Wednesday, June 21, 2017

The Relationship Between Spirituality and Religion

Every once in a while, I hear someone make the assertion, "I'm not religious, I'm spiritual." I see where they're coming from. The statement is usually uttered by someone who is trying to demonstrate that their faith is a deep component of their personality, and not simply empty, outward tradition or mindless, repetitive action.

But for me, I think the concepts of religion and spirituality only take on meaning when understood together. I don't think a person can have one without the other. While spirituality is the inward change experienced through faith, religion is its outward expression. Both are human responses to God's action in the world (what we refer to as "revelation").

As a hospice chaplain, the analogy I immediately go to describes the difference between grief and mourning. Grief is the inward, emotional and psychological experience of loss. Mourning is its outward expression. Indeed, it's no accident that grief is almost always described as a spiritual experience and mourning usually includes religious ritual.

So when a person tells me, "i'm not religious, I'm spiritual," a number of questions immediately come to mind. If your faith and spirituality are indeed shaping your life and worldview, do they not find expression in every day actions? Do those actions include ritual or repeated expression? If not, do you really have faith or is what you are experiencing just intellectual assent, compartmentalized and far removed from other areas of life? Are you confusing knowledge (gnosis) with faith? Are you allowing your interactions, relationships, and actions (the substance of religion) to be transformed by faith? Can spirituality even be truly transformative without physical expression?

It isn't my intent to judge anyone's faith or spirituality, I just want us (me included) to take a deep look at our assertions and how they actually reflect our lives and practices. Words have different meanings for different people. When we make a claim (often with the implication that our opinion is superior), we should make sure that at most it can hold up to scrutiny, and at the very least, that we are talking about the same things.

#Spirituality #Religion #Faith


Monday, February 27, 2017

My Philosophy of Ministry

Introduction
As part of the ordination process with the Church of the Nazarene, I wrote a Philosophy of Ministry that articulates my views on theology and leadership within the church. This is a “living document” which can change over time as my emphases and experiences shape my outlook on church leadership.

Core Theology
My Central Mission Statement:
I am called to share the good news with the lost; to love God with everything I am; to reflect the love of God in my relationship with Him, with other people, and with all creation; and to lead others to do the same.

The Good News:
Humanity was created both individually and communally by God in God’s image,(1) to freely and fully enjoy worshipful communion with Him, with each other, and with all creation.(2) By virtue of our being God’s image, we were created with the ability to freely choose between life and death, right and wrong, creation and destruction;(3) as genuine relationship can only happen in the context of freedom.

In freedom, the first humans were seduced with the promise of power which the Tree of Knowledge embodies.(4) In doing so, they willfully followed their own selfish desires without regard to the natural consequences of broken communion which followed. This willful pursuit of selfish desire at the expense of our communion with God is what we call “sin”. Their communion with God was severed as their nakedness was revealed;(5) their communion with each other was severed as one human was cursed to dominate another and their children would be hounded by sin and death; and their communion with creation was severed with their removal from paradise and exemplified in their struggle to survive.(6)

But even though we have all been separated from God and each other by the selfish and rebellious choices of every human being from the first up to today; God did not abandon us. He chose the people Israel to be the avenue through which He would bring Salvation to all who would accept it.(7) He also sent the prophets to proclaim His law, the nature of His desire, and the reality of our sin.(8)And He loved us so much that Jesus Christ, who is fully God and fully human, took on flesh and was born to a virgin, died on the cross, and was bodily raised from the dead; so that we likewise may not die in our twisted state of separation and sin, but rather also be bodily raised to new life in perfect communion with God and each other in the new, restored, and redeemed creation.(9) In doing so, Christ is the new Adam, and frees us from the curse of the old.(10) This also means our ability to repent and accept the free gift of salvation is restored through the prevenient grace provided in Christ’s sacrifice and communicated through the work of the Holy Spirit.

Christ had the authority and ability to do this because he is fully God and fully man. He was not tainted with the communal state of sin into which all humanity is born. He lived a perfect life free from sin, though he was tempted. He conquered sin and death forever in his self-sacrificial death on the cross and bodily resurrection; thus establishing the promise of bodily resurrection for all who believe in him.(11) During his life, he worked miracles and taught his disciples a new way of life, meant to provide a foretaste of his victorious kingdom and the above-mentioned new creation.

And once he was assumed into Heaven to prepare for the fulfillment of of his promise; he sent the Holy Spirit, the Paraclete, to call all humanity to Himself and to guide, comfort, and admonish the Church. The Holy Spirit is fully and equally God, as are the Son, and the Father. They are eternally and mystically One substance, yet three Persons. It is through the Holy Spirit that we come to know and experience God.(12)

The Church in turn is the community of disciples called to embody the foretaste of the new creation, the kingdom of heaven, which stands in stark contrast to the kingdoms of the world. We live by Christ’s teachings and self-sacrificial example. And our greatest testimony to our faith in a broken, hurting and often bitter world, is our love for one another which extends even to our enemies.(13) Our love not only reflects the promise of the new creation, it reflects the love Christ has for the world, and the love expressed in the perfect unity of the Trinity. The more fully this love is expressed in the Church, the more fully we realize the purpose for which we were first created, which is to be God’s image in the world.

Our sacraments were instituted by Christ himself for the benefit of the Church, and include Baptism and Communion. I believe Communion communicates the real presence of Christ to the participant and connects them in worship and proclamation to the whole Body of Christ, in all times and places.(14) And I believe water Baptism using the Trinitarian formula, whether by sprinkling or immersion and whether to infants or adults, is a necessary sign of obedience and public proclamation to the world of both the Christian’s inclusion in the community and their trust in Christ’s promise of the resurrection.(15) This does not mean it is necessary for Salvation, as Salvation comes through faith in the free gift of grace alone.(16)

In all this, I affirm the inspired reliability and sufficiency of Scripture to communicate what is necessary for Salvation;(17) I affirm the tradition of the Church Fathers and Mothers who have shaped its interpretation from the days of the Apostles to today; and I affirm the ancient ecumenical creeds which formulate orthodox belief.(18)

Role of the Pastor
While all Christians are called to utilize their God-given gifts for ministry, the Holy Spirit calls certain ministers, who are referred to in scripture as Elders or Overseers, to special roles in leadership, preaching, discipleship, and administering the sacraments.

As leaders we are called to discern and execute the vision which God has for our particular area of ministry, while being good stewards of the resources placed under our responsibility. As preachers, we are called to bear witness to and proclaim the transforming grace of Jesus Christ in the gospel message. As disciplers, we are called to grow, challenge, counsel, encourage, and equip those believers entrusted in our care as the Holy Spirit leads them to greater maturity, sanctifies them, and in turn calls them to ministry.(19) When administering the sacraments, we take the concrete elements and actions taught to us by Christ, and through the Holy Spirit, communicate the immeasurable grace of Christ freely given to all who are in communion with Him.

As an Elder, I plan to fulfill all these roles; though the emphasis on particular roles may take precedence over others as need requires. For example, as a hospice Chaplain I may preach monthly, usually in the context of funerals and memorials where many of those gathered may not be believers, and who may only hear sermons when they attend weddings or funerals; rather than weekly to a congregation that may have a greater proportion of believers, who may be used to sermon series and themes carried over multiple Sundays. At the same time, I may spend a greater amount of my time and energy on the tasks associated with discipleship, especially counseling and encouragement. Additionally, rather than having set, pre-planned times for the administration of sacraments, they may need to be provided on an emergency basis for individuals who wish to partake in these particular expressions of faith.

