Where to find me online

Monday, June 28, 2010

Theology and Greek thinking

The problem in theology with Greek thinking is not that it is philosophical or that it is Greek. No human being can make sense of anything without relying upon a combination of an individually developed sense of "how reality works" influenced by the inescapable bias of the cultures and sub cultures that have contributed to their personal development.

Nonetheless, just because it is impossible to avoid bringing your personal philosophy into your theology, we need to appreciate several problems caused by doing so. Today there are two problems that stand out to me:

(1) Too many theological thinkers feel that just because they have developed a concept that "fits together well" and that stands the test of remaining coherent, that they must therefore be on to the truth. Systematic Theology was born this way. They have not considered the possibility that reality might be an "optical" illusion. One might be able to make complete coherent sense of reality in more than one mutually exclusive way. If that is so, then there is no way to differentiate which philosophy is the "correct" one. The best you can do is find a view that is useful for now. Maybe being absolutely correct is not our need. Trying to get there only puts us into an unworkable double bind of needing to know a truth we cannot ever validate. Thinking we have succeeded runs the risk of an arrogance that will be most obvious to those who have a different but equally marvelous coherent view of reality.

(2) But the biggest problem is that most theological thinkers are unaware of how philosophy has colored their sub-cultural view of scripture. Ignorance of this influence keeps us blind to the fact that reality IS an optical illusion. Every culture is satisfied with its unique perceptions. Classic Christian theology was developed centuries ago under the influence of those cultural biases. Western bias has evolved considerably since then. Christians are often ignorant that our typical Christian view is based on an earlier western view. The tensions that exist between the Christian thinker and the secular thinker is not always the worldly mind opposing the spiritual renewed mind. It is more often the contemporary culture in opposition to an older stale version of its paradigm. We hold loyal to our grandfather's reality because we falsely believe it more properly reflects our Christian values.

Knowing the themes and structures of how your reality fits together and where it came from is better than not knowing that you have a perspective on reality that came from somewhere. On the other hand, it is not helpful to have an incoherent impossible view that you can't change because you refuse to investigate or develop your sense of reality.

The capacity of the human mind to perceive reality is limited. People who study such cognitive processes see it as highly reductive. There is simply no way anyone can ever perceive reality correctly. We see reality in a model that is sufficiently representative (or not). Coherent views are better than incoherent views and best when they seem to work. That is the best you can do.

My own theology is a theology of conundrums and possibilities. I am very comfortable with certain conclusions but I try to be aware of other views that I do not personally embrace lest I forget that I am blind to what I have learned to ignore and super sensitive to what I think makes sense.

Jesus is the Christ, the son of the living God. Of this I feel certain. But when I explain what that means I can never see how much of my explanation is stuff I make up simply because it fits so well with my view of reality. I am not planning on abandoning my pursuit of philosophical awareness. I just do not want to kid myself that it accomplishes anything more than adding more coherence to a view that could still be of limited use value. If I want to know truth, really know truth, my quest will fail if truth is merely propositional.

As has been said "God only knows." So in my quest to know the truth, I am satisfied to be known by God. If I cannot nail down the absolute truth for myself, at least I can have a relationship with the only one who does.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Theology is useful but ...

I wrote this quickly after reading a theological essay and discussion on facebook written by someone whose love for Jesus I respect but whose theology I differ with. He used various scriptures to demonstrate how it is that God knows all, infinitely and perfectly. He knows the beginning and the end and everything in between.

His view is definitely the majority view. There are fewer who would agree with me. But since I see this differently, even using the same scriptures, I decided to focus on these ideas and the concept of theology itself for this blog entry.

Perfection in scripture has to do with maturity not flawlessness. The fact that the domains of meaning in European languages for words like “perfect” include multiple concepts for maturity, completion and pristine flawlessness does not give Western Christianity the liberty to insert our semiotic functions back into the text written from a Hebrew culture.

Infinity is a radically misunderstood and thereby abused theological concept that typically gets applied with an exclusively Greek concept upon God. Western thinkers who are not stellar mathematicians usually confuse the application of “infinity” with the application of “universal”.

