Faith Thinking Aloud

Salvation? What Is That?

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I said earlier in this series, “Relearning Christian Faith,” that we need to allow the gospel to expand our severely restricted view of salvation. The Bible presents salvation as something that happens for us in context – that is, within the context of human distress and need. Water is salvific for a person dying of thirst but not for one who is drowning. That example may sound trivial in contrast to the question of our ultimate destiny beyond our dying, but its implications are not trivial at all. At issue are questions of when, where, and how life matters.

If the only truly significant question in the life were how each of us will spend eternity, salvation would be nothing more than a matter of ensuring the proper arrangements were made for us before we died. This life would be meaningless aside from the decision about hereafter. Christianity departs from the Bible when it presents life that way, as merely a matter of time allotted for making the choice between heaven and hell. That stick-and-carrot means for driving us has driven us astray, thereby degrading life, love, and all that gives worth to being human in this world. Fear hell (the stick) and hope for heaven (the carrot)! Decide before it is too late because you never know when you’ll die! Get saved! And then stay saved, which has generally meant being obedient to Christian authority and giving “time, talents, and treasure” to a church or to the latest evangelist with a commanding personality and an entertaining show. No wonder that from the outside Christian faith has seemed a clever and insidious way of driving the sheep, keeping them under control, and fleecing them! It has too often and for too long been just that. But, no! Biblically, salvation is coming alive, stepping out of confinement into freedom to move, being healed, coming to a dignity that enables life and love to be shared, going forward with hope and courage. And, because human life is relational, living it involves going forward together with shared purpose and responsibility.

In the Bible, salvation is restoration to life – to freedom, wholeness, and vitality. Salvation takes many forms, depending upon the present distress of the person or people in need of saving. For the enslaved people of Israel, salvation came as exodus (stepping out) from the bondage that had kept them degraded to the level of beasts of burden. Those who were no people, subhuman, were released from their shame and delivered into freedom as God’s people, and their release required great adjustments because it made them responsible for their shared life in ways they had not been allowed to be responsible during their enslavement. For the prisoner, salvation comes as release. For the outcast, it comes as acceptance back into the family or community. For the mentally ill, as clearing of the mind. For the sick or broken, as healing. For the lonely, as friendship and love. For the childless who long for children, as conception and birth (or adoption). For the abused, as escape, healing, dignity, and restored capacity for self-love. For the refugee, safety and freedom in a new home. The list could go on to be as long as the list of life-threatening, life-robbing, life-diminishing distresses and agonies of being human in this world. And those last three words in the previous sentence matter greatly – “in this world” – because here is where God meets us with salvific grace.

The focus of the Bible is upon this world, not another, and upon this life. I am not denying the important role of salvation in responding to the distress of our mortality – to the human crisis of death and impending oblivion. “I believe in the resurrection of the particular person who is loved and the life everlasting.” But even distress over our mortality belongs to us in this life in this world – within the context of our actual being where we are. It is the living who fear death. The person who learns to trust God here and now will be learning to trust God also for then and forever, but the biblical focus is upon here and now.

I want to keep these posts shorter than some have been, and so I’ll hold for next time a consideration of the life-damaging consequences of falsely deferring salvation until after death. Faith, hope, and love belong in the present. We do not see what lies around the next bend in our life’s road, but we can learn to trust, and we can discover what salvation means in our present anxieties.

Needy? God?

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This post is the second part of, “God: Neither Self-sufficient nor Needy.” Part one is here.

Who in the world thinks of God as needy, especially among people not cynical about religion? Sure, in his poem, “The Latest Decalogue,” the English Victorian poet Arthur Hugh Clough wrote:

Thou shalt have one God only; who
would be at the expense of two?

That snarky comment, however, seems pointed at the comfortable practitioners of religion rather than at God as such. Truly, that distinction should be made throughout this post because the real issue in considering any neediness in God is the religious desire of human beings to satisfy themselves that they have met the need and so have the God-question securely in hand and well managed so their practice of religion serves their comfort and security in life as they are living it.

