Tag Archive | God

God & the Dentist

Courtesy of jesus-withyoualways.com

Courtesy of jesus-withyoualways.com

Below is, as it is with all opinion posts, an outline of my opinion on a particular topic.  Please feel free to disagree or to challenge my views, but please also take the care to read all of what I have written.  It is my sincere intention to be a loving, gracious, humble and devout follower of Jesus.  Please forgive me when I fail at this.

Today a couple of minister friends of mine shared the same link on Facebook with the heading, ‘Dentist Says God Doesn’t Exist – Watch What His Patient Says…’  Normally I tend away from these sort of links (my criticisms in this post will probably reveal why that is the case), but for some reason today I decided to click.  Here’s the clip:

I’m not sure how long this ‘God & the Dentist’ idea has been circulating (after a limited amount of research I’ve discovered several videos presenting the same argument), but this one was produced by a group called ‘cvcnow’ who on their YouTube account give this description:

cvcnow produce creative short films, designed to entertain and challenge your thinking about real life.

In amongst all the negativity we face online, we want to be that much needed positive presence online and bring a fresh new perspective on real life struggles – from forgiveness to suicide; we don’t shy away from the big issues.

They’ve got this written in their ‘about’ section on the cvcnow.com website:

All we want is to help you explore those unavoidable questions about life, the universe and everything in it.

After a wee bit of research I’ve discovered that cvcnow is a ‘brand’ under the umbrella of Christian Vision, ‘a UK-based international charity founded by Lord Edmiston in 1988.’  I have yet to watch all of the videos that they’ve produced (and I don’t see myself doing that any time soon), but from viewing this dentist video alone, something tells me that none of their videos will sit right with me.  But why?

Before I explain why I see this sort of thinking as more of a foe than a friend, I want to say that this is no attack on any individuals who find this video inspirational.  Please know that I am in no way doubting the faith, goodness or sincerity of anyone involved in cvcnow or Christian Vision, or even anyone who has enjoyed the video above or has passed it on to friends.  I believe that the folk who produced this video are using their skills, passions and energies to do what they think is the most effective way to follow what they believe God wants for them.  But with that being said, I think that most people (even people who commit acts of great evil) do the same.  For example, I’m convinced that the Tories believe that society will best flourish under their policies whilst Labour politicians believe the same of their own policies (though, some might argue that New Labour’s policies are more Tory than Labour, but I digress…).  I also want to express that I believe that God can use any means to reveal theological truth and convey religious experience (my PhD thesis approaches a small facet of that very belief), as in the old story in the Torah of the diviner Balaam who was intent on cursing the God of the Jews, but this very God corrected him via the mouth of a donkey.  So yes, according to our mythology and tradition, God can speak through various means, but I’d rather be the prophet than the ass.

So what about this video do I find particularly offensive?  Aside from the poor writing, poor acting, poor music, poor production and implausibility of the conversation?  Let’s walk through the ‘script’:

Dentist [after working on a patient's teeth]: OK, we’re done.
Patient: Yes, thank God for that.
D: God?
P: What do you mean?
D: Who in this day and age still believes in God?

At this point it’s important to point out that I don’t know of any dentist, even a staunchly atheistic dentist, who would take issue with someone saying ‘Thank God’ in a situation like that.  Many of my atheist friends say ‘Thank God’ as often as they say ‘Thank fuck’.  The ‘God’ bit of ‘Thank God’ doesn’t necessarily carry much meaning.  ‘Thank God’ is simply a colloquialism.  But the writers of this piece needed to find a way to put God into a ‘real life’ situation, so we end up with a very rude dentist who decides to challenge his patient on a passing comment.  And to answer this elitist dentist’s silly question, Who in this day and age still believes in God?apparently some 5.8 billion of the 6.9 billion people in the world, or 84% of people.  That in no way proves the legitimacy or truthfulness of belief in God, but at least demonstrates that, even ‘in this day and age’, belief in God isn’t exactly uncommon.  So the patient decides to respond:

P: Well, I do.  Why’s that?
D: Well, you obviously missed all the wars, uh, the devastation, the poverty…everything that goes wrong in this world.
P: Well, I don’t believe in dentists.  If there are so many dentists in the world, then why do so many people have broken, infected and missing teeth?

Oh dear.  Now, despite his unpleasant personality, I’m starting to side with the dentist.  Whether or not a Christian will admit it, there is no simple answer to the problem of evil (expressed so eloquently by the dentist in his condescension: ‘Well, you obviously missed all the wars, uh, the devastation, the poverty…everything that goes wrong in this world.’).  I have some views on how I might approach the problem of evil, but I don’t want to go there with this post.  It’s also important to note that God has been used to justify a great many wars throughout history (even Bush and Blair claim to have prayed to God before the [misleading] war in Iraq).  But that at which I want to get is what the patient has used to argue against non-belief – she has decided that she doesn’t believe in dentists.  There are two major problems I have with her decision.

1) She has decided that she doesn’t believe in dentists That’s a very difficult position to maintain when you’re sitting in the chair of a dentist‘s office after your dentist appointment and a dentist is standing right in front of you, speaking with you.  If the Christian God was always so readily tangible the argument might stand up a wee bit better.  But dentists do exist and her assertion that the lack of dental care in the world proves that dentist’s don’t exist is somehow akin to this dentist’s argument against the existence of God by way of the problem of evil is complete and utter nonsense.  In the spirit of this unlikely exchange, this patient’s thanking of God after her dental procedure reveals that she believes that God was somehow present and responsible for the ending of the procedure.  This can be seen as implying that God is capable of being present in many places at one time (omnipresence) and that is powerful enough to bring her through this dental challenge (omnipotence).  The dentist argues that an ever present and all powerful God (who is also a good God [omnibenevolence]) cannot exist in light of the brokenness in the world.  And whilst there are many different conceptions of God, these three things—presence, power and goodness—form part of the general understanding of the concept of ‘God’ in Western society.  ‘Dentist’, on the other hand, does not carry the same weight.  No one in their right mind believes dentists are omnipresent.  No one in their right mind believes dentists are omnipotent.  Some people believe that dentists are actually evil.  So to argue that dentists, because of their lack of omnipresence and omnipotence (and to some people, their lack of omnibenevolence), do not exist, is quite silly.

2) She has decided that she doesn’t believe in dentists.  I have argued against the concept that we ‘choose’ what we believe in other posts (particularly here in ‘Agnosticism in the Kingdom of God’, from 23 September 2011 and here in ‘Some thoughts on religion and its place in my life’, 9 May 2012), but I’ll attempt to reiterate and expand some of that argument here.  In short, I don’t believe any of us choose what we believe and instead—based upon the information we store in our heads from our experiences—we ‘reason’ to what makes the most sense to us.  It’s not Logic with a capital ‘L’, but it’s some type of existential logic.

For a friend of mine, Christianity made sense until something else—whether that is new information he learned or a new experience or series of experiences—led him to see his Christian belief system as illogical.  I do think that we can cultivate a particular belief via manipulation (like any gay men who cultivate the unfortunate belief that their sexuality is a choice), but ultimately, I think belief is something that happens to us.  This makes most sense in Christianity (as opposed to this idea that we choose our beliefs) because, alongside the broader Christian tradition, the Bible seems to express that faith/belief is a gift:

Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, ‘Who do people say that the Son of Man is?’ And they said, ‘Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.’ He said to them, ‘But who do you say that I am?’ Simon Peter answered, ‘You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.’ And Jesus answered him, ‘Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven.’  Matthew 16:13-17, NRSV

For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God—not the result of works, so that no one may boast.  Ephesians 2:8-9, NRSV

Even the account of St Paul’s conversion implies that faith is something that happened to Saul, not something he chose (see Acts 9).  If the element of choice is ever involved in the Scripture, I believe it’s a matter of choosing between that which is in line with the values of the kingdom of God and that which is out of line with the values of the kingdom of God.  As a result of acting upon belief, some people are commended by Christ:

As he approached Jericho, a blind man was sitting by the roadside begging. When he heard a crowd going by, he asked what was happening. They told him, ‘Jesus of Nazareth is passing by.’ Then he shouted, ‘Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!’ Those who were in front sternly ordered him to be quiet; but he shouted even more loudly, ‘Son of David, have mercy on me!’ Jesus stood still and ordered the man to be brought to him; and when he came near, he asked him, ‘What do you want me to do for you?’ He said, ‘Lord, let me see again.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Receive your sight; your faith has saved you.’ Immediately he regained his sight and followed him, glorifying God; and all the people, when they saw it, praised God.  Luke 18:35-43, NRSV

There are many other similar passages in the Gospels (such as Matthew 9:22, Mark 5:34, Luke 7:50), but as is expressed in the Epistle of St James, faith/belief is a gift from God:

Listen, my beloved brothers and sisters. Has not God chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith and to be heirs of the kingdom that he has promised to those who love him?  James 2:5, NRSV

I didn’t choose to become a Christian.  Perhaps every day I have the choice to follow either that which I conceive of as following Christ or that which I conceive of as not, but the conception of following Christ, being a Christian, believing in God — those things are part of my faith, and my faith is a free gift from God.

