Monday, December 9, 2013

How I've Changed (Not Necessarily for the Better)

            Thanks to the kindness of a friend, I spent the better part of the past week at a cottage, by myself. The cottage didn’t have a radio, television, or Internet. My dog Jex kept me company.

            So I spent several hours, each day, sitting by the window watching the Muskoka River flow by. It was the perfect setting to give my introverted self over to reflection. And what I found myself thinking about is how much things have changed over my career as a pastor. I thought I’d write an occasional series on that theme. So, for starters, some of the biggest changes are in me.

            1. The first change is easy. I often feel very tired. At first I thought this must be because I’m getting older. But it isn’t just that. After all, I go to the gym and exercise more regularly than I used to, years ago. I am healthy.

            No, I actually think one reason I often feel tired is that I’m working harder, but on fewer things, than I used to. When I had kids I was very focused on boundaries. And they and their activities were the variety that gave my life spice. Now the kids are gone and  my wife works many evening hours, so I too easily drift into the “nothing but church-work” mode. And that steady diet of “just one thing, always,” can tire me out. I need more hobbies! I need to work on defining better boundaries. (Of course, this is also written in the busiest season, just before Christmas, while we’re closing out one budget and designing a new one. Things will look different in January!)

            2. I am more distracted by media than I’ve ever been before. By media, I mean the Internet. This is an ironic, because my wife and I have never owned a television. We sort of fell into that at the beginning of our marriage—we didn’t have the money for a new set. Then we decided not to get a TV until both the boys were reading. And from there it became a matter of principle.
            But now the Internet always beckons. I’m a news-junky, I guess. People don’t phone much anymore, but my email box is always overflowing. I follow the Blue Jays. There are blogs to keep up with, tweets to send out, and Facebook friends to keep track of.

            I’m experimenting with checking email and the Internet only twice a day. It’s hard when my writing computer is also my Internet computer. But research shows that Internet surfing can erode one’s ability and desire to engage in linear, rational, and deep reading.

            3. I’m amazed at how much confidence I had in my early years when it came to offering counselling and guidance about personal matters to parishioners. Unfortunately, it was too often confidence based on complete naiveté about just how complex and layered people’s lives, hopes, dreams, and needs are. It was also naiveté based on not having had any education as a therapist. I saw the world in black and white even though it had a lot of colour.

            As an older pastor, I’m more realistic about how many answers I have for pastoral situations. Usually, the best I can do is listen, assure people of God’s love and refer.

            I’ve also learned that one of the worst things that can happen to a pastor who ought to be majoring in preaching and basic pastoral visitation (getting to know the sheep and assuring them of God’s love) is to think that he or she is a therapist. I’m not a therapist. My wife is. She went to school years to get degrees and learn how. She’s done many, many further training courses and supervision. Me? I have two pastoral care courses from seminary. I don’t begin to have the understanding required to be a therapist.

            I’ve also noticed, over the years, that many pastors busy with “counselling,” really ought to be working a lot harder to craft compelling sermons. Worse, amateur counselling often seems to be their excuse for not doing so. They’re missing out on the first calling of a pastor--preaching--in order to do something they are educationally and absolutely unqualified to do.

            4. More on confidence. I’ve never lacked it. But looking back, I see that I should have tempered my confidence a bit. Looking back, I see that not only did I make pastoral errors, but I also made mistakes in council, mistakes that had to do with defining goals, and mistakes about what I preached. Nothing horrible (I hope). But I think that if I had listened to others a bit more, been a bit more realistic about how much experience I had, it wouldn’t have hurt.

            In a way I’m reflecting on leadership. In the beginning I thought I could jump in with both feet and know which way to go. Now I’ve realized that perhaps the most important part of leadership is inspiring the congregation define its own goals, and helping them to get there.

            Another way of putting this, perhaps, is that when I started in ministry, I believed in the authority of the pastor. After living the role for nearly thirty years, I’ve come to believe that authority doesn’t come with the office so much as it is earned in the trenches.

            5. On matters of what is right or wrong, I’ve generally softened my approach. I remember getting members of my first church to sign petitions against opening stores on Sunday, and for toughening abortion laws. I once refused to do a wedding for a member of the church because the groom was a nominal Roman Catholic.

