Moral Blindness

Posted: March 21st, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Faith | Tags: , , , , | Comments Off on Moral Blindness

This past weekend I was reading a column in a publication. I thought about naming the publication and the author and perhaps looking for an online version of the column to link, but I decided that would not be helpful. I don’t know anything about the author and don’t wish my thoughts to be taken as personally directed at him. I think the thoughts I’ll explore in this post could sometimes apply to all of us, myself included. And by not naming the source, I’ll also avoid the sort of preconceived gut reaction many people have to various organizations and institutions.

With that said, it was a column discussing how people can reach a point of moral blindness. The first step on that path, according to the author, was a perspective of false moral equivalence, where we perceive acts of differing moral failures as qualitatively equal. And it was in that portion of his column that something caught my eye. His illustration of a false moral equivalence was treating flying planes into buildings as equally evil as, and I quote, the “humiliating treatment of Moslem prisoners by American soldiers.”

Excuse me? Isn’t that a euphemism for torture?

That one statement cast the entire column in a surreal light. Basically the author was lecturing his readers about moral blindness while exposing one of his own massive areas of moral blindness.  (Or more realistically, he was writing to an audience of mostly like minds about the moral blindness of those ‘others‘.) It was such a perfect illustration of the speck and log problem Jesus described I was blown away. Yes, I’m sure I have many such areas in my own life. I believe we all do. But we truly can’t see our logs blinding us even as we point out the specks in the eyes of others.

For the record, I personally find the institutional (or even individual, for that matter) use of torture morally equivalent to terrorist acts of destruction and murder. They are both evil. Moreover, when Christians employ or defend either, we betray the one we supposedly call Lord. Yes, there are greater and lesser evils and sometimes the only option left open to our will is which evil we will choose. But evil is still evil. And neither torture nor initiating acts of violence are ever necessary. They can never, thus, be the lesser evil.

Sadly, I’m probably one of the few who read that column who didn’t nod along in agreement and outrage as I read. I’m almost certainly one of the few jarred by the phrase I quoted above. And I have no prescription for a remedy to the situation. We need to pray. We need to focus on our sins and weep for them. And we need to love.

But that’s what we’ve always needed to do. The problem, as I see it, is that most of the time we don’t.


Four Hundred Texts on Love (Third Century) 24

Posted: March 20th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: St. Maximos the Confessor | Tags: , , , , | Comments Off on Four Hundred Texts on Love (Third Century) 24

54.  One should not be startled or astonished because God the Father judges no one but has given all judgment to the Son (cf. John 5:22). The Son teaches us, ‘Do not judge, so that you may not be judged’ (Matt. 7:1); ‘Do not condemn, so that you may not be condemned’ (Luke 6:37). St Paul likewise says, ‘Judge nothing before the time, until the Lord comes’ (1 Cor. 4:5); and ‘By judging another you condemn yourself’ (Rom. 2:1). But men have given up weeping for their own sins and have taken judgment away from the Son. They themselves judge and condemn one another as if they were sinless. ‘Heaven was amazed at this’  (Jer. 2:12. LXX) and earth shuddered, but men in their obduracy are not ashamed.

This was not merely a problem in St. Maximos’ time; it continues to be a deep and enduring problem for Christians, especially today. And we treat it as though our condemnation of each other were a minor thing, when in fact we not only condemn ourselves, but heaven stands amazed and the earth shudders. It seems our condemnation of each other, rather than love, has cosmic ramifications, note merely personal ones.

Of course, we do have to speak for the good and expose evil and the way of death. But we must start by weeping for our sins and we must never judge ourselves better than another. In some sense, I think we must almost speak against evil in a way that confesses our own shared culpability in it. If we loved fully and more constantly, evil would hold less sway than it does.

However it might look if we did this well (and frankly it stretches my imagination), I’m certain we do it poorly today.


Thirsting for God 18 – The Saints

Posted: January 26th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Thirsting for God | Tags: , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Thirsting for God 18 – The Saints

This series is reflecting on Matthew Gallatin’s book, Thirsting for God in a Land of Shallow Wells.

