The ‘Logic of Grace’ and the Burden of the Gospel

I really don’t know what it is, I’d have to say it’s Jesus, and the work of the Holy Spirit, but as of late I’ve once again had a real sense of the ‘lostness’ of people all around me; people for whom Jesus died, but people who for some inscrutable reason continue to reject the greatest and deepest love ever offered humankind. “Coincidentally” I just came across a quote from Maximus that Ben Myers has on his Twitter feed, it reads this way:

‘Damnation’ and ‘hell’ refer to those who are on the way to nonbeing and whose way of life has reduced them almost to nothingness. –Maximus

This reminded me of some exegesis I did once on I Corinthians 1:18 (for my Master’s thesis which was on I Corinthians 1:17-25). Here’s the passage:

18 For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.

In my exegesis I made it a point to underscore a similar thing that Maximus seems to be alerting us to about the condition of those ‘being destroyed’ or ‘perishing.’ Here’s what I offered up on the word πολλυμένοις , the word translated as ‘destroyed’ or ‘perishing’:

ἀπολλυμένοις is a present middle participle coming from the lexical root ἀπόλλυμι (I destroy). The participle is functioning as adjectival-substantive thus identifying a group of people who are destroyed, and are in the process of being destroyed. The participle, according to Kistemaker, “denotes that the process is durative and that the compound is perfective.” This means these kinds of people are characterized by a present and ongoing process.

Further clarification is brought by Daniel Wallace on the concern of how a substantive participle, such as ἀπολλυμένοις, while functioning as a noun, has not lost its verbal aspect. Note his comment,

… with reference to its verbal nature: Just because a participle is adjectival or substantival, this does not mean that its verbal aspect is entirely diminished. Most substantival participles still retain something of their aspect. A general rule of thumb is that the more particular (as opposed to generic) the referent, the more verbal aspect is still seen.

This point serves to bolster the reality of the state that characterizes these people’s lives. That status is one of dynamism and movement within and towards destruction.[1]

As I reread what I offered in my exegesis (there was more) of this passage, with particular focus on those “being destroyed” it is absolutely sobering; sobering in the ways that Maximus’s reflection is.

So while this is the case for “those being destroyed,” as they simply live into who they are as those who know nothing but destruction (something we all know about as those once part of the kingdom of darkness) there of course remains hope.

What’s interesting about Maximus’s reflection is that he pushes into the concept of ‘being,’ an important concept. This concept usually is emphasized in Eastern Christian approaches to salvation, while the West focuses more on the legal and forensic aspects of salvation. Since Maximus is an Eastern it makes sense then that he would press this idea of nonbeing and nothingness in regard to those who choose to remain outside of Christ (even though Christ has not chosen to remain outside of them). So as I was noting there is hope, even for those living in a state of destruction; they aren’t left to nonbeing and nothingness, even if that’s what they are choosing currently. T.F. Torrance makes this clear; here’s a favorite quote of mine of his that touches upon the very topic under consideration:

God loves you so utterly and completely that he has given himself for you in Jesus Christ his beloved Son, and has thereby pledged his very being as God for your salvation. In Jesus Christ God has actualised his unconditional love for you in your human nature in such a once for all way, that he cannot go back upon it without undoing the Incarnation and the Cross and thereby denying himself. Jesus Christ died for you precisely because you are sinful and utterly unworthy of him, and has thereby already made you his own before and apart from your ever believing in him. He has bound you to himself by his love in a way that he will never let you go, for even if you refuse him and damn yourself in hell his love will never cease. Therefore, repent and believe in Jesus Christ as your Lord and Saviour.[2]

This poses problems for many in the Reformed and evangelical world, theologically; but not for me! What Torrance describes is the good news of Jesus Christ; it’s, as Torrance says elsewhere, the ‘logic of grace.’ Yes, for those of you who don’t know, Torrance is also, even as a Reformed Christian, very influenced by the Eastern way of thinking salvation (let me not give too much away here, this focus of ‘being’ in salvation can even be found in Calvin’s union with Christ theology, and in Luther’s marital mysticism soteriology).

No matter, I’m not as concerned with where the influence comes from, but instead with the veracity of what is being communicated. The logic of grace, the Gospel, provides hope for all of humanity all the way down; right where they need it. We are obviously a fractured people, we need more than our sins paid for, we need a recreation of our humanity; we need to be resurrected. That’s what Maximus knows, that’s what Torrance knows, that’s what the Apostle Paul knows (see Romans 6 — 8); we need a new heart, and orientation towards God where real life and real freedom are found.

I can’t help but think the Lord is reworking into me, once again, how urgent the Gospel is. When I look at people I see people for whom God in Christ pledged his very being so that they wouldn’t have to be catapulting towards nonbeing and nothingness. My burden is to share that reality with them; this is my great reward. Think about it, we are around broken people, as broken people ourselves, who the living God gave His very life; for whom God shed His blood (Acts 20:28). How can we not want to share that with people; how could we not want people to be transferred from the kingdom of darkness to the kingdom of the Son of His love (Colossians 1:13)?

 

[1] Robert Allen Grow, Christ Crucified, The Wisdom and Power of God: An Exegetical Analysis of I Corinthians 1:17-25 (Portland, OR: Multnomah Biblical Seminary [Unpublished Master’s Thesis], 2003), 41.

