Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Paul and the Greek Poets

I have been writing on the subject of how I believe that Christianity is not supposed to be like religion - that is, a system of insiders and outsiders where we are the right side and everyone else is on the wrong side.  This post will be a continuation on this theme - if you have not read my other posts in this series, I recommend you do so:
  • Part 1 explores 5 reasons I believe Christianity is not supposed to be a religion in the sense I described.
  • Part 2 explores the balance between Orthodoxy (right belief) and Orthopraxy (right action)
  • Part 3 explores how one could go about analyzing their belief structure to find out if it was poisonous
  • Part 4 explores how preaching works within the new paradigm of "religionless Christianity"
So I'd like to try to tie things up in this post.  The idea of this whole series has been about moving beyond a system of belief that divides people, and moving into a way of life that brings people together in unity.

The Evolution of "Religion"
In his 1962 book "The Meaning and End of Religion", Wilfred Cantwell Smith - a professor of comparative religion at Harvard - draws a distinction between the modern word “religion” and its Latin root, religio.  The root of this word is ligare - to connect, tie together, bind, unite.  This is the same root of "ligature": the stuff that holds a skeleton together.  We see from this history that religion is meant to be a r
econnecting - to bring together people who should have never been separated.  It is not intended to be a system that separates people into hostile tribes.

But Professor Smith demonstrates that through the centuries, the meaning of this word slowly changed:

...in pamphlet after pamphlet, treatise after treatise, decade after decade, the notion was driven home that religion is something that one believes or does not believe, something whose propositions are true or are not true, something whose locus is in the realm of the intelligible, is up for inspection before the speculative mind.
We have found in these modern times that this way of treating religion has poisoned it from within and turned it into a weapon tribes wield against each other.  So it has been my argument in this series of posts that what we need for this time is a new kind of "religionless" Christianity which is based primarily in love for our fellow man, and is more focused on uniting over the common goals of the good of society than on common "beliefs".  This new kind of religion would be based more on fellowship and experience than on assertions of truth.

This is not to say that truth is not important, but rather that I believe the nature of truth is something that binds people together and heals rather than something that should cause strife and conflict.  In "Christianity After Religion: The End of Church and the Birth of a New Spiritual Awakening", Diana Butler Bass writes:

Indeed, the word “doctrine,” a word fallen on hard times in contemporary culture, actually means a “healing teaching,” from the French word for “doctor .” The creeds, as doctrinal statements, were intended as healing instruments, life-giving words that would draw God’s people into a deeper engagement with divine things. When creeds become fences to mark the borders of heresy, they lose their spiritual energy. Doctrine is to be the balm of a healing experience of God, not a theological scalpel to wound and exclude people.

I believe that it is important to realize that truth is not an exclusive thing - truth is not some physical thing that one tribe possesses to the exclusion of all others.  Rather, we are all able to perceive truth to varying degrees, and when we work together with different people groups we will have greater understandings of the truth.  In order to understand truth better and more fully, we cannot act as if our tribe has an exclusive grip on truth and all other tribes are lost in darkness, but rather we should realize that there are some truths our tribe may understand better than others, and most likely many others that other tribes understand more clearly than our own.

Paul and the Greek Poets
I believe we see this attitude at work in the way the Apostle Paul draws on the wisdom of well-known Greek poets in
A depiction of Paul preaching on Mars Hill in Acts 17
Acts chapter 17.  In verse 28, we find Paul quoting two distinct figures: the Cretan philosopher Epimenides in the first half of the verse, and the Cilician Stoic philosopher Aratus.


Now first of all, this provides a stark contrast with what seems to be the common attitude of much of American Christianity these days.  It seems that much of the Christian world in America has adopted an isolationist sort of attitude that encourages those within to avoid the outside world, and to see them as dangerous liars who are devoid of all truth.  And this sort of culture encourages its adherents to avoid "secular" things in favor of "Christian" things - trade "secular" music for "Christian" music, "secular" movies for "Christian" movies, "secular" books for "Christian" books, etc.  But Paul seems to draw a contrast with this attitude in Acts 17:28 by drawing on the wisdom of well-known "secular" figures in order to communicate with his audience.  Why is Paul willing to draw from the wisdom of those who are not part of his religion?

