An Ad Hominem Homily: Luke 16:19-31

This past Sunday’s text in the Methodist lectionary was Luke 16:19-31.

It’s a difficult passage, the story of that other Lazarus. In this short parable, Jesus tells us of an unnamed rich man and (the other) Lazarus, a disease-afflicted man who lies at the doorstep of the rich man’s home hoping for scraps from the man’s table. Both die, with Lazarus being carried by angels to Abraham’s bosom and the rich man going to Hades.

The rich man calls out across a great divide to Abraham to send Lazarus to bring him water, but Abraham tells him that none can cross the chasm. The rich man then begs Abraham to let Lazarus go to the rich man’s living family to warn them about his fate. Abraham objects that his family has Moses and the prophets to guide them. The rich man retorts that they may not heed the message from the prophets, but will certainly listen to someone returned to the dead. Abraham ends the parable by explaining that those who will not believe Moses and the prophets will not even believe one who rises from the dead.

Jesus sometimes has words difficult for us to hear, and even one such as myself whose theology focuses on the love, forgiveness and benevolence of God would be a fool to ignore the warnings in such passages.

The warning hits especially close when, as with K and I’s new church home, one must walk past homeless folks to enter worship.

The Rich and the Poor

I certainly do not want to de-emphasize the message in this parable about how we should treat the poor, the afflicted, those less fortunate than us. This warning is the clearest part of the passage, and perhaps the one that resonates most with Jesus’s other sayings.

But I’m going to make my comments on that aspect of the passage quickly and move on to less-frequently-discussed ideas conveyed by the text.

I’ll point out the purple robe worn by the rich man. Purple dye–at least the best of it–was known as Tyrian purple; it was produced by the Phoenicians in Tyre (and later elsewhere along the Mediterranean), a city north of Israel in modern Lebanon and visited by Jesus according to Mark. Tyrian purple comes from the secretions of sea snails from the Muricidae family. Even before the first century C.E., writers remarked that the dye was worth its weight in silver. The expense of this purple dye caused it to be known as “royal purple” or “imperial purple.” According to Strong’s, the word that we translate rather feebly as “dressed in” (at least in the ESV) has a meaning more like “habitually dressed in.”

Everyone hearing Jesus’s message at the time would have immediately understood his meaning–this was not just a wealthy person; this was a person with the means to squander money on lavish clothing, not for special occasions, but for everyday use. I suppose it’s like saying the man drove a Ferrari or Lamborghini past Lazarus every morning.

This is poised next to the statement that “Even the dogs came and licked his sores.” There are two ways to read this statement, I think. The first is what we instinctually read–that the dogs licking his sores is a further insult and embarrassment to Lazarus. But, through both experience and reading, I know that dogs can smell disease in humans (and Lazarus’s seems to be pretty obvious besides) and will often lick wounds in an effort to comfort and promote healing–this is their instinctual reaction. So, I think that the juxtaposition here is not just about Lazarus’s lowliness; it’s also about the fact that even the beasts who survive off of scraps from the table know to treat Lazarus better than the rich man does.

Truth and Seeing

As I mentioned above, I don’t think that the real point of this passage is simply about behavior and punishment. In fact, I don’t think that we should read the afterlife scene depicted should be taken as a statement of actual reality at all.

One hint of this, I think, is Jesus’s use of the word Hades–he’s making reference to a Greco-Roman cosmology that he surely doesn’t believe in. Now, on the one hand, Jesus is speaking to a culture now firmly entrenched in the ideas of the Greco-Roman world, but he’s also speaking primarily to Pharisees here, and it would seem that, were he wanting to make a statement about what to expect in the afterlife, he might have used the Hebrew word sheol instead.

So, with that argument made, I’m not going to spend a lot of time on the ideas of afterlife justice and punishment here–I just don’t think that’s the point and I don’t think that’s where we should be spending our interpretive time and effort with the passage.

Instead, I want to focus on the substance of the exchange between Abraham and the rich man rather, with the setting allegorically informing the conversation rather than being a demonstration of reality. In transparency, this is probably a break with tradition–this parable is frequently depicted in medieval art, probably because of its treatment of the afterlife.

When the rich man is dead and in Hades, he can see that Lazarus is with Abraham–the text tells us this plainly. Based on the text, we are well within our rights, I think, to assume that the rich man is founded in the Hebrew beliefs of the time. It follows, then, that he should immediately understand the situation as it is, with Lazarus being rewarded and him being punished. And yet, he persists in the worldview he had in life, the one that caused him to ignore Lazarus in the first place–that, by virtue of his wealth and status he was necessarily better than Lazarus and deserved to be higher than him and served by him.

Let’s make that clear: in spite of seeing Lazarus being rewarded and in the presence of Abraham, and being himself in a place of torment (and assumedly punishment), the rich man still thinks its fitting to ask Abraham to tell Lazarus to serve him.

For me, this changes the way that I look at Abraham’s response when he says, “And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been set in place, so that those who want to go from here to you cannot, nor can anyone cross over from there to us.”

I read this not as a statement about the inability of the dead to move between punishment and grace, but as a statement that the worldly status quo, the dominance of the wealthy and powerful over others, cannot be enforced in the afterlife. Were the rich man not blind to reality, he would have seen this in his situation and would not have made the request in the first place. We see him as foolish in asking for such a thing, and I think that’s entirely the point given what follows.

If you’re like me, you find it strange that the rich man then asks Abraham to send Lazarus and not him to warn his (the rich man’s) family. This could be because the rich man still refuses to look past the disparity of social rank and privilege he enjoyed in life despite Abraham’s explanation, but it could also be that he believes Lazarus might have the privilege to speak to the living where he does not or that Abraham’s side of the chasm is connected to the land of the living and the rich man’s is not. Here, we have a break with Greco-Roman views of Hades, I think, given the number of stories in both Greek and Roman culture in which a spirit of the dead communicates with the living.

Regardless of the why, it’s the substance of the exchange that follows the request that matters most. Ultimately, Abraham says that those who do not believe Moses and the prophets will not believe even someone returned from the dead.

Abraham’s response to the rich man is an application of logic to the ad hominem fallacy engaged in by the rich man–it’s the truth of the message that matters, not the source of the message. Those who have already rejected the truth upon hearing it will not suddenly believe it because someone else–even one risen from the dead–tells the truth to them again. Those who choose to remain blind to the truth when it is staring them in the face, as the rich man does throughout this passage, will find ways to continue to do so.

Social science seems to back this up–just this week I heard on NPR about a study that seems fortuitously related to this topic. In that study, the political beliefs of participants were assessed before and after they participated in a program of interaction with people of different political beliefs and backgrounds. Our assumption, as is so often the case, is that exposure to different ideas, the building of relationships with people of differing beliefs, will naturally cause us to become more open-minded–or at least empathetic to differing views. But this particular study showed that a significant number of participants with very strongly-held views became more entrenched in their views after participating in interactions with people of differing views, choosing to use those interactions as confirmation of their pre-existing beliefs rather than evidence that it might be reasonable to believe otherwise.

The current state of American politics–particularly as Republican congresspersons and officials engage in impressive mental gymnastics to remain loyal to an embattled president with a history of willful ignorance of the ideals of American government–provides further evidence. But if I’m going to be fair (and I should be, shouldn’t I?), the problem lies on both sides of our political divide, because the biases and extreme positions of some Democrats have given an excuse to make the argument that any action taken against the President is a matter only of political bias. Just this morning on the drive to work I head a Republican congressman not just imply but state that the current Ukraine scandal might not have any merit because the whistleblower involved might be biased against Donald Trump. The ad hominem fallacy again raises its ugly head–it doesn’t matter at all whether the whistleblower was biased in blowing the whistle; it only matters whether the allegations of misconduct and abuse of power are true. But I digress.

As those of you who follow the theological posts on my site well know by now, I take an existentialist approach to my theology. I’ve argued that the process of sanctification (and therefore participation in the present Kingdom of God) is a matter of changing oneself to see reality more clearly. In many ways, that’s the argument of this parable–I’m willing to argue that, had the rich man seen reality the way God created it and communicated truth about it to us through Moses and the prophets, he would have treated Lazarus as he should have and never would have ended up in the situation in which we find him. Righteous action flows from righteous thought, which flows from righteous seeing.

