Tuesday, June 29, 2010

God vs. Jesus - a false dichotomy...

Today, I was talking with a friend about how difficult it can be at times to discern the will of God. I don't know for sure, but I suspect I'm not the only one who struggles with this: I often can't sense God's presence as much as I would like, and I also don't feel like I am getting a clear picture from Scripture regarding what God is saying, and so...

Well, me personally, I either get really frustrated and mad because God isn't doing anything (apparently), or I get worried and afraid to move forward because God isn't doing anything (apparently). I think another common response is to simply give up on God and try to do things on our own, because we think that since God doesn't seem to be showing up, we are left to make our own way. I don't believe any of these options are viable for Christians.

Thankfully, we are given a very clear picture of the will of God: it is found in the life of Jesus Christ as captured in the gospels. Jesus, we believe, IS God. Fully God, and yet fully human. So, if you want to know what the will of God is for your life, look at how Jesus lived, and follow his lead!

"Yeah," people might say, "but Jesus really didn't have to deal with what I'm dealing with. His world was totally different than mine." True enough - but only partially. Yes, Jesus' historical time and place was far removed from ours, but the response he gave to his world is the same response we are to give to ours: announce that the kingdom of God is at hand, and live out that proclamation!

It all sounds so easy when I say it, but, unfortunately, I know full well how difficult it can be. And even though I don't really like admitting it to myself, I am fairly certain that I know the real reason I/we make excuses like this. The truth is, we really don't like the idea of living like Jesus!

I mean, if the will of God is to live like Christ, then it apparently will involve sacrifice. It will mean placing others before ourselves, even to a radical degree at times. It may mean giving up everything we hold onto for security. At the very least, if following God means living like Jesus, it will often upset our comfortable lives. And this - I suspect - is the real reason we often ignore the will of God clearly presented to us in the life and work of Christ, and instead try to look for some mysterious "sign" or evidence of the "will of God" in our lives.

Perhaps when we stop looking for (and trying to fabricate in our field of vision) what we think God's will should look like, and simply start to follow Jesus and live like he said we should, then we will find that God's will has never been far away... it's always right in front of us, waiting for us to take it seriously.

If I'm completely honest, it's easier sometimes for me to create a false dichotomy between God and Jesus, as though God's will and Jesus' will are not the same. But if Jesus is God, then God's will is Jesus' will. And Jesus has given us a pretty clear picture of what God's will involves. It may not always be that appealing, but that's something we will have to deal with if we are going to take God's will seriously.

Maybe I'm just realizing how much I fight against what God really wants, and how much I try to make God's will into my own will. That will never work. So, instead, I'm going to try a bit more each day to follow Jesus. At least that's my desire.

God, give me your strength.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Enrique Dussel on "the poor" and "the kingdom"...

(The complete article from which these quotes are taken can be found here)

"[R]eligion is not some ideological superstructure which justifies the prevailing system; religion is rather the infrastructural undermining of the sinful status quo and the construction of a new order in history as an offering or sacrifice to God, a sharing in that building of his Kingdom which is God's own gift.

The revolutionary who is a believer will not see his religious position as a matter of accident or of little importance. His religion is a radical openness, an enabling condition of greater political and economic creativity in his work, his service of the poor. This service, 'already' in the Kingdom since it is outside the system, is worship of God. Thus the poor are a necessary mediation of the act of worship of the Infinite...

All actual, material, and thus religious service of the poor is in itself worship of God and the building of his Kingdom. To deny poverty is to deny the absence of the Kingdom in the present system. It is to affirm the existing system as the kingdom of this world. To affirm the poor, on the other hand, and to serve their eventual liberation, in the structures and in history, is to witness to the presence of the Kingdom in the satisfying of the poor and to the absence of the Kingdom in the imperfection of society...

The Church, God's remnant among the peoples of earth, has evangelism for its calling. To evangelize is to bring good news to the poor, to turn the many into a people and to make that people aware of the destiny that God has prepared for them: the Kingdom. Not just aware, but active, now that there is a real possibility of conquering sin, of restoring their wealth to the poor and of building a new order in which there will be neither rich nor poor, neither oppressors nor oppressed, neither nations of the centre nor nations of the periphery, neither ruling classes nor those that suffer the rule of others."

Saturday, June 19, 2010

How important is orthodoxy?

