Archives For Theology, Reluctantly

Painting by Julius Hubner of Martin Luther posting the 95 theses.

 

The 500th anniversary of the Reformation has been on my mind for weeks now. It was a turning point in Christian history and in the history of Western Europe. What should we make of it?

It is a legacy of growing up Lutheran that I continue to admire Luther’s willingness to stand up on principle. He was willing to challenge a massive institution and religious empire – the Roman Catholic Church – on points of principle about God. He was a rebel with a cause.

But was the Reformation’s legacy all good?

What I have struggled with is the battleground on which Luther largely fought the Reformation – theology.

My sense is that the zealous pursuit of a science-like, all-encompassing theology of God and Jesus has been given too much weight in Christian history. It is deeply ironic and shameful, for example, that Luther and other Protestant leaders went from being persecuted by the Roman Catholic Church to advocating for the persecution of others, like the Anabaptists.

When people are so consumed by a zeal for theological correctness that they lose the ability to love one’s neighbor as oneself, something has gone very wrong.

This is not to say that theology is not an important and valuable tool. It is. We are called to love God with our minds. Theology is one way to do that. And the diversity of the 66 books of the Bible calls out for some unifying ideas and ethics that will translate into how we live and think.

But speaking and reading theology about God can replace actual experience of God. It can, in its very form, make the Christian life too abstract and too left-brained.

I have had one profoundly spiritual experience in my life. It was an experience without words. I cannot describe it with any degree of accuracy using words. All of the theology and preaching I heard from the pulpit throughout my life did not prepare me for that experience. In fact, all of the theology and preaching I had heard had lulled me into believing I knew God through the words about God I had been taught.

We casually use words like grace, faith, forgiveness, resurrection, and salvation like they are distinct and quantifiable elements from a periodic table. They are, in fact, ineffable phenomena.

Interestingly enough, the humility with which we should approach words and names for the actions and essence of God is exemplified in the name of God that appears in the Hebrew Scriptures. As this well-written article by Rabbi Louis Jacob explains, we actually don’t know how to correctly pronounce the four-letter Hebrew name for God. It appears in the Hebrew Scriptures 6,823 times. But Jewish tradition long discouraged the actual speaking of the name and instead substituted “Adonai”, the Hebrew word for Lord.

In extreme theologizing we have too often lost the fear and awe of God and all that God is. We make God safe through theology. In some ways, theological constructs can even become an assertion of human power over God.

So how do we know if theologies and even church practices are on the right track?

Here is one of my suggestions – we should pay attention to their fruit. Jesus spoke often about good fruit being a natural product of a living faith in Him and of a good heart. Theologies and church practices can best be judged by their fruit. How do their believers and followers live out their faith in the following four areas?

 

ATTITUDE AND RELATIONSHIP WITH GOD

Do you sense God’s love for you even as you are in awe of God and aware of God’s unwillingness to accept what is wrong in this world?

Is Jesus at the center of your faith and heart?

Do you seek out knowledge and experience of God like a person in a desert seeks out water?

When you pray do you not only seek out help from God open your heart to what God desires of you?

Do you approach God and Jesus with humility and mystery?

 

ATTITUDE AND RELATIONSHIP WITH PEOPLE

Are you forgiving and full of loving kindness for others?

Do you make the effort with the help of God’s Spirit to see and perceive other people the way God sees them?

Do you love your neighbor as you love yourself?

Do you have strong integrity, honesty, and a clear sense of what is right and wrong?

Do you struggle against evil and people consumed with evil without losing yourself to hate and blind anger?

Do you care about justice for the poor and vulnerable around you, individually and collectively?

 

ATTITUDE AND RELATIONSHIP WITH GOD’S EARTH

Do you see the earth as God’s and act appropriately respectful and compassionate towards it?

Do you and your community of faith balance the use of God’s earth with enabling it to thrive and prosper even when this requires sacrifices that others around you are not wiling to make?

Do you and your church pay attention to Creation?

