Parallels Between Calvinism and Islam

Posted: August 1st, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Faith | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

I’ve been reflecting recently on the deep influence Islam had on the Renaissance. Much of the West’s recovery of classical texts, it’s numbering system, and a significant portion of what became the scientific method flowed into the Renaissance from Islamic sources and influences. And as I reflected on those influences, it struck me that medieval Islam had a significant impact on the Protestant reformation and that influence is most evident in Calvinism.

Hopefully my point won’t be misunderstood. I’m well aware of John Calvin’s publicly expressed opinion on Islam. (At one point, I believe he called it one of the two horns of the antichrist with the other being the Roman Catholic Church.) I don’t mean direct, conscious influence. Rather, Islam had for centuries helped shape the culture within which Calvin was born and lived and which formed the lens through which he perceived the world, but it was not an overt influence.  Culture tends to operate below the conscious level and the forces which shape culture are many and varied. But when I look at the church Calvin founded, I see a number of strands influenced by Islam.

First, the Reformers in general and Calvin specifically, made “the book” the foundation and core of their faith in a way that had never been true in Christianity. Christians never traditionally saw themselves as people of the book. That’s actually a phrase from within Islam describing Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Rather Christians had always been the people of the living Lord, the crucified and risen Jesus of Nazareth. The Holy Scriptures, and the Gospels in particular, were always important in Christianity, but they were never at the center of our faith in the way Torah is in Judaism or the Qur’an in Islam.

And then I’m struck by Calvin’s fierce iconoclasm. Iconoclasm had risen within the Roman Empire in the eighth century and its rise at that point in time within Christianity is almost certainly connected to the influence of Islam on the emperor and other leading figures of the state. That led to a period of intense persecution that was ultimately ended only by the seventh ecumenical council condemning iconoclasm as heresy. That event is still celebrated today in the feast of the “Triumph of Orthodoxy” on the first Sunday of Great Lent and the matter was largely settled within Christianity until Calvin revived it. Again, as in the eighth century, the influence of Islam, even on a cultural or subconscious level, can be seen.

However, the most telling influence to me lies in the sort of God Calvin ultimately described. John Calvin emphasized the sovereign nature of God over creation. His belief in predestination accords more closely with the Islamic concept of preordainment than anything found within mainstream Christian tradition. For Calvin, as for Muslims, everything that happens has been preordained by God. And that everything is truly all-encompassing, covering good and evil alike. If an army pillages a town, that was ordained by God. If a drought leaves a country in famine, that was ordained by God. A hurricane striking a city inflicting death, loss, and pain was ordained by God. We can see Calvin’s influence today when Christians point to something horrible and describe it as an act of God. And that aspect of his theology shares much more in common with Islam than Christianity.

Of course, Calvinism is also different from Islam on many levels. My point is not that it’s simply some form of Christianized Islam. Rather, I see threads connecting elements within Calvinism (and spreading from there to a wide swath of Protestant Christianity) to the cultural influence medieval Islam had on the European culture that formed and shaped John Calvin. None of us ever stand in a vacuum free from outside influence and most of the time it’s even hard to see those forces that have shaped and formed us. And Calvinism along with the other Christian strands it in turn influenced, seems to have been shaped in part by Islam.


Why I Am Not An Atheist 4 – Theodicy

Posted: July 27th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Faith | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

Theodicy is a term generally used to describe the problem of reconciling a powerful and benevolent God with the suffering and pain in the world. It’s generally presented as an argument for atheism, so it may seem odd that I’m describing it as one of the reasons I’m not an atheist. Hopefully I can unravel that apparent conundrum.

I do want to be clear. Christianity does assert a single creator God on whom all that exists is contingent from moment to moment. Our God is one who is both immanent (everywhere present and filling all things) and transcendent. Christianity teaches that this God who is fully revealed in Christ is a good God who loves mankind. Moreover, this God is such that the only word, inadequate as it is, that we can use to capture his essence and being is love.

So it is true that the problem of evil is a very real one for Christianity. While I don’t intend to explore that problem in this post, I have discussed some of my thoughts in various places in the past. However I do acknowledge this is truly a deep philosophical problem — for Christianity. But atheism presents itself as the rejection of all Gods and any concept of deity, not merely a rejection of the Christian God. As such, I always wondered why its arguments, such as this one, seem to often be so narrowly focused.

I’ll illustrate by drawing on my pre-Christian Hindu perspective. Suffering is acknowledged, of course, but it cannot be described as a problem for Hinduism. Now, it’s been a long time since I actively thought from a somewhat Hindu perspective and I was never a particularly devoted practitioner by any stretch of the imagination. But that lens did generally shape how I perceived the world around me for much of my first three decades of life. And I did meditate, read the Bhagavad Gita (sporadically, at least) and other texts, and commentaries on them. I searched online and found one of the texts that still sticks in my mind from chapter 18. (Always keep in mind that it’s not easy to translate these texts into English. Concepts don’t necessarily match well at all.)