Resurrection and the renewal of all things lie at the very center of the Christian faith. Christ has defeated death through his death and Resurrection and it is no longer the nature of man to die. The New Testament resounds with the proclamation of salvation through union with Christ and with the promise that those who are in Christ will never die. We will never see death. We will never taste death.

For that reason, it’s been the tradition of the Church, already established by the time the New Testament was written, to say that Christians have fallen asleep or reposed in the Lord. Paul writes that to sleep in the body is to be with Christ, which is far better. We aren’t told much about the period between the time our still mortal bodies repose and the general Resurrection of the Dead, but it is clear that we continue to live in Christ.

With that said, the attitude of many modern Protestant Christians toward those who have reposed in Christ is almost an outright refutation and denial of the core of Christian faith. Some relegate those who have reposed in the body to a sort of soul sleep which bears a closer resemblance to the ancient experience of death or to the fairy tale of Sleeping Beauty than anything recognizably Christian. Others agree that those who sleep in the body are conscious and with Christ, but then proceed to place them at a far remove from us — as if Christ were someplace distant rather than with us always, even unto the end of the age. No, if those who have reposed are with Christ and if Christ is with us, then truly a great cloud of witnesses surrounds us as we are told in Hebrews. Heaven is not distant. Though presently veiled, it is as close as our next breath, overlapping and interlocking with our sensible reality.

If that is not true, then as far as I can tell, there is no reason to be Christian.

So ultimately, the difference between an Orthodox Christian and a Protestant, with regard to the saints or in any other matter, is essentially this: In all things, we Orthodox Christians see the world through Jesus’ eyes, and not our own. He sees our departed brethren as alive and joined with us in worship of Him. Thus, we must see them that way, and act toward them accordingly.

Those who have fallen asleep in the Lord can and do pray for us as much or more as those who have not. And we are certainly able to pray for all those who have reposed — even though we may not know their disposition toward God — because it is no longer in the nature of mankind to die. And it makes even more sense to honor or venerate those who were martyred for Christ or lived holy lives than it does to honor the great Christians who are still among us in the body.

Perhaps this distortion of Christian faith and practice within Protestantism is one of the reasons so many modern Christians are vulnerable to alternative ideas about reality such as reincarnation or the various practices of spiritism. I don’t know. But it would not surprise me if there were indeed a connection.


Ancient Texts 1 – Oral Culture

Posted: December 22nd, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Faith | Tags: , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Ancient Texts 1 – Oral Culture

I’ve noticed over the years that many of the ways that modern Christians discuss and employ the Bible are highly anachronistic. In this series, I’ll reflect on the nature of ancient texts in general and the Christian Holy Scriptures in particular. I was going to do it in a single post, but then I realized that would be a long post even by my standards. At a minimum, this series will help me organize my own thoughts on the topic. It’s possible others will find it interesting as well.

Before we even begin looking at the specific ways texts functioned in the ancient world, we have to step back and look at the culture in which they were embedded. While ancient cultures varied greatly, they did all share one feature. They were oral cultures. We live in a highly literate culture so it can be difficult for us to imagine what that means.

First, it does not refer to how many people in the culture can read or write. That varied wildly. At some times and in some places, hardly anyone could read or write at all. In other times and places a large percentage of the population could read and write at least to some extent. Homer and Plato, despite their great literary works, developed them in the context of an oral culture. The primary feature of an oral culture is that forms of speech are the means of encoding and conveying knowledge across space and time. Oral cultures tend to have as many specialized forms of speech as we have literary forms.

Moreover, when the cultural means of conveying and preserving information is different, our brains actually adapt themselves to the task. We’ve learned a lot by studying members of some of the remaining oral cultures today. In an oral culture, our capacity to store large amounts of orally encoded information almost verbatim expands tremendously. Moreover, we become highly attuned to nuances of speech. As long as the culture itself remains intact, oral cultures seem to retain information across generations very well. Of course, when the culture fades, it leaves less of that information behind than a highly literate culture does.

