Saturday’s Stray Thoughts

Another week concluding, another opportunity to look back on what we’ve done to extend God’s story and to think about places where it’s interpretive power can shed light in a darkened world. As always, feel free to raise and wave your digital hand if any of the thoughts strike you as worthy of exploration.

I am going to break from my customary practice of not posting on Sunday. Palm Sunday will begin a week of posts reflecting on the passion of our Lord. One of the goals will be to see his humanity made perfect in the things he suffered, as it is shockingly stated in Heb. 2:10. I hope you’ll follow along and invite others to do the same.

If you want to see a picture of release from bondage in human experience, look carefully at the face of Jonathan, the British 17 year-old now made famous by his stunning performance on Britain’s Got Talent. It has become wildly successful on YouTube, much as Susan Boyle did a couple of years ago. It’s worth a listen just for the beauty of this seriously overweight teenager’s voice. I’m quite sure that God hasn’t given many such voices to human males, and when one is heard it needs to be appreciated. What is also striking is that this young man has been subjected to, and undoubtedly damaged by taunts and teasings all of his life, making him quite shy. But the freedom to express himself that came along with the audience’s wild cheers created a palpable joy that to my mind was as good to behold as his voice was to hear. And maybe even better. What Christ wants to do in all of us—yeah, it’s like that.

From the sublime to the mundane (literally). It is looking more and more likely that Mitt Romney will be the Republican nominee for president this year. Count me among the non-enthusiastic. In my cynical moments I see a presidential choice between a philosophy that believes government should manage more and more of our lives and one that believes major businesses should be free to do whatever they need to do to be successful, regardless of the effects on the rest of the people, continuing the ever-accelerating concentration of wealth into fewer hands. In reality, both of those things are happening, and have been happening under the watch of either party. Sometimes rhetoric really does obscure the facts of the matter. Once again, what is the vision of the public good? Is politics just about protection from the bad guys on one hand and freeing us to make money on the other? Would this be a time for a Christian political vision? Where would it come from? Just asking.

On this subject, there is an excellent new book by Marilyn Robinson, When I Was a Child I read Books. In the Preface, she cites some of Walt Whitman’s observations from the nineteenth century. They are exceedingly relevant in our moment:

“America, if eligible at all to downfall and ruin, is eligible within herself, not without; for I see clearly that the combined foreign world could not beat her down. But these savage, wolfish parties alarm me. Owning no law but their own will, more and more combative, less and less tolerant of the idea of ensemble and of equal brotherhood, the perfect equality of the States, the ever-overarching American Ideas, it behooves you to convey yourself implicitly to no party, nor submit blindly to their dictators, but steadily hold yourself judge and master over all of them.”

Among Robinson’s points is that such an assessment of things was given in 1870; and our continued presence as a nation shows that giving in to the despair that might be elicited from such a view of things is not the right way to go today, even as it proved not to be so 140 years ago. But she also warns that our conception of human nature today is in danger of being so completely defined by group identity that many are incapable of taking control of their own judgment. I’ve only read the preface; she got me intrigued for the essays that follow.

The season of Lent is moving toward its climax. I’m curious as to how many of our “evangelical” churches are planning a robust Palm Sunday? I’m afraid to ask how many have been holding Lent observances of any meaningful kind. Maundy Thursday? Good Friday? The forms by which we mark these days may well change, and that is all quite as it should be; but the events are integral parts of the story we tell and cannot be neglected without cost to our understanding and experience of life in Christ.

Thanks for reading. Hosanna!

What Do I Believe?

It’s a confusing religious landscape today. That is not necessarily new or newsworthy in itself, but there does seem to be greater doctrinal confusion and/or indifference than may have been the case previously. There’s more syncretism, more openness to compromise, more throwing of hands into the air in disgust—none of which has dispelled our confusion. Instead of leading to greater unity, however, there are some indicators that Christians in different camps no longer understand each other’s language, song, or worship, and sometimes wonder about the Christian status of the other.

There are statements about God, statements about our standing and purpose as humans, statements about our problems and our prospects that I prefer to some of their alternatives; hopefully, that preference has more to do with measuring their truth value than with what I simply find more comforting and reassuring. There are other statements that seem to me to be inseparable from claims to the name Christian. But this second set of statements is more limited than the first.

