Tag Archives: Faith

Don’t stop believing

Gordon Atkinson (of dormant Real Live Preacher) wrote a letter to his daughter about her doubts. It’s warm and fatherly. It also expresses the important but generally ignored notion that doubt or lack of understanding is not in itself reason to give up on faith:

On the one hand, it is glorious for you to ask questions. It is beautiful and righteous and good for you to wonder at the deep mysteries of the world. How I love your mind. How I look forward to years of conversations with you.

On the other hand, if you can know this without it causing you to despair, understand that you will not find answers to many of those questions. Some questions will haunt you all of your life. And most answers you do find will only come after decades of searching and seeking and trying and failing and despairing and hurting and grieving and giving birth and discovering and accepting and laughing and experiencing the rich joys of life.

My precious daughter, if I could give you any gift today, it would be that you might experience the joy of your questions without being burdened by the elusive nature of their answers.

You are young. Now is the time for practice. Throw yourself into the practice of Christianity. Pray and worship and read the scriptures. Ask your questions, yes, but do so while practicing your faith.

I think you’ll find that when your mind reaches its limits, it’s good to pay attention to the body.

And the body needs practice.

Read the rest: “A Letter to my Doubting Daughter.”

Islam and Current Events

Today was the first day of a week-long class called “Islam and Current Events” (interesting timing with the death of Osama bin Laden). It was very stimulating. The professor (Dr. Nabeel Jabbour–from off-campus) noted that there are two sides of the coin in terms of what is presented regarding Islam and the Middle East. Muslims get one side; the West gets another. One of the aims of the course is for us to get the side we don’t normally hear.

Joel noted accurately that pretty much everything he said today is new material. It was all very interesting, but what was of particular interest to me was trying to understand Islam from a Muslim point-of-view.

Christians normally approach the topic with what they assume is a direct-correspondence approach: compare our guy and their guy, our scriptures and their scriptures. They have Muhammad, we have Jesus; they have the Qur’an, we have the Bible. We make the connections, assuming their figure and scripture are analogous to ours, and think we understand Islam.

Dr. Jabbour argued that this kind of comparison does not, in fact, work to understand Islam. Christians won’t understand Islam if they assume the same thing about Muhammad and the Qur’an as Christians do about Jesus and the Bible. It’s not simply a matter of saying, the Qur’an is their authoritative book, just like the Bible is our authoritative book.

In fact, the comparisons that work–that is, the views that we could say are analogous between the two religions–are quite unexpected. Here are the main ones we discussed:

1. We  cannot directly compare Jesus and Muhammad. Christians believe that Jesus Christ is the eternal, uncreated word of God. Muslims believe nothing of the sort about Muhammad. In Islam, the closest analogy to Jesus is actually the Qur’an, which they believe is the eternal, uncreated word of God.

2. The closest analogy for Muslim belief about Muhammad is Mary, the mother of Jesus. Both Mary and Muhammad are believed to be passive receivers of the eternal, uncreated word of God–Jesus Christ and the Qur’an, respectively. Mary was a virgin, meaning that Jesus wasn’t simply the result of normal reproductive means. Similarly, Muhammad was illiterate, meaning that he did not just record the words of the Qur’an on his own. Mary was miraculously pregnant; Muhammad received the word of God by dictation, which his photographic memory retained rather like a tape recorder. Both have historically been venerated.

(I’m not interested in discussing critiques of the virgin birth or the dictation theory of the Qur’an. I’m simply highlighting the proper belief-comparison as discussed in class.)

3. The Bible and the Qur’an are not directly comparable either. The 10 Commandments would perhaps be comparable, because they are believed to have been dictated (actually inscribed) by God. Historically, however, Christians have not officially believed in a dictation theory of the Bible (divine inspiration and dictation are not the same thing). The Qur’an, by contrast, is believed by Muslims to have been dictated by God (through the angel Gabriel), so that it is the direct word of God.

The best analogy for the Bible in Islam, then, is their books on the life and teaching of Muhammad. Muhammad made a distinction between the dictated revelations he received and his own teachings, much like Catholics make a distinction between the pope’s ex cathedra statements and his other teachings. The professor didn’t say whether Muslims consider Muhammad’s non-dictated teachings authoritative, but it wouldn’t surprise me if they do.

So, an interesting lesson. It won’t do to simply compare Jesus and Muhammad or the Bible and the Qur’an. The proper analogies are, in fact,

  • The Qur’an and Jesus
  • Muhammad and Mary
  • The Bible and books about Muhammad’s life and teachings

Fascinating stuff.