Jesus’s Self-Referential Meaning

I haven’t heard or read anyone discuss the irony in Abraham’s final words in this passage. When Jesus gives this parable, he is going to die and return from the dead with messages for the Disciples and for us at large. So how do we relate this statement to Jesus’s death and resurrection (and its effect–or lack thereof–on believers)?

It’s possible that this is evidence that Jesus’s death and resurrection was never intended as a sign to create belief in God. If we take the message of Luke 16:19-31, that makes sense, right? For those whose contact with Jesus already convinced them that he was the Son of God, his resurrection was simply confirmation of their belief, not the source of new belief. Those who rejected Jesus’s divinity before his death and resurrection had ready arguments for continuing to disbelieve. Someone stole the body. Jesus only swooned on the cross and never actually died. The crucifixion never actually occurred.

This, existentially speaking, is the condition in which we, as human beings in the modern age, find ourselves. We have no way to prove the reality of the resurrection itself, much less to use it prove Jesus’s divinity. We have Moses and the prophets, and the Disciples and letter-writers; if we don’t find truth in them, where will we find it?

I need to carry this further, I think. As I argued in my last theological post (Speaking Creation), Jesus is the reality of our creation and sustenance, with the Bible’s primary value as a gateway to a personal encounter with Jesus that transcends all other human ways of knowing or seeing. Jesus is the right seeing of the universe. The incarnation and crucifixion, then, are revelations of truth, not for the purpose of forcing us to see clearly, but for giving us the possibility of seeing clearly if we are willing to see at all.

For us Methodists, it’s the prevenient grace of the Holy Spirit that allows us to be open to seeing before the truth is ever clear to us. But that is a mechanism beyond my understanding except in the most abstract of senses.

This idea, that the crucifixion and resurrection are not about causing belief, naturally requires the question: “What is it about, then?” Jesus answers that question, at least in part, elsewhere, when he tells us that “No greater love have a man than this; that he lay down his life for his friends.” As Paul writes, “But God demonstrates his own loves for us in this: While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.”

This knowledge returns us to the chasm between Abraham and the rich man. If that chasm were ever intended to represent a real divide between the forgiven and the unforgiven, it cannot remain after the redemptive act of Jesus’s death and resurrection. Abraham speaks to the rich man in terms of impossibilities, but through Jesus, all things are possible.

Synchronicity and Application

I had the very good fortune to hear J.J. Warren speak this weekend at a Reconciling United Methodists of the Texas Annual Conference event. If you’re not sure who J.J. Warren is, search for him in Google. Start with his speech from the floor of the Called Special Session of the General Conference of the UMC earlier this year and go from there. His first book, Reclaiming Church: A Call to Action for Religious Rejects, is available for pre-order on Amazon.

He spoke/preached on the prophet Amos, whose warning to the Hebrew people was that God found the worship and supplications of the Hebrew people distasteful (to put it mildly) while they refused to engage in the pursuit of the social justice that God had called them to.

The application of this message in the warning that we, as United Methodists, ought to be very carefully scrutinizing whether we’re seeking God’s justice with our actions, not just with regard to LGTBQ+ issues but also in matters of immigration, wealth disparity, inequities of power in our nation, the lack of justice in our judicial system, and many other issues both “secular” and political, resonates deeply with the passage from Luke. After all, that’s the very warning the rich man fails to heed in his ignorance of Lazarus: are you pursuing justice or allowing injustice?

Was Amos at the forefront of Abraham’s mind when he warns the rich man that those who are heedless of the prophets will not heed even one risen from the dead? Something to think on…

Speaking Creation

A picture may be worth a thousand words in terms of raw content, but even a few words can be more precise than a picture. And when words create pictures, an emergent gestalt of the minds of writer and reader, where do we put that in the hierarchy? When our words shape, craft and regulate thoughts, how do we categorize that most fundamental structure of reality?

The idea that language, whether deterministically or only by influence, shapes cognition and perception, is formally known as the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis. It’s a far-reaching idea, particularly for both the writer and the theologian. Here, I’ll focus on the latter.

The Book of John tells us, or at least very heavily implies, that Jesus is the Word of God, co-eternal with the Father, that “Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made.” I’ve talked about my perceived misapplication of the phrase “Word of God” to the Bible rather than to Jesus in a previous duology of posts.

Indeed, in Genesis, God speaks Creation into being. Both Tolkien and Lewis picked up on this, though they  also incorporated music into the speaking of Creation in their respective worlds. As medievalists, they would have been familiar with the idea of the music of the spheres, and perhaps that influenced their choices in worldbuilding and writing. For both, I think, as for me, the act of writing fiction, of using words to create something new, is both an act of worship and the exercise of the most Godlike of human endowments–creativity itself–in imitation of our source.

Just as God and the created thing are separate and distinct, language (as a medium of creation) and creation itself are separate and distinct. Any scholar of semiotics (or philosophy for that matter) will tell you that the description or word for a thing is not the thing itself. I’ve before referenced Magritte’s The Treachery of Images as emblematic of this idea.

Nevertheless, I think it is impossible to overstate the importance of speech in the creative act in the Book of Genesis and the linking of Jesus Christ to both act and medium of creation. But what do we do with that?

We turn to words, of course. Our fiction is full of the idea that speech is the moderator of thought and experience, at least for human beings. In Orwell’s 1984, Newspeak allows the government (to attempt, at least) to control the thoughts, perceptions and self-expressions of the citizens of Oceania. Even more fascinating (to my mind) is China Mieville’s Embassytown, where the evolution of the Language of the Ariekei “Hosts” coincides with changes in their consciousness and perceptions. In my review of Brooks Landon’s Great Course on Building Great Sentences, I spend a fair amount of time on the idea that good sentences are essentially consciousness hacking. Certainly, the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis supports such an idea.

That is what fascinates me most about the use of speech in the Biblical story of Creation. Even if, as I do, you interpret Genesis as being far more metaphorical than literal, this detail communicates something undeniably true about human existence. Like it or not, language structures experience. When was the last time you thought to yourself purely in terms of abstract images, feelings and ideas? I can’t think of time ever when my own internal monologue was not yapping away.

This is why the study of foreign languages is so mind-expanding–coded within the words and structure of a language are fundamental perceptions and assertions about the nature of existence and reality. This goes far beyond how many words for snow a language has (though that is itself a telling example of a manner of perceiving the world) or that in Latin actor and subject of action sometimes require the reader to make assumptions about how the world is, as in the sentence “Miles puella vincit” (“The soldier conquers the girl,” or, “The girl conquers the soldier” since both nouns are in the nominative declension). There are subtler effects, too subtle to describe here, involved in the availability and specificity of words in any particular language or even words within a language. This isn’t a post about the mechanics of how language shapes thought, but one about the consequences of that fact.

Before we go further, just a little more about the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis. Linguistic research in recent decades has lent support to the “soft” school of the Hypothesis–that language may influence but is not deterministic upon cognition and perception. That matches with “common sense” philosophy and experience, I think–I’ve never encountered, personally or second-hand, a specific instance of language preventing someone from changing his mind about something, an assertion with any plausibility that all speakers of a language share the same ideas on a particular topic, or an event where a language barrier proved insurmountable to compromise between different peoples in any but the most practical of senses. So, the analogy, as all analogies must at some point (if they are actually analogies and not two instances of the exact same thing held up to one another), begins to unravel here. Nevertheless, I proceed.

The assertion that Jesus is the Word of God carries with it the claim that Jesus makes in John 14:6: “I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” But it does so in a way that is far more nuanced and complex than the fundamentalist idea that salvation is exclusive to those who profess Jesus as Lord with their mouths.

Instead, the idea tells us that Jesus is the way, the truth and the life, not in some categorical sense exclusive to other worldviews, but in the fundamental sense that Jesus is God’s fullest expression to man of the very nature of Creation and reality itself. This being the case, anyone who catches some glimpse of reality is in some sense glimpsing Jesus, regardless of the name they put to it. This comports with the claim in 1 John 4:8 that “Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love.” (The congruence of these ideas might provide some argument in support of the idea that the writer of the Gospel of John and the First Epistle of John are one and the same).

If Jesus is the truest language, that is, the truest medium and structure for accurate perception of and cognition about all created things, we must add the action of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost to what we’ve seen of Jesus Christ and the Father in Genesis.

