and actually brings joy. We cannot buy into the lie that more money or more prestige would do it. Such motivation is a distraction. When we get at what really matters to us, we get to the passion of our hearts. But the “instrumentality of our culture” distracts us from what really matters. Any many of the things that matter most defy measurement. It’s easy to yield to that which is doable and practical and popular. Worse yet, as I tended to consider recently, was my deciding how impractical it was to go to graduate school at sixty years of age and become an addictions counselor whose clientele will be exclusively sixteen to twenty-nine years old. Teens and young adults. This, however, is an area of great importance to me.

What matters to us reflects who we are and gives meaning to our lives. What matters is reflected in the life we live; it is reflected in the way we engage life, spend our money and our time. Here’s a thought: If we don’t have the time to do something, perhaps this is a sign that that particular thing does not matter to us. Really, what we need is to stop complaining about the economy, the limitations we are facing, the problems of our past, and begin to take responsibility for our actions (to be the cause rather than wallow in the effect).

Perhaps another way to get at the core of who we are is to get at what makes us angry. Anger is often dangerous terrain, of course, but I’m talking here about righteous indignation. Ephesians 4:26-27 says, “Be angry, and yet do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and do not give the devil an opportunity.” (NASB) This is the same type of anger displayed by Jesus when he threw the money changers out of the Temple. (See Matthew 21:12) When our anger is consistent with God’s view of the world, could it be that what matters to God matters to us? Could it be that by attending to what makes us angry we begin to get a read on what moves us? It’s been said that the antidote for exhaustion may not be rest but wholeheartedness. In other words, could it be that we are exhausted because we are not doing our true work?

What are your elemental waters? What is your core, the sense of who you are? David Whyte is an English poet whose poetry and philosophy is based on what he calls the conversational nature of reality. He has been quoted as saying, “One of the distinguishing features of any courageous human being is the ability to remain unutterably themselves in the midst of conforming pressures.” Whyte was essentially saying when in our work we are engaged with tasks or responsibilities that are deeply congruent with our fundamental self, we are in our “elemental waters.” When the young shepherd boy David refused the armor of the soldiers when he went to take on Goliath it was not so much that he wanted to trust in God and not in his own strength or capacities, though that was surely the disposition he brought to this encounter. Rather, he was not at home in that armor; he was at home in his shepherd gear and with a weapon he had mastered; not the sword but the sling.

WHERE DO YOU FEEL THE WORLD IS MOST FRAGMENTED?

Consider this question: Where do you feel and the operative word is feel – the deepest fragmentation of our world? Certainly, we each see the world’s needs differently. And our vocational identity is in some form or another aligned with how we each uniquely see the pain and brokenness of the world. Often we miss our vocation because our sense of the needs of the world is informed and shaped by the expectations of others. Sometimes preachers and public speakers outline the needs of the world in a way that is very compelling, and they describe these needs in such a way that they communicate that if we really care, then we will respond according to their expectations and evaluations. They assume that we should see the world as they see it. But the needs of our world are complex, and we need to be alert to how others use the word should.

If we are prepared to listen to our own hearts, we will recognize that we long to help and serve and make a difference just as much as they do. But it will be our own vision for a needy world – a vision informed by our own reading of the Scriptures, but also a vision sustained by the witness of the Holy Spirit to our hearts. So where do you see the brokenness of the world? What impresses you to the core of your heart and calls you to be or do something? When you are able to set aside ego gratification and ask honestly what you long to do to make a difference because you see the need – quite apart from any monetary return or honor that might come your way – what comes to mind?

CONCLUDING REMARKS

I have found that taking the steps I’ve outlined in this post helps to assure that my vocation will in some fundamental way be aligned to how I see the brokenness of the world. By taking what 12-step recovery calls a fearless and thorough moral inventory of myself, I have the opportunity to take stock of who I am. This includes the negatives and the positives on my “balance sheet.” As I look long and hard at my moral shortcomings, I am actually able to start fleshing out a plan of spiritual and emotional recovery. Such an inventory should be written down, because it becomes the first tangible proof you have that these issues are real, and that they must be addressed. Of course, this personal evaluation will also allow you to get acquainted with your talents, your skills, your passion for life. It allows you to answer the four basic questions I brought up earlier: What do you want most of all in life? What matters to you? Where do you feel most comfortable (your elemental waters)? What breaks your heart about the circumstances in the world today?