Here is an example using set logic. You could have a barrel filled with an infinite number of cats and another barrel filled with an infinite number of dogs. For the sake of argument let us say we could find an angel that knows the name of every cat but not the name of any dog. Do you realize that such an angel would have both infinite knowledge and infinite ignorance and still might not even know enough to function? Infinite does not mean universal; it never has and never will. When we apply universal concepts to the word “infinite” as translated from scripture when the original word does not necessarily mean “infinite” to begin with, we start concluding things the biblical text never meant to say. The infinity of God was always a common concept in Europe even before Christianity or Judaism became common in the West. But this paradigm rose to become the majority opinion in Christian thought through the heretic Augustine who embraced it as part of his admitted love of Greek philosophy and, I believe, the influence of his Manichean past.

“All” in scripture does not always mean literally all. There are few verses in the bible where the word is used where we can always assume its extreme meaning. In fact a serious study of ancient Hebrew linguistics reveals interesting constructs like expressing certainty of the future by placing it in the past tense AND using the absurdity of extreme language as a way of temporarily isolating a facet of wisdom through hyperbole that later ought to be returned to a position of balance. Reading biblical texts as if they carried the same linguistic principles of implication as their translated counterparts in our linguistic structures will insert our linguistic culture into the text.

Just because God knows the beginning and the end does not mean He also knows everything about the middle. By what right do we judge verses that speak of God's surprise (Jeremiah 19:5) as merely anthropomorphic but insist that platonic philosophy as applied to God is not anthropomorphic? I would argue all concepts of God are incapable of escaping anthropomorphism.

God is clever enough to start a process contained by physics so that without regard to random anomalies all options reduce to one outcome. Take, for example, shaking a sand sifter. One starts with all the sand in the sifter and ends with all the sand below the sifter. Even a human can know the beginning and the end without the need to know exactly which hole in the sifter each grain of sand will fall through.

An all knowing God is experienced by most people as impersonal. He knows what He knows for no better reason than that is what Omni-capable gods do.

How perfect and infinite and extreme are the qualities of God? No one knows, words cannot express, scripture was never trying to be that precise. God’s ways are not our ways and His thoughts are not our thoughts. All theology is man made, even mine! Do we worship God because thoughts about Him boggle our mind? Is He worthy of worship just because he is considerably more impressive than we are? God has a lot going for Him and I for one find it totally unimpressive that He can rise to the occasion of His own abilities. Indeed He would be worthy of condemnation if He failed to do so. Comparing Him to us is an unfair contest and it lacks the integrity authentic worship requires but certainly inspires an insecurity that works against the trust that Christ in us makes us fully sufficient for all things. God's capabilities whatever they may be are certainly sufficient to the task, which is fortunate but unworthy of worship unless you focus on ability more than character and beauty more than substance. What makes God worthy of worship is that in spite of all the advantages He possesses in being a far superior being, He has nonetheless chosen to make love the primary purpose of His existence. Love is His character and the primary power by which He will rule and reconcile the universe.

He remains perfectly mature because His love demands it of Himself. It is generated out of His integrity not simply because He is intrinsically flawless. His knowledge is past finding out, but not because He simply exists that way, but because His love compels Him to pay attention to His beloved so as to take it all in. His knowledge is generated out of His attentiveness, not simply His essence. He knows when the sparrow falls not just because He has the cheat sheet implanted in His intrinsic attributes, rather He knows because He sees it coming and watches empathetically as it happens and fully observes the aftermath. God is actively present in the process.

Scripture discusses a God who is the equivalent of love. We are the ones more focused on how we interpret it to describe Him as Omni-capable. And we license that focus by abusing the text. When theology is more of an academic autopsy of God that blocks our way to an inarticulate encounter of His presence, it has become no longer useful. Theology is necessary but can never be more than useful because any coherent concept, even at the level of mystery, remains nonetheless only a human concept. Let God be true and every man a liar, even the theologians, even theological thinkers such as myself.

True Christianity is not found in theology or biblical interpretations. Any interpretation or way of thinking that encourages you to embrace the Christ who dwells within the believer is a useful theology. Common fundamentalism and evangelicalism are, in my opinion, woefully undereducated in the languages, concepts and ideas relevant to what they so confidently talk about. Their theology ultimately leads to nowhere. My faith is not in my concept of God. It is in the mysterious inexplicable dynamic growth derived by grace through the indwelling presence of Christ that operates in ways I cannot possibly understand, describe or search out.

