Thirsting for God 6 – History

Posted: December 10th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Faith, Thirsting for God | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Thirsting for God 6 – History

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

It seems to me that in his journey, it took Matthew Gallatin a lot longer than it took me to turn to history. That’s really something that continues to surprise me in all facets of life — how little most people seem to look to history. I’ve had a love of history of all sorts — especially ancient history — for virtually my whole life. When I explored a religion or practice within a religion, it had always been normal for me to dive into its history. So my encounter with modern Christianity was always two-pronged. On the one hand, as I learned what modern groups taught and practiced, anachronisms — things that could not have fit in the context of the ancient world — tended to leap out at me. At the same time, I was reading and discovering what the actual ancient beliefs and practices were.

As Matthew Gallatin began to study the ancient Church, rulership (in the form of Bishops) was obvious. But the rulership of one man (the Pope of Rome) can’t readily be found. That was a problem for him when he considered Catholicism. (The actual basis for it flows from the fact that the West was largely frontier and was all part of one ancient See — that of Rome. As politics and other circumstances began to divide the See of Rome from the rest of the ancient patriarchates and as increasing chaos developed in the West, the Pope became a rock of stability in that patriarchate. Even though Rome was not the oldest patriarchate or even the oldest associated with Peter and Paul, it had always been accorded a special honor because of the importance of the city in geopolitical terms. From the hindsight offered by a historical perspective, it’s fairly easy to see the interplay develop over centuries.)

However, his main problem with all Western churches, Catholicism included, was the same one I always had. Love had drawn me inexorably into Christianity. And I felt powerfully drawn to the Jesus I read in the New Testament. But I was always repelled by the various Western doctrines of the atonement. As a rule, they all hold that Jesus was offering some sort of payment to the Father on the Cross — that for one reason or another, God had to be paid off. God had a problem with the very forgiveness he demanded from his followers. But at the same time that I was hearing these modern ideas, I was reading St. Irenaeus and St. Athanasius — who offer a very different picture of what Christ was doing. I read St. Gregory the Theologian who flatly rejected the idea that Jesus was offering payment to either the Devil or to the Father. I believed in their God, not the one I was hearing from both the Protestant and Roman Catholic sides of the debate. For me, it would be years before I discovered that Orthodoxy actually still believed what the ancient Church had believed, so I largely set that to one side. I refused to accept the picture of a God who had to paid or satisfied, but I didn’t really know what to do with that rejection.

Beyond that, by studying history Matthew quickly discovered several things about the ancient Church.

  1. From Pentecost on, the worship of the Church was liturgical, not spontaneous of free-form.
  2. Early Church worship centered on the Eucharist or Communion. … In fact, one of the earliest heresies in the Church was the teaching that the bread and wine were not the real Body and Blood of the Lord.
  3. The early Church honored departed saints as members of the Church who are alive and worshiping in heaven.
  4. Infant baptism was the standard practice in the Church and was recognized as a doctrine received from the Apostles.

There is much more you can discover, of course. But the above are clearly true. We can even trace much of the first part of the liturgy leading up to the Eucharist to the liturgical synagogue worship from which they were adapted.

In the New Testament, Paul exhorts “the believers in Thessalonica to stand fast and hold to the traditions that they had been taught — those that came through epistles, and the many that came directly from the mouths of the Apostles.” In Ephesians, he says the Apostles (not Scripture) form the “foundation” of the Church. Paul writes to Timothy that the Church is the pillar and ground of the truth. Either the proper worship, practice, and truth about Jesus of Nazareth has been preserved in the historical Church, or it’s lost and like a mosaic shattered into a pile of tiles, I see no way to somehow reconstruct it.

To know what is the truth, therefore, does not first require theological interpretation of the Book. Rather, it simply takes looking at the actual beliefs, practices, and experiences of the Church of which Christ is the Head, which the Apostles served, lived out on the pages of history.


Reflections on Resurrection 8 – Heaven

Posted: November 17th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Resurrection | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Reflections on Resurrection 8 – Heaven

I can’t discuss the Christian narrative of resurrection and new creation in our modern context without discussing heaven. It seems that far too many people today perceive the goal, the telos, the reward if you will of Christian faith as going to heaven when you die. Within this perspective, the present world and our physical bodies become nothing more than something which is passing away and which one day will be cast aside — discarded as at best useless and at worst refuse. It is a future reward that is not much concerned with our present reality.

