Pastors, especially in the North American evangelical context, in my experience, feel the need to make a sell, or make the Gospel relevant; but this is exactly the wrong way, the wrong order towards proclaiming the ‘good news’ that Jesus Christ is. I would say that approaching preaching this way is at an epidemic level among North American evangelical pastors. They have been told that the culture at large (inclusive of Christians) have become bored with religion, and no longer see the significance of it for their lives. So in order to fill this gap, pastors, often sense the need to figure out how to make the Gospel proclaimed relevant for their parishoner’s lives. But in reality, the Gospel is indeed relevant; it might appear weak and foolish, but the wisdom of God is on display in the Gospel; and it comes in ‘his weakness’ ‘his foolishness’, and it produces hearts that come to see it as more relevant, more fresh, more pertinent, more other-worldly/yet-most-worldly than any other reality this soul has ever encountered in its entire life.
John Webster, British theologian par excellence, has written on the best way for preachers to preach the Gospel. As you will notice, he presumes upon the adequacy and sufficiency of the Gospel itself; and then allows that reality to ground and fund what the preacher is supposed to do, and how he (or she, depending on your views) is to go about it. Webster writes:
Second, entrusted with and responsible for the message of reconciliation, what does the preacher do? It is tempting to think of the task of preaching as one in which the preacher struggles to ‘make real’ the divine message by arts of application and cultural interpretation, seeking rhetorical ways of establishing continuity between the Word and the present situation. Built into that correlational model of preaching (which is by no means that preserve of the liberal Christian tradition) are two assumptions: an assumption that the Word is essentially inert or absent from the present until introduced by the act of human proclamation, and an assumption that the present is part of another economy from that of which Scripture speaks. But in acting as the ambassador of the Word, the preacher enters a situation which already lies within the economy of reconciliation, in which the Word is antecedently present and active. The church of the apostles and the church now form a single reality, held together not by precarious active presence. The preacher, therefore, faces a situation in which the Word has already addressed and continues to address the church, and does not need somehow by homiletic exertions to generate and present the Word’s meaningfulness. The preacher speaks on Christ’s behalf; the question of whether Christ is himself present and effectual is one which – in the realm of the resurrection and exaltation of the Son – has already been settled and which the preacher can safely leave behind.
Preaching is commissioned human speech in which God makes his appeal. It is public reiteration of the divine Word as it articulates itself in the words of the prophets and apostles, and by it the Holy Spirit forms the church. This public reiteration both arises within and returns to contemplative attention to the Word; the church preaches because it is a reading and a hearing community….
This should help to provide relief for you, pastor. As you prepare your next sermon[s] I would think that it would be encouraging to know that you are not trying to sell anything; that you are not trying to make the Gospel relevant for a certain audience; but because the Gospel is relevant you have something to herald that does not ride on your wit or humor, but on the grace of God revealed in Jesus Christ, the same grace that gives each and every one of us the breath we breathe—what could be more relevant than that?
 John Webster, The Domain of the Word: Scripture and Theological Reason (London/New York: T&T Clark, 2012), 26.
My “e-friend” and blogging colleague (i.e. he is a theo-blogger too), Derek Rishmawy has just reposted 5 ingredients to being a good theologian from one of his favorite theologians, Thomas Weinandy (and Weinandy is good!). So in that spirit, I thought I would repost 5 reasons on how and why theological controversy and polemics can be edifying from my favorite living theologian, John Webster. Be edified!
I have had a long and varied blogging career (since 2005, so relatively speaking), and in that career lots of life has happened. One part of that happening has been continued theological development, hopefully toward the unity of faith that has already found its terminus in Christ’s unity for us with the Father by the Spirit. Some of you have been with me for my entire blogging career (almost), and others started with me mid-career, while others of you are just new comers. Much of my career has been characterized by polemical speech. In the beginning of my career, being new to the online world, I was more intrigued than anything else; and the sense of anonymity coupled with being too close to the halls of Bible College and Seminary dorm life, fused together in a way that found ultimate expression in online debates about minutiae that might only be characterized by Fundamentalist idiosyncrasy, and zeal. This zeal, though, I can honestly say, was not born out of a vindictive heart, or a desire to show people that I was smarter than them, or better at rhetorical wit (well, maybe sometimes it could be so reduced!); but really, I have always had a passion for the truth of the Gospel and the edification of the body of Christ. My zeal for the Gospel, in its best moments could be stated this way and for this end: ”Zeal is public passion for gospel truth; without it the church drifts into indifference, weariness or irony of the late career religious professional.” [John Webster, The Domain of the Word, 167.] I don’t ever want to experience this kind of drift, but a growing in zeal with knowledge. And I would like to believe that most of my blogging career has been characterized not by wandering polemic aiming at a bunch of moving targets; but a ‘zeal’ and ‘public passion for gospel truth’!