Open Hands

I suppose I’d better post something. Two posts of largely non-original material–“Bob Ross” and “Footprints in the Sand“–continue to receive far and away the most hits on this blog, even on a day-to-day basis. I’m not sure what to do about that. Nothing, I suppose.

In the first half of Free of Charge: Giving and Forgiving in a Culture Stripped of Grace, which I have unfortunately not finished, Miroslav Volf writes about giving and how it relates to God. He describes God as pure giver, saying, “In relation to the world…God’s gifts only flow out” (37). He goes on to qualify the giving of God:

When God gives, it’s not a transfer of goods. We receive things from God not because God takes them from here (where God happens to be) and places them there (where we happen to be), but because God is present where we are and is continually giving to us all the things and abilities we have. To return something to God would be like pushing back to the giver the hand that gives (41).

I am, of course, just presenting a skeletal view of what Volf has to say in this section of the book. I found it particularly interesting in what he had to say with respect to faith. The distinction between faith and works has, in recent years, become less clear to me–at least as presented in the evangelical circles I grew up in. Faith is something one must “have” (or possibly “do”) in order to be saved. It is presented as almost a cognitive thing–an act of the intellect. So, I wonder, how is this different than a work?

Volf helps clarify this for me by putting faith in the context of a giving God:

Faith is not something we give to God. In that case, faith would be a work, and a silly kind of work because it would be work we do even though it doesn’t benefit anyone. But exactly the opposite is true. To have faith in God is to be “without works” before God (Romans 4:5). Faith is the way we as receivers relate appropriately to God as the giver. It is empty hands held open for God to fill. That is why, as Luther put it, faith “honors God”; it tells the truth about God and our relation to the divine Giver and ascribes to God what is due (43, emphasis mine).

Is holding my hands open to receive a work? If it is, it’s extremely passive (and borders on laziness!).

Post of the Year

Who am I to say what my post of the year is?  I suppose that should be decided by my readers.

We’ve arrived in Prince Albert and I’m fully into the early stages of the flu: runny nose, aching body, chills, headache. What a way to start the Christmas break!  I suspect it’s as a result of my trying to dig out the van when we hit the ditch the other day. I didn’t have proper snow pants on and spent quite a bit of time out there. Plus, my adrenaline probably ran out when I handed in my last assignment of the semester on Monday.

But I digress. I confess I have neither the will nor the strength scan through all of my 2010 post. No matter–I’m convinced this is the best one. In fact, it may well be the only post I wrote this year that I think is worth reading.

Written on February 19, 2010, it’s a reflection on good, evil, and God, prompted by a Bruce Cockburn song I was listening to at the time. This isn’t a post putting forward tentative theological ideas, as I usually do. These words came from my heart and my guts, which is why, I think, they continue to resonate with me.

* * *

how faint the whisper we hear of him! (Job 26:14, TNIV)

* * *

Here
is bigger than you can imagine
Now
is forever (Bruce Cockburn)

I’ve been thinking quite a bit lately about pain and suffering and genocide and natural disasters and…God.  Without diminishing the pain and horror, and without denying the legitimacy of our incredulity, our anger at God for allowing these things to happen, I do have the strong sense that we humans are awfully short-sighted in our assessment of what God is or is not doing in the world. What truths can we derive from our suffering when it is but a blip of an event in the continuum of history?  What do we, with our short lives, know about how these things fit in the great scheme of things?

And what of all the beauty and goodness we see in the world?  Should God get any credit for those things?  Should the bad things outweigh the good?

Perhaps it is easy for me to say this sitting comfortably in my Poäng chair at home, surrounded by books, family, love, health and…a roof and walls, but there runs inside me a deep vein of hope.  There is good in the world and it will prevail. I believe this deeply.

Hope does not do away with the pain and suffering, and neither does it justify or excuse it.  Hope does not mean we cannot or do not weep, grieve, shout at God in anger.  What hope does is see, if faintly and uncertainly, beyond pain and suffering to the time when, in Julian of Norwich’s wonderful words, “all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well”.

Tonight I had Bruce Cockburn’s album You’ve Never Seen Everything playing in the background as I worked.  The title track is quite a powerful song.  On first listen it comes across as a heavily political song, which is not unusual for Cockburn.  It is a dark song, sparse instrumentation, with lyrics spoken in a low, tired, almost pained voice.

