Wednesday, January 15, 2014

The Idolatry of Our Age - Part VI: Love is Like the Wind

I have been writing on the subject of how the concept of idolatry applies in our modern age.  This post is a continuation on this theme - if you have not done so already, you might want to read the beginning of the series:
  • Part I explores the idea that God is not like an idol which can be manipulated to fulfill our desires
  • Part II explores how our limitations prevent us from understanding infinite reality
  • Part III explores how the Bible is worshiped over the person of Christ
  • Part IV explores the hero's journey
  • Part V explores how the resurrection applies to our present life

Love Is Like the Wind

In today’s world, it is hard to imagine what Spirit means any more.  We have pushed out the world of Spirit from most areas of thought.  At best, Spirit is “out there”.  But this is not how the writers of the Bible thought of things.  In Greek, the word used for Spirit was “pnuema” - which we get “pneumatic” (as in pneumatic tire) from.  Yup, you guessed it - the word has a double meaning.  It was not only used to speak about “Spirit”, but also “breath” and “air”.

What’s interesting about this is that when you think about how an ancient culture would know about the existence of air, you realize that they couldn’t know this by observing the air itself.  The only way they could know about the existence of air would be by observing the effect it has on other objects.  It is the same way with Spirit - we cannot know what Spirit is by observing it directly, only by observing the effects it has on other entities.

In the ancient world, they thought of the world as being charged with Spirit.  One of the most greatly misunderstood passages of the New Testament is I Corinthians 15:35-49, where Paul speaks of “spiritual bodies”.  But the original Greek word - pneumatikos - didn’t carry the sense that the body was made out of spiritual matter, but rather, the suffix ikos had to do with what animated the body - what powered it.  The goal of the Christian life in a certain sense is to become animated by “Spirit”.  And Paul contrasts this
pneumatikos body with a psychikos body - a body animated by psyche.  This passage carries the sense that we will be trading our ego-driven lives for a Spirit-driven life.

Many of the ancient cultures had a metaphor for describing certain holy places such as temples - the navel of the earth.  The belief of the ancient Jews and Christians was that this world was surrounded by and nourished by the world of the Spirit, much as a baby is surrounded by and nourished by her mother.  And there were these places on earth where the separation between this material reality and the spiritual reality was thin - the navel of the earth.

This image of the "navel of the earth" is reinforced by the feminine imagery of God in the Bible.  For example, Deuteronomy 32:11 says that "[God cared for them] like an eagle that stirs up its nest and hovers over its young, that spreads its wings to catch them and carries them aloft."  Deuteronomy 32:18 says "you forgot the God who gave you birth."  In Isaiah 49:15 God says that just as a mother will not forget her child, neither will He (might "She" be appropriate here?) forget the reader.  In Isaiah 66:12-13, God says "you will nurse and be carried on her arm and dandled on her knees.  As a mother comforts her child, so will I comfort you; and you will be comforted over Jerusalem."  And in Matthew 23:37, Jesus speaks prophetically of how God wishes to gather the children of Jerusalem as a mother hen who gathers her children under her wings

The Jews believed that the "navel of the earth" was located at the temple in Jerusalem.  But with Jesus, the idea of temples as the only place to connect to Spirit was done away with.  Anyone could have access to Spirit, anywhere.  Paul says in I Corinthians 3:16 that we are God’s temple and His Spirit dwells in our midst.  This “dwelling in our midst” can be called immanence, and it presents a great paradox as Spirit is also transcendent.  Spirit is immanently transcendent.

Jesus had a way of talking about the immanent transcendence - the kingdom of God.  In Luke 17:21 Jesus says that the kingdom cannot be observed through normal human means, but that it is within you.  I personally love the way the apocryphal Gospel of Thomas puts it:
If those who lead you say, “See, the Kingdom is in the sky,” then the birds of the sky will precede you.  If they say to you, “It is in the sea,” then the fish will precede you.  Rather, the Kingdom is inside of you, and it is outside of you.

The Kingdom is within
But what is this mysterious Spirit?

I think the writer of I John gives us a major clue when he writes (in I John 4:8 and later in verse 16) that God is love.

The Greeks had three different words for love - one spoke of a fondness or brotherly love, and another spoke of romantic love.  But the word used for the love that Jesus taught about was agape - a perfect, unconditional love.  And I believe that when we learn how to live a life grounded in this kind of love, we can experience the presence of God.  This presence has been described as a peace that transcends all understanding in Philippians 4:7.

Humans have a way of becoming easily bored.  What we once found compelling fades and ceases to amaze.  But when you experience an unconditional love for someone, it has a way of changing your perspective.  I remember that when my first son was born, the world took on a new sense of wonder.  And I can remember finding wonder in mundane things because my son found wonder in them.  He loved bubbles - that was actually his first word.  We actually bought a machine that blew bubbles all over the living room, and we would sit and watch as he excitedly chased them around.  We found wonder in the mundane because of our love for our son.

Love has a way of filling the world with meaning.  Often when a person feels unloved, there seems to be nothing in the world that can excite them - the world seems empty and meaningless to them.  But a person who is in love cannot help but experience everything as deeply meaningful - smells are more poignant, colors seem to be more radiant, and music has a profound effect on them.  Love fills the world with beauty and meaning in a way that is completely irrational and impossible to explain.