In this spirit, John Webster offers five reasons wherein theological controversy can be fruitful and edifying. I was contemplating only emphasizing the last thesis statement by Webster, but I think I will give it a go, and transcribe all five reasons; because, well, they are that good! I will offer each thesis, and then provide a summary/response at the end.
[F]irst, and most generally, theological controversy must be an exercise within the communio sanctorum. Those who contend are saints, not mere ‘civil neighbours’. They are bound together by bonds beyond the natural, together placed in the tranquil realm of reconciliation. It is as reconciled and sanctified persons that they engage in controversy; reconciled and sanctified controversy is a very different exercise from its unregenerate counterpart. Moreover, the end of controversy is the furtherance of communion, not its erosion. Righteous conduct in theological controversy requires charity, and therefore resists the flight from society which contests commonly precipitate.
Second, theological controversy must be undertaken in a way which displays and magnifies the truth of the gospel whose author and content in is peace. This principle brings with it a remarkably demanding ascetical requirement: controversy will only serve peace in the church if it has an external orientation, if it is a movement in response to an object beyond the contending parties. Without this reference to the object – an object, we should remember, which is primarily and antecedently a divine subject, living, personally, active communicative and directive – controversy will simply reinforce discord by embedding in the public life of the church the self-absorption of sensuous minds which, the apostle tells us, do not ‘hold fast to the Head’ (Col. 2.19). may controversy be conducted without self-conceit, mutual provocation and envy (Gal. 5.25), and assist in the uniting of the hearts and minds of the saints in a common object of delight.
Third, theological controversy must not allow divergence of opinion to become divergence of will otherwise it will fail as an exercise of charity. ‘Concord is a union of will, not of opinions’. In many cases, however, we allow divergence of opinion to become inflamed, and so to erode concord, failing to rest content with the fact that those from whom we diverge in opinion may be at one with us in a commonly cherished good. There are, of course, conflicts which are generated from fundamental divergences about the gospel, and which cannot be contained within concord, there being no common object of love. But these are not conflicts within the church so much as about the church. In such cases concord must wait for conversion to the truth.
Fourth, theological controversy must have an eye to the catholicity of the object of Christian faith and confession, an object which exceeds any specification of it which we may make. The object which constitutes the peace of the church and which is the substance of common Christian love is infinite and inexhaustible. This does not give licence to any representation which may court our favour – the object of common love is this one, not a formless reality. Yet, of all possible objects of love, this one is not such that we can ever end our dealings with him, determine him in such a way that we put ourselves beyond learning from our companions. Controversy turns into conflict when opinions become weapons of the will, that is, when some one reading of the gospel becomes that to which others must conform even at cost to that friendly concord in which ‘the hearts of many are joined into one focal point’.
Fifth, and most of all, theological controversy must be undertaken with tranquil confidence that, with the illuminating power of the Spirit, Jesus Christ will instruct and unify the church through Holy Scripture. Properly conducted, theological controversy is an exercise in reading the Bible in common with the calm expectation of discovering again what makes up peace and builds up our common life. We often talk ourselves into (or perhaps allow ourselves to be talked into) a kind of barren naturalism according to which appeals to Scripture founder on irresolvable exegetical and hermeneutical conflict. Once confidence in the power of Scripture to determine matters in the church is lost, the politics of the saints quickly slides into agonistic practices in which we expect no divine comfort or direction. This is not a new experience in the history of the church; it has afflicted Western Protestants since at least the early seventeenth century – John Owen, in a melachonly aside, lamented that ‘men do hardly believe that there is an efficacy and power accompanying the institutions of Christ’. The only corrective to loss of trust is recovery of trust. Because there are divine institutions, because there are prophets and apostles in service to the prophetic presence of Christ, we are not devoid of divine assistance and we may be confident that exegesis, rightly and spiritually ventured, will not exacerbate conflict but draw its sting, and guide our feet into the way of peace.