            But now it seems less important to me to try to get everyone—in my church or in society at large—to do as I say than it is important for me to try to do as I hope. I don’t have much fight left in me for trying to bend society to my view of what is right or wrong. It is enough to try to try to inspire people by how I live. It is by our love for each other (and the poor, marginalized, least and last) that people will eventually figure out that God loves them too.

            6. While I have not changed my belief that great preaching is critical for both pastoral excellence and the success of a congregation, I’ve become much more humble about my power as a preacher—even as I continue to strive to be a better preacher.

            I’ve come to grips with the fact that very few people remember sermons, remember the doctrine that you put in sermons (people learn that from what they sing!), or even remember key themes that I return to again and again.

            Sermons are like the meals my mother fed me for years before I left home. I don’t remember any one in particular. But without a regular diet of them I wouldn’t have thrived.

            7. I have a marital partner that I don’t think I’ve ever taken for granted. But what has changed is that I’ve come to realize how deeply implicated she is in most of the positive changes in my life and ministry. Going on an adventure, hand-in-hand, is also a lot more fun than walking around the same block that everyone else is!

            8. I’ve become a lot more interested in the whole wide world rather than just the “theology,” silo. My graduate studies in communication theory, my fascination with evolution, my wife and kid’s sharing with me about their schooling has all enriched my reading and broadened my perspective. Theology is great—but without a great deal of worldly context, it smacks of religion rather than spirituality, and that just doesn’t work in our world.

            9. Most important, perhaps, is my faith. I started the ministry with the faith I learned as a child and was taught in seminary. It looks like I’ll be finishing in ministry with a very different faith. I’d never suggest that everyone ought to follow the exact path I did. But coming to a place where I own my own faith as something I’ve struggled for, rather than as something just handed down, has turned out to be a very precious journey.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

When Is Jesus Coming Again?

About one hundred years after Jesus rose from the grave, a Christian prophet named Montanus preached that Jesus would soon return. He said the Holy Spirit told him so. Montanus and his fellow prophets were probably the first Pentecostal-like groups in the early church. One of Montanus's fellow prophets, Maximilla, even said, "after me there will be no more prophecy, but the end." She was wrong. Jesus didn't return after her death.

            About four hundred years after Jesus rose from the grave, a barbarian chieftain named Alaric sacked Rome. Christians were sure that the prophecy of Daniel 2, the prophecy about how a fourth empire of iron and clay would fall, had now been fulfilled. One preacher wrote, "Behold, from Adam all the years have passed and now comes the Day of Judgment." Well, even though Rome was sacked in 410, and fell forever in 472, Jesus did not, as it happens, return on those dates.

            About one thousand years after Jesus rose from the grave, kings and commoners both feared that the millennium of Revelation was finally done. They went on pilgrimages and to confession to prepare for Jesus' return. He didn't. Others argued that the millennium began when the emperor Constantine made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire, meaning Jesus would return in 1326. He didn't.

            About 1200 years after Jesus was born, Joachim of Fiore, a Roman Catholic priest, told the English crusader King Richard the Lion Hearted that the sixth head of the dragon mentioned in Revelation 20 was Saladin, the Turkish ruler of Jerusalem--an early example of mistaking the mystical and symbolic texts of the book of Revelation for today's headlines. Joachim of Fiore also told King Richard that Innocent III would be the last pope and Jesus was coming back soon. But Jesus did not return.

About 1600 years after Jesus' resurrection, the great Scottish Mathematician John Napier was born. He was the mathematician who first worked out the concept of logarithms, which most of us studied in high school or college. Based on his study of Revelation, and after running his own numbers, Napier insisted that his current pope was the antichrist. He wrote an immensely popular book that predicted that Jesus would return in 1688 or 1700. But Jesus did not return.

About 1650 years after Jesus rose from the grave, Czar Alexander tried to reform the Russian Orthodox Church to be like the Greek Orthodox Church, which mostly involved changes in the liturgy. Many people thought this made the Czar the Antichrist of Revelation. Worship wars are an ancient Christian tradition, I guess. Anyway, these opponents to Alexander's changes predicted that Jesus would return in 1666--666 being the number of the beast. Rather than obey Alexander, who sent his armies to force people to worship his way, tens of thousands of the people committed suicide by burning their churches, barns and homes down around themselves and their families rather than submit. Jesus, however, did not return. 