Philosophy of Leadership
As a leader in the Church, I am called to both reflect the leadership of Christ to the people, and lead the people to worshipful communion in Christ. As stated above, the type of kingdom which Christ leads stands in stark contrast to the kingdoms of the world. Likewise, the type of leadership which Christ exemplifies stands in stark contrast to the leaders of the world. Where the world rewards leaders who ruthlessly pursue their desires and consolidate power over people under themselves; Christlike leaders are called to selflessly set our desires aside and bring people to true freedom in Christ.(20) Where worldly leaders and the kingdoms they lead seek to protect their group by demonizing outsiders; Christlike leaders welcome the outsiders into our churches, our homes, and our lives.(21) Where worldly leaders and the kingdoms they lead believe power should rest with the powerful and ally themselves to it; Christlike leaders protect the marginalized and defend the cause of the orphan, the widow, and the refugee.(22)

Additionally, the New Testament puts forward very clear standards for leaders in the church. An Elder must be disciplined, faithful, honest, and gracious in all his or her areas of life, starting with the home.(23) After all, our first mission field is our own families, and they often see our true nature.
I think all leaders in the church, whether clergy or lay, are called to this type of Christlike leadership. I also think that, as we are one community, we are all accountable to each other and to the Holy Spirit for our thoughts and actions. Still, as one of the fundamental roles of a pastor discussed above is discipleship and mentorship for those called to ministry, we must be especially watchful of our conduct; as it has the potential to shape (or harm) the faith of future generations of leaders.

Philosophy of Evangelism and Discipleship
There are a number of challenges which American churches are facing in the 21st century, and one of the biggest is how to draw in and communicate the gospel to generations of Americans who are increasingly not only un-churched, but even anti-church. It isn’t simply a matter of updating the music every couple of decades. Many of those who have walked away from (or never entered) a church have deep wounds from those around them which they perceived as religious. Many have walked into a congregation two or three weeks in a row without being noticed. And there have been some who were absent for weeks to care for a family member or because of illness, but no one called, came to visit, or prepared a meal.

If we are to attract, convert, and disciple an increasingly un-churched culture; we need to push past the political, generational, socio-economic, and ethnic divisions in our country and discern what the Holy Spirit is already doing. It’s easy to become discouraged sometimes, but God is doing some amazing things in our culture. For instance, there is a deep desire among younger generations to see ethnic divisions crumble and to be a part of diverse groups. They are passionate about caring and advocating for the poor and marginalized. And they care about the planet and the ramifications of pollution, deforestation, and climate change. Though they are increasingly shaped by sources of information which only serve to confirm previous biases, they have a deep desire for truth that addresses the hard questions encountered in life.

To me, these concerns represent the work of the Holy Spirit in the world, drawing all people to Himself. We just need to be aware of what God is already doing, and develop our ministries to reflect and participate in that work. That may mean starting a community garden, or organizing a highway cleanup, or designating lay volunteers to greet new visitors and call those who we haven’t seen in a while, just to let them know we care for them and are here for them. It could also mean conducting small group bible studies in more comfortable and personal settings, like in homes, or coffee-shops, or other so called “third spaces” where people can relax and grow as a community. Finally, our leaders need to trust God by being vulnerable with each other. By taking risks and letting our congregations know we also sometimes struggle with tough questions, with loneliness, and with emotional wounds; we can build a more trusting and truly united community within the Body of Christ.

Role of the Laity
Our church affirms the calling placed on the life of every believer to be ministers and witnesses to the good news of Jesus Christ.(24) This means that, according to the gifts they’ve been given and which the Church is called to cultivate, they can and should be involved in almost every area of ministry. While an Elder is called to discern and communicate God’s vision for the community, lay members are equipped by the Holy Spirit to participate in and execute that vision. Though an Elder is called to preach to the congregation, lay members may pray or give testimony to what God is doing in their lives in the congregational setting. And though an ordained Elder is responsible for the maturity and discipleship of the body of believers, as well as the cultivation of prospective ordination candidates; more mature lay members may still lead bible studies, book clubs, and group discussions, teach Sunday School, and even mentor less mature individuals, all under the supervision of the ordained members of the congregation.

Philosophy of Stewardship
First, I believe the church should be utterly transparent in how it allocates funds. In line with the above discussion on evangelism, many have grown mistrustful of institutions in general and churches in particular. Popular criticism of lavish church facilities and pastors who travel in their own private jets and live in mansions abound; even if this criticism does not reflect the reality of most churches and pastors.(25) A church which makes its financial information readily available goes a long way toward earning people’s trust.

I also think that if an Elder or leader in the Church is going to hold the community to a standard of investment in the church and personal accountability; then the self-same leader should exemplify that standard.(26) That means I should not only tithe as a regular act of trust, discipline, and worship;(27) I should use all my household resources in a responsible manner. This may mean going above and beyond the tithe to support Nazarene Compassionate Ministries or other worthy causes, as I am able. It also means responsibly using my time and energy in ways that edify the community, grow our bonds of love, and that exemplify the loving character of Christ to all those I interact with. And it means finding new ways to eliminate waste (including food, water, electricity, fuel, etc. as well as money).

Additionally, just as the church’s leadership are called to discern and build strategies for responding to God’s vision for the congregation; they are also called to find creative ways to efficiently allocate resources in a sustainable way, while seeing to the needs of those entrusted to the care of the Church.(28) This means having Standard Operating Procedures and detailed recordkeeping in place on the congregational and program level for the allocation and use of funds; as well as detailed financial plans in place when a new ministry or project is started and at regular intervals as it continues.

Finally, stewardship also extends to our care of the planet and the “community capital”(29) which surrounds our churches. This may mean embracing green initiatives when remodeling or expanding our facilities, or instituting a recycling or scrap collection program (which could also bring in revenue). It could also mean having a prayer garden and which incorporates the natural beauty of the surrounding environs, while also utilizing plants adapted to the climate to cut down on chemical pest control measures and watering requirements (which also saves money in the process). On the “community capital” side, the local church could partner with other like-minded area churches, businesses, non-profits, and individuals in ministering to the poor, or by working together on ministry projects, thereby fostering greater cooperation with the greater Body of Christ and negating another popular criticism of the Church as being fractured and divisive.(30)

The Role of the Family
The family is a microcosm of the Church,(31) and the relationships within the family should strive to reflect the perfect love, joy and communion expressed in the Trinity. My wife and I try to make all our family decisions in unity, submitting ourselves to each other, and being examples of Christ-like love to each other and our children.(32) When it comes to ministering in the Church, I recognize that my wife has been given unique gifts and her own will to follow Christ. This means that while she is very supportive of my ministry, her role within the church should be decided based on her own gifts and the leading of the Holy Spirit, and not by her relationship to me as a pastor’s wife.

I also recognize that, while I am committed to raising my children in the knowledge of Christ, their decision whether or not to follow Christ or participate in ministry is ultimately a decision made between them and God. So, while I encourage my family to participate fully in the life and ministry of the Church, I will not force them. Likewise, when it comes to positions of ministerial authority within the Church, they will need to show the same maturity and calling that would be expected of any other believer who desired such a position, and should not be deferentially placed simply because I am the pastor.

Why a Nazarene Minister
I love the Nazarene Church and the work of God expressed in both its history and distinctive doctrines. These include denominational roots in urban homeless ministries in Los Angeles, and an emphasis on supporting Nazarene educational institutions. They also include our teachings on Christian perfection, free will, and divine healing. Additionally, I support our affirmation of both infant and believer’s baptism. And I rejoice in the call God has placed in the lives of women as well as men to become ordained Elders and Deacons. All of these were factors in my decision to serve with and support the Nazarene Church.

