Thursday, February 4, 2016

Whole Food Theology

I once knew an herbalist who told me something interesting about the drug valium. She said that a small percentage of people have a very severe reaction to it but that if one of those people had instead taken valerian, the herbal source of valium, they would have just vomited and been perfectly safe. By refining the valerian, the drug companies had managed to remove built in safeguards in the form of other substances present in the unprocessed valerian.

I'd like to propose something similar in the area of theology. A few Sundays ago, I heard a very awkward exposition of penal substitution by someone who claimed to be a former pastor. It was during an open mike response time after the sermon. Now recently I've found myself defending penal substitution, not because I am bound and determined that it's the true way or anything, but rather that I think it's 1) a possible way to look at atonement which answers adequately at least some of the questions raised by atonement, and 2) a view that many quality Jesus followers have had in the recent past and to impugn it as evil would be to impugn them. Point out weaknesses, yes, propose something different, yes, but vilify, no. But hearing this fellow put it "God had to protect us from himself..." I thought, "that can't be it." and "I guess it's this kind of thing that my sometime opponents are fighting against."

As I see it, the ex-pastor fellow had a highly refined and potentially toxic form of theology. The demands for purity that he had put upon it were distorting it all out of shape. But the solution is not to formulate an antidote. I think the antidote will always be just as distorted. Read the story. The story itself, with its symbols and foreshadowing and relationships both unfathomably cosmic and accessibly human, is like the valerian. The theology could sometimes be like the valium, distilled, pure -- and potentially toxic. No, I am not putting down theology in general. I am merely proposing that we try not to define things in the hard and fast manner to which we have become accustomed and admit that we don't know.

 (cue a memory of singing beside my Dad in church, "But I know whom I have believed...")

Friday, December 25, 2015

A Star Wars Post

When I was a kid some well meaning Christian published a book called "The Force of Star Wars." The idea was to lead the reader past the rather lame religion espoused by the Jedi in the movie (not lame? Good and Evil in balance? What an idea. Nuff said.) on to an awareness to the Person from whom all power originates. I'm not sure how effective the book was. And I'm sure I don't want to try the same.

But I had an experience at this last Star Wars movie that might be useful to someone. Without venturing into spoiler-land I'll try to describe the scene. It's essentially the final duel. In the middle the young and emerging good character is given the obligatory offer: "Come with me and I'll teach of the ways of the Force." This was really the wrong thing to say. Our hero is suddenly aware of this thing that she has only recently begun to experience and all because the villain made the ill-considered offer to remind her. Of course that was the turning point.

But what happened certainly had some commonality with something I know about. She takes a breath, relaxes, and reminds herself what the Force really is. And suddenly the Force is all around her, guiding her and backing her up. And I went, "hey!" Cause that's where I go if I'm called on to pray for healing.

Admittedly, I wish more people would get healed when I pray for them. But I've got to say I love that moment when I remember (I mean really remember) who God really is...

(Disclaimer: this is my first post ever from just cell phone. Editorial quality may have suffered)

Thursday, December 17, 2015

The Smoking Gun

Premise: There are no original, universal or authoritative churches. There have only ever been indigenous culturally unique churches. Anyone who has moved from one church to another on the understanding that they have now found the one true church has been mistaken or worse, swindled.

Support for this view of Church history is comparatively easy to find. There are two such churches reported in the book of Acts, namely the Jewish church of Jerusalem, and the much larger Graeco-Roman (or simply Roman) Gentile church of the rest of the known world. From the beginning, these churches were equal but different. And the leaders at Jerusalem seemed to grasp this intuitively. When presented with the issue of Gentile believers, they did not talk as overlords with new subjects but as a first daughter, who has discovered she has a sister -- "Well then, God has granted to the Gentiles also." When asked for a ruling on whether the Gentiles were to be subjected to strict Jewish observances, the answer was a simple "No: why should they be subject to our laws?"

Over time it's evident that this collegiality between indigenous churches was forgotten. The Roman church started to view itself as Mother (note the capital M) instead of second sister. It's a cultural thing. Rome was big and pervasive. It was only natural that her indigenous church should think of herself the same way.

But she soon was not so universal anymore -- although she kept up the illusion to herself. Sure, her elder sister, the indigenous Jewish church, the same that had welcomed her as an equal, died off so she was able to claim successor-ship to her with no dissenting voices. But her Roman-ness, which drove her to organize and legislate and rule so assiduously, managed at length to alienate and spin off two other indigenous churches, namely the Assyrians and the Egyptians (Coptics) which are here to this day. And finally there was a territorial split so even the great Roman church became two. East and West.

Still, ironically, to this day both of the branches of the Roman Church maintain the idea that they are the true Mother Church and all true followers of Christ will be brought into their fold.

You'd think someone might have listened after the so-called Reformation. It wasn't a reformation really, it was a re-indigenization. Germans now had a German church, Scots had a Scottish church, the Swiss had a Swiss church, etc. Most of Europe, coming out into self-awareness from under the pervasive influence of the Roman universal ideal (kept alive by the Western Roman church) decided it was time to make their own choices about how and why to worship.

