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Between a Rock Wall and a Bog

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On the right stands an impenetrable rock wall rising so high it disappears into the clouds. To the left, pretty flowers stick up, but from a soggy marsh. You cannot scale the rock cliff. You cannot walk among the pretty flowers without sinking into the bog. Between the two stands a dense wood with tangled underbrush. You cannot see through the woods, but there is no other way. A path must be cleared.

There is, for many, the God of stone, a rock wall that rises until it disappears above the clouds. This God condemns you for who you are, what you think, and for every failure you hide as well as those shameful failures that stick out in plain sight. There is on the other hand, the God of mush who cares not who you are or what you do but gushes gooey love all over you unconditionally. The Father Almighty or the Grandpa God who never stops smiling and patting you on the head. What a choice! To which could you turn in your time of deep trouble? Before which can you stand as you really are?

Here is the problem I now face in continuing this series of blog posts on relearning Christian faith. How do I clear a path between philosophical apathy (the rock wall that prevailed in Christian theology) and Christian sentimentality (the bog with pretty flowers that prevailed in the churches)? To one side stands the God of the divine attributes, the God who towers above everything human as the very apex of perfection – too perfect to move or be moved, to care about anyone, or to feel anything.

To picture this philosophically conceived God, imagine yourself standing precisely at the North Pole. Any step you take in any direction (backward or forward, to one side or the other) becomes a step southward. That’s the God of the attributes of perfection, the all-everything God who cannot change or even move without being diminished and being, then, no longer God. The God philosophically conceived stands precisely at the summit, the north pole of perfection, so that any deviation would be a step down that would destroy perfection utterly.

The Bible knows nothing of such a God. Not only the great prophets but the Torah (the first five books of the Bible) confronts us with the God who steps down deliberately and decisively for us, to meet us where we are. On the stage of civilization’s history, God enters as the humiliated God of slaves. Why do I say “humiliated”? The pharaoh of Egypt gives us the answer: “Who is Yahweh [rendered as “the LORD”], that I should heed him and let Israel go? I do not know Yahweh, and I will not let Israel go” (Exodus 5:2 NRSV ). Merely to be the god of slaves is to be humiliated because, in the thinking of the ancients (but not only the ancients) the status of the god’s people reflected the power and prominence of the god. The god of slaves is a slave-god.

Throughout the Bible, before even getting to the Christian books we call the New Testament, God steps down again and again to be the God of Israel, to self-identify with the covenant people, to forgive the people who have soiled their God’s name, and to care (actually care!) about Israel’s response. The all-perfect, all-everything God of the philosophers does not and, indeed, cannot step down to meet us, cannot care where we are in life. That Perfect One cannot empathize with the plight of mere humans, cannot feel compassion, cannot feel anything. You might think you have never heard of this God, but you have. In coming blog posts, I’ll show you, and you might be surprised how well known to you “He” is.

This All-perfect One has influenced Christian thought far more than most Christians realize. The Council of Nicaea (4th Century) managed to hang on to the principle of Jesus Christ’s humanity, but just barely and not very effectively. The emphasis fell almost entirely upon the principle of Christ’s divinity, as required by prevailing philosophy and demanded by Emperor Constantine. Emperors do not rule under the principles of humility and compassion.

The people of the churches, the so-called “people in the pews,” countered with God’s love. They held on, clung, to God’s love that came into our world as an infant. But, at the same time, both God the Father and Jesus Christ (enthroned at God’s right hand and coming to judge the living and the dead) were moved further and further away from them, and so they looked for compassion to saints and the Virgin Mary as sympathetic figures who could understand the griefs and pains of human life and who would care enough to hear their cries and intercede for them.

In American Protestantism, we got “gentle Jesus meek and mild.” We got “Love conquers all” and “All you need is love.” We got a grandpa God who winked at misbehavior and far worse. “He’ll always say, ‘I forgive, I forgive, I forgive.’ He’ll always say, ‘I forgive’” (from the song, “He”).

I’m looking for ways to clear a path.

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Words, Words, Words

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Language has a reciprocal relationship with world view, a back and forth influence upon the way we see and understand life, other people, the earth, and ourselves. Also the way we understand God. I’m not referring to nitpicking common flaws in grammar and usage but to the perceptions and attitudes we express with words and, by expressing them repeatedly, nurture until they become the way we see, think, and comprehend. As our children learn our language, they are learning also our ways of thinking, our prejudices, and our attitudes.

When we ask, “What is he worth?” expecting an answer in dollars, what are we saying about the person in question and about all human beings including ourselves? How did, “How much money do you think he has?” become synonymous with, “What is he worth?”