At Pentecost, the Holy Spirit descends upon the crowds gathered around the apostles so that all clearly understand the divine message spoken by the apostles on that day–each as if hearing in his own tongue. The idea hear is clear–Jesus, as the fundamental structure for understanding all questions existential, is available to all.

This idea allows for some ecumenical respect for other faiths while preserving the primacy of Jesus as a person of the all-sovereign triune God. It allows us to respect the genuine striving for God that members of other faiths seek while asserting that the clearest, most beneficial view of God is in the person of Jesus Christ.

I don’t know a thing about Neal Stephenson’s religious beliefs, but as I’ve mentioned in several other posts, some of his works have inspired particular insights into my own theology, and I would rate him up with Joss Whedon as one of my “unintentional mentors” in that regard. This seems as good a time as any to discuss Snow Crash in brief. Spoilers in the next paragraph (didn’t see that coming in this post, didja?).

One of the plot-critical philosophical thoughts behind the plot of Snow Crash is the idea that the Asherah cult and pagan belief constitutes a sort of meme-virus in Sumerian language and that the separation of languages in the story we know as the Tower of Babel is a counter-virus intended to inoculate against the deleterious effects of the Asheran cult. It’s a brilliant fantastical use of Biblical narrative and, like the other fictional works I’ve mentioned here, more than a little in line with the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis. It carries with it a great warning itself in the person of Reverend Wayne, who seeks to combine the Snow Crash drug with his personal charisma and authority co-opted from Christianity to distribute his own meme-virus. I don’t think I need to do much to tie this example into the ideas above.

Salvation aside, this idea, that Jesus is both the medium and the structure of Creation, should profoundly influence our idea of sanctification. It tells us that seeking the person of Jesus is coming to a clearer paradigm for understanding existence as it actually is. This is an existential understanding of sanctification, as I have elsewhere argued (see the “Brief Outline of My Theology” for a quick and dirty overview). It states that seeking Christ causes change within us–of our way of understanding our relationships to all else in existence rather than some subjugation of our unique personalities–and that this change in understanding is what allows the more abundant living and the participation in the Kingdom of God that Jesus came to offer us, through his teaching, yes, but even more profoundly through the direct experience of him. The giver becomes the gift, all one.

What do I mean by “New Mysticism”?

Today I was reading an interview between CNN’s Daniel Burke and comedian Pete Holmes, star of HBO’s “Crashing” and author of the new book Comedy, Sex, God.

I want to copy for you here a portion of that interview that really struck me. He says: “But what we’re talking about is symbol systems and labels. And those are good; those are helpful. (But) we’re trying to get our inner reality to respond. So in the book, I’m trying to rescue some Bible verses, I’m trying to rescue some ideas of Christ. I’ll always get a lot juice out of rescuing something that Jesus said. It’s healing to me, psychologically, to do that with words that were used to convince me that I was in danger of going to hell. It might be my favorite thing to do, is to go like, “Oh my God, it was right there.” We just didn’t have eyes to see. We didn’t have ears to hear. We were listening wrong. We were listening with an agenda. We were listening with our egos. We were listening with a deep desire for membership and identity and certainty. We weren’t looking as the mystics are. And when you look at the Bible the way a mystic sees it, it opens like a flower and you’re like, whoa.”

This really resonated with me, as did the general story of Mr. Holmes’ spiritual journey from evangelical Christian upbringing to spiritual voyager. His use of the idea of mysticism also struck a cord.

I have casually remarked in my posts on this blog that I have given the (haphazardly) systematic theology I am slowly developing the name “New Mysticism.” Pete Holmes’ comment above (and perhaps his comments more broadly) seems to provide a good entry point into discussing what I mean by that term.

I am not qualified to be a mystic in the classical sense. I cannot sit still long enough to meditate. I am too busy (over-)thinking to calm my mind. I have too strong a sense of self to be satisfied with the idea of the unio mystica, though I have a deep desire to feel a strong connection with God. I have no supernatural gifts that allow me to see the fabric of reality other than through a glass, darkly. I have no divine message to share, only the thoughts and feelings of a human inescapably drawn to pondering the nature of existence and reality, subject to my all-too-human limitations in finding definitive answers to the many questions I ask. I am no mystic as the term is often intended.

Why “New Mysticism,” then? As I’ve laid out in a Brief Outline of My Theology, my theological approach is both existential and epistemologically skeptical; some amount of mysticism seems an inexorable conclusion from such a starting place.

In existentialist thought, we acknowledge that our understanding of all things is mediated by experience, by imperfect sensory apparatus analyzed by imperfect minds. We must acknowledge some slippage between what we perceive (the existential) and what actually is (the essential).

Skepticism of our ability to know follows closely. I’m not one to take epistemological skepticism to absurdity (if our knowing is flawed, how can we know that we know?), but I do acknowledge that the human mind has its limits.

The philosopher David Hume once made the argument that we cannot definitively know that causation exists. What we observe is a (very) strong correlation of events. To borrow his analogy, we see the cue ball hit one of the other billiard balls and then the second ball begins to move. Through math and science, we can even protect the force and direction of that movement based upon the angle of impact, speed and rotation of the cue ball (and myriad other details, such as the evenness of the pool table). But we have no way to, beyond any doubt, prove that the cue ball is causing the other ball to move rather than that we are only observing a very consistent “coincidence” that is caused by forces and factors we cannot perceive.

We cannot live and function should we focus on that doubt, of course. We must live with the very great probability that this is in fact causation (it hasn’t failed us yet, after all). We cannot meaningfully interact with the world around us, certainly cannot plan such interactions, without taking for granted causation exists and we believe it to.

Do not be misled into thinking that I am making some argument against either knowledge generally or science specifically; experience seems to demonstrate (if not prove) that we can know some things reliably enough and science is in fact the best tool to understand the nature and action of the world around us.

But there are limits to the sorts of questions that the human mind may understand. Science can show us with relative certainty that the universe began with the Big Bang. It cannot, no matter the angle at which we hold it nor the manner in which we dissect it, tell us why in any sense behind the mundane and lifeless. The question of, “If the Big Bang caused everything in the universe, what caused it?” stretches to infinite strings of causation or some manner of causation we cannot perceive. Either way, the answer is beyond us. When God tells us that God’s name is “I AM” or “I AM THAT I AM”, that is a mystical answer to a question that defies logic. There is nothing we can understand about God in any temporal sense; God simply is God. We must either accept or reject that, there is no way to prove it or explain it.

It is here that we find the necessity of mysticism; that is: a belief that some knowledge is not susceptible to human logic, that there are things we may know from experience that we could never prove to anyone else, that there are ways of understanding apart from cold logic. I know of no other way to describe such things other than “mystical.” But it strikes me that that mysticism is not entirely the same as the term has been formerly understood. It may also be a mode of experience, but in my mind it is first a worldview, one without which we are not open to such modes of experience, no matter the labels we place on them.

And so, I find my theology to be firmly rooted in the mystical, the supernal, the sublime. How could it be otherwise? The spaces between cold logic are where faith, hope and joy come alive, where we find (or create) the only meanings that, at the end of the day, really matter to any of us.

This mysticism is different, perhaps, from the mysticism of the past in another way. It does not dismiss, nor reject, nor argue against logic and science, instead recognizing that these are God-given tools to develop understanding to the extent that we can. If there is a God, and God created everything that exists, then every rule of science, every geological fact, every evolutionary development represents in some manner the will of God. Understanding the operation of the natural world may thus give us some understanding of the nature of God. Even if it doesn’t, such understanding proves quite useful, and we’ll need more of it if we are to hope to undo much of the harm we, as a species, have done to the world.

This “new” mystical approach allows science and faith to co-exist by understanding that, just because a story in the Bible is not historical fact does not mean that is not True in the most important, dramatic and essential ways by telling us something meaningful about existence itself. If only we are able to understand, whether by logic or by divine revelation.

“New Mysticism” is intended as a middle road between an unquestioning faith and an equally unquestioning materialism, one that gives fair play to all manner of knowing and seeks to incorporate all of the experiential, the existential, into a meaningful whole.

 

Jesus’ Anti-Apocalyptic Message

(This is the 6th of seventeen posts in my 200 for 200 goal. We’re currently at 140 followers, so please continue to send your friends my way!)