[2] T. F. Torrance, The Mediation of Christ, 94.

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Chasing Heroin. Jesus is the Savior!

I just finished watching a really depressing documentary on PBS’s Frontline, it is called Chasing Heroin. It focused in on the Seattle, Washington area, mostly because the city of Seattle has been implementing what they call the Lead program. It essentially decriminalizes drug addiction and attempts to reclassify it as a public health issue. So when an addict makes contact with a police officer, most of them are diverted from the criminal justice system and hooked up with a Lead counselor who offers them options for treatment and so on. It allows some drug addicts to avoid heroinaddictfelony charges, in some instances, and instead keeps tabs on them in their life as an addict. The addict determines their own time table in the Lead program, in other words they can be in the program and still be using. The goal, of course, is to ultimately get the addict sober and clean, but the more minimal goal is to make sure that if they are using that they are doing so in as safe of an environment as possible, and to minimize occasions for the addict to be involved in criminal activity. According to a recent University of Washington study the Lead program has been quite successful in minimizing criminal activity among addicts, and also in getting more of these addicts clean. The Lead model has now gained Federal recognition and is being adopted by other municipalities throughout the country.

But of course what I want to focus on is the plight of some of the addicts this documentary followed. One guy’s name is Johnny, one of the gal’s names is Chrissie, and there were a few others. Chrissie started when she was just a teenager with hard drugs, and she is currently twenty. She has been living on the streets of downtown Seattle, selling her body, selling drugs to support her heroin habit, and other activity. Johnny was a very successful DJ in Seattle, had a young family, and college degree. There was also a housewife they spot-lighted, I forget her name. If you saw her you would never believe she has been a heroin addict for seventeen years. For her, as with so many, it started out with an OxyCotin addiction, which then led to the heroin, and the destruction of her life. All of these folks were in the Lead program, and as the show ended they were all staying clean; they were either doing that through being in a Methadone program or in Johnny’s case he was taking the even more effective, Suboxone.

Looking at these addicts, giving them names helped to personalize them. They weren’t just junkies walking down the street; they became real life people with stories; they became the people for whom Christ came — the sick. And this is where I must go to try and cope with the jolt that this documentary injected into my system. There really isn’t much to say, drug addiction is one of the terrible blights in our country and in the world!

In 1996-97 I attended Calvary Chapel Bible College in Murrieta, California. This wasn’t your average Bible College! Most of the people there had been radically saved out of some crazy situations. For example, I had four roommates in my dorm room (it was a big dorm room), three of the four were former drug addicts (and two of them demon possessed). Jesus grabbed a hold of them in a real life way, and SAVED them from the inside/out! He freed them from the bondage of drug addiction (heroin was one of the drugs in these guy’s lives), and kicked the demons out. They were walking testimonies of Romans 1.16,

 16 For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ, for it is the power of God to salvation for everyone who believes, for the Jew first and also for the Greek.

They were the Mary Magdalenes among us, and they weren’t alone. Like I said it was an interesting Bible College (not all that academic in focus, more devotional and retreat like), and there were many other testimonies of God’s radical inbreaking into the lives of many other drug addicts, demon possessed, and gang-bangers (among other ailments).

What this experience in my life illustrates for me is that there is real life hope for heroin addicts, and others; that the euaggelion (Gospel) is apocalyptically radical, and can break bars in people’s lives that only the Gospel, the power of God can. In this documentary they interviewed the deputy drug czar in the Obama administration; he is a heavy advocate for making sure that the public sees this issue as a public health problem, and not as a crime problem. He himself has a son who died from drug addiction and another son who is struggling with addiction to drugs. He believes that medical progress is the real answer to this problem, and that things like “religion” do not have any real power to accomplish anything but empty hope and pie-in-the-sky platitudes. But, I know differently! I’ve lived with multiple former drug addicts, heroin addicts, and other types of addicts. I know that the Gospel is the power of God, and that God is able; there is nothing too difficult for Him! I know that He can heal someone from incurable/terminal cancer, and I know that He can heal someone from what some believe to be an incurable disease known as drug addiction.

There is real hope, and His name is Jesus! I trust Him. I don’t care what people say; I’m not ashamed of the Gospel because I know it is the power of God!

35 for I was hungry and you gave Me food; I was thirsty and you gave Me drink; I was a stranger and you took Me in; 36 I was naked and you clothed Me; I was sick and you visited Me; I was in prison and you came to Me.’ 37 “Then the righteous will answer Him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see You hungry and feed You, or thirsty and give You drink? 38 When did we see You a stranger and take You in, or naked and clothe You? 39 Or when did we see You sick, or in prison, and come to You?’ 40 And the King will answer and say to them, ‘Assuredly, I say to you, inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these My brethren, you did it to Me.’

Next time you see a junkie, at the very least pray for them! They aren’t lost, they’ve been found by Jesus Christ; they just don’t know it yet! If you can, let them know it; if not, pray that the Lord will send them someone who will let them know it. That’s the challenge I’m going to take from this documentary.

 

A Response to Miroslav Volf and Larycia Hawkins: Do Christians and Muslims Worship the Same God?

