Evangelical Problems

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I think part of the problem is that we are still doing theology in an Enlightenment frame of mind, as if it were a string of ideas that we should logically link together, and once we’ve produced a nice logical circle, then we’re home free. The truth is that life is a lot messier than that, and the Bible is more about stories than the history of ideas that are embedded in the stories.

Ben Witherington thinks there are problems with Evangelical theologies. All of them. I certainly agree. We are all attempting to renew a Church while remaining locked into theologies which are upwards of 400 years old. The Liberal tradition in recent centuries thought the renewal of the Church would come through a renewed theology which dispensed with the miraculous and supernatural, taking Scripture as a option. This clearly didn’t work. What will work for the Emerging Church is to not only try out new forms, but begin to work with theologians who are truly discovering a newness in theology, not theology which dispenses, but which even better grasps hold of the Biblical revelation.

Every major Christian movement in history has first been a theological movement, which then leads to structural changes. The contemporary church has sought making structural changes without the theological adaptation, leading to vague frustrations and limited influence except amongst themselves. But, there are conversations going on not only about what needs changing but also on how to move forward. I am convinced the key to this is finally getting in touch with the doctrine of the Holy Spirit, allowing true Trinitarian thought to enter into our theological understanding. It is what the Pentecostal movement pointed towards, only it got too caught up in being self-amazed at signs and wonders to press it forward into depths of discovery.

Now, however, those from different traditions are discovering a fresh reality in the study of God and his work on this earth… though certainly not without major attacks from all directions. This is what makes it all fun.

It is indeed an exciting time to study theology. Maybe more exciting than it has been in well over a thousand years.

JW’s

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So, a couple of Jehovah’s Witnesses came to the door today. Young fella’s, nicely dressed, friendly and all that.

I always have an odd reaction when JWs come to the door. You see, I have a couple of theology degrees, studied the original Biblical languages, and still spend a good amount of my time delving deeply into Theological and Scriptural studies. I am a professionally trained pastor, even if I’m not currently working directly in that field. Everything in my background suggests I should have one of those “this is how it is” conversations which makes apologetics fans clap with glee about being right.

Only there’s nothing in me to debate over theology and Scripture with the friendly young fellas in ties. Sure, I’ve heard tales of how a polished Christian asks pointed questions to reveal the folly of JWs Arianesque theology. It doesn’t come out from me.

In fact I’m just friendly. I know what it is like to go up to strangers and try to sell something. I hate it, hate it with a passion. Rather than debating their verses in John, then, I eagerly take part in their spiel. I got stuck on one question until I realized the answer was “eternal life”.

They ask me if I ever have read the Bible. I say yes, in fact I graduated from Fuller Seminary and so have studied it a lot. They have their spiel to go through rather than conversation so they press onwards showing me a verse in John and asking me what I think if it.

I reply, this is an actual quote, “I think it’s grand.” Because it is grand, of course.

Then they go through their little handout book which opens with different questions, and they wonder if I’ve thought about these questions. I say a lot, as they’re very important questions to think about. They both agree with this sentiment.

They suggest maybe meeting up again later, and I’m agreeable. Their spiel done, they talk about my neighbors, which isn’t as odd as it sounds because the neighbors here are also JWs, and more wonderful, friendly neighbors couldn’t be found. Apparently, my visitors and my neighbors go way back.

With the conversation drifting away it seems I missed my chance to really nail them with some strong Christological points. Nor did I get a chance to debate the translation of “ho theos”, or ask about the JW pneumatology (which is an actual question I have). I didn’t bring in my recitation of the patently wrong non-word “Jehovah”, nor even could I share with them how the Burned Over district of the Northeast in the late 1800s spawned all manner of curious heresies, most of which were dependent on a single person claiming divine inspiration, which took their ignorance of Christian theology and turned it around a good deal.

I didn’t get a chance to relate how I am decidely a homo- not a hetero-. A believer in homo-ousios, that is, which is what the Council of Nicene decided. (homoousios, by the by, means that Jesus is of the same substance as the Father, hetero- means “different substance”).

I instead shook their hands, wished them well, and watched them walk back down the driveway.

