Category Archives: Philosophy & Religion

An Apocalypse of Love

(This is my Christmas Eve meditation from this year’s Christmas Eve service at our church.)

It has been a strange couple of weeks. Just over a week ago, there was the horrible shooting at a school in Newtown, Connecticut, in which 27 people, including 20 children, were killed. This last Friday was anticipated by some to be the end of the world, based on a particular interpretation and understanding of the Mayan calendar. People were buying bomb shelters, survival supplies, and some even stockpiling weapons. That same day, much closer to home, several Alberta school received what appeared to be threats of violence. Some of them were false alarms, but in Ponoka the school was locked down and a young man in possession of firearms was arrested in relation to this even–perhaps in imitation of Newtown, perhaps in anticipation of an apocalypse, perhaps for entirely different reasons.

It was a week or so of hatred, grief, and fear, and of nervous watching.

One question asked by many people this week was “Where was God?” It is a fair question and we are not the first to ask it. It is an ancient question. Biblical Israel used to ask essentially the same thing. “How long, O Lord?” is a question peppered throughout the Psalms and the prophets. “How long, O Lord? Will you hide yourself forever?”

* * *

We live between two Advents, two “comings” of Jesus. The last several weeks and especially tonight and tomorrow, we mostly look back at the first Advent, but–let’s not forget–we also look forward to the second Advent. The first coming and the second coming. Both those Advents mark the end of the world as we know it. This time of year we actually do anticipate an apocalypse, but not, perhaps, as popularly depicted or understood.

The first Coming–the one that was promised long ago, was announced to a young girl, began in her womb, and was revealed in a manger, an animal’s feeding trough–this first coming was the coming of Love, with a capital “L”, into the world. Not a sentimental love, not love as some kind of nice, but abstract idea, but a living, self-giving Love, which took on flesh, became human, became a baby, helpless and weak. And the world was changed. It was the end of the world as it was known.

Why did Love come down? “For God so loved the world,” it says in the Bible. Love came down because the world was and is messed up and God loves this messed up world–not because it’s messed up, not because it may have potential–but because God is love and so loves the world in spite of what it is. And God knew that no effort of our own would be able to clean up the mess, no sentimental love or goodwill, no sweet notion of making the world a better place. Only Love with capital “L”, only love in its greatest, holiest, and most powerful sense, only a love in its purest most uncompromising form–only a love that gave itself fully for others–could make things right. Humans all ultimately turn away from this kind of true love, so Love had to come to us. That Love became human–became the baby named Jesus.

We’ve heard a lot about “apocalypse” lately, in books, in movies, in this news. This first coming of Jesus was an apocalypse. See, the word “apocalypse” does not mean “a time of zombies and nuclear bombs” as popular use suggests. The word means, simply and literally, “reveal” or “revelation”. Biblically, apocalypse is about revealing reality and God–telling us about the way the world is and the way it will be and the God who’s in charge of it all. God revealed himself in Jesus–this weak, helpless baby, who in the name of love would give himself for us. God’s love was revealed in this first Advent, in Jesus’ first Coming.

It was an Apocalypse of Love.

It was the beginning of the end. The world would be transformed by the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, who turned this world of revenge, injustice, and pride upside-down with God’s world of mercy, justice, forgiveness, and love. Mary saw this, as we heard in her song, read a few minutes ago: the hungry filled, the oppressors overthrown.

The birth of Jesus is the answer to the question of God’s whereabouts. He’s right here, at work in the world. And the birth of Jesus is also the answer to that similar question that Israel had been asking for generations: “How long, O Lord?” The answer, in the fullness of time, was both “Now” and “Not yet.”

We still, in weeks like this one particularly, cry out, “How long, O Lord?”

And so we anticipate the second Advent, the Second Coming of Jesus. That will once again mark the end of the world as we know it. Not the end of God’s good creation, but the end of “the world” as we know it–the world of hatred, fear, violence, grief, death. This, too, will be an Apocalypse of Love.

