Sex, Resurrection, & Rereading Genesis

Both Matthew & Mark record Jesus as saying “When the dead rise, they will neither marry nor be given in marriage; they will be like the angels in heaven.”, in response to a kind of trick-question posed by the Sadducees. The Sadduccees were a first-century Jewish sect that denied the belief among some Jews that there would be a “resurrection of the dead” at the end of the cosmos. In their skepticism, they had asked Jesus who an eight-times-widdowed woman would be married to in this “resurrection”. Jesus gives the above reply and clearly states that the Jewish belief in a resurrection was correct.

In his reply, the statement about being “like the angels in heaven” has been taken to mean that humanity will transcend sex, as in transcend having binary biological sexes, and simply be asexual. Of course, this interpretation trades heavily on the notion that angels are asexual. While the Old Testament does not refer to angels as female, using either neuter or male pronouns, it is difficult to assume too much from this, since this could reflect the sociological preference of the writers in the absence of having a clear way to distinguish what it would mean for such creatures to be sexed. So, instead, it seems likely that Jesus is just saying that there will not be marriage, and so the Sadduccees’ hypothetical question is moot.

All well and good. This also (assuming the sexual ethics that Jesus would definitively have assumed) implies that there will be no sexual intercourse in “the age to come”. But, why?

Christian theology should opt for a reason that avoids a demeaning view of sex since it seems to be inherently good part of the creation in the narrative of Genesis. The most readily available reply for why is something like what Dr. Dennis Hollinger proposes: “If sex is a yearning for connection and intimacy, it will no longer be significant when we are fully and ultimately connected and intimate with our Creator”. The dissemination of marriage analogies for the end of this present age throughout the New Testament lends this interpretation some weight, and it preserves that ethical position on the inherent good of sex. This, however, reverberates several implications back into Genesis.

If such a connection would make sex superfluous, we are implying that this connection was not present for the first humans, since, obviously, they had sex. Not only was sex an inherent good, it was the solution that God proposed for the fact that Adam was  “alone”. But, if loneliness was the problem, why not give Himself to Adam in the way that we are proposing will be the case in the resurrection? If the only thing preventing us from such a connection now is sin, as some propose, and the narrative is placed in a “pre-sinful” state, the question is looming.

We should, because of all this, affirm that God did not create humanity with an ideal relationship with Himself. That is, a theological reading of the narrative arc in scripture must include the fact that there was from the beginning an available, but not given, relation to God more intense than the one the first humans enjoyed. This does not easily square with the idea that reconciliation with God through Christ is simply a restoration to a previously satisfactory connection with Him, one that we “lost” because of human rebellion. It seems to strongly suggest that there was work to be done, and, without going into it here, a reason for the Incarnation of Christ apart from the Fall.

Granted, Genesis does give us an “idealistic” picture. Adam walks with God, and the ability to hear and respond to divine communication are portrayed as natural. Without overturning the fact that such an awareness was present in a way that no longer is the case for us, we are still lead to say that humanity was created with a goal to strive for, and this because of how we are seeing the relation between sex and the eschaton that Jesus makes clear (and, more particularly, the rationale we are giving for it). This is less of a problem if we place all of scripture within the context of an “evolutionary” framework (and I use that word loosely), as opposed to an “Eden-Fallen-Restored” schematization. It also fits very well with other thoughts I’ve come across and written about on Genesis and theodicy.

All of this to say: Two decisions, one on the absence of sex after the resurrection and the second on why, will have huge ramifications for our view of the Christian story. To me, this lends the narrative more profundity. Instead of being the center of the story, humanity is swept up into a cosmic narrative, where emergence of our species is part-and-parcel of the unfolding mission of God to be “all in all”. It is, I think, more meaningful, more hopeful, and makes the nature of sex more beautiful.

Christ Over Politicization

“To think of everything as place everything in the hands of the state…to subordinate problems of the individual to problems of the group….these factors characterize the politicization of modern man and, as such, comprise a myth” -Ellul, The Political Illusion

What Ellul is getting at in this work is that everything in our society (and by “our” I mean all first-world modern nation-states, “technocratic” states as he would argue) has become a part of “politics”, and I say that the Church in many places is taking the bait on this. I want to quote Ellul on how these ideas have been stolen by “politicization” and how much they oppose what Jesus Christ has revealed to us about human life. Listen to how “politicization” forms our ideas of “justice”, “community”, “freedom”, and “progress”:

Justice: “justice no longer exists as a personal virtue…must be endowed with some adjective, particularly “social”, i.e., it is ultimately regarded as political. It is up to the State to make justice prevail..the Christian affirmation that justice is the individual’s miraculous transformation by the grace of god [no longer makes sense]

Community: “We cannot conceive of society except as directed by a central omnipresent and omnipotent state…we can no longer conceive of a society with autonomous “in between” groups or diverging activities…Any attempt on the part of any enterprise, university, or charitable enterprise to remain independent of the state seems anachronistic to us. The state directly incarnates the public good” (is this not our hope in elections!)

Freedom: “[Freedom] in our eyes is negligible unless..incorporated in a regime, or the fruit of a constitution, or represented  by the participation of a citizen in state power…

Progress: “Man’s progress in today’s society consists in his participation in political affairs…women finally become human being because they receive ‘political rights’..A person without the right (in reality magical) to place a paper ballot in a box is nothing, not even a person. To progress is to receive this power, this mythical share in a theoretical sovereignty that consists in surrendering one’s decisions for the benefit of someone else who will make them in one’s place. Progress is to read newspapers.”

