Who Am I?

A Pluralist Lost In Christian Pluralism

Posted: November 29th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Faith, Personal | Tags: , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments »

I often have a difficult time expressing my thoughts about the myriad strands of Christian belief without saying things that are prone to be misunderstood. I doubt this attempt will be any different. But I’ve had a variety of thoughts swirling around my head lately and it’s time to reduce at least some of them to the written word.

It’s hard to understand what is meant by the label ‘Christian‘ today. On the one hand, modern Christianity seems to be almost as diverse and varied as the many paths we lump together under the label ‘Hinduism‘. However, on the other hand, modern Christians for the most part assert that within their pluralism they somehow remain ‘one faith‘ even as they make assertions about God, man, and the nature of reality that utterly contradict each other. Even in Hinduism, the various paths generally share some common basic assumptions about the nature of reality. That is not always the case in modern Christian pluralism.

I have a theory that many people are raised and shaped primarily within one perspective on the nature of reality. It might be some sort of an essentially materialistic perspective or Hinduism or Buddhism or a particular flavor of Christianity. Though they might change that perspective at some point over the course of their lives, they tend to take the assertions of the paths they adopt more or less at face value. Since it is common today for the myriad Protestant paths to claim that the various Christian paths are essentially the same faith, it seems to me that there is a shared assumption among Christians and non-Christians alike that the claim accurately reflects reality.

I was not raised within any one perspective, however. Throughout my childhood, my mother was actively searching and exploring a wide variety of things. While I sometimes label my default perspective relativistic pluralism, that’s really more of a non-label. As a result, when I found myself drawn almost inexorably toward some sort of faith in Jesus of Nazareth fifteen years ago, I did so as someone who had wandered through many beliefs and practices through the first three decades of my life. If I was anything, I was a pluralist in the truest sense of the word.

It’s difficult to describe life without an overarching narrative (or with one that shifts fairly easily) to those who have never experienced it. It does mean that I don’t usually try (or at least try for long) to fit things into a predetermined framework. Rather, I more or less experience different perspectives as they are described. Some perspectives I try on lightly. Others I’ve held more tightly. But I don’t generally try to make any perspective fit into some mold. I just let it be what it is.

So at first, I accepted the assertion that Christianity is a single faith which is essentially the same across all its denominations, sects, and schisms. However, that assertion only holds up if you don’t look too closely at the different paths within Christian pluralism. They are actually very different from each other in the most basic elements. They do not say the same thing about the nature and being of God. They do not say the same thing about the nature of man. And thus they do not say the same thing about the nature of reality. Even when they use the same words (as they often do), when you look through the lens of particular paths, you find they don’t actually mean the same thing when they use those words.

What’s a poor pluralist to do in the midst of that confusion? What do you do when people say they believe the same thing when they obviously don’t?

For a while I tried to treat Christian pluralism the same way I approached Hinduism as I explored and practiced some of the different paths within it. That “worked” on some levels for a while. But the more I learned about the Christian faith and its different modern paths, the more dissonance that created. As diverse as it is, Hinduism does share some common sense of transcendent reality in Brahman, both the substance of all that is and more, but in an impersonal way. There is some basic, shared sense of karma, the transmigration of souls, and other common elements that provide some coherence within the pluralism of Hinduism. I found no such commonality within Christian pluralism.

A few years ago, a friend loaned me A Generous Orthodoxy by Brian McLaren. My friend was curious how someone with my background and formation would react to the book. On one level I liked it. (And I’ll point out that I generally enjoy the things Brian says. I haven’t read a great many of his books because I don’t think he’s primarily speaking to people like me. But I have read some and I do follow his blog.) I naturally try to appreciate the positive within various spiritual paths as I try to inhabit them to a greater or lesser extent. However, I found the book … incomplete. Brian never seemed to fully inhabit the various perspectives explored in the book and, as a result, while he does lift some positive aspects from each, the book never reveals the deep dissonances between the perspectives.

Instead of trying to somehow reconcile the different Christian perspectives or pick the aspects from each that I liked in a sort of Christian syncretism, I began to try to simply look through the lens of some of the different paths within Christian pluralism (nobody could ever inhabit them all) and decide for myself if the path described a God I could not just worship, but love. For it was the love of Jesus and a love for Jesus (and for the ways that Jesus formed and changed people in perplexing ways) that had drawn me into Christianity. It’s that same love that keeps me within it, almost as if I’ve passed the event horizon of a black hole, though the center of this gravity well is purest light.