Still, I also believe that God is doing great things in other orthodox denominations(33) and I believe it is God’s desire that we overcome our denominational differences and learn to love each other as brothers and sisters in Christ. We may not agree on everything and should still stay true to our convictions and doctrinal distinctions; but we can also recognize the legitimacy of each other’s ministries, ordinations, and sacraments. In the meantime, I think it is essential to the ministry of the Church that we begin to work with other denominations in our communities to reach out to the lost, help the poor, and even worship with each other as the opportunity arises.

//SIGNED//

Rev. Ian Hyde

Footnotes
  1. Gen. 1:26-27.
  2. cf. Psa. 8:1-9, 19:1-6 and 139:13-18.
  3. Deu. 30:19.
  4. Gen. 3:3-6.
  5. Gen. 3:7.
  6. Gen. 3:13-19, 23.
  7. John 4:22; cf. Rom. 10-11.
  8. 2 Chr. 24:19.
  9. 1 Cor. 15:12-58; Rev. 21:1-27.
  10. 1 Cor. 15:45.
  11. 1 Cor. 15:12-58; Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 5:31:2.
  12. John 14:15-17.
  13. John 13:35; Mat. 5:44-45.
  14. Eph. 4:11-13.
  15. John 6:32-58; 1 Cor. 10:16-17, 11:23-29.
  16. Mat. 28:19-20; Acts. 16:31, 33; 1 Cor. 12:13.
  17. 28th General Assembly of the Church of the Nazarene, Manual: 2013-2017, 29.
  18. cf. Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed of 381; Chalcedonian Creed of 451; Apostles’ Creed; and the Athanasian Creed.
  19. Eph. 2:8-9.
  20. 1 Pet. 5:2-3; Mat. 20:25-28.
  21. Heb. 13:2.
  22. Exo. 23:9; Jer. 7:6; James 1:27.
  23. Titus 1:5-9; 1 Tim. 3:1-7.
  24. Church of the Nazarene, Manual: 2013-2017, 186.
  25. According to Pastor Salaries, Average Salary & Jobs Pay, http://www.salarylist.com/jobs/Pastor-Salary.htm, retrieved Feb. 27, 2017; the average annual pay for a pastor is $35,360. In fact, a growing number of pastors must work two or more jobs to provide for their families.
  26. 1 Cor. 4:1-2.
  27. Deu. 14:28-29; Prov. 3:9-10.
  28. Luk. 12:42-46.
  29. These are the unique cultural resources which abound in any community, and which both connect it to and differentiate it from other communities.
  30. John 17:20-21.
  31. John Chrysostom, Homily 20 on Ephesians, 6.
  32. Eph. 5:21-33.
  33. Defined as those who exhibit apostolic authority and adhere to the ancient creeds listed above.
#ministry #ChurchoftheNazarene #creeds #gospel



Thursday, December 03, 2015

How Should A Christian Define "Ethics"?

This is a question I was asked recently, and as I am not a professional philosopher by any means, any post of mine would probably fail to hit on many of the considerations which have been debated for millenia. Still, I think this is a worthy question which every person of faith should consider for themselves and their communities. So, in what is probably much too short a post to fully address the issue of Christian ethics, I will offer some of my own thoughts on how I formulate my understanding of Christian ethics, its relationship to human philosophy, and to scripture.

I think that very often, the term "ethical" is implied to be some external good (perhaps a holdover of Platonism?). If there is a God, then I do not think that God's ethics with regard to humanity are an objective, eternal reality by whose standard we are held to account. Before the cosmos (or outside of the cosmos, outside of existence itself), any understanding of "good" or "evil in relation to God would be irrelevant, as there would only be God as an objective reality. And after all, if God is revealed in any way in scripture, it seems immediately clear to the average reader that even in scripture standards change over time.

There are definitely overarching themes which weave their way through the passages and books (and these, I think, are significant for the faithful) concerning standards for justice, but of the 613 mitzvot alluded to in the Tanakh, many are simply impossible to obey today (for example, commands regarding the Temple in Jerusalem, which no longer exists). And most (if not all) of the basic concepts behind the standards for justice in scripture are relational in nature.

I think that, in terms of us who believe in God, ethics must be viewed as entirely relational and not objective. What I mean is, "the good" and the ethics which govern behavior along this standard, is defined as that which encourages harmony between God, humanity and creation. For a Christian, the more this harmony reflects the inner-relationship of the Trinity, and the more humanity's character represents Christ and lives as the image of God (and caretaker of creation), the more ethical we are. We measure these ethics by Jesus' interpretation of the Law and the Prophets: we are good when we love God and love others (even our enemies) as ourselves. We fall short of this ethical standard when we do not.

The commands themselves are relational, and reflect the above relational understanding of humanity's purpose. For the Christian, God is ethical because God sent the Incarnate Word made flesh, to open the way for perfect relationship between God, humanity, and creation. The commands, in this context, do not then act as the substance of ethics, but as part of the road-map leading toward the Incarnation.

This also means that as times change, humanity should ideally change as well. What was "good" for a Medieval or Ancient Near Eastern king is not necessarily good for a king today. This is something on which both religious and non-religious people should be able to agree. It is interesting to me that many non-religious have an objectified view of ethics or the good (as if they were unchanging), but I do not know what this idea would be founded on.

As an example, from an objectively material point of view, landmines are neither ethical or unethical. They are simply an additional and painful component of the chaos which often comes in contact with human lives. From a relational point of view, they are extremely unethical. Not only do they harm the possibility of human relationship in the relevant conflict in which they were laid; but they also harm people for many generations to come and greatly impede the ability of human beings to overcome all the other problems we have to deal with.

#God #ethics #good #evil #relationship #humanity #creation


Saturday, November 28, 2015

Six Challenging Questions Regarding God's Ethics

Below are my responses to six challenging questions by an atheist friend regarding God's ethical behavior in the Bible. These are questions I've struggled with deeply myself, so I definitely identify with those who question the often harsh or seemingly unfair behavior of a God who's supposed to be good and leading us toward a perfect relationship with Him, each other, and creation.

1) Would you drown everyone except 8 people and a boatload of animals?

I think this story is a great example of the use of myth to convey truth. Especially in Genesis, but also throughout the Torah, there are many places where the text incorporates myths from other cultures and usually gives structural clues in the Hebrew as to the nature of the myth. An example of the parallelism within this story is found in the opening verses. In v. 5 “God saw [Heb. wayyar'], v. 6 “the LORD was grieved [Heb. wayyinahem]... his heart was filled with pain [Heb. wayyitasseb]” and on and on. Hebrew parallelism is regularly used both in mythic and poetic genres and suggests a carefully crafted structure, not just a historical account. This is a myth, and while there have been local destructive floods throughout history, Noah's flood almost certainly didn't happen literally.

When this story was included in the Torah, the Jews were in the midst of the Babylonian exile and though they knew the special character of their God, they wanted a way to viscerally convey this character to their people, so they used stories which were familiar, i.e. the Babylonian Epic of Gilgamesh (for the flood), the Atrahasis Epic and the Enuma Elish (for creation), and Enmerkar and the Lord of Aratta (the Tower of Babel). Other sources may have been used as well, but these may have been lost. But what is most interesting is not the parallels with these other myths, but what is unique to the Hebrew myths. In the Assyrian, Babylonian, and Sumerian stories, the gods are pissed that humans are too noisy. We just party too hard, baby. So they want to kill us. Then when they realize they'll starve without our worship, they praise one of the gods who sneakily saved Utnapishtim (Noah). The Hebrew God on the other hand, cares about social justice and the violence that spreads through the earth. In fact, the Hebrew contrasts in the language with humanity's violence and the goodness of creation suggests that the violence was so bad, all humanity would have slaughtered each other completely. This means that by saving 8, God saved 8 more than would have survived without intervention.