It’s interesting that The End of the World, the “End Times”, the Apocalypse (whatever you want to call it) has become a thing of fear. We see this every time someone predicts the end of the world, whether it’s the Mayans or some obscure Christian sect: people buying shelters, stockpiling food and weapons; images of fire, zombies, death. Popular depictions of the end are terrifying–nightmare-inducing, even. Yes, there are beasts and boils in the book of Revelation, and facing Almighty God could put a different kind of fear in a person, but that book is meant to be encouraging, not terrifying, precisely because Jesus has come and is coming. It’s supposed to be good news.

Why? Because it tells us that in the end evil doesn’t have its way, but that Good prevails; that the God of Love will have his way and set the world right.

The post-apocalyptic world won’t be a barren, smoky desert of bedraggled wanderers, who daily live in fear of violence and death. It will be a lush, healing garden, where fear and grieving and death will have no place, because they will have been done away with.

Near the end of the book of Revelation, God says, “Look, I am making everything new!” And that work began with the baby in the manger, the Christ-child, the first of many brothers and sisters. God becomes human, born a baby–new, clean, innocent, trusting, loving–so that we can once again become children: reborn new, clean, innocent, trusting, loving.

There’s an apocalypse we can look forward to!

* *

We live between two Advents. We remember and celebrate the first Advent; we watch and wait for the second. In the meantime, God is at work in the world, and in and through us. When Jesus left the first time, he promised not only that he would return, but that his Spirit would come and live in us, that in this way he would remain with us. And so he did, and so he does, and while we wait, with the Spirit’s help we can each be a little apocalypse of God’s self-giving love.

“Amen. Come, Lord Jesus.”

The Myth of Individualism

I came across this in the introduction to William Willimon’s Pastoral Theology. It’s written in the context of church life, but it has universal application:

We work within a culture of rugged individualists and fragmented communities. We are officially schooled in the notion that we are most fully ourselves when we are liberated, autonomous, on our own. We live under the modern myth that it is possible, even desirable, to live our lives without external, social determination. Ironically, that we think it desirable to live our lives without external, social determination is proof that our lives have been externally, socially determined by the culture of capitalist consumption. I did not on my own come up with the notion that I am a sovereign individual who has no greater purpose in life than to live exclusively for myself. Rather, this culture has formed me to believe that I have no other purpose in life other than the purpose I myself have chosen. The irony is that I did not choose the story that I have no purpose in life other than that which I have  chosen.

The issue is not, Shall I be externally determined by some community of interpretation or authorization? This issue is, Which community will have its way with my life?

It’s a bit wordy, but nevertheless well said.

Ground Zero Mosque

I haven’t been following this Mosque on Ground Zero business very closely (is it actually on ground zero or near ground zero? It seems to depend on who you ask), but theologian John Stackhouse has some good things to say about it, if you’re at all interested.

From his first post on the subject:

If we don’t think all Muslims are implicated in the attack, then of course they should be allowed to build a mosque or community centre or whatever the heck they want to build wherever the zoning and funding will allow—just like any other citizens.

I’m a Christian. In fact, I’m an evangelical Christian. Am I implicated in the shooting of abortion doctors? Am I implicated in the policies of the Harper government here or the Bush administration recently gone? Am I implicated in whatever James Dobson or Pat Robertson or Franklin Graham or Benny Hinn says? If so, then I’m a pretty dangerous guy. If not, then you’ll have to treat me like anyone else you hardly know: as a neighbour, a fellow citizen, who must be allowed the full exercise of his rights and liberties until I have manifestly proven myself unworthy of them.

I think this is the strongest argument–American rights and freedoms.  I’m not sure how it could be seen otherwise.

