Archives For Seven Truths that Changed the World

This coming weekend we conclude our fall sermon series, Seven Truths that Changed the World: Christianity’s Most Dangerous Ideas, with the theme of Suffering.

The author of the book whence we got the idea for this series argues that Christianity’s unique claim is that ‘not all suffering is bad.’ I’ve already mentioned how I think this book is crap (yes, it seems you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover). I’ve come clean about disliking this book but this week it’s different. This week I find its positive treatment of suffering to be both morally repugnant- and the god implied therein- and a profound misunderstanding of the Gospel, in which Death and Sin are the enemies God battles and Christ’s cross is the ‘sacrifice to END all sacrifices.’

The author’s clumsy, tone deaf theology reminded me of an analysis that is the exact opposite in sensitivity: The Brothers Karamazov.

In it, Dostoyevsky, in the character of Ivan, rages against explanation to his devout brother and gives the best reason I’ve ever encountered for not believing in God. Better than anything in philosophy. Better than anything science can dredge up. Better than any hypocrisy or tragedy I’ve encountered in ministry.

Ivan first recounts, one after another, horrific stories of tortures suffered by children- stories Dostoyevsky ripped from the pages of newspapers- and then asks his pious brother if anything could ever justify the suffering of a single, innocent child.

What makes Ivan’s argument so challenging and unique is that he doesn’t, as you might expect, accuse God for failing to save children like those from suffering. He doesn’t argue as many atheists blandly do that if a good God existed then God would do something to prevent such evil.

Instead Ivan rejects salvation itself; namely, he rejects any salvation, any providence, any cosmic ‘plan’ that would necessitate such suffering. Ivan admits there very well could be ‘a reason for everything’ that happens under the sun; Ivan just refuses to have anything to do with such a God.

So, Ivan doesn’t so much disbelieve God as he rejects God, no matter what consequences such rejection might have for Ivan. He turns in his ticket to God’s Kingdom because he wants no part of the cost at which this Kingdom comes.

When I first read the Brothers K, Ivan’s argument, which is followed by the poem ‘The Grand Inquisitor, took my breath away. I had no answer or reply to Ivan. I was convinced he was right. I still am convinced by him.

The irony, I suspect, is that Ivan’s siding with suffering of the little ones is a view profoundly shaped by the cross. It seems to me that Ivan’s compassion for innocent suffering and disavowal of ANY explanation that justifies suffering comes closer to the crucified Christ than an avowed Christian uttering an unfeeling, unthinking platitude like ‘God has a plan for everything.’

 

 

This past weekend we tackled the theme of Imago Dei in worship, the belief that we are, as Genesis 1 declares, made in God’s image.

Exactly how we’re made in God’s image has been the subject of diverse interpretation through the centuries. Does it mean that every human creature looks like God? Or is it that every creature from womb to tomb is precious by virtue of having their origin in God? Is it our conscience or our soul that resembles the divine? Or how about our love? Or maybe it’s our reason or our language? Maybe we reflect God in that we have dominion over the earth just as God has dominion over us?

Through the centuries the Church has understood the imago dei in all of these ways and often such understandings owe as much to cultural assumptions as they do to the scriptural narrative.

Here’s one way to think about our being made in God’s image that you may not have heard before; in fact, it’ll surprise and maybe offend some of you.

Gregory of Nyssa, a brilliant ‘Father’ of the early Church, understood the imago dei in even strict Trinitarian terms. If God is community, Gregory believed, and if Adam and Eve metaphorically represent humanity (‘Adam’ just means ‘the man’ – see even the ancient Christians didn’t have a problem interpreting Genesis allegorically), then it’s not simply the male-female relationship that constitutes the divine image it’s the totality of the human community.

It’s the human community that reflects the divine community. All of us. To leave someone from the human community out of the imago dei is no different then than excluding either Father, Son or Spirit from the divine community.

This is where Gregory’s thought takes a logical, if surprising turn.

Gregory’s understanding of the imago dei unfolds in a way that has unavoidable, universalist implications for any definition of salvation.

If the human community in its entirety makes up God’s image then redemption can not be accomplished unless Christ saves the entirety of the human community through his incarnation, life, cross and resurrection.

If all of us together constitute the image of God then salvation, the reversal of Sin and the healing of our nature, cannot be complete without all of us. Together.

All will be saved, Gregory speculates, because all have been made in the image of God.

 

Married in the Image of God

Jason Micheli —  October 11, 2012 — 1 Comment

Marriage counseling isn’t one of my favorite parts of ministry. It’s not that I’m bad at it, I don’t think. I’m a passable counselor. And it’s not that I mind being available to couples during stressful junctures in their marriage.

Mostly its that whenever I find myself offering advice to couples, I can’t help but imagine my own wife listening in, smirking lovingly, knowing full well I’m less than a perfect spouse and hardly one to qualify as an expert.

A while back though I gave a couple advice. I seldom give out and out advice while counseling. I was trained not to advise but to offer active listening, which I know can seem passive to couples starved for something to try and salvage their relationship.

Having no other clue how to help them stop the spiral of resentment and recrimination in which they found themselves trapped, I told them:

‘I know you have every reason to think you’re right and every reason to be angry. I know you don’t he understands how he’s hurt you and you don’t think she’s ever going forgive you and let go. I want you to put that away for a week. Forget about it and instead just focus on loving and serving the other. Whenever the old words and feelings creep up, do something, anything, to pour yourself out and serve the other instead.’ 

In truth, I was desperate, had no clue how to help them and thought this sounded just Jesusy enough to leave them thinking I’d done my job. I was surprised when they told me the following week that trying to do that had been the best week in their marriage in  longer than they could recall.

‘Why is that?’ the husband asked me.

This week for our fall sermon series, Seven Truths that Changed the World: Christianity’s Most Dangerous Ideas, we’re talking about the Imago Dei, the scriptural notion that having made everything good in creation God creates us in God’s image.

The Imago Dei often gets treated vaguely- ‘we’re all children of God’- and left at that; however, Imago Dei cannot be abstracted from Trinity.

Christians often fail to recall that the God in whose image we’re made is three-personed: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Therefore the relationship that marks God’s own life, the love shared between Father, Son and Spirit, is the prototype for the kind of life and love we’re intended to share.

Theologians call it perichoresis. It means ‘mutual self-emptying’ or ‘mutual self-giving.’

When we talk about the Trinity, who God is internally and eternally, we believe God is perichoretic love. God is in God’s own life a community of self-giving, vulnerable love. God is a community, Father, Son and Spirit, where love is eternally given as a gift and nothing is expected in return.

We’ve been made in the image of this three-personed God. Moreover, as Karl Barth argues, we’re not made in God’s image as individuals. Rather it’s Adam and Eve together- their relationship- that comprises the image of a God who is, in himself, relationship.

Back to that couple.

The reason, I think, their vow to put resentments aside for a week and focus on loving and serving the other ‘worked’ is that such loving service best captures who, at their core, they were created to be. This is the image of God in them and that can mean no less than this is what it means to be fully alive. Any lasting healing that might come to their marriage surely must come by this route alone.

 

Are Atheists Blind?

Jason Micheli —  October 3, 2012 — 1 Comment

Even after I became a Christian, I found the traditional, philosophical arguments for God’s existence to be dry and unconvincing: ‘God is that which no greater can be thought; God is the first cause of all that is.’

To my mind, there could never be satisfactory ‘proof’ for a God as paradoxical as the one we find in Jesus Christ. Still, if I were to attempt an apologia for God I would point not to the human genome or the Big Bang but to Beauty.

That we’re all imbued with an aesthetic, with an appreciation, love for and visceral need to create beauty- even as we define it in a diversity of ways that is itself a kind of beauty- has always seemed, to me at least, the best argument that there is a God from whom we owe our existence.

I understand the purely ‘natural’ explanation behind the blue glow that shimmers over mountaintops, yet there is no ‘natural’ explanation for why I would find such an occurrence radiantly beautiful. In other words, there’s a sense in which its grammatically incorrect for Christians to use the word nature. It’s created, all of it, and as created it’s all gift that should evoke gratitude and enjoyment.

As a former atheist and recovering cynic, I think I’m correct in saying that atheism’s biggest drawback is how boring it is. In trying to prove what isn’t, atheism too often misses out on what IS in all its splendor.

This weekend we continue our fall sermon series, ‘Seven Truths that Changed the Word: Christianity’s Most Dangerous Ideas,’ with the theme of creation as a signpost to the Almighty.

As the Psalmist puts it, this week we’re exploring how the ‘heavens declare the glory of God.’ This is same principle is what theologians and ethicists refer to under the category ‘natural law,’ the idea that creation itself bears the fingerprints of the Creator and from those marks we can deduce certain beliefs.

Here’s a beautiful essay by David Bentley Hart on leaving the mountain that towered above his home:

For two years, we have lived in a forest on the convergent lower slopes of two mountain ranges, and above a shallow wooded ravine that descends to a narrow streambed on our side and rises up on the opposite side towards the high ridge that looms above our treetops to the west. During our time here, that mountain has been a commanding and magnificent presence for us, seeming at times almost impossibly near at hand, at other times forbiddingly remote, but always silently, sublimely watchful.