Now add the theological component, as people have been doing for thousands of years, accepting and fostering the belief that wealth is a blessing from God and, therefore, an outward sign (or even proof) of God’s favor. Jesus confronted and denounced the deeply entrenched notion that good health, riches, beauty, power, and prestige were all signs that their possessors enjoyed the approval and blessing of God. When he declared, “Blessed are you poor!” Jesus nullified for us the sacrosanct equations between benefit and blessing, between prestige and virtue, between success and merit. He brought God’s judgment upon the self-satisfied, the rich, the powerful, and the religiously superior.

To address the common objection, I must say further that “Blessed are you poor!” does not mean poverty itself is a blessing, let alone a virtue. Jesus is announcing the coming of the complete change he calls the kingdom or reign of God. Something new is coming, and its coming will be a blessing for the poor, the humble, the grief-stricken, and the oppressed because it will transform their lot in life. Smugly, people ask, “What’s so great or good about being poor?” “Nothing” is the correct answer, with one exception: the poor are more likely to be open to the change Jesus is announcing and to welcome it. The rich have too much to lose, too much stake in the way things are. Their wealth and power depend upon keeping in place the systems in society that make them richer and keep the poor folk poor.

My point is two-fold. First, it is that language and the whole complex of our attitudes, prejudices, cherished beliefs, assumptions, and values interact back and forth to intensify and fortify each other. Second, it is that theology can be and has frequently been conformed to the dominant view of life and truth in ways that make the prevailing systems seem ordained and sustained by God.

Here is a very brief account of how the transformation of the language of the followers of Jesus got started as the movement grew.

In biblical thought, to be “chosen” as in selected to be God’s people or called to be God’s prophet does not mean to be made elite; it means to be called out from among the many for the sake of the many because God loves the many. Israel was not chosen for Israel’s benefit only but for the benefit of all peoples. Jesus did not call people into discipleship so they could become the special ones in the know about God but, rather, to equip them to become apostles – people sent into the world to represent the good news (gospel) with which and for which Jesus equipped them. The churches do not exist to increase and enhance themselves but to represent the salvific love and mercy of God in and for the world and, at the same time, to represent the needs, hurts, disappointments, longings, sins, and loves of the world before God.

So, quite early in the development of the movement that started churches (communities of people who were responding to the good news), it became apparent that the gospel needed to reach out beyond Judaism. Paul of Tarsus, a Hellenistic Pharisee, became the great apostle to the Gentiles and labored tirelessly and valiantly to ensure that Gentiles did not first have to become Jews in order to become Christians. Changes have consequences, gains come with losses, and human prejudices run deep and flow into whatever new movement comes into being in this world. Those who were outsiders at first (the Gentiles, meaning all who were not Jewish) became the insiders as their numbers grew and as the Jews became enemies in the eyes of the Roman Empire. More and more, Christianity became a Gentile movement.

It is a long way from Jerusalem to Athens, not in miles, but in world views and so, also, in ways of speaking. This subject will require more than one blog post. For right now, I’ll just state the contrast as simply and directly as I can. In further posts, I’ll illustrate how that contrast works and so how the churches were led further and further from biblical thinking.

Biblical thought and language are relational. The thought and language of the Greco-Roman world were substantialist. That last word, substantialist, is troubling because we no longer think that way and do not even understand the word itself, but we retain much that has been derived from that thinking. So, please do not be turned away by the strange word. There is a further problem as well which has to do with the rise of scientific and technological thinking, but I’ll come to that problem later. For now, it is enough to hear that biblical thought differs significantly from our Western way of thinking, and it will helpful to recognize the difference. I believe it can bring our faith closer to the human heart and to both the sorrow and the joy of everyday human life.

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Relearning Christian Faith, an introduction

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I took the subway down to the Village so I could walk all the way up Fifth Avenue to the zoo. It’s one of those things a person has to do; sometimes a person has to go a very long distance out of his way to come back a short distance correctly.
(Jerry in Edward Albee’s play, The Zoo Story)

For the churches of the United States, the times are changing. Indeed, the times have been changing since the mid 1960’s, but it can take a while for long-established institutions to acknowledge change. In Europe, Christendom has long been fading toward oblivion. Here in America no church may be officially, politically established as the state religion, but the traditional Protestant churches were culturally established to such an extent and the evangelical churches grew so much that many if not most Americans believed what was never officially or properly true – that America was a Christian nation. The realization that the vestiges of even cultural Christian establishment are withering here is slower in dawning but can be denied only through withdrawal into tighter and tighter Christian isolation from the rest of our society.

For its first three centuries of life, Christianity was a minority movement, without much of power or prestige. Then came Emperor Constantine followed by Emperor Theodosius (each called “the Great”) who transfigured a servant faith into an imperial religion. No longer was it dangerous to become known as a Christian; rather, it was beneficial for almost anyone and mandatory for men of ambition. Yes, men. Of course women became Christians too, along with their husbands or fathers, and soon everyone or nearly everyone was born and promptly baptized into Christianity (there were still those Jews and in southern Europe especially those Muslims as well). Whole nations became Christian because their kings did so, and from then on, their babies were born into the faith, whatever their parents and grandparents might still believe or what rituals they might continue to practice.