All of these are good (even excellent, at points!). But let me close by focusing on the fifth point. This is one that I have struggled with over the years, and what Christian Smith has called the problem of Pervasive Interpretive Pluralism; the idea that we all have our own kind of Wesleyan Quadrilateral: Scripture, Tradition, Reason, and Experience. And given this reality, coupled with the ‘Reformed’ Priesthood of All Believers, it becomes almost terminally difficult to come to any commonly held interpretive conclusions around the text of Scripture. And so in argument, among ourselves (per some of the dictates highlighted by Webster), we all appeal to Scripture, but we proof text right past each other. I have often argued in the past that we need to become aware of the theology that we are committed to prior to using Scripture to challenge each other’s conclusions; but what I have fallen prey to, is what Webster cautions us to. That is, a sequestering of the text of Scripture by theological concerns, such that Scripture no longer really has any kind of norming norming effect or centrality of place in our theological discussions. Scripture becomes a relic and trophy of our heritage, but not the place where the Lordly Word can accost us in such a way that it can strip all of us bare and level us out in a way where we all are kneeling together at the foot of the cross, which is the preamble and shape of the throne at the right hand of the Father. So I am convicted by Webster’s last point! And the rest too …
 John Webster, The Domain of the Word:Scripture and Theological Reason, (London: T&T Clark, 2012), 169-70.
If you have ever struggled with ‘assurance of salvation’ then you might be a Calvinist, or an Arminian
If you have ever struggled with ‘assurance of salvation’ then you might be a Calvinist, or an Arminian (or you might live under the categories of these theological frameworks simply because you are a North American or Western evangelical)! This can be a devastating thing to deal with, just ask the English Puritans back in the 17th century. Nowadays most Calvinists and Arminians, I think, are too absorbed by our self-assured culture to really feel the weight of their own stated theology (soteriology), and its implications; but back in the day this was not the case. English and early North American Puritans lives were not so easily disentangled; the church and the state were intertwined (i.e. ecclesiopolitically). And in the Americas the State and country was birthed upon Puritan ideals, indeed, the church dictated social expectations and realities, such that a person’s eternal destiny could depend upon how they acted (‘good works’) in daily and civil life. Here is how one English Puritan felt, under such constraints, as he reflected upon the liberty of grace he finally felt as he heard English Puritan and doctor, Richard Sibbes, finally explain to him (through sermons) the free grace offered in Jesus Christ (versus the conditional grace [in function] offered by the classical Westminsterian schema):
I was for three years together wounded for sins, and under a sense of my corruptions, which were many; and I followed sermons, pursuing the means, and was constant in duties and doing: looking for Heaven that way. And then I was so precise for outward formalities, that I censured all to be reprobates, that wore their hair anything long, and not short above the ears; or that wore great ruffs, and gorgets, or fashions, and follies. But yet I was distracted in my mind, wounded in conscience, and wept often and bitterly, and prayed earnestly, but yet had no comfort, till I heard that sweet saint . . . Doctor Sibbs, by whose means and ministry I was brought to peace and joy in my spirit. His sweet soul-melting Gospel-sermons won my heart and refreshed me much, for by him I saw and had muchof God and was confident in Christ, and could overlook the world . . . My heart held firm and resolved and my desires all heaven-ward.
So this is how Sibbes’ preaching on God’s ‘free grace’ made this commoner, Humphrey Mills feel in regard to his salvation.
But I want to press further than Sibbes. As an Evangelical Calvinist I believe that God’s free grace is his life actualized for us in his Son, Jesus Christ. And I believe that the objective and subjective components of grace are not grounded in us, but that both the Godward and humanward realities of salvation are fully realized and actualized in Jesus Christ (the Incarnation/hypostatic union). In other words, the ground for assurance can only and always start in and from God’s work (on both sides) for us. Furthermore, assurance of salvation is not a ‘feeling’ that we get psychologically (which takes us beyond Humphrey Mills, even); instead, assurance of salvation is knowing that God is God, and that he has elected in himself, in the Son, to be for us and not against us. Thomas F. Torrance says it like this:
The orientation of faith toward the risen, ascended and advent Christ imported for believers at the Reformation a deep sense of objectivity in looking away from themselves and their own spiritual experience even of redemption and regeneration and sanctification to Christ. It is in Christ, in the body of his Son, that the Father looks upon us, and accepts our imperfect obedience, as if it were perfect, and covers our works which are defiled by many spots, with the justice of his Son. This turning of the Scottish Reformers to the risen and advent Christ away from themselves spelled the end not only of the kind of works-righteousness, self-justification and trust in church tradition that prevailed in pre-Reformation Scotland, but the end of all pietism.