Nearly every morning, no matter the season, it is mantled in clouds, sometimes so heavily that it disappears altogether behind opaque walls of pearl-gray mist.

And nearly every evening, as the sun descends below its ridgeline, the whole mountain is briefly crowned in purple and pale gold, and the southwest horizon, where the ridge descends, is transformed into a gulf of amethyst, rose, and orange.

When the darkness falls, moreover, there is none of the dull rufous pall that the glare of city lights casts up to hide the stars in heavily populated areas.

On clear nights, the sky becomes a deep crystal blue for perhaps half an hour—and then the sky becomes an ocean of stars.

Here in our shady submontane seclusion, cool breezes constantly blow down from the peaks above, and through the southern pass, even during the hottest months of summer. The soughing of the trees rises and falls as the gusts strengthen or weaken, but never wholly abates, and the sunlight—reaching us through the filtering leaves—incessantly flickers and undulates around our house. The birds are so numerous and various that their songs blend inextricably together, and only occasionally can one momentarily recognize a particular phrase—a goldfinch, say, or a cardinal—before it merges back into the larger polyphony. Then only the short, sharp staccato of the woodpeckers is immediately recognizable.

Just now, however, the more dominant music here is the oddly sweet mixed chorus of the woodland frogs, especially at night, but throughout the day as well. The rain this spring, here as in much of the country, has been heavy and regular, and so the ditches are full to overflowing, and gleam like silver when viewed at an oblique slant. The smaller depressions at their edges, also full of water, catch the reflections of overhanging leaves, and the green mingles with the gray of their silt in such a way that they often look like pools of jade. When one comes nearer, however, all the standing water is quite clear and filled with small black tadpoles. Next year’s frog choruses will be louder.

Life abounds under the brow of the mountain. All the woodland creatures one would expect, great and small, are here—deer and black bears, glistening black snakes and tawny foxes, Ruby-Throated Hummingbirds and owls and Blue-Tailed Skinks, and so on. The butterflies at the moment are becoming quite plentiful; there are Black Swallowtails, Zebra Swallowtails, Tiger Swallowtails, but also Red Admirals, and Painted Ladies, and a host of others. And azure and emerald and opalescent beetles and flies are now appearing as well.

The mountain ridge can be reached by foot, if one is willing to make the effort. The best passage to the top lies northwest of our house, and one must follow it first down into the ravine, into its green depths, through the shadows of its deciduous trees and immense Loblolly Pines, over carpets of moss and ferns and creeping juniper, and across the narrow stream that just now is coursing quite vigorously. The best path—not the easiest, but the most idyllic—lies across a small waterfall created by a thick tangle of oak and Asian Tulip roots over a minor subsidence in the soil. Mountain laurel is extremely plentiful in the ravine, and at present is in full blossom. Bronze and golden box turtles lurk in the shade and by the water.


The ascending slope from there is quite gentle at first, and only becomes an arduous climb at a few places. In all, it takes only about two hours to reach the ridge if one keeps moving. If one sets out well before dawn, and arrives at the top in time to see the sunrise, one will find oneself walking as much in the clouds as through the trees, and there is a brief period (twenty minutes or so) when the sunlight first reaches the ridge, at a sharply lateral angle, and one is all at once passing through shifting veils of translucent gold. Unfortunately, it is an effect that no photograph can capture: invariably, it is not only the rich aurous lambency of the scene that is lost, but the impression of depths within depths, layer upon layer.

In any event, I can do none of this any justice. To describe the place with anything like the detail or lyricism it merits would be a long, and perhaps interminable, task. I have relied on pictures simply because I do not quite have the words right now. In a week, we will be gone. Family responsibilities necessitate our moving to a larger house—one very pleasantly set in a grove of tall tress, but not watched over by our mountain. I simply feel as if it has been a rare privilege to live here for the time we have had, and that I ought to pay some tribute to the place before leaving, out of some sense of honor or natural piety.

So one last photograph. I actually took it soon after our arrival here, as my son (age ten at the time) was watching the sunset for the first time from our porch, over the small open glade to our southwest. But at the moment it seems to capture something for me, a mood at once of delighted wonder and deep sadness. It comes as close as I can at present to expressing the farewell that I want to wish this house and that mountain. It is a melancholy with which I suspect we are all familiar at some level, as individuals and as a race, something that haunts us and of which my sadness is only a fragmentary reminder—the feeling of having lost paradise.

You can find the article here.

For our sermon series, this weekend I’ve been thinking about Justification by Faith Alone (vs Works). There’s no way to talk about Justification without talking about Martin Luther, the catalyst of the Reformation.

Luther carried this understanding of justification one step further.

Because the Gospel is God’s declaration to us and because this is a grace that is totally outside of us to which we can only respond with trust, there is no discernible interior change in us.

God looks on us with favor. God declares the Gospel to us: ‘For the sake of Jesus Christ, you are forgiven.’ And the only response possible to such a promise is trust.

What Luther understands happens in justification then is that God chooses to see Jesus when he regards us. And God always does choose to see Jesus when he looks upon us. For Luther, even after we’ve responded in trust (even after we’ve had faith for a lifetime) we never cease essentially to be sinners. The new life faith makes possible always remains, in Luther’s view, nascent. Fundamentally, sin remains our determinative attribute even after justification.

This is Luther’s doctrine ‘Simul iustus et peccator.’ It translates to ‘at once justified and a sinner.’ Properly understood (and logically) Luther does not have a doctrine of sanctification, whereby God’s grace works within us to grow us in holiness. Karl Barth, a 20th century theologian in the Reformed tradition, emphasized this point by using the term ‘vocation’ rather than ‘sanctification.’ Christians have a calling in the world even though living out that calling does not effectively change or heal our sin nature.

Thomas Aquinas (and John Wesley after him) would argue this point. While admitting our sanctification can never be complete this side of heaven and so we retain a proclivity to sin, they would argue that once we respond to God in faith we truly do begin to heal. Wesley would even make the plain point that Jesus’ teachings seem superfluous if our nature never heals sufficiently that we can live out those teachings. Jesus’ teachings, for Wesley, were attainable expectations for Christians, but for Luther-convinced of our permanent sin nature- saw such an expectation as a depressing command (‘Law’ in Luther’s terminology as opposed to ‘Gospel’) we can never meet.

To be fair to Luther, his doctrine of ‘simul iustus et peccator’ wasn’t intended to recommend Christian passivity in the face of sin. We shouldn’t just resign ourselves to our sin nature; however, many of those who followed after Luther argued precisely this perspective.

 

By Grace Alone?

Jason Micheli —  September 29, 2012 — Leave a comment

For our sermon series on ‘The Seven Truths that Changed the World: Christianity’s Most Dangerous Ideas’ we’re talking about Justification by Faith (vs. Works).

In Thomas Aquinas’ three-fold understanding of grace, grace begins with God. On that starting point there’s no difference between the Catholic perspective and what Luther fleshes out in his re-formation.

The second procession of grace, sanctifying grace, is grace that is in us. But how do you know if you have sanctifying grace? That question starts to get at Luther’s criticism.

The third procession of grace, according to Thomas, is our response of faith, hope and love that sanctifying grace makes possible. Again, if you don’t really have sanctifying grace- if perhaps you’ve deceived yourself and only thought you did- then necessarily you can’t possess genuine faith, hope and love.

Thomas’ formulation of grace, though it boasted a pedigree that went all the way back to the church fathers and though there appears to have been no other reformation era critics of it, in Luther’s mind placed for too much on us.

Whereas Thomas believed sanctifying grace is bestowed upon us in baptism and through the sacraments, Luther re-conceives grace’s movement.

Grace, first of all, names God’s favor, loving inclination, towards us. This is where Luther and Thomas agree. Second, grace is a Word addressed to me, a declaration. For Luther this declaration is the Gospel. Rather than a gift God implants within us, this Word God declares to us is the gift. Third, this word-gift is what enables me to respond in faith.

Part of the difficulty in the reformation debates is the confusion of terms. Thomas and Catholic theology in general use the term ‘justification’ to name the entire process of God’s favor towards us, God’s sanctifying grace and our response. Luther and the reformers after him instead use ‘justification’ to refer exclusively to God’s inclination and declaration to us. Our healing and response tend to get treated separately as ‘sanctification’ or ‘vocation’ or, in Wesley, ‘perfection.’ So, often, when Protestants accused of Catholics of ‘works righteousness’ it’s because Protestants thought Catholics were speaking of justification when, really, Catholics were talking about sanctification. And when Catholics thought Protestants were eliminating any role for works of faith and making faith totally passive it’s because Catholics thought Protestants were speaking of sanctification when, really, Protestants were speaking specifically about justification. That both sides tended to be led by stubborn, recalcitrant men didn’t ameliorate the confusion.