Miroslav Volf just wrote an article for The Washington Post entitled: Wheaton professor’s suspension is about anti-Muslim bigotry, not theology. It is in response to all of the hub-bub that has been happening in regard to Wheaton College’s tenured political science professor’s Larycia Hawkins decision to donn the traditional head dress for Muslim women, the Hajib, in order to show
muslimwomansolidarity with Muslim’s who are currently experiencing back-lash because of the recent terrorist attacks in North America and elsewhere in the world; she went further though, she claims that Muslims and Christians worship the same God. She said on social media:

“I stand in religious solidarity with Muslims because they, like me, a Christian, are people of the book,” she posted Dec. 10 on Facebook. “And as Pope Francis stated last week, we worship the same God.”[1]

This is where Volf comes immediately into the picture, as he explains in his Washington Post article:

Appealing in part to arguments in my book “Allah: A Christian Response,” Hawkins asserted that Muslims and Christians worship the same God. She did not insist that Christians and Muslims believe the same things about that one God….[2]

Yes, Volf wrote a book entitled Allah: A Christian Response a few years ago; he also gave a presentation at Wheaton College[3] in the past which summarized the main arguments of his book. Hawkins, as Volf notes, was merely taking some of Volf’s thinking and concretely applying it to real life in a context that she thought would make sense. So it makes sense that Volf would come to her defense in the aftermath of what has now unfolded; i.e. the suspension of Dr. Hawkins from her role as professor at Wheaton College (not because of her choice to wear the Hajib, but because of her choice to assert, as Volf does [and he does so with development] that Christians and Muslims worship the same God).

The title of Volf’s article is provocative, but it is inaccurate. It is about theology for Wheaton, as I read them. They believe that Dr. Hawkin’s view about Muslims and Christians worshipping the same God is un-true; and so her suspension comes as a result of this incongruence. But this post of mine isn’t intended to get into whether or not Wheaton’s choice to suspend her was the right one, it is simply, instead going to be a quick response to Volf’s claim that Christians and Muslims worship the same God; I will argue that we do not!

Volf writes this in his Post article (at length):

What is theologically wrong with asserting that Christians and Muslims worship the same God, according to Hawkins’s opponents — and mine? Muslims deny the Trinity and incarnation, and, therefore, the Christian God and Muslim God cannot be the same. But the conclusion doesn’t square. And Christians, though historically not friendly to either Judaism or the Jews, have rightly resisted that line of thinking when it comes to the God of Israel.

For centuries, a great many Orthodox Jews have strenuously objected to those same Christian convictions: Christians are idolaters because they worship a human being, Jesus Christ, and Christians are polytheists because they worship “Father, Son and the Spirit” rather than the one true God of Israel. What was the Christian response? Christian theologians neither insisted that they worship a different God than Jews nor did they accuse Jews of idolatry. That’s a step that would have been easy to make, for if Jews don’t worship the same God as the Christians, then they worship the false God and, therefore, are idolaters. Instead of rejecting the God of the Jews, Christians affirmed that they worship the same God as the Jews, but noted that the two religious groups understand God in in partly different ways.

Why is the Christian response to Muslim denial of the Trinity and the incarnation not the same as the response to similar Jewish denial? Why are many Christians today unable to say that Christians and Muslims worship the same God but understand God in partly different ways?[4]

It is these questions (the ones detailed in his last paragraph) that I want to respond to.

Volf argues, in much more depth in his book that the question isn’t or shouldn’t be over referent but over description. In other words, he believes the referent for the Christians and Muslims, in regard to God, is the same; but then he also believes that the way that gets fleshed out is where the distinction comes in (i.e. Trinitarian versus Unitarian etc.). And then as we just saw from the quote he believes that Christians are inconsistent when they tacitly affirm that Jews worship the same God as Christians just based upon a less than full understanding of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob because they reject, of course, Jesus Christ as God’s eternal Son.

I want to contend that Volf is wrong because he frames the scenario in an unsound way. He confuses what the question is: should we be concerned with referent when talking about God, in a first order way, or revelation? My contention is that it is the latter that we should be focusing on; revelation. As I noted on my Facebook wall: The referent is necessarily delimited by the revelational source; there is no generic sense of “God.” This is, as I see it, what’s at stake; i.e. the so called scandal of particularity.

Muslims and Christians are both faith traditions that start and finish with their respective revelational sources. For Muslims this primarily entails the Qur’an and Hadith; for Christians it is Jesus Christ (as God’s Self-interpretion) and Holy Scripture (both Old and New Testaments). The referent that Volf is concerned with is defined by these respective revelations; there is no prior concept of God for these faith traditions before we encounter Him or it within our respective revelational sources. If this is so we cannot conclude as Volf does that Christians and Mulisms have a “sufficiently similar” understanding of God, which for him cashes out in the claim that we worship the same God. Who God is is determined by how God has revealed himself to us; and with that revelation what He says about Himself in both word and deed.