As I did that, I discovered that a lot of the different paths described a fundamentally unlovely God. They described a God I didn’t even much like, much less love. And I’m not interested in worshiping a God I don’t like and can’t love. And so in discussions, I began saying things like, “Calvin describes a God I would never willingly worship, much less love.” Of course, people read such statements and interpret them to mean that I don’t believe that, for instance, Calvinists are Christians. I don’t know how to avoid such interpretations, but I don’t have any ability to judge who is or is not a Christian, and would never assert anything along those lines. I don’t even know how to judge if I am or am not Christian. I’m not even sure what that means. The only thing I can say is whether or not a given perspective describes a God I could or would ever worship. I’m not making a statement about others. I’m making a statement about myself.

I tend to use Calvinism in my illustrations because in its purest form (which I know most people don’t actually hold) that perspective is simultaneously widely considered somehow “orthodox” while at the same time is utterly repellent to me and antithetical to everything I see in Jesus and believe about God. I don’t even particularly care what arguments people can construct about its rightness because I don’t care if it’s right or not. If Calvin was right, then I’m not Christian, will never be Christian, and utterly reject that God. Calvin described an evil God. Obviously, I don’t believe he was correct or I would not still be pursuing Christian faith.

I could use Mormonism in my illustrations since I find its description of God and reality completely uninteresting also, though not quite as repellent as Calvin’s. However, most Christians don’t consider that sect Christian, so the illustration would not have the same impact. (I’ll point out that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints actually agrees with other Christian traditions that they teach something entirely different. They just disagree over who is correct, not over whether or not it is different.)

That reminds me of a joke I heard recently. It was a takeoff on the Four Spiritual Laws, that begin “God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life.” (I had to look them up, but the joke was funny even without knowing what they are.) These were the two spiritual laws of Calvinism.

  1. God hates you and has a horrible plan for your life.
  2. There’s nothing you can do about it.

It was funny to me anyway.

There are several general things I feel I can now say about Christian perspectives. If your perspective does not describe a God who is unfailingly good, I’m not interested. I may struggle to truly believe that God is good at times, but I’m not interested in trying to have faith in any personal God who is not good. If your God is not love, a good God who loves mankind, then I’m not interested. If your God is one who has a problem with forgiveness and who must have all debts paid by someone, I’m not interested. Like Jonah, I see a God who overflows with mercy and forgiveness, even when that mercy irritates me. For in truth, if God does not overflow with mercy, on what basis can I pray, “Lord have mercy” and expect to be heard? I look at Jesus and I don’t believe that God has any problem with love, any problem with forgiveness, or any great concern about his “honor.” The question is never if God loves us or if God forgives us or if God is doing everything he can (without coercion) to “save” us. The question is on us. Do we want his love? Do we want to assume our proper place in creation or do we want something else? How will we choose to experience the fire of God’s love? As warmth and comfort? Or as a “consuming fire”? God has shown us who he is in Jesus of Nazareth. That’s not the question. The question is who and what do we choose to be?

So many modern Christians seem consumed with trying to prove that they are right that few seem to pause and ask if the God they describe is worth loving.

However, I don’t presume that I have any ability to judge individual people, whatever perspective they say they hold. I had an aunt who was a lifelong Presbyterian (though I had no idea for much of her life that that perspective was “Calvinistic” or even what that meant) and who was probably a better Christian than I’ll ever be. I have a friend who claims to lean toward a “Calvinistic” perspective (though I’m not sure how to reconcile that with what he actually says and does) but who is again a more faithful follower of Jesus than I’ll probably ever be. Knowing what I think I know about Jesus, I would also be shocked if he were not working to “save” those within Buddhism, Hinduism, or other perspectives, even if they never overtly claim a faith in him. I don’t set boundaries on the work of the Spirit. But I think there is a lot within modern Christian pluralism that makes that work more rather than less difficult.

I’ve written the above without even touching on my long-standing interest in history, how Christianity is fundamentally a historic faith (in that we claim that God acted within the context of history in Jesus of Nazareth), nor of the historical disconnect within most of modern Christian pluralism. If I ever decide to explore it, that’s a separate post. Hopefully, in this one I’ve made it a little clearer how I approach faith within Christian pluralism.