What’s essential in the divergence of views is how, for Luther, there’s nothing inside me that is different or changed. There’s nothing inside me that empowers me to respond to God with faith, hope and love. Luther did believe that eventually our trust in God would create a new life but that new life would never be the basis of our justification. It would never be why we’re pleasing to God.

Again, this gets back to Luther’s spiritual crisis. For Luther, what’s important is that we don’t look within ourselves to determine if we’re saved.

For Luther, looking within is the problem because, basically, inside we’re messed up. Within us, no matter how much we trust God, is a whole stew of conflicting motives. Obviously this is an incredibly autobiographical insight on Luther’s part. According to Luther if we want to know how we stand before God we look, not within, at the promise of God.

Justification, then, in this classical Protestant formulation is objective (in that it depends not on our apprehension of it) and it is passive (in that it God’s act outside of us).

 

We’re in the midst of a sermon series on ‘The Seven Truths that Changed the World: Christianity’s Most Dangerous Ideas.’ This week we’re talking about Justification by Faith (vs Works) Alone.

The usual way Christians talk about being saved by faith owes to Martin Luther.

For much of his monastic career Martin Luther was plagued by the question ‘How can I get a gracious God?’

The question began to crystalize for Luther thanks to the help of a mentor, the abbott of his monastery.

The abbott, knowing Luther well, believed (correctly, I think) that Luther’s relentless introspection and agonizing over his contrition was, in a fundamental way, in conflict with the simple, gracious message of the Gospel.

Luther had an epiphany. He attributes it to close readings of Paul’s letter to the Romans. At some time, in confession, Luther heard the priest offer the words ‘Martin, your sins are forgiven’ and his experience was to stop focusing on the authenticity of his contrition and to listen to the priest’s words and to trust them.

And when he trusted that, Luther’s world changed and it had a ripple effect through his whole understanding of the Gospel.

For Luther, what became critical was that the priest said something. This is essential- for Luther now the Gospel is a word that gets said. The Gospel isn’t dormant in the pages of scripture. The Gospel is a promise that is proclaimed.

Fundamentally, what Luther came to understand is that the Gospel is a statement. It’s a spoken word that takes the form of a declaration: ‘Martin, for the sake of Jesus Christ, your are forgiven.’

The Gospel is a declarative statement. It’s not a command (‘Go and do…’). It’s not horatory (‘Let us…’). It’s not an imperative (‘We should…’).

It’s critical to see this because it leads Luther to ask: how can you respond to a promise? You can’t obey a promise. All you can do is trust it or not trust it.

What Luther realizes in the confessional is that God doesn’t ask anything of us. God makes a declaration to us.

This is what Luther meant by ‘justification by faith alone’ which gets clarified later as ‘justification by grace through faith alone.’ It’s not the case, as is often misunderstood, that our faith justifies us. Luther instead means that God has declared us forgiven, we’re justified. (Indeed John Calvin and Karl Barth will say this declaration happened on the cross and is perfect, meaning it applies to you whether you want it to or not.)

‘By faith alone’ means that the only possible response to God’s declaration is faith, which Luther understands as trust.

Once Luther comes to this understanding of justification the entire foundation of the medieval church becomes useless to him, making a collision with Rome inevitable.

 

Sometimes a preposition can make all the difference.

I remember my first theology course as a freshman undergraduate, Elements of Christian Thought, with Gene Rogers. I’d just become a Christian as a Junior in High School and was only beginning to become acquainted with the actual content of our faith. The topic one week was Justification & Salvation, and I remember another student asking the TA:

‘If Christians believe we’re justified by faith in Christ, then what about people like me who don’t have faith, who’d maybe like to have faith but can’t seem to find it? Is it our fault then if we’re not saved? Why faith is essential why is it so hard? That seems like a pretty limited God.’ 

It hit me then and still does as a very good question. Not only does it make essential something that is sincerely elusive for many people, it also turns faith into a kind of work- the very opposite of Paul’s point- in that we’re saved by our ability to believe.

This week we continue our sermon series on ‘Christianity’s Most Dangerous Ideas’ with the theme of Faith vs. Works.

The irony of this historic debate among Christians, however, is that the very idea of justification coming through faith in Christ is premised on a bad translation of scripture. 

Almost everywhere that is written in English is a wrong translation. It is properly translated by the King James. Take a look at this passage from Romans:

“But now the righteousness of God apart from the law is revealed, being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets, even the righteousness of God, through faith in Jesus Christ, to all and on all who believe. For there is no difference; for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,” Romans 3:20-23

In Greek, the actual wording is “even the righteousness of God, through the faith OF Jesus Christ.”

Grammar Lesson: 

It is a possessive or genitive phrase. Now a genitive means that this phrase can be interpreted as either subjective or objective. In other words, it is like the phrase, the Love of God. That is either our love for God, or the love that God has. In one case it is objective (love for God), in the other subjective (God is the subject) and it describes the love that belongs to God, or God’s love.

In Greek, the faith of Jesus Christ is also a subjective genitive, but has been interpreted as an objective in almost every translation.

Why is this important?

Because it is not our faith in Jesus which justifies us, but the faith of Jesus Christ in us which justifies us. Faith isn’t a work. Isn’t our work at least. The faith that saves us and justifies us is the obedience of Christ.

In other words, it is his faith at work in us and in our hearts which produces righteousness and the God kind of life.

This explains why faith is a gift and why we are saved through faith by grace and not as a work of our own. It is not our faith which justifies, but the faith of Jesus given to us, which resides in us.

The good news is, it isn’t my faith that matters. It is the faith OF Jesus Christ given to me, that when God regards you or me God isn’t measuring our feeble attempts at faithfulness. In other words, when God looks upon us God chooses not to see us but to see Jesus.

The other night I came home late, feeling tired and grumpy. The boys had already gone to bed and Ali was nearly asleep. I sat down to read in bed, still feeling tired and grumpy. I’d read only a few pages when Gabriel got up and stumbled, half asleep, into the bathroom to go potty. After he was done, he stumbled into my room, still half asleep, to give me a hug and a groggy smile. Hugging me, he rubbed my back gently, mumbled ‘I’m glad you’re home Daddy’ and then stumbled half asleep back to his room.

This week we continue our sermon series on ‘Christianity’s Dangerous Ideas’ with the familiar (tired?) debate over Grace vs Works. Typically, the argument via Paul gets framed in terms of our sinfulness and Christ’s awesomeness. There’s nothing we could ever do to earn God’s pardoning love. To think so only leads to more sin and a kind of idolatry. Instead we’re saved purely by the gift of what God has done in Jesus Christ, a gift we don’t deserve (grace) that we can respond to only by faith.

What I’m wondering in the wake of G’s gesture the other night is if the Grace vs Works dynamic need not apply only to God’s gift in Jesus but also all the other gifts God gives to us every day during the day and night: a child’s smile, a friend’s ear, just the right song on the radio when you need to hear it.

If so, then perhaps the reason we’re not, could never, be saved by our works is because if we thought so then we’d be so focused on ourselves that we’d stop looking for or noticing the gifts of God all around us.

Sounds like my sermon Sunday was timely, if I do say so myself. Here is story from the Huffington Post about Bill Nye weighing in on creationism’s harmful effects on American education and taking aim at lawmakers who, trying to score political points, who advocate such measures in education.

On a related note, I received this from a friend in the church this weekend:

I wanted to reply to your recent posting about creationism. As a scientist (with a PhD in biomedical engineering) and a Christian, I sometimes get questions about this.  Non-believers wonder where I fall on this issue, and how I can reconcile my scientific training with my belief.  I wish I had better replies to them, but I tend to fall back to a few thoughts:
 
(1) Evolution happens. It’s the way that living organisms change to adapt to their environment.  To say that I “believe in evolution” doesn’t mean I necessarily think humans arose from more primitive creatures. Humans have evolved over time (gotten taller, changes in bone structure, etc.) just as creatures have evolved (to develop better ways of catching food, swimming in rivers, etc.). The recent news story (I read it yesterday?) of how a bacterium strain evolved over thousands of generations (which took days/months) to adapt to life in a petri dish was fascinating.  IMHO, to say that “evolution isn’t true” would deny the outstanding science that went into such an experiment and also deny the ability/will of God to give living organisms the ability to change.
 
(2) I think the Genesis story is a narrative, but not literally true. For example, how do we know how long a “day” was? Could a “day” even be measured or defined before the sun was created?  Humans have defined what a “day” means, not God. I think that a “day” in the story of Genesis could be thousands or millions of years.  I don’t give much weight to some folks’ argument that the Genesis story gives discrete measures of time and thus they know the true age of the planet.
 
(3) I think the “big bang” (if there was one) was the start of God’s creation process. It hard to start with something, and I don’t know how someone could prove that it wasn’t with God.
 
(4) I do believe that God created humans in God’s image, and that it led to all the glorious diversity that we humans exhibit. God gave us the ability to change, to adapt, and to alter our environments, which leads to further change in the world around us.
 