In regard to the Jewish analogy. Volf, as we have seen, argues that Christians who don’t have problems with believing that Christians and Jews worship the same God are being inconsistent if they also want to claim that Muslims are not; since both Jews and Muslims are Unitarian (versus Trinitarian) in their understanding of God. But again, this comes back to an issue of revelational source. The Jewish people, historically, are God’s covenantal people through whom He freely elected to mediate His Son, the Messiah of the world through. Jews and Christians share in their particularity in regard to the God, Yahweh, that they are hearing from; Muslims do not share in that particularity, they have their own defined by the Qur’an and Mohammed himself. Whether or not the Jews, historic or contemporary, want to acknowledge that Jesus is the promised Messiah of the Old Testament is moot in regard to the question of whether or not Christians and Jews worship the same God. As the Apostle Paul noted in regard to the Jews:

14 But their minds were hardened. For to this day, when they read the old covenant, that same veil remains unlifted, because only through Christ is it taken away. 15 Yes, to this day whenever Moses is read a veil lies over their hearts. 16 But when one turns to the Lord, the veil is removed. 17 Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. [5]

His argument isn’t premised on the idea that they are worshipping a different God outwith the revelational framework that Christians worship through (i.e. the giving of the Old Testament as prefigural revelation of the incarnate God, Jesus Christ), but instead that when they read the Old Testament they do so under a veil that only the Holy Spirit can remove. Muslims don’t enter into their understanding of God from within this revelational framework, as such their ‘referent’ when they think of God is fundamentally distinct from the God that Jews and Christians worship at an ontological, referential level.

Conclusion

I believe that Larycia Hawkins and Miroslav Volf have the right heart; they desire to reach out to Muslims in the name of Christ. I just think that they are doing that based upon the wrong approach. I worked with Muslims in evangelistic and dialogical capacity in the past. The key wasn’t to mitigate the fundamental distinctions between Muslims and Christians, but instead it was to magnify those, in love. Orthodox Muslims would never agree that they worship the same God as Christians (despite what the Pope naively asserted); this for them would be to engage in one of the most heinous sins a Muslim could commit, the sin of Shirk. When the differences are magnified Christ has the opportunity to rise and shine the light on the darkness that Muslims live within; darkness that keeps them in bondage to a revelation provided for by an angel (i.e. Gabriel for Muslims) rather than Godself revealed in Jesus Christ.

I found from my experiences with Muslims that the best approach to reaching out is to establish relationships with them (like with anyone). Be a learner, a student, ask them lots of questions about their faith; most Mulsims will enjoy explaining things to you. But wearing a Hajib and claiming that we worship the same God won’t get you very far with the true blue Muslim; although it might make you feel provocative within your own sub-culture.

 

[1] Chicago Tribune.

[2] Washington Post.

[3] YouTube.

[4] Washington Post.

[5]II Corinthians 3, English Standard Version.

Not to Be ‘Liked’ But to Love the World

Do we want to be liked so much by the world, our peers, that we are willing to not love them? That is a question I am currently wrestling with. As I engage the world in a new context, through new employment, I am confronted with this reality all over again. We are created as social creatures, in the image of a God who is a community of persons in the Triune life. I think it is quite natural to want to be accepted, to have the opportunity for socialization among our peers; whether that be in our families, at church, at school, or work. But Christians have a different perspective about social engagement, it is never an end in itself, at whatever level. Our calling is to be set apart even as we are the most worldly people on earth; most worldly in the sense that Christ became one of us, and all of us in the Incarnation. So not only do we have the challenge of being in the world, and not of the world (in one sense), we have the challenge of being lights in the world, and for the world, in a way that always keeps the love of God in Christ as the frame of reference through which we engage others; whether that engagement be at the level of home/family life, or whether that be among our non-believing peers who hate Jesus by their lifestyle, if not their words.

After I had cancer, and made it through what should have been a terminal cancer (statistically), it only reaffirmed what the Lord had already been working in my life for many years prior; that I am not my own, that I have been bought with a price, the price being the precious and imperishable blood of Jesus Christ. And in this possessing of my life, on his part, I have been impressed over and again that whether I live or die, I am the Lord’s, and it is for him and from him and his resurrected life that I have the resource and perspective to press on as one ‘sent out’ as I participate in the sent out life of God in Jesus Christ through his heavenly priestly session that he lives in for those who not only have but who will inherit his life eternal. I have come to realize, even though the shadows of this world system impinge upon the clarity of my realization, that I am only here for a short time, and in this short time I can only be an ambassador for Christ, I can only do good for him and from him in this particular moment, if indeed I redeem the time now; since today is the day of salvation!

If I am going to live with a perspective that is outside of myself, that is alien to my own ‘down to earth’ perspective, that flows from Immanuel’s veins, I will be more concerned with loving others, and losing myself, that I might find myself with Christ as I serve others through proclaiming the Gospel in and through every inch of my body and tongue. I will not be concerned with being liked by others, even if that happens, I will be more concerned about other’s well-being in Christ; since I realize, by faith, even if they don’t that they have been given an abundant life that the enemy continually is seeking to rob, kill and destroy. I will understand that the things of this world grow faintly dim in the light of Christ’s glory and grace; and at the same time realize that the things of this world are the very things that Christ came to redeem. My mission then, in Christ, is to tell the world what has happened to it; to invite it to a repentant life, and to begin to enjoy the abundant life that God in Christ desires for all, for the many.