In his second post he deals with the question of Islam and violence, pointing out that humans are prone to violence and will use whatever they can to legitimize it–whether it is Islam, Christianity, Buddhism or some other ethos:

We cannot, therefore, oppose the Ground Zero mosque on the grounds that even mainstream Islam legitimizes some violence sometimes–as if Christianity (or secular humanism, or what have you) doesn’t. It all depends on what violence is legitimized in what circumstances. And so the key point here is that the particular violence in question, the violence of 9/11, has been explicitly and repeatedly condemned by the Muslim leaders who want the mosque and community center to be built.

Metamorphosis

Just a thought I had as I was ruminating on these words of Jesus: “Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, yet they died. But here is the bread that comes down from heaven, which people may eat and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever.” (John 6:49-51a).

I’m gonna throw this thought out there; if you like it, you can take it, and if you don’t, you can send it right back:

I’ve wondered before about the possibility of there being death prior to the “fall” of humans–possibly even death as a part of the created order.  I’ve considered this from a somewhat scientific angle (so far as my limited scientific capacity allowed), but not from a theological or ontological angle.  (This is all speculative, of course.)

What if death was originally meant to be a sort of metamorphosis in the process of creation and that, prior to the fall, humans would naturally come out on the other side of death in a sort of resurrection into the final form of the physical life?  That is, what if creation (or human development specifically) is not complete until a human had passed through death into new life?  This came to mind as I was reading this passage because while Jesus promises eternal life (“not die,” “will live forever”), his disciples still died.  People of faith around the world die natural deaths every day.  It’s a question I’ve had for a while.

Today, however, it occurred to me that Jesus’ death was necessary in order for him to enter into the eternal life.  That doesn’t sound very profound, but listen:  Jesus’ resurrected body is completely physical, but in a way which we have not experienced.  He eats and drinks and can be touched, but evidently he also walks through walls.  Could the transition between our physicality and “resurrected physicality” be made without dying?

Going back to the result of Adam and Eve’s disobedience in Genesis 3, then, this idea would mean that the result of this disobedience was not death in itself but a specifically permanent death–that is, death which is not passed through, but one which is permanent, without resurrection into a new physical reality.

Interesting idea.  But possibly crazy.

McKnight on translation tribalism

Scot McKnight has started a series of posts on “Translation Tribalism”: 1 and 2 (so far).

From the second post:

the authority is the original text, not the translation. The original texts are in Hebrew and Aramaic (Old Testament) and Greek (New Testament). The authoritative text is not in English, regardless of how accurate the translation. No matter which translation you prefer, it is not the authoritative text for determining which translation is best.

unless you can read the original languages, you should avoid making public pronouncements about which translation is best. Instead, here’s my suggestion: if you don’t know the languages and can’t read them well enough to translate accurately on your own but you want to tell your congregation or your listeners which translate is best, you need to admit it by saying something like this: “On the basis of people I trust to make this decision, the ESV or the TNIV or the NRSV or the NLT is a reliable translation.” [Emphasis McKnight’s]

As an example, he mentions the translation of the Greek word adelphos in James 3:1, which is variously translated “brothers” and “brothers and sisters”.  Says McKnight:

which one best represents the intent of the original Greek, which has the Greek word adelphos? Unless you know what adelphos means in Greek, in the broad swath of the New Testament’s use of adelphos and how it is used in the Greek-speaking (not to mention Hebrew-reading world) and about how James uses the word adelphos, any judgment is rooted in theology or theory but not in evidence. If you don’t know the Greek, avoid standing in judgment. I’m not trying to be a hard-guy or an elitist, but let’s be honest: only those who know Latin should be talking about which is the “best” translation of Virgil or only those who know Middle High German should be weighing in on the “best” translation of The Nibelungenlied. This isn’t elitist; it’s common sense.

Well said and a good reminder, particularly his argument that any opinion of a translation not based on an understanding of the original languages is based on an alreadygiven theology which requires a particular translation.