This story's placement within the book of Genesis also serves an important theological purpose. It is the culmination of the acts of Adam and Eve, which first brought rebellion and deception into the world and out of that, the first acts of violence. This is foreshadowed in the skins with which they are covered, and carried on in the story of Cain and Abel, which in narrative structure (especially in Cain's dialogue with God) mirrors almost exactly the exchange between the first couple and God. Destruction was the inevitable path humanity was already on. I find it very interesting today, that in the face of climate change, we find ourselves in the same place again (only this time our violence is toward the earth and not just toward each other). If humanity cannot change its ways, it may very well destroy itself. I think that is the ultimate point of this story.

It is important to note as well that the Jews reading the Torah during the Babylonian exile would have immediately recognized these stories as myths (both because they were already familiar with the Babylonian myths and because of the Hebraic structural clues); yet even as myths they communicate essential truths about God and humanity: that we have the potential to utterly destroy ourselves, and that God cares about social justice and wants to show mercy to those who will reject the path of violence.

2) Would you consider women as property?

In the ANE (Ancient Near East) all the way through Greco-Roman times, women were indeed seen as property, either the property of the clan itself (whose authority was recognized either in the elder males, or a patriarch) or the property of the pater familias (head of household). These authorities generally had the power of life and death over the men and women under their control. It was through this cultural lens the original audiences (and even authors) of the biblical texts saw their relationships to each other and to their God (or gods). But what is very interesting about even the Old Testament is that, despite many brutal passages read in today's Western cultural light, there are some pretty huge changes to the status of women and all vulnerable classes (including widows, orphans, the poor, and migrants/immigrants) taking place in scripture.

This change begins with the creation myths at the beginning in Genesis (two are found here, as well as another six uses of creation imagery in the Psalms). In the opening verses, men and women are created equally (Gen. 1:27-28). Even in the second story (ch. 2-3), when Eve is taken from the rib of Adam, their relationship is like that of a river. The mouth of the river might be its “head” or its source, yet no part of the river is more important than another. It is all river. Inequality is first mentioned after humanity has sinned, and is described as a consequence of our sin (Gen. 3:16). In this context, all human inequality is the direct result of human sin and is not part of the original created order.

From this point forward, any law code, or instruction, or even mythic (or possibly historic for some) story must be read in the context of human-created inequality. So, in this context, let's say God decides to begin speaking into history and changing things. I think God began to do this gradually, because an outright revolution of thought would have been utterly rejected (as I've stated elsewhere, I think God's relationship with humanity is not deterministic, but a give-and-take, and we have a say in it). The Torah laws represent a compromise, and an understanding that God is not done interacting with (and changing) the nature of our relationship.

Even the more brutal laws are a vast improvement in terms of social justice when compared with either ANE cultural practice or other written law codes (such as Hammurabai's). Where in other cultures, slaves were held for life against their will, in the Torah they are set free the seventh year, and all debts forgiven after seven sets of seven years (the 50th year of the debt), meaning a debt could not be passed to children or over the estate (as the land was held in trust for descendants forever). The concept of the Jubilee year is remarkably more progressive than even today's debt laws. And where in the ANE, if a slave did a crime they were given a harsher punishment then a rich person, in the Torah all are punished for crimes equally (though harshly). Additionally, where women leaders were unheard of in much of that world, some of the oldest sections of the Torah include the stories (and song) of Deborah, a female judge who leads an army and prophecies to the people (Jg. 4-5), as well as women who kill kings (Jg. 4:21; 9:53) and who decide the destinies of princes (cf. Rebekah, Jacob & Esau). It's certainly not a perfect image of women, but if the Torah were all humanity needed to move into perfect relationship with each other, with creation, and with God; then Christ would not have come (this point is what much of my theology hinges on).

Even in the NT, Jesus and Paul provide a vast improvement in the treatment of women and their status. Women form a central part of Jesus' ministry. It is a woman who brings the Incarnate Word into the world (Mary), and it is women who first discover the empty tomb and bring the Proclaimed Word into the world (by telling the disciples). It is a Canaanite woman who actually bests Jesus with a riddle/analogy in one of the best uses of irony in scripture (Mt. 15:21-28) and it is women who have some of the most intimate discussions and interactions with Jesus (Jn. 4:4-26; Lk. 7:36-50). Women even sit at the feet of Jesus, and listen as his disciples which was unheard of at the time (Lk. 10:38-42). And, even though a later bishop (who wrote Timothy) uses Paul's name to place limits on women leadership in his congregations, Paul himself elevates the role of women, proclaims them equal with men (and all people regardless of background) (Col. 3:11, Gal. 3:28), and even praises the work of women leaders in the church and commends Junia, a female apostle (Rom. 16:7).

3) Would you yourself or would you condone owning another person?

No, I wouldn't. And I don't think God would either. Though Paul tells slaves they should serve their masters, this should be read in the context of the unequivocal rejection of violence by Jesus and the early church, and in Jesus' and Paul's statements regarding the equality of all individuals. Paul's admonition in this case is actually a position of nonviolent subversion of Roman structures. Christians were to serve (whether free or slave) in such a way that defied the expected reaction to those placed in bondage or forced in anyway. It was indeed a revolution, but a revolution that rejected force and instead relied on the overwhelming power of love to change people's hearts, even the oppressors.

As for the Torah references to slavery,  I stated earlier that I think these are concessions to the cultural mindset and state of sin, violence and oppression in human affairs so that God could begin to define humanity's relationship with each other and with God, and that even they were a vast improvement over contemporary societies. The laws are a stepping stone into relationship, but they do not bring us into ideal relationship with God. That's why the Incarnate Word (Christ) took on flesh, but only once human beings were ready for such a radical event to take place.

4) Would you condone beating said person as long as they didn't die right away?

Well, since I rejected slavery in the previous sections, I suppose I'd beat the s*** out of a free man (I kid, I kid). Again, I think the Torah was a progressive approach to the brutality of human beings and was part of the process of God breaking into our interactions with each other and beginning to establish the grounds which would form our relationship with Him (generally framed within the cultural practice of covenant). This progress continues with the ministry of Jesus, who as the Christ, reframes the entire relationship and sheds new light on the old ways.

It is deeply unfortunate that for many centuries the church forgot these important lessons and took steps backward. Still, God's value and love for women, the oppressed, and the alien has shown through in the work of many saints and mystics through history who tapped into the heart of God and shared it with others. And I think that when the progression of scripture is taken as a whole, and informed in the light of the writings of the early Church fathers, we see a definite movement toward rejecting violence and embracing mercy as a reflection of Christ's character.

5) Do you think eternal torture or annihilation for temporal crimes, unbelief or just 'wrong' thoughts is just?

Nope, and I also don't think scripture refers to eternal torture or annihilation. In the Tanakh, death was vaguely referred to as Sheol. This may have been understood as a shadowy existence, though many Jews believed a person lived on in name only, that they were wholly material infused with the “ruach” or “breath” of God, and that their bodies simply returned to the earth with no afterlife. There are many poetic allusions to death in the OT and very few of them suggest some type of afterlife.

When Jesus talks about Gehenna, much of what he was talking about was actually referring to the upcoming destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem (which happened 40 years after he died and a few years after the gospel of Mark was likely written). Like almost all prophets (including John of Patmos, who wrote Revelation), he was speaking of contemporary conditions and the near future. Now, ever since Clement of Alexandria (and the Alexandrian school), many have ascribed deeper allegorical meaning to these utterances, and I think that's fine as long as we recognize that there are certain lessons which can apply to every generation, there are certain ones which apply only to the original generation, and there may be some that refer to an apocalyptic final future (but these interpretations must always be taken with a grain of salt).