(P.P.S. it seems: While I haven’t been as good as I’d like to be about keeping my New Year’s resolution to write for at least an hour every day–life has a habit of intervening–I have been busy at work, though the lack of posts on the blog doesn’t seem to indicate that. Have faith and bear with me–there is much more to come, and soon!)

To be honest, I’ve pulled a little bit of a fast one on the title of the post in a blatant attempt to get your attention. I’m not going to deny that the message of Jesus is sometimes apocalyptic, nor am I going to overturn everything you thought you knew.

The word “apocalyptic” can mean a number of things, particularly the common/colloquial idea of “end times” and/or a style of revelatory writing and narrative (often, but not necessarily coinciding with the subject of the Second Coming or the Day of Judgment).  There are certainly times when Jesus speaks apocalyptically in both senses of the word: much of Matthew 24 and 25 contains apocalyptic speech in the sense that it offers revelatory information in the prophetic mode and that it discusses an end times. My NIV translation of Matthew 24 gives it the heading, “The Destruction of the Temple and Signs of the End Times,” and later, before the start of verse 36, “The Day and Hour Unknown.” Matthew 25 contains the Parable of the Ten Virgins–which we can certainly read as about those who wait patiently for the kind of apocalyptic salvation common to first-century belief in ancient Judea–and the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats, perhaps one of the hardest sayings of Jesus.

As an aside, there is some interesting scholarship about the origins of some of the parables above in relation to the various source theories of the gospel texts. I’ll leave that to those better versed in such things.

So, by the title of this post, I do not mean to intimate that Jesus never spoke apocalyptically (regardless of sense of the word you want to use), that it is not possible to read Jesus as apocalyptic prophet, or to read themes of judgment out of Jesus’ ministry. None of these things would be correct in light of scripture.

However (perhaps in typical Methodist “both/and” fashion), I do want to nuance and complicate things a little and to challenge the proposition of some scholars (particularly Bart Ehrman, I think) that Jesus should be read only (maybe it’s more fair to say “primarily”) as an apocalyptic prophet who is simply repeating cultural ideas of the time.

Thus, we arrive at the title of the post: I want to offer a reading of certain scriptures (and I want to be careful to be clear here that this is not intended as a full synthesis of the Gospels and I am intentionally leaving intact the tension between my offered reading and those of Jesus’ sayings that are staunchly apocalyptic) that turns the standard idea of the apocalyptic on its head. Or, at the very least, points out a different but defensible interpretation.

Given the semiotic flexibility of the word “apocalyptic” (as mentioned above), I think it’s only right that I define specifically what I mean when I say “anti-apocalyptic.” For purposes of this post (title included), I use the term “anti-apocalyptic” to mean “something other than the idea that the world is a lost cause that must be suffered through with patience until some external eucatastrophe restores justice by punishing the oppressors and evildoers and rewarding those who have faithfully suffered.”

Let’s look at Luke 17:20-21 (NIV): “Once, on being asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God would come, Jesus replied, “The coming of the Kingdom of God is not something that can be observed, nor will people say, ‘Here it is,” or ‘There it is,’ because the kingdom of God is in your midst.” The NIV includes a footnote that “in your midst” might also be translated as “within you.” Other translations also choose “within you”.

I do not claim to be a scholar of Koiné Greek–it’s something that I’d like to pick up some time, but this has not yet come to fruition. However, based on what understanding I do have–and particularly a reliance on Strong’s (the word “entos,” which is the Greek word we’re talking about is G1787)–“inside of you” (“sy entos“) seems to be the better translation.

I have seen it argued that “in your midst” is the better translation, but only to the result that the argument becomes “the Holy Spirit dwells within your soul,” which seems to me to be a distinction without a difference–unless we try to parse out “having” a soul as somehow different from “being a soul,” as if a soul is an attachment to one’s essence. We wouldn’t be the first to go there, of course–Egyptian and Zoroastrian religion (among others) have a complex relationship between different parts of the soul and the existential being of the individual. This, however, seems to become pure metaphysical speculation.

But I digress. As an existential theologian, I’ve argued on this blog (and in my first theology book, when I get around to finishing it and publishing it one way or another; for now, see this post) that the process of sanctification–of participation in the Kingdom of God–is a matter of an internal change of self and perception so that one adopts a “map” of right relationships that approaches the map God would have us see. If this is true, that the process of sanctification is one of gradual inward change and enlightenment spurred on by the revelation of the person of Jesus Christ, then it seems almost axiomatic that the Kingdom of God is within us all along–even if that does sound a little afternoon-school-special-y. Don’t worry, this isn’t another digression; this is the beginning of the argument I’m trying to make.

Paul’s language about the Holy Spirit seems to indicate an understanding of sanctification similar to what I have described above, with the Holy Spirit as the believer’s guide on the path to Christ-likeness. Let’s look at Romans 8:

In 8:4, Paul writes “in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fully met in us, who do not live according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.” Here, the Holy Spirit serves as the impetus that drives us toward righteousness, sanctification. In the words that follow, Paul argues that those who “live in the flesh” rather than the Spirit “are hostile to God” (8:7), and that only belongs to Christ if one “has the Spirit of God” living in him or has “the Spirit of Christ” (8:9). For Paul, the indwelling of the Holy Spirit is an essential part of the Christian’s life.

Soon thereafter he writes, “For those who are led by the Spirit of God are the children of God…the Spirit you received brought about your adoption to sonship” (8:14-15, abridged). The guidance of the Holy Spirit brings about the right relationship with God as well as righteousness. This corresponds, I think, with the way I’ve described sanctification both here and elsewhere on the blog.

We should also note that Paul holds the same tension between inward sanctification through the Holy Spirit and the apocalyptic. Later in Romans 8, 8:20-21 to be specific, he writes: “For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and the glory of the children of God.” The rest of the passage focuses on patience in the face of suffering as we “wait eagerly for our adoption to sonship, the redemption of our bodies” (8:23b). Romans 8 ends with some comments about predestination that we won’t address here–though my post series “Roleplaying Games as a Microcosm of Free Will” somewhat addresses the topic. Likewise, I think it’s fair to read some conflict between belief and works righteousness in Paul’s words here, though that’s a topic for another time.

Of course, Paul also explicitly links the Holy Spirit to sanctification in describing the “Fruits of the Holy Spirit” in Galatians 5. The Fruits are qualities of character of both Christ and the one who has become Christ-like (through sanctification).

Jesus Himself alludes to the Holy Spirit as the driver of sanctification in John 16:13: “But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all the truth.” I would argue that the understanding of truth is the understanding of the right relationships with God, self, others and creation, which itself causes the inner change that we call “sanctification.”

Here’s what I see as the fundamental dissonance between the interior view of a sanctification and the exterior or apocalyptic view–the apocalyptic view tends to draw our focus away from what we can do in the here and now to make the world we live in a better place–to bring the Kingdom of Heaven to earth bit by bit rather than waiting for some supernal (and divinely unilateral) invasion. An eschatological view that only looks for that promised eucatastrophe allows us to ignore present suffering we could do something about. When we see sanctification as a process of change within ourselves that draws us to be more compassionate and Christlike, it is inevitable that we will be drawn to serve the least and the lost and–thereby–to participate in some foretaste of the Kingdom of God.

It is true that I’m an idealist; but I’m also enough of a realist to see that our opportunities to enact change in the world are small and localized. We humans, without God, are unable to erase all of the evil and suffering out there (though that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try anyway). In light of that, we do need to have some idea of an “apocalyptic” intervention in which God sets all things right and fully and finally remedies the fallenness of man. I make no claim to know what that will look like (or be like, for that matter), but in light of the interior idea of sanctification, I have some confidence (though of course, not complete surety) in arguing that it won’t look like a literal fulfillment of the apocalyptic (in the narrative style, I mean here) images in the Book of Revelations.

We Methodists (and I’m sure we’re not alone) like to say that “the Kingdom of Heaven is a future promise and a present reality.” Perhaps this post just brings us full circle on this saying. I think it’s certainly possible to view the “traditionally apocalyptic” sayings of Jesus as indicating the future promise and those passages I have described as “anti-apocalyptic” as indicating the present reality. The two categories are not mutually exclusive, after all.