For the Life of the World 17

Posted: November 27th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: For the Life of the World | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on For the Life of the World 17

We now move on to sections 1-2 of the fourth chapter, Of Water and the Spirit, of For the Life of the World. Here is the link to Deacon Michael Hyatt’s  first podcast on chapter four.

As the title suggests, this chapter explores Holy Baptism. Fr. Schmemann’s opening sentence is again provocative.

All that we have said about time and its transformation and renewal has simply no meaning if there is no new man to perform the sacrament of time.

The title of the chapter obviously refers to John 3, one of the water stories in John, where he tells Nicodemus that a man must be born again, that “unless one is born of water and the Spirit” they cannot enter the kingdom of God. Just as John 6 is the theological chapter on the Eucharist, so John 3 is the theological chapter of Baptism. As Paul writes in Romans, in Baptism we participate in the death and Resurrection of Jesus, we are baptized into Christ.

For a long time the theological and spiritual interest in baptism was virtually disconnected from its cosmic significance, from the totality of man’s relation to the world. It was explained as man’s liberation from “original sin.” But both original sin and the liberation from it were given an extremely narrow and individual meaning. Baptism was understood as the means to assure the individual salvation of man’s soul. … Validity was the preoccupation — and not fullness, meaning, and joy. Because of the obsession of baptismal theology with juridical and not ontological terms, the real question — what is made valid? — often remained unanswered.

It’s odd in many ways. I’ve spent my time as a Christian within a group who place a great deal of emphasis on the correct form and timing of baptism, even rebaptizing those found to be remiss in either category. And yet, at the same time they hold baptism to be a mere symbol, effecting no ontological change, accomplishing nothing. I’ve never been able to wrap my head around that conundrum, for I never realized that it was a focus on validity almost to the exclusion of meaning.

But ecclesiology, unless it is given its true cosmic perspective (“for the life of the world”), unless it is understood as the Christian form of “cosmology,” is always ecclesiolatry, the Church considered as a “being in itself” and not the new relation of God, man and the world. And it is not “ecclesiology” that gives baptism its true meaning; it is rather in and through baptism that we find the first and fundamental meaning of the Church.

The Church is the renewed human being fulfilling his place in the world in and through the one faithful man or its nothing.

Fr. Schmemann goes on to describe how, through the water and oil (of chrismation), baptism is inextricably tied to the matter of creation. It is a part of the “new time” of the Church. We have moved away from that to the point that:

Baptism in particular has suffered an almost disastrous loss of meaning.

Preparation for baptism for adults (as opposed to infants) once took as long as three years. Even now it still begins in the Orthodox Church with an enrollment in the catechumenate, those who formally expressed a desire to follow Christ, to become Christian, so that they may begin the process of learning what that means, what reality looks like through the lens of Jesus. As one who was raised with a highly pluralistic spiritual formation, I can appreciate the need for that. It is not easy to shift the way you view reality, though I’ve probably done it more often than many.

The Orthodox baptismal liturgy itself begins with exorcisms and a renunciation of Satan. Given all that our Holy Scriptures say, that actually seems reasonable to me. I wonder why other Christian traditions have abandoned the practice? (It is, after all, found in the Didache as long-time readers might recall.)

According to some modern interpreters of Christianity, “demonology” belongs to an antiquated world view and cannot be taken seriously by the man who “uses electricity.”

I wonder if that’s a significant part of the explanation?

What we must affirm, what the Church has always affirmed, is that the use of electricity may be “demonic,” as in fact may be the use of anything and of life itself. That is, in other words, the experience of evil which we call demonic is not that of a mere absence of good, or, for that matter, of all sorts of existential alienations and anxieties. It is indeed the presence of dark and irrational power. Hatred is not merely absence of love. It is certainly more than that, and we recognize its presence as an almost physical burden that we feel in ourselves when we hate. In our world in which normal and civilized men “used electricity” to exterminate six million human beings, in this world in which right now some ten million people are in concentration camps because they failed to understand the “only way to universal happiness,” in this world the “demonic” reality is not a myth.

Ah, part of the heart of the postmodern critique expressed from within an ancient Christian perspective.

And whatever the value or the consistency of its presentation in theologies and doctrines, it is this reality that the Church has in mind, that it indeed faces when at the moment of baptism, through the hands of the priest, it lays hold upon a new human being who has just entered life, and who, according to statistics, has a great likelihood some day of entering a mental institution, a penitentiary, or at best, the maddening boredom of a universal suburbia.