I do think scripture affirms a bodily resurrection, though I don't believe in an immortal soul (which I think is a Greco-Roman syncretic addition to later Christian thought). In fact, I think many of our modern Christian thoughts around the afterlife are Gnostic holdovers that need to be re-examined. Honestly, if an immortal soul was all that was needed for existing, a bodily resurrection wouldn't be necessary. But as Paul states, without the bodily resurrection of Christ, we have no bodily resurrection. And if we have no bodily resurrection, we have no hope (1 Cor. 15:3-19). While much of scripture is infused with myth, I affirm the historicity of the death of Jesus and the discovery of the empty tomb, as well as the perception by the disciples that they saw the risen Lord soon after. It through understanding these specific events as historical that my faith in Christ takes shape.

While I do not have a definitive answer, I have been looking at different possibilities for interpretation. One, is that the condition popularly known as “hell” (a word which never appears in scripture) is actually a post-resurrection state of an individual (or even a state in this life), where they are so filled with rejection, bitterness, and hate that they are agonizing and suffering in the midst of their willful separation. If this is the case, then I think that God's mercy is so great, that in the very moment this person were to turn to God, they would be immediately accepted into the Body of Christ. This could leave open the possibility for even universal reconciliation among all human beings (and, I interpret “human being” to mean all life that has evolved the agency to enter into relationship). Though, there may be some who would so much rather wallow in their own bitterness and general crapitude, that even though they may be resurrected into the midst of Paradise, still they would eternally and wilfully suffer in their own personal “hell.”

If these possibilities are the case, then perhaps scripture (and Jesus) is using the creative imagery of Gehenna and fire to describe these states. There are many places throughout scripture where concrete terms are poetically used (such as in the Psalms and Proverbs) to describe more abstract concepts. A great example is the female personification of wisdom in the proverbs. Concrete imagery (especially in prophetic and apocalyptic works) helps us to grasp almost ungraspable concepts.

6) Would you let your son be tortured and killed to solve a problem you created?

Which one, Samson or Conan? That's right, I named my sons Samson and Conan (I like epic characters, what can I say?). Anyway, I assume you are referring to Christ. I think this is where the doctrine of the Trinity comes into play (though it is a very sticky topic, with much of its thought originating well outside the scope of scripture and more in the context of 4th century Greco-Roman culture and Greek philosophy). I think that Christ as God's Son may be understood to the effect that the substance, Being God is eternally, coequally Personalized in perfect internal relationship as the Trinity. This relationship becomes our model for relationship, and it is with this understanding that Christians call Jesus the Son. We believe that the Son eternally proceeds from the Father, just as a Word is the expression of the Originator, while at the same time Being the Originator.

That might sound like a lot of word salad (and I think some of the 4th century and later formulations border on word saladness), but its better if we go back to my point in a previous post about how the symbols of language fail to fully register direct experience, and even less so, direct being (in this case, the Being of God). Part of the value of the symbolic language of Sonship is its connections to sonship (as in the Son of Man, the Son of David) in the OT, and Jesus' special context within Israel. Anyway, the point is, it is God Itself who took on flesh, was tortured, and was killed for a problem that we created. If we have free will (and I think we do, at least in a limited way in our environment), and we were created for relationship with God, creation, and each other, and to be able to create or destroy (as God does, cf. Gen. 1:26-27; Deut. 30:19), then we need to take responsibility for our own actions. Honestly, this is the point of humanism, and helps explain humanism's roots within Christianity. We are responsible for our own problems, and our decision to enter into Christ signals our willingness to be part of the solution.

Final Thoughts

I hope these responses help any readers who are struggling with the idea of a God revealed in scripture and in flesh. As I said earlier, they are the fruit of my own struggle, and it is my hope that they save you some time and maybe some heart-ache; and will hopefully lead you down the path toward the truth (wherever that may lead you).

#christianity #atheism #interpretation #hebrew #women #torah #tanakh #bible #ethics


Sunday, November 22, 2015

Recommendations for Those Struggling Between Faith and Reason

Many within Western Culture have struggled with just how faith and reason interact and some have erroneously maintained that these are incompatible, and that faith somehow suggests a rejection of reason.

For those struggling between these philosophical and cultural forces, I have a couple of recommendations, as I too have found myself at a similar crossroads and wrestled deeply with issues of faith and reason. I will go ahead and tell you that I do affirm my Christian faith and I also fully affirm the reliability of reason in determining and judging scientific discovery, but through this struggle I have both greatly expanded my ideas regarding who or what Christ is, and how this translates into purpose for my life. Anyway, here are some brief suggestions as you continue your journey:

1) Do not be afraid to doubt. Doubt is the means by which we humbly question our own assumptions. It provides the opportunity for self-reflection and discovery. Never fear doubt. If you decide to continue living a life of faith, remember that scripture never presents God as One who punishes doubters and that doubt forms a foundational catalyst for transformation in many scriptural stories (cf. dialuges beteween God and Abraham, Gideon, and Moses; the Lament Psalms; the books of Job, Ecclesiastes, & Lamentations).

2) Challenge your own definitions. Many on here argue from basic assumptions regarding what words like "reason," "faith," "spiritual," and "good," really mean. These are all philosophically, culturally, and historically complex terms each with many, often competing definitions. For me, a major turning point was when I no longer defined faith as "blind belief" or "belief contrary to evidence," and instead defined it as "relational trust" in a God who is present in the Incarnation of Christ, and who died and resurrected. This definition was shaped by a re-evaluation of the often misquoted verse in Heb. 11:1 (which refers to hope in the future based on the evidence of Christ's resurrection, and not in a baseless past). I realized that the only God which could matter at all is not a cosmological-derived god found in the gaps of reason; but instead in a relational God found in the Incarnation of Christ.

3) Challenge your cultural assumptions. Despite my belief in objective truth, I know that we all view life through our own cultural lens. For Evangelical Christianity in America, this has often meant that people equate faith with right-wing political machinations and the heavy collusion of state and church forces. This is unfortunate, because it turns a lot of people off to Christianity, who see it simply as another corrupt means of control. But the more I have studied the teaching of Jesus, the critical, textual, and historical development of the New Testament, and the effects of cultural biases; the more I have fallen in love with the promise which Christ has provided and represents even today.

4) Do not fall into the trap of confirmation bias. So many people, whether theists or atheists or any other stripe of religious philosophy (or the lack there of) actively seek out sources that only reinforce their current beliefs. Don't be afraid of contrary opinions, but at the same time, don't give undue weight to those who reinforce ideas you may already be forming simply because they are convenient. For example, I personally have become convinced of the relative historical reliability of the gospel accounts and the conviction that the disciples believed they had witnessed the resurrected Christ. I think the historical record confirms this (as do most scholars), despite the recent influx of scholars and writers who suggest that Christ never existed. I think the often overly vocal minority opinion is given so much weight in some circles because it confirms the preconceived notions of those who hold to it.

5) Expand your ideas concerning what is possible. A large part of my theological development has been heavily influenced by the works of the Jesuit priest, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin and his writings positing the noosphere and the idea of The Omega Point as a realization of the hope that all of Creation will one day be fully integrated, fully self-realized, and fully united (cf. theosis) in the Body of Christ itself; as well as the works of Carl Jung within the field of analytical psychology. So many people lose sight of the great promises of what someday will be, that their philosophy collapses into nothing more than a self-serving, hedonistic practicalism.