What’s funny is there was nothing in me that had any interest in debating with them. I think JW theology is certainly deficient but I think such people are genuinely seeking the Truth. My emotions are one of sympathy not one of potential battle. Oddly enough it is the Baptist Seminary presidents who seem to raise that latter emotion. With the heretics so-called, I have a lot more grace.

I guess I’m supposed to engage in a battle of theological points. Only I didn’t want to, didn’t at all feel it was right, and am happy I gave them one of their least difficult conversations of the day. My suspicion is they do such things more for the experience and work rather than the results, so it’s nice to give them a break from the slammed doors or derisive responses.

It does make me laugh. Because I didn’t at all do what I’m “supposed” to do in such a situation. But I’m fine with the fact. Should I be?

Touchstone

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So, my new issue of Touchstone came yesterday. I thought it very good.

Today, as I delved deeper into the magazine, I thought it amazingly good.

I say this not as an advertisement or for any other pointed reason — If you are a Christian who thinks about this world and our faith, you really need to subscribe to Touchstone magazine.

hardness and pliability

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New discoveries and lessons from the nanoscale:

In a massive computer simulation involving 128 computer processors and nearly 19 million atoms, materials scientist Izabela Szlufarska of UW-Madison and colleagues at University of Southern California demonstrated the precise atomic mechanisms that explain why “nanostructured” ceramic materials-some of the hardest substances known-also exhibit unusual pliability.

Unlike other exceptionally hard materials, these advanced ceramics tend to bend rather than break, meaning they could be shaped into extremely long-lasting yet lightweight parts for everything from automobile engines and high-speed machining tools to medical implants in the body.

Interesting indeed. Though, I can’t quite keep from finding theological and ecclesial analogies in even this. I think I need some help. Or at least a better understanding of both nanotechnology and theology. The God who made the very grand also made the quite wee, and everything complicated in between.

Fun stuff. The article itself is in the August 5th issue of Science… though you have to be a subscriber to get access to it.

Another thought for the day

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I’m having another go at Michael Welker’s God the Spirit. It is always a treat to formulate for oneself a theology or philosophy then later find a thinker who has already wonderfully encapsulated that thought. Makes me feel that even if I’m not on a popular path, I’m not off the trail.

Here’s a bit from Welker on diversity and unity (my favorite themes when thinking about the Spirit) within society, and how we are suffering from the lack of a proper understanding of these key spiritual traits:

Human beings have a great difficulty tolerating social complexity. Again and again the attempt is made to find the connecting link that is ultimately common to all: definitions are offered of “the” human person, “the” subject, “the” one universal history, “the” encompassing structure of intersubjectivity, “the” lifeworld, “the” conflicts, “the” requirements of morality, “the” threat to humankind. That is the beginning of either vain attempts or successful campaigns to gain wider currency for ideological patterns and structures.

By contrast, many societies today have by their conscious choice of pluralism demonstrated at least a vague sense of the action of the Spirit. Admittedly, they have frequently fostered that apparent, dissociative “pluralism” which is destroyed by individualism, which results in the dissolution of all forms, and which wields the weapons of ideology and power politics in tis fight for specific portions of consciousness and definitions of reality.

With a minimum of theological instinct, theologies and church leaders have, on the basis of a simplistic understanding of “unity” (e.g. monohierarchical unity), condemned pluralism as if it were a unitary phenomenon. In doing so they have demonstrated an absence of the power to distinguish between individually distintegrative pluralism and the life-enhancing, invigorating pluralism of the Spirit.

Theologies and churches have reacted sensitively to individualism, as the success story of “existential interpretation” makes clear. They have thrown open the door to the abstract and indeterminate “individual.” In doing so they have made room for illusory political and moral postures, as well as for many of the processes of a profound societal self-endangerment and self-destruction.

God’s Spirit is the power and might of God in which in constantly new ways people are rescued and led out of distress and danger, out of demonic possession, and above all out of diverse forms of self-endangerment and self-destruction.