Wow. The priest breathes “thrice” in the face of the catechumen, signs his brow and breast three times with the sign of the Cross, and says the following, which I think is worth reproducing here in full.

In Thy Name, O Lord God of Truth, and in the Name of Thine only-begotten Son, and of Thy Holy Spirit, I lay my hand upon Thy servant, who has been found worthy to flee unto Thy Holy Name, and to take refuge under the shelter of Thy wings … Remove far from him his former delusion, and fill him with the faith, hope and love which are in Thee; that he may know that Thou art the only true God. … Enable him to walk in all Thy commandments and to fulfill those things which are well pleasing unto Thee, for if a man do those things, he shall find life in them. Make him to rejoice in the works of his hands, and in all his generation that he may render praise unto Thee, may sing, worship and glorify Thy great and exalted Name.

I hope I am worthy to flee. That’s not how we often think of our embrace of Christ, is it? Maybe it should be. We flee and find refuge in Jesus. Next, the catechumen (or  godparent on behalf of an infant) formally and liturgically renounces Satan, even spitting upon him. (That’s also in the Didache, I believe.)

The first act of the Christian life is a renunciation, a challenge. No one can be Christ’s until he has, first, faced evil, and then become ready to fight it. How far is this spirit from the way in which we often proclaim, or to use a more modern term, “sell” Christianity today? … How could we then speak of “fight” when the very set-up of our churches must, by definition, convey the idea of softness, comfort, peace? … One does not see very well where and how “fight” would fit into the weekly bulletin of a suburban parish, among all kinds of counseling sessions, bake sales, and “young adult” get-togethers.

When I read the above, I immediately thought of a friend of mine who loves the movie, Fight Club. I have a feeling he might understand those words even better than I do.

“Dost thou unite thyself unto Christ?” says the priest, when he has turned — has converted — the catechumen to the east.

In other words, face west, be exorcised, renounce and spit on Satan, and then be turned by the priest from west to east — a literal change of direction to match the repentance or turning you have proclaimed you are making.  I deeply appreciate the depth of meaning. It means more when you do something with your mind, words, and body. Much more than with merely one alone.

Then comes the confession of faith, the confession by the catechumen of the faith of the Church, of his acceptance of this faith and obedience to it. And again it is difficult to convince a modern Christian that to be the life of the world, the Church must not “keep smiling” at the world, putting the “All Welcome” signs on the churches, and adjusting its language to that of the last best seller. The beginning of the Christian life — of the life in the Church — is humility, obedience, and discipline.

Christian life is only appealing if it does, in fact, describe the true nature of reality. If Jesus was not the true and faithful man and only-begotten of the Father, if God is not good and loves mankind, if we cannot be restored to eucharistic humanity, then what’s the point? Why be Christian?

The final act of preparation for baptism again involves the body.

“Bow down also before Him.” And the Catechumen answers, “I bow down before the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.”

And, of course, you actually bow. How many of us truly bow down before the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit?


For the Life of the World 2

Posted: October 8th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: For the Life of the World | Tags: , , , , , | Comments Off on For the Life of the World 2

In this week’s podcast, Deacon Michael Hyatt got through the first four sections of the second chapter of For the Life of the World entitled The Eucharist. I’ve read the entire chapter, but since I am listening and studying along with the podcast, I’m going to proceed at the same pace here. First, here is the link to this week’s podcast of At the Intersection of East and West.

The opening of this chapter is no less provocative and evocative than the beginning of the first chapter.

In this world Christ was rejected. He was the perfect expression of life as God intended it. The fragmentary life of the world was gathered into His life; He was the heart beat of the world and the world killed Him. But in that murder the world itself died. … But when Christ, the true life of the world, was rejected, it was the beginning of the end.

Wow. There’s our story. From the beginning Cain has killed Abel, but when we turned our murderous eye toward the one who was our life, we died. Of course, that’s only one layer, and it’s one that just occurred to me as I typed the above excerpt. Every time I read it, I see another layer. I also like how he places the beginning of the end at the Cross. We are not going to enter into the “beginning” of the end times at some future date. We live within them now and have for two thousand years.