The Scots Confession devoted several articles to ‘good works’, that is to disciplined Christian living and service, but nevertheless the emphasis fell upon the fact that it is Jesus Christ himself who is the true centre and indeed the very substance of daily Christian life. That Christ-centred objectivity spelled the end of concern for self-righteousness and reliance on work-righteousness; yet far from dampening the need for disciplined godly living and daily goodness, by turning Christian people away from pietistic inwardness, it actively kindled and encouraged good works, as we can see particularly in the emphatic concern for the poor and needy throughout the realm. This legacy of the Scottish Reformation, ‘the veritie is not in us’, left a permanent mark on the tradition of Scottish theology and spirituality.
I would only ask of classical Calvinists and Arminians that you be consistent with your stated theological premises and its implications for your spirituality, just as I would expect this of myself. If you as classical Calvinists and Arminians are not struggling with assurance of salvation, you ought to be! How do you know you are one of the elect that God chose in eternity? How do you know that you are one of the elect that Christ died for? How (Arminan) do you know if your ‘faith’ is sufficient enough to count you among the elect, how do you know if you are doing enough to sustain your elect status? How do you know your faith is of the quality and kind that suffices as the kind that God saw in eternity past, and deemed it worthy of elect status?
We all just need to be consistent with the theo-logic and implications of our stated theological positions; if we are not going to be consistent with how our positions cash out, then we are being intellectually dishonest, or worse, disingenuous.
 Ron Frost. Kelly Kapic and Randall Gleason, eds., “The Devoted Life: An Invitation to the Puritan Classics,” Frost is quoting from: John Rogers, Ohel or Bethshemesh, A Tabernacle for the Sun (London, n.p., 1653) (the format of this footnote is not correct, I will need to correct that later J ).
 Thomas F. Torrance, Scottish Theology: From John Knox to John McLeod Campbell (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1996), 24-5.
A Post With a Life of Its Own: Concern for Younger (and ‘Older’) Christians Coming Up and Being Discipled in the ‘Progressive’ Winds
I am genuinely saddened and thus concerned for the range of confusion out there in the Christian church in particular. We run to and fro between extremes of doctrine and the winds of change foisted upon us by our socio-cultural mores. We interpret Scripture by using the categories and emphases provided for us through our own pervasive and situations and conditions. We become ensnared by flights of theological fancy that have more to do with sensationalism and immediacy than they do with God as revealed in Jesus Christ. I think part of this comes from the fact that we are very insecure people (so a little psychology). We have no grounding in the God revealed in Jesus Christ, even though we love him. We don’t read the Bible, ourselves, the culture, etc. from him; but instead we attempt to read him from ourselves, our experiences, our cultures, and various regional and national modes of life.
Theologically though this is backwards isn’t it? It is known in the history of ideas as Pelagianism (that nature is neutral in regard to God, and what we do with him depends upon our choice not his), or in the realm of theological ideas as Adoptionism–this is a Christological heresy that says that the Christ simply ‘adopted’ the humanity of a man named Jesus at his baptism; the effect being that there is a detachment between the person of the eternal Son and the man from Nazareth, Jesus Christ. And so Jesus ends up getting used as a kind of instrument through which God accomplishes his salvation purposes, and nothing else. The result though, is that there is an artificial attachment of humanity (or manity) to the eternal Son, and one that is undertaken from below (TF Torrance writes in this regard about adoptionism: ‘the theory that Jesus was born human but adopted to be the Son of God’).
Wow, this post has taken a life of its own. I intended to write on the doctrine of assurance of salvation through quoting something from TF Torrance, and then commenting further from there. So sticking with the theme of this post then, my point is this: We do not or ought not direct God and his ways from our ways; his ways, his act in his Son Jesus Christ ought to serve as definitive for how we conceive of him, and should motivate us to do so as we think of his great love for us revealed as it is in the cross of his eternal Son, Jesus Christ.