In the ancient world, it was common for people to assume that it was to a god’s advantage to defend and prosper his (or her) city or land because upon that security and prosperity the god’s status depended. Even the God to whom the Bible bears witness was said to be “enthroned on the praises of Israel” (Psalm 22:3, NRSV), and a typical piece in the prophetic argument for mercy for Israel or Judah is to ask God what the other nations will think and say if divine judgment is executed upon Yahweh’s own people. Why should the nations be given reason to mock Israel by asking in scorn, “Where is your God?” as though that God were weak.

In addition to the implied need of God for a secure and prosperous people to reflect their God’s glory, there is the whole matter of sacrifices and other prescribed forms of devotion employed to satisfy the needs or demands of God. At issue is the question of what pleases or delights God. The ritual of sacrifice, at its best, was meant to express an inward reality of repentance, contrition, and remorse, with the intention to do otherwise in the future. Of course, making the proper sacrifice devolved into a sort of magical safeguard against divine displeasure and currying of favor. What does one do after having done some evil, made some mistake, or merely been imperfect and fallible as all humans are? One offers a sacrifice to appease God. A modern Christian might similarly offer a prayer of confession or receive the sacrament.

A young husband speaks hurtfully to his wife, but seeing her reaction decides to express his remorse in an apology supported by a pretty bouquet. Sensing his sincerity, his wife accepts the apology (and the flowers), and so the trouble dissipates. But, having seen (he imagines) how well the flowers “worked,” he fails to take her feelings and her dignity to heart and question himself. Instead, he simply sticks with what works: if she’s upset, give a bouquet. Soon enough, she detests his flowers and is ready to shove them into his face.

Of buying off God with sacrifices meant to appease the divine ego without the bother of rethought living and changed behavior, a psalmist gives words to God’s desire for integrity.

If I were hungry, I would not tell you, for the world and all that is in it is mine.
Do I eat the flesh of bulls, or drink the blood of goats?
Offer to God a sacrifice of thanksgiving, and pay your vows to the Most High.
Call on me in the day of trouble; I will deliver you, and you shall glorify me.”
(Psalm 50:12-15 NRSV)

More than a few biblical scholars and theologians have noticed that the Bible frequently speaks negatively of religious practice, not for its forms, but for its motives that drain those forms of meaning. Yahweh God will not be appeased! Like the young wife at the sight of more quick-fix flowers, God gets disgusted by religion intended to mollify the divine sensibilities without effecting a change of heart or changing the treatment of others.

When you come to appear before me, who asked this from your hand? Trample my courts no more; bringing offerings is futile; incense is an abomination to me. New Moon and Sabbath and calling of convocation – I cannot endure solemn assemblies with iniquity. Your new moons and your appointed festivals my soul hates; they have become a burden to me, I am weary of bearing them. When you stretch out your hands, I will hide my eyes from you; even though you make many prayers, I will not listen; your hands are full of blood. Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow. (Isaiah 1:12-17 NRSV, amended with capitalization of Jewish observances)

I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them; and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals I will not look upon. Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. (Amos 5:21-24 NRSV)

And it is not just the Old Testament but is every bit as much a Christian problem of integrity, of attitudes and motives, and of regard for other people.  It is relational, not merely religious.

If I give away all I have, and if I deliver my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing. Love is patient and kind; love is not jealous or boastful; it is not arrogant or rude. Love does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful . . . . (The apostle Paul in I Corinthians 13:3-5 RSV)

So, when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift. (Jesus in Matthew 5:23-24 NRSV)

God does not need our offerings, praises, or doctrinal correctness. Jesus Christ, who emptied himself of power, pride, and prestige to take the form of a servant and, for the sake of the world and its people, endured shame, agony, and death does not need the pride, power, or prestige of churches or of cultural Christianity in American society.  Christ does not need a Christianity that is powerful, let alone dominant.

The biblical insistence is that compassion must rise above the self-regard of power and prestige. Empathy, compassion, and respect are to come especially from those in positions of power over others; the powerful are called to set aside that power for the sake of love, justice, and respect.

God has chosen to need us, but with love’s need for love in response. Human love in response to God’s love must turn not only “upward” but also outward to the rest of humanity and to the whole creation. Religion (including Christian religion) without justice and compassion is rotten to God.