That’s one of the reasons it’s so difficult for us to reconstruct ancient history. We’re always working from bits and fragments. Much was never recorded at all. And time has damaged or destroyed much that was recorded. We actually know much less with certainty about the ancient world than many people today assume. Now that’s not to say that we know nothing or that the assumptions and patchwork with which we’ve filled in the gaps is wrong. Much of it is reasonable. But reasonable does not necessarily mean those assumptions are right. Ancient history is a fluid area of study. As we find something that seems to invalidate an earlier assumption, we have to reshuffle our conceptions.

I will note that ancient pagan religions of all sorts were largely mystery cults that were “traditioned” orally. When an ancient religion faded, that means very few markers were left about the religion. In most cases, we know very little about the religion itself. For instance, we actually know almost nothing about the Celtic Druids or any ancient Celtic religion. We don’t actually know very much about the inner workings of ancient Norse religions. We know a little bit more about ancient Greek religions, but still less than some would imagine. Moreover, the things we do know about ancient religions that faded in the mists of time are mostly confined to their outward forms and displays. The inner workings were never written down and thus died with the religion.

That’s really why I was never deeply attracted to modern neopaganism. I’ve had friends who were adherents and have attended some of the more open rituals. But I also knew that most of it couldn’t have any real connection to those ancient religions. Of course, a more accurate reinvention would have been completely repellent (and possibly illegal). Animal sacrifice, sacrifice of enemies, child sacrifice, ritual prostitution, and many similar things were a part of many actual ancient religions — though again it’s hard for us to reconstruct specifics. That’s probably part of the reason I was always more drawn to the ancient Eastern religions that are still practiced today. There is a continuous thread of connection and practice.

At the beginning of this post, I mentioned that writing this series would help me organize my thoughts. That’s also something that’s pretty common in a literate culture. We write to organize our thoughts. We write lists to organize tasks. We write speeches before delivering them. We write essays and papers to develop our train of thought or to construct an argument. Oral cultures don’t work that way at all. If something is written down, it’s usually to help convey it to a distant destination or because someone else wrote it down as it was delivered (usually on behalf of someone who couldn’t be present). It’s not just the way our memories function that changes, the way we process and organize our thoughts changes as well.

It’s important to understand just how different an oral culture truly is from a literate culture. Those of us who are thoroughly shaped by a literate culture will never truly be able to place ourselves inside the mental context of an oral culture. Still, if we are aware of the difference, it can help keep us from jumping to the wrong conclusions. It seems to me that many of the anachronistic ideas arise simply because people interpret something from the ancient world through the lens of their modern, literate formation and mindset. We almost can’t help but make that error to one degree or another, but if we keep the distinction always in mind, we can make fewer erroneous assumptions than we otherwise would.


Thirsting for God 8 – Love Beyond Reason

Posted: December 15th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Faith, Thirsting for God | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Thirsting for God 8 – Love Beyond Reason

This series is reflecting on Matthew Gallatin’s book, Thirsting for God in a Land of Shallow Wells.

There is nothing reasonable about God’s love. Matthew begins by describing the closeness of his love and bond with his wife in order to make the point that God’s love transcends even that.

But in the great Mystery of Love, my bond with Alice is a pale and impoverished shadow when compared to the oneness that I can share with Christ. He illumines my soul and drives me to my unworthy knees in repentant gratitude and joy.

Of course, over the years of his life, he had experienced moments of that joy and love. If he hadn’t, he probably wouldn’t have remained Christian.

The truth is, most sincere Protestants I know have had similar experiences. They recall them with unique fondness and joy. Unfortunately, what makes those times so special is the fact that they are so rare. They are not part of the everyday routine of evangelical life.

We know that the earliest Christians lived lives of such love, joy, and devotion that even as they were tortured and killed — joyfully while forgiving those who were killing them — they converted an empire. The experience of the love of Christ and union with him was not an occasional thing. It was their constant reality. In Orthodoxy, Matthew found the simple, humble, and quiet path toward an ever-deepening experience of Christ — one available to any and all.

So what does Orthodoxy have that Protestantism doesn’t? Why can’t Protestant faith consistently Christ in the way it so devoutly desires? In becoming Orthodox, I discovered the problem with my Protestant faith lay in the fact that the way it taught me to relate to God just didn’t work.