This is a good place to look at the concluding lines of the dialogue, which reveal what is perhaps the most important reason why I cannot stand by this video:

D: I can’t help people that don’t come to me to have their teeth fixed.
P: Exactly.  It’s the same way with God.  It’s a bit rich of us to expect God to help people who don’t come to him and instead insist on doing things their own way.
D: And how am I meant to come to God?
P: Just talk to him – he’s listening.

Here the patient tells the dentist that it’s unreasonable for us to expect God to help people who don’t come to him.  Why would I have any problem with that?  Being that we’ve just celebrated the Epiphany a few days ago, the doctrine of the incarnation weighs very heavily upon me.  At the very heart of the Christian faith is the belief that God became human in Jesus.  This divine mystery plants God in the midst of human existence, as a human.  As quoted in the Gospel of St Matthew,

‘Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,’ which means ‘God is with us.’  Matthew 1:23 (cf. Isaiah 7:14), NRSV

Christianity rests on the belief that God is the one who comes to us: ‘But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.’ (Romans 5:8), ‘We love because he first loved us.’ (1 John 4:19).  It is God’s initiative, God’s move that makes this happen.  God is not sitting, twiddling her divine thumbs, waiting for us to turn up.  God is here, in our midst.  And yet, whilst I believe that this is true, the patient’s response to the dentist’s final question, ‘And how am I meant to come to God?’  Poses some other difficulties.

I do believe that God listens.  I do believe that God cares.  But as I have written in a previous post,

I don’t know why some people believe they’ve had a religious experience when they didn’t want one, whilst some people really want a religious experience and have yet to receive it.  I don’t know why the universe is chaotic.  I don’t know why such lovely people die of cancer.  I don’t know why millions of people die of starvation and disease each year.  I don’t know why, if a God exists, that God doesn’t just sort all this out this instant.  These are difficult questions; questions that make the writing of some blog post seem absolutely meaningless.  But even though I cannot give someone a life-changing religious experience, even though I cannot stop a tsunami, even though I cannot feed all who hunger and even though I cannot answer these questions in a neatly-packaged way, I know that this world and the people therein are beautiful and God has called me to give of myself for others in love, despite my lack of love and my lack of ability.

I know that this is not a resolution to the logical challenges facing Christians who maintain that God is omnipresent, omnipotent and omnibenevolent, but in light of the reality of suffering in our world, I believe that those who have faith should tread very lightly when arguing for God’s existence to those who—without us even being aware—have tried very hard to call out and listen for God.  The video above seems to imply that God is just a phone call away, but it does not balance that belief out with the reality that billions of suffering people who have cried out for the aid of a higher power have not received the answer that we of faith so take for granted.  For this reason, someone might see this video and be unnecessarily hurt.  This is why this video rubs me the wrong way.

A life of belief in God is not always cushy.  It’s never easy.  The only concrete thing I believe with this regard is that, through Jesus, God empathises with human suffering and wants people who call themselves followers of Christ to help ease it.  One way we can do that is to train up more dentists in order that they might ‘show the love of Christ by offering dental relief to those in need around the world.’

Imaging the Kingdom V: Agnosticism in the kingdom of God

This long-overdue installment of Imaging the Kingdom will be focusing on what I consider to be a healthy degree of agnosticism in the Christian faith, and I’d like to begin with a personal story.  In my first year as a theological studies undergraduate student I became aware of an interesting issue within American Christianity: the age of the earth and the interpretation of the Book of Genesis.  Coming from a more scientific background, accepting the idea that the universe originated with the Big Bang was no struggle for me.  Belief in the God of creation and the discoveries of contemporary science were not contentious, unless of course those scientific conclusions depended entirely on an exclusive naturalism, a presupposed atheism that is just as certain of the non-existence of a deity as theism is of the existence of one.  Despite claims of the purity and certainty of science and reason, I found these atheistic presuppositions to be more experienced-and-feeling-based, like a religion – but I digress.

Through my late exposure to American Evangelicalism I was confronted with another story, a story that claims with certainty despite strong scientific evidence (proof even!) that the earth alone is some 4.5 billion years old, that argues for a ‘young earth’ model.  If the earth is only several thousand years old, then how could biological evolution have happened?  Exactly.  This view also claims that the ‘theory of evolution’ (as if emphasising ‘theory’ makes it less legitimate straight away) is a fabrication of the godless scientific community.  While evolutionists have historically presupposed atheism—seeing evolution, as opposed to theistic creation, as a legitimate way of explaining the diversity of life on earth—I still found no significant tension between the concept of evolution and my belief in God.  That may simply be a matter of my own ignorance, but indulge me.

So as a first year undergraduate student I was confronted with these ‘young earth’ views and I wasn’t sure what I ought to do with them.  I decided to consult someone I trusted, someone whose name was synonymous with ‘wisdom’ in the seminary I attended: Ed Curtis.  Dr Curtis was (and still is) a white-haired sagely Professor of Biblical and Theological Studies who specialised in the Hebrew language and Wisdom Literature.  On top of this, prior to pursuing theology he studied physical science and worked as an engineer and physicist.  I approached Dr Curtis during a theological staff-student luncheon and eventually shared my recent confrontation with the conservative Evangelical position on creation.  He shared that he found himself confronted with the same tension, but in his gentle Texan-drawl he delivered a profound piece of wisdom that has stayed with me since: ‘If we only concerned ourselves with that which we can actually know we’d have enough on our plate.’

This reality puts a significant perspective on how we approach issues of doctrine, belief and practice as Christians.  The ‘that which we can actually know‘ that to which Dr Curtis referred is essentially boiled down to the love that God has revealed to us so explicitly.  In other words, as Christians we know that God loves the world that he created and the incarnation and giving of his Son Jesus Christ is a profound demonstration of this love.  Not only that, but in response to this love, empowered by God’s Spirit, we are called to love God and to love our neighbour.  In fact, loving our neighbours is very much synonymous with loving God, as we hear in Jesus’ words from Matthew 25:31-40 (NRSV):

‘When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory.  All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left.  Then the king will say to those at his right hand, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.”  Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink?  And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing?  And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?”  And the king will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family,* you did it to me.”’

Truly, if we primarily concerned ourselves with caring for the holistic needs of all of those around us we would have plenty with which to occupy ourselves.  That all sounds so beautiful, but that still leaves the issue of uncertainty wide open and Westerners don’t like uncertainty, right?  A more troubling thing is that these adamant ‘young earth’/’anti-evolutionary’ views are not bound the sidelines of public discussion – the prominent Republican political figures Sarah Palin, Michele Bachmann and Rick Perry (the latter two are currently competing for the Republican Party’s nomination for president) all hold to and promote conservative Evangelical views on these issues.  In our society these people have a right to hold these views, but the general intolerance demonstrated by many who hold such views only seems to promote needless division.

So what happened?  Why are we at this point?  At one point our Enlightened Western world accepted that through the power of our good science and our right reasoning we can solve anything; we can be have certainty.  Over the last few centuries, the findings of science and reason began to challenge the way that we understand Christianity, from Thomas Jefferson’s attempt to remove all things supernatural from New Testament in writing The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth in 1820 to Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow’s 2010 book The Grand Design, which asserts that the origin of the universe need not be explained by the existence of God but by physical laws alone.  In reaction to these assertions, many Christians (especially, though not always, those of a more conservative brand) have outrightly rejected science and reason, or have tended toward developing their own exhaustive analytical philosophies and pseudoscience.

While there is no room for half-baked, reactionary ‘science’ in the marketplace of ideas, providing a rational defense for Christian belief/theology is not entirely out of the question.  But what I’ve come to appreciate is the freedom to simply not know.  In other words, the inevitable transcendence of God (the inability for humanity to know everything about God) means the inevitable ignorance of humanity.  The sheer otherness of other people should be enough to help us realise our inevitable, eternal ignorance.  Even our inability to know ourselves fully shows us our ignorance.  We don’t need to be insecure about uncertainty and paradox.  It’s okay to answer, ‘I don’t know,’ – it’s even okay to answer, ‘I don’t know and I probably never will.’

Over the last few years I’ve engaged with this issue of agnosticism with a close philosopher friend who directed me to the eminent 20th-century Austrian philosopher, Ludwig Wittgenstein.  Wittgenstein stresses the importance of holding onto epistemological humility in Philosophical Investigations (426):

Here again we get the same thing as in set theory: the form of expression we use seems to have been designed for a god, who knows what we cannot know; he sees the whole of each of those infinite series and he sees into human consciousness.  For us, of course, these forms of expression are like pontificals which we may put on, but cannot do much with, since we lack the effective power that would give these vestments meaning and purpose.