Within the hearts of all living entities, resides the Supreme Lord, O Arjuna and by the potency of the illusory energy orchestrates the movements of all living entities like figurines on a carousel.

This page actually includes four commentaries or different perspectives with Hinduism on that passage. The one by Sridhara Swami captures what would have been my understanding. It’s maya (often translated illusion, but flowing from the idea of “not that“) that binds us to samsara, the wheel of suffering within which we are locked by the cycle of death and rebirth. Through transcendence, we can stop revolving from one life to another. (Reincarnation and our attachment to the illusion of the material is actually more a core part of the problem in Hinduism than something desired. I guess that’s another reason I find it odd that a significant percentage of Christians today embrace reincarnation.)

Other religions have different perspectives, of course, but as far as I can tell, it would be hard to frame evil and suffering as a problem within their frameworks. (The exception is probably Judaism, though I don’t think the problem takes exactly the same shape that it does in Christianity.) And yet, as I’ve heard atheistic arguments over the years and as I’ve heard and read stories of people who embraced or converted to atheism rather than being raised within it, this problem of evil is often close to the core. I often don’t get the sense that people even see that it’s an anti-Christian argument and not one that actually supports atheism.

Finally, I find it strange that this particular argument is so common. After all, atheism itself offers a pretty poor ultimate response to pain and suffering. I don’t want to be flippant, but for all practical purposes, the modern atheistic answer seems to boil down to something pretty simple.

Life’s a bitch and then you die.

I’ll take Hinduism or Buddhism or Shintoism or any of a host of other answers over that one. I guess I’ll never be a good materialist. That lens has never held any appeal for me. Yes, it can be difficult to resolve a God of love with all the suffering and evil that exists. But I would rather make that effort, however deep the rabbit hole goes, than abandon it.

But let’s say I was willing to embrace the materialist perspective. If I did, I think Nietzsche carries it to its logical conclusion. And that will be the topic of my next post in this series.


Why I Am Not An Atheist 1 – Series Intro

Posted: May 23rd, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Faith | Tags: , , , , , , , | 3 Comments »

I recognize that the topic of this series might seem a little odd. After all, I’m not a lot of different things. In fact, the list of things I’m not at least approaches infinity while the list of things I am is by necessity thoroughly finite. Nevertheless, the thoughts I will try to outline in this series have been bouncing around my head for several months now. It’s time to form them into words.

I think part of the reason a series like this makes some sense lies within the culture of our country. Christianity and atheism are often set as foils against each other. I have Hindu friends, but nobody ever wonders or asks why I’m not Hindu. (Actually, for those who know my story, it would be more accurate to ask why I don’t consider myself a sort of Hindu believer any longer.) I have Buddhist friends, but again nobody wonders why I’m not Buddhist. Over the years I have had a few Wiccan or neo-pagan friends but, again, the fact that I don’t accept or follow Wiccan beliefs never seems to be an issue. By marriage, a part of my extended family is Jewish, but nobody seems to wonder why I don’t embrace modern Judaism. And yet atheistic family and friends do sometimes express or imply a curiosity about my rejection of atheism.

I think, in our modern American culture, Christianity (in some shape, form, or fashion) and atheism appear to be our two default positions, considered by many as the two opposing poles. When arguments against atheism are presented, they are almost inevitably Christian arguments. (Frankly a lot of them, particularly of the fundamentalist variety, are really bad arguments. But that’s a different discussion.) Similarly, even if they aren’t wholly cognizant of the fact, many of the atheistic arguments are not aimed at religion in general, but at Christianity specifically. Christianity and atheism sometimes appear to be the only two philosophical positions that actively proselytize in our culture and their methods and approaches can also be surprisingly similar.

This series will not be an apologetic for Christianity — at least not beyond those particular distinctions that are personally important to me. I won’t be attempting any sort of exhaustive examination of atheism. Rather, I will focus on those facets that help form my perceptions and understandings. In other words, I won’t really be trying to address the questions that other people have about religion in general or Christianity in particular. Rather, I will focus on the things that matter to me and which have been formed by my personal experience.

If anyone reading would like to comment on some of the reasons they tend toward either atheism or something else or post any questions they might have, I’ll let you know if I already plan to touch on that point. And if not, I’ll consider it and see if I perhaps have any thoughts on the subject and use it to expand my series.

I don’t assume that atheists are unfamiliar with Christianity or religion in general. Some may be, but I have a friend and long time atheist who in his youth either was a Catholic seminarian for a time or considered and explored the possibility. I appreciate it when others don’t similarly assume that even though I have not embraced atheism, I don’t know something about it. I believe aspects of that knowledge will come up in my series. I will note though, that I do not plan to write much about the so-call new atheists. Frankly, I’ve sampled their work and tend to find it caustic, argumentative, intellectually dishonest, and philosophically shallow. In many ways, they strike me as the atheistic counterpart of a Mark Driscoll. (If you don’t know who that is, count your blessings.) And I find their work similarly repellent.