You'll notice that in the recommendations above, I have tried to guide you to some influential thinkers while at the same time I have avoided telling you exactly what to think. I want you to discover that for yourself. Still, it may be provide some comfort during your intellectual and spiritual struggle ahead that others have fought along the same path you now undertake and many have found fulfilling insights (which are usually accompanied by more questions) along the way. God bless you as you look for answers and I hope that you find what you are looking for.

#faith #reason #philosophy #belief


Plumbing the Depths of God's Love

Someone recently said to me,
"You know, I believe in God, and though I've asked, I just don't know if he would forgive me for my sins or how to start back on religion."
Below was my response and is an attempt on my part to conceptualize and vocalize the depths of God's love for us:

I've ministered in both military and prison contexts, and sometimes people who are passionately telling me their story will swear or say something they think is inappropriate. But when they apologize, I always tell them, "Don't worry, both God and I have heard worse." I think that we assume that because we are the sons of apes, that we are somehow inconsequential. That we need to "clean up" and hide our failures and our weaknesses before approaching the Divine.

If there is a God (and I think there is, revealed in the Incarnate Christ), then this God knows the deepest part of every being on every planet, in every time in the cosmos. In a billion years after you turn to dust, you will still be dear to God's heart, even as another being, in a galaxy far away also wonders if there is any greater Consciousness that really cares about its life or can give it a fresh start and new purpose.

I think this God, while so utterly transcendent that it paradoxically extends even into non-existence itself, is also so utterly imminent that it vibrates along the fundamental forces of the universe, experiences the movement of every quark, and experiences the struggle, loneliness, and joy of every sentient being. When we rejoice, God rejoices with us. When we suffer and mourn, God suffers with us.

How could a God, so cosmically transcendent that universes pop into existence and recede into nothing in the blink of an eye; and yet so imminent that it marvels at the most inconsequential carbon atom in your thumbnail, do anything other than forgive you? How could the One who has seen potentially a million civilizations across ten-thousand star systems and yet witnessed your very entry into this world as a baby, be anything but utterly enthralled by you?

Of course you are forgiven! You are forgiven for a hundred thousand deeds in the past, and a hundred thousand possible deeds to come. I really think that if there is a God even worth mentioning, then this God has already fallen so deeply in love with you that It waits in anticipation for your call, like a giddy teenager waiting by the phone.

#God #love #transcendence #imminence #forgiveness


Monday, November 16, 2015

My Thoughts Regarding Evidence for God

Preface
A friend recently told me he had lost his faith. He had been a young-earth-creationist and had found the apologetic arguments regarding the relationship between science and scripture dissatisfying to the intellect, and insufficient evidence for his continued walk with Christ. Still, he asked for my thoughts on faith, how it fits with our current scientific understanding, and what my "best argument is for God's existence."  I generally dislike engaging in apologetic arguments, as I think Christ is best reflected in the life lived by faith and in the life of the Church, but below is the substance of my reply. Many Christians may find it controversial, but within it I believe I have confirmed the orthodox faith while also affirming the value and reliability of scientific discovery.

Introduction
"I think the only argument for Christianity is found in the incarnation, life, death, and resurrection of Christ. I do not think "proof" of God's existence can be found in cosmology, or evolutionary biology, and certainly cannot be found in any argument for a "god of the gaps."

Interestingly enough some of the 20th century's best theologians (including the theologian and theoretical chemist Charles Coulson) fully recognized this and emphasized the centrality of Christ's person to any theological understanding of God's work in the cosmos. I am particularly fond of the Dietrich Bonhoeffer (who was put to death for opposing the Nazis and leading the confessing church in Germany during WWII) quote,
"How wrong it is to use God as a stop-gap for the incompleteness of our knowledge. If in fact the frontiers of knowledge are being pushed further and further back (and that is bound to be the case), then God is being pushed back with them, and is therefore continually in retreat. We are to find God in what we know, not in what we don't know."
It is with this in mind that I define my faith, not as "blind belief," as some might claim faith is; but instead as "relational trust," based on the evidence related below. I trust God because I think He has been trustworthy in the past, even in the midst of the chaos and suffering in which we find ourselves. Some might argue that this contradicts Hebrews 11:1, which states, “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” Many Atheists tend to see this as justification for casting Christianity as unreasonable. But I would contend that this passage is not referring to things of the past, but things of the future. We do not hope that the past will happen again. Instead, based on what has already happened (and the evidence on which we base the knowledge of what has already happened), we hope in the unseen future.

The thoughts which follow are largely the result of much wrestling on my part. However, I've come to the conclusion that throughout scripture, God does not punish our doubt, instead He often speaks to us through it. If this weren't true, then we would have to ignore the dialogues of Gideon and Moses, many of the Lament Psalms, the entire books of Job, Ecclesiastes, and Lamentations, and the narrative of the post-resurrection encounter between Jesus and Thomas.

So, here I'll outline my current thoughts on my faith. Please bear with me, because this is a long one, but in the process of laying all this out, I am trying to communicate why I still have faith while at the same time affirming a completely material cosmos, discoverable through the natural sciences:

1) My Thoughts on God and Humanity
I am a Christian, but I absolutely affirm the necessity of scientific discovery for accurately shaping our worldview. I have no problem with the current, standard theories concerning the big bang, multiverses, or evolutionary biology. My current understanding of God most resembles what might be called Extensionalist Panentheism. Unlike Pantheism, best exemplified in some of the more spiritually inclined writings of Albert Einstein and Baruch Spinoza, which equates the total sum of the Universe (or Multiverse) with God; my understanding of Extensionalist Panentheism posits that the Cosmos is an extension (or expression) of the mind of God. The expression of God subsists within every particle or force within the Universe, and yet expands beyond it, even into,paradoxically, non-existence and potential futures. In this view, the Universe becomes an outflow of the mind of God, in whose Word everything finds existence (Jn. 1:3).

Its intelligence may be expressed through revelation (the interaction of mind-to-mind), but whenever such revelation happens, it takes the form of direct experience, and so in the process of abstraction and human mental process (including the translation into symbolic language), becomes a dim reflection of the original revelation and is written down by those who receive it using the best (often mythic) symbols available to them (i.e. the prophets of old). Ultimately however, the perfect revelation is expressed in the Word made Flesh, the Incarnate Son of God whose relevance is communicated through the Spirit (sometimes known as "ruach" in the OT Hebrew or "pneuma" in the NT Greek, both roughly translated as "breath" or "wind") (cf. Gen. 1; Jon. 1).

This perfect expression took on carnality, for the sake of carnal beings. I think that we are wholly physical (I do not believe we have a spirit, other than that which fills all life, that can be separated from the body, as this strikes me as a Neo-Platonist and Gnostic idea which was introduced to Christianity in the third and fourth centuries). Even our minds, where we find our identity and personality, are generated in the brain; just as the cosmos is generated from God through the Word. Because we are completely material, in a material cosmos, any salvation of the individual must be expressed materially. This is why the New Testament (and especially the Pauline and Johannine Writings) place such an emphasis on the bodily resurrection. Christ's sacrifice may have been the first and only truly selfless sacrifice, and served as both an example and as the avenue through which salvation comes. But if Christ was not bodily resurrected, then human beings have no hope of bodily resurrection in the future (1 Cor. 15:17).