Unfortunately the Roman Church did not follow the same model as was laid out for them by their late sister. The Jewish Church had acknowledged the second sister as originating from God --"God has granted..." The Roman Church had a different idea, namely Succession: "If you aren't authorized by us who have been authorized by those in the past, you are not connected with the original church and therefore not really a church." So there was no welcoming of the new sisters, but condemnation for leaving the "original" church. Funny thing is, they had never been the original church.

Which brings us to the title of the post. What's the "smoking gun?" Quite simply, I'm looking for evidence that the Roman church is not the original church as they claim. And I believe that I have found it. Woven into the fabric of their teaching is something so ethnically Roman, so orthogonal to the general message of the Gospel, that they are exposed as just another sister or rather two sisters among many. All of us have cultural foibles which don't translate well into other cultures. To cling to such foibles marks you out as indigenous, not universal. And both branches of the Roman church have at least one such foible. The smoking gun to which I refer is the Perpetual Virginity of Mary.

Forget the argument over proof texts (Jesus had "brothers" -- no, the word is broad enough to mean "cousins," etc.). The burden of proof lies with the barest plausibility that a Jewish woman would even engage in virginal celibacy for the whole of her married existence. And there isn't any. Virginity and celibacy linked with religious observance just isn't a Jewish ideal. But it is a Roman ideal. The Romans had an priestly order of virgins guarding the flame of the goddess Vesta in Rome. And on the Greek side, there was a view that sex itself was evil, that necessary though it is, the act itself debases us. Put those together and you have a need to keep this emerging demi-goddess (I admit that's a worst-case version of sainthood) from ever having been stained herself this way-- a need to stretch the story past the unique birth of Jesus to lift her preternaturally high above the ordinary.

But even the maturing Roman church couldn't square the idea that Mary would, all on her own, have chosen this un-Jewish mode of being, so with all the industriousness of a Marvel screenwriter they created a backstory (it's called the Proto-Evangelium of James) to include the existence of an order of virgins at the Temple in Jerusalem, of which Mary was some time part. But it's a pure invention (actually, I am told the current word is retcon -- Retroactive Continuity). Ask any Rabbi; I've followed several such conversations on the web. There was no such order. It is precisely what it looks like. A order of quasi-vestals at the Jerusalem Temple fulfils a purely cultural need to impute perpetual virginity to Mary. And I submit to you that any church that entrenches such a mono-cultural need is not, and cannot be, the Mother of us all. Entrenching culture in your worship of God is an indigenous thing, not a universal thing. We all do it and so do you. You (actually both of you) are our sister not our Mother. Welcome home, to the sisterhood of indigenous churches.

I could leave it right there, but I won't. There are critiques arising from this paradigm of church history that need to be voiced. One, I've already alluded to. Namely if you have joined the Catholics or the Orthodox because they are the original church, you have erred. The original church worshipped in synagogues and did and believed things very different than you do. You joined your church, hopefully, because something about them appealed to you. You wanted to join-- you were not forced by realizing the truth of their claims. Unfortunately, to join, you had to also agree with them that they are Mother Church and so semi-shut the door on the rest of us.

Secondly, adopting all the early writings of the early Roman Church, and giving them a semi-authoritative place, calling them Patristic and viewing them as seminal for all churches is questionable. Returning to them as more true to the original design and appealing to them for support for your paradigm is not as valid as it is advertised to be. If you think they said something better, quote it and agree with it. But don't lean on it, saying that your view is more Patristic and therefore better. We're all seeking for the truth together and time and space don't matter. These are the writings of one of many equal sisters. Others have found different solutions to the same problems and though you may not like their solutions, don't play one sister against another.

Finally, presently, we are seeing tectonic shifts in how we view the Bible and the Atonement, and seemingly a host of other issues. I submit to you, though, that these shifts are not a final revelation of the truth or any such thing. They are simply a new culture asserting itself in the church and asking questions that didn't occur to other earlier cultures and getting answers that those earlier cultures don't like. The fact that both sides of an issue don't like each others' conclusions is more a comment on their starting place, which in each case is very different. Speaking as one who is sometimes of the former set, I'll try not to point fingers at you and say that you've strayed if you agree not to point fingers back at us and say how wrong we've always been. There are questions arising from my culture that are answered better by my conclusions, questions that are apparently not as important to you in your culture. Given enough time, there'll be other shifts that will bug you just as much.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

The impoverishment of the Father idea.

It's become a popular thing to remind people over and over that God is first and foremost, a loving Father. The object seems to be to distance the speaker from the judgmentalism and legalism (so distasteful) of the past and  welcome them into the non- condemning now. And how could I disagree with such a statement? I don't. But when Jesus introduced the idea, it had a context that we are now missing. Those to whom God was first revealed as Father, were already very cognizant of him as Creator, Judge and King. It's those other essential roles, so faint in the current picture people want to paint, that make his offer of Fatherhood so precious. He's under no obligation to be father to us. It may be in his nature, but like the returning prodigal, it's not our place to presume on that. Yes, once welcomed in, we would do well to humbly receive the robe, ring, sandals and fatted calf he lavishes on us. Continuing in condemnation is so obviously not his program for us. But forgetting what else he is besides Father is liable to cause us to lose the intended eternality of gratitude due him.

