Tag Archives: Truth

What is Truth?

Русский: "Что есть истина?". Христос...
Pilate asks Christ, "What is truth?" Image via Wikipedia

I  have heard this question more than once in my life, but every time I hear it I think of Pontius Pilate asking Jesus this question. This scene is quite instructive. It puts the emphasis right where it belongs, and it demonstrates the problem we all face every day. What is truth? To paraphrase Bill Clinton, it all depends on what the meaning of ‘truth’ is.

Truth. We think that when we hear something that accords with the facts as we know them, we have heard the truth. When I ask my child if he took a cookie out of my cookie jar, knowing that a cookie is missing, and knowing that nobody is in the house except me and my child, I think the child is not telling truth if he says he did not take the cookie. I know the facts, and I know he is the only person who could have taken the cookie. I feel that I know the truth, and he did not speak the truth. To know truth in that setting seems very easy. It is not so easy in other situations. If I want to live my Christian faith in a culture that is at best indifferent and at worst actively hostile to Christian teaching, I will discover that there is no such thing as ‘the simple truth.’

Bill Clinton’s answer about the meaning of ‘is’ actually does illustrate an important factor in truth-telling. Words have meanings. For any word in the language, there is at least one dictionary definition. There is a cloud of connotation, interpretations and relationships that color my understanding of the word when I see or hear it. Most of us know to look in dictionaries and thesauruses for enlightenment on this sort of understanding of a word. Yet even these perspectives do not provide the whole story on words. Words that come to be used in daily speech because of their common use in some current political issue take on meanings that can only be described as political. The same thing is true with religious beliefs and practices. Christians who use the word ‘prayer’ almost certainly mean something different than a Buddhist might mean when using the same word. Because of all the usages and relationships a word may have, it is quite difficult at times to know if someone is telling the truth. We might well ask “What is truth?”

This problem is well-developed and clearly exemplified in the current political conversation about what our political leadership calls ‘contraception.’ The set of all political speech about ‘contraception’ has intersected with the set of all political speech about ‘the free exercise’ clause in the First Amendment and with the set of all political speech about ‘religion.’

The conversation is about the ‘truth’ about contraception, the ‘truth’ about free exercise of religion, and ‘the truth’ religion itself.

I will start by saying that I would never have taken any contraceptive medications if I had known that they did not prevent conception from occurring. Is that not the natural assumption when you hear the word ‘contraception?’ Yet the medications that are labeled ‘contraceptives’ actually do not prevent conception. Despite the fact that the drugs are designed to prevent ovulation, they actually do not reliably achieve that goal. Studies have found that the medications sold to prevent ovulation, and thereby to prevent pregnancy, successfully prevent ovulation between 40% and 70% of the time. If ovulation is not prevented, sexual intercourse can result in the fertilization of an egg. The moment of fertilization, the moment of conception, is the moment a baby first exists. If an egg is fertilized, a living human being is created. Medications that do not prevent fertilization may still prevent implantation, but if a living human being exists, then a failure to implant becomes an abortion. Contraceptive medications and devices cannot be relied upon to prevent conception. This is the first lie – the first challenge in our search for truth. The word ‘contraceptive’ was chosen as the label for the medications in order to lead people to conclude that these medicines prevent conception – ‘contra’ means ‘against’ and ‘ception’ means ‘conception.’ Women have been taking these medications for more than fifty years, and it is reasonable to assume that the vast majority of them, like me, assumed that when they took those medicines they would not conceive a baby. The truth is that contraceptives do not prevent conception.

The first lie has led to a second one. After pharmaceutical companies recognized that conception could still occur despite the fact that a woman faithfully took the medicine as prescribed, they were made aware that some women were quite sensitive to the life-threatening situation that existed if conception had taken place but the resulting embryo could not implant due to the second effect of the medications – the thinning of the uterine wall. The drugs in the ‘contraceptive’ medications caused the uterine wall not to thicken and become ready for the implantation of an embryo. Embryos which came into being due to the failure of the drug to prevent ovulation might very well be aborted due to the success of the drug in preventing implantation. Using this situation as an opportunity, the drug companies redefined the word, ‘conception.’ They defined ‘conception’ as what occurs when an embryo successfully implants in the uterine wall. The embryos that fail to implant have not, by that definition, been conceived. Contraceptives, by this definition, do prevent conception, and the companies can safely continue to use the label ‘contraceptive.’ This statement, too, is a misstatement, due to the fact that some embryos do, in fact, implant despite the use of contraceptives. Contraceptive drugs do not reliably prevent conception, the formation of an embryo, and they do not reliably prevent pregnancy, either, the implantation of an embryo in the uterine wall.

