Saturday, March 31, 2012

The Industry of Politics

Every time there is a presidential election, I find myself wondering about all the accusations that the candidates make about one another, and especially about those directed at the incumbent President. If these things were all true, then standing Presidents would be regularly impeached, and competing candidates would be either imprisoned or hanged.

The ironic thing about the process is that, after vilifying one another in the debates, the candidates smile, shake hands, and maybe even go out for beers. After the election, the loser calls up the winner and offers congratulations. The police are not sent out to make arrests and public executions do not follow each election.

And yet, we of the general populous take all this stuff very seriously. We believe what we hear, especially when it props up what we already believe. We call that legitimate Patriotism. In the religious world, we have a corollary term: Heresy, which generally means telling someone something about their faith that they don't already know.

So elections become more about image, combativeness, and marketing rather than about leadership, integrity, and vision. James Davison Hunter, in his fine book To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World, describes it this way:

"[Electoral politics] has become an industry oriented far more toward the management of images and the marketing of a candidate than to the propagation of political ideals and policies." (p. 39)

What do you think? Is this true?

Friday, March 30, 2012

Religion, Slavery, and the Mission of God

There's an interesting article on CNN's Belief Blog titled "How Religion Has Been Used to Promote Slavery." It ponders the idea that ancient religious leaders like Moses, Jesus, Paul, and Mohammed didn't outrightly (if at all) condemn slavery. It addresses the historic variances in the types of slavery that existed in the ancient world, but also the way that more recent (i.e. American) pro-slave cultures have used religion to validate the enslavement of human beings.

I wonder if Jesus and his earliest followers didn't make a political stand against slavery because they didn't see the work of God in the world as the equivalent of political power, as we too often do in the US.

When Jesus said that the kingdom of God was near, it was clear that this kingdom was breaking into a particular point in human history that operated in specific ways—like normalizing slavery. Rather than speak about how things ought to be, Jesus seemed to be more about introducing a new reality with his entire self. He touched the untouchable, embraced the excluded, broke the power of pain and death, and then allowed all the powers of evil have their way with him. There was nothing theoretical or abstract about his life and work.

And he did this in a real world with real problems.

Rather than rail against the institution of slavery, Paul offered a new way of relating for slaves and masters, who would now see themselves as brothers and sisters in Christ. Slaves flocked to the newly-emerging Christian movement and found new life there.

I believe that the Bible's lack of clear opposition to slavery is not an endorsement of slavery or even a benign acceptance of it, but rather the revelation that God's mission takes place in a real world and engages that world right where it's at. When Jesus cites Isaiah 61 as he speaks in his hometown synagogue, he claims that he has come, among other reasons, to set the captives free. It appears that he does that, but not in the way that most people expect. Jesus did a lot of things in ways that most people didn't expect, and still don't.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Speaking the Truth, Even in an Election Year

Recently I saw a post on Facebook that showed the image of a poster with Rick Santorum's face on it. Next to him was a quote that was caustic, stupid, and hateful, by anyone's standards. Most of the comments added to the post expressed their horror at the statement.

It was so far out there that I couldn't help but go to Snopes to see if it was a fabrication, and it was. To the FB person's credit, he removed the post promptly and apologized for the error in judgment. I appreciated his attitude.

During the last election, I also saw such postings, via FB and through email, from Christians who didn't like Barack Obama. A number of these things turned out to be false (or at least out-of-context editings) as well.

I know that it's virtually impossible to control this kind of thing. However, I would encourage my Christian brothers and sisters—regardless of your political preferences—to avoid bearing false witness, even if it supports your position. Applauding and reproducing a falsehood is simply wrong, and we should not do it. If the candidate we do not prefer is being falsely accused, then we should be the ones who cry out for justice.

We can do that, right?

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Christian Fiction and Imagination

J. R. R. Tolkien was a Christian writer, but loved to simply tell great stories. C. S. Lewis was also a Christian writer, but told his great stories while working through Christian ideas, like the atonement (Chronicles of Narnia) and the afterlife (The Great Divorce).