You see, the Protestant way of living in Christ is thoroughly rooted in a system of thinking known as rationalism.

Now rationalism does not mean simply thinking in a lucid, intelligent, or sensible way. Rather, rationalism is a particular system of interpreting reality.

Its essential tenet is that truth is discovered through reasoning, not through experience (that is, through observations, feelings, or actions).

While a bit over-simplified, that’s actually a pretty good summary of the heart of rationalism. It’s actually hard to convey a complex idea in simple language, so I can really appreciate the elegant simplicity of that definition. Matthew illustrates the point with a pretty good example, though rationalism infects different streams in different ways.

For instance, in one of the first sermons I can remember, the preacher held his Bible high over his head, waved it for emphasis, and cried, “When it comes to your faith in God, you can’t trust in your eyes. You can’t trust in your ears. You can’t trust in your feelings. All you can trust in is what you know from the Word of God!”

He relates other examples. For instance, at one point some of his pastor friends were considering taking courses in logic and critical reasoning. The felt that when most people struggled spiritually, the problem lay in their thinking, so they thought such courses would help them in their pastoral duties. The list of the ways such attitudes permeate Protestantism is endless. Faith is approached primarily as a matter for study.

Matthew came to realize what was glaringly obvious to me from the beginning and which I’ve heard others, such as Conversion Diary, mention in their journey toward faith. The standard mode of Protestant practice and experience through bible study has no connection to the early life of the Church. Those believers initially had limited access to the books that eventually became the New Testament. They also had limited access to what we now call the Old Testament. Moreover, the Old Testament scriptures had been radically reinterpreted by the apostles in the light of Christ. Scrolls (and later the earliest books) were extremely expensive. And many people were functionally illiterate anyway. The Protestant approach to Christian faith is highly anachronistic. It doesn’t fit in the context of the ancient world and you can’t make it fit.

But instead, the Church held to a sacramental view of Christian life. Sacramentalism is the belief that truth is discovered by experiencing the living Presence of Christ, by participating with Him in specific acts of worship that He Himself ordains.

It’s important to note that feelings and actions are still considered to be important within Protestantism. Some strands emphasize them more and some less. But most of Protestantism would agree that right actions and right feels have to start with right understanding. The problem is that, even in the context of Scripture, that’s simply not how God works. It also leads to the problem of how you get from theological knowledge of God in your head to love for God.

Well, a Protestant takes it for granted that knowledge somehow becomes love. What’s in the heart must first be in the head. That’s rationalism, pure and simple.

….

You see, anyone who will stop for a moment and simply consider what love is will realize that turning knowledge into love is an impossible endeavor. Head knowledge cannot become heart knowledge! Knowledge cannot produce love. It may direct us toward love. But it is not the same as love, nor can it serve as a substitute.

St. Paul is so clear about this fact that I don’t know why I didn’t see it long ago. I’ve discovered, though, that my modern mindset often kept me from seeing the obvious. St. Paul tells his spiritual children that the love we experience with Christ “passes knowledge” (Ephesians 3:19). The word “passes” is the Greek word that means “to transcend, surpass, or excel.”

Matthew illustrates that point with a thought exercise. He imagines that his wife and he have been separated by a door their entire lives. At some point, someone tells him about the lovely creature on the other side of the door and he becomes enamored with the idea of that person. He acquires knowledge about her and constructs a mental image of her. Even if he develops a completely accurate picture of her over time, he can’t be said to have a love relationship with her.

The simple fact is that I can’t have a real loving relationship with a mental image of someone I have not actually experienced — no matter how accurate that image may be. True love requires a live encounter with another person. It demands an interaction with that person that encompasses heart, soul, mind, and body.

I must open the door and embrace Christ as a Person, not as an object of my theological imagination.

Matthew Gallatin points out that it’s that desire that leaves many Protestants constantly seeking revival, seeking the next experience, seeking to be “fed” (a strange term I’ve heard that took me a while to understand), and essentially subsisting from one experience of Christ to another with long dry spells in between. Of course, God is not trying to hide. He is seeking to be known. Jesus has joined his nature wholly and completely to ours so that we might know him and have union with him. We construct the door that keeps him out, but he is always trying to get through it to us. As a result, anyone honestly seeking God will have some experience of him.