No small question! I mean 'orthodoxy' in the broad sense, referring to the 'fundamentals' of the Christian faith, what we attempt to explicate in the Apostle's Creed, or other similar statements. Let me start by saying that I try to take these fundamentals very seriously. I say 'try' because there are times I question some of them, and wonder about their necessity. And a lot of the time I am confused by them. (The more I learn about God, the more I realize I don't understand God!) But, I am willing to accept the basic foundations of the faith:

God is one, and yet triune, Christ is God who became a person, and died, and rose from the dead to reconcile all creation to God. The church is essentially the presence of Christ in the world. One day God will complete the reconciliation of all creation. That includes belief in an afterlife, the resurrection of the dead.

Let me repeat, I believe all this - that is, I am willing to place my hope in it, even though I don't always understand it. But, therein lies my question. How important is it for us to correctly believe these fundamentals? The key word is, of course, 'correctly'. I assume that nearly everyone agrees God is beyond human comprehension. I would be very surprised by, and skeptical of, anyone who claimed they have God figured out. God would not be a very impressive deity if we could figure him out!

However, there are still many Christians, I suspect, who - even if they agree with the above assumption, are confident that they way they view God is accurate. They may not claim to know everything about God, but what they do know about God, they know correctly.

How do they know this? Well, they have some particular interpretation of Scripture, or appeal to reason and common sense, or set of experiences, or storehouse of tradition to which they appeal. More likely, they have a combination of all of the above. And, like all human attempts to understand something, Christian beliefs include views that are more general, and more specific.

What do I mean by general and specific? Well, here is an example of a general Christian belief: "There is a God." Clearly, it would be very hard to claim that one is a Christian if one does not believe there is a God. A specific belief, on the other hand, might be something like, "All Christians were chosen by God before creation, and God already has decided who will be saved and who won't." This is a belief grounded in a particular interpretation of Scripture, and at the end of the day, it is hard to see why a Christian would have to hold this belief. After all, you could be one of the chosen, and be following Christ, even if you had never heard about being chosen before creation. In other words, you don't need to know how you are saved, in order to be saved.

But, one might ask, how do we determine which beliefs are general and which are specific? Well, early on, the church developed the creeds and councils as ways to make decisions about what constitutes proper Christian belief. This is how orthodoxy developed; beliefs would arise about which someone said, "That doesn't seem right." There would be a debate among all the church leaders - sometimes they would last for decades! - and finally a decision would be made; this particular belief is/isn't correct, and so was labeled as either orthodox or heresy.

Now, the big problem with this approach is, naturally, that human beings are imperfect and make mistakes. So, decisions would be made that were later reversed. Arguments that could not be resolved sometimes led to factions and splits - although, prior to the Reformation, the church generally had a much better track record of maintaining unity in the midst of disagreement. Unfortunately, there has also been no small amount of violent response to these disagreements, which thankfully our modern world has been able to alleviate somewhat. At any rate, it is clear that maintaining orthodoxy has been fraught with difficulties.

HOWEVER, it is worth pointing out that the basics (i.e. The Apostle's Creed, etc) have managed to withstand nearly 2,000 years of struggle, and the vast majority of Christians still agree on these beliefs. So we can reasonably assume that the general beliefs of Christianity seem a bit more solid and have a wider range of support.

Still, none of this really answers the question of importance. If we agree that orthodoxy has value, then we can also ask about the constitution of that value. Is it simply in believing these 'basics', or is the value in a posture of faith that expresses willingness to believe, in spite of what the 'basics' may be? If we say what matters most are the beliefs themselves, we run the risk of claiming to have figured God out. Additionally, we seem to be setting ourselves up as potential heretics, if and when some of the beliefs are modified. (Granted, with the basics, it seems highly unlikely there will be much modification! Most arguments are about the specifics...)

On the other hand, if we say that what matters more is our posture of faith, that is, the willingness to simply follow Christ no matter what, we seem to be caught in a vicious circle: Who decides what constitutes a posture of faith? A further problem - we seem to be setting ourselves up as potential heretics, since any number of varying factors might influence our posture. So what do we do?

The danger of heresy exists either way. This leads me to think that those who claim to have a 'correct' view of God ought to be very humble and slow to speak, since that danger of heresy is always present. I do not claim to have a satisfactory answer to all of these issues, but I do have a couple of suggestions.

1. When in doubt, relying upon the basic beliefs of Christianity seems wise. In general, there is little reason to deviate from these basics unless one has truly struggled with them in a variety of contexts and with a variety of conversation partners.