Thus, I can believe both that God created the world and that evolution is a real phenomenon.  Dinosaurs fit in there somewhere too.  :)

It’s listening to testimony from scientists like her that makes me think creationism leaves us with the following options:

1. Sincere (even devout) scientists like her are all, collectively and willfully misleading us about the nature of the world and centuries of scientific discovery. 

2. God deliberately deceives us by creating a natural world that points to things like a Big Bang and evolution. 

3. Sin is so strong and pervasive our ability to study the natural world and arrive at sound conclusions is impaired. 

Option #1 seems paranoid at best. 

Option #2 seems to render us a God with little resemblance to the God of Jesus Christ. 

Option #3 seems to believe that the power of Sin is greater than the power of grace- as though Jesus did not die on the Cross and did not defeat Sin. 

To my mind, none of these seem as reasonable as concluding that Genesis seeks confess something of who God is not how (or when) God did something. Listening to Genesis read in church 4 different times this weekend, it becomes obvious what the text is meant to do rhetorically. The phrases ‘God created’ and ‘it was good’ repeat like crazy. This is the point of the story.

 

 


A Sermon on Genesis 1

     June 9, 1993:

The first date. My first date with the new girl on the swim team, who would eventually become my wife.

6/9/93: The opening date of Steven Spielberg’s first Jurassic Park film.

The first movie in which Ali and I held hands.

At the point in the movie when the guy who played Newman on Seinfeld gets his face eaten by a whatever-raptor- at that point in the movie on June 9, 1993 I leaned over and whispered into Ali’s ear: ‘Of course, it’s all a hoax. Dinosaurs never actually existed.’

Of course, Ali had only just met me. She didn’t know I was being sarcastic, and I could tell by the look in her eyes that what I’d just said might disqualify me as a future boyfriend.

When it comes to the Book of Genesis, when it comes to creation, it seems like dates are always at the heart of the matter.

Dates like November 24, 1859:

The date Charles Darwin published The Origin of Species and threw the bible-believing world for a Copernican loop.

Dates like July 21, 1925:

The date a jury in Dayton, Tennessee found high school teacher, John Scopes, guilty of violating the Butler Act, the state law prohibiting the teaching of evolution in public schools.

When it comes to how and when it all began and how that beginning squares with the beginning of scripture, it seems like the debate’s always about dates.

     Dates like 4.5 Billion:

The number of years ago, according to scientific consensus, the earth was born with a bang.

     Dates like 2.5 Billion:

The best scientific guesstimate for when life first opened its eyes in the primordial ooze.

It’s always about dates.

Dates like 6,000:

The date that creationists say God first flicked on the lights and started it all according to the step-by-step sequence in scripture.

Dates like May 28, 2007:

The date that the $27 million Creation Museum opened in Petersburg, Kentucky, a museum where visitors can find a life-sized T-Rex, who apparently forgot he was a carnivore, cavorting in the Garden with Adam and Eve.

It’s all about dates.

Dates like September 24, 2012:

As in, tomorrow. The date I’ll likely get a handful of emails angry at me for lacing my comments about that museum with sarcasm.

Dates are everything.

Dates like April 1992:

The date I portrayed William Jennings Bryan in the Governor’s School production of Inherit the Wind, the stage version of the Scopes Monkey Trial.

April 1992– that was almost exactly 3 years before I became a Christian. Playing William Jennings Bryan, the famed biblical literalist, I had to learn to say:

Yes, I believed Joshua literally commanded the sun to stop.

Yes, I believed there literally was morning and evening before God created the sun on the 4th Day,

Yes, I believed the Earth was literally only thousands of years old not millions or billions.

April 1992, 3 years before I became a Christian, that was the date I became convinced that in order to invite Jesus into your heart you literally had to check your brain at the door.

That believing in God required you also to believe that centuries of science were all a deliberate hoax.

Or, worse, God deliberately deceives us.

And in April 1992 I decided that such a God literally wouldn’t be worth believing in.

When it comes to the Book of Genesis, when it comes to how and when it all began and who or what was behind it, it seems like dates are always at the heart of the matter.

Which is funny.

Because there’s one date that seldom gets mentioned: 1849– 10 years before Charles Darwin spoiled everyone’s fun.

1849:

That’s the date Austen Henry Layard excavated the ruined Library of Ashurbanipal in Mosul, Iraq. In the ruins of that library, Austen Henry Layard discovered the original creation story.

Maybe you know it.

It goes like this:

In the beginning, when the earth was without form and chaos and dark waters covered the face of the deep, god brought forth life.

On the first day, there was light. Light that emanated from god and god separated the light from the darkness.

On the second day, god created the firmament; god created a dome to push back the waters and god called it sky.

On the third day, god gathered the waters in one place so that dry land could appear.

On the fourth day, god created the sun and the moon and the stars in the sky and named them.

And day six god created humankind to do god’s work and on day seven god rested and exalted in celebration for what he done.

Sound familiar?

And this work of creation- it all begins, when Marduk, a young warrior god, slays his mother, Tiamat, the goddess of chaos, with weapons of wind, lightening and thunder.

And with one half of Tiamat’s carcass, Marduk creates land. With the other half of her body, Marduk fashions the heavens.

And then Marduk declares:

“Blood I will mass and cause bones to be.”

And then from the blood of a slain god, Markduk creates man and woman.

To be his slaves.

As he reigns in Babylon.

When it comes to how and when it all began, it’s all about dates.

Dates like 2,000 BC:

The date this creation story, this Babylonian creation story, the Enuma Elish, was first written down, and probably it was spoken long before that.

2,000 BC: which is, roughly, 1500 years before our creation story in Genesis.

Take a guess where we got our story.

When it comes to the Book of Genesis it’s all about dates.

Dates are everything. But can be easy to forget.

So pay attention, here’s another date for you: 587 BC.

587 BC:

The date that’s the 9/11 of the Bible.

587 BC:

That’s the year Babylon invaded Israel, destroyed the Temple, and left the Promised Land in smoldering ruins and carried God’s People back to Babylon in chains.

     587 BC:

The first year of the Babylonian Captivity. The first year Babylon tried to do what any captors do to their captives:

Convince them that there’s no plan or purpose or point to life.

And thus there’s no hope for yours.

Convince them that this world is a dark, violent, eye-for-a-tooth place.

And thus it’s naive to expect anything but suffering to come your way.

Convince them that its written into the fabric of creation:

That we’re made from the blood of victims.

Thus, don’t be surprised if someone makes you their victim.

The world is the way it is because the gods are who they are.

It’s all about dates.

Dates like 586 BC and 585 BC and 584 BC and every year for the next 50 years.

Those are all the years of their captivity that Israel didn’t give up faith.

Those are the dates that Israel, despite their suffering, refused to worship Babylon’s gods.

Because Israel already knew who God was: the one, true God.

That God had heard their cries when they were slaves in Egypt.

Israel already knew the capital G God.

And so in 586 and 585 and 584 and for years after that, they didn’t bow down to Babylon’s story.

They co-opted it.

They took it and they changed it.

To stick it in the eye of their captors.

Because they knew:

There’s only one God.

There was nothing before creation but God.

God created from nothing.

And because God created out of nothing, this world: it’s gift.

You and I: gift.

Everything around us, every living thing, your neighbor, even your enemy.

Gift. All of it. It’s all good.

It’s all given just so God can share his life with us.

Israel Babylon’s story and made it their own.

Because they already knew:

You and I- we’re not made from the blood of victims.

We’re not made to fight and struggle with each other.

We’re made to reflect this God. We’re made in God’s image.

We’re made to give and to love and to listen and to forgive.

And to share our life with God.

And if we’re made to share God’s life

Then you can’t say life is pointless.

Because it couldn’t have a bigger POINT.

God’s people took Babylon’s story and they made it their own.

Genesis 1-

It’s not an explanation of how it all began.

It’s good news to captives.

It’s not a step-by-step description of how it all happened.

It’s a prophetic profession of faith. It’s a slave song.

It’s a defiant declaration that no matter how things seem now our God is good and what he’s made is very good. So don’t give up hope that one day soon he will reconcile whatever is broken in this world.

Dates are always key.

Dates like September 2003.

That’s the date of the first local clergy meeting I ever attended.

There’s lot things seminary doesn’t teach you. ‘Don’t ever go to local clergy meetings’ tops that list. At this meeting, it was all middle-aged fundamentalists and me.

We met for lunch at a BBQ joint. At the beginning of the meeting, the chair, a Brethren pastor ironically named Christian, passed around a petition to the local school board to teach creation science (whatever that is) in the schools.

It wasn’t even a matter of discussion. Christian just assumed we’d all sign it.

And all of them did.

When the petition got to me, I said: ‘Uh…yeah, I’m not signing that.’

‘Why not?’ Christian asked.

‘Because it’s…umm…stupid.’ I said.

‘You don’t believe in evolution do you?’ he asked.

And I replied, in love: ‘Well, I used to believe in evolution but you seem to have successfully remained in the stone age so who knows.’

He frowned and told me I’d never make it in ministry by being sarcastic.