Book review: The Great Emergence

Phyllis Tickle, compiler and editor of the excellent Divine Hours series of prayer books, was the Tuesday night speaker at Midwinter, the conference I attended in Chicago at the beginning of February.  She was one of the conference highlights for me.  She got up on stage, leaned casually on the lecturn and then spoke for an engaging 45 minutes or so, without a glance at a note, about “the Great Emergence” (the concept, not the book).  Not long into her session I knew I wanted to buy the book: The Great Emergence: How Christianity is Changing and Why.  I bought the book at the conference and started reading it on the flight home.

Tickle suggests in the book, as in her talk, that the Church has been going through a series of 500 year cycles, all with a name prefixed by the word “Great”, because they are times of great significance in church history.  She begins with the Great Transformation–the time arising out of the life of Jesus (though she says you can go back 500 years from there and get to the Israelites’ Babylonian exile and 500 years before that the Exodus);  500 years after Christ we find (Pope) Gregory the Great, the (final) death of the Roman Empire and the rise of the Papacy; 500 years after that, in the 11th century, we find the Great Schism, when the church finally, decisively split between East and West, with the Orthodox Patriarch excommunicating the Roman Pope and vice versa; 500 years after that, in the 16th century, we find the Great Reformation, when what would become Protestantism split from the Roman Catholic church; 500 years after that we find ourselves in the 21st century, and the church is once again going through a major change.  She calls this time The Great Emergence, and the changing element in this time is the “emerging church” and its variants.

Each of these “great” periods are times of change in which the church goes through, as she calls it, a major “rummage sale”.  There is an ebb and flow to these periods and it’s difficult to pin down the exact moment of change, because they build up to a peak and then trail off over the course of a hundred years or more.  We mark them with events like the mutual excommunications of the Great Schism, or Martin Luther’s alleged nailing of his 95 theses to the doors of the church at Wittenburg, but they cannot be historically pinpointed in other than such symbolic ways.

The central question underlying each of these periods of change is, in Tickle’s words, “Where now is the authority?”  Thus (and this is me talking now) the source of authority changed in the time of Christ; with the end of the Roman Empire, authority (finally) moved from the Emperor to the Pope; in the Great Schism, one of the foundational issues was recognition of the Papacy; in the Great Reformation, authority moved from the Pope to the scriptures (in an unmediated way).  In our day we are once again asking, “Where now is the authority?”, and we don’t yet have an answer.  (When she mentioned this, I immediately thought of the current upheaval in the Anglican communion.)  It’s an interesting theory and hard to argue with, given the historical evidence she presents.

As is to be expected with any book, I didn’t agree with everything she said (e.g. I found her examples about the sola scriptura problem a bit of a charicature), but it’s an undeniable and interesting way of highlighting the fact that the church is changing.  It can’t be denied.

What’s particularly interesting is that in the history of this 500 year cycle, those who held pride of place prior to the change did not die, but simply diminished and reformed on their own, while another took their place.  The same thing is (in her theory) happening now.  Many conservative Christians in particular feel threatened by the changes happening (and perhaps are denying them), but if Tickle is right, the church as many know it won’t die, but simply be dethroned.  And it will also act as ballast in this floating ship called Church.

My major critique of the book is simply that it ends to suddenly.  Tickle is able to provide a more neutral look at the emerging movement in the church, as opposed to some of the recent books which actively oppose or attack the movement.  So I wish she would have spent a little more time on the “emerging” way of thinking (though I suppose there is no hegonomous view at this point) and, even more so, on “the way ahead”.  The bulk of her book is about the details of the 500 year cycle–and it is important, necessary and fascinating stuff–but it’s a thin volume and more time could be spent on where we’re (potentially) heading a church.

It’s a fascinating read and I heartily recommend it.   If you are at all fascinated by overarching theories of this and that, this book is for you.