Is being thoughtful stewards of God’s earth part of the fabric of your faith and life, including your civic life?

In your faith and life, do pigs, oak trees, and mussels matter?

 

ONE’S OWN LIFE

Do you love yourself at the same time you love others?

Are you honest about and aware of your failings and seek not only forgiveness but also seek to exhibit the fruits of the Spirit every day?

Do you seek to have your heart and your will reformed on a regular basis so that how you live is an eloquent statement about your faith?

Do you listen for God’s calling for your life? Do you do hard and challenging things when you sense that is God’s call?

Do you know your talents, enjoy using them, and use them creatively and energetically for God’s Kingdom?

 

If these are the widespread fruits of the theology and practices of your faith community, then God is a whole and living presence there.

Of course, all of us, individually and collectively, will fall short of what God offers us and wants from us. This is why God’s forgiveness is always needed.

This is why we will always need reformation that goes beyond words.

In a previous post, I began to look more closely at John 3:16 as a way to wrestle with this question: how are you and I to think about how the Gospel in the New Testament relates to how we relate to God’s earth? This iconic verse that is everywhere is, I’ve found, rarely understood in its full meaning. In this post, we continue to look closely at John 3:16.

We’re so quick to jump to conclusions, aren’t we?

When we come to John 3:16, we rush through its rhythm and ideas, knowing that it ends happily with eternal life. And we rush, too, to the automatic assumption that “eternal life” is talking about life after death.

The grammar of the verse tells us otherwise. And I’ve never appreciated grammar more than when I first understood from David Pawson’s uneven book Is John 3:16 the Gospel? (and confirmed by other sources) that traditional translations of the verse typically get the verse subtly wrong because they don’t convey the subtleties of the grammar.

Pawson explains that the Greek language has more nuance in its tenses than in English. A crucial distinction is whether a verb indicates continuous action or action that occurs and is then over at a single point in time.

The “believe” in “everyone who believes in him” is actually in the present continuous tense. So that portion of the verse literally means “everyone who goes on believing in him.”

The “have” in “have eternal life” is also in the present continuous tense.

So the real translation of this portion of the verse would be… “everyone who goes on believing in him will go on having eternal life.”

Later in John 10:10 we come again to this idea of eternal, abundant life which we will go on having.  Of the many ways there are to translate it, I like the New Century Version best. It reads: “A thief comes to steal and kill and destroy, but I came to give life — life in all its fullness.”

This idea of God offering a full and good life also hearkens back to Psalm 16:11: “You will make known to me the path of life; In Your presence is fullness of joy; In Your right hand there are pleasures forever.”

Things get even more interesting when you look at “eternal.” Pawson notes that scholars are debating exactly what “eternal” means in this context. Some believe it relates to quantity – in other words something infinite without end. But others believe it relates to quality – “..life of a quality that makes every moment worthwhile.” Pawson writes, “I think the answer is both quantity and quality of life.”

The implications from understanding these elements of the verse more fully are profound:

First, we need to go on believing in Jesus and through Jesus in the God who Jesus reveals and the framework for what Jesus is all about from the Bible. As we highlighted in the last blog on this topic, this believing in is not about an intellectual assent to an idea but it’s putting the full weight of how we live our lives and what commit our heart to. It’s not a once-and-done situation. It’s entirely possible for us to stop believing.

Second, when we go on believing, we will go on having eternal life. Eternal life does not begin when we die. It begins now and continues through and past our death.

Third, eternal life is not an escape from this world but a radical engagement with it and a radical enlivening of ourselves that begins to give us the true life we were meant to have.

What does that eternal life, the eternal that we can go on having now and forever by continuing to believe in Jesus, look like? Here is my take on that from what I’ve read, seen, and experienced:

Beginning to know the majesty and mystery of God.

Knowing each of us matter and that we are loved by God.

Knowing how much God hates evil in all its forms.

Knowing that our past sins are forgiven, that death and evil are not to be feared, and that God can give us the power to overcome our ongoing habits of sin.