In John 17:4, Jesus says these remarkable words: “I have brought you glory on earth by finishing the work you gave me to do.” I want the same to be true for my life. I want to come to the end of my days and know that in God’s eyes I fulfilled my vocation. Work can be difficult. Especially when we consciously choose to embrace a life of addressing the evils and brokenness of this world. Jesus reminds us, however, that His yoke is easy, His burden is light. For a yoke to be easy, it means that it fits us. It is designed around the contours of who we are; it is congruent with the character, strengths, potential, and personality that we are before God. I believe our only hope for vocational clarity is that we come to terms with our own hearts – with what we individually believe is happening in the very core of our being.

Each of us has something that we feel is the very reason for which we have been designed, created, and redeemed. In the end, we embrace this call, this purpose, because this is who we are. In the end, there is something to which we say, “This I must do.” Now we are in the position to give up our lives for the sake of others. (See Matthew 16:25) We do it because we must. And we accept this as from God – as that which God has placed in our hearts. What drives us is the very conviction that God has placed there. This is what is meant by vocational integrity and personal congruence.

“God’s various gifts are handed out everywhere, but they all originate in God’s Spirit. God’s various ministries are carried out everywhere, but they all originate in God’s Spirit. God’s various expressions of power are in action everywhere, but God Himself is behind it all. Each person is given something to do that shows who God is. Everyone gets in on it, everyone benefits. All kinds of things are handed out by the Spirit, and to all kinds of people! The variety is wonderful: wise counsel, clear understanding, simple trust, healing the sick, miraculous acts, proclamation, distinguishing between spirits, tongues, interpretation of tongues. All these gifts have a common origin, but are handed out one-by-one, by the one Spirit of God. He decides who gets what, and when.” (1 Corinthians 12:4-11, The Message)

The Genesis Problem: The Methodological Atheism of Science

“There is no such thing as philosophy-free science. There is only science whose philosophical baggage is taken on board without examination.”
– Daniel Dennett, Darwin’s Dangerous Idea

YOU DECIDE TO SIT DOWN and examine science in order to come to a better understanding of the empirical world around you. This seems to be a sound proposition, yet there is a problem. The issue is not with modern science itself, but rather with a faulty view of science: The idea that science is a complete framework for understanding man and the universe, and that unscientific claims should be automatically rejected. Scientists naturally like to think of themselves as reasonable people, ready to follow the path of evidence no matter where it takes them. Carl Sagan’s boast is typical in this regard: “At the heart of science is … an openness to new ideas, no matter how bizarre or counter-intuitive.” Of course, we must also remember that virtually everyone comes to a subject matter already in possession of a particular bias or worldview. That’s fine. What is not okay is when an individual denies his or her biases or presuppositions, or, worse yet, is dishonest about them when presenting their findings.

Stephen Hawking explains why a large number of theorists were attracted to the steady state theory of the origin of the universe. Steady state theory posits that the universe is always expanding, but it is maintaining a constant average density, with matter being constantly created to form new stars and galaxies at the same rate that old ones become unobservable as a consequence of their increasing distance and velocity of receding. He said, “There were therefore a number of attempts to avoid the conclusion that there had been a big bang … Many people do not like the idea that time has a beginning, probably because it smacks of divine intervention.” For some time Hawking had given the impression that he is neither a strong believer nor disbeliever in a higher power, but in 2014 he told a symposium, “Before we understood science, it was natural to believe that God created the universe, but now science offers a more convincing explanation.” This is decidedly quite a reversal of opinion.