Apostolic and Patristic (and 2000th post!)*

An interesting bit from Evangelicals and Tradition: The Formative Influence of the Early Church, one of the texts for the “Patristic Fathers” seminary course I am taking:

I want to emphasize the indissoluble connection that existed between the apostolic and the patristic church.  The two should indeed be distinguished, the apostolic representing the voices of those who were the first disciples and hearers of the Lord.  But far too often we take the artificial boundaries established in textbooks for purposes of clarifying the stages in church history as real divisions.  Calling the time of the apostles “apostolic” and what followed “catholic” [small-“c”] has served not only to distinguish the latter period as post-apostolic but also to depict it as a series of developments not in keeping with the original apostolic charter. . . [by this division] the apostolic reliance on the gifts and freedom of the Spirit  was transformed in into the fixing of tradition and doctrinal content known as “catholicism,” in which a “canon of faith” eclipsed the spiritual simplicity of Jesus.  But it is one thing to observe changes of development and quite another to create a disjunction.  One can point to a formation of doctrinal tradition in the earliest apostolic writings and dependency upon the Spirit’s leading in later patristic texts.  A strict delineation between the apostolic and the patristic is no more than a theoretical construct that fails at integrating the historical evidence.  The manual of Christian practice and worship known as the Didache originated in the area of northern Syria, as did the Gospel of Matthew, and was produced within a generation or less of the Gospel.  First Clement was written, just like Revelation, in the mid 90s of the first century.  Yet one was eventually regarded as apostolic and the other patristic.  The reasons for this distinction are not always apparent, underscored by the evidence that 1 Clement and the Didache were regarded as Scripture (as were some other patristic works) by certain churches.  The distinctions we so readily make today between the apostolic  and patristic were not clear to the Christians who were living in those times. (pp. 52-3)

Still with me?  I bet I lost 95% of you or more.  Anyway, interesting stuff.  Here’s the nutshell version: historically, there is no clear division between the apostolic age (that is, the age  of those who were direct disciples of Jesus, or at least taught by an direct disciple) and the apostolic age (the age of the direct successors of the apostles) and therefore no basis on which to say former age was purer period of the church than the latter.

(I admit you came to mind as I read this, Toni, and your comment here—though now that I’ve read the comment again, it only marginally relates.  🙂 )

________________________________

*I never imagined that my 2000th post would be such a dull one.

We prove Jesus by our love

(I’m fairly sure that few of you actually read these lengthy quotations and that’s fine; I continue to post them for my own future reference.  And, quite frankly, it’s only 340 words or so—why does it make a difference if it’s original material or someone else’s?)

Tonight I finished Luke Timothy Johnson’s The Real Jesus, which was a pleasure to read.  The last chapter and the epilogue were particularly rewarding.  I wish I had read them before I finished preparing last Sunday’s sermon—they would have been helpful.

Johnson has this to say about Christian apologetics—whether historical, logical, philosophical, or what have you:

From the start, Christianity has been rooted in the paradoxical claim that a human being executed as a criminal is the source of God’s life-giving and transforming Spirit.  From the start, this “good news” has been regarded as foolisness to the wise of the world.  Christianity has never been able to “prove” its claims except by appeal to the experiences and convictions of those already convinced.  The only real validation for the claim that Christ is what the creed claims him to be, that is, light from light, true God from true God, is to be found in the quality of life demonstrated by those who make this confession.

Only if Christians and Christian communities illustrate lives transformed according to the pattern of faithful obedience and loving service found in Jesus does their claim to live by the Spirit of Jesus have any validity.  The claims of the gospel cannot be demonstrated logically.  They cannot be proved historically.  They can be validated only existentially by the witness of authentic Christian discipleship.

The more the church has sought to ground itself in something other than the transforming work of the Spirit, the more it has sought to defend itself against its cultured despisers by means of sophisticated apology, the more also it has missed the point of its existence, which is not to take a place within worldly wisdom but to bear witness to the reality of a God who transforms suffering and death with the power of new life.