The second set, the ideas without which Christianity becomes something else regardless of the name one attaches to it, comprise what I believe in the strong sense of the term. That is, in a manner spoken by Augustine a very long time ago, these are things I/we believe on the basis of sufficient testimony and evidence and become themselves a way of knowing other things. In other words, we have sufficient reason to look at the world through the lenses they provide. This is a stronger sense of belief than I may have regarding other statements, even though I think they may be the best of the available options. Others may judge differently about them without denying what Christians believe in the strong sense.

I differ from some other believers on matters such as creation and even the nature of the new creation; on how it is that people demonstrate the presence of the Holy Spirit; on the precise meaning of terms such as sanctification; on appropriate worship practices, the nature of the sacraments, the structure of the church, the manner in which the Bible is to be appropriated for today’s living, and a host of other things. I do not count those who hold the alternatives to be non-Christian, even if I believe them to be mistaken in choosing them. I trust they will conclude the same about me.

So what do I believe in the strong sense, so strongly that I do not hesitate to take it as not only a legitimate but a necessary worldview foundation, even as an epistemological starting point? It’s not arbitrary. Christians have said they do this for centuries. It goes something like this:

<strong We believe in one God,
the Father, the Almighty,
maker of heaven and earth,
of all that is, seen and unseen.
We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ,
the only Son of God,
eternally begotten of the Father,
God from God, Light from Light,
true God from true God,
begotten, not made,
of one Being with the Father.
Through him all things were made.
For us and for our salvation
he came down from heaven:
by the power of the Holy Spirit
he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary,
and was made man.
For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate;
he suffered death and was buried.
On the third day he rose again
in accordance with the Scriptures;
he ascended into heaven
and is seated at the right hand of the Father.
He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead,
and his kingdom will have no end.

We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life,
who proceeds from the Father and the Son.
With the Father and the Son he is worshiped and glorified.
He has spoken through the Prophets.
We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church.
We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.
We look for the resurrection of the dead,
and the life of the world to come. Amen.

I’m just one small part of the we, a group that includes many who do not accept the validity of creeds at all, yet have no argument with the articles herein contained. I pray all who read this are similarly part of “we” who believe in the strongest, life affirming sense.

Made To Do What? Conclusion

We’ve been looking at what it is that God set before us to do as human beings. These tasks set us apart because they are tasks belonging to the image of God. Therefore, we think, work, and dance.

Something went wrong, however. Christian doctrine has always affirmed the fallenness of all humanity, not because it is intellectually agreeable or precisely definable, but because it is undeniable in experience. Pascal said it was the most incomprehensible doctrine, yet without it we cannot comprehend ourselves; Chesterton (following a Wesleyan argument) said it was nonetheless the most empirically verifiable truth in the world. Produce the person who has never failed to do what was known by that person’s own conscience–not an external code–to be right, or has never done what conscience knew to be wrong. If so, the doctrine is in some small jeopardy. But that is for another day; what I’m interested in here is the effect on our thinking, working, and dancing enacted by our own sin and the sins of others.

Sin disenables us to see and reason rightly, as well as discouraging us from acknowledging our errors of thought even when brought before us. Work is attended with difficulties, not only because of weeds and crooked lumber, but because of the difficulty we have in communicating with one another and cooperating through the fog of egos, insecurities, distrusts, etc. Our dominion is exercised over one another rather than strictly over nature, and even in that arena, it is done more for glory of self than of God. We dance to strange tunes, before gods of our own making, or maybe simply by ourselves. The movements are strained not flowing, individually focused not corporately, and produce clumsy falls not graceful, heavenward reaches.

The incarnation is a doctrine about the humanity of Jesus; it demonstrates God’s clear judgment that it is not wrong to be human, but it is wrong to be so sinfully, selfishly, guardedly. As a human, he thought, worked, and danced in the way of flesh and blood people, but did so as intended. His death, resurrection, and ascension overcame our failings, inaugurated a new regime on the earth, into which we are invited to participate in and through the Holy Spirit. That new regime, the kingdom, operates differently. It is the place where thinking, working, and dancing with one another and with God are renewed possibilities. We pray for it, and when we do so we also acknowledge that it is God’s own, not ours.