You can read the details of this information at http://www.prolife.com/BIRTHCNT.html where the research is documented with resource listings where you can dig as deep as you like into the research.

All this verbiage is clearly a way of masking, if not completely hiding, truth. At what moment do the sperm and egg change from being zygotes to an embryo? They change at the moment that a fertilized egg contains the DNA that codes for a complete human being. As soon as this happens, the fertilized egg is an embryo, the first cell of a complete human being. I have been involved in discussions in which some participants questioned if a fertilized egg were even alive. Some questioned if the embryo were even alive when it failed to implant. I defer to the scientist called The Father of Modern Genetics, Jerome Lejeune, who said, “Each of us has a very precise starting moment which is the time at which the whole necessary and sufficient genetic information is gathered inside one cell, the fertilized egg, and this is the moment of fertilization.” From that moment forward, a human being is growing, a process which continues until that human dies. If that human is unable to implant in the uterine wall of the mother that human will die. The death is not the end of “it.” The death is the death of him or her. The embryo has gender, among all the many other traits of a human being.

Contraceptives do, in fact, produce abortions when they prevent the implantation of an embryo, conceived because they failed to prevent conception, the process implicit in the label of the drugs – contraceptive.

None of this matters if a person chooses to believe that an embryo is not a human being, or that a fetus is not a human being, or that a newborn baby is not a human being. There is no way to deny that an embryo is living, because only living cells grow and divide. However, in order to get past that truth, the argument has now devolved into an argument about when the living cells become human. Unlike Dr. Lejeune, who considered the fertilized egg a human being, people who find babies inconvenient have devised any number of new definitions that diminish the humanity of a baby sufficiently to fool people into a willingness to kill them. Last week I saw the first suggestion that people ought to be allowed to kill newborns they don’t like. I am shocked by this suggestion, but not surprised. If the embryo is not human, and if the implanted fetus is not human, when exactly does that ‘product of conception’ (another semantic word game) become human? What is the truth?

All my concern with definitions and truth is rooted in exactly the same issue which has led the Catholic Bishops refuse to comply with the President’s edict. They contend that the conception of a baby is an act of God’s will that human beings must not tamper with. They believe God has the right and the authority to decide who lives and dies. They believe that human beings should not try to usurp God’s will by interfering with the creation and birth of human beings. Whether you agree with them or not, the point is that this conviction about the will of God and the right of a human being to live is a conviction rooted in their faith. It isn’t a personal principle; it is a religious conviction. Just as Jews believe they must mourn their sins on the Day of Atonement, Catholics believe they must not interfere with God’s work of creation in the act of human procreation. Catholics believe that the only godly method of birth control is abstinence. They do not support contraception, and they would not support it if it did prevent conception. They reject contraception, abortion and sterilization, considering them to be sins against God. For the federal government to compel them to pay for and distribute and provide and counsel contraception, abortion and sterilization is to attempt to compel them to deny their faith and commit sin against God. If any Christian, or Hindu, or Muslim or Baha’i ignores this problem because this conviction is not holy to him or her, be careful. What will you do when they come for you?

The second set of speech in this search for truth is the set of speech related to the concept generally labeled ‘freedom of religion.’ The First Amendment to the Constitution states that Congress may not “make a law … prohibiting the free exercise of [religion].” In 2010 Congress passed a law more than 2000 pages long, and it is reasonable to assume that nobody who voted for it envisioned it as a law that might breach the protections of the First Amendment. However, the law gives extraordinary powers to the Secretary of Health and Human Services, who ruled that an exemption from certain requirements of the law would be available only to worship entities, the entities we all call ‘churches.’ Only churches could opt out of the requirement to pay the premium for coverage of services designated as preventive services that included contraceptive medications, sterilizations and abortifacient drugs such as the medication commonly called ‘the morning after pill.’ The Secretary acknowledged that there might be churches whose ethical teachings prohibited them from even encouraging the use of such services, but the Secretary drew the line at houses of worship. She dismissed the idea that schools, hospitals and charitable services founded and operated by the churches had any right to the exemption. Churches one and all found such institutions as an outgrowth of their obedience to God to love and serve their neighbors. They consider the institutions acts of ministry. This ruling raised a huge outcry, and the President subsequently announced an accommodation that would force insurance companies to pay the costs being rejected by the institutions, but that accommodation was also rejected. In the end, the original ruling was published in the Federal register, and that is where things stand today.