To religious people griping about the demands made upon them by a supposedly peevish and needy Deity, the prophet Micah speaks for God:

What is good has been showed to you, human. What does Yahweh require of you but to do and make justice, to love chesed (a Hebrew word for steadfast love, kindness, mercy, covenant loyalty, and more that is profoundly relational), and to walk humbly with your God? (Micah 6:8)

God: Neither Self-sufficient nor Needy

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That neither/nor statement in my heading very likely would be controversial if not downright offensive to many Christians, including many in the Reformed Tradition within which I am a minister. What Reformed Protestant Christian would suggest God is not self-sufficient? For that matter, what Christian of any stripe would propose that God is needy? Nonetheless, I am saying we need to consider this neither/nor argument to gain biblical help finding a path between the all-everything, utterly detached God of much philosophy and the sweetly benign blessing-dispenser God of much currently popular Christianity.

How could God not be self-sufficient and still be God? My own tradition of Christian faith insists most adamantly upon the absolute sovereignty of God. That insistence is meant to protect us from all notions of obligating God in any way – by our virtue, our charity, our doctrinal correctness, our religious devotion, or our giving to a church. “Nothing in my hands I bring” (the evangelical hymn, “Just As I Am, without One Plea”). We cannot obligate God! I concur and so, I believe, do the biblical witnesses from start to finish.

But God can obligate God. That is, God can self-commit to human beings and to the whole of creation, and the biblical message insists that God has done so.

How can I give you up, Ephraim? How can I hand you over, O Israel? How can I make you like Admah? How can I treat you like Zeboiim? [Legendary cities representing total annihilation for unalloyed evil] My heart recoils within me; my compassion grows warm and tender. (Hosea 11:8 NRSV)

Is Ephraim [the northern kingdom of Israel] my dear son? Is he the child I delight in? As often as I speak against him, I still remember him. Therefore I am deeply moved for him; I will surely have mercy on him, says the LORD. (Jeremiah 31:20 NRSV)

And when the LORD smelled the pleasing odor, the LORD said in his heart, “I will never again curse the ground because of humankind, for the inclination of the human heart is evil from youth; nor will I ever again destroy every living creature as I have done. As long as the earth endures, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night, shall not cease.” (Genesis 8:21-22 NRSV)

The Bible has words to share, stories to tell, and appeals to be made because (and only because) God has self-committed to the creation and to the human creature meant to represent God’s love and care to the rest as well as to each other. If God remained self-sufficient, there would be no Bible. The biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann comments on Hosea chapter 11:

Yahweh will cast aside all reasonable objection and act on this powerful sense of yearning and caring that runs directly against the self-regard of this God who has been profoundly affronted. The judge-king speaks now as mother-father, who in this moment acknowledges that the relationship counts for more than self-regard, and that sovereignty is decisively qualified by pathos. (Theology of the Old Testament, p. 301).

If we are going to relearn Christian faith, we need to start realizing that passion for justice and healing, compassion for creation and all people, desire for reconciliation with God and among divided peoples – these overriding concerns of God – matter far more than the self-regard of the churches and infinitely more than the pride of American Christians in their crumbling position of power and privilege in our society. While people cry out (many crying out silently) for the salvation of human dignity and hope and while the creation itself cries out silently (or in violent weather events) for deliverance from destruction, Christians and barely nominal Christians rant and rail against a trumped-up war on Christmas and pathetically phony “persecution” feelings.

To relearn Christian faith, we need to acknowledge the matters that truly do matter to God, and we need for them to matter to us. If love can turn the sovereignty of God away from self-regard and toward empathy and compassion, then surely it must turn Christian pride in that same direction. We need a Christianity that becomes self-committed, because it is Christ-committed, to this created world and all its people. Christian faith is not about Christian prestige, privilege, or power; it is about God’s self-commitment to this world God loves.

This post is now long enough, and so I’ll save part two of the neither/nor statement for the next post. Does anyone really regard God as needy? Is that a real danger to Christian faith? Next time.