In the actual use of expression we make detours, we go by side roads.  We see the straight highway before us, but of course we cannot use it, because it is permanently closed.1

It seems that Wittgenstein is telling us that both our language and our ability to know are significantly limited, thus necessitating a self-reflective hint of humility in how we argue for/hold onto various ideas.  I see this fitting perfectly with a healthy Christian agnosticism, as Barth expresses in his Dogmatics in Outline,

Christian faith has to do with the object, with God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, of which the Creed speaks.  Of course it is of the nature and being of this object, of God the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, that He cannot be known by the powers of human knowledge, but is apprehensible and apprehended solely because of His own freedom, decision and action.2

This is not to say that we stop our pursuit of the knowledge of God, but that while we pursue a better knowledge—a knowledge that, when coupled with action, has the potential to transform lives and deliver those who are oppressed from their oppressors—we must always hold onto that which is most central to the Christian faith: the grace and love of God.  We can and should disagree with one another, as diversity is part of what potentially makes the Church so effective, counter-cultural, welcoming and healthy, but we should also take very seriously the fact that none of us will ever know everything.

We believe in one God, the Father All Governing, creator of heaven and earth, of all things visible and invisible;

And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten from the Father before all time, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten not created, of the same essence as the Father, through Whom all things came into being, Who for us [humans] and because of our salvation came down from heaven, and was incarnate by the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary and became human.   He was crucified for us under Pontius Pilate, and suffered and was buried, and rose on the third day, according to the Scriptures, and ascended to heaven, and sits on the right hand of the Father, and will come again with glory to judge the living and dead.  His Kingdom shall have no end.

And in the Holy Spirit, the Lord and life-giver, Who proceeds from the Father, Who is worshiped and glorified together with the Father and Son, Who spoke through the prophets; and in one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church.  We confess on baptism for the remission of sins.  We look forward to the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come.  Amen.3

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1. Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, translated by G. E. M. Anscombe (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1953), 127e.
2. Karl Barth, Dogmatics in Outline, translated by Colin E. Gunton (London: SCM Press, 1949), 15.
3. John H. Leith, ed., Creeds of the Churches (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1982), 33.

Pausing on Good Friday

(This post also appears at Things & Stuff.)

Good Friday marks the day that Christians remember the crucifixion of Jesus.  It is a sombre day of fasting, reflection and repentance.  Throughout this week (Holy Week) I have been reflecting on the Passion of Christ with a Palm Sunday sermon entitled ‘Where’s the “triumph” in the triumphant entry?, a short Holy Wednesday homily entitled ‘A cloud of suffering and a cloud of glory‘, and some thoughts on discipleship on Maundy Thursday (the night of the Last Supper).  These reflections were all written with the intention of pointing to the significance of the death and resurrection of Christ and some implications for followers of Jesus.

When it all comes down to it, life is extremely difficult.  Suffering characterises much of the human experience.  Christianity seeks to make some sense of our suffering (and I believe it accomplishes this task) through the cross in that while we toil we look to our crucified God, Christ, who has experienced the bitterness of human suffering on Good Friday.  As I wrote in my Palm Sunday sermon, ‘one fundamental part of our orthodox faith of unparalleled import is the belief in both the death and resurrection of Christ’.   If Jesus had merely suffered, died, and remained dead, we would have no hope.  The Christian faith must look forward to the resurrection on Easter in order to make sense of the present and future annihilation of brokenness in this world.  But it being Good Friday, let us pause in order to more fully mediate on the magnitude of the Passion of Christ.

We read the lectionary Gospel reading for today interspersed with James MacMillan’s settings for the three of Jesus’ seven last words from the cross found in John’s Gospel (performed by the Erik Westberg Vocal Ensemble and the Norrbotten Chamber Orchestra).

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John 18:1-19:42 (NRSV)

After Jesus had spoken these words, he went out with his disciples across the Kidron valley to a place where there was a garden, which he and his disciples entered.  Now Judas, who betrayed him, also knew the place, because Jesus often met there with his disciples.  So Judas brought a detachment of soldiers together with police from the chief priests and the Pharisees, and they came there with lanterns and torches and weapons.  Then Jesus, knowing all that was to happen to him, came forward and asked them, ‘For whom are you looking?’  They answered, ‘Jesus of Nazareth.’  Jesus replied, ‘I am he.’  Judas, who betrayed him, was standing with them.  When Jesus said to them, ‘I am he’, they stepped back and fell to the ground.  Again he asked them, ‘For whom are you looking?’  And they said, ‘Jesus of Nazareth.’  Jesus answered, ‘I told you that I am he.  So if you are looking for me, let these men go.’  This was to fulfil the word that he had spoken, ‘I did not lose a single one of those whom you gave me.’  Then Simon Peter, who had a sword, drew it, struck the high priest’s slave, and cut off his right ear.  The slave’s name was Malchus.  Jesus said to Peter, ‘Put your sword back into its sheath.  Am I not to drink the cup that the Father has given me?’

So the soldiers, their officer, and the Jewish police arrested Jesus and bound him.  First they took him to Annas, who was the father-in-law of Caiaphas, the high priest that year.  Caiaphas was the one who had advised the Jews that it was better to have one person die for the people.

Simon Peter and another disciple followed Jesus.  Since that disciple was known to the high priest, he went with Jesus into the courtyard of the high priest, but Peter was standing outside at the gate.  So the other disciple, who was known to the high priest, went out, spoke to the woman who guarded the gate, and brought Peter in.  The woman said to Peter, ‘You are not also one of this man’s disciples, are you?’  He said, ‘I am not.’  Now the slaves and the police had made a charcoal fire because it was cold, and they were standing round it and warming themselves.  Peter also was standing with them and warming himself.

Then the high priest questioned Jesus about his disciples and about his teaching.  Jesus answered, ‘I have spoken openly to the world; I have always taught in synagogues and in the temple, where all the Jews come together.  I have said nothing in secret.  Why do you ask me?  Ask those who heard what I said to them; they know what I said.’  When he had said this, one of the police standing nearby struck Jesus on the face, saying, ‘Is that how you answer the high priest?’  Jesus answered, ‘If I have spoken wrongly, testify to the wrong.  But if I have spoken rightly, why do you strike me?’  Then Annas sent him bound to Caiaphas the high priest.

Now Simon Peter was standing and warming himself.  They asked him, ‘You are not also one of his disciples, are you?’  He denied it and said, ‘I am not.’  One of the slaves of the high priest, a relative of the man whose ear Peter had cut off, asked, ‘Did I not see you in the garden with him?’  Again Peter denied it, and at that moment the cock crowed.

Then they took Jesus from Caiaphas to Pilate’s headquarters.  It was early in the morning.  They themselves did not enter the headquarters, so as to avoid ritual defilement and to be able to eat the Passover.  So Pilate went out to them and said, ‘What accusation do you bring against this man?’  They answered, ‘If this man were not a criminal, we would not have handed him over to you.’  Pilate said to them, ‘Take him yourselves and judge him according to your law.’  The Jews replied, ‘We are not permitted to put anyone to death.’  (This was to fulfil what Jesus had said when he indicated the kind of death he was to die.)

Then Pilate entered the headquarters again, summoned Jesus, and asked him, ‘Are you the King of the Jews?’  Jesus answered, ‘Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?’  Pilate replied, ‘I am not a Jew, am I?  Your own nation and the chief priests have handed you over to me.  What have you done?’  Jesus answered, ‘My kingdom is not from this world.  If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews.  But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.’  Pilate asked him, ‘So you are a king?’  Jesus answered, ‘You say that I am a king.  For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth.  Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.’  Pilate asked him, ‘What is truth?’

After he had said this, he went out to the Jews again and told them, ‘I find no case against him.  But you have a custom that I release someone for you at the Passover.  Do you want me to release for you the King of the Jews?’  They shouted in reply, ‘Not this man, but Barabbas!’  Now Barabbas was a bandit.

Then Pilate took Jesus and had him flogged.  And the soldiers wove a crown of thorns and put it on his head, and they dressed him in a purple robe.  They kept coming up to him, saying, ‘Hail, King of the Jews!’ and striking him on the face.  Pilate went out again and said to them, ‘Look, I am bringing him out to you to let you know that I find no case against him.’  So Jesus came out, wearing the crown of thorns and the purple robe.  Pilate said to them, ‘Here is the man!’  When the chief priests and the police saw him, they shouted, ‘Crucify him!  Crucify him!’  Pilate said to them, ‘Take him yourselves and crucify him; I find no case against him.’  The Jews answered him, ‘We have a law, and according to that law he ought to die because he has claimed to be the Son of God.’