Astronomer and physicist Lee Smolin complained, “Must all of our scientific understanding of the world really come down to a [seemingly] mythological story in which nothing exists … save some disembodied intelligence, who, desiring to start a world, chooses the initial conditions and then wills matter into being?” Man must ultimately confront nature in order to develop a sense of who he is within nature itself. Indeed, by default one’s worldview will have an impact on how one defines nature. For example, Western societies do not generally confront nature with the same sense of respect. For us, the physical realm of “not man” is indifferent to man. In the Western Hemisphere, we believe nature exists for man to harness for his own purposes. We do not conform to the universe; rather, we seek to conform the universe to us and our needs. Phillips, Brown & Stonestreet. (2008) How we confront and interpret nature has a direct impact on understanding our place in it.

Today all evidence of God is a priori rejected by science. Even empirical evidence of the kind normally admissible in science is refused a hearing. It doesn’t matter how strong or reliable the evidence is, scientists acting in their professional capacity are obliged to ignore it. If you know anything about the history of the church, all of this may seem surprising, in view of how science developed out of the theological premises and institutions of Christianity. Copernicus, Kepler, Boyle, and others all saw a deep compatibility between science and religion. All believed in God. Today, however, scientists typically admit there is a specific orderliness to the universe and nature, but refuse to consider the source of that orderliness. Science has front-men like Stephen Hawking to attempt to convince everyone that the laws of physics and the language of genetics came from nothing.

Today’s atheists, Dawkins and the others, seem naively to believe they are the apostles of reason who are merely following the evidence. It is important to note that modern science seems to be based on an unwavering alliance to naturalism and materialism. Naturalism is the doctrine that nature is all there is. It is a philosophical viewpoint according to which everything arises from natural properties and causes. Supernatural or spiritual explanations are excluded or discounted. Materialism is the belief that nothing exists except matter and its movements and modifications. Material reality is the only reality. Of course these philosophical doctrines – naturalism and materialism – have never been proven. In fact, they cannot be proven because it is impossible to demonstrate that immaterial reality does not exist. Naturalism and materialism are not scientific conclusions; rather, they are scientific premises. They are not discovered in nature but imposed upon nature. In short, they are articles of faith.

Here’s something to ponder which was written by Richard Lewontin, geneticist and author of Billions and Billions of Demons:

“We take the side of science in spite of the patent absurdity of some of its constructs, in spite of its failure to fulfill many of its extravagant promises of health and life, in spite of the tolerance of the scientific community for unsubstantiated just-so stories, because we have a prior commitment – a commitment to materialism. It is not that the methods and institutions of science somehow compel us to accept a material explanation of the phenomenal world, but, on the contrary, that we are forced by our a priori commitment to material causes to create an apparatus of investigation and a set of concepts that produce material explanations, no matter how counter-intuitive, no matter how mystifying to the uninitiated. Moreover, that materialism is absolute, for we cannot allow a Divine Foot in the door.” [Emphasis added.]

The million-dollar question: Is science intrinsically atheistic? Well, yes. From a procedural or narrow sense, science is anti-God. And this is probably okay, because we don’t want scientists who run into difficulty proving their theories to get out of the dilemma simply by saying, “You know, I’m not going to investigate this any longer. I’m just going to put it down as a miracle.” Could you imagine what would happen to the “reputation” of miracles if we called everything we cannot understand a miracle? Moreover, there are many religious scientists who find no difficulty in working within the domain of procedural atheism while at the same time holding their religious beliefs. Biologist Francis Collins says that as a biologist he investigates natural explanations for the origin of life, while as a Christian he believes that there are also supernatural forces at work. Science is not the only way of knowing.

The more I read the works of today’s apologists and the counter-arguments of today’s atheists, the clearer it becomes to me that we are slowly uncovering scientific facts that speak loudly of the existence of a creative force in the universe. I see that reality goes much deeper than the scientific portrait of it. Many people regard scientific and religious claims as inherently contradictory simply because they are unwitting captives to a second type of atheism, which has been identified as philosophical atheism. The best way to define this term is the dogma that material and natural reality is all that exists. Everything else is illusory. Atheists of this persuasion, and this would include Richard Dawkins, pretend that because God cannot be discovered through science – which is a dubious claim anyway! – God cannot be discovered at all.