Talking About God on Facebook from ‘The Faith of God’ instead of ‘The Faith of Man and Woman’

Recently I’ve been having some encounters with a former classmate of facebook-iconmine from my last two years of high school, apparently he no longer believes in the existence of God, and for that matter the existence of Jesus Christ. We’ve been having these encounters on Facebook (where else?!), and it has involved a bit of rough-and-tumble exchange about the points I just mentioned above (God’s existence in general, and Jesus’ in particular). What these encounters have illustrated for me personally is that my knee-jerk responses, in default mode are to refer back to evidentiary arguments (historical as well as philosophical) for the existence of God. It is this mode of engagement, and this style of apologetics and evangelism I  became very used to from my past, which involved training in philosophical apologetics as well as doing so from the analytical, even classical tradition (at least classical in one prominent stream of things). Indeed, many of my responses to my former classmate might even fit into the kind of ‘faith’ that B.B. Warfield helped to shape back in early 20th century North America Christian Fundamentalism; note what he communicates about the faith he was so committed to:

It is the distinction of Christianity that it has come into the world clothed with the mission to reason its way to its dominion. Other religions may appeal to the sword, or seek some other way to propagate themselves. Christianity makes its appeal to right reason, and stands out among all religions, therefore, as distinctively “the Apologetic religion.” It is solely by reasoning that it has come thus far on its way to its kingship. And it is solely by reasoning that it will put all its enemies under its feet.[1]

But you know what? In reality I am really not an advocate of such an approach. I do still believe there is value to historical work in Jesus studies, and even value in employing philosophical tools for helping to provide precision in articulation of the Christian faith. And yet, what I have become an advocate for is more of a fideistic approach, an approach where Christ is the key, and his reality as the second person of the Trinity is presumed upon (without the burden to prove it to unbelievers) without argument; presumed upon to fund the categories, the ‘revealed’ categories by which we know the Christian God. Here is Thomas F. Torrance commenting on what I see as the boundary for how we approach talk about God, in general; in this quote Torrance is summarizing how Karl Barth understood the boundaries and order of theological engagement and talk:

Because Jesus Christ is the Way, as well as the Truth and the Life, theological thought is limited and bounded and directed by this historical reality in whom we meet the Truth of God. That prohibits theological thought from wandering at will across open country, from straying over history in general or from occupying itself with some other history, rather than this concrete history in the centre of all history. Thus theological thought is distinguished from every empty conceptual thought, from every science of pure possibility, and from every kind of merely formal thinking, by being mastered and determined by the special history of Jesus Christ.[2]

The Impact

So how should the above, and my approval of what Torrance and Barth are talking impact the way I approach apologetical, theological, and evangelistic talk in general? I think that, one way evangelistic talk is impacted by my commitment to a ‘revelational’ approach requires explanation, and definition about what I mean by ‘faith’, and ‘revelation’ in contrast to what most people mean by faith and revelation. I think my engagement with my friend should have involved less posturing in regard to the power that historical evidence has, and more emphasis upon who God has revealed himself to be in Jesus Christ; and then allow the force and power of that within the narrative of God’s own revealed life to shape my responses.

Sometimes it is better to reframe questions instead of attempting to answer questions on their terms, especially when those questions are not being informed by the categories provided for by the Self revelation of God in Jesus Christ. So I am still learning, eh! Aren’t we all?

 

 

[1] George Marsden citing B.B. Warfield, Fundamentalism And American Culture, 115.

[2] Thomas F. Torrance, Karl Barth: An Introduction to His Early Theology 1910-1931, 196.

Responding to Eboo Patel on Interfaith Action and Pluralism

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:

ghandiI 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.][1]

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.[2]

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.

 


[1] Christian D. Kettler, The Vicarious Humanity of Christ and the Reality of Salvation (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock Publications, 1991), 65-6.

[2] Barth, CD II/1, 351.

Miracles Can’t ‘Prove’ God: The Evangelical Heritage

I don’t want this post to be another one of those posts that bashes the Christian Fundamentalist and Evangelical past; the past that I was weened in, and moved and breathed in (still do, somewhat!) for my whole life. But, I grunewald_crucifixionam afraid some of this post will have to be just that. I, indeed, grew up under the intellectual and spiritual strictures of what it meant to be an Fundy/Evangellybelly. A essential part of that growing up process was to follow a mode of existence that engaged with Scripture and Christian life in a way that hearkened me to have to conceive of ways to constantly defend Scripture’s viability, and to defend the miraculous stories therein; in contrast to those who were ‘attacking’ it, like the higher critics and ‘Liberals’. And so my whole life, like many of yours, was involved in this task; much of my undergrad and graduate studies involved, in one way or another, a development and sophistication of this kind of way (i.e. being an apologist, before being able to be a theologian).

What I have come to realize over these last 12 years (starting in seminary) is that I have got it all wrong. God does not need me to defend him, I need him to defend me from my incurved self and desires (that are against him, that are anti-Christ). What I have realized is that we cannot and should not separate the work from the person of God in Christ, as if we could talk about his purported works (which are miraculous) in abstraction from the person from whence these works flow; and then use those works in a way that props him up, for ourselves and for the world to see. This is the wrong direction to take, and the wrong way to think by way of order. God precedes us (simply because he created us), we do not preceded him. How we know what we know has an ontic (i.e. the very essence of reality itself, ‘being’) ground supporting that; in other words, we will either ground how we know what we claim to know about God by grounding that from somewhere in ourselves, or we will recognize the actual ground as it is given to us in God in Jesus Christ. And so the consequence of this recognition is that we will no longer attempt to work our way to God by proving his existence by first proving the viability of his works (‘miracles’) in creation. We will instead, stand under them, and allow who he is to contradict our puny attempts to make him known to ourselves and to the world.