I find that contemporary writers of Christian fiction lean toward making a theological or moral point, or writing stories that are too sanitized to be believable (the is probably at the insistence of the publishers). A notable exception to this tendency is Tom Davis, who writes brilliant stories dealing with difficult issues like human trafficking.

I like considering an idea and then seeing how some fictional characters would deal with it. I started with the idea of evil and hell invading human life, and ended up writing This Side of Death, using a vampire as the embodiment of evil. After losing some dear friends to death, I wrote The Dead Cry Out, a ghost story dealing with the pain of loss.

My collection of short stories, Dark Ocean (released on Kindle, and free for the next two days), uses a zombie story to explore the nature of forgiveness, a story set in a university faculty to look at betrayal, and others that were just ideas that seemed like fun to write about.

With all the rhetoric that we hear about the issues that dominate the newscasts, it would great to put a Christian and a Muslim into a story where they are neighbors and co-workers, and see how our views change as the characters work through a crisis together. Or create a story with a gay character that requires the reader to deal with the person as a real human being rather than as a caricature. Fiction gives us the space to do this.

Monday, March 26, 2012

The Doctrine of Election Questioned

I’ve always struggled with the theological concept of election. As it was often presented to me, it described how God has elected, or chosen, some to be saved and live eternally with him in heaven, and elected others to suffer eternally in Hell. I know the doctrine has a long history, but it still has always given me fits. It made the unfortunate ones who were excluded from God’s favor seem like the human presto-logs that were needed to keep the fires of Hell stoked.

Theologians and biblical scholars like Lesslie Newbigin, Gerhard Lohfink, Christopher Wright, and others have helped me with this. They frame the idea of election, not as God’s way of excluding some over others, but rather the election of the few for the sake of the world.

Israel is God’s elect, gathered to be his own people through whom, all the families of the world would find blessing (Genesis 12:1-2). Israel came to into existence for the sake of the world.

Jesus is God’s elect, and through him God is reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them (2 Corinthians 5). Jesus was born, lived, suffered, died, and rose from the grave for the sake of the world.

Those who follow and trust Jesus are also gathered as God’s elect, not for their own sake, but for the sake of the world that God loves and is reconciling to himself. We participate in God’s mission for the sake of the world.

I know that different faith traditions have other views of election. However, there is, in my view, a problem with the idea that God would simultaneously love the world and yet pre-condemn the majority of human beings to eternal suffering and torment. I don’t see that the larger narrative of scripture supports that view.

The ability and freedom for people to receive or reject God’s love is a human prerogative rather than a divine imperative.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Pity the Poor Skeptics

The "Reason Rally" was successfully launched in Washington DC last, according to CNN. Even in the rain, people showed up to make their presence known to a world that is apparently unaware of them. Advocates are claiming that they "will never be closeted again," and speak of "coming out."

Is atheism is the the new gay? This is news to me, but the CNN article does make the comparison.

I heard one of the event's organizers interviewed on NPR. He claimed that atheists are discriminated against in the marketplace and even are fired from their jobs once their atheism is revealed to their employers. When the NPR interviewer pressed him on his evidence for his claims, the man offered an embarrassingly weak defense.

I was not aware that atheists had any kind of a closet to come out of. I've known atheist folks for quite some time, and none of them were particularly hesitant to proclaim their non-belief. Is disagreeing with an atheist tantamount to unfair discrimination? Do job applications in the general society of America have a box where you check that you have some sort of acceptable religious faith? This, again, is news to me.

Also, atheism as a way of thinking about ultimate reality (or the lack of it) isn't really all that new or unknown, is it? Bertrand Russell's book Why I am Not A Christian was published in 1925 and has been standard fare in philosophy and religion courses ever since. As a philosophy, atheism has been traced back thousands of years in human history.

I once made friends with a young man who was the president of the Atheists and Agnostics Club of a nearby major university. There are 30,000 students in that university. When I asked my young friend how many members he had in his club, he told me that there were eight, counting him. Eight. Out of 30,000 students. That's a percentage number with a whole of zeroes after the decimal point. I must admit that I offered my sympathies to him, recognizing that it is often difficult to draw a crowd when the topic is ultimate reality.