If I find a way of talking about it that encourages others to embrace and abide in Christ too, then it is a useful concept. But the moment I or anyone teaches an insight from scripture that encourages anyone to sustain loyalty to that concept, then that is the moment we have abandoned the inexpressible God and have swapped Him for a concept and have become preachers of a false gospel. Our life is not in scripture, it is hidden with God in Christ. There is good and bad theology. But the mastery of theology is an illusion that seduces us toward division based on differences in human capacity to appreciate the realities too wonderful to be contained in any human mind.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

The false gospel of fear mongers.

I have been studying Hebrews chapter 10 in the Greek this morning. It is part of my study of passages traditionally translated or interpreted to preach a fear based warning.

For example a typical translation of Hebrews 10:26 & 27 might be: If we willfully sin after knowing the truth we are left with no sacrifice for sin. Instead we have a fearful expectation of a judgment and raging fire that consumes enemies of God.

This is then used to teach that Christians who continue to sin deliberately will be cut off from the benefit of the sacrifice of Christ and will have put themselves into a condition where all they have to look forward to is hell.

There is always more than one way to understand a cluster of words. But it is interesting how the options change in different languages. The entire chapter is contrasting law with grace in general. And specifically it contrasts the difference between how Levitical sacrifice and the sacrifice of Christ impact the guilty conscience differently.

The law was not a final agreement but rather served to foreshadow a better way. Had the Levitical sacrifice been so sufficient that only one was ever needed, then guilt would be able to move on. But under the old sacrifice system, the fact that sacrifices were regularly repeated inadvertently serves as a constant reminder of sin. It keeps us focused upon sin and we never escape the dynamics of guilt. The only way to escape the resulting reminder of guilt is to self-righteously deny sin.

But the sacrifice of Christ makes perfect forever those who are in the process of being made holy. If what is stated in verse 14 is true then the typical warnings preached from verses 26 & 27 are a contradiction and a lie.

The point of the chapter is that Old Testament sacrifices must be repeated and never ever get to the point where the debilitating focus upon guilt can go away. For those who do not turn to self-righteousness to cope with this ever returning guilt, there is frequent discouragement. If such a person were to discover that simply one sacrifice of Christ secures their eventual perfection, trust in that reality will resolve the impossible to appease guilt response.

It has been wisely said that you can never go home again. The old days shall remain forever gone. When you try to return it is never the same it is forever different. In light of this, every believer will from time to time face doubts especially in the earlier years. During that doubt their mind inevitably returns to their former beliefs.

If you happen to be one of those who formerly found the repetition of sacrifice a constant source of discouraging guilt, there is a danger that after experiencing freedom in Christ, if you entertain doubts and try to go back to the former sacrificial system, you will discover it is not the same. Previously the repeated sacrifices worked for a moment to remove guilt but because it kept you focused upon your sin, guilt would always return and it was discouraging. But now after having known freedom in Christ, you will discover that the repeated sacrifices do not remove any guilt at all, and the guilt that used to return in a discouragement will also change. It will become a dread that you are cursed and lost. You have nothing to face in the future except the rage of God.

Verses 26 & 27 are not teaching that this is indeed the danger you face, they teach that this is indeed the way you will be thinking.

The lesson to be gained is this: Anyone who has had a coping mechanism of a repeated ritual that appeases their sense of guilt will find that embracing the perfection secured by Christ once and for all removes from them any need for ongoing repetition of that ritual. But if they begin to doubt they will find they cannot successfully return to the old ritual. Trying to do so will result in a complete break down of the impact of the old ritual and they will be left in a state of dread.

These verses are not a warning to the Christian to stay away from deliberate sin. It is a heads up of what to expect your distorted thinking will anticipate if you slip in your faith. If you previously held to a legalistic approach that was working for you, then you have a background that anticipates the destiny of lawbreakers. Those ideas are well ingrained within. And those ideas will torment you.

The solution is to remember the earlier days when the one sacrifice of Christ was truly all you needed. It made you a person of authentic sympathy and service because the possession of the hope of securing perfection in Christ was fully sufficient. So verse 35 encourages those whose faith has slipped to return to faith in the sufficiency of the one sacrifice. If you can nail down this idea that the sin problem is SOLVED even though the process is not yet complete, you will experience once again the great confidence and it is a rich reward.

It is in some ways a sad reality that for those who know the freedom of Christ, moments of doubt takes them to a place far worse than they have ever been before. They are exposed to the maximum dread of failure. It throws you into an experience where all confidence dies and all that remains is dread.