About 1700 years after Jesus' resurrection, Sir Isaac Newton, the first person to describe the theory of gravity as we now know it, and perhaps one of the greatest geniuses of all time--Sir Isaac Newton predicted that the end of the world would come in 1944. Jesus did not return at that time, however.

            About 1750 years after Jesus was born, the Puritan Reformed scholar Jonathan Edwards, predicted that the papacy would fall in 1866 and that Jesus would return in the year 2000. Now, even though Jonathan Edwards was perhaps the greatest revival preacher ever, and even though he is still thought of by many people as the greatest philosopher and theologian in the tradition of John Calvin ever—Jonathan Edwards was wrong about Jesus coming back in Y2K.

            And so it goes. Charles Wesley, who founded the Methodist church (one of founding United Church denominations) believed that Jesus would return in 1794. Jesus did not. William Miller predicted that Jesus would return in 1843. Millions of Americans believed him. Jesus did not return. Miller's follower, Ellen White, founder of the Seventh Day Adventist Church, made a career out of predicting the end of the world. Jesus did not return on any of the days that she promised he would. Jacob Smith, the founder of the Mormon Church, promised us that Jesus would return in 1891. To this day, in spite of Jesus' failure to return in 1891, the head of the Mormon Church is still titled the "Prophet, Seer, and Revelator." Jehovah's Witnesses predicted that Jesus would return in 1914, 1915, 1918, 1920, 1925, 1941, 1975, and 1994. Jesus did not.

            About 1950 years after Jesus' birth, Hal Lindsay promised us that Jesus would return no later than 1980. Jesus did not return, so Hal Lindsay revised is arithmetic and interpretations and said that he was sure now, Jesus would return no later than the year 2000. Jesus did not return. He's still writing and doing TV though, and now promises that Jesus will return sometime around 2048. I'm betting he's wrong.

            Faith Healer and TV evangelist Benny Hinn said Jesus would return in in the 1990s. He's still on TV. The famous founder of the Charismatic Calvary Chapel chain of California mega-churches, recently deceased Chuck Smith, promised us that Jesus would return in 1981. He didn’t. Jack Van Impe said that Jesus would return in 1975 and 1976 and 1999 and 2000. Like Hal Lindsay and Benny Hinn, you can still find Jack Van Impe on TV hawking his latest prediction. He doesn't seem to be hurting, financially, for all his prediction failures.

            Since the founding of the church, Christians have been predicting the date of Jesus’  return. All of such predictions were, and continue to be, wrong. For all their Bible studies and adding and subtracting of millenniums and 666s; for all their book, TV and Christian radio exposure, for all their Bible thumping and endless diagrams and fear mongering and condemnations of those who disagree with them, for all their novels like Left Behind and Scofield Study Bibles--they have all been wrong. For all of their insistence over the past 2000 years that their earthquakes and wars and famines and antichrists are the ones mentioned in the book of Revelation--none of them has ever been right, for since the day Jesus left we have always had wars and famines and bad leaders and the poor with us. The truth is, everyone who has ever turned to Daniel or Revelation in order to tell us that Jesus is returning on some specified date, or soon, or that some empire is the one mentioned in Daniel, or some person we're reading about in the papers is the antichrist—all have been wrong. Jesus has not returned and none of their supposed insights into Daniel or Revelation has come to pass.

Of course, these end time predictions excite our curiosity, unbridle our imaginations, and arouse our appetite for mystery and a good story. But finally, all this excitement obscures what should be for us the central truth that really needs to be revealed and wondered over and celebrated and shouted from the rooftops. Something happened at Easter that changes how all of us will choose to live the future. We will follow him rather than wait for him to catch us up.

But of dates and times? Forget it. Forget trying to predict when (and if) Jesus will come back, because as scripture says in several ways and in several places, "no one knows about that day or hour, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father." What could be plainer and simpler than that?

Monday, November 25, 2013

How Did Christianity Begin?

            How do new religions begin? Sometimes by inches, over long periods of time; sometimes by subterfuge; sometimes on account of a blinding, perhaps revelatory, insight.

            Judaism’s birth is lost in the mists of time. Canaanite religion contributed something to its genesis, and perhaps Egyptian faiths as well. Judaism had an insight, however, that was utterly different, namely that God was One. Over the course of hundreds or perhaps thousands of years, Judaism worked out the consequences of that insight—or revelation. Still, whatever Judaism was in Saul’s time is not what it was in Amos’ time. And from Amos to Second Temple to Pharisaic Judaism, it continued to evolve into the many sects we know today.