Maybe these atheists are upset, not because of discrimination, but because most people really don't care that much about their non-belief. Maybe they want us to care. Maybe we could make caring for atheists a law. That would probably do it.

Legalizing Marijuana and Moral Decision-Making

A man once told me the story of how he inadvertently made an illegal left turn from a store parking lot, and crossed over two double yellow lines. He passionately announced to his young son, who was in the car and accompanied by a friend, that this was the kind of behavior that would send a person to Hell. Lawbreakers are sinners, he reasoned, and God hates sin. The man believed that, had he been killed soon after crossing those yellow lines, his eternal destiny would have been at risk.

Of course, if a week later the local city council voted to repaint that road so that such left turns were legal, others could make the exact same turn and rest easy in their standing before God. Or so the reasoning went.

So, as religious people, we might operate under the conviction that marijuana use is wrong for two reasons: First, it is essentially a bad thing to do. Second, it is illegal, and to possess and/or use marijuana is to break the law.

But now there are USAmerican state governments that declare marijuana use to be both beneficial and legal, if you can obtain a doctor’s prescription (which, in some communities, I’ve been told, is about as complicated as getting a library card).

The challenge that people face, particularly us religious types, is in distinguishing between morals and ethics. Morals refers to personal conviction, character, and behavior. Ethics refers to the larger social systems where morals are applied.

So the man I mentioned earlier might say he carries a moral conviction about being a lawbreaker. He seeks to respect the law of the land and understands that conviction to be consistent with his faith. But he lives that conviction out in a larger ethical system that is subject to change, based on popular vote, municipal practicality, and national self-interest.

When marijuana becomes legal in the US (which it probably will, since so many consumers in the US already demand it), then the overall ethic changes. But what about moral response? If the government removes the prohibition, then we are no longer lawbreakers if we indulge. How will that affect our moral response?

During Prohibition in the US, the manufacture and sale of alcohol was illegal (interestingly enough, drinking alcohol was never prohibited by law), a national ethic that was consistent with the convictions of many religious groups. However, when the law was repealed in 1933 (fueled by a movement started by a Republican), religious folks had to recast their convictions about alcohol use, not based on rule of law, but rather on a higher moral ground.

When the government legalizes something that we believe is inconsistent with our religious convictions—such as alcohol, drugs, abortion, slavery (which was legally authorized in the American colonies), same-sex marriage, and so on—are we ruined because of the effects of legislation?

I would say, no. We are not ruined. But we are cast out of the safety net of legislation and then forced to think more deeply about our convictions (or lack of them), and how we live them out in an ethical context that is contrary to the way we intend to live.

When illegal drugs become legal, we in faith communities will have to look anew at what it means to be people of character, people formed by something deeper and more significant than the dictates of municipal, state, or federal law. The law is there to govern, not to infuse people with a morality that emerges from a transcendent source.

As Jesus said, when asked about the lawfulness paying taxes to the Roman Empire: “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”

Friday, March 23, 2012

Rachel's crisis with the "V" word

I really appreciate Rachel Held Evan's blog and very much enjoyed her book, Evolving in Monkey Town.

Now I see that she is struggling with editorial issues that I can somewhat appreciate but only imagine. Read the blog here and you'll understand what I mean.

A Theological Perspective: UUP

I was raised up in the Wesleyan/Arminian Holiness tradition. I have to admit that I ended up appreciating that I wasn't a Calvinist, but I really didn't understand what any of it meant—even my own tradition.

Nevertheless, over the years I've leaned more toward the Wesleyan/Arminian tradition than the Calvinist tradition. I like to say, however, that when I arrived at Fuller seminary as a student, I had no Calvinist bones whatsoever. After I completed my degree, studying under some brilliant and devout Reformed scholars, I discovered that I at least had developed some Calvinist cartilage. I'm comfortable with that.

I've come to understand those apparently disparate views as valiant attempts to put in systematic language the mystery of what God has done in and through the person of Jesus Christ (you can find a helpful and simple comparative chart of the two views here). And while I tend to hold loosely to any systematized framework for theology, I've gone and created one of my own, which I currently like. Here it is, utilizing the acronym UUP (hopefully pronounced "UP" rather than "OOP," although either could be appropriate depending on one's response):

Universal love of the Father. There is plenty of scriptural precedent for God's love for the entire world.