God: Who Not What

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Human life and human being are relational. The individual matters greatly as an individual can matter only within relationships. The great worth of a person comes from love, and only love (in all its variety that includes friendship and true neighborliness) makes the individual irreplaceable. No talent, skill, or accomplishment can make a person irreplaceable. Even the best in the world at something is soon replaced by another who is better. Aging takes away such greatness, and it is soon forgotten. Only love values the person as the person. Love holds dear the particular person, who that person is rather than what that person has or can do.

Fine. That all sounds beautiful, but what of the person who is unloved? And what of the one who was loved by people who have died and now is left alone? What of the person who has been hurt, perhaps shamed, too deeply to be able to accept love or the need for it? Are the lonely, the lost, and the embittered no longer human? There is love that does not go away, and we’ll hear more about that love later.

Biblically, God is who not what. Philosophically, God may be regarded as “that than which no greater can be conceived” or “the Unmoved Mover” or the absolutely all-perfect One with those various attributes that define perfection as utter detachment from all else: immutable, impassible, omnipotent, omniscient, etc. Biblical thought allows no space for conceiving of God as a thing, a what, or even Being outside relatedness. The Bible presents God only as God relates to the covenant people, the world of people, and the entire creation. God alone, by God’s self, detached from us and from the created world is an unknown for the Bible. Even where God’s power and splendor are emphasized (as, for example, in the second part of the book of Isaiah, chapters 40-55) such emphasis comes in response to the people’s powerlessness in their exile and to their hopelessness. Yahweh God, the God of Israel, is presented as powerful in contrast to the seemingly unmatched power of Babylon. To this incomparable God, the mighty nations are nothing, less significant than a drop of water on the rim of a bucket; but the powerless, hopeless covenant people in exile are to this God everything, and so God’s power is mentioned to awaken hope and strengthen trust.

But now thus says the LORD [Yahweh], he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel: Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine.   (Isaiah 43:1 NRSV)

Throughout the Bible, the power of God is not known as the philosophical attribute of omnipotence but as the relational attribute of power to redeem, to deliver from harm, to protect, and to restore hope.  God’s power is power for the sake of the powerless.

Calling God “impassible” is even more unbiblical; indeed, I cannot think of an attribute ascribed to divine perfection more unbiblical than this one, because impassible means, not only immune to suffering, but also beyond passion. This terrible attribute conceives of God as incapable of compassion, feeling, or empathy, and so incapable of anything recognizable as love. The idea is that anything which can be moved or affected in any way is, therefore, imperfect.  So conceived, the perfect must stand above and apart from all else.

How does such a notion of God deal with the passionate God of the Bible, particularly of the Hebrew scriptures (called by Christians the Old Testament)? The answer has often been to dismiss that God as a concept corrupted by anthropomorphisms – human attributes wrongly ascribed to God who should be infinitely above all things human. This ploy for dismissing the God to whom the Bible bears witness became part of the anti-Jewish movement within Christianity and of attempts to discredit the Old Testament as childish and obsolete, perhaps even contrary to Jesus Christ and to real faith. The church rejected that movement, but not so strongly as I could wish. The “Old Testament” books were allowed to remain in the Christian Bible, but the false notion that they were superseded and replaced by the New Testament persisted (as did the antisemitism).

An anthropomorphism is a “human form,” meaning a characteristic or trait of humans that, according to the Old Testament’s detractors, cannot properly be attributed to God. The Jewish philosopher Abraham Joshua Heschel (in The Prophets) corrects this misunderstanding of the Bible by arguing that such things as compassion and a passion of justice are not human forms at all but God forms (theomorphisms) sometimes appearing in human beings, especially under the influence of the Spirit of God. The great prophets were people who were put by that Spirit into sympathetic vibration with the pathos of God so that they had to feel and express the relational turbulence of God in relation to the deeply loved but sometimes infuriating people of Israel and of the world. A prophet had to be in harmony with God but, also and at the same time, in harmony with the people.  There was nothing dispassionate about the job.