It’s at this point that Protestantism typically stalls. Those experiences remain occasional. And people get stuck trying to relate through a door to their own mental image of Jesus. It didn’t surprise me at all when Willow Creek discovered that the most dissatisfied among their membership were the most “mature” Christians (by typical Protestant measures). Reason can only get you so far.


Four Hundred Texts on Theology (Third Century) 8

Posted: September 30th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: St. Maximos the Confessor | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Four Hundred Texts on Theology (Third Century) 8

16.  The arrogant intellect is justly made the object of wrath, that is to say, it is abandoned by God, as I have already described, and the demons are permitted to plague it during contemplation. This happens so that it may become aware of its own natural weakness and recognize the grace and divine power which shields it and which accomplishes every blessing; and so that it may also learn humility, utterly discarding its alien and unnatural pride. If this indeed happens, then the other form of wrath – the withdrawal of graces previously given – will not visit it, because it has already been humbled and is now conscious of Him who provides all blessings.

Humility is hard.

Honestly, I don’t know any other way to say it. For even when we begin to be truly humble, we tend to observe our own humility and that very observation, perversely, tends to inspire pride. We divide into categories and tend to place ourselves in the better category. I’ve observed that even when I hear Christians truthfully say that God loves Muslims or God loves homosexuals, the very way it is phrased others those groups. The sense becomes one of God even loves them though the more accurate expression of reality would be to say that God loves them and God even loves us.

Other categories are little better. When we say that we are the saved and they are the lost, that is a statement of pride. I’m reminded again of the aged Romanian monk I heard (on video) say simply, “All will be saved and I alone will be damned.” When uttered honestly and from deep awareness of our own love for God, that strikes me as the truth of humility.

It is so easy to judge others as worse than ourselves. But when we do, we lose our consciousness of God, who provides all blessings.


Jesus Creed 19 – Believing in Jesus

Posted: September 27th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: The Jesus Creed | Tags: , , , , , | Comments Off on Jesus Creed 19 – Believing in Jesus

Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one.
Love the Lord you God with all your heart,
with all your soul,
with all your mind, and with all your strength.
The second is this: Love your neighbor as yourself.
There is no commandment greater than these.

This is a series of reflections on Scot McKnight’s book, The Jesus Creed: Loving God, Loving Others. It’s a book I unequivocally recommend for anyone. Each chapter opens with recommended Gospel readings. The readings for this chapter are: Mark 7:24-30; Matthew 15:21-28.

The opening theme of this chapter reaches out and grabs you.

The goal of a disciple of Jesus is relationship, not perfection.

Let that sink in for a while. I deeply sense this is not how most of my fellow believers would formulate this statement. I once heard someone in my church describe ‘being Christian’ as ‘trying to be perfect even though we know we will fail.’ I can only describe my reaction to that statement as one of horror. I tried to share my reaction with some who were close to me and whom I thought might understand, but nobody really understood the depth, breadth, and intensity of my reaction against that description of the essence of Christianity. I know that ‘horror‘ seems melodramatic, but it’s not too strong a word to describe my reaction. If that statement captures what it means to be Christian, then I want to be something else. The statement strikes me as a rejection of all I understand it to mean to be Christian. This focus on ‘perfection‘ is not a minor side issue for me.

I think Scot captures my perspective, in part, in this statement:

Faith is an ongoing relationship and therefore like a marathon. The Jesus Creed is not for someone who believed, in the past, but someone who believes. Christians are called believers not believeders.

If you don’t immediately grasp the truth and implications of that statement, I simply don’t know how to make them clearer. Our faith can be stated as simply as, ‘I believe in Jesus Christ’ or ‘Jesus is Lord,’ though those statements then need to be worked out.  McKnight uses an interesting example of Shammai and Hillel on this point. It’s worth reading.

Faith is a relationship with Jesus Christ.

In theory we all agree with that statement, but do we live that way? I’m not convinced. I like the following. (I think Scot is quoting someone else.)