As this post draws to a close, this is what I mean to say: Although Jesus does sometimes speak of a time when, by God’s intervention, all wrongs will be rectified and Creation will be restored to what it has always been meant to be, that doesn’t mean that all there is for us to do on earth in the meantime is to wait and patiently suffer through the injustice of the world. Jesus also calls us to present participation in the Kingdom of God, both by exploring it within ourselves (through the process of sanctification) and then by pouring out that discovery into the world. Spoiler alert: Jesus also tells us exactly how to do this: clothe the needy, feed the hungry, visit those who are in prison, tend the sick, pursue justice in our society. Our guiding principles are simple in their utterance and infinitely complex in the doing: love the Lord your God, love your neighbor as yourself (and all people are your neighbors) and strive that it might be “on earth as it is in Heaven.”

 

 

Salvation and Sanctification

In common Christian thought, I don’t think we often separate ideas of salvation and sanctification in our theology; though they are strongly related, I think it is far more helpful to consider each separately.

Let me be clear about what I mean with each term. “Salvation” means that we have been saved, of course. But from what? From the cosmic consequences of sin. If sin is a part of (current, at least) human condition, and if the wages of sin are death (Romans 6:23), then salvation means forgiveness for our sins and the gift of eternal life (see again Romans 6:23).

Because this is not a post focused on soteriology, I’m not going to try to hash out the details of salvation through Jesus Christ here. Volumes and volumes have been published on this mystery, and while I do have some of my own thoughts to add to the conversation, this is not the place.

What I’ll say, instead, is that salvation is not, and was never meant to be, the whole story. If salvation is a gift freely offered by God and freely received, and our free will is sacrosanct to God (as I have argued elsewhere), then it stands to reason that salvation, for all of the metaphysical benefits it bestows, does not act as a singular and final transition into exactly what God has called us to be.

I’ll rely on E. Stanley Jones to put it more eloquently. He lamented, “It is usually taken for granted that the goal is to reach heaven….But squirm as we may, and explain away as we can, it is true nevertheless that a granted heaven and an imposed hell hold the field in the mind of Christendom as the final goal….Heaven is a by-product of perfected being [emphasis mine]. The Christ of the Mount: A Working Philosophy of Life, Chapter 2: The Goal of Human Living.

For Jones–and I agree wholeheartedly–the goal of the Christian is not to engage in mere quid-pro-quo (which I described as a vestige of paganism in this post, but which just as well ought to be considered a matter of human nature) of the allegiance-for-heaven variety is a gross misunderstanding of Jesus Christ and his message. Jones tells us that the Sermon on the Mount gives us the true “goal” of the Christian journey–to “become perfect as your Father in heaven is perfect” (Matthew 5:48).

That, simply put, is sanctification: the long, hard process of seeking to make oneself Christ-like and therefore purified, sanctified, holy.

The first reason that I think it’s important for us to think about salvation and sanctification separately is that this partition shows us the true beauty of God’s plan. You see, it sidesteps the quid-pro-quo dilemma entirely. If salvation precedes sanctification, God has already given you all God’s gifts before you take the first step on that path; the only reasons one could choose the dear cost of sanctification (at least the apparent cost, more on that later) is for love of God and a true desire for relationship with the One who created all things. It is love for love’s sake, and our God constantly demonstrates that there is nothing purer, nothing greater, nothing more powerful or more meaningful than that. And this by God’s own design, for we are told that God is love. To quote a song by my favorite band, “the giver became the gift, all one.” The pursuit of sanctification and the pursuit of relationship with the One who calls us to be sanctified is the same thing, because loving God is loving ourselves and others, and the perfection to which God calls us is that of love. That God has taken away even the possibility of the quid-pro-quo from relationship with God demonstrates the nature of both God and true relationship.

If there is a reward to be had in sanctification, it is the thing itself. By becoming sanctified, we begin to see the world as God intends it to be, we truly begin to participate in the Kingdom of Heaven as a present reality, not simply a future promise. Joy, in the divine sense, is the consequence of sanctification, the realization of the way things ought to be–and how they one day will be. It is a state of being, not a thing that can be grasped. And thus, it lies ever out of the reach of the one who grasps it but crashes like waves over the one whose focus is truth. There is an inherent justice to that, I think.

An understanding of salvation and sanctification that gives value to both aspects of the Christian walk also helps us to address that age-old issue about the conflict between works and faith. Salvation is achieved by faith through the eternal grace of God, but sanctification takes the effort of the believer. I’d like to be careful here to make clear that I do not intend to transfer some Pelagian schema from salvation to sanctification. Though human will may be necessary to sanctification, it is not sufficient. First, it is God’s salvific and justifying grace that frees us from the chains of sin so that we may choose to walk the path of sanctification at all. God’s sanctifying grace follows us with us every day, strengthening us against the trepidations and vicissitudes of a journey that sometimes doubles back on itself, forces us to retrace our steps, gives us the realization that we have lost our way. Sanctification is a difficult thing; it is easy to accept, I think, that without God’s help it would not be possible for humankind.

An understanding that sanctification is an ongoing journey gives us a more realistic view of the faith walk in our lives, a view that relieves us from the guilt we tend to pile upon ourselves when we doubt our faith.

Under this schema I’ve described, we are freed from asking about a person’s salvation based upon their behavior. We might question a person’s seriousness about sanctification (though even that, I think, is forbidden to us in the proscription not to judge), but we cannot act as if someone’s behavior has removed them from God’s grace. Room is made for a sort of human grace here, I suspect–that we may acknowledge that even the best of us sometimes make sinful mistakes, but that we are all by the grace of God given the opportunity to make amends and return to the path of sanctification. And if God has given us such room, who are we to ignore it? In other words, this understanding makes it easier for us to love our neighbors.

It gives us space as well to understand that we do not have all of the answers, that we are all of us on a journey to greater understanding of and relationship with God, ourselves and each other. What the culmination of this journey will be, I do not know. But I do know that it will carry with it a fullness of Heaven that we cannot even imagine.

That salvation precedes sanctification also grants us relief from fearing the (lack of) time in this life we have left in which to become holy. If eternal life is a gift included in salvation, we will have all of eternity in which to become perfect as our Father in heaven is perfect. This metaphysical arrangement is an example of perfect love that drives out fear. I don’t know about you, but I often feel I might need just such an amount of time considering the task.

 

A Christian Theory of Humor

I feel like I’ve written about this before, but it seems that I haven’t, so here we go.

There is much to be said about humor, its causes and its effects, from physiological studies to sociological implications (I heard someone talking about the role of humor in demonstrating integration into a social group on NPR a while back). I’m going to focus on what humor tells me, at least, about theology.

Let me begin by saying that I must rely on the hope that God is especially forgiving of humor, even if in bad taste. If not, I might be in trouble…

The theory of humor; i.e. “why are some things funny and some things not?” looks to several core attributes of those things that make us laugh. By way of shortcut in the matter of theory, I’m going to point to Wikipedia’s article on “Humor.” Not the most reliable or deepest of sources, I know, but it’ll do.

Wikipedia says that the “root components” of humor are:

(1) Being reflective or imitative of reality; and
(2) containing surprise/misdirection, contradiction/paradox, or ambiguity

I look at these descriptors and marvel at how they mesh with my existential approach to theology.

Before I unpack that, though, let’s look to an opposite phenomena that I think will shed much light on my ideas that follow.

We start with a German word: weltschmerz. Weltschmerz (literally “world-pain”) means that pain that one feels at realizing the difference between the way the world is and the way the world could be. It is often defined as being similar to the French ennui, but I think that these terms are quite different (but both existentially related)–ennui being the suffering caused by finding no meaning in existence.

Weltschmerz is a wonderful word; it describes with specificity something we all feel at one time or another but struggle to communicate. When something is overhyped and the experience fails to fulfill the expectation of the experience? Weltschmerz. That sense of injustice that causes one to rage inside while also feeling helpless? Weltschmerz. The force behind fatalism and gallows humor? Weltschmerz. It was this idea that started me thinking about a theological explanation of humor.

Things are funny when they are close to reality but not quite right. On top of that, let’s look at the three other aspects Wikipedia attaches to humor: surprise, contradiction and ambiguity.