What is the truth about the definition of the phrase ‘free exercise of [religion]?’ (I bracket the word ‘religion’ because the amendment itself has the term ‘thereof’ which refers backward to the word ‘religion in a prior phrase.) What exactly constitutes ‘free exercise’ for purposes of applying the First Amendment protections? It is a question which would never have come up in a culture where the dominant life patterns of the people were permeated with Christian teaching. People just assumed that if a school or a hospital was started by a church, everything the church taught was embodied in that institution. In fact, if the institution did allow anything contrary to church teaching, people were shocked, even dismayed. It seemed as if some very fundamental truth had been violated. Yet today, the President has invented a separation between churches and the ministries of churches. He says the reason is that the institutions serve many people who are not ‘coreligionists’ of the churches, and that many employees of the institutions are also not ‘coreligionists’ of the churches. Because the population employed and served by the institutions is not confined to ‘coreligionists’ the President has declared that exemption of the institution from certain requirements of the healthcare law by reason of conscience does not apply. Many, many citizens think this declaration is nonsense, but our culture that is no longer dominated by Christian teaching includes many very vocal citizens who think this decision is very good.

What is the truth? Is an institution founded and operated by a church an extension of the church or a completely separate entity from the parent church whose ethical standards may not be imposed on the institution?

Which leads to the third set – political language about religion. The usage of the term ‘religion’ is much murkier than you might think at first glance. Several years ago I read an article about bookstores in which I learned that, at the time, the most popular subject in the store, after ‘self-help’ category was ‘Buddhism.’ The reason? Customers said they liked to read about Buddhism because it wasn’t a religion; it was a way of life. Christians rebut that image, saying that for them, the way they live is the substance of their religion, but many non-Christian citizens do not see it that way. It is a subject for some other post to explore why people feel this way, but the fact is that they do. In the political discussion under way, many people, including the President, believe that Christianity is what happens in churches while what happens in hospitals and schools is something else, no different from the humanist concept of charity. It will take a Supreme Court case to sort out the issue, maybe more than one, but the fact is that it is not the simple truth we might think it is. What is truth? How is a Christian to respond to this issue while remaining true to his faith?

What I see is that living our faith openly has become a minefield. If religion is what happens in churches and if religion may not legally be expressed in public, then we have serious challenges ahead of us. I don’t think we have quite reached that place. Yet I find the whole confrontation between the President and the Catholic bishops very disturbing. I think this situation, along with the language around contraception, abortion and sterilization will require all of us to pray and think and be alert.

The followers of Christ in the first and second centuries would think we are timid cowards. They knew real persecution. They were imprisoned and tortured and thrown into battle with animals and gladiators. Their property was confiscated. They had to meet in secret and dared not even speak the name of Christ in the hearing of a non-believer. Not all the threats were legal. As in any culture, the legal climate set the stage for private vendettas against Christians. The current legal battle over the freedom of the church institutions to express the same religious principles as the parent churches creates a climate that some individuals view as a green light to disparage and belittle Christianity and Christians in general. I will write more in future posts about the way we live in such a climate. For now, I simply repeat my opening question: what is truth? Jesus said that when we knew the truth about him, that truth would set us free. The current political ‘truths’ are the sort of lies we need to be free from, but do not imagine that our freedom is a license to abandon our wits. Jesus also said that we need to be as wise as serpents, and as harmless as doves. We may have thought for two hundred years that our country was a place where Christian faith expression would never be threatened. We are discovering that it is possible to twist the language, to pervert ‘truth,’ in such a way that the government and the culture can attempt to suppress free faith expression under the guise that our First Amendment freedom means something it never used to mean. We must love everyone who is twisting the language and perverting the truth. We must wisely act in defense of our freedoms as long as it is possible to do so. We must pray for God’s will to be done, and we must pray to be ready for whatever comes.