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Zahnd, Brown and Bernoulli

Sunday night (on to Labour Day Monday, you'll understand) I stayed up rather late (2:00 AM: yes, it was that good) to watch this. It was most instructive. On one side you have Brian Zahnd, proposing a view of the atonement that is either novel or a return to earlier ideas, depending on your perspective, and on the other side you have Michael Brown rebutting that with a view that is either traditional or a Calvinist innovation, again depending on your perspective.

Really, I found myself in sympathy with both views, which supports my idea that all such debates are rooted in different sets of cultural values that the Christ event can legitimately be viewed through and, if it results in the viewer following Jesus, be equally valid. (And yes, I admit there is a bit of hubris involved in watching a debate and declaring myself the winner.)

Monday morning found me running as usual. On one of the legs of my journey, there was before me an upside down styrofoam plate with rounded sections for different parts of the meal. And I imagined a wind blowing over it and sucking it up into the air in the manner of an airplane's wing. And suddenly it came to me what a parable it was for the debate I had just watched.

It's like this. Every child (in my country) with some science training is aware of the operation of Bernoulli's principle upon the shape of an airplane's wing. The classic diagram is a cross section of the wing showing the air above being forced to travel faster than the air below, and based on that differential and the resulting differential in air pressure, lift occurs. The plane is literally sucked into the air. But is it? Actually Bernoulli's principle accounts for only a percentage of the lift. Most of the lift comes from the air deflecting off the bottom of the wing as it tilts slightly upward against the air rushing past as the thrust from propeller pulls the plane forward. That's called "angle of attack."

So which is it? "Bernoulli's Principle" or "Angle of Attack?" Well the story is not complete without either. The plane doesn't generate enough lift without both. But the thing flies nonetheless. So with theories of the atonement. Somehow, no story is really complete. And from one side of the wing, so to speak, you feel that yours is the only story and every other story is an offence. But if you can manage to try the other side there's a whole new paradigm awaiting your arrival. But ultimately, no matter how it works, it really does work.

Friday, June 12, 2015

In Love with Love

The Church is struggling to have a voice in this increasingly strange world. I get that. Morally, we are very unsure of our message. People have great difficulty with being told what is moral or righteous and being measured against a standard of morality. We in the Church, on the other hand, are not as sure of what is right and wrong any more. It used to be so obvious. Things that used to be right are now wrong and things that used to be wrong are a matter of someone's rights. The difficult events in the Old Testament have become more difficult. What we used to look on with "There but for the grace of God, go I." we now condemn as genocide. God used to be understood to know best in these things. Now we want to distance ourselves from the idea of God who, at need, punishes whole nations.

I think there is a reason for this confusing state of things. I think we've gone out on a limb for the word "Love." We've made a God out of "God is Love." We've drunk the Kool-aid of our own marketing. Contemporary worship songs are symptomatic. Over Easter, I heard one that described Jesus' resurrection as some kind exertion of Love. What happened to the triumph of Life over Death? What happened to the triumph of Righteousness over Sin? I guess that kind of thing is passe.

But who is going to speak against Love? It's the ultimate Motherhood-and-Apple-Pie issue. And tagged to this present out-of-focus focus is another biblical catchphrase, "God is light and in him is no darkness at all." And we've brought to the table our contemporary ideas of what constitutes darkness and said "God can't be that." We've forgotten that sometimes, light burns. It used to be that we would look at the difficult parts of the Old Testament and say, "God knows best."and walk away with a healthy fear of God -- which Proverbs tells us is the beginning of [true] wisdom. Now we judge everything we read -- and say that it all must have been based on a distorted view of God and walk away without any moral compass at all.

Sunday, May 17, 2015


Lots of noise is being made these days about the Church rediscovering the truth about the atonement, about the faith, about the nature of God. I've made noises earlier in this blog about the magic word "Patristic" and how it seems to be used as a golden ticket to selling your views especially when presented over against a more recent view. After all it's Patristic...

But I'd like to take a bit of a swing at the whole rediscovery thing. And the first thing to be made clear is that this is not like the story in Kings, where the Book of the Law had been lost and now it has been found again. This is one view, expressed chronologically earlier than another view expressed more recently. The assumption that that the one marketed to is expected to take on board is that the earlier view is 'of course' right because it's earlier and the later 'of course' wrong because it's later. But it all depends on how you tell the story. One way is to say that this was lost early on and now, thank God we've found it. The other way is to say that our understanding is now evolved and the newer idea has superseded the old. Can you see the problem? There's no way to tell which is the true tale. Which means no re-discovery has taken place. We've merely found something we like better than what we had. And we're willing to depend on a bad sales job, namely, what C.S.Lewis used to call chronological snobbery, to assure ourselves that it's the right one.