Unlimited atonement. What God has done in and through the conception, birth, life, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus has been done for the sake of all of humanity.

Particular response to the work of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit calls, but not all will respond. Some will even reject.

That's where I am these days. I think I'll continue getting in over my head by addressing election, heaven, and hell in my subsequent posts.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Christians of the Agenda

CNN ran a recent story titled "Progressive group starts training pro-abortion rights religious leaders."

This causes me to think, once again, how Christians are coming to be defined in the US. We seem to be viewed as people of various agendas.

We're all about abortion and contraception - on one side or the other.

We're all about immigration - how to keep people out or in.

We're all about nailing down the true American way - as various forms of either conservative or progressive.

(On that note: What exactly is it that we wish to conserve? Is everything worth conserving? And what does it mean to be progressive? What "progresses" people? What are people progressing from, and toward, and by what power?)

If I remember correctly, we are to be people of the Spirit of God, called to be his people for the sake, blessing, and reconciliation of the world. We are called to proclaim and demonstrate the reality of the kingdom of God. We are to be branded with the name of Jesus, living as people willing to drink his cup and submit to his baptism. I think all that's in the Bible somewhere.

People of the Spirit? or People of the Agenda?

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Clooney, Robertson, and the Sudan

I came across this story today. That people such as George Clooney and Pat Robertson—people with very different views about life and faith—would come together in mutual respect to confront social injustice and human rights violations is amazing. Read the article and watch the brief interview with Clooney.

A Diversion into Fiction

I love to write about thing serious and theological, but I also dabble in spooky fiction. I've written a collection of weird short stories that are being offered through Amazon as a Kindle version, under the title Dark Ocean. You can read about it here.

But here's the deal: Even though the price is only 99 cents, you can save a buck by waiting until March 28 or 29, when it will be FREE to the entire universe. Saving less than a dollar may not seem like a big deal, but just consider it your opportunity to stick it to the man (except that the man is me).

I hope you enjoy the stories. Now on to more serious stuff.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Jesus: Talisman, Buffer, or God Incarnate?

I've been thinking about the various roles that we sometimes assign to Jesus.

I was once asked to pray publicly at a non-religious event, with several hundred people in attendance. I ended my prayer with a typical "Amen." Some well-meaning folks there criticized me because I didn't say "In the name of Jesus." I reminded them that my prayer was consistent with the one Jesus taught us in the first place—the one we call The Lord's Prayer. That didn't change any minds.

I do pray in the name of Jesus. But I am sometimes concerned that we tag that line on to the end of our prayers as if it is the amount of postage required to get it to heaven, or that it puts it at the top of God's IN-BOX. "In the name of Jesus" is not a talisman that promises good luck; it is, rather, the framework of all our prayers (and our deeds), whether we utter the words or not. Jesus is not a good-luck charm.

We also occasionally cast Jesus into the role of Buffer. We conclude that God is angry with us because of our sin, and would just as soon destroy us as look at us. Jesus steps into the picture, dies horribly at the demand of God, and now stands between the human race and this rageful deity. It is difficult to see ourselves as the beloved of God, part of the world that God loves, if God actually despises us and would like to kill us. Good thing that Jesus runs interference.

This, too, is a problem.

I tell my students that, when we think about the way to God, we do well to begin here: God is the way to God. We who call ourselves Christians believe that, in Jesus, God has revealed himself in the most tangible, real way possible. In doing so, he has fully identified with our broken, sinful condition and has given all of himself to us, that we might be rescued from a life that is perishing.

In this we see Jesus, not as talisman or buffer, but as the very embodiment of the God who has always loved us, and has always intended to rescue the world from sin and death.

We need a fresh image of Jesus. I know that I do.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

The Gods of Washington

I just returned from a five day visit to Washington, DC. It was my first time there, and I loved the city. My wife and I did the typical tours, and I was glad to do that, since my feet started hurting after the second day and the double-decker tour bus became a beloved oasis for us.