Christianity often appears, however, to preach that if men will try hard enough to live Christian lives, the crucifixion can somehow be reversed. … Not that this world cannot be improved — one of our goals is certainly to work for peace, justice, freedom. But while it can be improved, it can never become the place God intended it to be.

That world died, once and for all, on the Cross. We put it to death. “Natural life” has been brought to an end.

And yet, from its very beginning Christianity has been the proclamation of joy, of the only possible joy on earth. It rendered impossible all joy we usually think of as possible. But within this impossibility, at the very bottom of this darkness, it announced and conveyed a new all-embracing joy, and with this joy it transformed the End into a Beginning. Without the proclamation of this joy Christianity is incomprehensible. It is only as joy that the Church was victorious in the world, and it lost the world when it lost that joy, and ceased to be a credible witness to it. Of all accusations against Christians, the most terrible one was uttered by Nietzsche when he said that Christians had no joy.

I quoted all of the above because it struck me at least as deeply as it did Deacon Michael. I was formed within a culture that intuitively understands Nietzsche, and his critique strikes right to the heart of the dissolution of modern Christianity. I found the joy of Christ, but it was hidden away, masked from view. By and large Christians have little joy, even when the lack is masked by plastic smiles. Postmoderns are the masters of the mask, yet we are rarely fooled by them.

And we must recover the meaning of this great joy. We must if possible partake of it, before we discuss anything else — programs and missions, projects and techniques.

Amen and amen. I see lots of noise about technique, about programs, about ways of doing Christian stuff. Most of it means less than nothing.

Joy, however, is not something one can define or analyze. One enters into joy. “Enter thou into the joy of the Lord” (Mt. 25:21). And we have no other means of entering into that joy, no way of understanding it, except through the one action which from the beginning has been for the Church both the source and fulfillment of joy, the very sacrament of joy, the Eucharist.

Where did you think he was going in a chapter named after the Thanksgiving? This begins a look at that which I appreciate so much, the Christian life as a process. We enter into joy. We grow in grace. It’s not about some one-time event. It is a life that can become the story of our life.

Father Schmemann points out that distinctions between “liturgical” and “non-liturgical” churches and christians is largely an exercise in missing the point. It’s not a category of “cultic” practices. It’s not a “sacred” (as opposed to “profane”) aspect of life. As he discussed in the first chapter, such distinctions make no sense from a Christian perspective.

But this is not the original meaning of the Greek word leitourgia. It meant an action by which a group of people become something corporately which they had not been as a mere collection of individuals — a whole greater than the sum of its parts. It meant also a function or “ministry” of a man or of a group on behalf of and in the interest of the whole community. … Thus the Church itself is a leitourgia … The eucharistic liturgy, therefore, must not be approached and understood in “liturgical” or “cultic” terms alone. Just as Christianity can — and must — be considered the end of religion, so the Christian liturgy in general, and the Eucharist in particular, are indeed the end of cult, of the “sacred” religious act isolated from, and opposed to, the “profane” life of the community.

That speaks deeply to me. I’m not sure I can put it into words that someone who has no experience of “cultic” activities completely outside the bounds of Christianity can understand. But I look at most expressions of Christianity and I see simply different versions of the same dualism. The above rejects that perspective. Utterly and unequivocally.

At this stage we shall say only this: the Eucharist is the entrance of the Church into the joy of its Lord. And to enter into that joy, so as to be a witness to it in the world, is indeed the very calling of the Church, its essential leitourgia, the sacrament by which it “becomes what it is.”

The Church becomes what it is by entering into the joy of the Lord through the Eucharist. The idea of something or someone becoming ever more what it is fits into my perspective like a glove. Isn’t that what we do most of our lives? Who among us feels complete or finished?

Well, I’m only through section two of this chapter, so I believe I’ll split it into two posts and continue tomorrow.


The Didache 10 – The Second Commandment

Posted: June 20th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Didache | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on The Didache 10 – The Second Commandment

This series is reflecting on the Didache if you want to read it separately.

And the second commandment of the Teaching; You shall not commit murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not commit pederasty, you shall not commit fornication, you shall not steal, you shall not practice magic, you shall not practice witchcraft, you shall not murder a child by abortion nor kill that which is born. You shall not covet the things of your neighbor, you shall not swear, you shall not bear false witness, you shall not speak evil, you shall bear no grudge. You shall not be double-minded nor double-tongued, for to be double-tongued is a snare of death. Your speech shall not be false, nor empty, but fulfilled by deed. You shall not be covetous, nor rapacious, nor a hypocrite, nor evil disposed, nor haughty. You shall not take evil counsel against your neighbor. You shall not hate any man; but some you shall reprove, and concerning some you shall pray, and some you shall love more than your own life.