Think about these ideas now from the perspective of scripture. Justice, according to Scripture, is ultimately revealed in Jesus Christ. There, we see an innocent man being crucified for others’ transgression! This point is buried in current discussions of justice. Let’s advocate for justice: Who will be the first to take-on the execution of another? Or, is it not obvious that the state cannot execute “justice”, but only “law”, retribution, punishment, coercion, when we are told to leave these things to God? (Rom. 12:19, Deut. 32:35). Justice in God’s kingdom is infuriating until one follows Jesus, and accepts the truths at the heart of Christianity: that God has chosen to love the world through Christ, and love never fails (1 Corinthians 13).

Similarly, the vehicle for true community, a community that embraces all humanity, is no constitutional republic, no matter how much it borrows “Judaeo-Christian” values. The vehicle is the body of Christ, the “holy nation”. The “nation” that rejects the boundaries set-up by the nations of the world (1 Peter 2:9). Despite any appearance to the contrary, this nation will prevail, not by any sword, but by the “blood of the lamb” and the  “word of its’ testimony” (Rev. 7).

What of freedom? What do we say about the freedom that Christ gives us? “If the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.” (Jn. 8:36). “Free indeed”, Jesus says. He does not say “free in spirit”, or, what’s worse and often implied, “free eventually.” No. We are truly free, now. Here were see some practical, real-life, ramifications that these teachings had on the early disciples, as they had no stake in the “political illusion” of freedom.

The illusion of the particular worldly kingdoms set-up as “democracies” is that if we do not participate in the positive decisions (as opposed to work that is done to undo oppresive systems or laws, as I argued in favor of here) made about who will “represent” us, we are not really exercising our freedom. Christ and the disciples lived under the Roman empire: they had no political say in who their rulers were. I will say without any hesitation they were more free than most Christians in democratic nation-states. Why? Because as we see in Acts, they were “autonomous in-between groups” conducting “diverging activities”, such as sharing their possessions, sacrificially serving the poor and foreigners, and causing fairly serious chaos in cities because of how their faith led to the undoing of lucrative, idolatrous commerce (Acts 16:16-24). They did this without approval, representation, or advocates in the empire, and at the service of their king. They were free. Their freedom was not ‘aloof’ but tangible, with real consequences, and ultimately fatal to the state’s attempt to craft its’ own vision.

Finally, what progress is it that the world seeks? Is it the end seen in Isaiah 2:4?

He will judge between the nations
    and will settle disputes for many peoples.
They will beat their swords into plowshares
    and their spears into pruning hooks.
Nation will not take up sword against nation,
    nor will they train for war anymore.

Or is it really to consolidate those swords into the hands of those who are “just”and “good”? Can any worldly nation even theoretically say that Isaiah 4 is their vision for humanity’s future without self-imploding?

These criticisms are all well-and-good, but what do we say “yes” to if we’re giving a firm “no” to politicization? First, as Ellul so forcefully emphasizes, we look to the people who we actually know, actually can love, and the family that God has adopted us into: the Church of Christ! We have a call to “hasten the day” together, as Peter says,that day prophesied in Isaiah 4, and frankly the nations of the world (as political structures, not as ethnicities, peoples, and communities of creativity) play no part in this progress. In fact, they are part and parcel of the problem.

The simplicity of this alternative is deceptive. It took over 40 days of prayer and instruction for the disciples (who had already spent three years with Christ) to even begin their ministry in earnest (Acts 1-2). Yet when they did, their ministry had more “social” impact than any political movement before or after in history. When we look back at the witness in scripture, we do not see a replicable formula in their story, but the spirit of God guiding real decisions in concrete situations, and expanding his kingdom through concrete transformations of everyday life in the culture of that day (as in Acts 16:16-24). When we turn our efforts to the kingdom of God, allow the Holy Spirit to lead our decisions, and refuse to allow the world to limit the scope of Christ’s redeeming work, we are free.

“Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.” “These things” include how the economy will affect the work we are able to find, how we will produce food, be clothed, and live our lives (realizing that life is “more than” this). These very things will be found in the pursuit of this kingdom, not in any amount of politicized notions of justice, freedom, community, or progress . Leave the illusions aside, and take this freedom offered!

Reflection: Politics in the Kingdom

As a young adult inspired by the Radical Reformation, I’m still in-process of establishing certain compasses in my life. One that seems pressing however, is my engagement with this country’s political process. From the school board to the White House, the question seems like an important one where not taking a position is the same as a position. Unfortunately, it would be foolish, misunderstood, and a big waste of time, to simply say “what I’m for”, without clearing the deck. So, before I state the few fixed points that reflecting on that question as a follower of Jesus has lead me to, here are a few alternative postures towards politics that I have ruled-out:

1. Headlong: This is to believe that (whether you have a dispensational-apocolyptic eschatology or a mainline progressive one) until that end arrives, the Christian way  is to strenuously spend yourself in creating law structures in order for them to be conducive to human flourishing, or, if you’d like, justice.

2. Hands-off: To believe that we should quite simply obey the law of any land we find ourselves in, never engage political systems, and focus exclusively on witnessing to Christ’s love and salvation.

3. Halfway Here, Halfway There: This, to be honest, is the posture I’m trying to abandon. At its’ heart, it is to not have any comprehensive principles or guiding rules that dictate under what circumstance and in what ways a follower of Jesus should engage in social construction. It is a “nominal” approach, and will more than likely just result in the particular Christian reflecting the views that you would expect them to given their age, upbringing, and particular theological tradition.