I think a major clue is found in what Paul is quoting, specifically.  In the first quote, Paul says that "in him [speaking of God] we live and move and have our being", and in the second he says that we are God's offspring - His children.  Paul makes no exceptions in these quotes - he doesn't specify that you have to be members of a particular religious "tribe" in order to be God's children.  Rather, he seems to imply that all people live, move, and have their being grounded in God and are children of God.

Over All, Through All, In All

To understand more fully how Paul understands the nature of God, I'd like to examine another statement found in Ephesians 4:4-6:

There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all. [emphasis mine]
The statement at the end of this passages lays out a profound mystery - God is over all things, working through all things, and is in all things.  There is a simple term for this view: panentheism.  Panentheism is the belief that all things rest within the being of God, God is working through all beings and all events, all beings are a part of the life of God, and yet God transcends all things, beings, and events.  In this belief, we cannot isolate God to any one place or time, but we can find God in all places and times.

This is not a belief that the Apostle Paul invented either - we find traces of panentheism in "Old Testament" passages like this one:

Psalm 139:7-10
Where can I go from your Spirit?
Where can I flee from your presence?
If I go up to the heavens, you are there;
if I make my bed in the depths, you are there.
If I rise on the wings of the dawn,
if I settle on the far side of the sea,
even there your hand will guide me,
your right hand will hold me fast.
The prophet Jeremiah writes:

Jeremiah 23:24
"Who can hide in secret places so that I cannot see them?"
declares the Lord. 
"Do not I fill heaven and earth?"
declares the Lord.
The gospel of John has a brilliant explanation of panentheism in the first chapter.  The author of this gospel has a very artistic way of using words - often playing on double meanings, and layering multiple meanings over-top of each other.  In the first verse of this gospel, John writes:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.
This single sentence is packed full of meaning.  The word translated as "Word" was the Greek word "logos".  This is a very interesting word, because it draws on the Greek belief that the entire cosmos was grounded in a rational system of rules.  We could call this "science" or "physics" in modern times.  But John is also drawing on the fact that to the Jews, "the Word" had a rich meaning as well.  In Genesis, God creates through his "Word".  When God speaks, things happen.  For human beings as well, a word is an interesting thing to think about: a word that we speak conveys our thoughts to another person and has an affect on them.  They perceive a piece of our nature through this word.  When a word leaves our lips, it is no longer us, and yet it has its source in us.  An instruction from one person to another might result in actions being taken.  For Jews, they believed that creation was a direct result of God's word, and thus was a way to perceive the nature of God and to perceive God's thoughts.  Additionally, the Hebrew Bible was considered to be God's "Word" - a direct revelation of God's character.  

The Logos of the Universe

But John is saying that the Word is more than the matter of creation, or even ancient scriptures.  The Word is a person.  But this person has existed from the beginning, was with God, and was God.  More than this, all things were created through the Logos (see verse 3), all life comes through this Logos (see verse 4), and all knowledge comes from this Logos (see verses 4 and 9). 

Perhaps even more interesting is that a parallel can be made between John's writing on the Logos and the way the writer of the Proverbs talks about wisdom.  In the Proverbs, wisdom is repeatedly personified as a woman.  Actually, the Greek word for "wisdom" is also a female name: Sophia.  So often, you will hear scholars talking about "the Sophia of God" in their writings.  And a striking parallel can be made with the way John talks about Logos and the way the Proverbs speak of Sophia in Proverbs 3:19-20, and in Proverbs 8:22-31.  In the first passage, we see that God created through Sophia, just as creation was through the Logos in John 1:3.  Just as Logos was with God in the beginning in John 1:2, in Proverbs 8:22-31, Sophia was the first of God's works, given birth before all else and present when all other things were created.