After wandering through the grounds of the Capitol building, the memorials, the museums, and other great sites, I wondered how a visitor from a distant planet might interpret the architecture, statues, and engraved quotes that can be found in DC. If our visitor had studied all the religions of planet earth prior to her visit, how would she describe the religious leanings of the US if the nation's capital was her first stop?

I think she would say that, indeed, this nation of America shows itself to be very religious. Many of the engraved quotations reference God. And the architecture and statuaries would suggest an honoring of God—or gods, to be precise. Our visitor might conclude, based on her observations, that America is grounded in the gods of the Greeks and Romans. Those are the most dominant religious symbols in our nation's capital.

The only suggestions of any Abrahamic religions that I saw were in the Holocaust museum.

Maybe if people want refer to the US as a "Christian nation," or at least one that was "Christian" at its inception, they should wander around the National Mall and process what they see. Maybe it would be more accurate to describe the founders of the nation as Enlightenment Progressives, informed and influenced by British Anglicanism. Or something like that.

Don't get me wrong: I don't mean to disparage the nation's beginnings. The people who got this whole enterprise going were amazing people (with regular human faults, to be sure), who shared a grand vision for a new kind of nation, and they risked everything they had to take the plunge into independence. But they were also people of their time, and the Enlightenment formed their thinking in a very significant way. The symbols that were, for the most part, constructed in the 19th century, offer testimony to that way of thinking.

We ought to be careful about tossing around the term "Christian" to characterize the nation (or anything else, for that matter). Christianity's influence and presence has certainly flourished here (not always in good ways), but "Christian" probably isn't a category to which the country might somehow return. A return to our beginnings would probably surprise most of us.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Where was God?

I stood yesterday over the huge bin of shoes, the smell of old leather hanging in the air like a dim memory. A young woman standing near me was weeping. I saw a small shoe among the thousands that the Nazis took from the Jews. It looked about the size that one of my grandsons wears.

The Holocaust Museum in Washington DC provides visitors with a startling, heart-breaking experience. That such a horrific series of evil events could occur in recent history is almost unthinkable, but the museum refuses to let the story die.

People have to ask, after witnessing the accounts of the genocides of World War II: "Where was God?" I asked it a number of times myself. But it occured to me that maybe God was doing what he always does--calling the church and the world to enact his justice, to rescue the oppressed.

Maybe too many weren't listening. Many German leaders--leaders in both the church and the state--listened to Hitler, but not to God. Nations--including the US--shut their ears and refused to take in the persecuted strangers, allowing immigration limits to trump the call to alleviate human suffering and to provide care for the stranger.

Others, however, did listen. Denmark protected its Jewish citizens from Nazi demands. The Dominican Republic took in 100,000 Jewish refugess. Faithful Christians and people of good conscience protected as many as they could, often suffering harsh consequences for their courageous acts of rescue.

I believe that God was at work during that dark time in world history, not only suffering with the oppressed, but also calling out for people to stop the machinery of terror and rescue those targeted by Hitler's insane, murderous schemes.

I wonder what our ears are closed to right now? I wonder what my ears . . .

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Would Jesus even vote?

Interesting CNN blog posting regarding how Jesus might vote in the US presidential election.

Here's my take:

Jesus couldn't vote at all. He would need to be a US citizen.

Unless Jesus had papers, he would be deported.

Jesus said that his kingdom was not of this world. In a very cosmic sense, he would be an illegal alien.

If asked his opinion about how to vote, he would probably say something weird like, "Give to Caesar what is Caesar's, and to God what is God's." Really? How impractical.

John Piper and the Tornados

I am puzzled by yesterday’s post on John Piper’s blog. He ascribes to the will of God the devastation by the recent tornados in America’s Midwest. Specifically, he says:

“Jesus rules the wind. The tornados were his.”

Then he closes the blog with a call to aid and generosity:

“You can show your partnership in suffering, and help lift the load, at Samaritan’s Purse” (link supplied).

I don’t get it. God unleashes his wrath against sin and we have to clean up his mess? Why help “lift the load” if this was the work of Jesus? If we ease the suffering that Jesus has inflicted, then aren’t we working against him?