For example, I’d expect a second generation Latin-American like myself, given my upbringing in a Spanish-speaking charismatic church, loose familiarity with Guatemala’s political history, and large parts of my education occurring in private evangelical schools, to track with what we call “political conservatives” on issues of personal morality, and to track with “progressives” on issues of economic and foreign policy. But it is almost a sure-fire sign of unfaithfulness when Christians largely fit the mold that any political statistician would predict for them. If the salt has lost its’ saltiness, how can it be made useful again? I invite you to be reflective on this point. A good indicator of whether this is true for you is simply to look around and see how many of your acquaintances largely say and believe the same things you do.

Now, why are these un-Christian postures towards politics anyway?

What I mean by un-Christian is simply that Christ would not live like that. If you’re a Christian (and I do believe this means more than just “act like Christ”, but that’s another post), then, according to the sense in which that word was first used, you should live like Jesus.

The first posture is un-Christian because, if we understand the nature of laws, Jesus gave it a de-construction: “my kingdom is not of this world [note that He did not say ‘is not in this world’], if it were, my servants would fight to prevent me from being handed over to the Jewish leaders”. If there was ever an injustice, it was Christ’s crucifixion, and if Christ bases the lack of his servants fighting against that injustice on the very source and nature of His kingdom, then no injustice can retrieve that kind of fight and justify it as kingdom-work. That fight, which in first-century Palestine was a fight that necessarily would have involved physical combat, is at the very basis of law. Put simply, the only way to enforce a government’s law, is with a gun at the hip. The most beautiful, just, rational law exists with the implicit clause “and if you disobey, you will be forced to comply or to endure the prescribed punishment”. Thus, to fight for a law as a Christian (which, if you’re a follower of Jesus, everything you do is as a Christian) is to fight in a way that Christ tied to the kingdoms “of this world”.

The second posture allows me to nuance the sense of “political”. While it is impossible for humans to live in community without any agreed-upon norms, systems of production, and mutual love (part of this is what politics is engaged in), it is not impossible for humans to live together without any designated individual or group of individuals having the authority of force to keep everyone in-line with the agreed-upon norm. This second posture assumes that the first rejection of “politics”, in the sense of attempting to rule-over, entails rejection of the pursuit of community. How we could do the latter without the former is what I hope to hint at. As a side note, this is also why an explicit commitment to pacifism in the church is important to me. The church is a community with an authority structure, one that could grow to the point that we use the same reasoning that sanctions state-force, in the church, or that only keeps the distinction in theory (as has happened many times in history).

The third posture would be exemplified by me in 2012. I was passionate about speaking against American military aggression and economic manipulation, and found these two passions reflected in the campaign of presidential candidate Ron Paul. Were there other aspects of his policies that may have conflicted with my understanding of Jesus’ teaching? Yes! Didn’t I think that Christian stances toward foreigners should be hospitality and not closed borders? Yes! But if those two issues were as important as I believed (and still believe) they were, then details aside, the point is I acted on the basis of pragmatics. “In an ideal world, maybe followers of Jesus would do such-and-such, but it’s not an ideal world, so there goes that”, so I thought. This third posture is perhaps the most frequent one I encounter.

What is the alternative here? I do not have a pat-answer, but here are a few things I have thought about for a long time now, and will live by them until convinced otherwise.

1) The Kingdom of God is not “of this world” but it is tangibly “in this world”, and this means that Christians should be wholly invested in their faith-family’s missions. Those missions should be wholly invested, in all-encompassing way, in creating a flourishing community via conversion, education, health, economics,, without lobbying for the institution of any particular law. That is, just do the Great Commission remembering that Jesus said “teaching them to obey all I have commanded you”.

2) A tangible and effective way of engaging issues of justice is to undo, resist, and scale-back unjust and oppressive laws. There is a clear and definite distinction between creating and imposing a law, and abolishing a law. The abolishment of a law requires no “enforcement”, for obvious reasons. This would, perhaps, also justify reducing the severity of a laws demands.

While what I’ve said above runs very strongly against the grain of a large portion of “social justice” activism, and may even seem absurd when applied to certain problems. But it stands on actual ethical norms set by Christ, and the considerations I mentioned above seem clear as day to me. Still, they leave a huge arena of social-action open to the church, while preventing the church from taking the power of the state into its’ own hands. All this being said, I find great hope in the low-rumblings of Christians taking Anabaptist conceptions of the church, discipleship, and peace more seriously. This is a moment of opportunity that I pray the Spirit turns into a great movement in Christ’s church.

Christians & Muslims Worshipping the Same God

The suspension of a professor from Wheaton College for wearing a hijab, and stating online that Christians and Muslims “worship the same God”, generated a lot of news a few days ago, and, being my typical slow-to-read-the-news self, I’m just getting around to seeing exactly what is being said. So, I want to just offer one or two things that I haven’t seen anywhere else, and will provide a few links for others to read the full arguments I address here. But first, a quick caveat, since this whole conversation has been fused together with discussion of the politics of the “Christian Right”.

As a Christian, I believe that we are called to love our enemies. Further, my understanding of the revelation of God in Jesus Christ makes it impossible to justify violence against any human being, for any reason, even (or especially, considering the cross) self-defense (sorry, not the place for me to nuance this). Politically, I’m neither liberal, nor conservative, and, being totally transparent, I probably fit in better with the politics of the Amish than any other social group (ok, slight exaggeration, but explaining this would be a whole other post!). So, this being said, my interest here has more to do with the theology being tossed around.

