Tag Archive | kingdom of God

The World Unchained

DjangoUnchained

WARNING: Contains spoilers

This article was originally published in the February 2013 newsletter for Govan & Linthouse Parish Church, Glasgow.

Last week I had the opportunity to go to a screening of the latest Quentin Tarantino film, Django Unchained.  If you’ve never seen a Tarantino film, they are known for their excessive violence, brutality and coarse language.  Django Unchained is no different.  I’m not suggesting you see the film, that is, unless you’re willing to endure 165 minutes of brutality (but it’s brutality with a point).  If you are planning on seeing the film, I warn you that this article will contain some spoilers.

The film is made out to be a western epic.  It takes place in the pre-Civil War United States.  The main protagonists are Dr King Schultz (played by Academy Award winner Christoph Waltz), a German immigrant and former dentist who works as a bounty hunter, collecting rewards for the bodies of federal outlaws, and Django (played by another Academy Award winner, Jamie Foxx), a black slave who has been separated from his wife, another slave called Broomhilda (played by Kerry Washington).  Schultz first ‘unchains’ Django as he is being transported by slave drivers through Texas.  Previously, Django had been a slave on a plantation where three murderous outlaws, the Brittle Brothers, had worked as farmhands.  Schultz wishes for Django to assist him in identifying the Brittle Brothers so that he may collect the reward for their bodies.  Schultz, who throughout the film demonstrates his utter distaste for the institution of slavery, offers Django his freedom, $75 and a horse in exchange for his assistance (and feels awful for not simply giving Django his freedom straight away).  After the slaying of the Brittle Brothers, Schultz asks Django, who demonstrates great skill in the ‘art’ of bounty hunting, if he would join him as his business partner for the winter and Django accepts his proposition.  Django reveals that once he is finished with their winter’s work, he is going to try to find his wife and rescue her from slavery.  Schultz, who has developed a very close friendship with Django, insists that he helps Django, as they discover that Broomhilda is a slave on a large plantation outside of Greenville, Mississippi, a particularly dangerous part of the States for a black man, free or not.

After the winter they come up with and carry out a complicated plan to reunite Django and his beloved Broomhilda.  But after their plan is uncovered, Schultz and Django are given an ultimatum: either they pay the exorbitant amount of $12,000 to purchase Broomhilda or she will be killed by her owner, the ruthless and bigoted plantation owner, Calvin Candie (played by Leonardo DiCaprio).  After they comply, Candie proposes that the transaction is not official until Schultz shakes his hand.  Schultz, who has been having flashbacks of an event during which Candie ordered a runaway slave to be torn apart by dogs, refuses to shake hands.  This is the point in the film which I believe carries the most moral weight.  As we, the audience, have been battered with the injustice and brutality of racism and the institution of slavery throughout the film, we feel something of that same moral weight.  Ultimately, Schultz’ refusal ends up costing him his life.

The film continues from there, but it’s at this point that I want to ask a question: what does Django Unchained have to teach Christians?  Our two main protagonists exhibit many Christ-like qualities throughout the film, but the one which I think is most profound, as a result of the build-up of the film, is Schultz refusal.  On principle, Schultz sees shaking Candie’s hand as some sort of approval of Candie, his vicious treatment of slaves and the whole of institutionalised racism that still, even in the age of a black President, finds expression in some parts of American culture.  Although some Americans, particularly the Quakers in the North, were opposed to slavery during the first half of the 19th century, the institution was still regarded as rather normal for most Americans.  Still, Schultz refuses to betray his strong sense of justice, even a sense of justice perhaps rather clouded by his recent career as a bounty hunter.  He demonstrates this passion in his last great speech immediately preceding his refusal to shake Candie’s hand.  After completing the paperwork for Broomhilda, Candie offers Schultz some rhubarb pie, but Schultz declines.

Candie   ‘Are you brooding ‘bout me getting the best of ya?’

Schultz   ‘Actually, I was thinking of that poor devil you fed to the dogs today, D’Artagnan.  And I was wondering what Dumas would make of all this.’

Candie   ‘Dumas…?’

Schultz   ‘Alexander Dumas.  He wrote The Three Musketeers.  I figured you must be an admirer.  You named your slave after that novel’s lead character.  If Alexander Dumas had been there today, I wonder what he would of made of it?’

Candie   ‘You doubt he’d approve?’

Schultz   ‘Yes, his approval would be a dubious proposition at best.’

Candie   ‘Soft hearted Frenchy?’

Schultz   ‘Alexander Dumas is black.’

The weight of the tone of the speech can only be captured if you see the film, but written out here, we can see that Schultz is able to undermine Candie’s ignorant racism with his poignant and authoritative presentation.  Candie, a self-professed Francophile who, although he does not know the language, insists on being called Monsieur Candie, is left stunned and confused.

Schultz’ words here remind me of the Parables of Christ.  Taking something trivial such as the raw materials of everyday life and turning it on its head in order to shift the worldview of his listeners toward that of the truths and values of the kingdom of God.  Unfortunately, Candie did not have ‘ears to hear’ the truth that Schultz uttered.  Do we?