It is this understanding of the pathos of God that can lead us forward between the unscalable rock cliff of God conceived as the all-everything Being who towers infinitely above us and, on the other hand, the flowery bog of the popular notion of a syrupy, almost senile, grandpa God who smiles benignly, almost stupidly, at everything we do and whose only negative emotion seems to be a pitiful sadness at our cruelties and even our atrocities. “Though it makes Him sad to see the way we live, He’ll always say, ‘I forgive, I forgive, I forgive.’” (From the song, “He”)

Biblically, our knowledge of God is relational, always and only relational. Biblically, the one thing God is not is indifferent toward us and this world. Angry, sometimes. Grief-stricken, often. Understanding and compassionate, yes. Disgusted, yes. Indifferent, no, not ever.

The committed passion of God for the covenant people, for all earth’s people, and for the entire created order is not a minor theme in the Bible.  Rather, it is the theme of the Bible, Old Testament and New.

If the implications of knowing human life as relational are huge, the implications of coming to understand that we know God only relationally are at least as great. Biblically, the two are inseparable. Biblically, being human means being responsive to God’s love and responsible for representing that love in and for the world.

More to come.

Gotta Be Me but How?

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So far in this series, “Re-learning Christian Faith,” we have heard that human life and even human being are relational. I am an individual in my own right, but I cannot be human all by myself. The basis of human being is not an individualized existence but the person in relationship with others. As the theologian Douglas John Hall puts it, human being is with-being; it is a matter of communion, not isolation.

As one person commented in response to my blogging, the implications of this relational view of human life and existence are huge. As we begin to explore those implications, a word of caution is needed. While our humanity cannot be individualized so that I could be human alone, the individual is never to become lost in the crowd. In this biblical view of life, my being as a person never gets absorbed into Being with a capital “B,” meaning cosmic or universal Being that passes for God in some philosophies and some religions. Who you are will always matter because God is not Being but love, and love requires the particularity of the person who is loved.

No, who I am is not a matter simply of me, of ego alone. I am created to be not alone, and I become a human person through my relatedness to others which happens in relationships of various degrees of intimacy. But – and this qualification is crucial – the working out of who I am never is meant to take away my individuality because that individuality is necessary to love.

Much of the pain and joy, both, of human life comes from the struggle to live and develop as an individual while also living and growing in communion with others in family and communities. Is it not the heavy weight of others’ expectations, demands, and judgments that threatens always to stifle me, to mold me into a self I know is not truly who I am? Am I not forced by those expectations, demands, and judgments to play roles in life instead of being true to myself? How many people have confessed faith in Jesus Christ because so doing would relieve the pressure on them and make life more bearable by making them acceptable to family and community?

“Above all, to thine own self be true,” sounds wonderful and courageous, but by myself I have no self, no human personhood to which I can be true. Human life is, at its core, a matter of love, and the nature, intensity, and responsibilities of love are defined, in each case, by the particular relationship or relatedness.

On one side lies solitary confinement within myself, on the other side enslavement to the demands of others (real or imagined) with its loss of myself. Both are dehumanizing. Neither allows me to be human and to live as the person I am becoming. Yes, personhood is always something in process of becoming. Who I am is always the person I am becoming.

The implications are, indeed, huge. For Christian faith, one huge implication is that salvation cannot be understood or experienced rightly as something that happens to me alone, all by myself, apart from communion with others. I can hear a wonderful professor of mine, declaring passionately in class one day when demands for social justice were troubling the serenity of the seminary, “The Old Testament knows nothing of individual salvation!” Personal salvation, yes, but not isolated in the individual. I would add that the New Testament knows nothing of it, either, although that truth may stand out less plainly.

Somewhere along the line in the history of our faith, salvation was reduced and degraded into a matter of gaining guaranteed entrance into heaven in the afterlife. “Where will you go when you die?” the billboard asks me as I drive by. Make your reservation with Jesus now, before it is too late. That notion and the sales pitches that come from it are unbiblical and untrue to the Christ they proclaim.

Throughout my years of pastoral ministry, I realized increasingly that Christian faith desperately needed a re-expansion of its understanding of salvation. A friend reminded me once that during the Dark Ages in Europe, life was so wretched for so many people that hope for a better place beyond the veil of tears became their one light of hope, and the church was able to play upon that hope of deliverance beyond sight to control its people – hope, that is, in combination with their fear of an even worse place of unending torment. But such an impoverished understanding of hope and salvation continues to plague us and to degrade Christian preaching and evangelism (good news bringing) into a hopeful/fearful transaction for the afterlife.