I think that this parallel with Sophia in Proverbs helps to flesh out the meaning of the "Logos made flesh" that is spoken of in John 1:14.  When we understand that the Logos parallels the personification of God's wisdom, we can see how Jesus embodied the Way of Life that was from God.  Jesus embodied the Truth through the way he lived - he didn't just teach with words, but he acted out everything he taught.  And in so doing, he incarnated the Sophia of God - Wisdom from Love.  The Way that Jesus taught - self-sacrificing life of servant-hood grounded in unconditional love - is the incarnation of God's wisdom.  And in John 17:11 and 17, Jesus prayed that we would have this same One-ness with God that he enjoyed - that we would also be able to experience the Unity he experienced through living a life that incarnates Sophia.

Making Sense of Panentheism

These are bold claims, and very difficult to understand.  It would be easy to dismiss this as nonsense if one had no desire to understand.  But I think there is a fundamental truth to this idea.

Think of it this way: all existence is grounded in relationship.  I would not exist were it not for the relationship my parents had, and I would not have continued to have life after I began to exist if it were not for relationships, nor would I have known anything I claim to know if it were not for relationships.  In the classic Christmas movie "It's A Wonderful Life", George Bailey learns that he has touched many lives in a profound way.  He sees that if his own life had been removed from the tapestry of history, many other lives would experience loss.  We are all the same way - our lives are dependent on the lives of others for their ground of being.  Without the many lives whose paths we had crossed, we would be very different people, and if you removed enough threads from the tapestry of life, we would cease to exist.  Every being exists within a web of relationships through which that being's character is shaped.

What panentheism teaches us is that all beings are interrelated.  When you eat a piece of bread, you are not just eating bread.  The grain from which this bread was made was nourished by sunlight, it grew using the nutrients from the earth, the water from the clouds, and the air.  So when you eat this bread, you are eating sunlight, earth, clouds, and air.  And you are benefiting from the work of the people who tilled the fields this grain grew in, and the work of the baker.  So you are experiencing interrelatedness with each bite of bread.

In the Bible, when the Holy Spirit is talked about, the word that is used for "Spirit" is "pneuma".  Like many Greek words, this word has another meaning as well: breath.  In Genesis, after God created man, he breathed life into him.  We are dependent on air to live - without breath, we die.  But when we breathe, we are experiencing interrelatedness, because the air we breathe has been breathed and expelled by thousands of people before us, as well as animals and plants.  This air has been circulated countless times through the lungs of countless creatures.

I believe that it is impossible to understand the doctrine of the Trinity outside of panentheism.  The idea of the trinity is that God exists as "three in one" - Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  But this idea also holds that God is no more three than He is one, and no more one than He is three.  That one is a head-scratcher.  But if you understand that God is the very ground of being, you can start to understand the trinity.  The Father is the unknowable and unfathomable source of all life, the Son is the knowable manifestation of God, and the Holy Spirit is the interrelatedness of all things. 

Imagine it this way - you are standing at the bottom of a waterfall.  The top of the waterfall is unknown to you, and is the source - the Father, for the sake of this analogy.  The water spilling over your face is the manifestation of the waterfall through which you experience and understand the waterfall - the Son.  The water spilling out below you and touching other life-forms is the Holy Spirit.  You experience the waterfall through individual drops of water, but these drops are part of a much greater whole.  If you think deeply about this concept, you realize that the water evaporates in the sunlight, rises to form clouds, and then rains back down to the earth to become part of the waterfall again.  Additionally, creatures drink from the water of this waterfall and this water passes through them back into the ground to become part of streams, to evaporate and become clouds, and to precipitate again down to the earth.  In this way, all creatures have a relationship to this waterfall, and in a way have a relationship with each other through the waterfall.

Jesus prays in the Garden of Gethsemane in John 17 that we will be One, as he and the Father are one (verse 11), "as you [the Father] are in me and I am in you."  (verse 21)  This is the force of perfect love - relationship so close that the members of the relationship, in their continual self-sacrifice for one another, cooperate in such a close relationship that they become "One".  Paul elaborates on this in Romans 12:4-5:

For just as each of us has one body with many members, and these members do not all have the same function, so in Christ we, though many, form one body, and each member belongs to all the others.