I think the reason I ended up going this way in this post is because of the angst I am feeling about how ‘windy’ the evangelical (so called progressive) branch of the church has become, and is becoming (esp. in regard to ethics). There seems to be no regard whatsoever for the tradition of the church, and how we ought to critically engage with that as we read the Scripture situated as it is from with the Triune speech of God given by the breath of the Holy Spirit from the humanity and apostolicity of Jesus Christ.
I just wanted to provide a quick update, if you are friends with me on Facebook then you have already heard the good news; I had my CT scan today, and got the results. I am cancer free, indeed! My oncologist said that I
have beaten the odds, and that I don’t need to come back for another CT scan for a year (this last time was a 9 mos. span). After that he said I won’t need to come back at all (except once a year for blood work, which is just to monitor my bone marrow and the effects of the chemo from the past—which at this point is negligible). All I can say, is Praise the Lord!!! And thank all of you for supporting me and my family through prayer and other support over the years.
The Lord is so good, and I don’t deserve to have been healed the way that I have been—He is gracious!
Let me end this post with something I wrote while I still had cancer on my ‘cancer update blog’ (actually when I posted the following, I was cancer free, a month out from my resection surgery, and just getting back into some follow up chemo treatments—I was being reflective on a question that plagued me that entire time: i.e. why was I apparently getting better, when so many other Christians I knew were dying from their cancer diagnoses? This is the question I am engaging with in this post I wrote back then). Here it is:
Something that has plagued me at points through this season is the question of “why” some folks die from cancer and some folks don’t. At moments the “enemy” has said ‘look they’re a good Christian, and yet they have died from their cancer; so will you’. The reality is, is that death has indeed been conquered by our Lord; so in moments like those, at the depth, I can say so what . . . but that’s usually not my response, truth be told — I want to continue to live!!!
But it does cause you to wonder “why;” why do some die and some don’t? The Lord has pointed me to a particular passage of scripture to help with this real life issue:
15When they had finished eating, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you truly love me more than these?”
“Yes, Lord,” he said, “you know that I love you.”
Jesus said, “Feed my lambs.”
16Again Jesus said, “Simon son of John, do you truly love me?”
He answered, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.”
Jesus said, “Take care of my sheep.”
17 The third time he said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?”
Peter was hurt because Jesus asked him the third time, “Do you love me?” He said, “Lord, you know all things; you know that I love you.”
Jesus said, “Feed my sheep. 18 I tell you the truth, when you were younger you dressed yourself and went where you wanted; but when you are old you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go.” 19Jesus said this to indicate the kind of death by which Peter would glorify God. Then he said to him, “Follow me!”
20Peter turned and saw that the disciple whom Jesus loved was following them. (This was the one who had leaned back against Jesus at the supper and had said, “Lord, who is going to betray you?”) 21When Peter saw him, he asked, “Lord, what about him?”
22Jesus answered, “If I want him to remain alive until I return, what is that to you? You must follow me.” 23Because of this, the rumor spread among the brothers that this disciple would not die. But Jesus did not say that he would not die; he only said, “If I want him to remain alive until I return, what is that to you?”
This passage of scripture doesn’t necessarily answer the question “why” in detail; but it does say something to what can look very random (i.e. the fact that some die from cancer and some don’t). And that is that the Lord has a different plan for each one of us; He has tailored exactly how it is that He wants us to live out our lives in service to Him. For some that means He’s going to call us home (sooner) and for others of us later. This is what the Lord has constantly been impressing upon me through this season; that He’s in total control, and that just because “this” person or “that” person is taken through cancer, does not mean that I am necessarily going to go home through this cancer. In fact this cancer might just be a catalyst for something else the Lord has in mind for me and my family while on this earth.