It would be depressing to focus on the second commandment of the Teaching to the extent that I focused on the first, so I’m going to tackle it in one post. In order to live the way of life, you must move away from the way of death. The second commandment deals with some of the things that characterize the way of death. As one would expect, a number of the practices are drawn directly from what we call the Ten Commandments. However, I wanted to focus more on the ones that are not.

The first such practice specifically listed along the way of death is pederasty. It’s difficult today to understand the extent to which children were viewed as property in the ancient world, as something that could be used as its owner saw fit. Within that larger context, of course, there were many families and tribes that cared for and protected their children. But things that we do not consider normative in the modern world were much more common in the ancient world. And pederasty was one such thing. From the very beginning, Christians taught and acted to protect the weakest and those most scorned by society, as we can see in the way they treated not just the poor, but women and children as well.

The next practice of death to avoid is fornication. I must confess that raised in the culture, environment, and various settings that I was, I have a great deal of difficulty internalizing whatever a ‘Christian’ perspective of sexuality might be. Fortunately I’ve been married to one lovely woman for the entire time I’ve been ‘Christian’ and my own internalized approach to sexuality within the context of marriage seems to be very similar to the Christian perspective, so it’s never been as major an issue for me as it would have been if I had been a Christian while not married. Nevertheless, it does mean that I don’t tend to react on this issue as many of my fellow Christians do when I hear that a couple are living together, when someone I know is pregnant and unmarried, or any of a host of similar situations. I’m not even sure if, on balance, that’s a good thing or a bad thing.

With that said, I’ve always been aware that sex can never truly be “casual”. I am not a dualist. I do not separate body into one sphere of existence and mind and spirit into another. We are whole human beings. Everything we do with our bodies affects our spirits and vice versa. I knew that was true long before I was Christian. In fact, I think I’ve always known that was true. And there is hardly anything more intimate we can do with our bodies than sex. How then can it ever be spiritually insignificant? From a historical perspective, where we have surviving pagan perspectives of Christians in the ancient world, their sexual restraint is often noted. (Their strange belief in resurrection, cannibalistic ritual practice, and care for the poor and sick outside their own group are also noted.) I do hear many Christians today speak as though this is some sort of modern, cultural issue. It’s not. In human practice and history, Christian sexual restraint has often been markedly different from the cultural norm. I would say that the disturbing thing in our modern society is not that “the culture” is highly sexualized, but that there is no discernible difference between the practice of Christians and non-Christians within it. I found Lauren Winner’s book, Real Sex, actually helpful on this topic. That’s not true of most other things I’ve encountered.

I don’t know the particular setting, language, or context for the practices translated here as “magic” and “witchcraft”. As such, anything I surmise is probably more likely wrong than right. Nevertheless, simply based on other things I’ve picked up over the years about the perspective within the ancient world, “witchcraft” makes me think of efforts to contact, communicate, or control spirits, either of dead human beings or otherwise. If so, magic would be other efforts to influence the world or people around you, predict the future, or similar exercises. I think the general rule should be that we not attempt to extend our personal sphere of power inappropriately over creation or our fellow human beings. And don’t open yourself up to spirits.

You can’t read early Christian writings without encountering their struggle against the culture of their era concerning children. Abortion is not a modern issue. It was an ancient issue as well. While I don’t believe the whole modern “culture war” approach is even vaguely helpful and don’t believe that changing the law at this juncture is or would be a beneficial approach in the US, I’ve also never been comfortable with abortion. It’s one of the reasons I was a teen parent. However, the ancient issues and practices toward children were actually much worse in some ways than we face today. As I pointed out earlier, children (and women) were effectively considered and often treated like property. If the male of the family or household did not want another girl, if the baby was deformed, or for a host of other reasons, the infant would often be killed after birth. While the infant might simply be killed, the more “moral” members of society would instead practice “exposure”. When a child was “exposed” the child was left outside the city in the wild. The theory was that the child’s fate was left up to the gods. If the gods wanted to save the baby, they could. In practice, of course, exposed infants died of thirst, exposure to the elements, or were torn apart and eaten by wild animals. By and large, the exposed infants were simply ignored by everyone. If someone did take in the exposed infant, it was typically to a life of slavery.