We are supposed to belong to each other, as cells in a body belong to each other.  The cells of a body serve the body, and in serving the body they are nourished and upheld by the body.  When a group of cells stops serving the body, and the cells seek to serve themselves, this is competition/separation/non-love and in the human body we call that cancer.  

In "Christ In Evolution", Ilia Delio writes:

To live in the experience of Christ is to live in the experience of relatedness, to be a member of the cosmic family, because Christ is the Word of God through whom all things are related.
The early Christians understood Jesus as a revelation of God's character - they saw a man whose entire life was marked by radical love, and whose life caused a ripple effect throughout an entire empire.  Because of the effects of the resurrection, the Apostle Paul believed that it is through the universal relationship of divine love that all things are created and sustained, as he writes in Colossians 1:15-20:

The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. 16 For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him. 17 He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. 18 And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy. 19 For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, 20 and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.

We find through this passage that universal love is not only the goal of creation, but also the means of creation.  When I combine this idea with John 12:32 - where Jesus says that through the act of the cross he will draw all men to himself - I am reminded of the science of a black hole.  Science teaches us that it is because of gravity that all bodies in the cosmos are formed, and at the center of each galaxy is a black hole.  The galaxies themselves owe their very existence to the incredible gravity of these black holes, which are continually drawing all members of the galaxy inward towards them.  I believe that God's love is a bit like this - drawing all men in to relationship and forming the fabric of being through this love. 

Because of the proclamation of universal reconciliation in Col. 1:20, we are freed from the fear of the world, our fellow man, "demons", and even God, and empowered to reach out with bold acts of love and join in with God's creative work.  This doctrine helps us to understand that being made “in the image of God” means that at a very deep level - in the core of our being - we are marked by the radical potential to receive the mystery of divine love, and as a result to pour out God’s presence in the world.  And through accepting and extending this love, we enter into partnership with God to become agents of creation through His love.

This idea gives us a whole new understanding of "salvation" - salvation is not being saved from God, but being saved in, to, and through God.  For many Christians, the word "salvation" brings an understanding of being saved from "hell" (for more on this subject, see my series "Checkmate For Hell"), but the word's Latin roots mean "whole", "sound", "healed", "safe", "well", or "unharmed".  Often people will talk about "finding love", and will talk about this love making us whole or healing us.  But panentheism teaches us that love was always inside of us - we just needed to give it away.  

When we understand that the goal for creation is interrelatedness, we can understand more fully the meaning of Jesus' words in Matthew 16:25:

For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it.

When we seek to live our life at the cost of others and independent of them, we will lose our life.  But when we draw in to the fellowship of the unity of all things (see Eph. 1:9-10), we will find a well of Eternal Life that will flow out from us into the world (see John 4:10-14).  

The understanding of the full integration with love helps us to understand many other facets of faith.  For example, we understand through this framework that our relationship with creation should be - it is not a relationship of domination and forced control, but rather a relationship of harmony.  We can also understand that the true nature of sin/evil is a resistance to unity that causes division and chaos, but we also understand that this cannot last forever but will be conquered by love in the end.

But perhaps the greatest lesson panentheism teaches us is the true nature of love: that in order to experience love, we must love others, and in doing so we will find that we have always been loved and lovable ourselves.  Love does not act in a way that causes harm to a single living being, but seeks to integrate all life - Ilia Delio sums up this idea in "Christ In Evolution":

Christ, the fully integrated person, is not a person but the Person, the integration of all human persons fully united in the one Spirit of love and thus fully integrated in relation to God.  The resurrected Christ is the prolepsis of what is intended for the whole cosmos — union and transformation in God.
In the community of God, we will find true peace.  The loneliness caused by isolation will end, as well as all acts of violence and injustice.  The mutual destruction caused by the selfish struggles of rampant individuality will be replaced by a community of peace built on self-giving mutual servant-hood in which all created beings are there for one another, with one another and in one another, and through the interchange of their energies keep one another in life, for one another and together.  And in this community we will truly experience the presence of God, and the power of death will be overcome.


  1. Wonderful explanation of the Logos, rationality, reason, and interconnectedness of God. Reminds me how the Western church, in particular, has misread the New Testament and Paul.