We are set to do what we could not do before. We become again and for the first time God’s agents. His icons. His symbols. Follow Jesus to the feast (John 7); on the “last and greatest day,” he announced that springs of water would flow from those who believe. Not into, not onto, not around, but from. It would refresh the parched ones. That’s what we have been remade to do–refresh, replenish, reorient, renew. A faith that has us waiting around until another world comes along to give us our real significance misses this; and when it does, we continue to think little, work aimlessly and dance grotesquely. That’s not what we’re made to do.

Made To Do What? Part 3

What else is there for the creature called human to do? Thinking and working (including, of course, caring for bodily needs), cover a wide array of mental and physical activity; and they cover the greater part of what many people believe to be the distinguishing marks of our species.

But it is also true that many of those same people feel unfulfilled in their thinking and doing. What’s missing? What is there that we were made to do, without which we cannot truly thrive? The answer, I suggest, could very well be divided into two parts, but I am combining them because I believe them to be inseparable. The pieces may be summarized by the terms representing and worshipping; the whole of which they are parts is dancing. Yes, that begs for explanation.

Representing has to do with the manner in which we go about our thinking and our working; it is imitation of the Creator that humans are to go about the business of continuing the work given to them. We look and we respond according to what we see and hear. We act toward other creatures in a way consistent with the One who made both them and us; we take great care in what we do, acting in a stewarding capacity. There is one toward whom we gaze in order to do rightly the tasks he has given, whether in finding that good gold in Havilah or in artistically representing what we see in the work of our hands. In order to represent Him, we must see God, and we see Him in the fellowship of worship—the reverent passing of time in His presence. Passing, not wasting. Investing that precious commodity, not killing it.

Why do I refer to this as dancing? There is a term used in the ancient church to express the trinitarian relationships of persons, Father, Son, and Spirit. The term is perichoresis, in which one can see a portion of our word choreography. It was used to speak about how the Father and Son and Spirit interact with one another. As in a dance, partners respond to one another, moving together yet separately, the dance being at once a unitary movement, yet only as the result of what each participant contributes to and receives from the others. In creating people in the image of God—a trinity, not a solitary person—we too were made to act and be acted upon, to initiate and respond, to create something in union with others that is far richer than solitary existence. “It is not good for the man to be alone.”

We were made to dance with God himself, an astounding concept, but one confirmed by Jesus in his High Priestly Prayer in John 17. His express desire is that we be drawn into the unity which he knew “from the beginning,” and longed to return to and longed to bring us into. We were intended to create as God creates, and to offer, in union with others, the gifts we produce from this earth—towers, jetliners, concertos, and poetry; gardens, houses, love songs, and paintings—and offer them back to Him, receiving His smile and nod of joyful approval, returning us to make even more, even better things from the earth.

All of this set before we us; but we refused the dance.

Saturday (Night’s) Stray Thoughts

Lots of things going on in the world and in the land of blog. So much that I was tempted to skip the post today to concentrate on other things—like the IRS 1040. But a former student mentioned in an email that “Stray Thoughts” has been an enjoyable feature to read; she even provided a few links on subjects, some of which I’ll hold for another occasion.

March for Reason
I am waiting with decidedly unbated breath for reports on the march in Washington today (March 24). It was formed by a few atheists and featured Richard Dawkins speaking in honor of the recently deceased Christopher Hitchens, all in an attempt at rallying people of non-theistic mindsets. The trumpet call was that of reason, and the hope was that it could be an opportunity to be seen as nice, non-caustic representatives of those who have no faith, but do have a heart. (Non-caustic and Richard Dawkins would seem a bit of a stretch, but I’m willing to give him the chance at reforming—I live by faith after all). It’s the premise itself that is so old and worn out: faith and reason have nothing to do with one another, and a thinking person must choose reason in order to be taken seriously. No faith involved in assuming chance plus time yields a world containing reasoning beings? Come now, you’ll have to do a little better in order to claim the intellectual high ground. Another part of the rallying cry is for the heart of non-theists to be demonstrated, especially through altruism. That’s a great idea; I have no interest in claiming that non-believers do not have a heart or an ability to care about others; I do think they are incapable of providing a solid accounting for its existence.