Seeing the God-given value of people and all of Creation.

Finding purpose in using our unique talents and creativity to share God, mend the woundedness of people and Creation, fight evil, and create joy.

Sharing and giving.

Finding peace and strength.

Being filled with the fruits of the Spirit – love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.

Becoming part of a larger whole – God’s kingdom and the Church – and knowing that the good we do is part of a large movement.

Being called to forgive and being able to do so.

Knowing what matters and what doesn’t.

Jesus came not just to avoid sinning and be the perfect sacrifice for our sin but to also model for us what this eternal life in God looks like and is to be lived. This is why we are called to make disciples of all people.

I can’t help but mention, and this may reveal my Norwegian-American Lutheran background, that there is little sense in the Bible that following God’s ways will automatically translate into perpetual happiness, at least not in the light and fluffy sense of the word. There will be suffering. We will be called to do hard things. Rosa Parks and Willliam Wilberforce are just two examples of people whose Christian faiths called them to difficult paths that did not translate into casual happiness.

In fact, if our lives are easy and comfortable all the time and we fit in perfectly with the general culture around us, then we’re probably not living a complete Christian life. We’re probably following a Gospel that doesn’t reflect the present continuous tense.

We see the whole context of what experiencing true and ongoing eternal life is all about at the beginning of Genesis and at the end of Revelation – God, people, and Creation together in the relationship they were meant to have.

In this sense, life in all its fullness that we begin to grow into through ongoing faith in Jesus cannot help but lead to a different relationship with God, people, and God’s earth.

How should Christians think about regulations and limits?

it’s a topic that needs addressing more than ever on this Earth Day, especially when President Trump plans slash environmental regulations and gut the Environmental Protection Agency. But if we’re candid, we must admit that Christians have long had blind spots the size of Texas when it comes to thinking about limits and regulations on our treatment of Creation and protecting the vulnerable in general. Too often Christians have come close to worshipping freedom more than we worship God, except when we’ve called for severe resrictions on a few highly emotional and very tangible matters like abortion and homosexuality.

I’ll start this brief (by my standards!) meditation by calling your attention to the story of Adam and Eve.

In Genesis 2:15 we read the story of God telling Adam and Eve that they are free to eat the fruit of any tree in the garden with the exception of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.

This was an environmental regulation. This was a limit on the use of Creation, It was a limit to protect Adam and Eve, and, because of their charge to rule God’s world, the limit also served as protection for Creation.

As you read on, we find in Genesis 3:6 that Eve was particularly tempted by the fruit’s appearance that promised culinary pleasure and by the wisdom that she would gain by consuming it. There, in a nutshell, are the two factors that drove the Fall as Christians understand it and what continue to tempt people today.

Our appetites. Our desire for power.

Today’s technologically-amped, Internet-saturated, self-gratification-focused, sacrifice-allergic, corporate-dominated world provides more options to act more impulsively on our appetites and desire for power than has ever been seen history.

This, in turn, makes the question of freedom for individuals and institutions an ever more challenging one.

If we’re honest, we’ll admit that we are as tempted by our appetites and desire for power as Adam and Eve were. Limits are needed to prevent all of us, in our worst moments, from ignoring what is good for ourselves, our neighbors, and God’s earth.

Efforts to remove all limitations and permit everything ignore what the Christians call the Fall and Original Sin. Ironically, the design of the United States constitution is based in large part on an awareness that people will be drawn towards selfishness and acting on their worst passions. Its designers wanted to do two things – provide some idea of where the dividing lines between state powers and the federal government’s powers were (orderliness includes limits) and to frustrate the ability of majorities of people to easily use the tools of government to harm the interests of people outside of the majority. Checks and balances exist to contain and frustrate sinful people from doing the worst that they can do.

Balancing freedom with limits on the use of power is a very Christian approach.