‘We’ll see about that’ I said.

I handed Christian the petition, sans my John Hancock.

And he said: ‘You know, Jason, if a literal reading of Genesis falls away so does the entire faith.’

And the thing is- I knew he was wrong.

And I could prove it because I knew the date.

I love dates. I’ve always been good with dates.

So I gave him the date: 1313 BC, maybe the most important date.

1,313 BC (approximately):

That’s the date of the Exodus. The date God rescued Israel from slavery in Egypt. The date Israel started reciting their Credo: ‘The Lord heard our voice and brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm…’ 

     1313:

That’s the date, about 700 years before Israel found themselves slaves in Babylon co-opting a creation story.

1313 vs. 587:

In other words, Israel’s faith in God the Deliverer preceded their faith in God the Creator.

Just because it’s first in your bibles doesn’t mean it was first in Israel’s life with God.

Their Exodus experience is older than the Genesis story.

Their exodus was their genesis.

You can’t say a literal reading of Genesis 1 is necessary for faith because the Jews believed in and had a relationship with and worshipped this God before they ever had this story.

Israel didn’t need a literal creation story to prove that God existed. How silly is that?

They already knew God existed.

Because they knew God.

Because God had delivered them.

Here’s one last date: September 6, 2012.

A couple Thursdays ago. That’s the date I sat in my office and spoke to a woman here in the congregation. A woman who could barely get the words out.

A woman who described her life as pointless, trapped.

A woman who told me she couldn’t swallow that God loved her because she couldn’t like herself.

Here’s the dirty little secret every pastor knows: she’s not alone.

I can name more people like her than not like her.

So hear the good news:

It’s not about dates, not at all. It’s about deliverance.

So if you think your life has no purpose

If you think you have no value

If you feel trapped in a relationship that will never change

If you’re convinced you’re a captive to your past

If you don’t like the person that stares back at you in the mirror

If you’ve had your hopes exiled and are on the downward side of happiness

If you get out of bed every day thinking today won’t be as good as yesterday

And tomorrow will be worse

I want you to know:

No matter how things seem.

Our God is good and what he’s made, everything, is gift.

And that means you’re given to this world as a gift too.

And that means:

The way things are isn’t the way things have to be.

Isn’t the way things always will be.

Because from the very genesis of our faith-

Our God is in the habit of rescuing our present

And redeeming our past

And delivering us into a new future.

Because our God is good

And he won’t rest until things are ‘very good’ again.

Ex Nihilo

Jason Micheli —  September 22, 2012 — Leave a comment

As we’ve explored a bit already, Christians and Jews read the Genesis story and see in it a God who creates out of nothing. This impacts both how we understand creation and ourselves as creatures and how we understand God.

 

That God creates from nothing points to the giftedness of creation. Whether God created literally according to lyrical layout of Genesis 1 or whether God created through something like the Big Bang doesn’t really change the substance of what Christians confess in the Creed. Everything is a gift. Everything depends on the graciousness of God.

 

That God creates from nothing also points to the radical, absolute Otherness, Transcendence and Lordship of God. The Genesis story, and the Abrahamic faiths that grew from it, see an ontological difference between Creator and creation. Ontological is an impressive theological term meaning ‘being.’

 

Simply (re)stated, though God creates God is not a part of the world nor is the world a part of God. Because God creates from nothing, God is radically other than creation. This distinguishes Christianity from a number Ancient Near Eastern, Eastern and New Age religions that either understand the created world as something co-inhering in the divine life or simply identify the divine with the natural world.

 

Creation is charged with sacredness because God made it and thus it points to God in an almost sacramental sense. But creation is not God.

 

I’m thinking about the creation story this week for Sunday’s sermon.

I’ve learned the hard way that there are a few sermon topics that have the potential to get listeners’ dander up if you mess with their preconceived notions:

1. Blood Atonement

2. Heaven (and Hell)

3. Forgiveness

4. Authority of Scripture

I’ve learned the hard way that for many what’s at stake in the creation story in Genesis 1 isn’t what it says about the goodness of God or creation. What’s at stake is whether scripture is authoritative or not. Is it really the Word of God, or how do we understand it as the Word? Can it be trusted? Our need to protect scripture, in other words, often forces us into a way of reading Genesis that would’ve been alien to the ancient Jews and even to a first century Jew like Jesus: a literal reading.

I expect to get some pushback this Sunday. Accordingly, I thought this essay by NT Wright on how scripture is authoritative could be helpful.

Biblical Authority: the Problem

When people in the church talk about authority they are very often talking about controlling people or situations.  They want to make sure that everything is regulated properly, that the church does not go off the rails doctrinally or ethically, that correct ideas and practices are upheld and transmitted to the next generation.  ‘Authority’ is the place where we go to find out the correct answers to key questions such as these. This notion, however, runs into all kinds of problems when we apply it to the Bible.  Is that really what the Bible is for? Is it there to control the church?  Is it there simply to look up the correct answers to questions that we, for some reason, already know?

As we read the Bible we discover that the answer to these questions seems in fact to be ‘no’.  Most of the Bible does not consist of rules and regulations—lists of commands to be obeyed.  Nor does it consist of creeds—lists of things to be believed.  And often, when there ARE lists of rules or of creedal statements, they seem to be somewhat incidental to the purpose of the writing in question.  One might even say, in one (admittedly limited) sense, that there is no biblical doctrine of the authority of the Bible.  For the most part the Bible itself is much more concerned with doing a whole range of other things rather than talking about itself.  There are, of course, key passages, especially at transition moments like 2 Timothy or 2 Peter, where the writers are concerned that the church of the next generation should be properly founded and based.  At precisely such points we find statements emerging about the place of scripture within the life of the church.  But such a doctrine usually has to be inferred.  It may well be possible to infer it, but it is not (for instance) what Isaiah or Paul are talking about.  Nor is it, for the most part, what Jesus is talking about in the gospels.  He isn’t constantly saying, ‘What about scripture? What about scripture?’  It is there sometimes, but it is not the central thing that we have sometimes made it.  And the attempt by many evangelicals to argue a general doctrine of scripture out of the use made of the Old Testament in the New is doomed to failure, despite its many strong points, precisely because the relation between the Old and New Testaments is not the same as the relation between the New Testament and ourselves.[1]  If we look in scripture to find out where in practice authority is held to lie, the answer on page after page does not address our regular antitheses at all.  As we shall see, in the Bible all authority lies with God himself.

The question of biblical authority, of how there can be such a thing as an authoritative Bible, is not, then, as simple as it might look.  In order to raise it at all, we have to appreciate that it is a sub-question of some much more general questions.  (1) How can any text function as authoritative?  Once one gets away from the idea of a rule book such as might function as authoritative in, say, a golf club, this question gets progressively harder.  (2) How can any ancient text function as authoritative?  If you were a Jew, wanting to obey the Torah (or, perhaps, obey the Talmud) you would find that there were all sorts of difficult questions about how a text, written so many years ago, can function as authoritative today.  Actually, it is easier with the Talmud than with the Bible because the Talmud is designed very specifically to be a rule book for human beings engaged in life in a particular sort of community.  But much of what we call the Bible—the Old and New Testaments—is not a rule book; it is narrative.  That raises a further question:  (3) How can an ancient narrative text be authoritative?  How, for instance, can the book of Judges, or the book of Acts, be authoritative?  It is one thing to go to your commanding officer first thing in the morning and have a string of commands barked at you.  But what would you do if, instead, he began ‘Once upon a time . . .’?

These questions press so acutely that the church has, down the centuries, tried out all sorts of ways of getting round them, and of thereby turning the apparently somewhat recalcitrant material in the Bible itself into material that can more readily be used as ‘authoritative’ in the senses demanded by this or that period of church history.  I want to look at three such methods and suggest that each in its own way actually belittles the    Bible, thereby betraying a low doctrine of inspiration in practice, whatever may be held in theory.
 
Timeless Truth?

A regular response to these problems is to say that the Bible is a repository of timeless truth.  There are some senses in which that is true.  But the sense in which it is normally meant is certainly not true.  The whole Bible from Genesis to Revelation is culturally conditioned.  It is all written in the language of particular times, and evokes the cultures in which it came to birth.  It seems, when we get close up to it, as though, if we grant for a moment that in some sense or other God has indeed inspired this book, he has not wanted to give us an abstract set of truths unrelated to space and time.  He has wanted to give us something rather different, which is not (in our post-enlightenment world) nearly so easy to handle as such a set of truths might seem to be.  The problem of the gospels is one particular instance of this question. And at this point in the argument evangelicals often lurch towards Romans as a sort of safe place where they can find a basic systematic theology in the light of which one can read everything else.   I have often been assured by evangelical colleagues in theological disciplines other than my own that my perception is indeed true: namely, that the Protestant and evangelical tradition has not been half so good on the gospels as it has been on the epistles.  We don’t quite know what to do with them.  Because, I think, we have come to them as we have come to the whole Bible, looking for particular answers to particular questions. And we have thereby made the Bible into something which it basically is not.  I remember a well-known Preacher saying that he thought a lot of Christians used the Bible as an unsorted edition of Daily Light.  It really ought to be arranged into neat little devotional chunks, but it happens to have got all muddled up.  The same phenomenon occurs, at a rather different level, when People treat it as an unsorted edition of Calvin’s Institutes, the Westminster Confession, the UCCF Basis of Faith, or the so-called ‘Four Spiritual Laws’.  But to treat the Bible like that is, in fact, simply to take your place in a very long tradition of Christians who have tried to make the Bible into a set of abstract truths and rules—abstract devotional doctrinal, or evangelistic snippets here and there.