Here’s the thing about philosophical atheism: Only data that fit the theory are allowed into the theory. By contrast, the theist is much more open-minded and reasonable. The theist does not deny the validity of scientific reasoning. Again, we have only to look to the great scientists who were Christians. The theist is entirely willing to acknowledge material and natural causes for events. After all, it is God who put the laws of physics in motion when He created the universe. I am of the firm belief that physic did not exist before the universe existed, therefore physics cannot be used to explain how the universe came into being. (Consider, for example, the first law of thermodynamics.) However, the theist also admits the possibility of other types of knowledge

Let me take a moment to point out something very few have focused on in arguing that God simply cannot exist because the explanation of a supreme deity is far too simple to be true. They claim belief in God cannot explain the complex theory of evolution. Richard Dawkins, in his seminal book The God Delusion, faults theologian Richard Swinburne’s concept that examination of electrons shows God’s hand in all of creation, and His ongoing sustenance of all that exists. Swinburne said billions and billions of electrons, all with the same properties, all working together in perfect symmetry, is too much of a coincidence. Dawkins states, “But how can Swinburne possibly maintain that this hypothesis of God simultaneously keeping a gazillion fingers on wayward electrons is a simple hypothesis? It is, of course, precisely the opposite of simple. Swinburne pulls off the trick to his own satisfaction by a breathtaking piece of intellectual chutzpah. He asserts, without justification, that God is only a single substance. What brilliant economy of explanatory causes, compared with all those gigazillions of independent electrons all just happening to be the same!”

First of all, Dawkins and many others continue to quote statements made decades, and sometimes centuries, ago in support of their attack on theists, and do not include remarks that indicate how far science and religion have come as partners in discovering the origin of life. For example, some modern theorists see randomness as a genuine design feature, and not just as a physicalist gloss. Their challenge is to explain how divine providence is compatible with genuine randomness. (Under a deistic view, one could simply say that God started the universe off and did not interfere with how it went, but that option is not open to the theist, and most authors in the field of science and religion are theists, rather than deists.)

Elizabeth Johnson (1996), using a Thomistic view of divine action, argues that divine providence and true randomness are compatible: God gives creatures true causal powers, thus making creation more excellent than if they lacked such powers, and random occurrences are also secondary causes; chance is a form of divine creativity that creates novelty, variety, and freedom. One implication of this view is that God may be a risk taker – although, if God has a providential plan for possible outcomes, there is unpredictability but not risk. Johnson uses metaphors of risk-taking that, on the whole, leave the creator in a position of control (creation, then, is like jazz improvisation), but it is, to her, a risk nonetheless. Why would God take risks? There are several solutions to this question. The free will theodicy says that a creation that exhibits randomness can be truly free and autonomous:

Authentic love requires freedom, not manipulation. Such freedom is best supplied by the open contingency of evolution, and not by strings of divine direction attached to every living creature. (Miller 1999/2007: 289)

What’s fascinating to me is that none of these cherished atheist theories can account for the origin of life, the origin of consciousness, or the origin of human rationality and morality. Any theory that cannot account for these landmark stages can hardly claim to have solved the problem of origins, either of life or of the universe. The universe could not have evolved solely through natural selection, as the universe makes up the whole of nature. Someone made the universe and prescribed the laws that govern its operations. There are innumerable life forms in the universe. These life forms are the product of evolution (natural selection), and Darwin and his successors have elegantly elucidated how the selection process occurred. Of this I have no doubt. Accordingly, I am not a hardcore young earth creationist. But evolution has no explanation for the origin of the universe or its laws. So how can evolution undercut the argument from design as it applies to the universe itself and the laws that govern it?

Simple. Scientific truth is not the entire truth.

REFERENCES

Dawkins, R. (2008). The God Delusion. New York, NY: Mariner Books
DeCruz, H. (2017). “Religion and Science.” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Science. (Spring 2017 Edition). URL: https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2017/entries/religion-science/
D’Souza, D. (2007). What’s So Great About Christianity? Carol Stream, IL: Tyndall Press
Phillips, W., Brown, W. and Stonestreet, J. (2008). Making Sense of Your World: A Biblical Worldview. Salem, WI: Sheffield Publishing Company