Christians prohibited abortion and exposure (or any other form of post-birth killing) of infants among themselves as the Teaching indicates. As a group, this made them extremely attractive to women, who were typically given no voice in these matters. Many Christians would go farther and take those exposed infants they could find to raise safely among themselves.

Many of the next actions listed involve attitudes and things we say to one another. I notice particularly that these are listed alongside with the gravest of the practices of the way of death. Apparently they are as serious as murder. James has some good words on this subject in his letter. The words we say to each other, the manner in which we view each other, are much more important than we typically credit.

This section closes with the line:

You shall not hate any man; but some you shall reprove, and concerning some you shall pray, and some you shall love more than your own life.

Hatred of any human being places me on the way of death rather than life. The rest of the list are various ways you love the human being. It ramps up quickly. Reproof we might find easy, though we must be careful it truly is an act of love. Prayer — true prayer for the other — takes it to another level. But then it concludes that some we must love more than we love our own lives — the way that Jesus loved us.

The way of death seems frightening, but in practice it is so easy to live within it. We slide into its rhythms and allow it to shape our life and being without even being aware that that is what we’re doing. I’m reminded that Jesus warned,

Enter by the narrow gate; for wide is the gate and broad is the way that leads to destruction, and there are many who go in by it. Because narrow is the gate and difficult is the way which leads to life, and there are few who find it.


Christian Perspective of Celiac?

Posted: June 14th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Celiac, Faith | Tags: , , , , , | 1 Comment »

I was bored and spent a few moments looking at the WordPress stats for my blog. I noticed that one of the searches used by someone to find my blog was the following.

christian perspective of celiac disease

In some ways that looks odd to me. Of course, I identify as a Christian. And I’ve been diagnosed with celiac disease. So in that sense, anything I say or write on the topic is my particular perspective of celiac disease as a Christian.

But I find myself wondering what someone searching for a christian perspective of my disease might want. What might be their particular concern? I’m not sure that much I say here about the faith aspects of life as a celiac would be helpful to anyone but me. Is there some generic Christian perspective on any specific disease? I’m not sure about that.

At any rate, everything else was the normal sort of stuff I would expect. That one query stood out to me. I hope that someone making such a search might find something to encourage them somewhere in the things I have written to date. It has, at least, helped me to write it.


The Shack

Posted: May 29th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Book Reviews | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on The Shack

Yes, I’m another Johnny-come-lately with this review of The Shack. In my defense, I only recently read the book and had not originally planned on reading it at all. My last attempt to delve into modern Christian fiction with the Left Behind genre ultimately left a sour taste in my mouth as that entire perspective formed little more than cotton candy in that deconstructive whirlwind I call a mind. I have been tempted to give Doystoyevsky another try now that I have a more Christian perspective, but that’s been the extent of my interest in Christian fiction these days. However, when a mostly Buddhist friend of ours bought the book for my wife and told her that the book helped her understand what Christians see in their God, I knew resistance was futile. 😉

From a literary perspective it was an easy read with a fairly gripping story and flow. Once you start reading it, you want to keep reading through to the conclusion. It’s a shame that the publishers gave the book a pass. I can see many areas where a good editor could have made significant contributions tightening the storyline and improving some of the places where the prose could be better. It’s not at all bad as written, but the editorial process could have tightened up its weak spots. There were a few instances where the prose made me wince, but others have already mentioned them. There’s no need to rehash them here. And there weren’t really that many of them.

From a theological perspective, The Shack necessarily suffers from the inherent limitation that any allegory, any description, any artistic work has when attempting to portray an ultimately transcendent God. With that said, I found the book did a surprisingly good job, much better than I expected. Many of the negative reviews I’ve seen focused on things like portraying the Father as a grandmotherly black woman for much of the book or the Holy Spirit as an asian woman also for much of the book. Honestly, there is nothing any more heretical or “wrong” about doing that than there is in portraying the Father as an old man with a long flowing white beard. They are anthropomorphisms, but we cannot actually think about God without anthropomorphizing him to some extent. As long as we are aware that that’s what we’re doing and that our effort is inherently limited and finite and thus flawed it’s really not a problem. God shows up to the protagonist as a woman because he has issues with the idea of “Father”. There’s nothing wrong with that idea. The bible is full of ways God is constantly accommodating our limitations and weaknesses.The fact that the manifestations are God accommodating the protagonist is made clear not only in the dialogue of the novel, but by the Father and the Spirit taking alternate forms over the course of the novel.

