Friday, April 22, 2016

Seeing in Stereo

 So what's the central fact of our existence? Is it that we are created? Being a creation implies total ownership of the creation by the Creator and total freedom to the Creator to adjust his creation to serve his purposes better. It carries with it 100% obligation on our part to fulfil our Creator's purposes for us and 0% obligation on his part to answer to us for anything he does.  Any wilful deviation from his purposes is a cosmic fault. Sounds so dire, doesn't it. But it's not. It's simply what being his creation means.

Or is the central fact that we are loved? Through love we find that a large portion of his purposes are focused on blessing us and broadening, not narrowing our scope. Through love we find that the cosmic fault has been mended at immense personal cost to our Creator. Through love we find that somehow this Being, of a so much higher order than ourselves, is ever interested in relationship with us personally, as families, tribes, churches, communities, nations, and the whole world, and not merely pleased to watch, "from a distance" he has come to be present among us. It all amazes us and causes us to return his love.

So much talk these days focuses on the second "central fact" that I find myself ever in defence of the first, yet if I had found myself in a more judgemental age, I would have become the irritating advocate of love. But it's not so much the focus that's the issue. It's the apparent embarrassment we have with the first fact that bothers me.

My take is that these two are like separate frames of the same stereo view. Only if we keep both eyes open do we see in three dimensions. If we focus on one over the other, our view is distorted and flat. Stark dichotomy ensues. God the Judge vs. God the Lover. Law vs. Grace. Pick your poison and choose your side. Complementary pairs become theological battle lines.

"He who has been forgiven much loves much" is a statement that sees in stereo. Awareness of the need to be forgiven proceeds from the awareness of the depth of the offence against the just claims of the Creator. He is not arbitrarily and vindictively enforcing his claims. The claims are inescapable because they are inherent in being his creation. Offence against them is of incalculable harm; to us, to our loved ones, to the whole universe. And the costly healing of this harm by the one who had no obligation to us, rightly produces a love response in us. But outside of this understanding, love because of received mercy is irrelevant, because we just have no idea of what forgiveness means or what the mercy cost.

Yes this how it looks from my position in the Amphitheature, but it's as valid as your view.

Monday, March 21, 2016

The Amphitheatre: Why Nobody Bats 1.000 in Christian Theology

Here's a picture that's been on my heart for a long time and I'm really sure that it's a good representation of our corporate attempt to adequately articulate and describe what we believe about the Christian faith. And if this inspires anyone to actually create it visually I'd welcome that. But at this time, as I can't really be doing that myself, I will try to put into words.

Start with a stage in a large semicircular format. The stage has two features. The rear of the stage, in a wide sweeping curve, is a series of pictures representing the history and writings of the Old Testament. In the centre of the stage is a large multi-faceted crystaline structure that represents, not the New Testament, but what some term the Christ Event. The Christ Event may be slowly turning, it may be not, but certainly the facets as you gaze on them from whatever side obscure what is visible from some other angle. And maybe as you gaze on the Christ event from a certain angle it obscures to the point of blotting out some of the Old Testament behind it. The visible panels of the Old Testament become part of the whole picture that you see so that wherever you are there is a whole and possibly satisfying picture that differs from what is seen from the other parts of the amphitheatre.

The other feature of the place is the seating. The seating is also semi-circular. In the front rows are the writers of the New Testament. They got first crack at articulating the meaning of what they experienced. But even they saw things from a slightly different angle from each other. And here I diverge somewhat from tradition and say that in this enterprise of discovering 'what it all means,' we are their equals. We are indebted to them for reporting on the Christ Event and starting the discussion, but the discussion goes on because the Holy Spirit is still with us and we are still exploring.

The rows in the seating have been gradually filling up: not as fast as the church grows, mind you; many Christians hardly ever visit this amphitheatre. Theology as such is just not a pursuit for most and that is worth remembering for those for whom it is a passion. It would have made sense for the place to fill up in a linear fashion with people filing in and filling it up row by row. But such is not the case. Camps have formed in different areas of the seating, populated by people of similar viewpoints who like the view best from this or that location. Because the seats also represent a spectrum of culture and experience and people of certain cultures and experiences will gravitate to what they are the most comfortable with.

And there is a ludicrous, though perhaps not unnatural, side effect to the camps. Those in the camps have started to be more aware of the other camps than of the star of the show, the Christ Event, and have started to focus on how different they are from the other camps, while if they really wanted to find out at a deeper level why they're so different, the answer is a short walk away.

The walk to another part of the seating would reveal a set of questions that your pet view does not address, and cultural forces and assumptions that make your answers seem irrelevant and yet these also are followers of the Messiah. So don't think that your view is the final, the real, the complete version. Not even if it's newly (re)discovered. It will only ever be complete in the context of your set of questions, forces, and assumptions. There will be a cultural shift in the future that will set it all on its ear again.

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Whole Food Theology II

I suppose that I could actually title this, "If you are a Christian you are this..." It was that sort of Facebook dialogue that is the catalyst for this.

My daughter says I should just clean up my friends list to avoid being embroiled in controversies. But some people are still friends though I haven't seen them for years and our opinions have diverged. Anyhow someone in my friend list was rah-rah-ing Ted Cruz for walking off the stage at a persecuted Christians gala because he was committed to supporting Israel and they saw Israel as part of the problem. I read the referenced article as well as a few others covering the event and suggested that there was more than one way to spin his exit. Well, some people, not the original poster, although she didn't like it either, were retorting with "You better be on Israel's side if you are on God's side!" style stuff at the merest suggestion that there was any other way to read the event.

There was a bit more back and forth and one of my rebuttals is the basis of this post. So, with the hubris required for me to actually quote myself:
[It's a question of ] "if you are Christian, you are this," [or] "if you are a Christian you diligently do your best to think all these issues through...
I'm thinking we have all encountered a lot of "if you are a Christian, you are this.." The aforementioned group that believes that the modern state of Israel (and it is a modern state in every way and not the restoration of the Davidic Monarchy) is the successor to the Israel and Judah of Bible times. The people who believe the opposite. The people who view the Atonement through a Neo-Calvinistic lens. The people who find that abhorrent. I've had all sorts of assumptions thrown at me about what bandwagons I had better be on from all of them. Okay, not directly, but in the writings, articles, blogposts. But you might have heard me say this before. What about not being sure yet?

Brad Jersak once wrote a book I really enjoyed called Her Gates Shall Never Be Shut about the many different options in scripture as to what happens to non-believers after death. He called it a polyphony. Truth is, about so much of this stuff, there is also the same: a polyphony. And here's where I go back to my earlier post about Whole Food Theology as opposed to Refined Theology. It's the polyphony that gives us not one but many pictures to enlighten, flesh out, and yes, even confuse our efforts to be sure of some theological fact. I could go through the list of different viewpoints plus many more and demonstrate why I can't be wholly satisfied by any one of them, but perhaps that would be too much. At any rate I return once more to my favourite theological statement, the one that really sums it up and is all I can be sure of these days: I have decided to follow Jesus...

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.