But that begs the question, what is heaven? I’ve heard it described variously, but I understand it best as the spiritual dimension of reality in which God’s will is already done. But this spiritual realm cannot be seen as in some way separated or at a distance from our material realm. No, as the stories throughout scripture illustrate, that spiritual dimension is all around us. It’s often a matter of perception. Heaven and earth are overlapping and interlocking. There is presently a veil between them (for our salvation), but heaven is not best described as a place that we go.

Most importantly, heaven is not the culmination of all things or the eschaton. Rather, the culmination of the Christian narrative is a renewed creation with no veil between it and heaven and our ultimate home is the renewed physical realm, not the spiritual realm. We are material, embodied beings and our charge is and has always been to care for the physical world and offer it back to God as our eucharist or thanksgiving.

Christianity does not say a lot about what happens immediately after death. We know that to die is to be with Christ, which is far better. In John 14, Jesus talks about preparing temporary dwelling places for us. We know that we remain conscious and active and praying. We see in the stories of the saints up to the present day that they are able to manifest and are actively involved with us, but we also see in their relics that their material body has not yet been used up in resurrection as Jesus’ body in the tomb was.

I’m also not sure that speculation on such topics is ultimately useful. Our goal and our salvation is union with Christ. If we are able to remain focused on that — which is certainly a tall order — I have the sense that everything else will work itself out. I do still like Bishop Tom’s phrase, though. Christianity has little to say about life after death. It has a great deal to say about life after life after death.


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.


Four Hundred Texts on Love (Second Century) 23

Posted: August 12th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: St. Maximos the Confessor | Tags: , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Four Hundred Texts on Love (Second Century) 23

81. Four things make a soul cut itself off from sin: fear of judgment, hope of future reward, love of God and, lastly, the prompting of conscience.

There is a growth or progression in the path St. Maximos outlines. It seems to me that far too many Christians are trapped in one or both of the first two categories. There are entire groups that gain compliance through manipulation of their members based on fear of God’s judgment. And they try to grow by making others fear. And it’s extremely common today to see the entire ‘pitch‘ for Christian faith reduced to the reward of ‘going to heaven when you die.’

Neither of those ever had much hold on me personally. There isn’t much opportunity to fear judgment when you believe the ultimate goal is reunion with the all by eventually extinguishing your own sense of personal identity. Similar, reward-based motivations also have fewer opportunities to gain a foothold. Still, I see the value in both as motivators toward action and growth. It’s when your entire experience is limited to those first two things that they become problematic.

I’m not sure how well my conscience has developed as a Christian. Such things are notoriously difficult to gauge. But I do know that I am Christian and remain Christian because of the love I’ve found not just for some generic ‘God‘, but for the God made fully known to us in Jesus of Nazareth. And that love of God is wholly rooted in the love I’ve experienced from God, not in any fear of punishment or anticipation of reward.


The Jesus Creed 2 – Praying the Jesus Creed

Posted: August 11th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: The Jesus Creed | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments »

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 ones for this chapter are: Luke 11:1-4; Matthew 6:9-13.

Sometimes prayer is like
     dry lima beans
          in a dry mouth
              on a dry day.

That’s how McKnight opens this chapter. I really like the imagery.

Why? Prayer is hard, it gnaws into our schedule, and it can be as much a source of frustration as satisfaction. Brother Lawrence, who has probably encouraged more people in prayer than anyone in the history of the Church, found routines in prayer dry and dull. He was bluntly honest about his own perplexity with prayer. Such honesty about prayer by a champion of prayer encourages us all in our own struggle to pray.

Of course, nobody who knows me would be surprised that the reference to Brother Lawrence struck a chord with me. Still the statement is true. McKnight continues:

At the bottom, prayer is simple. It is loving communication with God. All we need for prayer is an open heart.

All? How easy for any of us is a truly open heart?

The good news for us is that it was struggle with prayer that gave rise to the Lord’s Prayer. The disciples were struggling with their own prayer lives. After observing Jesus pray, one of his disciples said, “Lord, teach us to pray.” To help them with prayer, he gave them a prayer…

McKnight then provides the ancient Jewish prayer Jesus amended through the lens of his modified Shema. This is that prayer (which we know was present and widely used at the time of Jesus) call the Kaddish (Sanctification).

Magnified and sanctified be his great name in the world He created according to His will. May He establish His kingdom during your life and during your days, and during the life of all the house of Israel, speedily and in the near future. And say Amen.