But do not lose heart. That dread is NOT your destiny it is only your perspective of doubt tormenting you. There is no greater freedom from guilt than to know that Jesus has settled the issue completely.

We all struggle with sin from time to time. Knowing the sufficiency of Christ allows us to leave sin in the past and to press on toward the perfection in which we hope. Should we lose sight of this hope after having known it, we do not simply return to a former way of thinking, we actually enter a tormenting perspective that is triggered by another occasion of sin.

Beloved, Jesus is sufficient, the question is settled, the guilt is gone, the perfection is promised, and the hope is real. God loves you and has perfected you forever!

What a shame that religious fear mongers seek to take a verse of honesty from the bible and seek to use it to scare us into obedience. I prefer to know Christ crucified and to pursue holiness through the motivation of love. I have no room for fear of destruction in my spiritual journey.

Grace and peace be yours in Christ now and always.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Getting in your own way

Not only is bad theology dead, good theology is also dead. When nuances of perception and understanding mean more than the inexplicable mystery of the indwelling Christ your religion has trumped your Christianity.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

What IS Christianity?

An anthropologist correctly calls it religion, a psychologist correctly calls it relationship, but for me the essence of Christianity is the mystery of the indwelling Christ.

Some Christians want to deny it is a religion, but that is not entirely honest. No matter what identity you hold, it is impossible to avoid the anthropological dynamics. You cannot be a democrat or a republican, a teacher or a student, an American or a Korean, a computer programmer or a chef without adopting various behaviors with forms and functions motivated by various ideological concepts to connect you with that culture. So, as much as we might want to deny it, Christianity IS a religion and cannot stop being one because it will always show up in your life through forms, functions and expressed ideas.

Some Christians claim it is a relationship usually as part of the denial that it is a religion. And yes it is a relationship too. Even an atheist has to admit that the christian relates to God as if they had an ongoing relationship. Since a relationship involves mutual dealings, connections, or feelings that exist between two parties, Christianity is certainly perceived by Christians as a relationship of sorts. But that is still not what makes Christianity what it is at its most basic essence.

Christianity is the mystery of Christ in you, the hope of glory. The regeneration of the Holy Spirit the redemptive grace of God is brought to the believer through the indwelling Christ. That reality is hard to describe, hard to conceive, impossible to do so it can't be a religion in that sense. It also is difficult to relate to because in so many ways it involves God doing things from within that we neither understand, comprehend, nor are certain how to deal with. So it is more than just a relationship.

The transformation of the Christian is the result of the nurtured presence of Christ within. It results in a character that grows when allowed to but chokes when we try to control it, explain it or prove it. Who we are becoming in Christ-likeness will only happen because it will be the result of Christ within. It is this mystery that is the essence of Christianity.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

The personal touch of God's favors.

When people talk about the little favors God orchestrates on their behalf, they assume they are giving glory to God for the little things? But I think at a deeper level they are trying to convince themselves and others that God is real.

Most Christians are unaware of how offensive such talk is to those who suffer. No harm is intended but they fail to realize it comes across as a self-absorbed, contrived proof of God's presence in the life of a spoiled child. Those who do not believe in Jesus know that although life is at times a struggle, nonetheless, pure randomness and the simple nature of things means that often things work out real well.

As a Christian, I find this belief troubling and harmful to the gospel. Why would a God who wants to develop within us the character of Christ be spoiling His children with such spiffs when they have not yet learned to be content in whatever state they are in? That seems counterproductive in exactly the same way ineffective parents inadvertently bless the world with spoiled brats.

Is such talking biblical? How common is this sort of activity by God in the bible? We are asked to give thanks for all things but this is because there is great benefit in adopting that attitude toward every situation as it converts circumstances into opportunities by redirecting outcomes toward a better end as the result of a better focus. But what is particularly embarrassing and scandalous in this perspective is that we often hear Christians thank God for specific little favors as they remain shockingly oblivious to just how unfavorable the situation actually is for others.

This sort of unbiblical talk turns God into our fairy godfather. Forgive my cynicism but the people I have known in my life who often talk as if they are always being touched by God's little favors are the very ones whose affairs are in disarray. They are the ones making bad decisions given to foolishness. Often they are the Christians who have mean streaks and look down at those less fortunate as their personal ethics slip. But worst of all they lack empathy for the way others suffer who could have really used a favor or two if God was in the doing little favors business.