Since this series is more a personal exploration, it may be that neither those who lean toward atheism nor those who lean toward Christianity will find it particularly interesting or helpful. (Someone who leans in some other direction entirely will likely find it a pretty boring series.) But it’s within the realm of possibility that someone out there may find at least some of it interesting in some way. If nothing else, writing this series will help me organize my thoughts so they stop bouncing randomly around my head.

Peace.


Why Do We Pray? 4 – To Create Community?

Posted: March 9th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Prayer | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Why Do We Pray? 4 – To Create Community?

If we are not primarily seeking to change God or change ourselves when we engage in Christian prayer, perhaps we pray to establish common ground amongst ourselves and form a community? This facet is probably less visible or recognized in low church evangelical settings of individual “spontaneous” prayer, but traditionally Christians have recited prayers and creeds together in worship. Moreover, individual prayer has also revolved around set prayers at particular intervals during the day.

Praying as the church does, in fact, serve to bind us together. Set prayers help create and maintain a common ground of practice and expressed belief. That’s pretty evident and is hardly unique to Christianity. It flowed into Christian practice directly from Judaism. In Daniel and elsewhere in the OT, we see the practice of a set rhythm of prayer. We know that first century Jews prayed the Psalms together at set intervals and had other prayers they prayed. When Jesus’ followers asked him for a prayer, he gave them one to recite together. We see the Church and apostles in Acts continuing the rhythm of set prayers.

And we see the same practice in other religions. Muslims engage in communal prayer five times daily. Buddhist and Hindu worshipers will gather and chant together in prayer. The act helps shape your identity as a member of particular community of worship. And it can identify you to others. We share these prayers and practices. That recognition creates an almost instant connection or bond.

I don’t deny that the practice of communal prayer, corporately and individually, can help create community. It’s an effect of our Christian practice of prayer, but I hesitate to call this effect the purpose. Again, if that were true, there would be little to distinguish Christian prayer from that of some of the other religions. Moreover, there are many ways to mark a group as a community of shared belief and practice. If this were the purpose of prayer, then it’s just one such practice among many, and of no lesser or greater importance.

But that’s not the sense I get from the New Testament or the writings of the Church. Prayer is seen as vital and of the utmost importance. Why? That’s the question I think we must answer.


Ancient Texts 6 – Old Testament

Posted: January 5th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Faith | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Ancient Texts 6 – Old Testament

I’m going to end this series by looking specifically at the Old and New Testaments of the Christian Holy Scriptures. They are very different collections so I’m going to approach each in a separate post. The obvious place to begin is with what is often called the Old Testament. Now the Old Testament as a whole is an enormously complex topic and I obviously can’t even cover its development comprehensively in a single post. Instead, I’m just going to cover some of the things I find interesting and perhaps some of the things which seem to often be popularly misunderstood today.

First, the books of the Old Testament represent the accumulation of many centuries of oral tradition. There’s no indication and no reason to believe that any of it was produced in written form concurrent with the events described or near the start of that particular part of the oral tradition. The Torah was pretty clearly the first part of tradition transcribed in a written form. That does not appear to have happened at once, but by the time of the Kings of Israel, it does appear to be in a more or less settled state. Certainly it changed the least in the post-exilic period.

The Torah actually appears in places to incorporate somewhat different oral traditions. That’s why there are two creation narratives and why Leviticus and Deuteronomy don’t necessarily line up perfectly. But as I’ve explored earlier in this series, such things simply didn’t create any tensions or problems in the ancient cultures in question. When we turn those facts into problems, we are anachronistically superimposing a modern, literate mindset on the ancient cultures. Personally, I try to avoid creating problems that didn’t and couldn’t have existed in the ancient world.

Ancient Israel was not text-centered. That’s another fact that seems to often be missed by people today. That’s not to say that texts (once they existed) were unimportant. At one point, for example, the scroll of Deuteronomy was recovered and its public reading marked a turning point for the people. But Israel was fundamentally Temple-centered. That’s a huge difference. You can see that emphasis shifting among some quadrants of Israel as we get closer to the first century CE, but it did not become universal until the shift to Rabbinic Judaism after the final destruction of the Temple and the failure of the last Messianic movement. The shift from Temple to Torah (or Tanakh) really belongs in the second century CE. Again, that’s not to say that the texts (and certainly the tradition behind them) were ever unimportant. It’s just that if you try to interpret and understand ancient Israel primarily or exclusively in, through, and around the text, you will miss the larger picture.