This prayer bears striking similarities to the Lord’s Prayer and McKnight proposes that Jesus makes it his own. And this connection, while not as obvious or clearcut as the amendment of the Shema, makes a lot of sense within its context. Jesus amends the central creed and then he amends a sacred prayer, reshaping them both in dramatic ways. McKnight examines the parallels between the two in several tables. When you lay them out side by side, the correlations are pretty obvious.

There are three basic changes: First, the Lord’s Prayer begins with ‘Father’ (Abba). [I also want to note that in an appendix, McKnight the linguist, bible scholar, and theologian notes that ‘Daddy’ is an inappropriate interpretation of ‘Abba.’ It’s a form adults used and so ‘Father’ (or I would also suggest ‘Dad’) is appropriate. I’ve typically used ‘Dad’ myself, but have heard others promote the ‘Daddy’ version. Minor note, really, but I wanted to mention it.] Second, Jesus adds three lines. Third, the additional lines shift from ‘your’ to ‘us.’ As a result of these changes, the Lord’s Prayer has two parts (you petitions and we/us petitions). The ‘You’ petitions are ‘Love God’ petitions and the ‘We/Us’ petitions are ‘Love Others’ petitions. (Notice that none of them are me/I requests.)

Next, I will note that Judaism is deeply symbolic, creedal, and essentially what we call ‘liturgical.’ Further, it is the only system of worship that, in its original form, was directly established by God. At least, it’s the only one recorded. And God established a highly liturgical form of worship. In our ‘low worship’ style, it’s important that we remember and acknowledge that reality because McKnight’s next point is one I’ve noticed many Baptists (and others) struggle with. McKnight even confesses his own struggle. This is an important note for his next section, titled “The Lord’s Prayer as a Gift for Liturgy.”

When the disciples asked Jesus for a prayer, he said, ‘When you pray, say.” Literally, ‘say’ means ‘repeat.’ I already knew that, but I’ve watched people go to great lengths to make it mean something else. Further, contextually it makes no sense for Jesus to do anything else. The disciples ask for a prayer. Given their liturgical setting, they would expect a prayer they could repeat. Like the Kaddish. Like others. Surely that’s what Jesus would have given them?

Of course, liturgical prayers *can* become mindless rote. But frankly, non-liturgical prayers easily become just as mindless, shallow, and empty. The problem lies not with the prayer or the form, but with us. If prayer, any prayer, is actually loving communication with God, it’s real prayer whatever form it takes. If it’s not, it’s nothing but empty words.

The advantage of liturgical or structured prayers is twofold (in my mind). By their content, even if we start in a place of mindless repitition, they always have the ability to capture our attention and shape our thoughts toward God. And if we start with God in mind, they contain many ‘hooks’ that can lead us into conversational prayers. Neither liturgical churches nor Jesus suggest that *all* prayer should be structured. But structured prayers give us a routine and a place to begin when we don’t otherwise ‘feel’ like praying, when the ‘dry lima beans in a dry mouth on a dry day’ experience descends upon us.

The Lord’s Prayer focuses us on the priorities (loving God and loving others) and does not allow us to easily descend into what McKnight calls ‘self-saturated prayers.’ He quotes Lauren Winner (a convert from liturgical Judaism to liturgical Christianity), “Liturgy is not, in the end, open to our emotional whims.” Maybe it’s the ‘postmodern’ (or whatever) within me, but that statement resonates deeply.

McKnight then relates the personal impression the Lord made on his heart about this prayer as he studied and reflected on it. Now he concludes each of his Jesus classes with a recitation of the Lord’s Prayer (and begins it with a recitation of the Jesus Creed).

McKnight explores four things which we can learn when we permit the Lord’s Prayer to mentor our Prayer to mentor our prayer life.

We learn to approach God as Abba….This is the signature term of Jesus and it marks the center of his teaching about God.

We learn what God really wants… God’s love plan is for his glorious Name to be honored and his will to become concrete reality on earth. Earth is Abba’s frontier; heaven is already his. In pondering God’s Name, kingdom, and will, we are prompted (daily) to yearn for what God yearns for. Love always prompts yearning.

We learn to think of others… As Jesus didn’t leave the Shema to be a God-only thing, so he didn’t leave the Kaddish to be a God-only thing. And he doesn’t want it to be an I-only thing either.