That balance is seen, for example, in regulations God gives to the people of Israel for how they will live in the Promised Land. Consider Exodus 23:10-11. It reads, “For six years you are to sow your fields and harvest the crops, but during the seventh year let the land lie unplowed and unused. Then the poor among your people may get food from it, and the wild animals may eat what is left. Do the same with your vineyard and your olive grove.”

This forced fallowing would have limited the freedom of a landowner to maximize profit from a piece of land but it would have benefited the poor and local wildlife while also allowing the soil itself to renew itself.

Notice, too, how in a way similar to the description of the Fall the interests of God, people, and Creation are interlinked. This is common throughout the Bible. You cannot love God nor your neighbor if you trash God’s earth.

So pay attention to the words leaders use when they speak of rules and regulations and limits. Ask these questions:

What values do advocates for reducing or eliminating regulations directly or indirectly appeal to in their rhetoric? Is it love for God and love for our neighbors? Or is it freedom for the powerful to pursue their appetites and power in ways harmful to the the vulnerable and the commonwealth?  

Do the advocates for eliminating regulations accept one of the fundamental elements of the Bible – the Fall and our continued tendency to do wrong, individually and collectively? If they don’t, you have an approach to life and policy that is not Christian in its fundamentals.

Is the push for reduced regulations driven by corporations or people representing the interests of corporations? What complicates matters in thinking about limits and regulations today is the increasing complexity of our world and the dominating role that corporations play. Because corporations are increasingly seen as the vehicles for meeting our personal appetites and desires for power, we are tempted more than ever to give them as much power and freedom as possible.

And, like bacteria that adjust their environment to make conditions more conducive for their existence and less conducive for others, corporations strive to manipulate the regulatory environment to allow them to prosper as much as possible. The more powerful corporations get the more they either seek complete freedom or, perhaps worse, shape our legal frameworks in ways that work for their benefit.

Are those advocating and supporting the elimination of limits in the economic realm equally open to the elimination of limits in other areas of life?

The poster child for someone who called a spade a spade and then was slapped down is Tomi Lahren. This young conservative social media sensation said earlier this month:

“I am someone that’s for limited government. And so I can’t sit here and be a hypocrite and say I’m for limited government but I think that the government should decide what women do with their bodies. I can sit here and say that, as a Republican, and I can say, you know what, I’m for limited government, so stay out of my guns, and you can stay out of my body as well.”

The blowback from conservatives was fierce, and she was fired from Glen Beck’s Blaze TV network. They accused her of being shallow in her conservatism. But, in fact, she was only saying aloud what a radical devotion to freedom in other areas of life would naturally lead you to conclude about abortion – limits on it restrict one’s freedom and do so in an area most intimate to a woman’s life.

It is fundamentally hypocritical for Christians to advocate for strict limits on the application of power against vulnerable life in one area and to go along with the wholesale elimination of limits on the use of power against vulnerable life in other areas.

For example, this article highlights that testing in 2005 and 2006 found that the average baby just out of the womb had an average of 200 industrial chemicals in its blood. Scientists at one point had thought the placenta shielded developing babies in the womb but this is now clearly not the case. And a young, developing infant is more vulnerable to harm from these chemicals than an adult. Where are the Christians fighting to protect the unborn from a chemical onslaught? Did you know that only a small minority of the industrial chemicals being used today have been tested for their safety because of the laxness of the Toxic Substances Control Act? Logic would dictate that Christians calling for limits on abortion should also seek out limits on what the unborn (and the rest of Creation) are exposed to.

Are the regulations and limits in question overdone and crushing goodness and creativity? Fallen people running governments are also tempted, sometimes even out of good motivations, to extend the power of government too far and too oppressively. Business influence can also shape the framework of laws and limits so that they favor the interests of large-scale industry.

It’s time for Christians to be coherent in what we believe so that how we act in society is also coherent. All of life is filled with meaning by God. God is on the side of the vulnerable even as our creativity also comes from God. We need to recognize how strongly our appetites and our desire for power tempt us. We should not only accept balances between limits and freedom where they are needed to protect all that God values, especially the vulnerable, but also advocate for that balance.