Surprising things are funny because they turn expectations on their head. Surprise is about possibility, and the pleasure of surprise in humor is that it reminds us that the world does not have to be the way that it is–it could be different. Often, the surprise comes from a sudden change in frame of reference or perspective. Consider the following, ripped straight from the internet:

“Mom, where do tampons go?”
“Where the babies come from, darling.”
“In the stork?”

Reference what I said before about inappropriate humor.

I’ve had some difficulty finding a joke (that I’m willing to write here, which says a lot) that adequately demonstrates paradox/contradiction that isn’t also heavily inundated with surprise. This is understandable, I suppose. The best I’ve found is the following, from Demetri Martin:

“‘I’m sorry’ and ‘I apologize’ mean the same thing. Except at a funeral.”

Without providing a bunch of jokes to allow for an inductive conclusion about the nuance between surprise and contradiction, I will point you to an established narrative trope using contradiction for humor, via TVTropes.com. If, like me, you can lose hours following rabbit trails on TVTropes.com, I apologize.

When we attempt to come to a Christian theological understanding of humor, paradox and contradiction are essential elements. First, there is the “meta” aspect of thinking theologically about paradox and contradiction–much of theology is an attempt to reconcile apparent contradictions and paradoxes, or, as Chesterton puts it, “Christianity got over the difficulty of combining furious opposites, by keeping them both, and keeping them furious.”

He’s right, you know, Christianity invites us to dive headfirst into paradoxes and contradictions and to struggle with them, often without easy (or any) resolution.

At the same time, paradox in humor is a sister to weltschmerz; the half where we see the difference between how the world is and could be and we laugh instead of crying–both are existentially-appropriate reactions, I think.

At its most fundamental, paradoxical humor reminds us that the world doesn’t have to be the way it is; the contradictions of paradoxical humor often ask us to laugh at how the world is worse than it could/should be. Like humorous surprise, the same humor reminds us that we can make things better.

As a relevant aside, Chesteron has also written, “Paradox–Truth standing on her head to get attention.”

And now to ambiguity. If you’ve read my previous series on ambiguity in scripture, you’ll know that I think that ambiguity–and our ability to struggle with and engage it–are fundamental aspects of Christianity. So it should come as no surprise that I think that the humor derived from ambiguity is not merely an existential coping mechanism (though it is often that), but a well-concealed revelation of Truth.

There’s a great (and short!) article on how lexical ambiguity contributes to humor here, on the Society for Linguistic Anthropology website. Lexical ambiguity is just one small portion of ambiguity in humor, but it suffices to illustrate the point. I’ll borrow an exemplative joke (much tamer than the previous ones) from that site:

“How do you make a turtle fast?”
“Take away his food.”

Note the inseparable elements of contradiction and surprise in that joke, which uses ambiguity about the applicable definition of the word “fast” to reach the punchline.

Taken altogether, ambiguity, surprise and contradiction work together to make us laugh by disrupting comfortable and seemingly reliable assumptions and expectations. At its most fundamental, this is also what Christianity does as well–it tells us that what the world tries to seduce us with (money, power, fame) does not have the depth of meaning and ability to fulfill that true living does (through love, the pursuit of justice and mercy, and relationships, for instance). Both Christianity and humor tell us that things can change–that we can change both ourselves and the world for the better.

By my Chrsitian understanding, humor does two theological things: first and most important, it gives us hope by reminding us that things do not have to be as they are–that God is calling us to work to change them for the better; second, humor reminds us of raw possibility, of our ability to participate in the creation of meaning, of the existential joys of being God’s creations.

 

 

 

Is Sin Phenomenal or Existential?

In Matthew 5:28, in the midst of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says: “‘You have heard that it was said, “You shall not commit adultery.” But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.'”

That’s a tough statement, especially given the following advice that if a body part is causing us to sin we ought to cut it off.

But let’s take a step back and think about this on a level deeper than the surface–and the shock that goes along with it. I’m a firm believer that many times when Jesus says something that seems very condemning, what he’s doing is simply laying out for us how the world works and what the natural consequences of a thing are. For instance, when Jesus tells us that, “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God,” in Matthew 19:24, he’s not saying “God condemns rich people for being rich and no one should be.” Rather, I think, he’s saying, “The money and power that go along with wealth–and the accompanying desire to hold onto that money and power–make it very difficult to focus on what is good and true and righteous, because the love of power is seductive and addictive. Be wary that such things do not make you see the world in the wrong way, but keep focused on the way that I have told you to see the world.”

Likewise, in Matthew 5:28, while Jesus does say something that, if we’re being honest with ourselves, reminds us all of our sins, I think that his purpose is less about shaming us and more about telling us about the very nature of sin.

And that’s why this post is titled, “Is sin phenomonal or existential?” If you’ve read many of my other posts, you already know where I fall on this issue, but I’d like to develop the idea a bit more specifically.

When I ask if sin is phenomenal, what I mean to ask is whether sin is a matter of discrete and observable actions, specific behaviors violative of what is righteous. When I ask if sin is existential, I’m asking if, rather than being a matter of specific and easily-identifiable behaviors, sin is a condition or state of being.

The real answer, of course, is that it’s both of these things at once. What the question(s) really seek to answer is whether it is particular actions that lead to a particular state of sin or whether particular actions are the result of a state of being. Again, the best argument is likely that there’s a dialectic between these two things–bad acts make it easier to choose bad acts in the future, deepening a state of sinfulness, but without some existentially sinful condition, there would never be any sinful action, so the influence of one on the other must be mutually reinforcing. So, what should we focus on as primary when dealing with and discussing sin–actions or a state of being.

In Matthew 5:28, Jesus appears to be arguing against the legalism of the Old Testament law (here making specific allusion to the Ten Commandments) and instead showing us that sinfulness is a matter of mindset, perspective (compared to the objective, I mean to intimate no relativistic thought here), paradigm.

There are two quotations I prefer (and have used on the blog before) to encapsulate this idea, which is central and fundamental to existential thought. Having been a professional student and scholar of the Renaissance and early modern periods, both quotations are derived from that most elevated and rarified literary era.

First, some John Milton, from Book I of Paradise Lost: “The mind is its own place, and in itself/Can make a Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven.”

Second, Shakespeare: “O God, I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself a king of infinite space, were it not that I have bad dreams.” Hamlet, Act 2, Scene 2.

Following existential thought in general, and Paul Tillich (my favorite theologian) in particular, we argue that humans, as a matter of course and necessity, make meaning in the world. We do this by relating things to one another in their existential aspects and phenomena, creating those relationships through storytelling. The “secular” existentialists see this as the fundamental cause of “existential angst”–we fail to detect any inherent and objective meaning in the things which we observe and with which we interact. But the Christian existentialist takes this farther, first positing that there is ultimate and objective meaning that comes from God, though we may detect such only through divine revelation; and, second, marvelling at the great opportunity, pleasure, power and responsibility we have been given in co-creating with God by establishing meaning through our own narratives, big and small. This process, as a fundamental aspect of man’s existence, is clear from the beginning of Creation–is not Adam creating meaning and relationships by naming the creatures of the Earth?

Upon recognition of this divinely-granted human power, we must immediately recognize the source of sin–the creation of meanings and relationships that are not in line with God’s plan and intentions. Put bluntly, seeing and thinking about the world in the wrong way.

And this is what Jesus warns about in Matthew 5:28–it’s not sin only when you take action to commit adultery; if you have created a mental concept of existence that sees women merely as objects of your lust, that permits infidelity and betrayal for the most fleeting of passions, you’re doing it wrong and you’re already in a state of sinfulness. It’s not enough to refrain from the comission of the action; you must change the way you think about and see the world and how all the things in it relate to one another.

When we compare this concept to other moral teachings of Jesus, we find great support for it. Jesus usually seems to be less concerned about specific actions and more concerned with the ideologies, social structures, theologies and existential states that lead to those actions: “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.” When we think about sin existentially, sin becomes about relationships, results and intents, not arbitrary restrictions. This comports perfectly with the Greatest Commandments.