I contend that God is active today PRIMARILY from within us. Our gospel is a message of Christ in you, the hope of glory. Most alleged manifestations of His presence are - at best - just stories spun as coherently as possible to simply help us feel more loved by God or - at worst - intended as a spiritual name dropping exercise as we brag about how God pays particular attention to us.

Why do Christians fail to see this makes Christianity appear to be little more than a joke of self deception? I have noticed that this magical talk, so void of empathy, seems to be most offensive and prolific when Christians who do not see each other regularly come together for retreats and other special gatherings. When I attend such conferences I find within me a compelling desire to get away as quickly as I can from those Christians deeply steeped in the concept. This makes me suspicious that this style of talking helps us feel like we are getting back to God.

I toyed with rejecting this perspective for several years but it became crystal clear to me after an incident in 1987. I had occasion to be driving a car belonging to a Christian businessman to run an errand for him. He had a habit of often sharing how God does tiny little favors. The owner of the car had an annual income several times larger than mine. Furthermore, at that time I was working to pay off an uninsured medical debt of over $13,000. A series of lung collapses required a portion of my right lung to be removed. That debt was part of the reason I did not own my own vehicle. As I was on that errand another Christian person ran a stop sign and broadsided me. I ended up in the hospital to have my lungs checked out and the car was totaled.

A week or so after the dust settled, the owner of the car came into my work area beaming with a huge smile saying, "Praise God, I just love how He orchestrates blessings and has a purpose for everything. Just before that accident I had my eye on this penny stock I thought was about to do very well, and everything I have was tied up. But God brought a check to me for the totaled car just in the nick of time for me to dump it into that stock! I held on to it for only three days and sold it for more than twice what I bought it for and now the stock has gone back down."

I responded, "Are you saying God deliberately used one of his numerous puppet people to slam your car with me in it just so you could have even more money making opportunities? Help me out here, are you saying God is good and I can trust him or are you saying God is an ass who arbitrarily knocks people around for the benefit of those already doing well and I had better watch it?"

This perspective is totally superstitious and completely unbiblical. God is not a respecter of persons. And it is extremely rare for his rain to fall on the just and the unjust by any means other than the natural result of his creation of a universe where things work as they do irrespective of who benefits.

Even God accepts full responsibility for the potential confusion and injustice in how he favored Jacob and dismissed Esau. It is mentioned several times in scripture specifically to clarify the confusion. The texts help to differentiate how things work in general as contrasted with God's sovereign plan. His decision to redirect favor had absolutely nothing to do with the people involved but rather it was focused upon the overall plan to further God's purposes in bringing a Messiah. The fact that it works out well for Jacob is, for Jacob, simply fortunate. He was in the right place at the right time.

You cannot convince me God is helping one child find a good parking spot in front of the shopping plaza in trivial answer to prayer while behind the building another Christian is crying out earnestly to God as she is being raped but finds no favors to deliver her from the moment? Telling such stories is prompted either by ignorance, habit, self absorption, or disregard for how God is perceived by those who hear of His horrible injustice, messed up priorities and inconsistencies. I contend that outside of the overall plan of sending a Messiah this sort of thing simply never happens.

As a professor at a community college I am in an environment where people feel free to express their reactions to Christians. And they have a lot to say about it when free to speak where it won't offend the Christian who might hear it. They are far more sensitive in sharing this reaction than Christians are in assessing how it comes across. These people need the love of God but the only Christian God they know about is one who chooses favorites as He spits on the unfortunate.

Christians who mean well do not realize we paint ourselves into a credibility corner with this one. God has definitely created a world in which many wonderful things can come our way, praise be to God. The world is designed in a manner, provided we love, that can provide an abundance for all. It is very sad and a testimony to our cultural greed that most of the population of the earth knows very little of such abundance.

But for now, during this age God speaks to us through His Son, and that Son abides inside His people. You have the mind of Christ; He does not live in you without His mind. You have the life of Christ; He does not dwell within without life. This is the time when we experience the renewing of our mind. The externals are no longer the priority. The only way God orchestrates anything in this present world is by the difference living in His people can make. If we do not make a difference in this world, God will remain inactive.

Don’t passively sit by as you take in all the favors you assume God sends your way. Rather allow the indwelling Christ to mature the character of love within you so that you bring the favor of God’s love into a world in desperate need of the redeeming quality of that love.