Now I’ve applied what Jesus said to Peter in this context to my situation; but this is just as easily applied to any and all of our situations and life circumstances. The reality is, is that there is nothing normative about any circumstances we face in life; in other words there is a special plan laid out for each one of us, and our particular life stories and circumstances all differ one from the other — according to the plans and purposes of the Lord for us. I think sometimes we all fall prey to wondering why that person or this person seems to “make it;” and others don’t. The bottom line is that the Lord is in control of each of our lives in very personal and intimate ways. [see the original post here]
I just posted the following to my group blog for a program I am a part of through Princeton Theological Seminary. One of our assignments was to listen to the following podcast by Eboo Patel, and the following is what I wrote in response to what he had to say. Patel is a Muslim, and yet he promotes an inter-faith approach to things. As you will be able to infer from what I wrote in response, I don’t agree with him, even if I think his desires are noble (which I do think they are). Click here to listen to the podcast if you want (it is approx 18 minutes). Here is my response:
I just finished listening to the assigned podcast for pre-session #4 class work which was a short lecture given by Eboo Patel on interfaith interaction and ecumenical and inclusive engagement between various faith traditions; in particular, for him, between Christians, and his faith tradition, Islam. And yet as I listened to Patel’s very articulate and winsome talk, what stood out to me was that he seemed to be ameliorating the substantial differences and distinctives inherent between Islam, Christianity, and other ‘faith’ traditions. And that he places a higher premium on our shared human and earthly situation, and in the process diminishes the ‘eternal’ realities that give each of our faith traditions there actual distinctiveness; that is, I see Patel diminishing the significance and thus importance of what we think about God. It appears that Patel holds to the an idea that the concept ‘God’ is actually an ‘eternal’ reality, who in the end ends up being the same reality, and thus in the present what is important in the ‘earthly’ experience of ‘God’ is to focus on our shared experiences and various, but shared expressions of ‘faith.’
Interestingly, what Eboo Patel is doing, and the way he is emphasizing a ‘pluralistic’ approach to inter-faith cooperation sounds very similar to the way that theologian John Hick approached his expression and understanding of Christianity through his ‘pluralist universalist’ approach. Christian theologian Christian Kettler describes Hick’s approach (and quotes Hick in the process); notice, as you read this, how well Hick’s approach (as described by Kettler) dovetails with Patel’s approach. I think there is more than coincidence going on between Patel’s informing approach, and how Hick approaches things; here is Kettler on Hick:
Hick responds to this challenge by stressing 1) the structural continuity of religious experience with other spheres of reality, and 2) an openness to experimental confirmation. “Meaning” is the key concept which links religious and mundane experience. “Meaning” for Hick is seen in the difference which a particular conscious act makes for an individual. This, of course, is relative to any particular individual. Verification of this experience is eschatological because of the universal belief in all religions that the universe is in a process leading towards a state of perfection.
The epistemological basis for such an approach is found in the philosophy of Immanuel Kant. Hick’s soteriology is based on “Kant’s broad theme, recognizing the mind’s own positive contribution to the character of its perceived environment,” which “has been massively confirmed as an empirical thesis by modern work in cognition and social psychology and in the sociology of knowledge.” The Kantian phenomena in this case are the varied experiences of religion. All have their obvious limitations in finite humanity, so none are absolutely true.
In contrast to Kant, however, Hick believes that the “noumenal” world is reached by the “phenomenal” world of religious experience. “The Eternal One” is “the divine noumenon” experienced in many different “phenomena.” So the divine can be experienced, but only under certain limitations faced by the phenomenal world. Many appropriate responses can be made to “the divine noumenon.” But these responses are as many as the different cultures and personalities which represent the world in which we live. Similar to Wittgenstein’s epistemology of “seeing-as,” Hick sees continuity between ordinary experience and religious experience which he calls “experiencing-as”.
The goal of all these religious experiences is the same, Hick contends: “the transformation of human existence from self-centeredness to Reality-centeredness.” This transformation cannot be restated to any one tradition.
When I meet a devout Jew, or Muslim, or Sikh, or Hindu, or Buddhist in whom the fruits of openness to the divine Reality are gloriously evident, I cannot realistically regard the Christian experience of the divine as authentic and their non-Christian experiences as inauthentic. [Kettler quoting: Hick, Problems of Religious Pluralism, 91.]
Even if Patel is not directly drawing from Hick’s pluralism (which I doubt that he is not), it becomes quite apparent how Patel’s ‘earthly’ vis-á-vis ‘eternal’ correlates with Hick’s appropriation of Kant’s ‘noumenal’ (which would be Patel’s ‘eternal’), and ‘phenomenal’ (which would be Patel’s ‘earthly’). What happens is that the actual reality of God is reduced to our shared human experience of what then becomes a kind of ‘mystical’ religious experience of God determined to be what it is by our disparate and various cultural, national, and ‘nurtural’ experiences. In other words, God and the ‘eternal’ becomes a captive of the human experience, and our phenomenal ‘earthly’ experiences becomes the absolutized end for what human flourishing and prosperity (peace) is all about.