From early on, God’s Spriit has been experienced as a power that exercises deliverance by menas of appearances and processes that are difficult to grasp — appearances and processes that can be termed “emergent”. In the midst of disintegration, the Spirit restores community in an unexpected, improbable way. The Spirit connects human beings, interweaving them in an unforeseen manner in diverse structural patterns of life.

It is not that the world has rejected the work of the Spirit, it is more that the Church has far too long let an engaging doctrine of the Spirit lie fallow and empty. We have made our essentially binarian theology do too much, and after hundreds of years of the Reformation we are tiring out. Europe is the best symbol of this. Grasping after more control and power over this process, as has been the chief response of the various churches over the centuries is precisely that which hastens the process. We, as humans, have no ability to manage this process and so muck it all up when we assert ourselves as the managers of God’s kingdom.

The only hope, really the only answer, is to not refresh the theology of two hundred years ago in new approaches to worship or large stadiums filled with suburbanites. The answer is to find those bits which we have left behind, and renew the Church by preaching something new, even as this “something” new is what started it all to begin with. We can’t blame the world for our forgetting who we are. We can help renew the world by remembering.

Not so good Friday

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Today is Good Friday. A curious name because in reality it was a pretty bad Friday.

Imagine if you were a disciple. You had spent three years following a man who more and more seemed like he was the Messiah. He did miracles. He spoke wisdom. He had a power you had never seen in anyone.

Then, on the day in which his power was tested he failed the test. You had given up everything, all that you were, to follow this man and on this Friday he left. He was killed. And this is just the perspective of Jesus’ followers. Don’t get me started on how bad Jesus’ day was.

“Take this cup from me,” he prayed the night before. God didn’t. It wasn’t his will that Jesus be saved at this point.

On that Friday it was anything but good. Maybe it should be called Miserable Friday, or Awful Friday, or The Worst Friday Ever. Lives were lost on that day, and not just those crucified. Souls were seemingly lost. Everything went wrong. Nothing worked right.

Oh, yeah, Joseph of Arimathea… he was able to get a tomb and bury Jesus before nightfall. At least Jesus wasn’t thrown to the dogs. Thank God for the little blessings, eh?

Yes, the prophets said something about suffering, and disfigurement and the like. But, what is that on such a day? Everything goes wrong. But God does not do wrong things. What are the prophets when one’s own perception sees the troubles bubbling over? They are forgotten words of a past era unable to speak to the present. Jesus is dead. Jesus is buried. Turns out he wasn’t the Messiah after all. We were wrong. He couldn’t even save himself.

Good Friday? There was nothing good about it.

So why call it this? Why is it Good Friday?

Because of Easter. Because two days later he rose from the dead. Friday is only good because we are able to observe the future of the events. We are able to see that Jesus died, but he died for a reason, a reason only seen on Easter morning. We reinterpret the past events based on the later events. All was wrong on that first Friday… except that it was all right because of what would happen two days afterwards. Friday has no significance but for Sunday. All of its meaning is contained in what was observed in the empty tomb. Friday is important not because anything good happened on this day but because the two men on the way to Emmaus realized Jesus was walking with them and explaining the Scriptures.

At that moment, at each moment each disciple saw the Risen Lord, the entire past was came into focus for what it was. Until this happened it was all meaningless. There was nothing good, nothing important, no sacrifice, no salvation. The cross saves because of Easter morning. There is no past without the future to define it.

We call this Friday good because we know Easter, because we proclaim Christ crucified and resurrected. We know the end of the story so we know the fullness of the whole story.

But what of our story? What of my path? I sit here alone on a Friday night without much of what would make a person seem whole in this world. I know others who have had their wholeness ripped from their sides, stripping them of all they planned and depended on. Many weep and grieve over the dead and the dying. People starve, people hurt, people cry, people rage. Many are lost in confusion or loneliness or frustration or hopelessness.

Have faith. That’s what the Bible says. That’s what the Church says.

Have faith? Do you know me? Have you seen all I’ve done and what I have to show for it? Do you see how I struggle to pursue my calling and am attacked from all sides? Do you see what was stolen because of misplaced yearning? Are you alone? Are you healthy? Are you successful? Who are you to tell me to have faith? Can you see what is happening?