We learn what everyone needs. Hanging our prayers on the framework of the Lord’s Prayer will lead us to yearn that all will have provision, be granted forgiveness, and be spared temptation. … We need to think our way back into Jesus’ world by recalling that we have just petitioned the Abba about his Name, Kingdom, and will. Our concern is with God’s breaking into history to make this world right for all of us. And that means praying for others so that they will have adequate provisions, spiritual purity, and moral stability. I don’t know about you, but I tend to begin my prayers for others with what I know about them and what they need. Jesus offers another path: We can begin with what he wants for them. By using the Lord’s Prayer, we join his loving prayer for them.

Do you get those things from the Lord’s Prayer? I’m starting to. Prayer is a big issue. As I’ve related in other posts, in my search for how to pray and especially what it meant to pray without ceasing, and my dissatisfaction with the things most evangelicals seem to write and say, I turned to Brother Lawrence. And through, at least in part I believe, his intercession, the Jesus Prayer came to me. I’ve never confused set prayers with “vain repetition” probably because I have a sense of history and first-hand experience with other religions. In the ancient context, people would use many words and take other actions in an effort to get their god’s attention. We see that recorded in our Scripture as well. One excellent example is the encounter between Elijah and the priests of Baal. I’ve also meditated with mantras whose purpose is to clear your mind of thought and activity. That’s neither the goal nor the result of praying Christian set prayers.

McKnight concludes with the note that the Lord’s Prayer is a “gift for action.” It’s “a commitment of the pray-er to the values of the Lord’s Prayer.” He then includes a quote from Frank Laubach. (I don’t know who that is, but I really like the little excerpt here.)

It [the Lord’s Prayer] is the prayer most used and least understood. People think they are asking God for something. They are not — they are offering God something.

… the Lord’s Prayer is not a prayer to God to do something we want done. It is more nearly God’s prayer to us, to help Him do what he wants done… He wanted that entire prayer answered before we prayed it…. The Lord’s Prayer is not intercession. It is enlistment.


Four Hundred Texts on Love (Second Century) 18

Posted: July 22nd, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: St. Maximos the Confessor | Tags: , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Four Hundred Texts on Love (Second Century) 18

48. When a man’s intellect is constantly with God, his desire grows beyond all measure into an intense longing for God and his incensiveness is completely transformed into divine love. For by continual participation in the divine radiance his intellect becomes totally filled with light; and when it has reintegrated its passible aspect, it redirects this aspect towards God, as we have said, filling it with an incomprehensible and intense longing for Him and with unceasing love, thus drawing it entirely away from worldly things to the divine.

There’s  a little story from the sayings of the desert fathers that has found a home in my heart for several years now. I’m not sure I can explain, even to myself, what about the story captivates me, but it was the first thing that sprang to my mind as I reflected on this particular text. Here’s the story.

Abba Pambo asked Abba Anthony, “What ought I to do?” and the old man said to him, “Do not trust in your own righteousness, do not worry about the past, but control your tongue and your stomach.”

Abba Lot went to Abba Joseph and said to him, “Abba, as far as I can I say my little office, I fast a little, I pray and meditate, I live in peace as far as I can, I purify my thoughts. What else can I do?” Then the old man stood up and stretched his hands toward heaven. His fingers became like ten lamps of fire and he said to him, “If you will, you can become all flame.”

Our God is called light in the text of our Scriptures. Of course, that’s not to say that he is made up of photons, but rather to say there is no darkness, no lies, no evil found within him. It’s easy for us in our modern world to forget that for most of human history, we could not create light apart from fire. One of the images of our God is a consuming fire. There are no shadows, nothing hidden, in the heart of the fire. When we think of divine love, we must not forget that aspect.

Perhaps the image of becoming all flame speaks to that part of me which has lived in darkness. We speak as human beings of being drawn to light and trapped in darkness. There is something within us all that perceives reality in terms of light and darkness. Do I want my shadows illumined?

We are all drawn to the fire, but do we want to assume the nature of the fire?


Heaven & Earth (& Hell) 12 – Forever?

Posted: July 12th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Hell | Tags: , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

It seems appropriate to end this series with the question of the unending nature of “hell.” The question for me is and has always been different than the one that I most often hear asked in my particular circle. I don’t believe in the concentration camp, so I’m not concerned about whether or not people will be tortured forever for finite transgressions. I don’t believe hell is a “place” where people are put and from which they can later be released.