I do not think science nor scripture support a vision of the afterlife where a person's disembodied spirit eternally inhabits heaven or hell. For one, we've come to discover through the neurosciences that the seat of our emotions, memory, and intellect all rest in the biological processes of the brain. Our hope is not in a disembodied, eternal heaven; but in a bodily resurrection and a restored creation where humanity is no longer separating from God by our sin and where we are no longer subject to the suffering found in chaos (Rev. 21:1). If there is judgment and a reckoning for the broken relationships we've caused, and for both individual and systemic sin; then I think this reckoning takes the form of self-imposed bitterness and hatred in individuals, to such an extent that one could stand in Paradise itself and still feel as though they were burning in hell. If this state is permanent, then it is likely so, because a person's bitterness and sin has twisted them up so much inside that they wouldn't receive the gift of grace even if it were offered.. Since I affirm that we are made in the Image of God, in that we have the creative and destructive powers of free will (Gen. 1:26-28; Deut. 30:19), I think that even when all is accounted for on the Last Day (which would require a physical resurrection), if a person is willing to turn from their own twisted insides toward the ever-present mercy of God, then they will receive it immediately (cf. Ps. 103:1; Ps. 118). I'm not 100% sure on whether those who find themselves in that state would do so, as it may be that if a person truly becomes utterly consumed by hate, then they may not even want to turn away from their own suffering, out of sheer bitterness and obstinance.

2) My Thoughts on the Old Testament
If God exists, and if this God were to reveal anything about Himself, then myths are just as good a literary form as any. After all, even today, we use myths (movies, fictional literature, etc.) to communicate ideas which are central to our cultural and relational understanding. Myths are often used to convey very poignant truth about who we are, and to completely dismiss them as irrelevant because of a lack of understanding regarding their source and purpose, is a bit silly.
 As C.S. Lewis said,
"Literature adds to reality, it does not simply describe it. It enriches... and in this respect irrigates the deserts that our lives have already become."
I think that the Bible is a mix of song, poetry, myth, history, proverb, and parable. But when we confuse these literary genres, we totally miss the point of the text.

For example, the Jews most likely borrowed many of the elements in the creation story, the flood, and the early genealogy lists from the Babylonians (and them from the Sumerians before them).

But what makes the biblical stories kind of cool (if you're a nerd like me) in this context are the changes they made to the stories. In the Atrahasis and Gilgamesh epics, the earth is flooded because humans just party too hard and keep the gods up, so they decide to kill everybody. In the biblical story, God regrets his decision to create humanity because it fills the earth with violence.

This theme crops up again and again in the OT, and shows that even at an early point (they were probably included in the OT at the latest 2,600 yrs ago, but maybe a couple of hundred years before that), ideas about social justice were beginning to take shape. Even in some of the more brutal parts of the OT, the system of laws in place is much “fairer” in the modern sense than comparable law codes of the time (like Hammurabai's).

Also, and this often gets lost on modern audiences,but the narrative (especially from creation to the flood) takes on a very precise parallel structure. Genesis two (Adam & Eve) and three (Cain & Abel) are parallel structures, the days of creation are parallel structures (days 1 & 4 – light & light givers created; days 2 & 5 – waters & fish created; days 3 & 6 – earth and land creatures created; day 7 is a bookend of “rest); the flood exhibits a similar parallel device, as does the tower of babel, and the entire section of Genesis 1-7 exhibits an overarching parallel structure.

Additionally, in the Babylonian creation stories (the Enuma Elish), Marduk wrestles Tiamat (a chaos dragon), kills her, and creates the world from her carcas. In the Bible, Yahweh only needs to speak the Word, and chaos (tohu – an early cognate of Tiamat) recedes. This makes Yahweh a bit unique in the ancient near east, in that creation is an extension (through the Word) of God's mind into “the void” or “nonexistence.” The chaos dragon creeps up again throughout the OT and even in the NT, as a dragon or leviathan.

Since the Jews who were in exile in Babylon knew the Babylonian myths, they would have immediately recognized the similarities and recognized these biblical stories as myths. And if they somehow missed that, then the parallel structure would have tipped them off.

Finally, just in case anyone was still tempted to treat these stories as literal historical events, there are six “Creation Psalms” (Ps. 8, 19, 29, 65, 104, 139) which use creative language and have never been treated literally. I think this is primarily because they are immediately recognized as the creative outflow found in most songs.

The funny thing is, these creation stories, from the earliest Jewish works, all through early Christianity (cf. Origen and Clement of Alexandria), were understood in their mythical, figurative, and symbolic sense. And even the laws found in the Torah suggest a much greater work in the cosmos and a more socially just form of being (compared to the surrounding cultures, even if brutal by today's standards).

When Fundamentalist (and many Evangelical) Christians take these stories literally, not only do they make the faith look stupid to outsiders, but they miss much of the beauty of these early works. And that honestly makes me kinda sad that they think they are doing good, and yet are often totally missing the message that is in the works. Unfortunately, this also encourages people on the opposite end of the spectrum to completely reject any value in the text, even though their level of knowledge regarding them is on the same level as the Fundamentalists.

3) My Thoughts on New Testament Evidence
Long story short, it's all very much open to interpretation, and I'm not opposed to an allegorical reading for many of the events surrounding Jesus' life (in fact, Clement of Alexandria argued that ALL scripture has a deeper allegorical meaning, and that only chumps take everything literally, a position which came to define the Alexandrian School). Still, based on the below considerations, I think there is a genuine historical core which makes for very interesting study and discussion.

But, even where stories and myths are re-appropriated, I still find it useful to discuss the differences with source material, and what it could mean for interpreting theological positions based on the gospels. The gospel of John has fascinated me the most out of any of them. While the first three are Synoptics (meaning they share much of their material, with the most likely hypothesis being that Matthew and Luke used Mark, Special-L, Special-M, and Q as their source materials); John is very different in many respects.

At various times this has led scholars to tend to disregard John as non-historical, but I actually think John might be the most reliable of the gospels. His gospel is unique in that he shares details regarding the temple which (generally) only insiders would have known before it was destroyed in 70 CE. His timeline is also more likely for the Passover, given Jewish practice at the time (and also more theologically significant, as Jesus dies the moment the Passover lamb is slaughtered on the Day of Preparation before the Sabbath). He writes in slightly terrible Greek (especially compared to Mark or Luke), and uses multiple Hebraic idioms, suggesting a native Semitic speaker. The source of the book is evidently Ephesus, or nearby Asia Minor, and this fits with the written accounts of John's life by the men who knew him, specifically Ignatius of Antioch, Papias, Polycarp, and possibly traditions handed on to Irenaeus. The gospel writer self-identifies as the beloved disciple in the narrative, which is most likely John (as the only major unnamed disciple in the book).

The Johannine Epistles and Revelation are evidently already aware of the Gospel's existence, and as they have an estimated composition date of the mid-90's CE, this suggests the Gospel was earlier. The language between them is very similar (though there are some significant grammatical differences with 2-3 John), and may be from the same author.

Finally, we actually have a small scrap of papyrus from the gospel, dated to about 125 CE at the latest (called P52), and possibly only one copy removed from the original. Evidence from the writing and type of script suggests a devoted hand without formal scribal training, which would be consistent with an upstart community, not yet well established.

All of this suggests at least a strong core of a genuine first-hand account by the beloved disciple. The text may have been augmented with an unnamed sayings gospel and a signs gospel. This suggests that either some of John's followers added this material, or he used additional material to assist in telling his own story (as biographers often have). Based on the writings of his followers, and the date of the gospel, I think it was relatively finished while he was alive and I think it was really written by him.

Even when we look at the fact that the other three gospels were most likely not written by the apostles themselves, their sources were most likely in circulation while the people who remembered these events were still alive (especially with Mark, who seems totally unaware of the Temple's destruction in 70 CE). Additionally, recent scholarship on oral traditions of Africa (from the early Colonial period to the 1960's) has show a remarkable consistency among oral accounts, even over hundreds of years. Ironically, the effort to immortalize events by writing them down tends to remove them from the collective memory of a culture's storytellers.