We cannot have a relationship with our christology — we can have a relationship with Jesus Christ.

Our soteriology cannot save us from our sins — our Savior can.

Our ecclesiology does not make us one — the Lord of the Church does.

Our eschatology will not transform this flawed universe — Jesus the King of kings and Prince of Peace will do that.

And, no matter how much we love theology — it will never love us back.

Only God in Christ loves us, and that is why believing is a relationship.

Those are extremely good words. Of course, ‘relationship‘ is also something of a tricky concept. The English word can describe our most intimate bonds and our most shallow connections. I can say I have a ‘relationship‘ with my wife, but I can also say I have a ‘relationship‘ (a business relationship) with the man who delivers my newspaper. In the context of Christianity, we’re using the word more in its former connotation. A lot of our words, like fellowship or knowing, have the same problem. That’s one of the reasons I’ve come to believe that the English word communion is probably the better choice.

Salvation is union or communion with Christ and being Christian is the process of growing in communion. And that necessarily means also growing in communion with our fellow human beings. I think a quote by St. Silouan captures this dual reality very well indeed.

We only know God to the extent that we love our enemies.


Jesus Creed 15 – A Society for Justice

Posted: September 15th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: The Jesus Creed | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Jesus Creed 15 – A Society for Justice

Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one.
Love the Lord you God with all your heart,
with all your soul,
with all your mind, and with all your strength.
The second is this: Love your neighbor as yourself.
There is no commandment greater than these.

This is a series of reflections on Scot McKnight’s book, The Jesus Creed: Loving God, Loving Others. It’s a book I unequivocally recommend for anyone. Each chapter opens with recommended Gospel readings. The readings for this chapter are: Luke 4:16-30; 6:20-26.

Scot McKnight stakes out his ground right away in this chapter.

By virtue of entering the kingdom of God, we Christians make the astounding claim that we live under a different order — God’s order. Living in that order should make a difference in our day-to-day living and in our society. After all, the kingdom Jesus describes is a society and not just a personal nest.

Why else do we pray, “your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven”? If our faith has any meaning, then we are the enclave or manifestation of God’s kingdom here on earth. I think we need to do that for each other more often. It’s not all about the pleasant, the comfortable, the easy, or the personal. It’s about a whole lot more. Either we choose to live as citizens of the Kingdom or we do not. And we tend to waver between those poles. Sometimes we desire to so live. More often we do not. And that seems to be where our communion should enter the picture. Faith in isolation and without physical expression tends to fade. At least that’s my experience. I know the monastic hermits in their seclusion prayed for and were mystically connected with the whole world, but that’s a special calling, not something normative. Even the monastics mostly live in community. It’s not just that it’s helpful to have a ‘church family‘ (too bad we don’t really take that phrase seriously), there’s no other way for us to live. Sure, they’ll disappoint us, abandon us, hurt us, and all the rest. (Doesn’t your blood family do the same?) And yet, they and the Eucharist are God offered to our senses.  Where else can we turn?

Spiritual formation is not all contemplation and meditation, or Bible study groups and church gatherings. Spiritual formation, because it begins with the Jesus Creed, involves loving God and others. We need not choose one or the other; we need both, because loving others includes brushing up against the thorns of injustice in society. Love wants them removed.

Make no mistake. I love my country. I believe it is (on its good days) among the best the kingdoms of this world have ever offered. But it remains a kingdom of this world. We forget this reality to our peril. The Church is the one who must challenge the powers of this earth. Doesn’t Paul write about that?

Because the term ‘justice’ is used like this [in a retributive or vengeful manner] so often, it has acquired the sense of being negative and nasty. It seems to be little more than recrimination, retribution, and punishment. But in Jesus’ kingdom, justice is deeper than retribution. Any look at the Bible will reveal to you that kingdom justice concerns restoring humans to both God and others.

In the Bible, justice (Hebrew, tsedeqa or mishpat) describes ‘making something right,’ and for something to be ‘right,’ there has to be a standard. For the Jewish world the standard is God’s will, the Torah, and so justice for Israel was ‘to make things right’ according to Scripture. In our American society what makes something ‘right’ is if it conforms to the United States Constitution or to a decision made in a court of law. Jesus operates in the Jewish world. What makes things ‘right’ for him? What is his standard? Here is where a Christian sense of justice parts company with standard social understandings.