Now when Pilate heard this, he was more afraid than ever.  He entered his headquarters again and asked Jesus, ‘Where are you from?’  But Jesus gave him no answer.  Pilate therefore said to him, ‘Do you refuse to speak to me?  Do you not know that I have power to release you, and power to crucify you?’  Jesus answered him, ‘You would have no power over me unless it had been given you from above; therefore the one who handed me over to you is guilty of a greater sin.’  From then on Pilate tried to release him, but the Jews cried out, ‘If you release this man, you are no friend of the emperor.  Everyone who claims to be a king sets himself against the emperor.’

When Pilate heard these words, he brought Jesus outside and sat on the judge’s bench at a place called The Stone Pavement, or in Hebrew Gabbatha.  Now it was the day of Preparation for the Passover; and it was about noon.  He said to the Jews, ‘Here is your King!’  They cried out, ‘Away with him!  Away with him!  Crucify him!’  Pilate asked them, ‘Shall I crucify your King?’  The chief priests answered, ‘We have no king but the emperor.’  Then he handed him over to them to be crucified.

So they took Jesus; and carrying the cross by himself, he went out to what is called The Place of the Skull, which in Hebrew is called Golgotha.  There they crucified him, and with him two others, one on either side, with Jesus between them.  Pilate also had an inscription written and put on the cross.  It read, ‘Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews.’  Many of the Jews read this inscription, because the place where Jesus was crucified was near the city; and it was written in Hebrew, in Latin, and in Greek.  Then the chief priests of the Jews said to Pilate, ‘Do not write, “The King of the Jews”, but, “This man said, I am King of the Jews.” ’  Pilate answered, ‘What I have written I have written.’  When the soldiers had crucified Jesus, they took his clothes and divided them into four parts, one for each soldier.  They also took his tunic; now the tunic was seamless, woven in one piece from the top.  So they said to one another, ‘Let us not tear it, but cast lots for it to see who will get it.’  This was to fulfil what the scripture says,

‘They divided my clothes among themselves,
and for my clothing they cast lots.’

And that is what the soldiers did.

Meanwhile, standing near the cross of Jesus were his mother, and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene.  When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing beside her, he said to his mother, ‘Woman, here is your son.’  Then he said to the disciple, ‘Here is your mother.’  And from that hour the disciple took her into his own home.

After this, when Jesus knew that all was now finished, he said (in order to fulfil the scripture), ‘I am thirsty.’

A jar full of sour wine was standing there.  So they put a sponge full of the wine on a branch of hyssop and held it to his mouth.  When Jesus had received the wine, he said, ‘It is finished.’  Then he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.

Since it was the day of Preparation, the Jews did not want the bodies left on the cross during the sabbath, especially because that sabbath was a day of great solemnity.  So they asked Pilate to have the legs of the crucified men broken and the bodies removed.  Then the soldiers came and broke the legs of the first and of the other who had been crucified with him.  But when they came to Jesus and saw that he was already dead, they did not break his legs.  Instead, one of the soldiers pierced his side with a spear, and at once blood and water came out.  (He who saw this has testified so that you also may believe.  His testimony is true, and he knows that he tells the truth.)  These things occurred so that the scripture might be fulfilled, ‘None of his bones shall be broken.’  And again another passage of scripture says, ‘They will look on the one whom they have pierced.’

After these things, Joseph of Arimathea, who was a disciple of Jesus, though a secret one because of his fear of the Jews, asked Pilate to let him take away the body of Jesus.  Pilate gave him permission; so he came and removed his body.  Nicodemus, who had at first come to Jesus by night, also came, bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, weighing about a hundred pounds.  They took the body of Jesus and wrapped it with the spices in linen cloths, according to the burial custom of the Jews.  Now there was a garden in the place where he was crucified, and in the garden there was a new tomb in which no one had ever been laid.  And so, because it was the Jewish day of Preparation, and the tomb was nearby, they laid Jesus there.

+++++

‘Fundamentalism’ & ‘new liberal theology’

An article by the Rev Dr Ian Bradley published in The Times today calls upon liberal theology to take back popular Christianity from the Fundamentalists.  The article ran full-circle for me: Bradley, who happens to be associate minister at the church I am a member of, makes mention of the 1910 launch of The Fundamentals, a series of pamphlets published by the founders of my alma mater, Biola University (called the Bible Institute of Los Angeles at the time).

Bradley writes of what would become the Fundamentalist position:

… advocating the literal authority and inerrancy of the Bible, creationism as against evolution and penal substitutionary atonement – the idea that Jesus was punished in place of sinners to satisfy God.

Bradley urges the Church to ‘escape from the shackles of this modern fundamentalism’.  In trinitarian terms he advocates what he calls ‘a new reclaimed liberal theology’ based upon an acronym central to his thinking (and the title of his new book): GOOD = Grace, Order, Openness and Diversity.  By grace Bradley means ‘overflowing  mercy, love and forgiveness’, which he attributes particularly to God the Father.  Order is particularly attributed to God the Son, ‘represented in classic Christian theology as the personification of Logos or reason.’  To God the Spirit he attributes openness, ‘often envisaged as breath or wind blowing away staleness and constantly revealing new truths and insights.’  Among these three distinct persons of the single Godhead Bradley finds room for his concept of diversity.  It’s all well-rehearsed and his article says very little about the whole topic because it is essentially functioning as an advertisement for his new book, but there certainly is enough substance to start a new conversation.

Bradley characterises—and I would say rightly characterises—the narrow conservatism of the Fundamentalist view by ‘innovation and departure from tradition’, a sort of pseudo-conservatism, as the early Church was more characterised by ‘a broad liberal outlook.’

Like the early writings of Karl Barth reacting in absolute rejection of nineteenth-century liberal theology, Bradley writes off Fundamentalism ‘as the great twentieth-century heresy and aberration‘ without much consideration for why the founders of the movement believed it necessary to fight for.  (I am basing this exclusively on today’s article as I have not yet read his book.)

Anyone who knows me well or reads what I write on this blog probably knows that I am no big fan of Fundamentalism, nor of Evangelicalism for that matter.  But it seems to me that if I am to be a responsible student of Christianity and a true adherent to the Ecumenicism I supposedly aim for I must be open to discover God’s Spirit in many Christian traditions.  (I sometimes find myself far more open to non-religious ideas than those put forth by the Evangelical tradition.)  We cannot ‘wipe out the long shadow of fundamentalism’ as Bradley insists we must.  Instead, we must be as gracious and generous as the progressive and transformative programme we profess to adhere to.  The modern development of ‘Evangelical tradition’, flawed as it may be, has at the very least this merit: a foundational desire to faithfully and fervently seek after the things of God.  It is unfortunate that the Evangelical tradition has reduced the ‘things of God’ to a very narrow and very recent set of ‘fundamentals’, but to say as Bradley does, that ‘God’s goodness is a very liberal theme and one that tends to be downplayed in conservative circles’ and that ‘conservative preachers speak a lot about God’s holiness, awesomeness and judgment but not much about God’s goodness’ is perhaps quite unfair.

In the end these two things are true: God is certainly good and gracious and we all have many beliefs that are shortsighted and flat-out wrong.  I think his goodness can make up for our shortcomings, but let’s have the humility to acknowledge their inevitable existence.

Imaging the Kingdom IV: The ‘Self’ in the kingdom of God

Let me begin by stressing that this post is by no means an exhaustive or thorough look at this particular issue, but rather a starting point for a conversation and potential implications we can draw out for understanding the our existence in the kingdom of God, thus impacting the way we approach life in the kingdom, as is the case with all Imaging the Kingdom.

The concept of the ‘Self’ is one of great importance in the conversation of modern philosophy and Western society at large.  This can take the form of investigations regarding the composition of the Self, for instance, a Scientologist might argue that the Self is composed of one’s ‘thetan’ (similar to the concept of one’s ‘spirit’).  But what composes the Self in this particular sense (essence) is not the concern of this post.  We will rest upon our holistic assumptions from previous ‘Imaging the Kingdom’ posts: God is the Ruler of the universe that he has created, visible and invisible.  An individual will not be broken down into separate parts, as God is concerned for and invested in both in the Christian tradition.

Many modern philosophers have concerned themselves with the concept of the Self as if we can attain it through our own clever thought processes.  Just as one cannot repair a hammer with said hammer, so one cannot, as a Self, step outside of said Self.  In his Treatise on Human Nature, Hume writes,

For my part, when I enter most intimately into what I call myself, I always stumble on some particular perception or other, of hear or cold, light or shade, love or hatred, pain or pleasure, I never catch myself at any time without a perception, and never can observe anything but the perception.

(David Hume, Treatise on Human Nature, Book I, Part IV, Sec. VI)

According to Hume, the concept of the Self can amount to, as Russell put it, ‘nothing but a bundle of perceptions’.  This non-religious observation can actually assist us in our kingdom-oriented task as it can be deduced that the confidence with which, say, I perceive my Self as an individual should be softened.  But the case is not closed there by any means.  Hume’s conclusion does not entirely negate the value of this ‘bundle of perceptions’, but rather redefines it.  As long as we are redefining the Self in light of our inability to look inward in any objective sense, I believe that the principles of the kingdom of God have profound implications for our definition.