2. There is nothing wrong with questioning your/our beliefs! Doubt may lead one away from God, but doubt is always a crossroads: will I be led by this question to a new realization about God, or will I be led to deny God? There is a big difference between rejecting some belief and replacing it with a better belief, and rejecting belief. Of course, the follow-up will be: How do we know what 'better belief' means?! (I'll leave that for another post!)

3. Fear of heresy is still fear. We should be concerned about heresy, but not afraid of it, because God knows we don't have everything figured out. We all slip into heresy from time to time, and with God's grace we are able to wriggle free. But heresy is not equivalent to damnation. If we can learn to be graceful with each others forays into heresy, we will all be better off in the long run, and may actually grow to be more orthodox.

4. Orthodox belief and a willing posture of faith always have to be held together. There is no simple formula. At the end of the day, to claim that one is 'correct' is to answer the wrong question. The question isn't "Are my beliefs correct or not?" The real question is, "Given that I have placed my faith in Christ, how can I best reflect that faith as I live my life?" This involves not only learning to express our beliefs as clearly and coherently as possible, but it means taking them seriously, and actually following what we say we believe. Otherwise, it doesn't really mean much to us, does it?

I welcome your thoughts.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Looking for the goodness in all things...

In the church "small group" study I have been attending, we are reading through C.S. Lewis' small book, Letters to Malcolm, which is a collection of essays in letter form, as though written to a friend (for some time several of us thought they were actual letters, but I grew suspicious when some of the sentences became so ornate that I thought, "man, no one writes letters like that, not even Lewis!" :-P) Anyway...

In the book, Lewis talks about prayer, and a variety of theological topics related to prayer. Tonight we were discussing his idea that prayer often begins with looking around at the simple beauty found in your current situation. Even if there is nothing profound happening in our lives - even if we are in a bad situation - it is still possible to find a bit of goodness and linger there. As Lewis puts it: "Begin where you are."

But Lewis then expands on this idea a bit more, and we found ourselves (or at least I found myself!) drawn to the understanding that goodness is always present in our lives, at least to some extent, and to that extent, God is present. In other words, anywhere there is any good, it is a reflection - even if a very dim one - of God. This, of course, is not a new idea: St. Augustine, for example, viewed God as the source of all goodness, and to the extent that there is evil, he called it the "absence of good." Augustine (following a neo-Platonic route) went on to say that evil has no actual reality to it, because since it is not good, it is also the absence of God, which makes it also lack reality.

Of course, most of us will question such a notion, because evil seems quite real to us. But Augustine's point was subtle. Think of theft, for example. In theft, what takes place? If someone steals an apple, they do not eliminate the goodness of the apple. They just take that goodness (assuming we like apples! :-D) and transfer it from one location to another. In so doing, they take goodness away from someone else. This is the evil; the taking of good from someone else and keeping it for yourself. Even if you were to smash the apple under your foot, you haven't eliminated the goodness. It simply returns to the earth, where it has the potential to actually create more goodness (i.e. a new apple tree).

Lewis makes a similar point, and one that I think is quite helpful for us in developing not only a more accurate picture of evil, but of sin as well. Lewis describes the theft of the apple in Augustinian terms, but goes on to add that in stealing the apple, we are actually doing harm not only to the person we robbed, but also to ourselves, and indeed to all of creation. Why? Because every time we sin, we transgress against God's goodness. Sin is not simply the fact that I took something which wasn't mine, it is also the fact that I contributed, in a small but nonetheless profound way, to the reduction of good in creation.

Now, someone may point out that an apple isn't everything - for that matter, everything in creation has limits. All is finite. We can't all have our own apples all the time, so to speak. It is true that we are, in a sense, caught in a catch-22. We can't solve all the world's problems and eliminate sin. But Christ calls us to live as though we will (see Matt. 5-7 for example). But even though we cannot eliminate evil - only God can - we are asked to believe, by faith, that God will do so. And living with that faith gives us the courage to foster goodness in the world, even when it seems like it won't make much difference.

This is where the dual lesson of goodness can transform the Christian. If we are, through Christ, able to see that any and every act of goodness is a small taste of what God is like, and every act of sin is a small (or big) taste of what it's like when goodness is stripped from the world, we can begin to see what Christ calls us to be. We are bringers of goodness!