The standard of justice for Jesus is the Jesus Creed. What is ‘right’ is determined by the twin exhortation to love God (by following Jesus) and to love others. For Jesus, justice is about restoring people and society to the love of God and love of others. The vision of restorative justice clobbers, with a padded stick of love, any retributive sense of justice. The follower of Jesus is to ‘hunger and thirst for righteousness (or justice)’, but that ‘justice’ is defined by the Jesus Creed, not the Constitution. To get things right in our world, according to Jesus, is to love others and work for a system that expresses such love.

That’s a long quote, but I think this discussion required all of it. Now go read the parable of judgment day (sheep and goats) in Matthew. Think about it for a while. What distinguishes one who follows Jesus? Is it not ultimately a judgment of love? I think too many Christians confuse it as a judgment of ‘works‘ using a pretty anachronistic definition of the term. In a sense it is, but those works are works of love.

Not all of us are called to work in the justice system [of our society or kingdom of this world], but we are empowered to restore justice in our society. One person at a time; one change at a time; wherever we can.

That’s the closing thought of the chapter. And it’s a very fitting one.


Heaven & Earth (& Hell) 11 – Assurance of Salvation or What Sort of God Do You Worship?

Posted: July 9th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Hell | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

In the Christian circles in which I move, a question of “assurance” often surfaces. That was never a question that troubled me, so it took me a while to discern why it seemed to be an issue for so many. I finally realized that, like so many other questions, it was a matter of how you viewed ultimate reality and how you perceived God. To return to the metaphor of the two-story house, the assurance many people seem to be seeking is the assurance that they will be allowed onto the second floor instead of being locked in the basement. In this picture, God is thus perceived as the ultimate arbiter deciding who goes where. He might be an angry God who will let you sneak onto the second floor if you’re hiding behind his son so he can’t see you. He might be a fair arbiter measuring the balance of good and evil in your life. He might have a checklist and will let you onto the second floor if you have the right boxes checked. Or he could be the arbitrary and capricious God of hard Calvinism who had the secret lists of “saved” and “damned” drawn up before the whole show began. But in this conception of reality, some sort of God like that is at work. And in the face of such a God, people seek assurance that he isn’t going to throw them in the basement.

But I don’t believe in that God. I’ve never believed in that God. As I’ve outlined in this series, I believe there will be a time when all creation is renewed, the veil between heaven and earth is no more, and God is fully revealed as all in all. Most importantly, I believe in resurrection and everything that resurrection implies. I believe in the good God who loves mankind. I believe in the God who became one of us so that we might be healed and be able to be one with him. I believe in the God who is not willing that any should perish. I believe in the God who has done and is doing everything that can be done in love to save every human being. I believe in a God of uncompromising love. I believe in the God we see in Jesus of Nazareth.

But as love does not seek its own way and does not coerce, since I’ve become Christian I’ve understood that the question is not and has never been whether or not God loves me and wants me. God’s answer to that question is and has always been an unchanging and unqualified yes. The question I must answer with my life is whether or not I love and want God. And that’s a very different question indeed. I have believed many things over the course of my life. I have changed my beliefs more than once. I know I want to want this unique God. But I also know myself too well to be “assured” that I will never change. The more I get to know this God, the less likely such a change seems, but I can’t have present certainty about my own future choices and decisions.

My particular group of Christians has a belief which, in the vernacular, is often rendered, “Once saved, always saved.” I think I’ve come to understand that what they actually mean is that once God puts your name on the guest list letting you onto the second floor, he’ll never scratch it out. And I suppose, if that’s your perception of God and reality, it might even be a comforting idea. You don’t have to worry that your name will be taken off the “nice” list and placed on the “naughty” list for something you have or haven’t done.