There is no one better to confront this kind of problem than George Hunsinger on Karl Barth. The following quote comes from a section where Hunsinger is discussing divine-human agency, in general, and in particular, the reality of ‘revelation’ and ‘miracle’, and the way that miracle functions within the sphere provided it by God’s Self-revelation:

God is not identical with any cosmic process, and therefore God is “not identical with the laws known to us” (III/3, 161). God is identical only with God’s sovereign freedom, “with the free disposing and directing of his own good-pleasure.” God does not overthrow the order of creation when miraculously engaging in self-revelation. “Naturally there can be no question of his contravening or overturning any real ontic law of creaturely occurence. This would mean that he was not at unity with himself in his will and work.” We must allow, however, that our perception of these laws is creaturely and finite. “We must allow that he can ruthlessly ignore the laws known to us, that is, our own perception of the ontic laws of creaturely occurrence…. He is not bound by our human concepts of order, however great may be the noetic clarity and certainty we believe them to possess” (III/3, 161). Everything depends on theology’s offering a conceptual redescription of the biblical narratives that remains faithful to the witness that is found there:

The more definitely the coming of the Son of God is announced in the Old Testament, and the more directly his revelation is attested in the New, the more natural it appears to unprejudiced reason that mention has to be made of events which can be understood only as an activity supra et contra naturam, as an ordering and forming which is beyond the stage of development so far reached by our concepts. And the final revelation of the Son of God at the end of all times was an event of this kind. We must be quite clear in our minds that what is revealed in these events is not a miraculous exception but the rule of divine activity, the free goodwill of God himself, i.e., the law at which we are aiming with our concept of law. And we must also be quite clear in our minds that with all our concepts of law we can never do more than aim at this law. (III/3, 129-30) [George Hunsinger, How To Read Karl Barth: The Shape of His Theology, 183-4, Nook.]

It is a constant temptation to feel as if we must rush to the defense of God’s existence, in general, and his reality, in Christ, in particular. But we must submit to God, resist the devil, and he will flee from us (James 4). Resisting this temptation might cause us to look like fools to the world, we might appear weak (I Cor. 1:17-25); but the message of the cross always does. I am not suggesting that we cannot actively engage the world through proclamation; in fact we are commanded and commissioned to do so (Mt. 28). What we can do, in apologia or in defense of the Gospel, is to call ourselves, and the world to sit under the Self-revealed categories given by God in Christ. What we can do is to argue that if someone is going to think Christianly (even if they aren’t one yet), is to think from the internal and eternal consistency of God’s Self-revelation, and demand that if they or we are going to think Christianity from anywhere, it must be under the constraints and integrity of its own reality found in Jesus Christ; it will only be from this vantage point that the weakness of God will be seen as power, and the foolishness of God as wisdom.

A Day With My ‘Eastern Mystical’ Friend . . .

This is the most immediate thing I am thinking through at the moment; so you all are going to get a post from it (and then finally I will do that second installment on Chandler-Piper two wills in god theology). As my last post intimates I had a meeting with a friend from work today. He is a devout adherent to Eastern thought (I would say mostly Hindu influenced), in its Western appropriation; which is what many have labeled ‘New Age’. I will notice some of the basic themes of our discussion, and then provide some follow up. I think sometimes the written word works better to get into issues at a substantial level, simply because unlike face-to-face discussion, the written word is concrete and has a stability to it that forces the engaging parties to stop and think through the concepts prior to moving too quickly to the next point. In other words, for the attentive and intentional reader, writing forces the person to sit and engage through thought, which only later is given articulation (subsequent to the presupposed thought). So what I am saying is that the written word can engender a thoughtfulness that simple conversation often has the capacity to mitigate, since the temptation to move too quickly in conversation is always enticing and inviting—and we all usually give in to such temptations in conversation (especially when competing points are at hand). Here are the themes and my responses to the discussion I had with my friend earlier today.

1) My friend contends that all is one (in Hindu Atman is Braman), and thus all is ‘divine’. A related point, to this, is the belief that the One is impersonal.

2) My friend argues that all there is, is IS; and any concept of Ought is totally foreign to him and reality in general.

3) My friend grounds morality in himself (since he is divine and a participant with the rest of “divinity” which is constituted by the universal mode of self-consciousness). Thus, there are no absolute or universal norms for discerning morality or immorality.

4) My friend grounds much of his belief in an experience he had years ago through partaking of mind altering psychedelic substances that induce an altered state of consciousness; in this altered state of consciousness my friend believes that he was released from his time bound normal self into the transcendental universal soul of consciousness or into the One (force or source, which is impersonal—think Star Wars and the ‘force’).

5) My friend believes that Christianity and all religions are simply mythical metaphors that are merely attempting to give expression to the same underlying reality; i.e. that all is one. Consequently, my friend thinks that Jesus was simply an exemplar of a reality that is true of all of us; viz. that all of us are sons or children of god by virtue of our relation to the universal soul of consciousness (or stated another way, we are all god).

6) My friend believes that Christianity and other world religions (like Islam, Judaism, etc.) are simply man-made constructs used to control man; you know, like Marx’ theory that ‘religion is the opiate for the masses’. So my friend operates with surpluses of suspicion when it comes to ‘Religion’ (except his own of course 😉 ).

7) As corollary with a couple of the other foregoing points; my friend believes that the belief that we are ‘fallen’ or somehow ‘flawed’ (like as a result of Adam and Eve’s Sin in Genesis 3), is simply another man-made construct to hold humanity down, and deny humanity its fully self-actualized divine “selfness.”