The big question being asked is whether or not Christians and Muslims worship the same God. Professor Larycia Hawkins, in the post which resulted in her suspension, linked people to this article on Christianity Today where Theologian Miroslav Volf discusses his work on just this question. In that article, many years old now, Dr. Volf actually explicitly says that “all Christians don’t worship the same God, and all Muslims don’t worship the same God”, but rather “Muslims and Christians who embrace the normative traditions of their faith refer to the same object, to the same Being, when they pray, when they worship, when they talk about God. The referent is the same.” What exactly this means is well elaborated on by Benjamin Corey on his blog:

describing an object differently doesn’t mean that two people are describing two totally different objects. For example, let’s say Jane and Henry both work for a guy named Jeff. Jane says that Jeff is a decent boss who treats people fairly. Henry on the other hand, describes Jeff as being lazy and unavailable. The two people may be describing Jeff differently, and one or both of them might be wrong in their understanding of Jeff, but they’re still attempting to describe the same object.

So far, so good. The issue, which I think Scot McKnight defines more clearly, is that Volf in his book does contend that Christians and Muslims actually do worship the same God, by way of the premise that “our worship reveals our God”, and that “to the extent that God’s commands express God’s character, Muslims and Christians worship the same God”. Volf lists six points of agreement and concludes that “When Christians and Muslims agree on the above six claims about God, then in their worship of God they refer to the same object” Those six points are:

1. There is only one God.
2. God is creator.
3. God is radically different.
4. God is good.
5. God commands we love God.
6. God commands we love others.

My additions to this discussion is relatively short, but I think poignant.

First, Volf’s entire purpose, much of his life’s work as a theologian, is done with a drive to promote peace and inter-religious dialogue, and to do that as a Christ-follower. By finding mutual ground, he hopes to discourage the kind of revengeful spirit in which Christians all too often reflect the values of our culture, and help Christians live faithfully in an age where religious pluralism is a fact of life. In this endeavor, he is to be commended. Yet, in the claim that “Christians and Muslims worship the same God”, what may be sensed as lacking is that Christianity is not just worship, it is union with God. “Worship”, as it is being used in this discussion, is a human activity, and implies nothing about God’s responsiveness or attitude towards it.

To be a Christian is not simply to believe certain propositions about God, and then to conduct certain rituals to honor that God, and to live in a certain way.  As a “Neo-Anabaptist”, I certainly believe that it necessarily involves this. But, we do not rest on the degree to which we are theologically accurate; Christianity is thoroughly existential and relational, it presupposes that this God acts in the world, and towards individuals in such a way as to transform the inner life any who has put their trust in Him. This only happens by the power of the Holy Spirit, and we receive the Holy Spirit only by faith in Jesus Christ. To be a Christian is to be in a dynamic relationship with the Trinity.

So, while I essentially agree with Volf’s purpose, and even the contours of his argument, what I would add is that this does not remove the need for evangelistic zeal, or the need for apologetic debate with Muslims. Nor does it imply that Jews and Muslims are in a saving relationship with the God of the universe. Some may be, but this blog post is already longer than anticipated so soteriology is not the direction I want to go right now. Perhaps that is what many in this discussion are also trying to correct, the misconception that Christians must necessarily believe that every individual since 33 AD who has followed Jesus Christ as Lord is destined for damnation. If so, I think there more theologically honest ways of clearing that up than the broad statement that all monotheists worship the “same” God.

A Devout Atheist & Suffering

I just attended a forum with guest speaker Vanessa Zoltan, the Assistant Humanist Chaplain at Harvard University, where she spoke about her “devout atheism”. The forum was jam-packed with Christian seminarians interested in hearing and learning from someone who was willing to come talk openly about her Atheism, what it means, and what it does not mean.

Students at Gordon-Conwell during the forum
Students at Gordon-Conwell during the forum “Devout Atheists: A Closer Look at the Non-Religious Experience”

Vanessa’s story was fascinating, and I’ll mention one thing that struck me before moving onto the most moving point.

The first thing of interest was her position towards “the Sacred”. Vanessa has a well-developed sense of how humans can take things and treat them as “sacred”, and how we then learn from them just by taking that posture. As opposed to a Christian’s assumption that the reason that, say, the Bible inspires them and challenges them is that God is working in them or through it, Vanessa sees this possibility inherent in any sufficiently complex piece of writing, and stemming more from the human potential for these things which only needs the instigator. In her own experience, she took the book Jane Eyre and for months treated it as a sacred text, learning and growing into a better person through it. I find it fascinating that this term “the sacred”, which is now used rampantly among Christians, is so flexible and broad that an atheist can apply it to her own experiences. It reminded me of the analysis that Allan Bloom made of the term in The Closing of the American Mind and how its’ roots are solidly in Nietzche and the atheistic German school of philosophy. In this culture, despite the reduction of our attentions to only value 140 character quips, we talk too much,  in language whose meaning we do not explore, and thus, we talk about we know not what.

The second thing that struck me was her emphasis on suffering. Vanessa was raised Jewish and growing up she literally did not know one-single elderly person who was not a Holocaust survivor. For her, belief in God was absolutely impossible in the face of what her grandparents and all of their friends suffered. She relayed how she visited Jewish Temple still, but how the prayer “Hear O Israel, the Lord our God is one Lord” was offensive to her, not because of what it said, but because this was often the prayer that the Jews would make right before they were gassed to death. As she put it during our Q & A “Either God was not looking, or there is no God.”

This moved me profoundly because my own theology has undergone dramatic shifts which sometimes, it seems to me, only atheists, or those who do not believe in God, seem to grasp fully. Most of those shifts revolve around suffering.