On the Political Trail
Will he or won’t he? Will Mitt Romney have enough delegates to win the Republican nomination before the convention? It seems many pundits question whether he can win the nomination at the convention if he doesn’t win it beforehand—all the more reason to talk about inevitability in his camp. Rick Santorum, meanwhile, seems to have a problem with evangelicals, in that he can’t live with them and he can’t live without them. One thing for certain is that his staffers will need to do a better job at choosing those with whom he will share a platform, as last week he was introduced by a very zealous God-and-country, good vs. evil pastor who was sure where the Lord stood in this election. Backtracking without disaffecting is tricky business for a candidate in second place.

Health Care Debate
Aside from the blistering attacks given by Republican candidates, “Obama Care” may get a very deliberate scrutiny by the Supreme Court. Reports have been circulating across the internet, citing real or fabricated clauses in the 2,000+ pages that if true would be of real concern. We have all heard about the abortion and contraceptives controversies. I find it interesting that feminist groups want the government to stay out of the privacy of their bedrooms when it comes to abortion on one hand, also want the government to be there to provide contraceptives at public cost on the other hand. All of which raises what ought to be a concern for all of us: just how much do we want government involved in heath care at all? Something is amiss when children cannot take aspirin or cough syrup without explicit parental consent, but can be taken across state lines for a surgical procedure called abortion without ever being told about it. That, in my opinion, is the unavoidable consequence of a politicized state running what ought to be a private concern—our health. And it is not without great cost that we do such things. In separate reports it was mentioned that Americans pay an average of $7500 per person for health care; in England, it is $3500. Or in Singapore, heath care costs 7% of income; in the U.S., it’s 17%. Are we really that much healthier?

Blogging, Twittering, and Making a Difference
I’ve been reading a few blogs, including an always interesting one from a former student, which dare to raise questions such as why people do this sort of thing. Is the need really there, as far as lives into which these few words speak in a way that encourages new ways of thinking, calls old ones into question, and spurs more deliberative approaches to the living of a faithful Christian life? Or do we just like to hear ourselves think, foolishly believing that writing or speaking a few words can substitute for getting out and actually doing something? Do we write for ourselves or for others? I’m not always confident of giving the right answers to those questions. Maybe we should, while we’re at it, ask why people read what bloggers write. Feel free to answer.

A Season Misspent
I realized belatedly that I have not really paid attention to Lent this year in the manner in which I have in the past. Daily posting of the season have not been the pattern, for which I should repent. There will be reflections during Holy Week, beginning Palm Sunday, which will stay specifically on that week of our Lord’s Passion.

Made To Do What? Part 2

As suggested in Part 1, it should be unacceptable for Christians to have only as much interest in the first few chapters of Genesis as is needed to prove all the secularists wrong and to demonstrate that we are here only to be saved for another world. Yet we all know that this happens, often with an arrogance and closed-mindedness that befits the stereo-types we find so offensive. We can and must do better, not only in order to bear witness to the Maker of heaven and earth, but in oder to do what we were created to do in the first place.

My premise here is that the third chapter of Genesis, however it is read, does not negate the second chapter. It does explain why the mandates of chapter two (and the end of chapter one) are attended with great difficulty; but it does not nullify the significance of carrying out what people were given to do in the first place. Whatever literal (whatever that means) or metaphorical significance there is in the garden, the trees, the cherubim guardians, and the fiery revolving sword, Adam was a working being before and after the disaster of disobedience.

What sorts of work are included in the mandate? Certainly agriculture is prominent. But much more is implied. Have you noticed the mention of gold, bdellium, and lapis lazuli. What is the point if they were not meant to be mined, refined, and used in some fashion? The narrative even bothers to mention the quality of gold in one specific location, which indicates an interest in the recipients of the command having the wherewithal to find said place and travel there. Naming and distinguishing the riches of the earth, the bounty of the fields, and even the living creatures are among the tasks to which God has set mankind to engage in ways that both honored the Maker, continued the work of developing the planet, and providing significance to the one called Adam but typifying all who would come after him. The nature of the tasks set before him are clearly more appropriately understood as corporate, cooperative endeavors than as individual tasks. Agronomy, biology, animal husbandry, geology, geography, physics, chemistry, and on and on—all of them more than necessary evils engaged to make a living; they are ways of doing what we were made to do.