            Christianity, in turn, was birthed as yet another take on Judaism and inch-by-inch became the variety of different sects it is today. Christianity and Judaism, in turn—as well as local faiths known to the prophet and his contemporaries—birthed Islam. And the process doesn’t stop there. Consider Baha’i and Mormonism. And if Charles Taylor is right, even modern secularism was birthed in the womb of Christianity.

            And always, individual people—prophets, fishermen, marketing geniuses, mystics—played a critical and often surprising role. Whether it was Abraham or Moses, Peter and James (or perhaps Mary and Salome and Mary), the Prophet Muhammad or Joseph Smith, there is no shortage of people with some new idea or insight or manuscript, whether sensible or outrageous, who managed to find over time millions of followers.

            I began thinking about how new religions begin as I read Resurrection of Jesus: John Dominic Crossan and N. T. Wright in Dialogue.

            Wright and Crossan discuss the connection between Jesus’ resurrection and the birth of Christianity. Both Crossan and Wright agree that the founding of Christianity requires a precise historical explanation. And their dialog is about what that precise historical explanation might be. N. T. Wright argues, that at a minimum, the founding of Christianity resulted from the actual discovery of an empty tomb and the historical experiences of Jesus’ bodily presence. Crossan demurs. While not wanting to argue the empty tomb (it doesn’t figure in, for him) he does agree that resurrection experiences were key—though he might differ with Wright as to their nature. But Crossan adds that Christianity’s birth also depended upon what Jesus taught before he died, namely the kingdom as already present but not yet consummated. That teaching was the key frame that allowed the disciples to move from resurrection appearances to establishing the early church.

            For the record, Crossan believes that while Wright’s two historical events could get you to an exalted Jesus as described in Philippians 2:5ff, it could not get you to the resurrection faith—an eschatological faith where God is now already cleaning up creation, a job that God expects Christians to get excited about and participate in. Of course, the cases that Crossan and Wright and the others in this book make for their perspectives covers a lot more ground and detail than I can go into here. But the point is, these two scholars, looking back to the time of Jesus’ death both believe that they can determine the “necessary and sufficient” (terms frequently used) conditions that led to the birth of the early Christian church.

            But given the history of religions, and the incredible diversity of founding stories people have believed and even been willing to die for through the ages, it strikes me as odd that when it comes to Christianity these two scholars, or any scholars, imagine that there are both necessary and sufficient reasons why any of today’s world’s great religions would became what they are.

            I’m reminded of what Malcolm Muggeridge once said. "One of the peculiar sins of the twentieth century which we've developed to a very high level is the sin of credulity.It has been said that when human beings stop believing in God, they believe in nothing. The truth is much worse; they believe in anything." Perhaps, but it is worth asking why Muggeridge thinks that only people who stop believing in God will believe anything. Is it not actually the case that just about anyone, anytime, deist or not, will believe anything? And isn’t the variety of world religions with their competing truth claims proof of this?

            In the case of Christianity, for example and for fun, imagine that Salome or Mary was so heart-broken at the notion that her beautiful new community of friends might fall apart after Jesus’ death that one of them concocted a resurrection story to keep her friends together? And what if after that a few others in that community (not surprisingly) had dreams about Jesus, or even visions of Jesus, a widely attested phenomenon in many different religions? Would such a beginning for Christianity be stranger than Joseph Smith or the Prophet Mohammad showing up with a manuscript and saying, “Thus saith the Lord?” In fact, we know from Rodney Stark’s work on the sociology of religion that people generally ask, “what do you believe and why,” only after they have joined communities, because it is the life of the community that draws them in, not theology. A few rumors within an existing and tight community like that of Jesus’ disciples might lead to big things.

            No, rather than insisting that their “natural theologies” based on “scientific” historical reconstructions (different though they be) provide the “necessary and sufficient” basis for Christianity’s birth, I think we are actually unable to historically reconstruct whatever miraculous things might have happened in those first few days, months and years after Jesus’ death. Something happened, of course, as is always the case with new religions, to start a snowball rolling down a hill. Both Wright and Crossan offer plausible scenarios. I can think of others more likely than the one I just made up, above. But none of them provide both the “necessary and sufficient,” conditions for the birth of Christianity. That’s claiming far too much.