Moreover, as was pretty common across the ancient world, Israel was not particularly concerned about establishing a canon or keeping texts static. I think it’s Jeremiah, for instance, of which they’ve found four pretty different versions preserved in the Dead Sea Scrolls. We also see other development in the texts. The Septuagint (LXX) was created from Hebrew texts because Hebrew was no longer spoken. It provided a Greek translation of the Torah initially and later other books as well. By the time of Christ, many writings were commonly associated with the LXX. However, the LXX was always something of a commentary on the Hebrew and so it changed as the Hebrew text changed and evolved. The book of Daniel provides a good example of that sort of evolution. The current Hebrew and Greek versions of Daniel track pretty closely. The Greek version still includes Bel and the Dragon and the song of the youths, but otherwise pretty much follows the Hebrew. But we’ve found an older Greek version of Daniel that is quite a bit different. It apparently tracked an older Hebrew form of the book that would have otherwise been lost to us.

The LXX is also significant for Christians. Although it was created for Jews before the time of Christ, Greek was the lingua franca of the Empire. That’s why all of the New Testament is in Greek. And since the Church very quickly went out to the nations, that is to what the Jews called the Gentiles, the Church used the LXX. We can see that in the NT text. In almost every place where there is a difference between the Greek and the Hebrew text of the OT quoted in the NT, even if it’s just a minor count of some sort, the NT quotation tracks the LXX. And that simply makes sense. If you’re going to preach to people who speak Greek (even if it’s not their native tongue) you’re going to use the Greek text. If even the Jews didn’t speak Hebrew anymore, the nations certainly couldn’t be expected to understand it.

Now some will go so far as to say that Protestants have the wrong Old Testament. But I find that statement still too centered on the text itself. You have to ask the wrong Old Testament for what? Now, it is true that the LXX text (or a translation of it such as the Latin Vulgate, the text in Russian, or any of the other translations as the Church spread to the nations) is the text read in Church and used in liturgy from the beginning of the Church until the Protestant Reformation. So in that particular instance, I think Protestants do have to provide an explanation for why they have changed the OT that Christians have always used in Church worship.

But the truth is that Christians have always been aware of the Hebrew texts and have used them for other purposes. Sometimes they opposed changes to the Hebrew text as the Masoretic Jewish canon was developed beginning in the second century CE. But across all centuries, some Christians have learned Hebrew and compared the texts. There’s relatively little variation, for instance, in the Torah itself. Moreover, Christians have always been aware that many of the books in the LXX are a translation from Hebrew (some of the later ones were originally written in Greek) and at places the Hebrew text makes more sense than the Greek text. Now the Greek text is still read in Church, but points often are drawn in recorded homilies and other Christian writings from both the Greek and the Hebrew forms of the text. Once again, variation in the text just wasn’t a problem in the ancient world for Christians.

Of course, there wasn’t a single version of the LXX any more than there was a single version of the Hebrew text in the first century. Again, that wasn’t seen as a problem in the ancient world. People used whichever version they had and with which they were familiar. That means some of the versions of the LXX used today by different traditions that were separated geographically and culturally aren’t exactly the same. The Latin Church (long before the schism) didn’t have as many books translated in the Vulgate as the Churches we now call “Eastern Orthodox” had in their OT. And in some places like Ethiopia and Egypt (again well before any schism) their versions of the LXX had more books included. Again, variations like that were not important in the ancient world. Although Marcion, who rejected the whole Old Testament, was soundly refuted by all, I don’t recall any council trying to nail down a precise OT canon. It just wasn’t an issue.

As a rule, if something didn’t bother ancient Christians over the course of centuries, I’m hard-pressed to find a reason it should bother me.

One interesting fact about the Protestant OT is that although it uses the books of the Masoretic canon, it mostly uses the LXX names for the books. For instance, the first book is “Genesis” rather than “In the Beginning.” That’s always struck me as curious. I’m not entirely sure why, but it was probably to maintain some connection and familiarity with the Holy Scriptures as Christians had learned them.

If you compare the LXX, a Catholic Bible, or a Protestant OT with the Jewish canon, you will see that Samuel, Kings, and Chronicles are each one book in the Jewish canon, but are two books each in any Christian Bible. (Samuel and Kings are 1 Kingdoms, 2 Kingdoms, 3 Kingdoms, and 4 Kingdoms in the LXX and 1, 2, 3, & 4 Kings in a Catholic Bible rather that 1 & 2 Samuel and 1 & 2 Kings the way there titled in a Protestant Bible.) The reason for that difference are rather prosaic. In earlier posts, I mentioned that a scroll could only hold so much. I also mentioned that ancient Hebrew didn’t use vowels. Ancient Greek did include vowels. Samuel, Kings, and Chronicles were too long to put on a single scroll when they were translated from Hebrew to Greek. So they were each split into two scrolls. The Hebrew versions of each did fit on a single scroll so they weren’t divided.