Beyond this, Patel, towards the end of his talk uses a concept of ‘love’ that again becomes circumscribed by and abstracted to the ‘earthly’ human experience of that; as if the human experience of love has the capacity to define what love is apart from God’s life. But as Karl Barth has written in this regard:
God is He who in His Son Jesus Christ loves all His children, in His children all men, and in men His whole creation. God’s being is His loving. He is all that He is as the One who loves. All His perfections are the perfections of His love. Since our knowledge of God is grounded in His revelation in Jesus Christ and remains bound up with it, we cannot begin elsewhere—if we are now to consider and state in detail and in order who and what God is—than with the consideration of His love.
In other words, for the Christian, our approach and understanding of ‘love’ cannot be reduced to a shared and pluralistic experience of that in the ‘earthly’ phenomenal realm. Genuine love for the Christian starts in our very conception of God which is not something deduced from our shared universal experience, but is something that is grounded in and given to us in God’s own particular Self-revelation in Jesus Christ.
In conclusion, I would argue that Eboo Patel’s ‘earthly’ pluralist approach is noble, but his approach is flawed because 1) ‘God’ cannot be adumbrated by our human experience (because for the Christian that our understanding of God is revealed from outside of us); and 2) ‘love’ is not simply an human experience that transcends all else, but instead is the fundamental reality of God’s Triune life. If love is the fundamental reality of who the Christian God is, then the object of our ‘faith’ as Christians, by definition, starts in a different place than all other religions and their various conceptions of God. If this is the case, then Christianity offers a particular (not universal) understanding and starting point to knowing God, and thus to understanding how love relates to truth (and vice versa). And yet, Christianity remains the most inclusive ‘religion’ in the world, because God loves all, and died for all of humanity; but this can only be appreciated as we start with the particular reality of God’s life in Jesus Christ.
None of what I just wrote means that we cannot work alongside or with other ‘faith’ traditions; it is just important, I think, to remember that who God is remains very important, and in fact distinguishes us one from the other. And that while we can and should befriend and conversate with other faith traditions, in the midst of this, we should not forget that there still is only one ‘way, truth, and life’ to the Father, and that way comes from God’s life himself, in his dearly beloved Son, Jesus Christ. If we don’t want to affirm what I just suggested, then what we will be left with is something like John Hick’s ‘anonymous Christians’ with the notion that all ways are ‘valid’ expressions towards the one God ‘out there’ somewhere.
8 We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about the troubles we experienced in the province of Asia. We were under great pressure, far beyond our ability to endure, so that we despaired of life itself. 9 Indeed, we felt we had received the sentence of death. But this happened that we might not rely on ourselves but on God, who raises the dead. ~II Corinthians 1:8-9
When I was diagnosed with the deadly and usually terminal cancer Desmoplastic Small Round Cell Tumor-sarcoma (DSRCT) in the Fall (November) of 2009 the Apostle Paul’s writing became all too real for me! When I was told by my hernia specialist that I didn’t (unfortunately) have a hernia after all, but instead a large softball size mass by my right kidney, the Apostle Paul’s words became for me a reality that I wouldn’t be able to shake for the next 7 months of chemo treatment (leading up to my resection surgery in May). I came close to death multiple times during my treatment (although my docs didn’t tell me that then). And here I am almost four years later, up against another CT scan (this Tuesday, the 18th of February) to make sure that I am still cancer free. This verse from the Apostle Paul has never gone away for me. I continue to have an immediate and real sentence of death written upon me, and I don’t like it. But it does press me deep into Jesus in ways that I would not be without this ‘sentence.’
Please keep me and my wife in prayer this Tuesday the 18th at around 12:30pm (pst); it will be at this time that I get the results for my CT scan (which I will have at 11am that morning). I get pretty anxious that day, so does my wife. It brings back memories, smells, people, etc. that are not pleasant; I am pretty sure it is something like what war veterans experience with PTSD, although mine is particular and local and not generalized (i.e. I only get it the day of the test and results ). Anyway, please keep us in prayer that day. Thanks all.