Much about the Christian faith changed with its establishment as the religion of the empire and then, as the Roman Empire crumbled, further established as the heart and political soul of a religious empire called Christendom – the kingdom of Christ on earth which was actually the realm and rule of the church as it sought to manage the power of kings and nobles. Nothing about Jesus of Nazareth fit the faith’s new imperial status. He was everything the Caesars were not, and they were everything he refused to be and warned his disciples never to become, not even (maybe especially not even) when the emperors were doing good. In the Gospel According to Luke, Jesus tells his disciples right after sharing with them the bread and wine of the supper reinterpreted in relation to his suffering which was to begin that night, “The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those in authority over them are called benefactors. But not so with you; rather the greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like one who serves.” (Luke 22:25b-26, NRSV).

In the Greco-Roman world, the benefactor was the great man who enhanced his prestige by giving charity to the poor and common folk who were expected to be deeply grateful and laud him for his goodness. Jesus would have none of that philanthropic stuff. He announced a reign of God in which the first would be made last and the last made first, where the poor would be lifted up and the mighty cast down.

Here is not the place to attempt even a cursory overview of the changes brought about by Christianity’s establishment under Constantine and Theodosius and in the centuries of Christendom that followed. The question is, “Where are we now, and what path are we summoned to walk in faith, and what sort of faith can that be?” Now that Christianity is neither in charge nor well regarded by people outside the church (nor, perhaps, by many within the churches, either), what is our task? Surely, our task is what it has been all along: to be drawn into solidarity with Jesus the Christ and led by the Spirit in living Jesus’ own mission of representing God before the world and, at the same time, representing the world before God. But what does that mean here and now? How are we to stand with him and walk with him in representing God to the world and the world to God? How can we relearn our faith?

And I have known the eyes already, known them all –
The eyes that fix you in a formulated phrase,
And when I am formulated, sprawling on a pin,
When I am pinned and wriggling on the wall,
Then how should I begin
To spit out all the butt-ends of my days and ways?
And how should I presume?
(T. S. Eliot, from his poem, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”)

As the churches of Jesus Christ and as believers born into Christianity or, especially in America, enraptured into it by religious conversion experience, we certainly have been fixed into formulated phrases. I believe it is high time to spit them out, let ourselves be unpinned from the wall, and relearn Christian faith. This faith we need to relearn is not a set of correct answers to properly stated questions (like a catechism); neither is it an intellectual exercise; it is something that lays claim to us, body, mind, will, purpose, and life. But this faith is not anti-intellectual, either. It was Augustine of Hippo (St. Augustine to Catholics) who insisted that faith seeks understanding.

Jesus’ first followers were his students, which is pretty much what the word disciples means. From him, they were relearning life on new terms, and their relearning did not mean merely studying it but learning to live it and share it. They had plenty of questions and much with which to struggle.

God has not given up on the world, God’s deeply loved creation. God will not abandon the world now that the old orders of Christianity are fading. But to walk with Jesus Christ in representing God to that deeply loved but horribly conflicted and corrupted world, even while loving that world ourselves enough to represent it in all its messiness and turbulence before God, we must, I believe, be re-discipled. We must relearn Christian faith.

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Invitation

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Today I am starting a new venture in my blog, and I have not yet mapped out its path. In retirement, I have plenty of time to think about my forty years in pastoral ministry, to look over the lessons I taught, especially in confirmation courses, and to re-read my old sermons (yes, I actually do some of that). I don’t believe I’m quite finished yet – finished, that is, with ministry in some form.

The immediate stimulus for this new blogging adventure has come from re-reading Douglas John Hall’s trilogy, Theology in a North American Context. Having finished volumes one and two, Thinking the Faith and Professing the Faith, and begun digging into volume three, Confessing the Faith, I feel the need to bring his teaching and my thinking together, then go forward with something I can press myself to wrestle with. Ever since Jacob, people and congregations have found themselves forced to wrestle with God, and retirement brings no exemption.

It would be wonderful to get responses, whether questions, comments, or objections. But whether or not responses come, I’m going ahead with this project, and I’ll see where it leads me.

I’ve written my first piece in this venture, and I’ll post it soon. Where I’ll go from there, I’ll discover as I walk (I don’t run often these days, especially since popping a calf muscle). I invite you, whoever you are, to walk with me for a while and see what turns up.

The Road goes ever on and on
Down from the door where it began.
Now far ahead the Road has gone,
And I must follow, if I can,
Pursuing it with weary feet,
Until it joins some larger way,
Where many paths and errands meet,
And whither then? I cannot say.
(Frodo Baggins in J. R. R. Tolkien’s, The Lord of the Rings)