At least, that what I’ve read. But it does make sense when you think about it.


Reflections on Resurrection 1

Posted: October 29th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Resurrection | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

Throughout this blog and in my comments elsewhere, I often focus on resurrection. In many ways, it is the Christian teaching of resurrection which drew me deeper into this faith and it is certainly one of the linchpins that keeps me in it. I can say with certainty that if I did not believe in Christ’s Resurrection and that it was the first fruit of our own resurrection, then Christianity would hold no interest for me. As Paul writes, if Christ is not risen then we are of all men the most pitiable.

However, there seems to be a great deal of confusion today, even among Christians, about Resurrection. Since it dawns on me that it is not possible to really understand some of the things I write without understanding what is wrapped up in that one word, I thought it might be wise to write a short series outlining my perspective on the subject. I’ll write, as I normally do, from a personal perspective. If you’re more interested in a comprehensive academic treatment of Christ’s Resurrection, I would recommend N.T. Wright’s big book, The Resurrection of the Son of God. That sort of exhaustive treatment is not my goal.

When pressed, I normally describe my background and childhood formation as pluralistic. In order to understand what is behind some of the things I plan to write in this series, I think I need to explain what I mean when I use that term. First, I need to say that my childhood was not shaped within the context of a single non-Christian religion nor was it particularly non-theistic or atheistic — though there were certainly aspects of a number of different religions and non-theistic or loosely theistic influences. However, my childhood, whatever else it may have been, was not anti-Christian at all.

In fact, while I’m not sure anyone growing up in the American South in the 70s could avoid exposure to Christianity, my experience of it was, while pretty varied, largely positive. I was baptized in a Baptist Church at a pretty young age. At different times I attended both Episcopal and Catholic schools. (I also attended a bunch of different public schools, a nonsectarian private school, and was even home-schooled for a few months in Mississippi when my mother discovered the local schools were still segregated.) Over the course of my childhood, I also experienced a wide array of other Christian traditions and denominations. Ironically, though not raised strictly Christian, I probably encountered more of the diversity which constitutes Christianity in America than most of my peers.

I could, if I wanted, frame a relatively typical Baptist conversion narrative. I don’t do so because that does not truthfully capture the reality of my experience. Yes, my encounters with and scattered experiences within a Christian context were authentic (whatever that means), but they were hardly my only spiritual influence. Moreover, my rejection of what I understood about and experienced from Christianity as a sixteen year old teen parent was just as authentic as any of my earlier experience. These were markers on my journey of conversion, but I don’t consider myself to have finally converted to Christian faith and practice until my early thirties when I unexpectedly reached a point where that label described something central to my identity.

Christianity, though, was just one aspect out of many in my formation. My family and thus our extended circle of family friends includes many involved in the scientific and academic community. Although, of the many things I’ve been or practiced, I never felt any pull toward atheism or even classical enlightenment-style deism, that perspective and manner of approaching life and reality has certainly been a part of my formation. I don’t find it threatening. I also do not find it antithetical to belief. I do find that this part of who I am is the part that’s mostly likely to make the determination that a particular religion (or one of the many different Christian Gods proclaimed today) is not worth believing or practicing, and its deity not worth worshiping.

The other most significant and formative spiritual perspective from my childhood was Hinduism. Why Hinduism? The simplest answer is that we had Indian friends and my mother was at least dabbling in it. It was just part of the air I breathed as a child, as present to me as was Christianity. Now, it’s important to recognize that the term itself is a broad label encompassing virtually any religious practice rooted in the perspective found in the ancient Vedic texts. It’s not really a single religion in the sense of a single set of beliefs and practices, though there are a number of consistent underlying perspectives on the nature of reality. Rather, there are many gurus, past and present, who teach different things.

I never really followed a guru. I’m not sure why, exactly. I just didn’t. I did spend some of my late preteen and early teen years actively practicing transcendental meditation, which does have a particular guru, but I never formally engaged it. I just practiced privately using a book as a guide. Beyond that, I explored various published writings including, of course, the Bhagavad Gita.

Hinduism, however, was not the only other part of my childhood spiritual formation. I don’t remember ever hearing the term New Age in the seventies. However, many of the things lumped under that heading in the bookstore today were part of my experience. My parents ran a small press bookstore in Houston for a few years and that gave me easy access to books on numerology, runes, palmistry, astrology, tarot, and many related topics. Even before then, I remember sitting with my mother when I was as young as six or seven as she brought out her tarot deck and did readings. I also clearly remember participating in a past life regression workshop my parents hosted for a friend when I was eleven or twelve. I was captivated by the modern myths of Atlantis. I also recall some interaction with Wiccan and neopagan systems of belief. (In my twenties I also had a number of Wiccan friends.)