Dr. Piper offers his scriptural analysis regarding God’s will and works of judgment. You can read them for yourself and make your own evaluation. I see this in a different way.

The world in which we live is, and always has been, a dangerous one. Gravity alone accounts for all sorts of pain and suffering. The earth is constantly in turmoil, expressed in earthquakes, tsunamis, storms, and extreme weather patterns. The creatures of the earth—including humans—live, suffer, and die in this violent, dynamic environment, and have been for a very long time.

But ancient theologians, moved by the Spirit of God, saw something different in the intentions of God for all of his creation. The biblical narrative of Genesis 1 and 2 portrays a relationship between God and the created order that is unhindered by sin and death. It reveals the human longing for a world—still a dynamic, dangerous one—in which God’s open presence and constant restorative power does not allow the power and violence of the world to have its way.

In Genesis 3, of course, it all crashes down and the entire creation is subject to the unbridled elements of nature and the power of sin and death. That’s the reality that all people experience in life.

Certainly our story includes judgment and the call to repentance. But does it include God’s random and capricious attacks on human beings in order to remind them that they are a mess? Is God really that way? If so, then I wonder why John would say,

God is light, and in him is no darkness at all. (1 John 1:5b)

Or that Jesus would say,

“God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” (John 3:17)

Yes, there is Sodom and Gomorrah. Yes, there is Ananias and Sapphira. But do those stories constitute the necessity of a God whose character is such that we can expect him to destroy both the guilty and innocent in a random sweep of his hand? Do no faithful Christians ever die in these natural disasters?

The God revealed to us in Jesus is not dark. Mysterious, yes. But not dark and capricious. Jesus shows us the God who takes evil into himself rather than inflicting it upon the world, leaving the interpretation of his violence to theological speculators who seem to have God’s cosmic playbook in hand.

Yes, we live, suffer, and die in a dangerous world. But our hope still lies in the presence and restorative, healing work of God. I believe that our participation in bringing aid to the suffering, as Dr. Piper has rightly encouraged, is participation in the real work of God. His work is redemptive and hopeful rather than violent and inflictive.

We really need to work on this, for ourselves and for the world that hears our stories and wonders about God. You can worship God because you fear he will kill you, or you can worship God because he invites you into his healing love.

Which story is ours?

Monday, March 5, 2012

What is Truth?

In his response to the uproar over Rush Limbaugh’s recent incendiary comments, John J. DeGioia, President of Georgetown University, cited the words of St. Augustine:

“Let us, on both sides, lay aside all arrogance. Let us not, on either side, claim that we have already discovered the truth. Let us seek it together as something which is known to neither of us.”

With the combination of political rhetoric, massive amounts of available information on the Internet (which may or may not be verifiable), the ability to edit Internet-based videos, and number of other assaults on our thinking, truth becomes an elusive prize. Often what we believe is true is what we prefer to be true. Verification is a lot of work. Just because it’s on YouTube doesn’t make it true.

We Christians struggle with the idea of truth. We believe our scriptures to reveal truth, but we draw firm lines when it comes to the language that describes how scripture’s authority is described (infallible, inerrant, authoritative, and so on). We sometimes insist that one descriptor over another must be affirmed in order for orthodox faith to be grasped as true.

We believe that God is source of all truth. We believe Jesus when he says that he is the way, the truth, and the life (John 14:6). Yet we are puzzled when Jesus doesn’t respond to Pilate’s question, “What is truth?” (John 18:38). It might have been helpful if Jesus had supplied a precise definition rather than remaining silent.

To suggest that truth cannot be fully grasped sometimes results in accusations of relativism or postmodern subjectivism. Yet here is one of Christianity’s most profound thinkers telling us that truth must be sought without arrogance, and that it might not yet be known.

We have to be careful about believing that we can fully grasp truth. If we believe that God is the source of all things true, then it has to follow that truth cannot be fully grasped by human beings, since God cannot be fully grasped by us. If we claim to have a hold on the truth (as in our precise theories of the atonement, the authority of scripture, science vs the Bible, and so on), then we might think that we can canonize our views and stop talking to anyone with a different view from ours (except to fight with them). We might also run the risk, having locked down our version of truth, of no longer really needing God. The god of our own perceptions is a sorry replacement.