Despite the explosion in written gospel narratives during the first few centuries of Christianity, there appears to be a genuine core narrative and teaching to Jesus' life which carries through the four canonical gospels (which in turn rely on at least 7 sources), the gospel of Thomas (which seems to have a genuinely early core), the epistles, and the writings of the Apostolic fathers (Clement, Ignatius, Polycarp, the Shepherd of Hermas, Bartholomew, etc. who are often overlooked, though these writers knew the apostles firsthand).

4) My Thoughts on Sources Outside the New Testament
As for outside sources, there is a ton of debate on the quotes by Josephus concerning Jesus. There are three normally quoted (Antiquities, XVIII, 3.3 & 5.2, XX, 9). I think two of them are probably later interpolations into the text, but Antiquities XX, 9 appears to contain a genuine narrative concerning Jesus. The nature of Josephus' treatment in this passage may suggest that he was more familiar with the trouble-making Chrestians and the Christ they followed, and so his attribution to Jesus as the Christ may not be a sign of belief (or later interpolation), but simply a helpful identifier for his Roman patrons, who were increasingly coming into contact with this group. Still, I would give this passage's authenticity about a 50-50 shot.

Perhaps most helpful when reading Josephus is not what he says about Jesus, but what he says about the destruction of the Temple. This strongly echoes Matthew and Mark (which was likely written earlier), and actually suggests that much of Jesus' teaching had nothing to do with "the end of the world," or "the rapture," but the end of the Temple in Jerusalem and the cataclysmic change it would bring to Judaism and humanity's relationship with God.

In fact, I think we can make a strong case that Jesus never talked about an afterlife that consists of a disembodied soul floating up to God was borrowed from Neo-platonism and Gnosticism. I don't actually think there is a soul apart from what is generated by the body, or a heaven we go to. As to the breath or Spirit which emanates from God, I think this is present in all life. And when the bible speaks of humanity, it may very well be speaking of that state of evolution in which life begins to exhibit the consciousness and will which is reflective of the power of God (cf. Gen. 1:27, Deut. 30:19)

Jesus seems to be speaking of a restored creation (cf. Rev. 21:1), and the Gehenna (what we interpret as "hell") that he speaks of is the natural consequence of suffering and shame brought about by the unjust life. I think there may be a physical resurrection for us, but only if Jesus was physically resurrected, and this would indeed be a miraculous event. If Jesus was only symbolically resurrected, then I think we rot in the ground as we have always done.

Even without Josephus, we have the written accounts/letters of Pliny the Younger, Tacitus, and Seutonius from the early second century which lend credence to the New Testament claims regarding the quick spread of these teachings.

Essentially, when all of these various factors are taken into account, I think we can reasonably say that Jesus of Nazareth lived and taught (and that some of these teachings survive), that people perceived his ability to heal, that he was crucified by the Romans, placed in a tomb (which was not unheard of in the first century, as with the case of Yehohanan, son of Hagakol, whose body was discovered in 1968), that his body was discovered missing from the tomb, and that his followers genuinely believed he had resurrected and so spread the word (with almost all of them later dying for it, even after being given chances to recant).

Conclusion
While I think we can be relatively certain of the above events, that still doesn't guarantee that he was the Son of God or that he genuinely resurrected. But I do think that the suggestions that he didn't exist at all, or that we can't know anything about him, lack the same level of evidence.

Additionally, when everything above is put together, when the relative reliability of the Gospels (including the at least seven internal witnesses/sources within the canonical texts, as well as genuine core elements in the Gospel of Thomas) and the Apostolic Fathers, I think that a genuine belief in the Incarnation and Resurrection of Christ may be postulated (especially when framed within the cosmological understanding outlined above). Now, whether you choose to believe or not, and in turn live out a life of faith or not? That's totally up to you dude. I don't blame anyone who doesn't believe. In fact, I've always liked C.S. Lewis' quote,
"I am not asking anyone to accept Christianity if his best reasoning tells him the evidence is against it."
I just want us to have a good-natured discussion and still be able to have a beer together afterward. :)

In any case, I wish you the best on your journey, and along the way I hope and pray that you find enlightenment, peace, and joy and, dare I say, that you even find God in the process."

#faith #evidence #science #cosmology #atheism #Christianity


Monday, November 09, 2015

Abortion and the Language of Ownership

I recently read a Huffington Post article regarding a sermon preached by Pastor Jeff Crawford at Cross Church, where he states that a woman's body is not her own, but belongs to God. Theologically, he seems to be working from the point that if creation belongs to God, and humanity within it, then naturally our bodies belong to God. While I do not think that it was his intention to single out women's' bodies over men's; the fact that a male preacher is using the logic of ownership when speaking about the relationship between God, a woman's body, and a developing fetus, tends to reinforce the image of the church as a patriarchal organization whose chief purpose for being is to control people.

The Language of Ownership v. The Language of Emancipation 
While there are many who share the view that God “owns” us, I think that this is a misreading of scripture, especially when read in the context of Jesus' mission. There are definitely many religious leaders who frame their understanding of morality in terms of ownership and servitude, which borders on the rationale for slavery. But there are many others who frame their religious understanding of morality in terms of grace, freedom, and love. I tend to think that whatever the individual moral positions being debated (whether abortion, the death penalty, civil rights, etc.), the second line of thought is more helpful and a better paradigm for human beings to operate under.

While the Bible definitely addresses issues regarding ownership and property, they are almost always concessions to the human desire to find our identity in terms of control and occupation. God knows that humans have a tough time sharing. If we all were able to equitably distribute resources, then there would be no need for economic, political, or judicial systems. We would still be living in the paridisical relationship for which we were created. However, because we have chosen to corrupt our relationship to God, each other, and creation through sinful action, any attempts or even dreams of utopia tend to fall short. The Bible doesn't address issues of ownership because such a system is what God desires. It addresses these issues because it must address the reality of our fallen, selfish state and the inequality with which we tend to frame our relationships.

In fact, I would argue that the entire concept of ownership is a human (and relatively recent) invention. To frame our understanding of God, the cosmos, or ethical practice on terms of “ownership” will always pit human beings against each other. I think that if God exists, and if God created and sustains the cosmos, with life and an evolving humanity within it (with free will); then this means that even God has relinquished any "right of ownership" in favor of developing a relationship with humanity founded on mutual love.

Something which owns another, cannot expect the other to freely choose right over wrong, life over death. Ownership (and slavery, which is ownership of the body) is the language of force and violence. Redemption is the language of peace and reconciliation.

Applying the Language of Emancipation to the Abortion Debate
To bring this back to the issue at hand, I think we should address abortion theologically and in the context of the gospel message: which is the proclamation of redemption through love, and freedom through reconciliation (Lk. 4:17-21). I do not oppose abortion on the grounds of God's right of ownership (after all, the ownership argument still doesn't address the status of the fetus within the woman's body). I oppose abortion in most cases because all life is sacred, and the potential for life is sacred. Even if a fetus is part of a woman's body, its growth is still a sacred part of the life which God created. The sacred nature of life should be the focal point for the theological and philosophical consideration of abortion; instead of notions regarding ownership of the woman's body, or the individuality of the fetus.

I have no doubt that both sides value life. But for us to come to any kind of truly ethical conclusion, I think we should value BOTH the life of the mother and the potential of life for future generations, represented in the fetus. Using “ownership” as an argument is simply misleading, and I would argue, may even be contrary to the core of the gospel message.

#abortion #pro-life #pro-choice #women #God #ownership #emancipation #Gospel