After being rejected by and in turn rejecting the Christian aspect of my formation, I tended to operate from a basic Hindu perspective of reality, but I explored a number of different options. I read a fair amount of the Qur’an at one point, but Islam never held any appeal to me. We had had some Jewish family friends growing up and there were aspects of modern Judaism that did appeal to me, but it’s not a direction in which I was particularly drawn. I did explore Buddhism and Taoism, but at the time they didn’t really appeal to me either. (Ironically, I find some elements of both more compelling now after being significantly shaped by Christian faith and practice than I did at the time. If I was going to be anything else other than Christian today, it would probably be one of those two.) I looked a bit at Wicca and neopaganism, but they were just too modern for me, if that makes sense. I have a deep sense of history. You may have noticed that in some of my writings.

For most of my twenties, I settled into a sort of lackadaisical Hindu belief and practice. I didn’t seek a guru. I didn’t actually attend anything. But those were the beliefs about reality I privately held and, to the extent I practiced anything, I practiced Hindu meditation. I also continued to privately practice tarot, but I abandoned most of the other practices in which I had dabbled over the course of my childhood.

Why does this matter for this series? It’s really pretty simple. When we discuss Resurrection and the nature of the human being, a lot of people today — including many Christians — seem to believe something more like the other perspectives in my spiritual formation than anything identifiably Christian. And it seems to me that many people don’t even realize that’s the case. Now, I’m hardly anything approaching a guru when it comes to Hinduism or any other religion. In fact, after the last fifteen years during which I have consciously and deliberately embraced and explored Christian belief and practice, I’m pretty certain I know more about Christianity than I do any other belief system. I absorbed a lot from those other systems and explored them all to some extent, but never with the commitment or to the depth that I have Christianity. Nevertheless, I am conscious of these other perspectives on reality and see their influence (or the influence of some of their cousins) in American Christianity in ways that many, perhaps, do not. And it seems to me that the central point of dissonance lies in the all-important Christian proclamation of resurrection.

I’ll continue this series next week, but if anyone is reading this over the weekend and is willing to share, what thoughts come to your mind when you hear resurrection?


Jesus Creed 23 – Forgiving in Jesus

Posted: October 8th, 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 readings for this chapter are: Matthew 6:12, 14-15; 18:21-35.

For me ‘forgiveness‘ is something of a scary thing. I know that may sound odd, but I can think of no better way to express it. In fact, I’m often unsure why others don’t seem to recognize that this ‘forgiveness‘ thing is pretty scary stuff.

There are multiple perspectives to consider.

Forgiveness, in the Old Testament, is a ‘God thing’ and a ‘repentance thing.

In other words, God (and pretty much only God) does it and it requires repentance first. Scot describes this as the standard view of Judaism.

Christianity stands that on its head.

A brief summary of each: First, Jesus innovates in his world when he urges his followers to have a disposition of forgiveness rather than of strict justice. Second, so important is forgiveness to Jesus that forgiving others is a litmus test of whether or not one is a follower of Jesus. Third, forgiving others knows no limit for Jesus’ followers. Fourth, forgiving others is effective in his society of followers. The ultimate observation we make is that Jesus is the example: On the cross Jesus looks to those who are crucifying him and forgives them.

What Jesus says about forgiveness is rooted in the Jesus Creed: God loves us, so we are to love others and to love God. Loving others means forgiving them. Put succinctly, the Jesus Creed manifests itself in gracious, preemptive strikes of forgiveness.

We should do that more often. If we follow the Jesus Creed, we will not only ask God to forgive us, but we will forgive others. Preemptively. That is, before they have repented or asked for forgiveness.

I remember the first time I ever heard about the Orthodox service of Forgiveness Vespers. It was in Molly Sabourin’s Close to Home podcast titled simply Forgiveness. (Take a moment to click the link and listen to the podcast. It’s well worth the time.) I must have listened to it at least three times in succession and I’ve listened to it multiple times since. I immediately recognized it’s beauty and uniquely Christian quality.

I have not attended one. Forgiveness is simultaneously threatening and incredibly attractive to me. Forgiveness Vespers captures, I think, the way I desire reality to be. I’m just not sure I trust that it actually does describe reality.

Lord have mercy.


The Jesus Creed 9 – Mary: The Story of Vocation

Posted: August 27th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: The Jesus Creed | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on The Jesus Creed 9 – Mary: The Story of Vocation

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 reading for this chapter is: Luke 1:46-55 (the Magnificat) (also Psalm 149).

As with Joseph, this chapter on Mary adds context to our reading of the story in the Holy Scriptures. McKnight finds in that story another theme. “Our vocation is to be what God made us to be.” Dwell on that for a minute. It’s not to be like Mother Theresa, or Daniel, or anyone else. “You are to be who God meant you to be.” If that’s not a tall order, I don’t know what is, especially for those of us who have almost buried what that might be.