We should, like the Psalmist in Psalm 119:97, recognize our fallenness and welcome limits that guide our energies in right ways:

“Oh, how I love your law! I meditate on it all day long.”

Ole Hallesby’s book Prayer, first published in 1931, is full of wisdom and insights. It also contains a thought that may stop you in your tracks.

In the chapter of the Norwegian theologian’s book entitled “Problems of Prayer,” Hallesby asks, “Are our intercessions necessary as far as God is concerned and the work He would have accomplished in this world?”

In other words, why pray for God to do things in the world that God was going to do anyway?

Here is Hallesby’s answer:

“We can answer by saying, in the first place, that it is impossible for God to bring the world forward to its goal without humankind.

The attitude which we take is the vital factor in determining whether the world shall attain its goal or not. God has voluntarily bound Himself to us in HIs government of the world. From the very beginning of the history of revelation we see that God has established His kingdom only where He could find people who would voluntarily permit themselves to be used by Him.

It thus becomes evident that God has voluntarily made HImself dependent also upon our prayer. For, after all, prayer is the deciding factor in the life of all who surrender themselves to God to be used by Him.

What we do in God’s kingdom is entirely dependent on what we are. And what we are depends again upon what we receive. And what we receive, depends again upon prayer. This applies not only to the work of God in us, but also to the work of God through us.”

If you’re like me, you’ll read these words of a conservative theologian and then need to read them again. They challenge our conceptions of God’s relationship with the world and with us. This set of ideas actually makes how we live and what we live for even more significant.

Attentive and focused prayer should, consequently, be something we fervently do. It should be a habit. It will shape us and, in mysterious ways, impact the world.

I would, however, take things one step beyond Hollesby. I would urge you to make God’s earth a regular focus of your prayers.

This doesn’t happen at your typical church.

But it should.

Just as human failings and fallenness have led to unimaginable suffering throughout the centuries in people, human failings and sin have corrupted and caused unimaginable violence to the creatures and systems of God’s earth.

You and I should pray and pray hard for God’s earth and its renewal.

I recently read, for example, that surveys are finding that approximately 50 per cent of the corals at the Great Barrier reef off of the coast of Austraila have died due to rising sea temperatures, more acidic conditions in the ocean, and other factors. Because coral reefs are foundational habitat for so much marine life, the dying off of corals at the Great Barrier Reef and other places around the globe is a crisis for ocean life and ultimately for human life as well.

It’s also one more profound and tragic symptom of our spiritual dysfunction.

We should pray, too, for those whose calling in life is to use God’s earth, to steward it, to study it, and to protect it even when doing so puts their lives at risk.

The whole faith church I want to see emerge would make this kind of prayer a regular and serious part of the church community’s life.

Is prayer all we should do?

Absolutely not.

We should act.

In our everyday habits. In being part of larger changes in our community and in how our economy and government work.

And, ironically, our actions are also built on prayer.

You can see that logic in the words of Hallesby I shared earlier in this post. Elsewhere in his book, Hallesby also writes this, “Everyday Christianity cannot be practiced unless we incessantly receive into our lives that supply of spiritual power which is necessary in order to preserve within us that spirit which is willing to deny self, to serve others, to endure wrong and to let others have the last word.”

I would add that God’s Spirit can also give us boldness, tenacity, and intensity to combine with the fruits of the spirit. Does that sound paradoxical? Does that sound unlike your “ideal” Christian?  Then take another look at the life of Jesus. He prayed. He asked his disciples to pray with him.  And during his three years of mission, he led a dynamic, disruptive life that challenged everyone he came in contact with. He knew, too, that what he was doing was putting him on a path to the ultimate sacrifice.

Prayer is a way to be filled with God’s Spirit which will give us the power to act in the world the way God wants us to act.

Being beings of matter in a world that matters because it matters to God means that we, if we listen carefully, are called to sustain God’s earth in the way we act.

Pray today.