In exploring the answer to the question ‘What is man?’ in his essay ‘The Christian Proclamation Here and Now’, Barth states,

Man exist in a free confrontation with his fellow man, in the living relationship between a man and his neighbour, between I and Thou, between man and woman.  An isolated man is as such no man.  ‘I’ without ‘Thou’, man without woman, and woman without man is not human existence.  Human being is being with other humans.  Apart from this relationship we become inhuman.  We are human by being together, by seeing, hearing, speaking with, and by standing by, one another as men, insofar, that is, as we do this gladly and thus do it freely.

(Karl Barth, God Here and Now [London: Routledge, 2003], 7.)

Although Barth is answering the question ‘What is man?’ and not ‘What is the Self?’, we see community as a God-given (and necessary) setting for human existence.

Writing more specifically regarding the Self in the opening pages of The Sickness Unto Death, Kierkegaard describes the ‘Self’ as,

The self is a relation which relates to itself, or that in the relation which is its relating to itself.  The self is not the relation but the relation’s relating to itself.  A human being is a synthesis of the infinite and the finite, of the temporal and the eternal, of freedom and necessity.  In short a synthesis.  A synthesis is a relation between two terms.  Looked at in this way a human being is not yet a self.

In a relation between two things the relation is the third term in the form of a negative unity, and the two relate to the relation, and in the relation to that relation; this is what it is from the point of view of soul for soul and body to be in relation.  If, on the other hand, the relation relates to itself, then this relation is the positive third, and this is the self.

(Søren Kierkegaard, The Sickness Unto Death [London: Penguin Books, 2008], 9-10.)

In this way the self is fully understood in the relationship.  This is a relationship with the Self and relationship with the creator of the Self.  Relationship is the basis for any human understanding of anything and no less for a proper understanding of the Self.

In light of Barth and Kierkegaard’s insights, a human is only truly human in community with God and man.  This conclusion very closely resembles the Greatest Commandments (Matthew 22:36-40).  In the kingdom of God an understanding of the Self ought to be similarly characterised by God’s intentions for the Self.

Perhaps the greatest theological tenet in the Christian tradition to attest to the necessary communal aspect of existence can be found in the Trinity.  Two contemporary theologians who have some very helpful insights for this discussion are John Zizioulas and Leonardo Boff.  Zizioulas represents an important bridge between the Eastern and Western traditions (drawing from the work of Vladimir Lossky).  Heavily influenced by the Cappadocian Fathers, Zizioulas derives that communion is an ontological category and that God exists in communion. Therefore, Vali-Matti Kärkkäinen summarises, “there is no true being without communion; nothing exists as an ‘individual’ in itself…Human existence, including the existence of the church communion, thus reflects the communal, relational being of God.”  (Vali-Matti Kärkkäinen, The Trinity: Global Perspectives, [Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2007], 90.)  In this way, without the doctrine of the Trinity there would be no God.

In Trinity and Society, Boff states, “The Trinity is not something thought out to explain human problems.  It is the revelation of God as God is, as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.” (Leonardo Boff, Trinity and Society [Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 1998], 3.)  Boff argues that humanity is given a guide through this specific revelation by which to structure society.

Gathering the tools before us we can develop a picture of what the Self might properly look like in the kingdom of God:

  • From Hume we can argue that an individual cannot objective conceive of the Self, but rather ‘a bundle of perceptions’ that fall short of the Self.
  • From Barth we can argue that it is God’s intention for the individual to find fullest existence in community.
  • From Kierkegaard we can argue that the Self is only properly understood in Hegelian relational terms – the individual, the creator and the witness of that relationship.
  • From Zizioulas we can argue that the communal aspect of God is absolutely essential to his being, that the Trinity is not an appendix to Christian theism, but its heart.
  • From Boff we can argue that human society ought to be structured based upon the community of the Trinity.

So where does this leave us?

Perhaps the reason for the philosophical dilemma of the Self is the fact that we’ve been taking our cues from the wrong place.  If it is God’s nature to necessarily exist in the communion of the Trinity, perhaps it is no surprise that our being is also of a communal nature.  In the kingdom of God the individual is not called to be alone but in community.  In such a way a fuller understanding of the Self is possible, for instance:

As I relate to myself I experience all that is unique to that experience.  As I relate to, say, Greg, he is able to see and experience something unique to his perspective of me.

As we relate, these things are synthesised and a fuller picture of the Self is possible.  Through the differences that Greg and I encounter in one another God has designed us to act as signposts for one another to himself and his ‘otherness’.

As we look toward God we discover that Christ has come to redeem the entire world and to give humanity a new paradigm to live out of, including a new method of ‘discovering the Self’.  A member of the kingdom of God has a new identity, one independent of who we once thought we were and who we may still think we are.  As we relate to God we are transformed into his design for the Self.  To consider us as individuals the supreme experts regarding our ‘Self’s outside of God’s intentions as demonstrated in the establishing of his kingdom through the Gospel is to ignore the reign and active investment of God in our lives.  To embrace the concept of the Self that finds its fullest meaning in relating to God and to others in love we will experience the greatest blessing ­– the blessing that flows from active participation in and submission to the kingdom of God.  In this way we ought to take seriously the call to relate to others, for it is antithetical to ‘the Self in the kingdom of God’ when we do not.

We believe in one God, the Father All Governing, creator of heaven and earth, of all things visible and invisible;

And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten from the Father before all time, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten not created, of the same essence as the Father, through Whom all things came into being, Who for us [humans] and because of our salvation came down from heaven, and was incarnate by the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary and became human.   He was crucified for us under Pontius Pilate, and suffered and was buried, and rose on the third day, according to the Scriptures, and ascended to heaven, and sits on the right hand of the Father, and will come again with glory to judge the living and dead.  His Kingdom shall have no end.

And in the Holy Spirit, the Lord and life-giver, Who proceeds from the Father, Who is worshiped and glorified together with the Father and Son, Who spoke through the prophets; and in one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church.  We confess on baptism for the remission of sins.  We look forward to the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come.  Amen.

(Creed taken from John H. Leith (ed.), Creeds of the Churches [Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1982], 33.)

Imaging the Kingdom III: Homosexuality & the kingdom of God

The issue of homosexuality is probably one of the more heated social issues facing the contemporary Church.  Among different denominations (and even within single denominations) the issue divides on a scale from peaceful disagreement to violent hatred.  Perhaps the most visible and widely despised of these positions is illustrated by the antics of the Topeka, Kansas-based Westboro Baptist Church and their signature slogan: ‘God Hates Fags’.

Needless to say, this is a MASSIVE conversation in the Church and society at-large.  Unfortunately the debate within the Church—the topic of this post—frequently results in an ever-divergent hatred for the opposition.  One view (we’ll call it ‘Perspective I’ to avoid confusing, overused and unhelpful ‘conservative’ vs. ‘liberal’ labels) essentially believes that the Church and the Scripture attest to the opposition of homosexuality in the kingdom of God.  In this view God has designed sexual relationships to take place in a particular way – in other words, heterosexually.  This is often supported with social and psychological analyses of homosexuality in Western culture.  The ‘slippery slope’ is often appealed to here, concerning the possibility in a culture that grows more accepting of public homosexuality.  An example of how this view sees homosexuality adversely affecting the Church follows: homosexual marriage is made fully legal, churches will lose tax-exempt benefits for teaching portions of Scripture that seem to attest to the prohibition of homosexuality in the kingdom of God and ultimately conservative priests will be prosecuted and imprisoned for merely teaching what the Church has generally held to for nearly two-thousand years.

Another view (which we’ll call ‘Perspective II’) essentially believes that the Church is mistaken and that the Scripture is not explicitly clear regarding homosexuality, oftentimes appealing to socio-historical evidence for the manner in which homosexuality was practised in the Scripture’s first-century-Roman context.  In this view homosexuality is not generally considered a choice, but a specific sexual orientation that defines a significant part of what makes an individual an individual.

There are numerous positions around and about these two views (including two views based upon the assumption that homosexuality is natural – one view holding that homosexuals are called to celibacy in the kingdom of God while the other holds that homosexuality is natural and should be openly embraced in the kingdom of God) and it is would be impossible to explore them all, but I believe we’ve got a moderate sample of the two major ‘sides’ of this argument within the Church in Perspectives I and II.