What is truth? We are about to find out.

 

The Truth in all its Splendor

 The more I read Psalm 19, the more I love it. This psalm is like a layered sauce for shrimp and pasta. Each layer has been reduced to its flavorful essence, and there are so many flavors that it is impossible to appreciate each one individually.

Psalm 19 begins with a lavish statement of the way creation testifies to God’s work and ongoing sovereignty. Pointing out that created things have no voice in the sense of a sound we can hear, the psalmist says, as translated in The Message, “Their silence fills the earth: unspoken truth is spoken everywhere.” (Psalm 19:4) This statement feels like a Hubble photograph. It responds to my hunger for truth. The world around me suffers from a massive truth deficit, but all of creation speaks truth that fills and comforts my heart. To hear these words is to be built up in faith that God has a purpose for all things, and his purposes do not fail.

The heart of the psalm is a master statement of the way God’s law testifies to the same truth which creation speaks without words. God’s law is perfect, sure, right, clear, pure and true. There really is order behind the chaos I encounter everywhere. Like a painter’s palette of many colors, the psalmist’s word palette names God’s law as the facets of a jewel – law, decree, precept, commandment, fear, ordinance. God’s truth does not vary with passing events. Rather, it is like a precious stone that I might hold  in my hand turning it this way and that to catch the light and see the light transformed by passing through the jewel.

In case I don’t really absorb the value of God’s law, the psalmist explains what will happen if I make the law a part of myself. If I absorb it into my spirit, it will make me feel alive, it will make me look wise even if I am not smart, it will make me happy with a happiness that cannot be crushed, it will give me insight into reality, it is never out of date, and best of all, it is the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. Using God’s personal name, the name God gave to Moses to emphasize his eternal presence with Israel, the psalmist makes the revelation of the law intimate and vibrant, just for me.

In sum, the psalmist says, God’s revelation of himself is so rich and so valuable that it is better than the finest gold or the sweetest honey. Maybe I don’t think so highly of honey as the psalmist, but I do know that when Israel left Egypt bound for the Promised Land, they called it the land of milk and honey. My hunger for truth makes me yearn for God the way I might yearn for food. The psalmist expresses delight in God’s revelation of himself in creation and in the law the way I might delight in a richly complex sauce over shrimp and pasta.

There is only one legitimate response to such a revelation. I bow my head in worship and prayer. God has given me the priceless treasure of himself, wordless truth in creation, words of truth in his law. With the psalmist, I ask nothing more than to speak and think truth in all things as my creator does.

If you don’t have a Bible handy, here is a copy of the Psalm

Psalm 19

1      The heavens are telling the glory of God;

and the firmament proclaims his handiwork.

2     Day to day pours forth speech,

and night to night declares knowledge.

3     There is no speech, nor are there words;

their voice is not heard;

4     yet their voice goes out through all the earth,

and their words to the end of the world.

In the heavens he has set a tent for the sun,

5     which comes out like a bridegroom from his wedding canopy,

and like a strong man runs its course with joy.

6     Its rising is from the end of the heavens,

and its circuit to the end of them;

and nothing is hid from its heat.

7     The law of the Lord is perfect,

reviving the soul;

the decrees of the Lord are sure,

making wise the simple;

8     the precepts of the Lord are right,

rejoicing the heart;

the commandment of the Lord is clear,

enlightening the eyes;

9     the fear of the Lord is pure,

enduring forever;

the ordinances of the Lord are true

and righteous altogether.

10    More to be desired are they than gold,

even much fine gold;

sweeter also than honey,

and drippings of the honeycomb.

11    Moreover by them is your servant warned;

in keeping them there is great reward.

12    But who can detect their errors?

Clear me from hidden faults.

13    Keep back your servant also from the insolent;

do not let them have dominion over me.

Then I shall be blameless,

and innocent of great transgression.

14    Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart

be acceptable to you,

O Lord, my rock and my redeemer.