The people of God have a long history of nailing down their perception of truth and then having to change directions. We are not exempt from that process. As Augustine suggested, the pursuit of truth is something that we do together, in community, and with people who see things differently. That’s a tough business, and it requires humility and civility. And from what we see in public discourse, those two qualities appear to be in short supply.

It occurs to me that, in the Bible, the words “seek” and “truth” often go together.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

On Being Right

I had a lively conversation with some of my students yesterday. We talked together about some of the more significant issues that Christian leaders are facing today: Same-sex marriage and ordination, illegal immigration, religious pluralism, and so on. These are issues that were not on the larger cultural table even twenty or thirty years ago, at least to the degree that they are now.

We talked about how we are always struggling with assumptions about what is acceptable, biblical, and right, while at the same time being confronted with principles that create difficult tensions for us. So our faith tradition might, for example, stand in opposition to same-sex marriage. Yet, if a same-sex couple were to approach one of us and ask for help and counsel, would we refuse them? What if their adopted child had been coming to our church with a friend, and the parents later showed up, wondering if they could be part of such a community of faith? What if we lead a church in a California or Arizona border town, where emotions run high regarding illegal immigration, and a family in our neighborhood—a family without proper US documentation—needs help, do we reach out or turn away because of their illegal status? Either way, do we feel an obligation to turn them in to the authorities?

These are not random, hypothetical questions. They happen. And without deep, theological reflection, we run the risk of sacrificing human beings on altars of rightness. The tensions are not insignificant, and Christian leaders need more than a list of rules in order to respond with integrity.

Here’s a precedent from the Bible. The rule for the first followers of Jesus was that, in order to enter into this new life and to receive the Holy Spirit, a person had to become part of the Jewish community. It made sense: Jesus and the disciples were Jewish, they were all in Israel, Jesus said that he came for his own people, and so on. But when the Holy Spirit fell upon a group of Gentiles in Antioch, a tension was created. Now the rules were crashing against a new reality that involved real human beings and the apparent work of God. The early Christians struggled with this, and the former rule of ethnic affiliation ultimately gave way to the new principle of God’s intentions for the world (see Acts 10-11).

We need to think a lot about where we begin with people. There is a tendency for us (and with most people) to put others in categories (gay, illegal, divorced, apostate, etc.) and react with sets of rules that keep things orderly. That way, we can end with things left in tact (this didn’t work for the earliest Christians, who found their whole world turned upside down when the Spirit fell on the Gentiles). Rather than begin in those categorical places of “sin” (as if we don’t fit in any of those categories), we might consider beginning with other people as co-humans made in the image of God, co-sinners seeking new life. That place of commonality changes our assumptions about others and draws us into the recognition of God’s common grace (as my Reformed friends might say) to us.

Along with Peter and the early Church leaders, we must hold loosely to our rules. After all, the people of God have a long and chronicled history of getting things wrong. We are not exempt from that.

Friday, March 2, 2012

Learning from Mormons

I read an article this morning about the late Daniel Pearl's baptism-by-proxy, performed by some Mormons in Idaho. I knew that baptism of the dead was a common practice by Mormons, but I never knew what was behind it.

It appears, at least according to this article, that their goal is that all people will be redeemed. Saved. So they baptize the dead—even non-Mormons like Daniel Pearl—so that the world might be saved.

While I'm not advocating for Mormon doctrines, I am intrigued by this. Evangelicals preach the gospel so that some will be saved (depending on how they view things like election, predestination, and God's mission in the world). Mormons baptize the dead so that all will be saved. I guess they figure that as long as they keep up the family research work that they do and respond to the requests to baptize the dead, they'll always be in that business.