Of course, our context is quite different.  The context of slavery-era Southern United States is a far cry from present day Govan and Linthouse.  I’ll even say that we live in a fortunate part of Scotland with a long heritage of fighting for social justice.  But have we grown complacent?  Perhaps we don’t have slaves in our context, but throughout our congregation and parish there are new battles to be fought.  Among others, the people who suffer in poverty, the people who struggle with addiction, the people who have immigrated from other countries, the people who seek asylum – they all suffer under various institutions of injustice here.  Maybe we’re responsible for some of that with our behaviour.  In Django Unchained, white people are appalled at the scandal of a black man on a horse.  I’ve heard people express their shock about the scandal of a recent immigrant with a bankcard or a mobile phone.

No matter how much we try—and we do try—justice is not the way of Scotland, the United Kingdom or any other nation.  Nations are made up of all kinds of people with very different ideals, some of which propagate institutionalised oppression.  In reality, the Church looks very much the same, and while I am grateful to God that the Church of Scotland and that Govan and Linthouse Parish Church are very much composed of a diverse body of people, I think we can unite in discipleship under the leadership of one man, our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.

The words found within our Gospel readings for the month of February have a great deal to teach us about the way that being a Christian turns the institutions of this world on its head:

He came down with them and stood on a level place, with a great crowd of his disciples and a great multitude of people from all Judea, Jerusalem, and the coast of Tyre and Sidon.  They had come to hear him and to be healed of their diseases; and those who were troubled with unclean spirits were cured.  And all in the crowd were trying to touch him, for power came out from him and healed all of them.

Then he looked up at his disciples and said:

‘Blessed are you who are poor,

for yours is the kingdom of God.

‘Blessed are you who are hungry now,

for you will be filled.

‘Blessed are you who weep now,

for you will laugh…

‘But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.  If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt.  Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again.  Do to others as you would have them do to you.

Luke 6:17-21, 27-31

As Christians, it is our daily challenge, not just in the month of February, but for the rest of our lives, to seek the values of the kingdom of God.  And we are not called to do this simply because we are good people or we think we will get a box of treasure in the future.  We are called to love because God loves this world.  God desires that we ‘unchain’ the world from oppression — what an unworthy honour for us!

May we be inspired by the love and grace of God and empowered by the Holy Spirit to do the works of the kingdom and fight with great conviction, as Dr King Schultz fought, the injustices in our community and beyond its boundaries.  It’s no simple task, but maybe we could keep each other accountable.  Next time you see me, I’d appreciate it if you reminded me to be more like Jesus and Dr King Schultz.

Many blessings,

Elijah

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

+++++

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.

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

The Church (I)

As you may or may not know one of my greatest passions/interests is theology and within my study of theology, the Bible, and the history of the Christian Church, is the nature of the Church (proper), or ecclesiology (from the Greek ἐκκλησίᾱ, meaning “church/assembly”).

In exploring the nature of the Church it is my desire to both push broadly and pull narrowly.  What I mean by pushing broadly is to define the Church in broad orthodox terms.  This approach is roughly the approach of the Ecumenical Movement.  This approach rests on the assumption that there are various factors that unite the three main denominations of Christianity—Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant—and these factors are what determine what it is to have membership in the Church.  The main difficulty with this approach is that the three main denominations of Christianity are generally at odds with one another.  Conservative Catholics would consider neither Protestants nor Orthodox believers Christians per se.  Conservative Orthodox and Protestant believers share these “exclusive Christian” sentiments with reference to themselves and the other denominations.

This is not to say that I am necessarily taking a liberal stance, but one that simply (at least I’d like to think so) seeks to unite those who do in fact belong to the Church of God, as is evidenced by the seal of the Holy Spirit (whatever that may mean).  But I do not expect the Bishop of Rome, the Patriarch of Constantinople, nor the Archbishop of Canterbury to get wind of this thought and embrace a broad Ecumenical view of the Church (maybe the Archbishop of Canterbury would).  These views are not new.  But in my meager attempt I seek to press broadly by defining the absolute essentials of Christian orthodoxy.  I am not ignorant of the fact that what are considered the “absolute essentials of Christian orthodoxy” are quite different among the three denominations, but I will press on in spite of such things.  I will leave the quarrels between the strands to the great apologists from each grouping.  I am not necessarily trying to develop an apologetic for Ecumenicism, but to express certain elements of the Christian religion and the composition of the Church that may be beneficial to each of the denominations.  This is a conversation regarding what it is to be a Christian and in that broad determination we can also allow for those who simply comply with Christianity without seriously addressing whether or not they are a member of the Church to avoid Christian nominalism—either into the Church or away from an inaccurate classification.

I believe the best way to accomplish the goals of this endeavor is to start with the most fundamental element of Christianity: the Gospel.  In accurately and creatively expressing the central tenant of the Christian religion we can express the truths of God’s action and his call to humanity throughout history, in our present time, and in the future in a way that pushes broadly and pulls narrowly.  And I believe that in the expression and rehearsal of this refined Gospel (as well as growth and enhancements in one’s understanding of the Gospel over the course of a lifetime) Christians will experience God’s grace and love in a new way.  Perhaps in this experience Christians will also be unified, empowered, and challenged in their participation in the Gospel, the Church, and the kingdom of God.

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