In the “Classical” tradition of theology, which most Catholics and Protestants have inherited, God’s “essence” or “being” does not suffer. Suffering, it is assumed, means that one is not in control, because if one could avoid suffering, why wouldn’t they? Thus, it is impossible for God, who is the most powerful being, to be impacted and suffer from anything that happens in his created order. Obviously, this seems to fly in the face of the revelation of God in Christ, but theology has its’ ways (and I appreciate them, even though I disagree with most). In addition, the Classical statements of the divine attributes, which imply that God foreknows (Arminian) or “foreordains (Calvinist) all things which will occur, ever, implies this fact:

“Either this is best possible world, or God deliberately created a world with more evil in it that was absolutely necessary”.

I’ll argue for that point in my next post, but assuming that is true, we can easily see how it flies offensively in the face of anyone who not only has suffered, but who empathically suffers. This is more than just suffering yourself. If you find yourself deeply affected by the suffering of others, as I suspect Vanessa has, it is not only your own experience which you must find a worldview to explain, but the suffering of your friends, of people who have been murdered and never found, violated and never consoled, people whom you have never met, but are able to mourn for at the thought of these disturbing realities. What Vanessa’s talk helped me realize was this:

While many branches of the Christian tradition are not yet ready to even touch the inherited understandings of God as immutable, impassible, and atemporal, there is a whole world of hungry lost souls waiting to hear that, possibly, God did not create the world with depression, suicide and rape as just a necessary part of what some would call “his incomprehensibly deep and beautiful design”; that, perhaps, God is not just “outside” of the universe, in his timeless, spaceless, impassible, moment-less “perfection”; but rather, as I think is clearly revealed by Jesus Christ on the cross, that He has fully entered our suffering, and is calling us to step into His kingdom as He finishes the war on death, suffering, and all that causes the Vanessa’s of the world to turn their face from Him. This invitation, and the image of God we’re given through Christ, is what I live for.

Church Fathers & Greek Philosophy

Last Fall I took an intro course on Church History called, “The Church to the Reformation“.  Two questions I was asking throughout that course were:

1) “How much did Greek philosophical concepts actually affect the theology of the Church?”
2) “How much of that was a good or bad thing?”

Currently I’m in a different course on the “Christological and Trinitarian Controversies”, reading lots of the primary sources where the Church Fathers hammered out what they believed about Jesus and the Trinity. My answers will probably become more nuanced as I study, but, given that course last Fall and what I’ve read up to now, my answers to the two questions above are something like this:

1) Greek philosophy (particularly Platonism), created a framework in the minds of many of the Church fathers about the nature of God, a framework which they built much of their theology on, and thus a framework we have inherited.

2) It was not all bad, but some of the influences which were least supported by scripture are still considered “primary” in Christian theology today.

Mosaic of the beheading of Justin Martyr (click for source)
Mosaic of the beheading of Justin Martyr (click for source)

Here are some excerpts from the introduction to the texts, and they give good examples of those two points:

…the Apologists of the second century, Aristides, Justin Martyr, Athenagoras, Tatian, and Theophilus of Antioch…shared a common concern to present Christianity to the Greco-Roman culture of their day in such a way as to defend Christianity against the charge of atheism. To the educated classes of the Greco-Roman world, they insisted that the truth of Christianity is that to which the pagan philosophers pointed…A special debt was owed to the Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria, who taught that the divine Logos had spoken through the prophets and had been the subject of the theophanies of the Old Testament….(emphasis mine)

Rusch, William G.; Rusch, William G. (1980-10-01). Trinitarian Controversy (Sources of Early Christian Thought) (p. 3). Fortress Press. Kindle Edition.

So, there this idea of “general revelation” that some of the Church’s earliest theologians held. They thought that, in some senses, Greek philosophy had been discovering truths which pointed to the one true God. While I don’t think they are necessarily wrong, the question is which things pointed to the one true God? On the other hand, which things pointed away from Him?

This identification of Christ with the Logos allowed the Apologists to insist that Christianity was faith in him to whom the Old Testament witnessed and to whom the pagan philosophers indistinctly pointed. It also offered an explanation of how God, unoriginate, eternal, and nameless, could be involved in a changeable world.

Rusch, William G.; Rusch, William G. (1980-10-01). Trinitarian Controversy (Sources of Early Christian Thought) (p. 4). Fortress Press. Kindle Edition.

The Apologists utilized a picture of a man putting forth his thought and spirit in external activity. This representation allowed them to recognize, although dimly, the eternal plurality in the Godhead and to show how the Word and the Spirit, truly manifested in space and time, could also be within the being of the Father… The Apologists set the future course for trinitarian theology and enabled Christianity to take seriously the presuppositions of Greek philosophy.

Rusch, William G.; Rusch, William G. (1980-10-01). Trinitarian Controversy (Sources of Early Christian Thought) (p. 5). Fortress Press. Kindle Edition.

Those excerpts illustrate one example of how I think the Apologists imported ideas which were unbiblical. The question of “how God, unoriginate, eternal, and nameless, could be involved in a changeable world” is only a serious problem if you assume certain “presuppositions of Greek philosophy”. Those presuppositions could be true, they could be false. The God of the Old Testament already showed He was intimately involved with his creation, and the biblical idea that God is “changeless” applied not to the metaphysics of his being, but his character, or his overarching will (for more on this check out a great short post at the Reknew blog).

Another example would be the difficulty the early church had in understanding how Jesus could have suffered, and yet still be the divine “Logos”. Platonic metaphysics are notoriously hierarchical, and thus to think that God would actually “suffer” or experience the things of human life required some serious theological acrobatics. In this sense, the Church inherited some theological problems which only arose because of the underlying Greek metaphysics, typically Platonic. Since the apologists were trying to relate Christ TO their culture, it seems like some of them conformed their explanations of God to the dominant system of thought. We can’t necessarily blame them for it either, because we often do the same today, to our peril!