We need a much bigger, truer, more faithful, and more human view of salvation. For now, I’ll leave it with that statement.

Happy new year!

How We Are Human

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I accept as truth about myself (and not merely as an oddity of biblical Hebrew) that being human is a relational matter. In complete isolation, were such a horrible condition possible, I would still have being but not human being. I become human and keep becoming human through relationships and relatedness. I use the word “relationship” for the interpersonal, interactive condition in which we know each other personally and have mutual concerns and dealings which affect our decisions and actions, whether the relationship is one of physical intimacy, some degree of closeness in friendship, or any other type of ongoing, interpersonal relation. I use the word “relatedness” to cover a broader range of connection, biblically from neighbor to stranger and, according to Jesus, even enemy. So, while it would sound odd to say I have relationships with all people and even with the non-human creatures, I have relatedness of various kinds to all.

Biblically, sin is denial or betrayal of relationship and rejection of relatedness. All specific sins come from this negation which enables all the evils we do. So it is that Jesus summarizes truly human life in the two commands to relationship: love God wholeheartedly and love your neighbor as (you love) yourself. When pushed by a master of the law to set limits upon the range of people included by the word “neighbor,” Jesus pushes back by casting a despised enemy in the role of true neighbor (the Samaritan in Luke 10:26-37). Since the question, “Who is my neighbor?” really asks, “Who is NOT my neighbor; whom may I righteously exclude?” Jesus rejects the desire to exclude those other humans with whom we wish to deny our relatedness. In this popular but often interpretatively diluted parable, he pronounces God’s judgment upon our precious bigotries by which we “love” ourselves wrongly and build ourselves up in sin at some other person or group’s expense.

I have now used one from that strange word group: righteous, righteousness, and righteously. In what I have long considered a very helpful article in the Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, Elizabeth Achtemeier expounds the relational nature of the whole concept of righteousness in the Hebrew scriptures (Christian Old Testament).

First, not all righteousness had a religious basis. . . . An act on the social plane is not righteous because it at the same time satisfies a demand of the law, though this of course often happened. It is righteous because it fulfills the demands of a social relationship. The relationship is always the determinative factor. (vol. 4, p. 82)

Secondly, we must observe that Israel’s relationship to Yahweh was not dependent on her righteousness. Israel’s righteousness consisted in the fulfillment of the demands of her relationship with Yahweh, but righteous or unrighteous, she still stood in relationship. The covenant relationship was prior to all law and all demands. Yahweh had chosen Israel. That was the basic fact of her existence. All else followed after. (vol. 4, p. 82)

Look again at the final sentence in each excerpt. “The relationship is always the determinative factor.” Always. “All else followed after.” All. In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus declares of the two commandments to love God and neighbor, “From these two commandments, hang all the Torah and the Prophets” (the two parts of the Hebrew scriptures official at that time). The implications we draw from this view of human being and life as relational have no limits, no end. Christian faith is not, at its heart, a matter of correct doctrine or beliefs. It is not, at its core, a matter of feelings or experiences of Jesus or of the Spirit. Beliefs and feelings do matter, but when elevated too high in importance, they become idols that corrupt us and our faith. Yes, as Augustine insisted, faith seeks understanding, but faith itself is a relational matter. The truth of God confronts us in person. We can never possess that truth, master it intellectually or experientially. We cannot “have” Jesus Christ (or God or the Spirit) in any possessive sense.

Neither can we ever so master another human being. Those we love, even love most deeply and intimately, remain for us others who cannot be known fully, mastered, or possessed. They are not “ours” in any possessive, ownership sense.  They are not ours to preserve unchanged as though we could maintain the relationship just as we want it.

All else follows after.

When my mother had to move into a nearby nursing home, a physician previously unknown to either of us met us in the hallway. After I introduced my mother to him and we spoke very briefly, only moments, he turned to me and said of her as though she were not standing there with us, “Well, no mystery here.” I did not reply but thought, “You have no idea!”