One interesting thing I feel the need to point out is the general historical oppression of homosexuals in Western society.  Even today, with the elimination of laws prohibiting homosexual practise in Western countries (though these are still quite present in many nations today), massive stigmas and stereotypes are used to oppress homosexuals.  In my experience I have heard many-a-Christian rants on how homosexuality has ‘infiltrated our culture’ and is being used to ‘pervert our youth’.  I don’t know how fair that assessment is, but I am generally sceptical of such sweeping statements regarding a group of people who by and large don’t even have the legal right to marry in the vast majority of American states.  Homophobia is rampant and this (like other forms of xenophobia) oftentimes leads to very aggressive mistreatment of homosexuals.  Even the recent claim by Cardinal Bertone that homosexuality was to blame for the Catholic abuse scandals ignored the fact that many of the abused were in fact females (and also that the large number of males abused might be a result of the general pairing of girls with nuns and boys with priests) in exchange for trying to oppressively pin the failure of the Church on a whole people group.

My honest opinion is quite open in general, although my tendency is to lean toward Perspective II.  Whilst I hold Church tradition in high esteem, the Church has certainly been wrong in the past with numerous issues and our trusty Nicene Creed makes no mention whatsoever concerning the nature of sexual relationships in the kingdom of God.  For now I merely want to pose two brief lines of questioning to the two main camps on either side of the issue of homosexuality.  These questions are not meant to pull the rug out from either side, but to promote a more compassionate and gracious way of thinking about the debate.  I do not necessarily agree with each one of these questions on either side, but they seem to be valuable things to address.

Perspective I

  • Is it possible that in the Church homosexuality is often treated very differently than other issues that are considered sins (even other sexual sins) in an unfair manner?
  • In Mere Christianity, Lewis argues that the nature of particular sins can make them more or less cancerous within the Church.  For instance, pride involves sinfully elevating oneself above another.  Is it possible that an egotistical zealot might be more divisive and harmful to the community of a local church than a homosexual couple in a committed relationship?
  • Can the few passages in Scripture that are often associated with anti-homosexual views be interpreted in any other manner?  What are we to make of the lack of teaching regarding homosexual relationships in the teaching of Christ found in the Gospels?  Let me stress that I do not believe that these issues alone make or break Perspective I (the general tradition of the Church might be able to provide some added strength to this view), but I do believe that these possibilities might serve to soften the tone of Perspective I.

Perspective II

  • Is it possible that many of the people who espouse ‘Perspective I’ are not hatemongers, but Christians who genuinely care about the well being of homosexuals, even if possibly misguided?
  • Drawing from what I believe is Christ claiming that marriage will not exist in the Resurrection (the eventual fullness of the kingdom of God) when responding to the Sadducees in Matthew 22, shouldn’t we as Christians place far more emphasis on our identity in the kingdom of God and not with regard to sexual orientation?  I generally believe that we discover the greatest fullness of who we are as individuals as we relate to God and to the community of the kingdom of God.  Is this the process in which one finds his or her identity?
  • Is it possible that God’s will as revealed in Scripture and through the Church might be that homosexual practise is not part of the kingdom of God?  If it became clear that it was God’s will that his people would not practise homosexuality would it be easier to walk away from homosexuality or to walk away from God?

I have many thoughts on these issues, but I’ll cease my questions and open up the discussion.  What I hope and pray for in this conversation is mutual respect and beyond everything else, love and compassion.  Profound love is what ought to characterise the words, thoughts and actions of a member of the kingdom of God who has been profoundly confronted by the immense grace and love of God as demonstrated in the life, death and Resurrection of Christ and the advent of his holy and inviting Church.

There are many good thoughts and perspectives on either side of this debate.  Please share your input, but take care to use gracious language and to neither demonise nor dehumanise the opposing perspective or your comment may be deleted.  I am not demanding that everyone shares my views or that no one holds firmly to his/her own view—I encourage you to share your convictions with a loving and gracious passion.

We believe in one God, the Father All Governing, creator of heaven and earth, of all things visible and invisible;

And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten from the Father before all time, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten not created, of the same essence as the Father, through Whom all things came into being, Who for us [humans] and because of our salvation came down from heaven, and was incarnate by the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary and became human.   He was crucified for us under Pontius Pilate, and suffered and was buried, and rose on the third day, according to the Scriptures, and ascended to heaven, and sits on the right hand of the Father, and will come again with glory to judge the living and dead.  His Kingdom shall have no end.

And in the Holy Spirit, the Lord and life-giver, Who proceeds from the Father, Who is worshiped and glorified together with the Father and Son, Who spoke through the prophets; and in one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church.  We confess on baptism for the remission of sins.  We look forward to the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come.  Amen.

(Creed taken from John H. Leith (ed.), Creeds of the Churches [Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1982], 33.)

Read more of Imaging the Kingdom.

An added treat:

[Greg adds: One more?]

Imaging the Kingdom II: Orthodoxy vs Orthopraxy

I believe that Greg and I were exercising a subconscious experiment to see if we could go the entire month of May without a post, but I am pleased to continue the Imaging the Kingdom series.

The terms ‘orthodoxy’ and ‘orthopraxy’ are tossed around a lot in contemporary Christian circles.  Among Protestants two groups seem to gravitate toward one or the other: Emergents (Post-modern Christians) toward orthopraxy (emphasising the practise of religion) and Evangelicals toward orthodoxy (emphasising the belief of religion).  It might seem obvious to you, my beloved readers, that any branch of Christianity that is exclusively given over to one of these two positions is incredibly weak.  Perhaps you’re not so convinced that both are absolutely essential to members of the kingdom of God (which they are) or you want to explore how the two relate to one another in the kingdom of God (like me).  This is a long conversation that goes back through the ages.  It seems that within the Church people are often reacting to one side, then to the other.  This is especially evident since the Protestant Reformation, which I will expound [crudely for the sake of brevity].

In his Ninety-Five Theses (written in 1517 – the document that sparked the Protestant and Catholic Reformations, essentially) Luther argues against clerical abuses and explicitly states that both outward and inward repentance is important.  Luther believed—and I would say believed rightly—that the Church was abusing authority primarily with regard to specific gifts to the Church (indulgences) that were being used to fund the building of the papal palace.  In return for these gifts, people were given pardons from certain amounts of time in Purgatory (as is the purpose of indulgences in the Catholic tradition).  In his Theses Luther also argues against the demotion of the Scripture in Church worship for the sake of things like said pardons.  At the time it was not Luther’s intention to break away from the Roman Church, but to reform it.  Still, Luther’s refusal to back down from his increasingly hostile criticisms against the Catholic Church brought about his excommunication in 1521.

Perhaps the most enduring aspect of Luther’s teachings in the Protestant world involves his principles of sola fide (‘by faith alone’), sola gratia (‘by grace alone’) and sola scriptura (‘by Scripture alone’).  Luther was convinced that the Church had drifted from the Pauline teaching of salvation by faith in Christ alone, instead opting for additional works in order to ‘acquire salvation’.  The Council of Trent in 1545 made clear the belief in the Catholic Church that it was exclusively by God’s grace that salvation came to the believer, but by this time the teaching of Luther and the reformers that followed after him had done its damage.  One of the central tenets of the ‘Lutheran view’ is that the epistles of St Paul dealt with the issue of the Jewish understanding of ‘salvation by works’ (a controversial notion that I believe is an inaccurate read of both Second Temple Judaism [6th century BCE to the 1st century CE] and the writings of Paul).  When Luther looked at Paul’s writings he saw his situation (a Christian dealing with the false teachings of an established religion based upon salvation by works) coupled with Paul’s dealings with the ‘Judaisers’.  As a result of this interpretation the Lutheran and Reformed traditions have had what some consider an disproportionate aversion toward the concept of ‘works’ ever since.  Luther’s view has been criticised by those that hold a more traditional view and the recent work by Protestants like  Krister Stendahl, E. P. Sanders, James Dunn and Tom Wright (the ‘New Perspective on Paul’), which in itself is a 20th century reaction to the Protestant Reformation.

As the Protestant Reformation made its way across Europe it opened the door for the replacement of the feudal social system with a more mercantile (eventually capitalistic) social system.  The Enlightenment came to pass, which generally pressed that the right beliefs (essentially by way of right logic) precede right actions.  In the late 18th and early 19th centuries The Romantic and Counter-Enlightenment movements reacted against the Enlightenment, stressing the inadequacy of bare logic and doctrine.  Friedrich Schleiermacher played an important role in the intellectual history of Europe at this time.  He held that experience was to inform doctrine.  Theological liberalism followed Schleiermacher and dominated Western Christianity for the next century.

In the early 20th century we see the birth of Modernism and WWI.  Karl Barth, reacting against the endorsement of the Weimar Republic’s expansionistic ambitions by his liberal theological mentors, rejected the conclusions of Schleiermacher.  Barth, inspired by Hegel and Kierkegaard, instead proposes a dialectic approach in which the unknowable God has revealed himself in Jesus Christ and it is through Christ alone, the Word of God, that a Christian might experience God.  Modernism pressed forward after the First World War, critiquing orthodoxy, which prompted the Fundamentalist Evangelical reaction.  This movement made way for the surge in popularity of the Restorationist Movement (emphasising ‘proper’ action) and the anti-intellectual Jesus Movement (emphasising ‘correct’—though not necessarily orthodox—beliefs).