Mary must instantaneously grasp that she will be labeled a na’ap (adulteress). But she also recognizes that God has something special in store. She is to be the mother of Messiah! And she responds immediately with a song of joy. However, in her song, McKnight sees evidence of more about Mary.

Joseph is a tsadiq, a man totally observant of the Torah. But Mary pokes her head out of a different nest, the Anawim (the pious poor). Historians agree on three characteristics of Mary’s people, the Anawim. These people suffer because they are poor, but they express their hope by gathering at the temple in Jerusalem. There they express to God their yearning for justice, for the end of oppression, and for the coming of the Messiah. Each of these characteristics of the Anawim finds expression in the life of Mary and especially in the Magnificat.

Mary is poor. At Jesus’ temple dedication his parents present two birds rather than a lamb. That is the offering prescribed in Torah for those too poor to afford a lamb. (Actually, if you dig into the history of first century Judaism, you’ll find that that’s not the only possible explanation. History, especially ancient history — where the data tends to be sparse, is often like that.) Mary is not hopeless though. Read the Magnificat and see the lines expressing a yearning for liberation from injustice.

Mary’s Song is actually announcing a social revolution. The King at the time is Herod the Great, and he is a power-tossing and death-dealing tyrant. Mary is announcing that he will be dealt his own due and have his power tossed to the winds. In his place, Mary declares, God will establish her very own son. Unlike Herod, he will rule with mercy and justice.

And then these very powerful words.

If spiritual formation is about learning to love God with our ‘all,’ then one dimension of loving God is surrendering the ‘all’ of our past to God. We dare not make light of our past — whether it was wondrous or abusive, reckless or righteous. All we can do, like Mary, is offer to the Lord who we are and what we’ve been. He accepts us — past and all.

Perhaps those words are less powerful for those who have a past that appears easy for God to accept. I don’t know. At the end of the day, I have only my own experience against which to judge. And I know more people with … difficult pasts than I do with wondrous ones.

Mary’s vocation, whether the ‘siblings‘ of Jesus were cousins, children of Joseph from an earlier marriage, children to whom Mary actually later gave birth (the latest developing and least likely idea — it’s an idea that’s actually only about two hundred years old), or some combination,  is clear. Mary assumes responsibility for these children, at least two girls and four boys besides Jesus. And since many scholars think Joseph died when Jesus was fairly young, that responsibility becomes even more significant.

McKnight points out that the names of the boys tell a story as well. Their names are the names of the patriarch Israel’s sons. Yakov, Yosef, Yehudah, and Shimeon. With Yeshua, they become five Jewish boys whose names tell the story of Israel’s liberation from slavery.

Mary’s vocation was also to teach the children. It should have been obvious, but I didn’t see the connection between the Magnificat and Jesus’ teachings until this book pointed it out. Duh. We often miss what’s right in front of our face. First, Mary blesses the holy name of God and asks him to fill the hungry. (Sound familiar?) Then, Mary is poor and from the Anawim. Jesus blesses and opens the banquet doors to the poor. Mary is a widow. Jesus frequently shows mercy to widows. (And his brother James speaks about taking care of widows and orphans in no uncertain terms at all.) Mary’s prayer emphasizes God’s mercy and compassion. What is Jesus known for? Mary’s own concern for Israel’s redemption is seen in Jesus’ wrenching prayer for Jerusalem. “These similarities are not accidents.

We modern Protestants tend to ignore Mary too much, I think.


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.


The Jesus Creed 1

Posted: August 9th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: The Jesus Creed | Tags: , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on The Jesus Creed 1

Since I just finished posting my reflections on one of Scot McKnight’s books, Praying with the Church, I decided to go ahead and post my series of reflections on the first of his books that I read, The Jesus Creed: Loving God, Loving Others. I’ve read the book a number of times over the years and the Jesus Creed itself remains a part of my personal prayer rule. If you haven’t read the book, I definitely recommend it. I hope you find my rambling thoughts and reactions to the book interesting.

I want to begin with the Creed itself.

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.

Scot McKnight then opens with a central principle.

The first principle of spiritual formation is this: A spiritually formed person loves God and others.

The principle is simply stated, yet profound. One would think it is obvious, and perhaps it is … intellectually. But this central reality is often lost — or never discovered at all. Now consider again the particular spiritual disciplines Dallas Willard chose to explore (some of the most common through the ages). Recall that spiritual disciplines are intended as tools to aid in our spiritual formation. Do they not all help teach or train us either to break the grip of things that prevent us from loving God and loving others or actively help us build that love? Certainly food for thought.

I was struck by the fact that Scot McKnight immediately hits that very point. He discusses the aims and goals of those he describes as “spiritual masters” and uses those to define the following questions.

So, the big questions are these: What does Jesus know (and say) about spiritual formation? What, according to Jesus, does a spiritually formed person look like? These questions are different than to ask which spiritual disciplines Jesus practices and teaches. These questions stand quietly behind the disciplines and ask: What are they for?