The listener is presented with a series of vignettes showing the dark underbelly of the world: viruses, suicide, murder, drug trade, sexual harassment, consumerism, poisoning of women and children, rage, greed, and so on.  After a couple of these vignettes, the words, “You’ve never seen everything”.  For example:

And a car crashes and burns on an offramp from the Gardiner
Two dogs in the back seat die, and in the front
a man and his mother
Forensics reveals the lady has pitchfork wounds in her chest –
Pitchfork!
And that the same or a similar instrument has been screwed to the dash
to make sure the driver goes too

You’ve never seen everything

The listener is shaken out of his or her stupor: there is so much darkness beyond that comfortable little world you’ve created for yourself, he seems to be saying. You think you get it?  You think you understand the world–like watching the nightly news gives you any sense of what’s going on?

For the longest time I would simply skip over the song.  It was too dark, too discomforting.  And the only reason I did choose to listen to it was to get to the chorus, which is a rich, beautiful melody dropped in the middle of those dark vignettes:

Bad pressure coming down
Tears – what we really traffic in
ride the ribbon of shadow
Never feel the light falling all around

Until tonight I wasn’t sure what to do with that chorus, other than enjoy it as a brief reprieve from the dark images being spoken around it.  The song is the shadow, it seemed to me, and the chorus but a thin ribbon of half-light running through it.  But suddenly, tonight, perhaps in confirmation of the things I’ve been thinking about hope, I realized what the song is actually saying.  It ends with the chorus and repeated mantra:

Bad pressure coming down
Tears – what we really traffic in
ride the ribbon of shadow
Never feel the light falling all around
Never feel the light falling all around

You’ve never seen everything

It’s not the darkness we haven’t seen around us, it’s the light!  We think we’ve seen it all when we see the pain and sorrow of the world, but we haven’t seen everything: we haven’t seen the light falling all around, filling all the infinite space in which the ribbon of shadow moves.  We choose to ride the ribbon of darkness when we could just as well ride the light if we are willing to see it.

In fact, the album ends quite abruptly a few songs later on the word “hope”.

* * *
The original post is here if you want to follow the discussion that went with it (comments there are closed, but they are open here).

The Lord helps those…

I’ve dived (dove? doven?) right into my reading for this semester.  The first book I started is Rodney Stark’s The Rise of Christianity: How the Obscure, Marginal Jesus Movement Became the Dominant Religious Force in the Western World in a Few Centuries (a mouthful with the subtitle).  It’s written from a sociological perspective and one of the chapters deals with the fact that, among other things, Christianity was able to mobilize a human response to epidemics in a way that pagan religion was not able to.

What was new and different about Christianity was the “notion that more than self-interested exchange relations were possible between humans and the supernatural” and that “because God loves humanity, Christians cannot please  God unless they love one another” (86).  Emperor Julian–not a fan of Christianity–noted the benevolence of Christians and wanted pagans to at least match this activity, “but for all that he urged pagan priests to match these Christian practices, there was little or no response because there were no doctrinal bases or traditional practices for them to build upon.  It was not that Romans knew nothing of charity, but that it was not based on service to the gods” (88). The pagans mostly fled the cities to save themselves from epidemics; Christians stayed in the cities and cared not only for their own but also for those sick pagans who had been left behind.

There were, in Stark’s view, a number of implications to this Christian charity which contributed to the rapid rise of the faith, but that’s another matter (though an interesting one).  However, this particular passage struck me:

I suggest reading the following passage from Matthew (25:35-40) as if for the very first time, in order to gain insight into the power of this new morality when it was new, not centuries later in more cynical and worldly times:

For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me…Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.

When the New Testament was new, these were the norms of the Christian communities. Tertullian [one of the church “fathers”] claimed: “It is our care of the helpless, our practice of loving kindness that brands us in the eyes of many of our opponents. ‘Only look,’ they say, ‘look how they love one another!'” (87)

This immediately put in mind of the relatively recent brouhaha over universal medicare in the U.S. Run from your church if they talk about social gospel!, says Glenn Beck (inexplicably the new spokesperson for what appears to be much of the Christian right).  What is the social gospel?  As far as I can tell, these words of Jesus in Matthew are the essence of the social gospel. And it comes from the mouth of Jesus!

How it is that the “Christian right” came to oppose the notion of universal healthcare is beyond me.  It seems to me that they ought to be the ones who most strongly support it.  I’m not suggesting that state sponsored medicare is a biblical mandate.  What is a biblical mandate is care for those who are hungry, thirsty, imprisoned and what have you.  The state steps in because Christians are not doing what they are supposed to be doing. Somebody needs to heed Jesus’ words.