Maybe there is something for we evangelicals to learn here. We too often draw sharp lines about who is in and who is out, as if we have laid claim to the guest register at Hotel Heaven. We've created very precise requirements about what makes a person acceptable to God (we say that it's faith in Jesus, but we sometimes include the accuracy of the confession, doctrinal affirmations, and even political preferences in the mix). The Mormons don't seem too concerned about those kinds of things. They just baptize the dead willy-nilly, with the intent of helping them live forever in the place of God's intention. So maybe it's a practice that people like me don't buy, but there's still something behind it worth considering.

And it isn't universalism, just so you know. Unless we're talking about the universal nature of God's love, and the universal reach of his mission in the world, and the universal call for the people of God to bring blessing to all the families of the earth (Genesis 12:1-2). That's the kind of universalism I can affirm.

I'm not particularly interested in baptizing the dead, but like Daniel Pearl's mother graciously commented, I think that the Mormons have good intentions. Perhaps we might learn that we can baptize the living with love, prayer, blessing, care, service, hope, and direction. We should certainly preach the gospel, but not absent of demonstration. The evidence of the kingdom of God's present reality is seen in people and communities of faith that demonstrate the reality of the kingdom.

We need to express our own good intentions.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Stumbling Toward the Cross

As we draw nearer to Holy Week, I am sharing another excerpt from my book Atonement at Ground Zero: Revisiting the Epicenter of Salvation (to released in the Spring 2012).

It should be no mystery that human beings are drawn to the idea of atonement. After all, it would be the rare person who would not agree that there is something wrong with the world and, by association, with all people. As Christian thinkers throughout the ages have wrestled with atonement theory, the looming realities of evil, guilt, and shame have demanded their attention. Various cultures have sought to appease their deities with sacrifices and rituals; Christians have tried to understand how it is that Jesus takes care of everything for us. In this book I have tried to explore that understanding primarily through the experiences of those present at or near the time of Jesus’ death.

None of those present at the ground zero of Jesus’ crucifixion would have divorced him from the life that led to the cross. His death was not an isolated theological event but rather an explosive, mind-numbing experience that translated quickly into joy, hope, and mission. Even those who did not know Jesus before the crucifixion—such as many among the gathered crowds and the executioners—would have seen a real, live human being dragged to the cross and nailed down like a wind-blown shutter. For all present, Jesus’ death was tied intimately to his life.

During a class session in systematic theology, my seminary professor—a man not shy about stirring up controversy—asked the question, “If, in the garden of Gethsemane, under the great stress of anticipating his impending arrest and crucifixion, Jesus died of a heart attack, would he have died for our sins?” I didn’t immediately know how to answer his question, but I expected a lively and spirited class discussion to explode any second. I was not disappointed.

My professor was not attempting to disparage the reality of the cross. Rather, he was attempting to get us to think about the implications of the incarnation. If, indeed, in Jesus the fullness of God dwelt (Col 1:19); if, indeed, Jesus is the Word made flesh (John 1:14), then God has done something in and through the entirety of Jesus’ existence on earth that defies complete and full comprehension. The cross is not God’s cosmic gamble, his hope-against-hope that Jesus doesn’t miss his opportunity for crucifixion; the cross is the penultimate event in the life of the one who became “. . . like his brothers and sisters in every respect” (Heb 2:17a), yet an event that was ultimately turned on its head by Jesus’ resurrection.

While the separating of Jesus’ crucifixion from the full story of his preceding life and subsequent resurrection is faulty theology, it would be no less faulty to treat his death as an event that was incidental because of its human inevitability. We are helped when we remember that we are not asked to come to grips with the man Jesus who is sacrificed by God for the purpose of God’s satisfaction, but rather with the Son . . . “whom [God] appointed heir of all things, through whom he also created the worlds. He is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being” (Heb 1:2b-3a).

Atonement theory stumbles when it separates the Father from the Son and pits them against each other in a tragic and violent relationship of appeasement. When the Son becomes a perfect, sacrificial other who brings satisfaction to the transcendent God who demands such a requirement, then our understanding of the depth of relationship that is shared by the Father and Son suffers from abuse. While the relationship of the eternal Father to the suffering and dying Son raises questions about the nature of God, creating a chasm between the Father and Son that is bridged only by the Son’s death is a solution grounded more in the concept of blind western justice than in the doctrine of the Trinity.