Did Jesus ever express his view of spiritual formation? Yes. And he does so by transforming a creed. I call it the Jesus Creed and the Jesus Creed becomes clear (on nearly every page of the four Gospels) when we recall the Jewish context of Jesus. So we begin there.

In other posts, I have mentioned the Shema (literally “hear”) of Judaism. I pronounce it as well as I can, though the actual pronunciation is given as Sh’ma. I’ve never been able to produce a decent glottal stop (which is what I believe the ‘ represents in middle eastern languages). The Shema is constructed from Deuteronomy 6:4-9 and two other texts, Deuteronomy 11:13-21 and Numbers 15:37-41.

The observant Jew recites it daily at least twice, when awaking and when retiring. It’s the first ‘prayer’ that Jewish children are taught to say and is described by a specialist of modern Jewish devotion as ‘the quintessential expression of the most fundamental belief and commitment of Judaism.’ Anyone who wants to understand what Jesus means by spiritual formation needs to meditate on the Shema of Judaism. It is the Jewish creed of spiritual formation… The Shema outlines a Torah lifestyle for spiritual formation: memorize, recite, instruct, and write out the Torah, and wear tzitzit (fringes) to remind ourselves of Torah.” Live by the Shema and be blessed.

One can say, then, that the creed of Judaism is this: Love God by living the Torah.

In this light, look again at the man who asks Jesus about the most important commandment. “For a Jew this man’s question is the ultimate question about spiritual formation. He is asking for the spiritual center of Judaism.

Jesus responds, as any Jew would expect, with the Shema. But then he adds to it. Now that you grasp the importance of the Shema, the audacity of that action stands out. It would be like someone reciting the Apostles Creed or the Nicene Creed or John 3:16, but at the end, adding to it something new and different. This is not a commandment that is unknown to Judaism, nor is Jesus criticizing Judaism. But ‘love your neighbor as yourself’ from Leviticus is not a central creed of Judaism, though the idea is central to Judaism itself. Jesus takes the ‘Love God’ Shema and makes it a ‘Love God and others’ Shema. “Making the love of others part of his own version of the Shema shows that he sees love of others as central to spiritual formation.

This opening of the book altered in a fairly profound way the manner in which I have approached the gospel. Sure, we talk a lot about the two greatest commandments …. yada, yada, yada. But understanding the context adds such depth to it. Jesus transforms the central creed of Judaism itself. As Scot McKnight writes, “We cannot overemphasize the importance of the Shema for Jewish spiritual formation. So when Jesus amended the Shema, we need to take note.” And do we ever!

But Jesus’ addition does more than tack something else onto the Shema. His amendment makes it personal. First, he redefines loving God from a Torah lifestyle to a life spent following Jesus. We see that in Luke in the man who desired to follow Jesus and love God with all his heart, but first he needs to bury his father. Scot McKnight points out that the man was probably in the interval between placing the body in the tomb and going back to move the bones to an ossuary, but the request was God-honoring, nonetheless, by the Torah. There is even an exception in Judaism: “One whose dead is lying before him [awaiting burial] is exempt from the recitation of the Shema.” The proper burial was “how good Jews showed respect for a father, how they applied the commandment to honor one’s parents, how they loved God by following the Torah.

Jesus abruptly answers the man, “Let the dead bury their own dead.” The man, with as much as a year to wait before completing the burial is sitting on the horns of a dilemma. Should he follow Jesus or should he follow (how he understands) the Torah?

Jesus calls the man to follow him and, in so doing, equates loving God to having a personal relationship with Jesus. To use other terms, the Shema of Judaism becomes the Jesus Creed: One loves God by following Jesus.

That was something of a profound thought for me. For as I have reflected on the manner in which Jesus changed the fundamental understanding of what it meant to love God and how you went about it, I have begun to see it again and again. Over and over, loving God is associated with following Jesus. Tangibly. In real ways. At whatever cost. This is a “personal relationship” that actually feels like a real relationship unlike the more ethereal or “spiritual” way it is often presented.

Let’s put this all together now: As a normal Jew, spiritual formation for Jesus begins with the Shema of Judaism. But Jesus revises the Shema in two ways: loving others is added to loving God, and loving God is understood as following Jesus. This is the Jesus Creed, and it is the foundation of everything Jesus teaches about spiritual formation.

A creed, of course, is designed to be recited. As we recite it, we internalize its message. It sets a rhythm to our days and our lives. There is no reason to believe the followers of Jesus stopped their twice daily recitations of the Shema, but there is every reason to believe they altered their Shema to the one Jesus gave them.

A scribe asks Jesus about the essence of spiritual formation, and Jesus gives him an old answer with a revolutionary twist: Love God and love others, and love God by following me. The scribe realizes that he will need to recenter everything.

Does it not still have that impact today?