I most enjoyed the author’s effort to deconstruct the image of an angry God which has so dominated the West these past thousand years. He captured nicely the impassability of God’s love. God is love and we are his ‘very good’ creation. We have no language for that love. Everything we can say is necessarily inadequate. Nevertheless, the simple statement by ‘Poppa’ approaches the essential nature. “I am especially fond of you.” How true.

I also appreciated the manner in which the book captured the participation of the entire Trinity in the work of redemption on and through the Cross and the Resurrection. Too often in the West, the Trinity has been pictured at odds with each other during the Cross rather than acting in perfect unity.

I noted the attempt to portray the perichoretic nature of the Trinity. I know it’s extremely difficult to ever adequately portray the utterly self-sufficient, inter-penetrating, and mutually indwelling relational life of the Trinity. Nevertheless, I felt the attempt fell flat. I’m not sure, if you were unfamiliar with the underlying theology, that it would even be decipherable. That part gets an A for effort, but at best a C in execution.

The theodicy in the book was adequate. It was certainly better than you’ll get from some people, such as Piper, today. I could nitpick, but so many in our culture have heard such awful portrayals of God, they probably need the simplest window through which to begin to see the reality.

I was somewhat disappointed in the portrayal of Jesus. The book captured some of the implications for God of joining the human and divine natures. But I think the flip side of that equation got short shrift. It is through the Incarnation that human nature is healed. And it is through the union of the two natures of Jesus and only through that union that we are able to participate in the life of God. I don’t think the book did enough to bring that into the story. And without it, the story was less than it could have been.

I recognize that the lens through which this story was told was the lens of a particular individual. As such, it created an essentially individualistic framework. Nevertheless, it felt like the community of true human beings and our corporate effort was severely under-represented in the novel. That may be due as much to the way the story is embedded in our individualistic North American culture as to any intended or unintended statement by the author. Nevertheless, I wish more of the shared human nature and story had found its way into the story.

All in all, this is a novel that provides a better picture of God than much of what you’ll find in Western Christianity in a form that is accessible to everyone. Quibbles aside, there is much to be said for that. It’s a book I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend.


Beyond Justification 1 or How did I come up with a new series already?

Posted: May 21st, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Justification | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Beyond Justification 1 or How did I come up with a new series already?

Earlier this week I was discussing with a friend the difficulty of actual communicating anything meaningful about sex or sexuality in our cultural context without first exploring the question of what it means to be a human being created in the image of God. I think a lot of American cultural Christians, especially those often labeled ‘evangelicals’, seem to assume they already know, but I’m not convinced that’s the case. Having been thoroughly formed and shaped by what has effectively become the predominant American culture, I do know that its answer to that question is very different from what we find in the Christian story. However, the mainstream American Christian perspective has become so dualistic that I’m not sure it places the human being or even the creation within which we live in the proper context in the story anymore. (Father Stephen Freeman has an excellent series on that topic he has consolidated into a single post for those interested in exploring that aspect: Christianity in a One-Storey Universe.)

Scot McKnight has been running a series on N. T. Wright’s book which was itself spurred by a need to respond to Piper’s critique of what is called in academic circles the “New Perspective on Paul”. (I’m not sure I’m convinced that it’s actually new, per se, but it is different than the Protestant Reformation perspective.) I was reading and trying to respond to a  recent post in that Justification and New Perspective series when I realized that much of what I’ve been struggling with in that whole series revolves not so much about the specific term “justification” but rather why it’s so important to some people. It seems that the entire subject is reduced to a question of whether you as an individual are in or out while begging the question of what it actually is that you perceive yourself to be within or without.

After framing my brief and rather confused comment on the post, I thought I would look to see if I could find something anywhere that would give me better language for what I wanted to articulate. During that process, I stumbled across the article Beyond Justification. It wasn’t really what I was looking for, but in many ways it’s probably what I needed to read right now. The following posts in this series will be explore my thoughts and reactions to that article. I’m not sure where this series is going to go, but it should be an interesting journey.