I’m excited to explore these early controversies, but I think it’s worth remembering that we should look to scripture for our understanding of God, even while we may use language, or even ideas, which are not directly from scripture. It’s also good for me to remember that despite differences of theology, the fate of the early church fathers was frequently that depicted in the mosaic of Justin Martyr above, and we should never enthrone our understanding of scripture, to the place of scripture, as the church so often does.

The Weak, Seek

Over the past few weeks I’ve shared the story of my conversion with several people, and it reminded me of something I’ve wanted to write about for a while now. My conversion came at the lowest point of my life, and as such it exemplifies certain negative stereotypes which people have of religion in general, whether it’s faith in Jesus or something else. The one I want to address here is the idea that religious belief in general is a “crutch” for those of us who are just too weak to face the struggles of life alone.

The prejudice runs something like this: Few people are able to stare the meaninglessness of life in the face and create their own destiny, become gods, but those who do are truly strong. A more spiritual version of this is the idea that one can simply find “within oneself” the resources to sustain one’s life, and that there’s a sort of divine power which we need to access, and we will not be seeking resources to live from outside of ourselves. For those who turn to reliance on a power outside themselves or others, well, they’re just a little weak. The conclusion to be drawn is that, if that last sentence is true, then it somehow should count as negative evidence against these beliefs.

Now, I can only address this from the perspective of a disciple of Christ, but the general response is the same: the conditions under which people come to see something as true has little bearing on whether it is true, or not. For example, it may be only while I am watching a graphic film about factory farming that I conclude the industry’s practices are immoral, but just because I was queasy when I came to the conclusion doesn’t mean it isn’t true. This must be assessed on other grounds. Similarly, individuals coming to faith in times of duress is a circumstantial piece of information that does not determing whether their belief is true.

For Christians however, these observations are meant to confirm our faith. They are not meant as evidence for those who do not believe, but their existence is given robust explanation in scripture. There are two ways that I have been thinking of this.

Sant'Apollinare Nuovo, Ravenna, Italy. (click image for source)
Sant’Apollinare Nuovo, Ravenna, Italy. (click image for source)

The first is that Jesus Christ’s most famous sermon states in no uncertain terms that God specifically blesses those who the rest of the world would consider “unfortunate” or “weak”, in the exact kind of ways which many “weak” believers would hope. Consider the beatitudes:

Blessed are the poor in spiritfor the kingdom of heaven belongs to them.

Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.

Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousnessfor they will be satisfied.

Blessed are the mercifulfor they will be shown mercy.

Blessed are the pure in heartfor they will see God.

Blessed are the peacemakersfor they will be called the children of God.

Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousnessfor the kingdom of heaven belongs to them.

Blessed are you when people insult you and persecute you and say all kinds of evil things about you falsely on account of meRejoice and be glad because your reward is great in heavenfor they persecuted the prophets before you in the same way.

In the Gospel of Luke, chapter 6:24-26, we see another sermon (or perhaps the rest of this one) combined to contrast Jesus’ attitude towards those whose assurance that they are living well rests on their level of comfort:

But woe to you who are richfor you have received your comfort alreadyWoe to you who are well satisfied with food nowfor you will be hungryWoe to you who laugh nowfor you will mourn and weepWoe to you when all people speak well of youfor their ancestors did the same things to the false prophets.

In other words, all of the observations used against faith birthed out of suffering, were acknowledged by a Jewish Rabbi over 2,000 years ago, and his followers have always known this is how the world seems to work.

The second way in which this counts as further confirmation for the Christian faith is that the entire New Testament unambiguously declares that the world is under the influence of the spiritual enemies of God, and that their rule (called the “kingdom of darkness”, or “kingdom of the world”) is one of deception. Specifically, a theme for Jesus is the deception of riches. It seems as though the fact that the world’s well-of seem to feel less in-need of God is an intentional ploy by the enemies of God. Here are just a few more passages to confirm this:

1 John 5:19 “We know that we are from Godand the whole world lies in the power of the evil one.”

Matthew 13:22 “The seed sown among thorns is the person who hears the wordbut worldly cares and the seductiveness of wealth choke the wordso it produces nothing.”

Luke 12:19-21 (Here Jesus is finishing a parable) “And I will say to myself, “You have plenty of goods stored up for many yearsrelaxeatdrinkcelebrate!”’ But God said to him‘You fool! This very night your life will be demanded back from youbut who will get what you have prepared for yourself?’ So it is with the one who stores up riches for himselfbut is not rich toward God.”

1 Timothy 6:7-10 “For we have brought nothing into this world and so we cannot take a single thing out eitherBut if we have food and shelterwe will be satisfied with that. Those who long to be richhowever, stumble into temptation and a trap and many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of every type of evilsSome people in reaching for it have strayed from the faith and stabbed themselves with many pains.”

So, my final word is to those who may find themselves in weakness, in suffering, in poverty, and like Job are asking “Why do the wicked go on living, grow old, even increase in power?”

The reality of suffering and injustice were forever placed into the experience of God’s own life, and He knows what it is like.  “For we do not have high priest incapable of sympathizing with our weaknesses“, the author of Hebrews says. Jesus’ death puts on display the reality that the world is simply not just. The beautiful hope which we recently celebrated on Easter is that God is making all things new. In light of the reality of Christ’s bodily resurrection, we have assurance that he is able to resurrect us. This world’s order is passing away, and this short life will not be our last. When we awake, it will be to a reign of peace and love “for the former things have ceased to exist.” Today, I encourage you to take his words to heart:

“In the world you have trouble and sufferingbut take courage – I have conquered the world.”