How do we work? In the image of the Creator, who made things methodically, purposively, beautifully—and well. At least that is the creative intent. We learn of the planning, the ordering, the doing, and the assessment of work as carried out by God in the first chapter. The beings carrying His image and likeness are then set about to doing things in like manner. Craftsmanship, artistry, care, and satisfaction with one’s product are to characterize the work we all do.

There are many implications of our being thinking and working beings from our very beginning as a race of specially designed creatures. One of the most telling, especially for those of us in a conservative Christian tradition, is that we are not doing something less than the best when we are given to careers in “non-spiritual” activities. Our giftedness is not unspiritual when it lies in creating things. Our value does not rise when we work “for the church” instead of “in the world.” We should be fulfilled in doing the work God has given us to do; and as managers and employers of other workers it should be recognized that each of them bears the same image and dignity.

Question: how well do we do at encouraging and equipping people to do the things they were made to do, and how might we do it better? There is a time, place and necessity for talking about what our fallenness does to our response to what we were made to do; but let’s try to understand that purpose first; it might give us some clues as to what redemption is for.

Made To Do What? Part 1

There has been much rethinking about the Christian message going on in recent years. It is likely to continue into the foreseeable future (which, of course, is itself an ever-shortening period). Questions concerning the nature of the Bible, its purpose, its origins, its interpretation, its authority are all very important; questions about the nature of justification have been rekindled recently; the status of unevangelized and even of evangelized and unconverted people have come up again in recent discussions; the meaning Genesis is under scrutiny as more and more Christians find traditional interpretations difficult to square with what seems to be indisputable evidence from science pointing in a different direction. And all that and more comes from within the evangelical tent.

It can be very tempting to say “just give me Jesus,” and let the questions go without further thought. On one hand, that simple formula might be taken as our call to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God; it’s Jesus’ way of doing life. On the other hand, any version of Jesus we wish to be given is undeniably filtered through a way of using the word about him, the people who speak it to us, the culture in which we hear of him, and a host of other factors both personal and sociological. Even in the interpretation of Jesus, we seem at times to be choosing between interpreting Jesus in light of our way of looking at life or pretending that there are no factors of time and culture between the Jesus of the New Testament and our 21st century lives.

All of which ought to make us a great deal more humble about our assertions than is often the case. We encounter everything from a particular perspective and learn best when we hear from other starting points. Contrary to some people’s opinions, however, we are not entirely bound by our starting points; we can engage those from other cultures and learn from them, especially from within the Christian framework, but also from outside on the biblical assumption of a common humanity. But humility in our conclusions is not the same as disinterest in our thinking. We do have minds, we have been given both natural and special revelation, and we do share an interest in finding our way toward the truth about things. We can’t be otherwise. Even those who have given up the search for truth due to the many barriers that guard our way to it cannot help but make assumptions about the way things are. We are made to think, and we will do it, although it may be done very poorly and inadequately. Yet think we must.

What do we think about? Our needs, survival, protection—to be sure, a significant portion of the human race is occupied with these matters for most of their lives. But we also think about our future, about our origins, and about such things as purpose and meaning, legacy and posterity. We think about what we make, what we want to make and what we have made that we wish we had not. And we think much about what has gone wrong, or at least about what prevents us from having the kinds of lives that we intuitively expect to have. Why are things not different? And when we think in this way we seldom ask the opposite—why are things not worse than they are? What’s up with that?

Christian theology/philosophy (should there be a distinction?) must provide some sort of stable-yet-tentative answers toward these questions. We cannot sum up human existence by suggesting that the only thing we need to know about human beings is that we are sinners worthy of judgment who saved by grace in Jesus. This begs too many questions to even begin, yet it seems to be all that is on offer in all too many simplistic versions of “the gospel.” For starters, why were we made in the first place? You might offer an answer to that one, or take the safer route and say, “this is what I’ve heard.”

Tis is the first post in a series that asks who we are, what kind of beings God said were made in His image and likeness. The first answer suggested here is that we are thinking beings. We should not wish to be otherwise.