And with that goodness (which is really God's goodness), we also hope that maybe, just maybe, our actions have the power to re-make the world in some sense. What we do really matters! Following Christ has the power to transform not just people, but all of creation. Not completely, of course, but God never asked or expected us to do everything. God does ask us to live as conduits of goodness, bringing hope - even in small doses - into the world by following Christ.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Becoming a 'self', according to Kierkegaard...

The following sections are from George Pattison's The Philosophy of Kierkegaard:

"I can never turn around and say of myself, 'Now I have become the human being I had it in me to become'. Why not? Because, as long as we live in time, who or what we are is still open to revision and change. I may 'be' the great leader of a nation but then, in my dying breath, betray that nation to its enemies. Our end can never be had other than in what Kierkegaard calls the mode of 'anticipation'. My 'actuality' then, is not the actuality of a fully realized potential. It is itself a process of actualization whose end is not yet given.

...[P]layful self-discovery is entirely positive, as long as we understand that it is just a play and that a moment comes when we have to move from possibility to actuality... Why? Because we are in danger of responding to the demands of actuality by allowing ourselves to atrophy in the domain of possibility. We resist 'getting real' and want to remain perpetual adolescents, unable to take responsibility, unable to commit to a clear and consistent existential task, unable, in the last resort, to be anything... a life frozen in possibility, a life that, so to speak, remains in the theatre - remains the life of a spectator - when it should be getting out into the world of action."

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Now accepting donations! :-)

Ok, it's a bit pushy, I suppose, but I now have a button at the top of the page that provides an opportunity - for anyone who feels so inclined - to donate to my Oxford adventure! I will begin my Phd (or DPhil, as they call it) program in Sept, and I am going without a complete financial aid package at this point (though I'm hoping that will change after the first year - I'm gonna be filling out every scholarship application I can find!).

So, I am relying upon God - and the kindness of blogdom ;-) - to help me make it through the first year! If you can spare anything to help me, as I make the big transition across the pond to a new school and a new life, please consider donating. Thanks, and God bless!


Friday, June 4, 2010

The immigration debate: Where do Christians belong?

Recently, I began a discussion with some friends on Facebook, who were responding to my 'status' statement saying that I disagree with the new Arizona immigration law (and, by extension, the national immigration law). As FB is sometimes a challenging forum for writing extensive explanations, I thought I'd take a stab at a more coherent statement here. So, briefly (I hope!):

First and foremost, I take it to be paradigmatic that, for Christians, our allegiance to Christ trumps our allegiance to any nation or culture. This is a HUGE issue in itself, and perhaps until we really learn to take this truth seriously, debating issues like immigration will be exercises in futility. But, nevertheless, this is where we must begin. As Christians, our primary responsibility is not to defend our nation or its laws (though there is a place for that); our primary responsibility is to live like Christ, doing all that we can to offer glimpses of the kingdom of God breaking into the world.

But what does this mean with regard to immigration? Well, it means basically this: As Christians, our views on immigration (or any socio-political issue) must be grounded in what Scripture and the witness of the Christian faith have taught us, NOT on what is best for our national identity or security. I realize this is probably a big sticking point, but I submit that to ignore this truth is to ignore Christianity. Much of what is called 'Christianity' is nothing more than an idol shaped to look like Jesus, but having only those features which we find consistent with our particular cultural or political views. This must be challenged.

So, with Scripture and the Christian tradition as our guide, what do we see? In Scripture we are presented with a worldview that prefers grace over judgment. We are given, over and over, mandates to take care of the poor, the widow, the orphan, and the 'stranger' or 'alien' (the immigrant - Deut. 10:19). This is a theme developed in the Old Testament with particular intensity: Exodus 22:21, 23:9; Leviticus 19:33-34; Deut. 27:19; Jer. 7:6, 22:3; Ezek. 22:7, 29; Zech. 7:10; Mal. 3:5. The Israelites are even told to create a sort of welfare system for the poor, the widow, and the alien, since those groups are typically the ones most deprived of blessing (Deut. 24:17-21).

It is important to note that these commands (given by God to Israel) treat the immigrant as though they are already a part of the community. Of course, it could be said that such rules and blessings only are meant to apply to legal immigrants, not illegal ones. But Scripture gives us no such categories. Yes, the immigrants should agree to abide by the laws and morals of the Hebrew nation. But this is meant to happen in tandem with the acceptance of the alien by the Hebrew people. In other words, it is the hospitality of the Israelites, and the immigrants subsequent positive response to that hospitality, that constitutes their 'legal' status.