Palm Sunday Reflection: True Kingdom, True King

Jesus enters Jerusalem, by Giotto (click for source)
Jesus enters Jerusalem, by Giotto (click for source)

This past Sunday my church community had a service centered around the Triumphal Entry and Mark’s account in Mark 11. I was really blessed by the sermon and the worship centered around Jesus as our King, the Messiah delivering all humanity from its’ own rebellion, from death itself and the devil. A question which I think we should think deeply about is “How were the Jewish expectations of the Messiah wrong, and how were they right?” Of course, different sects of Judaism would have different expectations: Zealots would be expecting an outright revolt, and with some speed! Perhaps others expected an organized, but slow movement towards full-scale war against Rome. I’m no Jewish scholar, just extrapolating. I want to offer one specific way that I think Jewish expectations were right, and another specific way (connected to it) that was wrong. Both of these have deep implications for followers of Jesus today, and we might be ignoring their logical conclusions.

One way in which I think their expectations were right, is that the Messiah would be political. What I mean is that prophecies about the Messiah were intimately connected to the throne of David, and the Messiah would change the power structures of the world in drastic ways. More specifically, the Messiah was to do something that would permanently establish freedom for Israel. As seen in Mark 11:10, the crowds were calling out about Jesus:

Blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David

In connection to this, Christians rightly point out that Jesus’ kingdom was “not of this world”, as he would say to Pilate several days later. But, we shouldn’t leverage this statement beyond its’ intention. It does not imply that Jesus’ kingdom is not supposed to have political ramifications! Jesus himself would quote deeply political prophecies, and one story in particular connects to the way in which I think Jewish expectations were wrong. In Luke 4:18-30, Jesus is teaching in the synagogue in Nazareth and reads a prophecy from Isaiah:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon mebecause he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poorHe has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and the regaining of sight to the blindto set free those who are oppressed,to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.

This is all that Jesus quotes, but look at the rest of the passage! I highlighted the words which are tangible and almost impossible to simply interpret as “spiritual”.

They will rebuild the perpetual ruins and restore the places that were desolatethey will reestablish the ruined citiesthe places that have been desolate since ancient times. “Foreigners will take care of your sheepforeigners will work in your fields and vineyardsYou will be called‘the Lord’s priests, servants of our God.’ You will enjoy the wealth of nations and boast about the riches you receive from themInstead of shameyou will get a double portion; instead of humiliationthey will rejoice over the land they receive. Yes, they will possess a double portion in their land and experience lasting joyFor Ithe Lord, love justice and hate robbery and sin. I will repay them because of my faithfulnessI will make a permanent covenant with themTheir descendants will be known among the nations, their offspring among the peoplesAll who see them will recognize that the Lord has blessed them.”

Jesus goes on to say that this prophecy is about Him, and everyone there is shocked, because he’s a hometown boy! It’s Jesus’ response to their unbelief that he is the Messiah, and their response to him, that really enlightens the Jewish attitudes about this “Son of David”:

“There were many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elishayet none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.” When they heard thisall the people in the synagogue were filled with rage. They got upforced him out of the townand brought him to the brow of the hill on which their town was builtso that they could throw him down the cliff.

Woah there, maybe an over-reaction no? The Jews were rightfully expecting a political Messiah, but they were wrongfully expecting a political Messiah only for the Jews. Because Jesus was here explicitly approving the behavior of Gentiles, and judging the behavior of Jews, he caused a riot and was almost killed! It is unlike other kingdoms in that it is transnational. 

Lastly, I mentioned how Jesus’ statement “My kingdom is not of this world” can be stretched to imply that his kingdom is not relevant for politics, for how human societies organize themselves. Another mistake is to forget about the second-half of that statement

If my kingdom were from this worldmy servants would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jewish authorities. But as it is,my kingdom is not from here.

So, it seems to me that Jesus’ kingdom is deeply political, but not of this world. It’s political in the sense that it is the formation of a new community of people, a new “nation”, unrestricted by national borders and operating together in every sense that all other “nations” operate. The kingdom of God is in the world, but, it is not of the world, because the way it operates does not look anything like how “normal” governments operate, specifically by the fact that we do not use violence. The Kingdom of God should be a catalyst for forming peaceful, alternative, transnational political systems. It involves land, justice, forgiveness, peace, and good news for the poor.

The Crown of Thorns & Worldly Power

The Crowning with Thorns (Caravaggio 1602-1607, click for source)
The Crowning with Thorns (Caravaggio 1602-1607, click for source)

“So the soldiers led him into the palace (that isthe governor’s residence) and called together the whole cohort. They put a purple cloak on him and after braiding crown ofthornsthey put it on himThey began to salute him: “Hailking of the Jews!” Mark 15:16-18

I’m currently reading Jacques Ellul’s book “The Meaning of the City” and a footnote on the significance of “thorns” in Isaiah struck me. Referencing Isaiah 10:16-19, he says

Isaiah here uses a traditional and well-known symbolism when he represents the army by a forest and military power by thorns and briers. The figure is to be found frequently in his book.

I immediately thought about the crown of thorns placed on Christ’s head in the Gospels. A footnote in the NET bible about the crown of thorns in Mark 15:17 says:

 Their purpose would have been to mock Jesus’ claim to be a king; the crown of thorns would have represented the “radiant corona” portrayed on the heads of rulers on coins and other artifacts in the 1st century.