______________________________

We had other excursions, but in general the above pretty much covers what was on the menu for today. Here were some of my responses to my friend’s points (I will take them in the order I have them listed above):

1) I affirmed for my friend that for the Christian ‘All is not One’, but instead; God is One (and Three, and Three in One), and that we affirm a substantial Creator/creature distinction—such that there can be no confusion or admixture. This is the first point of departure, and probably the most fundamental between my friend and I. Ironically, though, while my friend says that he holds to the unity of all reality, he still maintains that we are seeking to be united with the One; so there is an ontological separation inherent to my friend’s belief system; and I think that this denotes, ultimately, an inconsistency in my friends belief structure about reality.

2) So given the fact that my friend believes that there is nothing beyond what ‘is’, then all forms of dualism, or even a Creator/creature distinction is voided of any reality. Christian theologically this poses a problem since we have teachings that call humanity to be holy as God is holy; which presuppose a distinction between the singular reality (God), and the ‘many’ reality (humanity)—of course there is a way to navigate this in a Christian christological way that avoids a Greek dualism, which is what T.F. Torrance’s articulation of chalcedonian christology and the homoousion help us to do (fodder for another time). Obviously, this represents a massive point of departure between my friend and I.

3) To ground morality in the subjective self is probably one of the most devastatingly weak points in my friend’s position. His way around this was to suggest that we simply follow the ‘Golden rule’ as the normative ground upon which ethical constructs function. But of course when Jesus teaches this he assuming an ethical construct that is grounded in him, as the God-man Theanthropos. My friend suggested that he wouldn’t want to be violated in any particular kind of way, and thus this then should serve as the construct (a situationalist ethic) for all ethics. Of course the problem with this is that, subjectively, we could find various groups of like-minded individuals (like pedophiles, rapists, money launderers, hedonists, etc.), and within their established community of norms, these kinds of things would be acceptable. This is called normative relativism; so the problem is ultimately still present, there are certain universal norms that transcend all personal mores, and it is this kind of ethical construct that my friend’s attempt to counter cannot counter, and thus has no viable response to. We seemed to cut this point of the discussion short for some reason.

4) When my friend had this mind altering experience through psychedelic substances, he said he experienced something that told him that he was divine. My response to that was to explain the Christian concept of the ‘kingdom of darkness and the kingdom of light or of the Son of His love’ (Col. 1:13). My point was to alert my friend to the fact that from a Christian perspective he experienced what Paul calls an ‘Angel’ masquerading as light (I Cor. 11); and the way I know this is because this experience told him exactly the same thing that plunged humanity into separation and sin in the first place—that is, that he is divine or god.

5) Upon further clarification my friend explained to me that he thinks myth is just something all cultures use to cope with the absurdity of death (my words)—so this could be mere existentialism, and it is (this is illustrative of how my friend’s viewpoint is New Age, since he appropriates various streams of thought from both Eastern and Western fountainheads). I made clear that Jesus claimed to be the only way, truth, and life. My friend said he believes in Jesus; but I clarified and pointed out that by definition his view of that and the Christian view is sharply distinctive. His belief that Jesus is an exemplar of what it looks like to be enlightened is at odds with the disclosure of what Jesus himself taught in regards to his own self-understanding of the Son of God within a Hebraic understanding of that. This, of course, became another point of heavy departure.

6) The most ironic thing about this point from my friend (that Christianity is a man made religion meant to control humanity)—and it is one of the points we were discussing as we parted ways for the day—is that I am the one, as a Christian, who maintains a Creator/creature distinction. Which means I have the metaphysical material to consistently maintain that Christianity is not man-made since we have a personal God who stands outside of us (extra nos); my friend’s framework of belief does not have this distinction, and thus collapses its concept of god into humanity. So my question to him is; how can you say that my view is man-made? When your view of god is that man is god; while my view necessarily believes that God is not man. I have the resources to maintain a view that is given shape by something other than man; or a belief system that is based upon Divine Revelation. My friend’s view does not have this resource; in fact, of necessity, and definition it is his perspective that requires that his system be man-made since all is one and one is all and the human self is the only divine reality there is.

7) My friend could finally agree to the idea that we are separated from God (or his ‘Force’ or ‘Source’), but he couldn’t agree that man was in need of outside source (from humanity) to break the vicious cycle of self-domination. He still believes that we are divine, and that we can actualize our own ‘salvation’ through becoming conscious of the universal One that envelops all of us.

Conclusion

At the end of the day, I will continue to pray that my friend will finally have eyes to see and ears to hear the Good News of Jesus Christ. It is exceedingly difficult to engage a belief system whose defining feature and hallmark is given shape by the seeming virtue of alogic and contradiction (or cognitive dissonance). When you believe that the word that satan spoke to Eve in the garden is the truth and not the lie, then you are in a position that will never allow you to see that the Christian God is good; because you are God. Chaos ensues from this point onward …