Post-modernism has found expression in the Emergent Movement, which emphasises ‘belonging before belief’, prompting yet another Evangelical reaction emphasising ‘belief before belonging’.  In reaction to this whole mess we also have those who try to hold onto something universal and unchanging – ‘Ecumenists’, like me.

In looking very briefly at some Western intellectual history over the last 500 years I hope to have not offended too many readers.  If you feel my incredibly brief summary has not treated your views equally I apologise profusely and ask that you would please comment if you’d like to add something relevant – I might have more detailed reasons for much of what I did write and we can engage in an enlightening (excuse my language) dialogue.

So where are we now?  We’ve determined that [Protestant] Christians have frequently shifted between emphases on orthodoxy and orthopraxy.  We’ve also determined that two prominent Protestant movements are currently in conflict over this very issue.  What does the Gospel of the kingdom of God have to say about these two things?

We can look to Scripture for some insight, but I quickly want to express a few things with regard to Scripture.  We must understand that Scripture was written by different people at particular points in time, in particular geographical locations, for particular reasons.  This is not to say that the Scripture has become entirely inaccessible to anyone in our present age.  I believe that God has given the Church authority and therefore as a product of the Church, the Bible has authority.  God is also a living and active God and his Holy Spirit can provide guidance and insight in our explorations, potentially.  Still, the Scripture is not a treatise on everything – that is not its purpose.  I believe a sure way to orient ourselves in order to see the world (and this issue of orthodoxy vs. orthopraxy) in light of the kingdom of God we must look toward our example of proper living in the kingdom of God: Jesus of Nazareth.

With regard to the life of Christ, the primary focus of Christian tradition and the Scripture is the three-year period leading up to his death and Resurrection.  This is considered Christ’s public ministry.  When we look at Christ’s ministry, what is it characterised by?  Do we see an exclusive emphasis on orthodoxy?  What about orthopraxy?  It is quite clear that Christ valued both things and didn’t paint one especially important over the other.  Instead it is more of a process.

Some might say that works are necessary for a member of the kingdom of God.  I would say that works are inevitable for a member of the kingdom of God.  We do not enter the kingdom by our works, neither do our good works merely demonstrate that we are part of the kingdom.

I actually propose that our good works are a reaction in themselves, a reaction to the grace of God through the Gospel.  Some might say sceptically, “Oh great, the obscure ‘Gospel’ card again,” as if it is some inexplicable and abstract notion.  Others might argue that this emphasis on the Gospel seems to imply a preeminence of belief over works.  It is true that the Gospel is composed of data in part – historical facts regarding the actions of God, culminating in the death and Resurrection of Christ and the advent of his Church.  But instead of viewing the Gospel as brute facts I would rather see it as something we perceive with our whole being.  We do not merely hear its words and think, ‘I believe that.’  The Gospel is the effective power of God through his Holy Spirit and the invitation to participate in the redemptive mission of the creator of the universe as members of God’s family, the Church.  Therefore I would see this reaction to the Gospel not as a reaction to bare facts or experience, but the entirety of what it is to begin to comprehend the grace of God for his creation.

The God of history has entered into history and has redeemed all things, visible and invisible, and in this we cannot see a serious Christian faith without a balance of orthodoxy and orthopraxy.  In other words, Christianity is not merely about doing the right thing or believing the right thing.  Christianity is about doing the right thing based upon the right motives.  It is an active faith, that does not exclusively demand our beliefs, nor does it exclusively demand our actions – it demands all that we are, visible and invisible.

We believe in one God, the Father All Governing, creator of heaven and earth, of all things visible and invisible;

And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten from the Father before all time, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten not created, of the same essence as the Father, through Whom all things came into being, Who for us [humans] and because of our salvation came down from heaven, and was incarnate by the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary and became human.   He was crucified for us under Pontius Pilate, and suffered and was buried, and rose on the third day, according to the Scriptures, and ascended to heaven, and sits on the right hand of the Father, and will come again with glory to judge the living and dead.  His Kingdom shall have no end.

And in the Holy Spirit, the Lord and life-giver, Who proceeds from the Father, Who is worshiped and glorified together with the Father and Son, Who spoke through the prophets; and in one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church.  We confess on baptism for the remission of sins.  We look forward to the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come.  Amen.

(Creed taken from John H. Leith (ed.), Creeds of the Churches [Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1982], 33.)

Imaging the Kingdom I: Foundations of the kingdom of God

Since I converted to Christianity in my teens I have been continually exploring what it means to be a Christian.  In my experience I have become increasingly convinced that Christianity hinges upon one major theme: the kingdom of God.   It is used throughout the Christian tradition and is referred to throughout the Scriptures many times (oftentimes referred to as ‘the kingdom of heaven’).   The phrase can be picked apart from many sides, but I believe that its general implications are as follows:

  1. God is the king of the kingdom
  2. The kingdom of God is both visible and invisible
  3. To be a Christian is to be a citizen or member of the kingdom of God

In the Christian tradition, these implications, while very basic, are indispensible.  This series, Imaging the Kingdom, is intended to explore the nature of the kingdom of God and its implications in the universe, and therefore in our world and in the lives of all Christians.  It must be noted that this exploration is inevitably non-exhaustive – we will explore why later.  First we will briefly analyse these three implications.

1. God is the king of the kingdom

The kingdom of God is the most important theme in the Christian tradition (and arguably the other two Abrahamic religions: Judaism and Islam).  The natural head of any ‘kingdom’ is the ‘king’.  To say that God is the king of the kingdom of God is to say that God is the ruler of the kingdom, a rightful monarch without equal.  All authority and power in the kingdom of God belongs to God.

2. The kingdom of God is both visible and invisible

In my experience I have noticed that oftentimes conversations about the kingdom of God (if the kingdom of God is spoken of at all) revolve around the ‘already but not yet’ nature of the kingdom of God.  There are real issues affecting how we experience the presence of the kingdom of God in this age, the Church age.  The orthodox Christian understanding is that throughout history God has been extending his reign over a fallen universe that has rejected his reign.  This extension has taken its most dramatic leap forward in the life, death and Resurrection of Jesus Christ.  Since (and through) that event, God has established his Church on earth, empowered by the Holy Spirit to live out what it means to be in the kingdom of God, which we will talk more about later.  There is an element (or are elements) of the kingdom of God that is not yet present, something made especially evident in the Christian experience.  The expectation of Christians throughout history is that God will bring about the fullness of the kingdom of God at some future point in the second coming of Jesus Christ.  This is what is meant in the ‘but not yet’, and while the discussion of what is ‘not yet’ is necessary, the primary focus of this study will be that which is ‘already’.  I use the language ‘visible and invisible’ as it is written in the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed of 381 CE, which I consider the most fundamental and comprehensive ecumenical (general) Church creed:

We believe in one God, the Father All Governing, creator of heaven and earth, of all things visible and invisible…

Even in this first section of the Creed we see our first two implications (1. God is the king of the kingdom; 2. The kingdom of God is both visible and invisible).  The language of the Creed is helpful because it seeks to paint a very clear and concise picture of the orthodox Christian faith.  The words ‘visible and invisible’ help us to see the overarching nature of the universe and God’s reign of that universe.  Orthodox Christian theology does not paint the universe in a dichotomy of ‘physical’ and ‘spiritual’.   Throughout the ages, this dualism has caused countless conflicts that have been deemed heretical.   Indeed, to see humans or the universe as split into ‘physical’ and ‘spiritual’ conflicts with the way that God has both created the world and redeemed it – holistically.  God is not interested in creating a physical world just to destroy it.  The Incarnation and the life, death and Resurrection of Christ point to a God who created unified, holistic beings, whose nature is fully understood in unified, holistic terms.   As St Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 15, Christ’s bodily Resurrection is “the first fruits” of “those who belong to Christ.”  The kingdom of God is not a disembodied spiritual kingdom, but it is the reign of God over all things that he has created and deemed good, both ‘visible and invisible’.

3. To be a Christian is to be a citizen or member of the kingdom of God

Because of the first two implications of the kingdom of God, that God is the king and that the kingdom is universal, to be a Christian is to be a part of that kingdom.  We cannot understand any part of what it means to be a part of that kingdom without understanding first that God is the king of said kingdom and that this kingdom is universal; all other implications of the kingdom of God hinge upon these principles.