Christianity has credibility, both with its own adherents and with is despisers, to the degree that it claims and lives by its own distinctive identity.  This means, at a minimum, recognizing that Christianity is not measured by cultural expectations but by the experiences and convictions by which it lives.  A church that has lost a sense of its boundaries–that is, a grasp of its self-definition—can only recovering it by reasserting its character as a community of faith with a canon of Scripture and a creed.  (Luke Timothy Johnson, The Real Jesus: The Misguided Quest for the Historical Jesus and the Truth of the Traditional Gospels, pp. 168-69)

This isn’t a call for academic laziness or anti-intellectualism, but to not to try and justify faith on terms set by the wise of the world.

I suppose the notion of Jesus not being “provable” might be troubling to modern evangelical minds, yet there is something profoundly moving (and certainly Biblical) in what Johnson has to say.

I always enjoy authors who cut through the usual left-right/liberal-conservative jibber-jabber.  Johnson appears to be one of them; N.T. Wright and Stanley Hauerwas are two others.

More than one “kind” of truth?

(Off-the-cuff thoughts on a Saturday night.)

When the creation accounts, the Exodus, and the Exile were in turn challenged for their historicity [by the method of critical history which arose out and was the essential tool of the Enlightenment], Christians sometimes practiced strategic defeat: this or that aspect of the Bible could be relegated to myth or legend, but the “important stuff” remained true.

What was seldom noted, however, was that both attackers and defenders had accepted the same definition of truth.  The greatest triumph of the Enlightenment was to convince all parties that empirically verifiable truth, in this case historical truth, was the only sort of truth worth considering.  (Luke Timoth Johnson, The Real Jesus: The Misguided Quest for the Historical Jesus and the Truth of the Traditional Gospels, p. 60)

Even many (most?) Christians have a hard time grasping the notion of truth being anything other than that which is empirically verifiable.  My knee-jerk response to the above paragraph is What other kind of truth could there be?

I’m sure he’ll provide some answers later in the book.  But the author makes an interesting point nonetheless.  The problem with many of the debates that Christians engage in these days—abortion, 6-day creation vs. evolution, to cite two examples—is that we participate without first questioning whether the very ground rules by which we are operating in these debates are acceptable.  The fact is, we tend to debate on Enlightenment terms.  Johnson will argue (I suspect) that perhaps those ground rules should not be acceptable to Christian—at least not to the exclusion of others.

The problem with Intelligent Design, for instance, is not the argument that the origin of the universe is in an intelligent being.  The problem is (perhaps) that ID tries to operate within a purely empirical framework against a “foe” which has historically been the one to lay down its own rules—ID has entered the fray by accepting and working under terms with which it ultimately may not agree.

UPDATE: There’s more: after I clicked “publish” on this post, I continued reading the book.  After the above quote, Johnson briefly (and simplistically) outlines four responses of the church to Enlightenment empiricism (or rationalism or modernism), one of which he calls “active/resistant”, in which pre-Vatican II Roman Catholicism falls as well as modern-day Christian fundamentalism and evangelicalism (which, I guess, is my tradition).  Johnson has this to say:

The active/resistant response is the most obvious and visible.  It regards the challenge of modernity (and therefore of historical critical inquiry) as a threat not only to specific biblical passages or particular tenets, but to the entire perception of the world given by faith.

…The active/resistant option would like to think that it is defending tradition against the corrosive acids of rationalism.  But in its fundamentalist version, the conservative stance is profoundly paradoxical, for it seeks to root Christian convictions precisely in the historicity of of the biblical accounts.  By so doing, it finds itself co-opted by the very framework of modernity it is sworn to oppose, for it accepts the crudest form of the correspondence theory of truth as its own, and it enters into the debate seeking to ground the truth of the Gospels in their referentiality.  (pp. 61, 62)

Seems my thoughts weren’t that far off of Johnson’s.