This problem goes back ultimately, I think, to a failure on the part of the Reformers to work out fully their proper insistence on the literal sense of scripture as the real locus of God’s revelation, the place where God was really speaking in scripture.  The literal sense seems fine when it comes to saying, and working with, what (for instance) Paul actually meant in Romans.  (This itself can actually be misleading too, but we let it pass for the moment.)  It’s fine when you’re attacking mediaeval allegorizing of one sort or another.  But the Reformers, I think, never worked out a satisfactory answer to the question, how can the literal sense of stories—which purport to describe events in (say) first century Palestine—how can that be authoritative?  If we are not careful, the appeal to ‘timeless truths’ not only distorts the Bible itself, making it into the sort of book it manifestly is not, but also creeps back, behind the Reformers’ polemic against allegory, into a neo-allegorization which is all the more dangerous for being unrecognised.[2]

Witness to Primary Events?

So, more recently, we have seen attempts on the part of many scholars to make this very difficult text authoritative by suggesting that it is authoritative insofar as it witnesses to primary events.  This emphasis, associated not least with the post-war biblical theology movement, at least has the merit of taking seriously the historical setting, the literal sense of the text.  The problem about that, however, can be seen quite easily.  Supposing we actually dug up Pilate’s court records, and supposing we were able to agree that they gave a fair transcript of Jesus’ trial.  Would they be authoritative in any of the normal senses in which Christians have claimed that the Bible is authoritative?  I think not.  A variation on this theme occurs when people say that the Bible (or the New Testament) is authoritative because it witnesses to early Christian experience.  There is a whole range of modern scholarship that has assumed that the aim of New Testament study is to find the early Christians at work or at prayer or at evangelism or at teaching.  The Bible then becomes authoritative because it lets us in on what it was like being an early Christian—and it is the early Christian experience that is then treated as the real authority, the real norm.  In both of these variations, then, authority has shifted from the Bible itself to the historically reconstructed event or experience.  We are not really talking about the authority of the Bible, at all.
 
Timeless Function?

Another (related) way in which the Bible has been used, with the frequent implication that it is in such use that its authority consists, is in the timeless functions which it is deemed to perform.  For Bultmann, the New Testament functioned (among other things) as issuing the timeless call to decision.  For Ignatius and those who have taught Jesuit spirituality, it can be used in a timeless sense within pastoral practice.  Now this is not a million miles from certain things which I shall be suggesting later on in this lecture as appropriate uses of scripture.  But at the level of theory it is vital that we say, once more, that such uses in and of themselves are not what is primarily meant when we say that the Bible is authoritative: or, if they are, that they thereby belittle the Bible, and fail to do justice to the book as we actually have it.  All three methods I have outlined involve a certain procedure which ultimately seems to be illegitimate: that one attempts, as it were, to boil off certain timeless truths, models, or challenges into a sort of ethereal realm which is not anything immediately to do with space-time reality in order then to carry them across from the first century to any other given century and re-liquefy them (I hope I’m getting my physics right at this point), making them relevant to a new situation.  Once again, it is not really the Bible that is being regarded as the ‘real’ authority.  It is something else.
 
Evangelicals and Biblical Authority

It seems to be that evangelicalism has flirted with, and frequently held long-running love affairs with all of these different methods of using the Bible, all of these attempts to put into practice what turns out to be quite an inarticulate sense that it is somehow the real locus of authority.  And that has produced what one can now see in many so-called scriptural churches around the world—not least in North America.  It seems to be the case that the more that you insist that you are based on the Bible, the more fissiparous you become; the church splits up into more and more little groups, each thinking that they have got biblical truth right.  And in my experience of teaching theological students I find that very often those from a conservative evangelical background opt for one such view as the safe one, the one with which they will privately stick, from which they will criticize the others.  Failing that, they lapse into the regrettable (though sometimes comprehensible) attitude of temporary book-learning followed by regained positivism: we will learn for a while the sort of things that the scholars write about, then we shall get back to using the Bible straight.  There may be places and times where that approach is the only possible one, but I am quite sure that the Christian world of 1989 is not among them.  There is a time to grow up in reading the Bible as in everything else.  There is a time to take the doctrine of inspiration seriously.  And my contention here is that evangelicalism has usually done no better than those it sometimes attacks in taking inspiration seriously.  Methodologically, evangelical handling of scripture has fallen into the same traps as most other movements, even if we have found ways of appearing to extricate ourselves.

The Belittling of the Bible

The problem with all such solutions as to how to use the Bible is that they belittle the Bible and exalt something else.  Basically they imply—and this is what I mean when I say that they offer too low a view of scripture—that God has, after all, given us the wrong sort of book and it is our job to turn it into the right sort of book by engaging in these hermeneutical moves, translation procedures or whatever.  They imply that the real place where God has revealed himself—the real locus of authority and revelation—is, in fact, somewhere else; somewhere else in the past in an event that once took place, or somewhere else in a timeless sphere which is not really hooked into our world at all out touches it tangentially, or somewhere in the present in ‘my own experience’, or somewhere in the future in some great act which is yet to come. And such views, I suggest, rely very heavily on either tradition (including evangelical tradition) or reason, often playing off one against the other, and lurching away from scripture into something else.  I have a suspicion that most of you are as familiar with this whole process as I am.  If you are not, you would be within a very short time of beginning to study theology at any serious level.

My conclusion, then, is this: that the regular views of scripture and its authority which we find not only outside but also inside evangelicalism fail to do justice to what the Bible actually is—a book, an ancient book, an ancient narrative book.  They function by tuning that book into something else, and by implying thereby that God has, after all, given us the wrong sort of book.  This is a low doctrine of inspiration, whatever heights are claimed for it and whatever words beginning with ‘in-’ are used to label it.  I propose that what we need to do is to re-examine the concept of authority itself and see if we cannot do a bit better.
 
The Bible and Biblical Authority
 
All Authority is God’s Authority        

So, secondly within the first half of this lecture, I want to suggest that scripture’s own view of authority focuses on the authority of God himself.  (I recall a well-known lecturer once insisting that ‘there can be no authority other than scripture’, and thumping the tub so completely that I wanted to ask ‘but what about God?’)  If we think for a moment what we are actually saying when we use the phrase ‘authority of scripture’, we must surely acknowledge that this is a shorthand way of saying that, though authority belongs to God, God has somehow invested this authority in scripture.  And that is a complex claim.  It is not straightforward.  When people use the phrase ‘authority of scripture’ they very often do not realize this.  Worse, they often treat the word ‘authority’ as the absolute, the fixed point, and make the word ‘scripture’ the thing which is moving around trying to find a home against it.

Click here to read the rest.

The Risk of Love

Jason Micheli —  September 21, 2012 — Leave a comment

I posted earlier about the Christian conviction that sin/evil is nothing, literally ‘no-thing.’ If you’re like me when I first heard this metaphysical perspective, then you’re head is hurting.

On the one hand, it’s easy to see how logic dictates the nothingness or unreality of evil. On the other hand, putting the matter into these philosophical categories doesn’t necessarily answer our felt questions about why bad things happen to good people (aside: if we’re sinners, then the adjective ‘good’ is an assumption isn’t it?) or why wholesale tragedies like the earthquake and tsunami in Japan occur.

A less philosophical, easier to understand, but only slightly more satisfying way to think about this comes from Augustine and St Thomas Aquinas. Its an answer rooted in God’s risk of love towards us.

For Augustine, the drama of the human story and the beauty of the Christ story is that God creates so that we can share life and love with God.

God didn’t create a mechanized universe in which we have no choice but to worship dutifully. God wasn’t creating automatons or servile followers. God was creating friends and lovers. Because God is in the Trinity loving relationship, God wants to share loving relationship with us.

Consider my wife.

What makes our relationship authentic, loving and beautiful is that both of us love one another freely. It’s a free exchange of love. It’s reciprocal. Nothing is forced. If it was, you’d call it abuse not love. You’d think it tragic.

As any friend or lover knows, loving relationship can’t be coerced. If it is then it’s only a pale imitation of the actual thing.

In creation, then, God risks that we might not reciprocate God’s love. God hardwires us for love. God calls us back to relationship through Abraham, Israel, the prophets and Christ but God never forces our hand.

The risk inherent in God’s love is our freedom.

And as we are free to love God we are free to love other ends.

What we call sin is disordered love: love of money, love of pleasure, love of an ideology etc.