But I’ve never found the “once saved, always saved” idea anything less than appalling, though it took me some years to understand the underlying reasons I reacted so differently. To me, this concept portrayed first a God of love who extends an invitation to all human beings and freely allows them to respond as they will. So far, so good. But having once given your assent to this God, he then forces you to want him from that point onward. He changes from a God of love to a God of coercion. It’s as though that one-time assent becomes permission to rape my will from that point forward. We are supposed to find true freedom in Christ, but this is not freedom.

I’ll also note that the sort of absolute assurance people seem to be seeking doesn’t exist in our Holy Scriptures. It’s not because God changes or hides anything from us. It’s because we change and we lie to ourselves. A theme we often see in Jesus’ parables is one of surprise by everyone in the end. There will be people “saved” who never fully understood that the life they lived was one of service and love for Jesus. And there will be those who had convinced themselves they wanted Jesus only to discover that they really never wanted him at all. That lack of certainty has never bothered me. In fact, I see it as inevitable. It doesn’t reveal anything arbitrary about God. In fact, that’s the only view that sufficiently allows for both the love of God and for our own free will and capacity for delusion.

As a final thought on this topic, I’ll note that while the truncated view of God and salvation may have “worked” to some extent over the last few hundred years, it’s losing any effectiveness it might have had in our increasingly pluralistic world. It once was true in our part of the world that the perception of reality as a two-story house with a basement was something of a cultural default. And as such, all you really had to do was convince people to take whatever actions you thought needed to be taken to punch their ticket to the second story. Those days are fading and we are entering a period that in some ways is more like that of the ancient world. Before I became Christian, I believed different things at different points in my life, but none of them included the caricature of heaven and hell from the two-story universe with a basement perspective. Most of the time I believed in some form of transmigration of souls. In my more Hindu periods, I perceived the fact that we are reborn more as a problem than not. At other times, I perceived eternal rebirth as a beautiful cycle of life. Regardless, though, the question, “Do you know where you will go when you die?” never had much impact on me. Nor does it have much impact on me now. I simply don’t believe that question has anything to do with the Christian concept of salvation.


Heaven & Earth (& Hell) 10 – Theosis or Deification

Posted: July 7th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Hell | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

If our basic problem is that we don’t want God and are not able to live within him and in union with him, what’s the solution? This question points to the deeper meaning and accomplishment of the work of the mystery of the Incarnation. It’s why Christians traditionally believed and taught that Christ would have become one of us even if mankind had not “fallen.” He would not have had to die in that instance, but without the Incarnation we have no means for true union with God.

As I’ve discussed on posts regarding what it means that God is holy, he is the wholly other uncreated one. We are mere creatures and have no capacity on our own for communion with God. In the Incarnation, Jesus of Nazareth joined the divine nature with our human nature. By assuming our nature, he not only defeated death and provided the means for our healing, he bridged that divide. As St. Athanasius wrote, “For He was made man that we might be made God.

God has accomplished all that is needed for our union with him, which is our true salvation. It’s a done work. The potential for that union through Christ lies within every single human being. Truly, everything God planned to do was accomplished or finished by Christ. The question before us is not what God wants or desires or has done. Rather, the question we must answer is a much more difficult one. Do we want God?

That’s not an idle question. Answering it is a matter of a life lived. I know in my own life there are times when I have grown, at least a little, in communion in God. And there are times when I have not wanted God at all. God is constant. We are inconstant. But if we will turn what little of our will we can toward God, he is there with all the grace (which is to say himself) that we need to move toward union with him. Baby steps are often all we can manage. The question is less about how much or how little we are able to do and more about whether or not we choose to become the sort of person who wants God.

Salvation, then, is becoming one with the three Persons of God — Father, Son, and Holy Spirit — and one with each other in the same way that Jesus and the Father are one. We maintain our distinctive personhood even in perfect union. Hell is what we do to ourselves and to others when we don’t want God and when we hate our fellow human being. There is no standing still in this process. We are either moving toward union with God and embracing life or we are seeking a non-existence we are helpless to achieve as we turn from God.

Do I want God? It’s a haunting question. I believe that much of the time I want to want God. At least I now know that this particular God who was made fully known to us in Jesus of Nazareth loves and wants me. For much of my life, I did not recognize and understand that truth. I find he is a God worth wanting.