Rather, hell is our experience of the unveiled love of God when we don’t want him, but cannot escape him. Hell is being consumed by our passions when we can no longer express them outwardly in a renewed creation. In many ways, we create our own hell. So the question becomes one of whether or not we will still be able to change. Will we be trapped deeper and deeper in our delusion and rejection of God? Is there no longer any hope for us at all?

The overall consensus of the Church is that it is possible for human beings to so twist themselves that they can never be whole. Bishop Tom Wright describes it as a point where we strive so hard to become an ex-human being that God tells us that if that’s what we truly want, so be it. I recognize and appreciate the warning inherent in that consensus.

But I have been touched by the love of Christ when I was not seeking it. As such, it is hard for me to imagine any creature so twisted that the love of God cannot ever warm his heart. I cannot imagine any delusion so complete that the light of God cannot eventually illumine and dispel it. And so I tend to gravitate to voices like that of St. Gregory of Nyssa and St. Isaac the Syrian, who also could not believe that the love of God would not win out in the end.

It’s not the sort of universalism that’s common today, which presents either a passive God who accepts anything or a coercive God who forces people into “heaven” whether or not that’s what they want. Rather, having felt the least shadow of the reality of God, I’m incredulous that there’s any heart that cannot eventually be touched and changed by his unveiled love. I once saw a video of an aged monk (from Romania, I think). In it he said something that has stuck in my mind ever since. He said, “All will be saved and I alone will be damned.” I find it difficult to put into words, but that perception of reality struck a deep chord in me. If there’s hope for me, there’s hope for anyone.


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.


Heaven & Earth (& Hell) 9 – God All In All

Posted: July 5th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Hell | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Heaven & Earth (& Hell) 9 – God All In All

If the Christian vision of ultimate reality does not revolve around a concentration camp in the midst of paradise, what does it then involve? As I discussed earlier in the series, God is seen as everywhere present, filling and sustaining all things. Although that is both the present and future reality, that glory is now veiled. We do not fully or readily perceive the reality of the God in whom we live and move and have our being.

But that will change one day. It’s the tension between Isaiah 6 and Isaiah 11. On the one hand, the world is filled with his glory right now and has been from the beginning of creation. But one day, it will be filled with the full knowledge of the glory. It’s the image we see in Habakkuk 2:14.

“For the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea.”

As the waters cover the sea? My first reaction to that verse was that the waters are the sea, but as I learned more of the ancient Jewish perception of reality, I came to understand that the “sea” stood for chaos and evil. The “monsters” come from the sea. This is the image of God’s healing waters covering and healing a disordered reality as creation, which is already filled with the glory of the Lord, becomes filled with the full knowledge of that glory. We see similar imagery in Revelation when we are presented with the healing streams and are told there is “no more sea.”

If God’s all-sustaining glory is no longer veiled and suffuses all creation, then one thing is immediately apparent. We will all experience exactly the same ultimate reality. The glory of God, the light of God, the love of God will be inescapable. We will understand and perceive God suffusing all creation, even our own bodies. There will be no place we can turn where that will not be true. And if that’s the case, then we can’t speak of some people (or any created being) or places being treated differently from others. It’s not the case that some are punished and others aren’t.

No, the question becomes rather, “How will I experience the fire of God’s love? Will it be warmth and comfort to me? Or will it be a consuming fire?” We will not be tormented because we have been confined somewhere and tortured by some external agent. No, if we are tormented, it will be because we do not want God yet cannot escape his presence.

Or perhaps we will lock ourselves in our own interior world consumed by passions we can no longer express outwardly. I think of the dwarves in C.S. Lewis’ final Narnia book, The Last Battle. Huddled in the midst of a creation made new, with a feast before them, in the very presence of Aslan, they perceive themselves as in a dark, rank stable eating garbage and drinking dirty water. They will not be fooled again and render themselves incapable of sensing the reality around them. They are bound in delusion. I believe we all have the capacity for such delusion within us.

As I said earlier, hell cannot have the same sort of reality that creation – heaven and earth – has. It’s not a place where God is not, for no such place exists. It cannot be a place that is not renewed within creation. “Behold, I make all things new!” proclaims the Lamb. Hell can only be the experience of a renewed creation and of a God of relentless and consuming love by those who do not want either one and are not formed to live within that reality. The seeds of our own hell are within each of us. As the Didache opens, “There are two ways, one of life and one of death, but a great difference between the two ways.