And what we call evil is often the wreckage of our disordered loves. The fact remains evil is mysterious and, as the Book of Job (38) amply demonstrates, any theory or explanation of it ultimately proves unsatisfying. As vague and metaphysical as it can sound, I can’t help thinking our calling evil ‘a shadow, nothing, not God’ is as faithful a way of speaking as we can legitimately muster. In the face of suffering, what Christians should speak are not answers or theories but confessions and professions. We should affirm not God’s providence (‘there’s a plan for everything…’) but the scope of God’s love (‘Jesus wept…’).

After all, what is critical for Christians to remember in such discussions- and this is what Augustine was keen to secure- is that the Cross is the full measure of God’s love and character and that all of creation shimmers with that same perfect charity and love.

Explanations may prove elusive but this way of speaking of God forbids faithful Christians from ever consigning another’s suffering to God’s will, and in the face of natural evil Christians should only mourn, help redeem disaster and to keep looking for creation’s goodness that lies below tragedy’s surface.

Because if God is Trinity peace is always a more determinative, if at times hard to see, reality.

 

Hell and Nothingness

Jason Micheli —  September 20, 2012 — Leave a comment

So Genesis 1 stresses that you and I, everyone and everything, is good. Thoroughly. Creation and all that is within it is an occasion for God’s joy and delight.

Certainly that’s a naive perspective is it not? I need only travel a mile from my house to Route One to see contradictory evidence of infinite goodness. I need only look at the pictures of those soldiers serving overseas on the church wall to discover that all is not perfect in the world. Right?

Very often it feels easier to believe in Sin, Evil and Broken-ness than it does to believe in God’s goodness or our own. It’s cliche to hear theologians admit that Sin is the only objectively verifiable doctrine Christians espouse. Just think how most street-preacher’s tracts begin not with God’s infinite love expressed in Jesus but with Sin and the wages earned from Sin and only then wind their way to a God who loves me.

Our ‘faith’ in the reality of Evil and Sin is so unshakably strong Christians sometimes  speak as though Evil were a Reality or Presence within our world in defiant opposition to God- as though Evil were the villain to God’s protagonist, paired equals squaring off with the fate of creation hanging in the balance.

This way of thinking about evil, though commonplace, was a heresy Augustine himself fought against his entire life. Here’s why:

If you take a logical step back from the passion we feel about a creation that seems always to be suffering, then you see that Evil cannot be its own Reality, Presence or Substance apart from or in opposition to God.

If it were then logically God would not be all-powerful, perfect love, and creation would no longer be the overflowing of an infinitely self-giving God. As David Hart notes, there is a sense in which Christians confess that this world is the only world God could’ve created, not by necessity or limitation but because God is perfect freedom and cannot but express himself perfectly and completely. This is the only world God could’ve created because this is God’s perfect expression of his love.

If David Hart is right about the goodness of creation, then what is evil?

What is sin?

In C.S. Lewis’ The Great Divorce, hell is envisioned as an existence where everything and every inhabitant exists only as a shadow with no solid reality. Lewis’ story is a narrative take on Augustine’s understanding of the sin and evil.

Simply put (okay, not so simple), evil- whether it is natural evil, such as a tsunami, or radical evil, a human act such as the Holocaust- is not a real thing in itself. It has no substance or existence of its own.

The early Church, following Augustine’s lead, referred to evil as a ‘privation of the good’ or the ‘absence of the good.’ John Wesley echoed this same understanding when he defined sin and salvation primarily in a medical sense; sin is a disease of our nature and salvation, as the Greek word for salvation itself means, is ‘healing. All this is to say that for the Church the most consistent way of thinking about evil is that its ‘nothing.’ Literally, it’s no-thing. This is why St. Paul can afford to sound so confident about the ‘principalities and powers’ exercising no more dominion in the world than we afford them.

Just as evil is thought to be nothing in the ancient church, hell then was thought to be not a place of eternal punishment so much as an existence- even in this world- of those who refuse God’s love and goodness; those who live outside of or independent from God, who encompasses all being, eventually and unavoidably whither away into nothingness. Shadow as Lewis describes it.

 

Question: ‘Dad, did God make dinosaurs too?’

Answer: ‘God made everything.’

Question: ‘Well, why doesn’t it say in the bible that God made dinosaurs with everything else?’

Answer: ‘Go brush your teeth.’

Whenever the family and I go someplace like the National Zoo or the Natural History Museum, I have a little game (read: annoying habit) of embarrassing my wife. Looking at the skeletons of dinosaurs, say, or an evolutionary chart in the ape house I’ll loudly say something like: ‘Of course, if you actually believe in that Darwin nonsense’ or ‘Naturally, it’s all a conspiracy by liberal humanists.’

It only adds to my wife’s embarrassment (read: irritation) when my mock pronouncements are actually met with ‘Amens’ from overhearing bystanders. I admit I’m always a bit surprised by them too. I can only imagine what sort of experience a zoo must be to those who don’t believe in the underlying premise behind every cage and exhibit. It must be a maze of lies and misinformation to such people, begging the even more problematic question of why, if evolution etc isn’t true, God has created a world seemingly designed to mislead us.

My boys have started trying to juxtapose dinosaurs (which they love) with God (whom they love). I take a less sarcastic angle with them and try to make sure I don’t say more than the bible tries to say.

Creation is our worship theme for the coming weekend and its got me thinking of those people I always run into at zoos and museums. And I’m wondering where you fall on this topic?

Do you think the Genesis account is literally true? Do you think its something else? How many creationists are out there actually?

On a related note, here’s NPR’s story about an evolutionary themed Dr Pepper ad that’s provoked complaints from Christians.

 

We’re in a sermon series on the ‘Seven Truths that Changed the Word: Christianity’s Most Dangerous Ideas.’ This weekend’s theme is Creation Ex Nihilo. I seldom reflect too much on creation theology, mostly, I think, because creation theology tends to be abstracted from the particularity of Christ.

But that doesn’t mean creation isn’t an integral part of our faith. It isn’t to say that creation isn’t a part of the Good News. There’s plenty of grist for reflection.

This week I’ve been thinking about those people I encountered on doorsteps and how impoverished their faith-view was because if there’s one thing the Genesis story makes clear about creation: It Really Is Good. 

Yes, creation is fallen. Yes, the present world as its splayed across the front pages of the Washington Post is far from what God intended with the opening salvo of the Genesis story. Yes, creation is, as Paul writes in Romans 8, groaning while it awaits Christ’s final redemption. And it’s true we’ve turned what God’s given as gift into an object to be used and abused at our pleasure.

Traditionally, Christians- no, Protestants- have been very faithful when it comes to affirming creation’s broken-ness.

So good, in fact, I don’t think we need to dwell on it anymore.

Traditionally, Christians- no, Protestants- have been sinfully terrible at affirming the goodness of God’s creation.

Christians have even neglected the goodness of creation in the name of faithfulness. Far too often Christians have emphasized the ‘spiritual’ at the expense of the material, thinking that true fidelity required a miserly disposition towards the pleasures of this world.

Misreading St. Paul, Christians have regrettably thought faithfulness required a distinction between the spiritual and the material, between the body and the soul, between the spirit and the flesh. Mistakenly looking towards the pie in the sky, Christians just as often have stressed the goodness of the next life at the expense of this life.

The variety and frequency of error notwithstanding, a Christian confession of God as Creator can abide by no division between flesh and spirit, material and soul. When we say God created the heavens and the earth, we remember that God declared our surroundings ‘good.’ God looked upon our earth, our bodies, our felt experience and called it ‘very good.’

Good food is very good. Love for another is very good. A beautiful vista, a deep friendship, a worthwhile endeavor- they’re all very, very good because that’s how God made them.

Christianity isn’t about practicing a sort of split personality syndrome when it comes to our religious versus everyday lives. Christian selflessness doesn’t mean we regard creation with a miserly disdain. An authentic Christianity sees every moment and every object in our lives as graced. Failure to enjoy life and creation is in a very real sense a theological failure.

Christians are so often so focused on the Cross they forget that God deemed our earthly, fleshly lives good enough to take flesh himself in Christ.

The temptation to divide existence into spiritual and material distinctions is a fourth century heresy called Manicheanism, which in St. Augustine’s day saw the created world as inherently corrupt, broken and even evil. The spiritual, heavenly, world precisely because it was not finite was desirable. Thus the goal of the spiritual life was to escape our earthly lives to the spiritual realm.

St. Augustine devoted a large number of years to debating and defeating the Manichees. Even though modern believers still exhibit a propensity to divide the spiritual from the material, Augustine believed the Trinity warned against any such inclination. If God is Trinity and if Creation is the result of God’s gracious, unnecessary self-giving, then to question Creation’s goodness is, in effect, to question the goodness of God.

Through the years I’ve had friends and close acquaintances who are Muslim. As a prison chaplain I worked alongside a Muslim Imam. In every instance, I’ve always noticed how I actually have MORE in common with them than I do with many of my cultural (non-practicing) Christian friends. Given how radically secular our culture and my generation is how could it be anything but? In college, for example, the only other people I knew who prayed besides myself did so to Allah.