 

P.S. Do you pray for God’s earth? If so, please let me know that you do. And if you have a specific prayer that you’d like to share, please pass it along to me at wholefaithlivingearth@gmail.com.

 

You’ll find that Christians who make the case that being committed stewards of God’s earth is part and parcel of what it means to being a Christ follower rarely use verses from the Gospels for support of their conviction.

This is primarily because the Gospels have little directly to say about our responsibilities to and our relationship with God’s earth.

I won’t deny that at times that can feel like a problem.

Neverthless, if you read the Gospels with a wider and more whole vision of what is being communicated and if you seek to understand the Christian faith within the context of the whole Bible and the threads and frameworks you find in it, then I believe there is solid enough ground for our convictions.

Interestingly, the lack of explicit statements on almost any social issues by Jesus can be frustrating for anyone looking for clear guidance on those issues. For centuries, Chrisitan thinkers have had to extrapolate and conjecture, often with great creativity, about war, economic systems, slavery, democracy, abortion, and the other hot-button topics of any particular time.

So how are you and I to think about how the Good News and Jesus relate to how we relate to God’s earth?

In this and future posts to come, I’m going to tackle that question by diving into John 3:16. In the course of those posts I will tease out some threads that do relate to what a whole Christian faith is and do relate, at least indirectly, to what the Christian faith means for our relationship with God’s earth.

It’s an iconic verse that people know by heart and which appears at sporting events and many other venues, even under Tim Tebow’s eyes. There’s the assumption, in fact, that this single verse captures the very essence of the Gospel.

Max Lucado’s book of this title affirms the idea that John 3:16 presents the heart of the gospel.

When I actually began studying it a few weeks ago, however, things became more complicated. There is much more depth and nuance to the verse than is usually assumed. In fact, there’s a fair amount of disagreement about the meaning of the verse within some Christian circles. This all makes thinking about how the verse relates to our relationship with the rest of Creation challenging and intriguing.

I will begin the John 3:16 odyssey by calling your attention to the imperative at the center of the verse – “believe in.”

David Pawson has a different take than Lucado on what John 3:16 actually communicates.

David Pawson’s book, Is John 3:16 the Gospel?, has some insights that are very useful and other assertions which I would heartily disagree with. One of his useful insights is about these two critical words.

Too often the Christian faith is assumed to be about assenting to certain creeds and dctrines in an intellectual way. Pawson asserts this would be the right thing to think if we were called to “believe that.” “Believe that” conveys the acceptance of some sort of fact in an abstract, analytical way.

But what the verse asserts makes the difference between perishing and having life is whether you believe in Jesus. Here’s what Pawson says what that really entails:

“And believing in someone means two things: that you trust them and that you are willing to obey them.”

So I would assert that the essential calling of the Christian faith is to trust in the Jesus we find in the Gospels – his words, his actions, his death, his resurrection, and how that all fits within the context of the rest of the Bible – and to obey Jesus in how we live.

That means putting the whole weight of our convictions and the decisions we make and what we value on the God we experience and understand through Jesus with the guidance of what Christians call the Holy Spirit.

I don’t hear faith explained this way very often.

Nor do I hear enough churches helping their members in very tangible ways to translate trust in Jesus into obedience in the daily habits of their lives.

In The Divine Conspirancy, Dallas Willard articulates the state of affairs like this:

“Whatever the ultimate explanation of it, the most telling thing about the contemporary Christian is that he or she simply has no compelling sense that understanding of and conformity with the clear teachings of Christ is of any vital importance to his or her life, and certainly not that it is in any way essential.”

When the Christian faith is reduced to a static, dogmatic, theological affirmation that is seen primarily as the price of admission to the life we will enjoy AFTER our deaths, then it is easy to understand why Christians have been able to do crazy, cruel, violent things to people and to God’s earth throughout history.

When the Christian faith is understood as the dynamic foundation for the lives we live every moment beginning here and now on this earth, then the way Christians will relate with people and other living things around them can’t help but be very different.

John 3:16, I believe, is calling us to this second understanding.