In other words, it is not the responsibility of the alien to first jump through a bunch of hoops before they will be accepted as a part of the community. Instead, it is the responsibility of the CITIZEN to treat the alien as though they are already a part of the community, inviting them to share their lives. If the alien rejects that generous welcome and the responsibilities that come with it, they are simply told to leave. But notice that this is a near reversal of the current American system, where people have to clandestinely attempt to cross a border, thereby breaking a law and preemptively committing themselves to expulsion, simply to have the possibility of receiving the generosity that we, as Christian citizens, should be offering them to begin with. Simply being given the opportunity to cross a border does not constitute hospitality.

This is why those who claim that illegal immigrants automatically deserve to be punished - either by being expelled or by being imprisoned - are simply wrong, from a Christian worldview. Of course, since the U.S. is not a theocratic nation where our national and religious identities are fused (and I am glad we are not a theocracy - that would almost certainly be worse for everyone), this complicates the issue. We have to navigate between our allegiance to national laws and our allegiance to Christ. The existence of a border ought to be respected, but there is a higher calling for believers than the call to protect our borders. It is the call to protect the needy.

This leads to a fair question: Who are the needy? Well, I could point to Jesus' words in Matt. 25, or the parable of the good Samaritan, or any number of other passages in the NT. Jesus seems to indicate that the needy can be anyone, depending upon the situation, and our call as Christians is to respond with grace to anyone in need, no matter where we find them. This offers another glimpse into the connection with immigration: if the first element of a "Christian" immigration policy is the a priori hospitality of the citizens toward the immigrants, the second element might be called "a generous immigration." In other words, we should begin with the assumption that we will try to take care of as many immigrants as possible, with the caveat that they are willing to embrace our generosity.

In Matt. 20:1-15, we read the parable of the workers in the vineyard. In the parable, Jesus describes (in details that sound ironically similar to the situations of Hispanic workers waiting in parking lots across our nation) the owner of a vineyard hiring workers who are standing around waiting for jobs. But, the twist is that the owner pays the same wage to those hired at the beginning of the day AND those hired at the end of the day. Naturally, those hired first feel cheated. But the owner says, basically: "You agreed to this wage. I want to pay these other workers the same amount. Why are you threatened by my generosity?" The parable challenges all of us - citizen and immigrant - to consider the reality that God's economy looks very different than ours. In the context of this current discussion, it suggests that those of us who think we are owed something more than others (whatever the reason) are completely missing the point. And, often, when I hear people talk who oppose relaxed immigration policies, it involves a lot of "they don't deserve it, until..." statements.

Jesus clearly extends the theme of generosity and grace in the gospels, and ties the reality of the kingdom of God directly to care for those who are on the margins, including the foreigner in our midst. Christ asks that we learn to become people who are willing to give of ourselves - our money, our time, and even our land/nation - in order that others might be blessed and come to know God. This is very challenging, but we cannot choose to ignore it simply because it's difficult.

Of course, a nation's laws are important, and as Christians we should respect them as long as they don't conflict with our call to follow Christ. Certainly there is nothing wrong with asking immigrants to obey the laws of our nation, and learn our customs (though I would argue that American customs are a lot more fluid than most of us want to admit - we are an experimental "melting pot" after all). But this, I would argue, is a two-way street. As long as we who are "good, law-abiding" American citizens remain unwilling to embrace immigrants - choosing instead to see them as criminals, or at best second-class individuals here to take our jobs - we are failing to extend the hospitality that will encourage them to join our way of life.

And, of course, this is exactly what has happened in America: we are a nation comprised of thousands of 'little countries', where people can spend their lives hanging out with others who are just like they are, and never have to really get to know the immigrants, or the poor, or those on the margins, who live right down the street. New immigrants pick up on that and do the same thing. Heck, I barely even know my neighbors - I'm part of the problem too, and I confess that.

I have no problem with our country telling immigrants that if they commit a crime, or refuse to be a part of our culture, that they should leave. But if our first and most common response is a lack of hospitality, that is wrong. And I haven't even brought up the issue of how America has systematically built up its own wealth while more or less ignoring the problems of other nations (except when they threaten our 'national interests' of course!). With mixed messages like that - Our country is the best place on earth to be, but we only want you here if you can prove you deserve to be here! - no wonder so many illegal immigrants attempt to fly under the radar.

As Christians, we ought to be trying to offer a different way, one that is hospitable, generous, and yes, demands responsibility. But in that order, not reversed. That's grace - it is given before we deserve it.