            Don’t misunderstand me. I’m not arguing that the resurrection did or didn’t happen, but only that you can’t reconstruct what happened on the basis of its purported effect, the birth of a believing community.

            I’m also not arguing against research into the Historical Jesus or early Christianity or theological discussions about whether it was a resurrection or visions or dreams that people saw. We don’t know everything, and it may always be possible to dig a bit deeper and get a bit closer to the facts such as they were.

             I would argue, however, that whatever happened on Easter morning—and the years before and after—is something less than a matter of “necessary and sufficient” than it is of revelation and mystery. And if you are bound and determined not to merely go with the flow of what everyone else in your community believes but to make up your own mind, the only thing you can really do is go as far as the evidence will take you and then make a leap of faith.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Why Did Jesus Have to Die? Some Post-evangelical Musings.

            The Heidelberg Catechism asks, “Why did Jesus have to die?”

            It is an odd question. Of course Jesus had to die, because he was human. All humans and all creatures that have the breath of life in them must die. Only a Docetist—someone who says Jesus only seemed to be human but really wasn’t—would argue that Jesus didn’t have to die. But if he was a man, the die was cast. On Christmas Day only the when and how of Jesus’ death was still a mystery.

            So the question isn’t really “why did Jesus have to die?” Rather, the question—assuming that Jesus was (and is) God—the question is, “why the incarnation?” And from this follow several more questions, including the one that people seem to be asking most often when they pose, “Why did Jesus have to die?” namely, “why did Jesus have to die on a cross?”

            And of course, scripture contains the seeds of many answers that were developed for this question over the next few centuries. One suggested that Jesus’ birth and death were together a positive moral influence. Another said that his death atoned for sins—made up for our sins, somehow. For the former, a favorite text is the Carmen Christi, Philippians 2:5-11. The idea there is that we should do as Jesus did—have his mind. And what Jesus did, of course—though he was “in his very nature . . . God” (2:6) was an act of surpassing humility, even death on a cross.

            Other passages suggest that his death was an atoning sacrifice, or a rousing victory against evil powers, or an act of surpassing empathy. Over time, various versions of Anselm’s theory of the atonement, in particular, won pride of place, at least in the West. You can hear echoes of that tradition in the statements of faith of the United Church, for example. According to the Basis of Union (1925), “For our redemption, He fulfilled all righteousness, offered Himself a perfect sacrifice on the Cross, satisfied Divine justice and made propitiation for the sins of the whole world.” The United Church’s most recent statement, A Song of Faith (2006) broadens the scope of Jesus’ work to his life, but finishes with a familiar, if somewhat more ambivalent statement, that echoes the older statements of faith. “In Jesus’ crucifixion, God bears the sin, grief, and suffering of the world.” The Heidelberg Catechism specifies the cross was necessary for Jesus to shoulder “the curse which lay on me, since death by crucifixion was cursed by God,” and only later gets into a substitutionary atonement description of the crucifixion’s benefits.

         All of these answers presuppose that crucifixion was necessary, in particular, because it was something God demanded of Jesus to set things right. Many will go so far as to say that crucifixion was not just a divine demand but also a cosmic requirement because only that sort of death could satisfy the honor or justice of God, which because of the very nature of things, or God, had to be satisfied. In other words, the how of redemption was really not up to God—God needed a crucifixion to make it happen.

            Really? Is God so bound by circumstances and legal theories and human ideas about what is fair? Can God not graciously, in his or her freedom and omnipotence and compassion choose to forgive those he chooses to forgive? Or does the “necessary” in Jesus’ words to some disciples on the way to Emmaus, as in “Was it not necessary for the Christ to suffer these things and to enter into His glory?” (Luke 24;26) speak to some sort of cosmic necessity that even God is subject to before humans could be forgiven?

         I doubt it. In the Old Testament, Jews were mostly of the opinion that they would be forgiven if they simply (but really) repented, and turned again to the Lord. Though there might be punishments for sinning against God—exile perhaps or losing some battle to the Philistines—yet repentance usually led to forgiveness and new beginnings. So the prophet Joel says, “Yet even now, says the Lord, return to me with all your heart . . . Return to the Lord, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and relents from punishing” (Joel 2:12-14).