Have faith? How can we have faith? I’ve tried having faith. It didn’t work out.

God does good things. This all is good? Nothing about it is good. Thank God for the little blessings, eh? I guess there’s that.

Good Friday is only good because of Easter. The future interprets the past, reforming every single aspect into goodness despite the initial appearance.

Our present existence is the same. Only we don’t know the end, we haven’t arrived there yet. Our paths are still indeterminate. Nothing we see makes sense, nothing is settled, even that which we observe does not speak to what really is happening. There is no way to tell if things will get better or worse, whether this world is progressing or retreating. We are living in the midst of chaos, a chaos of free wills chosen by sinful humanity all leading to something, all affecting everything. The past is filled with pain. The present is filled with confusion. Nothing makes sense. The paths are random and confused. Good Friday has Easter to make it good. What do we have?

Ah, but that’s the whole point of our faith. That’s the point of Revelations, the point of the epistles, the point of Christian theology. We are told the end. The end is final even if the paths are indeterminate thus far. There is no telling how the race will end, or who will finish well, or how my life will proceed this week or the next. But we know the end. We know that despite all things God will make it good, that at the end of all things we will see that God is good. We are able to call this day good because of Easter and because of the end which has yet to come but has already arrived.

This world is settled. What we observe merely points to our present awareness. It has no bearing on the final outcome. We are all moving down a turbulent, random path towards a settled end. In the future our past makes sense. In what we expect, we find peace in what we have done. Our present is determined by our future, and this future is already accomplished by what Christ did in the past.

And yet in it all we can choose. We can choose to embrace this accomplished future, and thus have a present and past fully transformed by what is yet to be. Or we can accept our past, affirm our present, and reject the reconstructing future thus leaving us without hope at any point in time.

Christianity moves backwards through time. We embrace the past because of what we are told of the future, and we affirm goodness because of what has not yet happened. We are living on good Friday without yet coming to our eternal Easter, yet because the saints have told us of what is yet to be we can interpret our lives as though it had already occurred.

Jesus knew Easter, and so he bore the pain of Friday. We are told to expect Easter, and only with this expectation in our lives can we have the perspective to live as we should. We are told of what is to come and God expects us to live with this reality. Even if our lives are directed in an inescapable forward path through time, our spirits must embrace the eternal reality of directionless time.

It is Easter which makes Good Friday. Easter has not yet come. But we are told it will come. We plan and wait in eager expectation for Easter. In faith we call this Friday good. In faith we call all our lives good, both the blessing and the troubles. Not because we have a misplaced understanding of reality. Rather it is because as Christians we are called to see reality beyond the apparent and embrace the fullness of time in our lives.

All things, everything, must be viewed through the lense of what is to come. It is our interpretive experience which has not yet happened. But, such an experience as Easter made even a day of torture and a day dying on a cross a very good day.

The goodness of the Coming Day will make all the present evils and hurt transformed into wonderful glory. Which is why we were told of it. Which is why we were told to expect it at all times. Jesus knew of Easter. We know of the Day of the Lord.

Easter has not yet arrived. Easter has dawned. And so we celebrate and rejoice in all the days because of what has not yet happened but which has already determined the history of the cosmos. Such is the glory of Easter evermore.

This morning

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It’s likely a sign of things that I tend to wake up in the morning thinking of theology and ministry and Christian spirituality.

It’s also a sign of things that I tend not to think of these things in normal terms. I note this more of a reminder to develop some thoughts later here.

Once again I was thinking about the three paths of Christ and Spirit in the Church. This is something I came to realize while teaching a Church History class some years ago. There is the path of the pastor, the path of the missionary, and the path of the monastic. Each of these three paths are visible in Scripture and quite evident in the last 2000 years of Spirit work. The only problem is that these three tend not to coexist very well as we humans like to go with trends and think our era is the only real representation of Truth. But, each of these paths has an element which requires the others and elements which contribute to the fullness of the Christian life in any era. The errors of Church history have often come about because one rises to the top, and pushes the others down for a while. Thus, we can see centuries in which only one path was honored as being really “Christian”.