It would be one thing if the Christian right opposed universal healthcare on the grounds that they wanted to provide it instead of the Joe and Jane Taxpayer, but from what I can gather those within the church who opposed universal healthcare are not afraid of the government shuffling into their territory.  At least, not the territory of taking care of orphans and widows in their distress.  But the territory of tax dollars and the American dream?  Yes.  After all, God helps those who help themselves, it says somewhere in Hezekiah.

It scares me to think that many Christians seems to be drifting away from this “notion that more than self-interested exchange relations were possible between humans and the supernatural”.

Why ought we believe?

Today this question came to mind: “Why do we believe in Christ?”*

My childhood answer would have been, “So that I can go to heaven.”  I think that continues to be the answer of many mature Christians as well.  Maybe the answer would be more nuanced–something like, “Because he died for me/my sins.”  Or perhaps someone might answer, “Because I love him.”  But with a follow-up question–“Why do you love him?”–things are likely to end up in the same place: “Because he died for me/my sins.” However it is phrased, often it ultimately boils down to avoiding consequences.

I’m starting to think that a better or possibly more accurate answer ought to be, “Because he is Lord.”  It seems to me that the difference between the two answers is subtle but important.  To say, “Because he died for me,” is in a way a self-interested answer, because my primary motivation is the consequence (salvation or damnation), not the person.  Conversely, the primary motivation for believing “Because he is Lord,” is the person of Jesus.  This seems to be the New Testament answer as well.

You might say that “Because he died for me/my sins” is an egocentric answer, whereas “Because he is Lord” is a Christocentric answer. The difference between “Because he died for me/my sins” and “Because he is Lord” is the difference between what might be (in my own interest) and what is (regardless of my own interests).

This is why it is important that in Ethics Dietrich Bonhoeffer argues that Jesus is saviour whether people believe it or not. Jesus as Saviour and Lord is a fact not contingent on my believing it or your believing it.  This, according to Bonhoeffer, is ultimate reality. He is Lord–I can choose to believe it or I can choose to ignore or deny it, but that’s the way it is regardless of my choice.

So for Bonhoeffer spreading the Gospel or sharing the Good News of Jesus Christ is not about presenting people with what might be and then having them actualize this potential through a choice of belief or non-belief.  Instead, evangelism (or proclamation, which is apparently the more Bonhoefferian term for it) is simply about pointing people to the way things are.

This is also, I think, why theologians such as Bonhoeffer, Karl Barth and Thomas Torrance (to name the three I’ve spent some time with this year), who all have a highly Christocentric theology, all at least tend towards supporting some form of universal salvation (through Christ).  Because for these theologians it is ultimately about who Jesus is rather than what might become of me.  Of course, what becomes of me comes into the picture somewhere along the line, but that is still ultimately an outworking of who Christ is. No matter how you look at it, Christ is the centre.

I feel like I could transition into some of my reflections on this past year which I presented in church a couple of weeks ago as a part of our “The Spirit Speaks in Community” series. I reflected on the impact of “faith of Christ” vs. “faith inChrist” in Galatians 2 on my own thinking on the subject.  However, a) people tend not to read overly long posts, and b) I need to crunch those thoughts down into a post-sized form. So this post is, in a way, to be continued…

_______________________

*I suppose another way to frame the topic is to ask, “What is the essence of the Gospel?” but this is the way it came to mind today.

David Bentley Hart on “The New Atheists”

David Bentley Hart has written a rather searingly critical essay on “The New Atheists” (e.g. Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris). He laments the loss of the true skeptic of yesteryear (such as Hume, Neitzche, et al) and the shallowness of the New Atheists.

It’s a very long essay.  But from what I can tell, Hart is a master of the English language. The article is worth reading for that reason alone.

… a true skeptic is also someone who understands that an attitude of critical suspicion is quite different from the glib abandonment of one vision of absolute truth for another—say, fundamentalist Christianity for fundamentalist materialism or something vaguely and inaccurately called “humanism.” Hume, for instance, never traded one dogmatism for another, or one facile certitude for another. He understood how radical were the implications of the skepticism he recommended, and how they struck at the foundations not only of unthinking faith, but of proud rationality as well.

A truly profound atheist is someone who has taken the trouble to understand, in its most sophisticated forms, the belief he or she rejects, and to understand the consequences of that rejection. Among the New Atheists, there is no one of whom this can be said, and the movement as a whole has yet to produce a single book or essay that is anything more than an insipidly doctrinaire and appallingly ignorant diatribe.

…As a rule, the New Atheists’ concept of God is simply that of some very immense and powerful being among other beings, who serves as the first cause of all other things only in the sense that he is prior to and larger than all other causes. That is, the New Atheists are concerned with the sort of God believed in by seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Deists. Dawkins, for instance, even cites with approval the old village atheist’s cavil that omniscience and omnipotence are incompatible because a God who infallibly foresaw the future would be impotent to change it—as though Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs, and so forth understood God simply as some temporal being of interminable duration who knows things as we do, as external objects of cognition, mediated to him under the conditions of space and time.