Today is the day of salvation …

I am having a summit of sorts ( 😉 ) tomorrow morning with my friend from work at a local Starbucks in Vancouver, WA. Our topic of discussion will be why he needs Jesus, and how that can happen. There are some things that need to be worked through before my friend can become a full participant in the life of God through Christ. 1) He is that same friend who likes to listen to this guy and this guy; unfortunately! See, my friend from work is a very genuine and sincere guy who is on a self-proposed journey of self-discovery and enlightenment. For some reason he has chosen against Christ (like Jesus said ‘You are either for me or against me’), and for himself (as god … if that sounds like something you have read before [hint, hint Genesis 3], it’s because you have!). 2) I will attempt to demonstrate for my friend that his position is untenable in light of various things—like ethics, morality, explanatory power, etc. (so an abductive exercise)—but in the end I am fully aware that as the Apostle has so pointedly noted:

4 The god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers, so that they cannot see the light of the gospel that displays the glory of Christ, who is the image of God. II Corinthians 4.4 (NIV)

So all I am left to believe is:

16 For I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes: first to the Jew, then to the Gentile. Romans 1.16 (NIV)

I am not under the delusion that I can whip my friend into Christianity through winning the ‘intellectual’ arguments (even though I will 😉 ); it is the Spirit of God alone who brings a person to the point wherein they can finally say that Jesus is Lord (I Cor. 12.3). But maybe, just maybe the Lord will use my small offering tomorrow to plant seeds (I Cor. 3) that someone else might come along and water (or maybe I’m doing the watering by the Spirit tomorrow); that someone else, finally, will be able to harvest. Anyway, if you remember me and my friend tomorrow between the times of 10am-11:30am (pst); then please pray that the Lord would be present in our time of discussion, and that my friend would finally quit ‘kicking against the goads’, and become a full participant in the life of salvation and grace that Christ has won for all of us in his own life for us! Thanks.

The Bible and Science and Evangelism: A Boat Too Far and the Literality of the Biblical Stories?

I continue to do the work of an Evangelist; it is a challenge and gift of being a Christian that I thoroughly enjoy, and from which I draw personal telos or purpose in my ongoing adventure as a Christian person soli Deo gloria! One of my most recent contacts has an interesting brew (if I can say it like that) of beliefs about reality and his own personal purpose in this amazing complexity known as life. An aspect that seems to bother, this my interlocutor, is what appears to him to be an over-literal reading of, for one thing in the Bible, the Genesis account of human origins and the related stories therein—namely, and particularly troubling for my friend, the story of Noah and the Ark. He cannot even begin to fathom how any rational (vs. rationalist) person could suppose to believe that any modernly informed person could take this literal—he seems to think that this is not physically possible (see how Ken Ham seeks to answer this apparent conundrum here, this seems to be a very reasonable explanation—proviso, I am not generally a fan of Ken Ham). I would like to expand this conversation out a bit, for my friend, myself, and anyone else who is reading; and I will do this by drawing our attention to a recently released book by Brazos Press entitled: Evolution of Adam, The: What the Bible Does and Doesn’t Say about Human Origins by Peter EnnsHere is how Enns describes some of his gist in this book:

And here is how Sandra Collins of Library Journal synopsizes the general themes of the book:

“[Enns’s] basic argument is this: modern creation arguments that focus on either the literal historical truth of the Bible or evolutionary perspectives are wrong. The Bible, including its creation accounts, represents a comprehensive theological worldview. It’s neither a literal accounting nor is it science. And it was never intended to be either of these two things. . . . Academically minded Christians looking to bridge this intellectual divide will appreciate the tone and bibliographic references here.”

I have once written on this topic here; and my thesis, taken from former seminary professor Al Bayliss, sound very similar to the way that Collins describes Enns’ primary theses in his book. Yet, my sense is that my conclusions will probably end up differently than Enns; my conclusion would be informed by the idea that a ‘theological worldview’ and ‘literal reality’ correlate with each other. That there is a ratio that  inheres between the rational (and literal) uncreated reality of God, and that which has been given expression in the contingent, and ordered reality of creation itself; so created order and rationality is given its rationality by definition of its contingence upon God’s rationality that he built into creation through Divine fiat. My point, I can’t follow this dualism, that is often posited, between theological reality and created reality; if for no other reason, but because we have these two realities in the conjoined hypostatic union of the Non-contingent/contingent reality of the Divine/human in the person of Jesus Christ—or that I see all of reality conditioned by the primacy of this kind of ‘unioned’ life. I am digressing a wee bit.

So this issue of origins, and the literal nature of the Genesis account, in particular, and for my friend; the literal nature of Biblical accounting in general continues to be an ongoing issue. Enns’ latest book and the work of the foundation of which he is an integral part, Biologos, illustrates the ongoingness of this continued struggle (or not) between modern science and modern biblical and theological studies—in fact Brian LePort, a blogger here in Portland, Oregon has just recently posted on a very related question here.

I write all of the foregoing to come up against the question that prompted me to write this in the first place; do you think that evolution, one way or the other, should be an issue that hinders or in fact fosters the ‘intellectual’ space for someone to have the room to entertain a belief in Jesus Christ as the historic orthodox person of Christian proclamation? In other words, if evolution (neo-Darwinian) stands in the way, intellectually (whatever that means, theologically), of someone being able to give a hearing to Jesus, do you think we should be softer on this issue and allow for the fact that it is possible to both affirm modern scientific theories and claims, and the claims of Jesus Christ? I know of plenty of believing Christians (like Peter Enns, or even my beloved T.F. Torrance) who believe in macro-evolution, and also are thoroughgoing Christians—I shared this, briefly with my friend, I think he was encouraged by this.

Anyway, what do you think?