It seems important to note this because each person has been given Spiritual gifts but each person has also been, seemingly, placed on one these three paths. Confusion comes when others insist their path is the only worthwhile way. Indeed, sometimes the path and the rejection of the path by the powers that be can be so strong that to alleviate the tensions folks find other religions. The choice is forced upon people to give up their path for another or find their path expressed in non-Christian terms.

Obviously this needs more support and development about exactly what I’m talking about. I just wanted to note the fact I intend to write more about it… kinda an impetus to actually doing so one of these mornings.

I was also thinking about prayer, specific people who need such and much, and a little about chemistry and physics.

Theology is a polyvalent thing. But, don’t tell the philosophers this. They think they own it.

New Motto

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It’s not about me.

‘It’, of course, being ‘everything’. If I can grasp ahold of that, I’ll have found something. If the world could grasp ahold of that we’ll have found heaven itself.

Thoughts on sin…

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I am coming to the conclusion that while sin is pervasive, our understanding of sin is quite shallow and unformed. Indeed, this may be one of the weakest aspects of the Church’s message to the world. We think in terms of do’s and don’ts, the Ten Commandments, and checklists of naughty and nice. Only, we don’t understand what is going on within. Those who keep the rules keep out those who don’t missing much of their own development in the process.

It is for this reason, the Desert Fathers said, that God lets us fall and stumble in silly ways, using our failings to keep us from the dangers of the greater sins. We stumble, and we learn. We are called to not sin and yet we do, increasing our understanding of our need for God’s continued salvation. I note this now because of a passage I just read in Wolfhart Pannenberg about sin which is loosely related. It is indeed a call to renew our understanding of the nature of sin:

The power of sin over us humans rests on the fact that it promises us a fuller and richer life. As we have said, this is its deception (Rom. 7:11). Only thus can we explain Paul’s statement that sin can use the law as a “pretext” in overpowering us. The command of God was given to us with a view to life. Keeping it should help us to safeguard the life that we have received from God (Deut. 32:47; Lev. 18:5) But the desire that is oriented to what is forbidden thinks it has a better knowledge of what will promote life. It forces us to think that the command has a tendency that is inimical to life, as though observing it would involve renouncing that which is part of life’s riches (cf. Gen. 3:4ff). According to Paul, then, the law becomes a means whereby sin achieves dominion, setting life before our eyes and giving desire an occasion to orient itself to it, but in such a way as to set the law aside — the law of reason as well as the traditional moral order (cf. 4 Ezra 7:62-72). Under the pressure of a keen desire for life, we thus come into collision not merely with a law that seems to hamper our development but with our own reason, which, as Paul says, agrees with the law of God (Rom 7:22) and yet is hopelessly subject to the blind drive for self-fulfillment.

Even after two thousand years this description is still so true to life that commentary is hardly needed. The different forms of frenzied conduct offer impressive examples of the way in which the drive for self-fulfillment leads to a frenzy that will finally spoil life, narrow the actual field of freedom of decision, and not infrequently end in death. In spite of some obvious differences whose significance we shall have to discuss later, all of us according to Paul have ultimately fallen victim in some way to greediness for life that in all cases leads to death. “The wages of sin is death” (Rom. 6:23; cf. 7:11).

Not the Way it is Supposed to Be is another quite good text on the nature of sin… and a lot more accessible than Pannenberg tends to be. Though, for me, very few writers get my mind working and my heart as excited about God and the quest to understand His ways as Pannenberg.

Pannenberg nears the end of his discussion on the nature of sin with the core Christian principle that despite all the problems of sin and evil we at our core, as Christians, are hopeful creatures.

Important is the fact that by the continued creative activity of his Spirit, God constantly rescues his creatures from the entanglement in self-centeredness that comes as result of their anxieties and desires. In spite of sin and its ramifications, then, we may again and again know the original joy in life, joy in the richness, breadth, and beauty of creation and in each new day, joy in the illuminations of the life of the spirit, power for action within the order of community life, and a turning to others and participation in their joys and sorrows.

Amen.

We need to talk

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Yep.