There are a number of books in this category I ought to read, including both Hawkins’ (The God Delusion) and Hitchens’ (God is Not Great).  But those should be read together with Eagleton’s Reason, Faith, and Revolution: Reflections on the God Debate and Hart’s recently released The Atheist Delusion.

Will I get to any of those books any time soon? Alas, it is unlikely.

Eastern Orthodox service

(My December 2008 Bob Ross post has consistently been the most active and most visited post since then.  Bizarre.  It’s the Dark Side of the Moon of my posts.)

I nearly skipped community chapel today, but I noticed that it was to be an Eastern Orthodox service of thanksgiving. It was led by a man studying for the EO deaconate and his wife (who I think teaches in the college). It was completely unfamiliar and fascinating. It was a “stripped down” version of a normal EO service. There were no bells or “smells”, and it was significantly shorter than a normal EO service. The point was simply to give us a glimpse into EO worship.

It is a very “liturgical” style of worship, done in a quasi-antiphonal unaccompanied chant. It was really quite beautiful and fitting to what I just read in Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Life Together:

Because it is wholly bound to the Word, the singing of the congregation…is essentially singing in unison… The Purity of unison singing, unaffected by alien motives of musical techniques, the clarity, unspoiled by the attempt to give musical art an autonomy of its own apart from the words, the simplicity and frugality, the humanness and warmth of this way of this singing is the essence of all congregational singing (59-60).

I don’t entirely agree with Bonhoeffer’s suggestion (and Dixie certainly won’t like his disdain for harmony), I can certainly agree that all the other stuff of congregational singing–the instruments and, yes, the harmony–can sometimes become a distraction. There is a certain purity and focus to the chant style of singing which really became apparent during this afternoon’s EO service.

But what struck me most of all is that 90 per cent or more of the words in the service were passages from the Bible. It was quite a bit for an evangelical like myself to take in. This says something about evangelical churches, who often pride themselves in being “Bible-believing” Christians, doesn’t it? We may call ourselves such things, but there is often a severe lack of scripture heard in a given evangelical service, certainly in comparison to the EO service.

EO worship is certainly a different world from evangelical worship, but it is not entirely other, as I might have suspected before having any experience with the mysterious EO church.

A book and a movie

I handed in a paper today, one which has been looming over my semester, bogging me down, for several weeks now. Contrary to what I had expected, the “loominosity” hasn’t lifted.  This might be because the paper was fairly open-ended, so I had to set boundaries to it which seemed somewhat arbitrary to me.  It feels incomplete, but it probably would feel that way no matter how long I worked on it. So I handed it in.

Maybe that looming feeling relates to something else. Whatever it is, I don’t like it.

Maybe it’s the time of year. Strangely enough, I find early spring kind of depressing and bittersweet.  The melting snow, the mud, the cool temperatures.  I went for a bit of a walk the other day which was actually uplifting.  Maybe in spring my soul longs for solitude. Maybe that’s it.

Anyway, last week I managed to watch one of the Academy Award contenders for Best Picture: A Serious Man. It’s a modern retelling of the story of Job and the film is as open-ended as that Biblical book (as well as their film, No Country for Old Men). But the lack of clarity or resolution is, I suspect, partly the point of the story, so it didn’t frustrate me as it might have.  It’s a darkly funny film and the acting is terrific.  It’s entertaining and thought-provoking and bears repeated viewing.  4/5 stars.

Also, last week I read most of James Smith’s Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism?: Taking Derrida, Lyotard, and Foucault to Church. It was an excellent book, which argued for what has been called “ancient-future” worship: appropriating the traditions and practices of the ancient (or even simply premodern) church into a postmodern context.  Smith is a proponent of “Radical Orthodoxy“, which is a position he argues for in the book, and he has piqued my interest in that movement.

My only critique of the book is that it focuses too much on the “emerging” church and the “postmodern” church, which, in my mind, seems to pin the movement to an “ism” rather than as an authentic form of church without strict ideological allegiances (such as “we are a postmodern church”). However, I suspect that one of the reasons he insists on doing this is because part of function of the book is a critique the so-called “postmodern church” which Smith argues is actually thoroughly modern (simply a revamped version of the “seeker sensitive” model).

I highly recommend this book, particularly for those who are skeptical of postmodern thought and its relation to the Christianity and the church.