Truth in all its Splendor

The more I read Psalm 19, the more I love it. This psalm is like a layered sauce for shrimp and pasta. Each layer has been reduced to its flavorful essence, and there are so many flavors that it is impossible to appreciate each one.

Psalm 19 begins with a lavish statement of the way creation testifies to God’s work and ongoing sovereignty. Pointing out that created things have no voice in the sense of a sound we can hear, the psalmist says, as translated in The Message, “Their silence fills the earth: unspoken truth is spoken everywhere.” (Psalm 19:4) This statement feels like a Hubble photograph. It responds to my hunger for truth. The world around me suffers from a massive truth deficit, but all of creation speaks truth that fills and comforts my heart. To hear these words is to be built up in faith that God has a purpose for all things, and his purposes do not fail.

The heart of the psalm is a master statement of the way God’s law testifies to the same truth which creation speaks without words. God’s law is perfect, sure, right, clear, pure and true. There really is order behind the chaos I encounter everywhere. Like a painter’s palette of many colors, the psalmist’s word palette names God’s law as the facets of a jewel – law, decree, precept, commandment, fear, ordinance. I feel as if I hold this treasure in my hand turning it this way and that to catch the light the way I might view a beautiful diamond ring.

In case I don’t really absorb the value of God’s law, the psalmist explains what will happen if I make the law a part of myself. If I absorb it into my spirit, it will make me feel alive, it will make me look wise even if I am not smart, it will make me happy with a happiness that cannot be crushed, it will give me insight into reality, it is never out of date, and best of all, it is the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. Using God’s personal name, the name God gave to Moses to emphasize his eternal presence with Israel, the psalmist makes the revelation of the law intimate and vibrant, just for me.

In sum, the psalmist says, God’s revelation of himself is so rich and so valuable that it is better than the finest gold or the sweetest honey. Maybe I don’t think so highly of honey as the psalmist, but I do know that when Israel left Egypt bound for the Promised Land, they called it the land of milk and honey. As far as the psalmist is concerned, the law is a real treasure.

There is only one legitimate response to such a revelation. I bow my head in worship and prayer. God has given me the priceless treasure of himself, wordless truth in creation, words of truth in his law. With the psalmist, I ask nothing more than to speak and think truth in all things as my creator does.

If you don’t have a Bible handy, here is a copy of the Psalm

Psalm 19

1      The heavens are telling the glory of God;

and the firmament proclaims his handiwork.

2     Day to day pours forth speech,

and night to night declares knowledge.

3     There is no speech, nor are there words;

their voice is not heard;

4     yet their voice goes out through all the earth,

and their words to the end of the world.

In the heavens he has set a tent for the sun,

5     which comes out like a bridegroom from his wedding canopy,

and like a strong man runs its course with joy.

6     Its rising is from the end of the heavens,

and its circuit to the end of them;

and nothing is hid from its heat.

7     The law of the Lord is perfect,

reviving the soul;

the decrees of the Lord are sure,

making wise the simple;

8     the precepts of the Lord are right,

rejoicing the heart;

the commandment of the Lord is clear,

enlightening the eyes;

9     the fear of the Lord is pure,

enduring forever;

the ordinances of the Lord are true

and righteous altogether.

10    More to be desired are they than gold,

even much fine gold;

sweeter also than honey,

and drippings of the honeycomb.

11    Moreover by them is your servant warned;

in keeping them there is great reward.

12    But who can detect their errors?

Clear me from hidden faults.

13    Keep back your servant also from the insolent;

do not let them have dominion over me.

Then I shall be blameless,

and innocent of great transgression.

14    Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart

be acceptable to you,

O Lord, my rock and my redeemer.

When is Truth not Absolute?

One of the confusing aspects of life for me is the discovery that some people believe that truth is not an absolute. I really have a problem with this attitude. I experience the problem in two specific realms: politics and religion.

In politics, the issue arises most often around the Constitution.

In religion, it arises around the Bible.

Very often, I feel as if all the foundations of life as I know it have been shaken and shattered and moved the way an earthquake shattered San Francisco in 1906. People try to tell me that the language of the Constitution does not mean what the plain sense of the words mean. Pastors try to tell me that the Bible does not necessarily mean what the plain sense of the words mean, either. In this regard, political and religious leaders tell me that what they call “truth” is evolving. The Constitution is a “living” document the meaning of which must evolve with social change. The Bible is a “living” document, and in thirty years, things we think are “sin” today won’t be sin any more.