The inevitable imprecision of our talk about God and his kingdom: ‘Imaging’

Since Christians are members of the kingdom of God, subjects as to a monarch even, it serves us well to learn, rehearse and enact what that means for the way we live and think.   Unfortunately we face one significant roadblock: God himself.   I’ve been writing, “God is this” and “God is that”, but as the seminal twentieth-century Reformed theologian Karl Barth reminds us time and time again, God is entirely ‘other’.  What is meant by this is that God as a being is distinct from his creation and while he has invested into his creation through Christ, the Holy Spirit and the presence of the kingdom of God, in trying to talk about God we will inevitably be imprecise.   This might seem discouraging, but I can’t tell you how pleased I am that I haven’t figured everything out in my early twenties!  The comfort rests in the fact that God is gracious.

God has been gracious to us through giving us his Son, Jesus Christ, who not only demonstrates to us what it is to be fully human (an implication of the kingdom of God we will save for another post) and what it is to live in the kingdom of God, but it is Christ himself who is the revelation of God to us.  It is through an active conversation with God as his Church that we learn more and more what it is to be that very thing: God’s Church.  Because of this inevitable imprecision, I find that looking at the Christian life from the perspective of the orthodox understanding of the Gospel is our most reliable source, as it is concrete enough to transform our lives, while remaining very open to conversation and interpretation.   In such a way we are ‘imaging’ the kingdom of God, developing ways to talk about God and his kingdom that effectively inform the way that we live.  Having this ‘imaging’ perspective also encourages a fruitful conversation between all Christian traditions, helping us to be unified and effective in living out the kingdom of God in this world as one Body, the Church.

As we explore the kingdom of God in this series, addressing issues like culture, politics, theology (yes, our theology should be informed by other theology), etc., I hope that it is intellectually stimulating, but most of all I hope that God uses this conversation to transform our lives via the Holy Spirit in order to love God, other people and the world we live in more and more.  The Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed:

We believe in one God, the Father All Governing, creator of heaven and earth, of all things visible and invisible;

And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten from the Father before all time, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten not created, of the same essence as the Father, through Whom all things came into being, Who for us [humans] and because of our salvation came down from heaven, and was incarnate by the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary and became human.   He was crucified for us under Pontius Pilate, and suffered and was buried, and rose on the third day, according to the Scriptures, and ascended to heaven, and sits on the right hand of the Father, and will come again with glory to judge the living and dead.  His Kingdom shall have no end.

And in the Holy Spirit, the Lord and life-giver, Who proceeds from the Father, Who is worshiped and glorified together with the Father and Son, Who spoke through the prophets; and in one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church.  We confess on baptism for the remission of sins.  We look forward to the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come.  Amen.

(Creed taken from John H. Leith (ed.), Creeds of the Churches [Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1982], 33.)

A Different Way of Trusting

As I mentioned last year, Lent is my favourite season.  (See last year’s post for a brief explanation of the modern Lenten fast.)  The physical act of preparing oneself for the Resurrection (Easter) is an especially effective reminder of the physicality of the kingdom of God.  Over the past year I have experienced more fully the way that God is committed to expanding his kingdom in this world and in my own life.

There remains a tension as the Church uses Lent to prepare for Easter and to trust that God provides for his creatures.  In the midst of his Sermon on the Mount in St Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus states,

Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear.  Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?  Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them.  Are you not of more value than they?

In this passage we see what looks like a guarantee that God will provide for the needs of his creatures.  But in this world of famine and starvation, both by the ‘birds of the air’ and our fellow humans throughout the world (especially in developing countries), how can we believe such a guarantee?

From a broader perspective, in this portion of the Sermon on the Mount Christ is attempting to convince his disciples not to worry and to instead trust God.  While the entirety of the Sermon on the Mount is very elaborate, complex and disorienting, I believe its thematic thrust generally revolves around how the Church is to live in the kingdom of God.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer suggests in The Cost of Discipleship that in the end the “disciple of Jesus will be asked ‘Lacked ye anything?’, and he will answer ‘Nothing, Lord’.  How could he when he knows that despite hunger and nakedness, persecution and danger, the Lord is always by His side?”  While I believe Bonhoeffer has touched on a profound concept sewn into the very fabric of Christian discipleship, the more universal issue of unmet human need faces our discussion of this issue.  Among others, R. T. France argues that such philosophical questions regarding starvation are not the subject of the Sermon on the Mount and while I agree that discipleship is in fact the focal point of this sermon, I also believe that the issue of universal need can and must be addressed in the context of Christian discipleship.

Perhaps this is where we can to be in our thought process:

  1. Christ is not lying concerning the disciples’ necessary abstinence from anxieties concerning what we eat or what we wear.
  2. There is a real problem in this world – only a chapter earlier we read the Beatitudes, where Christ is explicitly acknowledging human suffering in his mention of the “poor in spirit”, “those who mourn” and “those who are persecuted”.  Even in Matthew 8, Jesus refers birds as having nests, “but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head” (20).
  3. Throughout his ministry Christ presents a real solution to the real problem.

What is this ‘real solution’?  While this is not the focal point of this particular section of Scripture, the Gospel of the kingdom of God necessitates a hope, an earnest expectation that God provides.  This beautiful hope causes us trouble because oftentimes the Church is sitting back, waiting for God to provide.  The fundamental issue is that the Church has forgotten who it is.  The Church does not realise the implications of being the Body and Bride of Christ.  Jesus has inaugurated the kingdom of God and established the Church in order to be used by the Holy Spirit to continually demonstrate the presence of the kingdom of God.  In this way, the Church is invited (and called) to be an active member in establishing and maintaining this kingdom.  In such a way, the Church has the responsibility to invite all people to the feast that is the kingdom of God.  We as the Church are called to meet these certain needs and in such a way we will be causing this world not to worry, but to trust in the abundant grace and provision of God.

As we enter into this Lenten season, let us be mindful of the ways in which the present kingdom gives us hope and drive for the values that bring redemption into this world.  Let us not only trust God to provide for our needs as the Church, but extend grace in an active way that gives us a trust that God is providing for his creation continually through the climactic event that is the death and Resurrection of our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ.  God has invited us to participate in his justice!

May we be encouraged during Lent to take time to reflect on the magnitude of the Gospel and in that the great provision of God for all of his creation.

Hanging as a vine upon the Wood,
O Christ our Saviour,
Thou hast made the ends of the earth
to drink from the wine of incorruption.
Therefore do I cry aloud:
I am darkened always by the hateful drunkenness of sin;
Give me to drink from the sweet wine of true compunction,
and grant me now the strength, O Saviour,
to fast from sensual pleasures,
for Thou art good and lovest mankind.

St. Joseph the Studite, Lenten Triodion

Cry Baby

Today I was eating lunch at a friend’s house and the television was on.  The Fellowship of the Ring happened to be playing and if you know me slightly well you probably know that I adore J.R.R. Tolkien’s books and Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings films.  So while we cooked and ate our meal we watched along between the Fellowship’s arrival at Lothlórien and the breaking of the Fellowship.  If you’re familiar with the story from the film you know about a significant event that took place within that time period (which in the book actually took place at the beginning of The Two Towers, after the breaking of the Fellowship).

If you haven’t seen the films and you don’t know what happened this will be a spoiler: Boromir is killed.  Casting Sean Bean to play Boromir probably automatically gave American audiences a negative prejudice against the character (he being the antagonist in many films including but not limited to: The Island, The Hitcher, GoldenEye, and National Treasure [the only one I've actually seen]), which is further fueled by a general lack of Boromir’s strong positive qualities presented in the film (unless you watch the Extended Edition, which I highly recommend).  But if you’ve read the books you probably have a much higher view of Boromir, and his glorious final scene can be very emotional when you consider the honor and valor that Boromir demonstrated in his short lifetime.  I remembered that this scene really got to me emotionally, especially Boromir’s final utterance toward Aragorn, “My king.”  My eyes welled up with tears, like in The Two Towers film when Gandalf, Éomer, and the Riders of the Rohan appear at sunrise to defeat Saruman’s Uruk-hai army at Helm’s Deep.

I got to thinking about the subject and I made a short list of films that similarly moved me to tears, after which I asked myself, “Why?”  I discovered some interesting patterns that linked various films on the list:

Many of these categories can carry over into others (i.e. LOVE is tied to KINSHIP and TRIUMPH, etc.), but in general I see that these distinct themes appeal to what makes me human, or at least human in a broken yet hopeful state.  While looking at the list above I see the Gospel calling out to me, and the same can be said of a list of books, music, or visual art that has appealed to our emotions.

From tearful heartbreak to tearful elation the Gospel has radically given us a schema with which we can understand the universe and our place in it, and it is not simply a cold, purely logical grid to look at the world (which probably kept me from crying when Mr. Spock died in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan).  Through Christ we’ve the opportunity to come to God with our brokenness and to be able to experience true kinship and love as we inhabit a broken yet redeemed world.  Because of what God has accomplished throughout history we also have a hope for the undoing of this brokenness and a time when injustice is eliminated.  Tears of joy will most assuredly follow.

What films have made you cry and what is the underlying meaning of your tears?

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