Just as the plain language of Jesus’s words make clear, this is a higher standard of morality than avoiding the consummation of unrighteous intents; it is war on unrighteous intent itself. And it makes perfect sense; if you fall into the trap of lusting after people in your mind, that objectification likely affects more than just the questions of adultery and fidelity. In many ways, such thought is about a reduction of the humanity of a person into a personification of of desire and temptation, an indulgence of the self by the self that only needs the other person as a tool of that self-indulgence. Once we’ve stripped such a person of their humanity, however small a slice we may cut away at a time, we will treat them differently, and not in a better way, though the injury to the person may be so subtle as to go generally unnoticed without deep introspection or close observation.

But to focus on just how fallen the idea that sin is existential and caused by our own ordering of our idea of Creation makes us is to miss the point. The strong implication, as Milton shows us, is that just as unrighteous narrative and mental/idealist/idealogical relationships make us sinful, righteous ones bring us closer to God. Every time we shift our conception of the world closer to God’s intention for those relationships as demonstrated in Jesus, we are both personally participating in the Kingdom of God and, as we pray for in the Lord’s Prayer, working to bring the Kingdom of God to Earth.

In simpler terms, Jesus is implicating here that we create our own reality. Again, not in some relativistic way, because God’s intention for Creation establishes objective truth, but in the way we personally interact with the world and believe it to be. We have been given an astounding power of sub-creation inherent to our free will, but we are also called to use that power to seek righteousness, to become, as Jesus later calls us to become in the Sermon on the Mount: Perfect, as our Father in Heaven is perfect.

The scope of the Sermon on the Mount is not a collection of warnings and prohibitions; it is a call to participate in the infinite joy of existence as a child of God by seeking to create the kinds of narratives and mental conceptions that God would have us create.

Ceci n’est pas un dieu.

One of my favorite paintings is “The Treachery of Images” by René Magritte, pictured below.

TreacheryofImages

Knowing that I’m an existentialist thinker and theologian, it should be clear why. If you do not read French or are not familiar with this painting, the text translates to, “This is not a pipe.” If your kneejerk response is, “Yes it is!” let it sink in another moment. You cannot smoke tobacco from this picture on a screen (or canvas). You cannot hold it in your hand or put it to your lips. It is not a pipe; it is a picture of a pipe. The two are neither fungible nor synonymous. If you’re working on home repairs and someone asks you for a flathead screwdriver and you give them a picture of one from a catalog, it’s not going to be a good day.

Hence the title of this post (in English: “This is not a god.”). For many fundamentalist or conservative evangelical Christians, the Bible is treated as if it is part of God–as if it is God. Or at least as if it should be treated as an absolute on par with God. Nowhere are the Scriptures proclaimed to be a part of the Trinity.

Theologian Karl Barth warned against making an idol of the Bible; this conflation of God and Scripture is exactly what he meant. I’ve often referenced in other posts his argument (with which I vehemently agree) that we ought to interpret all Scripture through the lens of the Living God, who is clearest to us in the person and life of Jesus Christ.

Scripture is either a living thing or a dead thing. By way of reference, many legal jurists approach the United States Constitution as a “living document.” That is to say that, when the Supreme Court makes a new ruling of law based upon Constitutional language, it is “discovering” a new way in which an old text manages to relate to modern legal needs and issues. This is perhaps the most amazing aspect of our Constitution–that despite its age it continues to apply to legal issues never foreseen by its drafters with relatively little change to its language over time. For instance, the Fourth Amendment continues to be applicable to searches conducted by cellphone intercepts and drone surveillance as it was to physical stops and searches in the 18th century.

So, when I say that the Bible is a living thing or a dead thing, I mean that either: (1) the Bible continues to be applicable to our lives in the present even though culture and society and the nature of human life has changed drastically from Biblical times (and partially because modern life and the long sweep of history have given us new lenses through which to understand the Bible); or, (2) the meaning of the Bible is not susceptible to any interpretation except that intended at the time it was first set to papyrus, vellum, parchment or whatever other medium was used to record the initial text (to the extent that we could ever hope to understand that original intent being so far removed from that time period).

Bear in mind that Jesus (described by John as the Living Word) tells us that “[God] is not the God of the dead but of the living” Matthew 22:32b.

I think, then, that we must view the Bible as a living text which we must interpret through the use of reason, our experiences and the revelation of God (which we would most likely interpret as the person of the Holy Spirit in such a case) acting upon us as we read. Admittedly, this is a patently Methodist approach (at least in terms of dogma), but I am sure that this idea is not restricted to merely one denomination–particularly because it seems to be so self-evidently truthful and there are so many intelligent theologians in other denominations (or perhaps none at all).

To do otherwise than to treat the Bible as a living text that must be interpreted–with the help of the Living Word of God in Jesus and the Spirit–devalues the profundity of the Scriptures and the ways in which disparate texts written over several centuries so often hang together so well (and, when they contradict, force us ultimately to the identity of Jesus for the answer). Thinking of the Bible as a dead, immutable thing, is in some sense a rejection of Paul’s claim that it is “God-breathed and … useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness…” 2 Timothy 3:16.

And paradoxically, thinking of the Bible as simple, literal and in need of no interpretation or evaluation inherently puts it on a level with God–the only thing in all Creation that is absolute. Though he rarely does, Jesus speaks plainly when he says that he is, “the way, the truth and the life” (John 14:6). This is not prescriptive language (as it is often assumed); it is descriptive language–a statement of fact. Because, as the beginning of John tells us, all things that are (that are not God) were created through Jesus as the Logos, Jesus is inherently the truth that stands behind all Creation and its meaning and purpose.

When we say things like, “God said it; I believe it; that settles it,” (nearly always employed as a conversation-killer after asserting a typically unquestioning and literal interpretation of Scripture), we elevate the Bible to the status of God. Never were the two intended to be equal; we should not equate one with the other. The Bible was co-created by man and by God; God is uncreated. The Bible seeks to bring the reader into relationship with God, but it is not that relationship.

Interestingly, this same argument has been going on in Islam–although overtly and avowedly–since at least the 9th century. Without delving too deeply into the details and nuance (which I’m not qualified to do), the Sunni majority in Islam (to the extent that it’s fair to say that all of Sunni Islam is a monolithic construct–which is to say not very) believes that the Qu’ran is uncreated and co-eternal with God. On the other hand, Shia Islam (subject to the same caveat applicable to Sunni Islam) believes that the Qu’ran is created by God and thus subordinate. As mentioned above, I am sure that there is much nuance here with which I am woefully ignorant, but the allegory with Christian approaches to the Bible should be readily apparent.

To take us full circle in this post, we must remain cognizant that we do not confuse the depiction with the thing it represents or communicates. That is, we must remain aware that the Bible’s value comes primarily from its tendency to draw us into relationship with the Living God rather than its ability to simplify and define existential realities for us. Is there truth in the Bible? Very much. Is it always easy to get to? No; we must have faith in God to bridge the gap.

This is understandably a very uncomfortable thing–such a position necessarily introduces ambiguity and insecurity into our understanding of theological principles. On the one hand, the Bible does seem to be clear about the most important aspect of God: love. It is also clear that by the pursuit of sacrificial love we will come to better understand the Living God. And in that sense, our theological niceties are mere luxuries in the face of following Jesus; at best our doctrines and dogmas are explorations of what it means to love God and our neighbors.

At the same time, such an approach must necessarily create within us a sense of theological humility–an epistemological pessimism that should help us to avoid putting our theological convictions ahead of actually loving one another. When we see the Bible as God, or as equally positioned with God, we may use it to justify some extremely unloving behavior. Again, let us not confuse the appearance of faith, piety and love with the things themselves.

History and Historicity

I wrote in a recent post about some of the difficulties with issues of history and historicity in the Old Testament I’ve had in preparing for my impending journey to Israel. Having had some time to clarify my thoughts, I thought I’d share them.

First, I want to focus on an exemplum of my thoughts and then I’ll speak more generally. Let’s begin with the Bablyonian Captivity. Or, rather, a little bit before that.

In 1 Kings 18, the prophet Elijah confronts Ahab, the monarch of the Kingdom of Israel, on Mount Carmel in a rather memorable set of contests. Really, Elijah is confronting the worship of Baal in the Kingdom of Israel here, but Ahab is culpable for allowing the Israelites to stray from the worship of Yahweh alone.