         And as long as Anselm can use an analogy based on human experience, perhaps I can too. I often forgave my children, when they were little, when they were repentant. That is, they might break a vase or lamp by recklessly riding a trike through the house, even when warned not to. But usually the crash led to tears and repentance and how could I ever ask them to buy a new vase to make things right again? That would be ridiculous. I might even forgive people who did me great wrong in the past, but who have died without repenting, just so that the anger of it doesn’t eat me up. The point is, why wouldn’t God forgive people who made a good faith effort to follow Jesus’ example? Who, in the words of Joel, rend their hearts and not just their clothing? We forgive people who try and fail all the time.

         So why the crucifixion? Well, it was how some people in power—Pharisees and Romans—wanted Jesus to die. It was likely given Jesus’ counter cultural message and radical lifestyle and challenge to the powers that were. His courage in the face of possible crucifixion—he seemed to know that he would be crucified, one day—was the courage of a revolutionary who wanted to change the world (not to mention the cosmos). But I doubt that there was some constraint in the nature of God or the cosmos such that some sort of “an eye for an eye,” justice had to be inflicted on the perfect lamb to cover for the actual (never mind original) sins of people who were not perfect, even if they wanted to be.

         At least, that is what I’m musing about right now.

         I have sitting on my desk J.N.D. Kelly’s Early Christian Doctrines and Jaroslav Pelikan’s The Christian Tradition (all four volumes) as well as several systematic theologies. I’m going to make a bit of a project of rereading these works with a view to reminding myself what others have said about these sorts of questions. But as long as I’m musing, I think the greatest temptation we face when it comes to atonement theories is probably to make God too small; to impose upon God some finite necessity that we’re tied up in knots about but which also prevents us from focusing on the bigger picture: God’s infinite love, grace, and other perfect attributes, and especially God’s penchant for forgiveness.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Favorite Tweets One Year On

            I’m really busy this week. I have to write a sermon about Jeoffry the cat in Benjamin Britten’s Rejoice in the Lamb. Last week it was a sermon on the green glasses the Wizard of Oz handed out to citizens of the Emerald City. I'm running out of creative energy.

            So, instead of writing an entirely new post, I’ve decided to share a few of my favourite tweets on the one-year anniversary of my joining the twitter sphere. Most are mine, though sources are added when they’re not. I’m not offering them in any particular order. If there is an attribution to make, you’ll find that too. Here goes.

  • Kindness is love in work boots.
  • All our time, talent, and money is the budget God put us on to be his full-time ambassadors of reconciliation.
  • “. . . nothing can more effectively set people at odds than the demand that they think alike” (Kenneth Burke, Rhetoric of Religion).
  • The less convinced I am in scripture’s infallibility, the more impressed I become with most interpreters’ hubris.
  • Leave difficult things to books (Augustine).
  • The conceit of parsing one text ever more closely to get at the truth. No! Let all of scripture settle in your heart and mind.
  • God is especially ineffable when we lack curiosity.
  • Working for that moment when my sermon isn’t a lecture anymore.
  • In a post-literate era we need more preaching like Jesus': parabolic, dissonant, beautiful. Less like Paul's: faux linear, abstract.
  • Why is Conrad Black in Canada when 1000s wait years and years? Send him packing to make room for a real refugee!
  • Mayor Ford. As dumb as Clinton, but without the social grace. A tragic figure (and crook) like Nixon, but in a slapstick comedy.
  • The status quo is nothing other than an excuse to avoid the sharp edge of the gospel. 
  • Spiritual warfare? That's turning the other cheek.
  • Too many prayers for personal aches and pains. Not enough for the healing of the nations.
  • Now these three remain: denial, fear, and the status quo. But the deadliest of these is the status quo.
  • We need an immigration policy for the tired, poor, huddled masses. Not a policy that targets PhDs, high skill, and rich types.
  • Look at the world through your tears. You will see things that dry-eyed you would otherwise miss.
  • Preachers need to remember that beauty is redemptive.
  • In the Old Testament, we are told thirty-six times to love the stranger, and only twice to love our neighbour. (Douglas John Hall)
  • I pray you not speak of these little things. Think of me and the trouble I'm in at being found out. Oz to Dorothy and Harper to us.
Which one is your favourite? Maybe I'll write a blog post on that one! Next week.

PS--if you're interested, you can sign up to follow my tweets @DrJohnSuk

Friday, October 11, 2013

The Light of Scripture: As Light As All That?