I won’t try to address the concept of biological evolution here, but I will point out that the idea of such a thing is so appealing that the word has taken over the discussion of ideas. Some day I will have nothing better to do than count how many times the word “evolution” and its variants appear in conversation and writing in a single day, but for now I will content myself with observing that I hear this word constantly. The idea that anything and everything evolves is quite handy.

In politics, an evolving Constitution solves two problems:

  1. 1.      You need not struggle with the language of a new amendment, because an evolving Constitution allows you to appropriate any words you like and identify how their meanings have evolved as a result of cultural changes.
  2. 2.      You need not wait for the process of approval and ratification to start reaping the benefits of rights and services and powers that don’t seem to be evident in the “old” language of the Constitution.

 

In the world of religion things work out in a very similar fashion. The Bible was written thousands of years ago in languages nobody speaks any more. (People speak descendant languages, but let’s face it, French is a descendant of Latin, which does not mean that French speakers are fluent in conversational Latin.) The Bible asserts rules and regulations that nobody obeys. Furthermore, churches are shrinking as people increasingly declare the Bible and everything related to it irrelevant to modern life. If God meant the Bible to be our holy book for all ages, many ask if it doesn’t make sense that its language be reinterpreted in the light of our evolved understanding. A lot of things called “sin” in the Bible don’t look like sin to us, so surely God meant the Bible to evolve right along with us. To say that allows us to invite people to come back and hear messages that won’t grate on their nerves as much as the one about putting God above everything else.

Don’t think that I equate the Bible and the US Constitution. I don’t. The Bible is inspired and preserved by God himself. The US Constitution is the work of human beings. Most of those individuals lived in relationship with God and felt that God guided their work, but nothing about the Constitution is God’s revelation. Nevertheless, the Constitution shapes our nation the way the Bible shapes my faith.

The best way to describe how I feel is to say that I feel homeless. If my personal dwelling had been razed by an earthquake, I couldn’t feel more thoroughly homeless. I don’t know about everyone else, but I need some certainties. For example, I like being able to rely on gravity. I like knowing that what goes up must come down. I like knowing that even if I travel to Mars or leave the solar system, gravity will still work the same way, and the changes I see in the behavior of things is mandated by the fact that gravity is still working the way it always did.

Some things really are absolute. Some truth should not be changed, just because it comes to seem inconvenient. History reveals that the issues in the Bible and the Constitution that people keep trying to declare changed by evolution are the same issues that were problems in ancient times and during the Constitutional Convention. There is one extremely certain absolute: people in all times are the same. The most ancient documents ever found record that people are people no matter when you encounter them.

One of the problems with evolving truth is its impact on never-changing human realities. For example, human beings have always had problems coping with life and death. Since the beginning of time, humans have tried to usurp God’s sovereignty over life and death, because they want to control life and death for their own benefit. In human eyes, some lives need to be extended, while others are inconvenient and not cost-effective. Likewise, every human wants to be king, and history from the beginning of time records all the ways that desire can be perverted. People like Napoleon Bonaparte or Fidel Castro put on the act of helping others, but unless some power prevents it, they become destructive autocrats. The Bible is a repository of absolute truth about the meaning of life and death. The US Constitution is a guide for one of the most successful methods of protecting every person’s liberty while assuring order in society. To tinker with the meaning of the words of either the Bible or the Constitution is like punching holes in the bottom of a sailboat in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean.

If you doubt that, ask the captain of the Costa Concordia. I am pretty sure that he wishes that a certain rock had not been in its absolute location last week. He would, no doubt, have preferred to be able to redefine that rock after the collision and thereby undo what was personally undesirable about its location. The wreck of the Costa Concordia is an example of what happens when wishful thinking collides with absolute truth.

Spirituality is not the same thing as Discipleship

A couple of years ago I located a great site for writers and joined right away. The site is full of energetic and talented writers whom I admire very much. I learn a lot from them about the craft of writing. I have learned to be very careful about absorbing other ideas from them. I feel called by God to write and share what I learn about the Christian faith. I can learn things about the craft of writing from any good writer. I need to be more discriminating about learning anything else.