The four-hundred and fifty prophets of Baal are asked to pick between two bulls brought to the mountain, to cut it to pieces and to smoke if over a fire; Elijah–as Yahweh’s sole remaining prophet–will do the same with the other. Then they will each call upon their respective gods and see who “shows up.” As the Baalite priests beseech their god, they get no response. With memorable taunts (Maybe your god is sleeping and needs to be awakened? Maybe he’s traveling? Maybe he’s busy defecating?), Elijah insults Baal’s prophets until it comes time for him to beseech Yahweh. When he does, the Israelite God sends his “fire” down to earth to light the prepared wood, burn up the bull carcass and the stones, soil and water prepared around the altar. After this, the priests of Baal are slaughtered by the gathered people.

I’m not actually interested in the historicity of this particular story but in what it tells us about the culture of the time (Ahab’s existence is attested outside of the Bible and he was probably king of Israel around the middle of the 9th Century BCE). As we find in the cultures surrounding Isreal-Palestine at that time, gods were viewed to be local; they were the gods of particular cities or nations. We see this explicit in other places even in the Bible, where the Isrealite God states that “he” is the God of Israel (hence the epithet “Israelite God,” I suppose).

What’s happening between the lines in this passage in Kings is a divine turf war. Baal (which is a title that means “lord” and which is borne by several distinct deity figures and used generally to mean “a god”) is a god of the Phoenicians in the city of Tyre. If you look on a map of Biblical Israel, you’ll see that Tyre is on the coast of the Mediterranean Sea (on an island, actually) just a short journey north from Mount Carmel. The question being answered by Elijah’s story is, roughly put, “If Baal is the god of Tyre, and Yahweh is the god of Israel, and they’re both geographically close to one another, which has dominion in the middle ground?” Clearly the answer is Yahweh.

I mention the above passage because it sets us up for the real point about history and historicity in the Old Testament that I want to make in this post. When in the (very early) 6th Century BCE the Babylonians under Nebuchadnezzer sacked Jerusalem and deported the Israelites to Bablyon, a crisis of faith occurred. Again, as a brief aside, this event is attested in the historical record outside of the Bible. If the Israelites were to worship the God of (the nation/land) Israel, how could they do that when they’d been transported to Babylon, the land of the Babylonian gods.

And here comes the prophet Ezekiel. In the verses that open the book that bears his name, Ezekiel tells us that he has a vision of God while among the exiled Israelites in Babylon “on the banks of the Kebar River.”

In this vision, as the Biblical historian Cynthia R. Chapman says, “God gets wheels.” Literally; Ezekiel sees God enthroned upon what I can’t help thinking of as a super-high-tech, four-likeness-of-living-creature-powered motorized wheelchair. That strange image aside, the point of the vision is that the God of Israel is mobile, that God is personally and actually present with the Israelites even in their exile. As a side note, my NIV says that Ezekiel is taken back to the “Kebar River near Tel Aviv”–this should be read as Tel Abib (in modern-day Iraq) by the Chebar River.

Hearing about the underlying spiritual-cultural concerns with regards to these (and other) Old Testament passages did much to “resolve” my problem of “historicity” in the OT (for purposes of this post, I have left aside all of the issues of the construction of the Old Testament text–whether discussion of the three hypotheses of its construction or the timing of its creation).

What I find here is something that makes much more sense to me than either extreme of the historicity debate–humans writing stories of their evolving understanding of and relationship with God. These stories are neither entirely myth nor entirely history; they are stories that draw upon historical experience (and the religious issues raised by that experience), mythological content that may or may not be based in fact (I’m not worried about the answer to that), revelation of the nature of God from God (there’s that spirit-breathed bit), and human reactions and struggles in response to that revelation.

I see this especially as the Israelite understanding of the nature of God breaks free from social precedent and evolves from polytheism to henotheism to true monotheism.

In some ways, what we have in the Old Testament is the macrocosm of Jacob’s struggle with God at Penuel–a back and forth between God and man that may defy explanation but results in relationship.

Does that make interpreting the Bible difficult? Absolutely; I don’t have an answer for you on how we best sort God’s intent from the voice of the writers from the historical record from the cultural context, etc. But I’m certainly willing to say that it’s not supposed to be easy. I can’t imagine that God would decide not to directly appear before all people in an unmistakeable way (which, to be clear, God hasn’t) and yet make Biblical interpretation something as simple as looking at words verbatim.

In the near future, I’m going to return to the Babylonian captivity and the Book of Job to talk a bit about theodicy in Christianity.

 

The God Who Chooses Us

It’s Advent, and I’ve been thinking about the Incarnation (no surprise there).  I am less concerned with the “how” of the Incarnation and more concerned with the “why.” My faith in the sovereignty of God means that I believe that God could have invented all manner of possible solutions to the problem of sin (not that we humans have intellect sufficient to speculate very effectively about what those infinite possibilities might be).

Nevertheless, there can be no doubt that the Incarnation tells us something about the nature, purpose and personality of God. What I find in exploring these issues is one of the most profound aspects of my faith, one I’d like to share with you.

Let’s begin with the question of God’s “passibility.” This is often defined as “the ability of God to suffer,” but this is not entirely correct. The truer definition of passibility is “the ability of God to be affected by some force or influence external to God’s self.” In plainer terms: can something make God be or feel a certain thing or do a certain thing?

The question is important because it presupposes a problem: If God is “passible” there is something in the universe that is more powerful than God because it can overcome God in some way, challenging God’s sovereignty. On the other hand, if God is “impassible” and cannot be affected by any external thing, can God feel sympathy with us? Does God “feel” anything, since feelings are responses caused (at least sometimes) by external forces?

This is perhaps the most fundamental question of theology–can God be both sovereign and good? If the answer is yes, then the basic nature of existence should be one of hope. If not, despair. All aspects of theology are influenced by the answer to this question. In theodicy, the question of evil only exists in such a troublesome state if God is both good and all-powerful. If not, we have an easy explanation for the existence of evil. The meaning of scripture, of the working out of salvation, of the Incarnation, all of these turn on this answer.

Let me propose that there actually is no problem in the question of passibility, though what the solution tells us is nothing short of amazing in its furtherance of the understanding of our God. We affirm that God is sovereign over all things and cannot be unwillingly affected by something external to God’s self. But if God cannot allow God’s self to be affected by some external factor, than God would not be sovereign, for God could not overcome God’s self. The God who cannot self determine is not impassible.

So, it does not follow that the all-powerful God is not good or cannot feel–God has chosen to be good and God has chosen to feel, to be affected by God’s Creation. To be in active and meaningful relationship with all of Creation.

The theologian Thomas Jay Oord has very convincingly argued exactly this–that God is impassible but has affirmatively chosen to suffer with us. For me, though, the realization of this came from G.K. Chesterton’s Orthodoxy:

“Christianity is the only religion on earth that has felt that omnipotence made God incomplete. Christianity alone felt that God, to be wholly God, must have been a rebel as well as a king. Alone of all creeds, Christianity has added courage to the virtues of the Creator…But in the terrific tale of the Passion there is a distinct emotional suggestion that the author of all things (in some unthinkable way) went not only through agony, but through doubt. It is written, ‘Thou shalt not tempt the Lord thy God.’ No; but the Lord the God may tempt Himself; and it seems as if this was what happened in Gethsemane. In a garden, Satan tempted man; and in a garden God tempted God. He passed in some superhuman manenr through our human horror of pessimism. When the world shook and the sun was wiped out of heaven, it was not at the crucifixion, but at the cry from the cross: the cry which confessed that God was forsaken of God….”

The Incarnation and the crucifixion represent God’s choice about so many aspects of existence. Much has been written about its meaning as God’s choice to redeem humanity (I, personally, favor Karl Barth for this investigation and discussion), but I think that far too little has been put to paper (or screen as the case may be) about what the Incarnation says about God’s justice.

In the Incarnation we see God’s choice of (semi-)passibility as one of the few answers to the problem of evil that we humans can actually understand: No matter what suffering God has allowed to befall humanity, no matter why this suffering has been allowed (which we are ultimately incapable of explaining), God is so just as to not allow God’s creation to suffer anything that God will not suffer with us in the most personal and intimate of ways.

In Christ’s birth, we see God’s choice to be with us, not just physically, but existentially. How amazing is it that the God of all Creation willingly suffers with us for us. God is all-powerful; God has chosen to be good to infinite extents we cannot possibly imagine.

I invite you to keep this in your heart as we await the Christ child.