        Recently, I’ve been reading Douglas John Hall’s The Cross in Our Context. It is a book about the Theology of the Cross, in contrast to the more common (and Calvinist) theologia gloriae. Along the way, Hall notes that theology of the cross handles God’s self-disclosure differently than the Theology of Glory. He writes, “God’s otherness, for Luther, is not to be found in God’s absolute distance from us but in God’s willed and costly proximity to us” (20f). This proximity is seen in Jesus’ incarnation, but especially in Jesus’ willing submission to death by way of the cross.

         Thinking about that, it seems to me that this divine proximity can also be seen in God’s embrace of frail human words, in scripture, as a key medium by which God makes him/herself known to us.

         God did not have to come to us via words, passed down from generation to generation, first by word of mouth and later on fragile animal skin or paper. God could have come in a more ostentatious manner that would have left less room for doubt. For example, God might have rearranged the stars to spell out “I am who I am,” in various languages. Or, God could have made sure that humans evolved some sort of universally shared sixth sense for communicating with the divine, so that our prayers might all and always be audibly answered with a reply.

         In fact, God sometimes turned to incredible and unmistakable displays of glory to make his point. Consider the pillars of fire by night or the glory of the Lord resting on Mount Sinai, for example. But what is interesting about those approaches is that they did little to turn Israel into a more righteous, more faithful people. In fact, it was especially when God drew close to Israel in all his glory that they chose idol calves to worship instead of God. Ironically, after the glory departed, what Israel had left (according to the story) were two stone tablets inscribed with words and a chastened angry prophet to explain them.

         Thus, instead of glorious theophanies, we now have the Bible. Not to the exclusion of other hints about God, perhaps, whether in nature, via intuition, or the testimony of the Spirit, which seem to work for some people, some of the time, at least. But mostly, the light we have from God, or about God, is to be found in scripture.
         Interestingly, scripture itself uses the analogy of light to describe itself (or the law, or the words of the prophets, as the case might be). I became aware of these texts in my seminary prolegomena course, where we wrestled with how to make the case for doctrines concerning scriptural inspiration or infallibility. So, for example, in Psalm 119:105 we read, "Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path.” And perhaps with this very text in the back of his (or, less likely, her) mind, the author of 2 Peter 1:19-20 wrote, “so we have the prophetic message more fully confirmed. You will do well to be attentive to this as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts.”

         The standard Evangelical reading of such texts suggest that as light, scripture is pretty glorious. As light, scripture banishes the dark. As light, it leaves humans without excuse when it comes to getting God right. There is, however, another way to read such texts, one more in keeping with a theology of the cross that sees God’s self-disclosure as one that embraces human finiteness, limitation, and weakness.

         Consider the Psalmist’s lamp, for example. This is a lamp from the days when ancient Hebrew lights barely matched our candles when it came to giving light or surviving a draft. The lamp the Psalmist speaks of was dim, smokey, and fueled by olive oil. It was a stopgap measure until daytime, and not a very good one at that. Enough light, perhaps, to put one foot before another on a path without breaking your neck, but not a light to see the scenery or wild animals or survive a strong wind. The Peter passage further suggests that the words of the prophets are a stopgap sufficient—barely—but only until the “morning star,” rises.

         Ironically, in the same breath that the author of 2 Peter asserts that they have the prophetic word made more sure, the author is making a case for an immanent parousia, thus subtly undermining the “more sure” word, given that Christians are still waiting for that parousia 2,000 years later.

         In sum, the juxtaposition of these two “light,” texts, the first with its reference to an imperfect emergency light, and the second with reference to its weakness compared to the light of the Christ who will soon return—this juxtaposition certainly suggest that it is easy to claim too much for the light of scripture. Rather than use scripture as the basis for making triumphal claims about how most things really are, the better path is to see in scripture yet more evidence of God’s proximity to us as humans—a God who refuses to reveal to Moses or us his full glory, but writes us – or has others write to us – instead.

         Why? I’m not sure, although Hall’s claims for a theology of the cross are very suggestive. At a minimum, however, we might take a clue from Exodus 20:18f, where we find the people of Israel gathered in the light of God’s glory at the foot of Sinai. When all the people witnessed the thunder and lightning, the sound of the trumpet, and the mountain smoking, they were afraid and trembled and stood at a distance, and said to Moses, “You speak to us, and we will listen; but do not let God speak to us, or we will die.”

         It seems that as far as humans are concerned, when it comes to life, lamplight is much safer than the glory of God.