I have discovered that, like me, most writers feel that writing is an extension of their lives. To write is to engage in a conversation about the things that shape my life, or the actions that grow out of the shape of my life. Writing and living are tightly intertwined. Having grown up in rural communities and lived most of my life around people not considered sophisticated by urban dwellers, I found some of the life stories told on the writers’ site startling to say the least. I felt an inner warning to filter what I read before absorbing it as fact.

I soon discovered that many writers consider themselves to be spiritual. There are so many, in fact, that my well-loved writing site has a whole group of writers who gather together on the subject of spirituality. When I found the group, I was immediately attracted by its name. I clicked the “join” button and began to get acquainted.

It was a real shock. Not for the first time I was educated to understand that my perception of the definition of a term is not necessarily its actual meaning. Most importantly, my perception of the meaning of “spirituality” was completely different from the perceptions of 99% of the members of the group. I joined the group in the expectation that the other members shared my idea of growing in spirituality. I could not have been more wrong.

For most of my life, I have used the term “spiritual” to mean anything related to the Holy Spirit, or to my relationship with the Holy Spirit, or to my growth in the disciplines and practices of my faith in Christ. The writing group uses the term to mean whatever is not of the material world. Members belong to many different religions or to no religion at all, yet their common bond is a belief that the world we live in is not exclusively made up of physical matter. I share that understanding, but little else. Some members believe that “the universe” is a spiritual force they can relate to. Some believe in ancient gods I thought had been abandoned centuries ago. Some believe in something ephemeral and immaterial that they relate to in terms like hope and faith and luck. I encountered a couple of group members who were Christians, but like me, they felt no common bond with the majority of the members. I left the group after a few weeks, and I imagine they did, too.

This experience should not have shocked me that much. I should have been prepared for this. After I had made this mistake, I looked around and realized that the world is full of people teaching “spirituality” which is wrapped in more beautiful imagery than Halloween, but which is otherwise not a lot different from the masquerade of that October holiday. Spirituality is a popular theme on talk shows like “Oprah,” but it is nothing like what I mean when I talk about spirituality in the context of my Christian faith.

There are a lot of words floating around in our daily lives which are wrapped in spiritual imagery, and often those words delude us into believing that they are Christian words of inspiration, motivation and faith. Many, many of those words have nothing to do with Christianity, nothing to do with God, or Christ or the Holy Spirit. Many of the words and images lure us away from faith into behavior as pagan as Moloch or Baal ever was.

For example, you have no doubt received a “prayer” in your email inbox that concluded with a statement similar to this: “Forward this prayer to ten people, including me, and something magnificent will happen to you at 10PM this evening. Don’t break the chain, or you will be sorry.” The first time I received one of those prayers, I was upset. It reminded of chain letters I used to receive in snail mail, threatening me with being responsible for dire things happening to the person who sent it if I failed to forward it to ten more people. Those old letters made me angry, and these “chain” prayers make me angry, too. They are not prayers; a better word would be incantations. This kind of prayer is not so much a blessing as a curse. In fact, I feel that the sender has tried to enslave me as surely as he or she tried to enslave God, as if either or both of us might be a little genie in a bottle, compelled to do the bidding of the one who opened the lid.

Prayer to Almighty God in the name of Christ does not work the way those chain prayers allege to work. Prayer is not about compelling God to do anything, and it is not about calling down bad luck on people who do not participate.

There is a lot of “spirituality” in the world around us that could easily lure us away from the truth. We won’t find God’s truth in chain prayers on the internet. When we do get confused by chain prayers or any other “spiritual” words in the news or on television or in our inboxes, we must remember that we cannot listen to every spirit that competes for our attention. There is one who always speaks truth, and that One is the indwelling Holy Spirit. We need to study the Bible under the guidance of the Holy Spirit to know how to distinguish truth from lies.

Many people who claim to be spiritual but not Christian are good people by humanist standards. They are kind. They don’t steal. They help others and pay their taxes and would not hurt a fly, let alone a human being. We can enjoy them as neigbors and friends. However, people who do not know Christ cannot guide us into all truth; only the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Truth can do that. We need to be careful who we listen to.