As many of you know, Islam is defined literally as ‘submission’ to God’s will and teaching. The closet Mennonite in me, which is to say the Methodist in me, has always admired the Muslims’ notion of submission. After all, most Christians define Christianity as what? Beliefs…faith in…Jesus as Savior? That’s part of it certainly but I’ve always been uncomfortable with how so many Christians define their faith in a way that conveniently sidesteps or makes optional the actual teachings and example of Christ.

I’ve been thinking this week about the doctrines of incarnation and trinity for the Sunday sermon and I’ve been struck once again how those beliefs work to secure Jesus’ place in the God-head. In other words, the one who gave the sermon on mount wasn’t merely an historical teacher whose words can be dismissed or ignored. He’s God. The sermon on the mount is, literally, the word of God.

So that’s why I’m thinking about submission. I’m wondering what the Church would look like, what the world would look like, if Christians understood THEIR religion as submission to the teachings of Jesus.

We’re in the midst of a sermon series on ‘The Seven Truths that Changed the World: Christianity’s Most Dangerous Ideas.’ The ideas outlined in the book are like a greatest hits of what Christians believe; the book itself, however, is far from a hit. It, pardon me, sucks. Having said that, up next is the Christian belief- perhaps the most peculiar of all- that God once took flesh and walked the earth. So this weekend we’ll be talking about those big churchy concepts ‘incarnation’ and ‘trinity.’ And so that’s what’s on mind this week.

On one level the language of the Nicene Creed is beautiful and poetic: ‘…light from light, true God from God…’

On the other hand, jargon like essence and person are, in fact, antiquated philosophical concepts. Were the creed being hammered out in 2011 instead of 381 the Church would no doubt use different language. Nonetheless it’s critical (and life-giving) to appreciate exactly what the Creed is attempting to express.

By Trinity the creed wants to convey that God is not the God of the philosophers and civil religions (absolute power etc.). God is sovereign, costly love that liberates and reconciles. God’s love for the world in Christ and now at work in the Spirit is not accidental, temporary, secondary or incidental to God’s identity. There is no darker side to God’s character that is different from what we learn in the story of Jesus Christ. God just is self-giving, self-expending, other-affirming, community-building love. The exchange of love we see on the Cross, the declaration of delight we hear in Jesus’ baptism, the self-emptying we find in the incarnation at Christmas IS who God is and always has been.

In previous posts, I hit hard the point that who we are as creatures are persons who’ve been made to love, desire and worship God. To be human is to love, I argued, not believe or think.

We are these sorts of creatures because this is the sort of God who have in the Trinity.

Here’s a dusty, impressive word to add, one that comes straight from this Sunday’s scripture, Philippians 2:  Perichoresis

It’s means ‘mutual self-emptying’ or ‘mutual self-giving.’  When we talk about the immanent Trinity, who God is internally and eternally, we believe God is perichoretic love.

By saying God is three persons, what we mean is that God is in God’s own life a community of self-giving, vulnerable love. God is a community, Father, Son and Spirit, where love is eternally given as a gift and nothing is expected in return. This is why God pouring himself out into Jesus’ flesh and emptying himself of power on the Cross isn’t a seismic shift in God’s identity. God doesn’t change with Jesus. It’s who God has always been.

Remember, we’ve been made in the image of this three-personed God. So who God is has implications for who we are, or, at least, how we should understand ourselves as we were intended to be.

A few therefores:

By Trinity the Church confesses that God’s fundamental identity is personal love shared in relationship.

Therefore, to be human is to love in relationship. In a sense, every call to worship in a church service is a call to return to or discover our humanity. You can’t be human, and you certainly can’t worship this God, without loving relationships in your life.

God’s life is one of deep, profound, joyous communion.

Therefore, we embody God’s life and connect to it not as individuals but as a community. If the God who says ‘Let us make humankind in our image’ is a Trinity, then  we comprise God’s image not as individuals but as a human community. It’s all of us together that make up God’s image. This is why the most ancient iconography for the Trinity is not three circles or triangles but the portrayal from Genesis 18 of the three strangers feasting together at a table. The community feast as image of God’s immanent life.

God’s life is unchanging but is dynamic in that its a constant exchange of self-giving love (This is why the Spirit is often described as the exchange of the Father and Son’s love).

Therefore-

The reason so many feel alive and connected to God during experiences of sacrificial, self-giving love (the service, mission-trip high people often refer to) is because this is who God is and who we’ve been fashioned after.

God’s life is one in which difference (Father, Son and Spirit) exists in peace and harmony.

Therefore at the heart of creation, at the root of all things, is not chaos or violence but an original peace. Annie Dillard, the nature essayist, made famous the line that creation ‘is red in tooth and claw.’ Trinity reminds and stretches Christians to look upon a seemingly ambivalent and violent world and see a still deeper harmony and peace.

Because God is within God’s own life a community of difference and peace, peace among God’s creatures is not a hopeless ‘ideal’ but a part of the very fabric of creation.

We are creatures made to love one another because the Creator himself is a community of mutual, self-giving love; a community where difference and peace exist in infinite joy.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We Are What We Love?

Jason Micheli —  September 10, 2012 — 1 Comment

Think about it this: If I say I love my wife, Ali, but you witness no actions, passions or behavior that affirms this then you would conclude I don’t really love her. Right?

Yet how often do we accept the exact opposite when it comes to someone who says they love God or Jesus?

How often do we accept as legitimate the faith of those who say they believe in God but give no evidence of love in their lives- love for God or for others?

We’re in the midst of our fall sermon series, Seven Truths that  Changed the World: Christianity’s Most Dangerous Ideas.

But why ideas? It’s common to reduce Christianity to a system of beliefs, but it hasn’t always and wasn’t originally so.

St Augustine of Hippo was a 5th century theologian and bishop of North Africa. In response to the fall of Rome, which many Romans blamed on Christianity and which was an almost inconceivable event at the time, Augustine wrote a long work of theology entitled The City of God.

 

In it, Augustine characterizes Rome’s fall as inevitable by drawing a contrast between the earthly city (Rome) and the heavenly city. Interestingly, according to Augustine, what distinguishes citizens of the two cities is not beliefs but love.

 

The earthly city is necessarily finite, even doomed, because its citizens’ love is directed towards finite ends whereas what distinguishes the citizens of the heavenly city is a love aimed towards God. For Augustine, and I would argue for the scriptures, our primordial orientation to the world as creatures is not knowledge or belief but love. We are not led in the world by our head. We instead feel our way in the world with our hands and our heart. As creatures we are not mere containers for ideas or beliefs. As creatures our lives are dynamic, aimed outward from ourselves to the world.

Another way of putting this is that humans are not primarily rational creatures we are intentional creatures; that is, we are aimed towards an object other than ourselves.

For Augustine, we are essentially and ultimately lovers. To be human is to love. And it’s what we love that defines who we are. Our ultimate love is what constitutes our identity. It’s not what I think that shapes me from the ground up; it’s what I love.

Look at the creation story in Genesis.

Jews and Christians have always taught that God created ex nihilo, out of nothing. In other words, God didn’t need to create. Father, Son and Spirit didn’t need us because God was incomplete without us or because God was lonely.

No, creation is grace all the way down. God makes us for no other reason but to share God’s love and life. Creation is the joy and love God has within God spilled over.

In Genesis we are made for no other reason but to love God.

Augustine’s way of putting this is that we are teleological creatures. ‘Telos’ means end. We are creatures directed towards an end: God and God’s Kindgom. That’s how we’re wired from the Day One of creation (and this is what Sin is: to have our loves directed towards something other than the Kingdom. Sin isn’t the absence of love it’s misdirected love).

We’re teleological, End-driven, creatures. We’re not pushed by beliefs; we are pulled by a desire. It’s not that we’re intellectually convinced and then we muster up the heart to follow Jesus. It’s that we’re attracted to a vision of the End that Christ gives us.

Look at the Sermon on the Mount, the crux of Jesus’ earthly teaching.

Standing on top of the mountain, preaching to the crowds but speaking to his disciples, Jesus uses not the language of belief or ideas. Jesus speaks in the language of desire: ‘Blessed are those who mourn for you will rejoice. Blessed are you who hunger and thirst for righteousness sake…’

It’s the language of want Jesus uses to form his people.

It’s possible to persuade me rationally. You may logically convince me. But until you’ve gotten me to want differently, until you’ve redirected my love and desire, you’ve not changed me.

And I am still far from being a disciple.

John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement in 18th century England, called such Christians ‘almost Christians.’ For Wesley, believing in Jesus was a pale imitation of what we were made for: having the love of God ‘shed abroad in our hearts.’

For Wesley, like St Augustine, since we are made to love God and be directed towards God, to be a disciple is not about having right ideas. Being a disciple is about becoming the kind of person who loves rightly- who desires God and loves neighbor and is directed beyond oneself towards the world in love.