First Step in Rethinking

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Human life is relational. That brief statement of the biblical view of us the way we are as living beings, if taken seriously and pursued, can change the way we think and live our faith. Not only is human life relational, but a person’s identity is relational, also. By myself, completely by myself, I am no one. My very name relates me other people. My given name, Richard Edgar, comes from those who gave it to me and links me with them. My baptism with that name tells of my belonging to a community of faith that extends around the world and across generations. My surname, Sindall, is not my own in isolation but places me within a family.

Who are you? Not what but who? What you are may be answered chemically according to the makeup of your body (you are carbon based and mostly water). It may be answered biologically by your classification as an organism, animal, vertebrate, mammal, primate, homo sapiens. As an individual of that classification you are a specimen. The question of what you are may also be (and often is) answered by stating your job. I am a minister, retired. I am a retiree.

But who you are may be answered relationally, and I don’t know of another way of answering it because the word “who” asks, not about your substance, but about your person. I am my parents’ son, my sister’s brother, my wife’s husband, my sons’ father, my friends’ friend, etc. I am an uncle and a grand or great-uncle and now even a great grand-uncle. I have been a student in relation to my teachers and a teacher in relation to my students. Even if I have been someone’s enemy, that identity too is relational. All alone, I have no answer to the question of who I am.

And yet, I am also unique as are you. No one else has lived your life. Many have shared in your story which cannot be told without them, but your story remains distinctly your own.

It is not good for the human to be alone. (Genesis 2:18b)

In biblical thought, we are created to live in relationships and in relatedness to God’s other creatures, both the human and the non-human. I’m using the two terms, relationship and relatedness, to distinguish the intimately interpersonal from the rest because not all relations are the same in quality or intensity. I have a sister to whom I am, by birth and throughout life and beyond, her brother. I have also a sister-in-law who has become my sister through my love for her sister, my wife. Biblically, I am a brother to all other humans, especially but not only those who follow Jesus Christ. The woman running with her children from tear gas at our southern border is my sister, though we have never met, but so is the woman who calls her an invader and approves of having her children taken from her and locked up. Obviously, relatedness can be strained and can generate less than warm feelings. Our relatedness cannot be understood apart from God’s demand for justice. But I did not create the relatedness and so cannot dissolve it. I can deny it and reject my responsibilities for living within it on the terms of the One who did create it, but I cannot escape it.

Human life is relational. Personal identity is relational. Let’s take one further step. Human being is relational. It is not being in, of, and by itself but is always being-with. We’ll see what all of that might mean as we go forward.

Pause Before Heading into the Woods

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I haven’t given up on this series, “Relearning Christian Faith,” but the next step is difficult because I must navigate between two dangers while trying not to post something that discourages reading it. And the approaching holidays are taking time from writing.

What I’ll try to do is blaze a trail between the philosophical notions that have pushed God away from us by presenting God as absolutely all-everything and so perfect as to be above caring what we do (except, maybe, to condemn us) and the sentimental notions that have caricatured God as our good buddy in the sky or our slightly senile grandpa who smiles at everything and anything we do because we’re just so darn lovable.

On one side lies dense philosophical language that turns most people away (but still asserts more influence over Christian beliefs than we may realize). On the other lie the pretty flowers of Christian-ish slogans and sweet sentiments that offer superficial comfort without confronting the realities of our human sufferings, cruelties, injustices, prejudices, and anxieties. The problems superficial comfort fails to confront and address are not limited to guilt about (1) things I have done but should not have and (2) things I should have done but did not do. Shame (which makes me feel awful about myself, about who I am) and the anxiety about meaning and purpose must also be confronted with hope, but a hope that does not simply dismiss them or gloss over them with easy answers. Does anything really matter? Do my life or human life as a whole have any purpose and meaning? These anxieties need good news that is real and present to flesh and blood; they do not allow simple fixes however pious, and they cannot be answered sufficiently by slogans or encouraging memes.

I’m working on it.

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.

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 be helpful to recognize the differences. I believe it can bring our faith closer to the human heart and to both the sorrow and the joy of everyday human life.