I think that the soldier’s intention could have been that. However, as brother Jason Storbakken reminded me recently, we should always be comparing scripture-with-scripture, and the fact that thorns are frequently symbols of military power is not insignificant. Not only were the centurion’s mocking Christ, they are providing us with a symbol of the conflict between our Lord, and the military might of the world’s kingdoms. The overwhelming beauty here, is that Jesus chooses to suffer at the hands of these powers, to rescue humanity from their grip. I did a little digging to find other places in the Bible where thorns are used this way, and there are lots. But here are just a few examples:

Isaiah 27:4 “I am not angry. I wish I could confront some thorns and briersThen I would march against them for battleI would set them all on fire,”. Here, God is “marching against” thorns and briers, implying that they represent armies, militaries which would be marched against.

Isaiah 33:12 The nations will be burned to asheslike thorn bushes that have been cut downthey will be set on fire.”

Ezekiel also uses the language to refer to nations: “No longer will Israel suffer from the sharp briers or painful thorns of all who surroundand scorn them. Then they will know that I am the sovereign Lord.” – Ez. 28:24

Hosea uses “thorns” to represent the occupying nations of Israel Look! Even if they flee from the destructionEgypt will take hold of them, and Memphis will bury them. The weeds will inherit the silver they treasure –thorn bushes will occupy their homes.” -Hos. 9:6

A quick search for “thorns” in the Old Testament will yield many more results. So, I think that the obvious mockery which the soldiers were carrying out against Jesus had a double-meaning which they did not realize, but which God certainly intentioned and used. The nations, with their military might and war-enforced-peace, are always in this relationship with God, they refuse His authority, and are a cause for His shed blood. They are thorns, and God will overcome their differences and schemes to establish his kingdom in the world. What is perhaps jaw-droopingly beautiful, is that Christ bleeds for the nations, for their peace. While their current structures and violent rule will be overthrown by Him, their existence will remain and somehow be transformed.

In the meantime, I hope to keep modeling God’s love for all, refusing to take up the sword, refusing to retaliate, refusing to play the power-games of politics and nations, and to see His kingdom spread.

“Whiplash” & the Worthless

I recently watched the Academy-Award nominated movie “Whiplash”, written by Damien Chazelle, and immediately after its’ ending I had a synthesis of thoughts which have been brewing in my mind for some time. They all center around our ideas of “success”, or “accomplishments”. I warn anyone reading, I spoil the entire movie in what follows, so if you want to watch the film, don’t read on.

The plot of “Whiplash” centers around an aspiring young drummer, “Andrew”, who is pushed to his physical and psychological limits by an obsessive and abusive instructor, “Fletcher”, whose dream it is to give the world the next great Jazz musician. Fletcher literally slaps, throws chairs, and screams at Andrew as his instructor. After Andrew is kicked out of the school, he gives up drums, and anonymously testifies against Fletcher’s abusive methods. Months later, he finds Fletcher playing at a Jazz club and the final scene of the film has Andrew returning to play with Fletcher at a Jazz competition, where he unleashes a spectacular display of his abilities (ironically fulfilling Fletcher’s obsessive dream).

Click image for source page

During the film Andrew loses touch with reality, he becomes prideful, himself obsessive, and loses the friendship of a young woman he is interested in. Yet, despite this, and despite Fletcher’s abusive tactics, something in me was exhilarated at seeing that final scene. I wanted to cheer Andrew on, despite the remaining disdain for Fletcher, and this is where the realizations hit.

A part of me felt motivated, intense, desiring to do something more with my life. In a twisted way, Fletcher & Andrew’s relationship tapped into a part of me which desires to be pushed, disciplined, formed into the best possible person I can be. Seeing Andrew accomplish his goal, in a defiant display, left me wanting to draw up my list of life-goals, the plan of action, and to execute. Then, I remembered something Andrew said in the middle of the movie:

I’d rather die drunk, broke at 34 and have people at a dinner table talk about me than live to be rich and sober at 90 and nobody remembered who I was. (source)

When the words come out of Andrew’s mouth, we see they are twisted in some way. Yet, out entire society exalts people who live this way. What matters is that people talk about you, not whether you loved well, or had integriy, or what your family thought of you. What matters is if you invent a technological innovation to “benefit humanity”, not if you were faithful to your wife. So far as Jesus is concerned however, it is worthless to gain the world but lose your soul (Mark 8:34-37). Worthless.

An additional cultural observation is that what prompts Andrew to testify against Fletcher is that a prior student of his had committed suicide, and his testimony was meant to prevent Fletcher from ever doing that again. The irony of this being in a film is that the list of famous actors committing suicide is very long, and while there is no literal instructor yelling at these actors to obsess and lose themselves in their career, it seems as though the reality is uglier: we are “Fletcher”. The multi-billion dollar industry only exists on our indulgences, and the list of casualties to our raving desire to idolize will most likely see no end. The additional irony of my writing this while after watching the film is not lost on me, this is a thought which I only had while writing the post.

So, when I finished the movie, and had a rush of narcissistic motivation to “become something”, I’m incredibly grateful that God slowed down my heartbeat, and the Holy Spirit reminded me of the words of our Lord “the last will be firstand the first last” (Mt. 20:16). I’m not going to live to be remembered, I’m going to live for Jesus, become one with him in his suffering, to love other more than I love myself, to accept insult without retaliating, to speak out against injustice, that by some means I may attain the resurrection of the dead. Christians are not called to be the best at everything we do, rather, we are called to be like Jesus. That this will result in excellence may be, but maybe not. That it will lead us into the Kingdom of God however, is unquestionable. “they overcame him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony” (Rev. 12:11).