And love is such a wispy concept - we cannot seem to objectify and define it.  You can't see love, but you can see its effect on someone.  And love causes others to stand out as special.  It is the humblest of things, not calling any attention upon its own beauty but rather calling attention to the beauty of the beloved while filling the world around with beauty as well.  Love does not seek its own pleasure, but finds pleasure in the fulfillment of the beloved.  Love has no meaning of its own but gives meaning to all things

I close with this thought: I believe that the Spirit of God - the very Spirit of perfect Love itself - is like the wind.  The ancient Chinese Taoist philosopher Zhuangzi (also known as Chuang Tzu) wrote this poem:
When great Nature sighs, we hear the winds
Which, noiseless in themselves,
Awaken voices from other beings,
Blowing on them.
From every opening
Loud voices sound. Have you not heard
This rush of tones?

There stands the overhanging wood
On the steep mountain:
Old trees with holes and cracks
Like snouts, maw, and ears,
Like beam-sockets, like goblets,
Grooves in the wood. hollows full of water:
You hear mooing and roaring, whistling,
Shouts of command, grumblings,
Deep drones, sad flutes.
One call awakens another in dialogue.
Gentle winds sing timidly,
Strong ones blast on without restraint.
Then the wind dies down. The openings
Empty out their last sound.
Have you not observes how all then trembles and subsides?

Yu relied: I understand:
The music of earth sings through a thousand holes.
The music of man is made on flutes and instruments.
What makes the music of heaven?

Master Ki said:
Something is blowing on a thousand different holes.
Some power stands behind all this and makes the sounds die down.
What is this power?
This poem does not end with a definition of God, and I believe this is absolutely appropriate.  Because infinite cannot be contained in finite words or concepts.  Rather, the poem simply leaves the open question.  And while we can dare to speak of the infinite being of God, we should always leave the question open, as no words can do infinite justice.

Monday, January 13, 2014

The Idolatry of Our Age - Part V: Be the Resurrection

I have been writing on the subject of how the concept of idolatry applies in our modern age.  This post is a continuation on this theme - if you have not done so already, you might want to read the beginning of the series:
  • Part I explores the idea that God is not like an idol which can be manipulated to fulfill our desires
  • Part II explores how our limitations prevent us from understanding infinite reality
  • Part III explores how the Bible is worshiped over the person of Christ
  • Part IV explores the hero's journey

Be the Resurrection
In my last post, I explored the concept that Jesus calls his followers on a hero’s journey.  Through this understanding, I think it should become clear that we should also view Jesus crucifixion and resurrection not just as something that happened at a point in history, but as a model for our own life.

Take up your cross and follow me...
Now you may say “whoah, you’re sounding a little crayzay there!”

But I’m serious!  Let’s examine for a minute, starting with Jesus’ death.  What is the point of the crucifixion?  Is it just an event in history that we’re supposed to look back and reflect on?  I don't think that's the point - I don't think it's supposed to be a painting on a wall.  I think it’s also supposed to inform how we live!  Just as the disciples followed Jesus’ so closely that they were “in the dust of the Rabbi”, I believe that Jesus taught that they were supposed to take their own part in his crucifixion as well! 

Now, of course I do not mean that we should literally hope that someone comes along and offers to hoist us up on wooden crosses until we die.  This would be abhorrent. 

But, Jesus did say (in Mt. 16:24-25):

Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.  For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it.
So what is it that Jesus means when he says we should take up our cross?
The apostle Paul says in Galatians 2:20:

I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me.
Now Paul was writing this as a living embodied person on this earth.  So obviously this is not talking about a death ritual.  No, what I think Jesus and Paul are both talking about is a death of the false self - our egotistical drive to serve ourselves, to live up to cultural standards (even if they involve a sense of tribalism), and to please others in order to be held in favor.

This view transforms the crucifixion of Jesus from a historical event into a present reality - a “sacrament” (a practice through which one may experience the presence of God).  In John 15:4 Jesus says that if we “abide in” him, he will “abide in” us.  This is not some voodoo magic he’s speaking of.  He’s saying that if we live out the way he’s taught - following in his footsteps - we will experience his spiritual presence!  And this "following" includes a death of the false self, which we must continually seek!  By living out the life of Jesus - through acts of kindness, through denying ourselves, through love of our enemies - we can come to understand God’s thoughts!

Now, do not misunderstand me and think that I am saying that we will reach a point where our finite minds can contain the infinite - this is not at all what I am saying.  But we can find rest in the process - as Jesus said (Mt. 11:28):
Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.
To understand the scriptures, love, Jesus, and even come to know God, we must transcend ourselves.  This includes transcending our biases and tribal identities - the tribalism of our political, religious, and social identities.  We must continually seek to understand our neighbors - no matter how different they be - and seek their well-being over our own.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer - a pastor in Germany who opposed Hitler’s Nazi regime during World War II and was eventually martyred for it - wrote in “The Cost of Discipleship”:
The disciple is dragged out of his relative security into a life of absolute insecurity (that is, in truth, into the absolute security and safety of the fellowship of Jesus), from a life which is observable and calculable (it is, in fact, quite incalculable) into a life where everything is unobservable and fortuitous (that is, into one which is necessary and calculable), out of the realm of finite (which is in truth the infinite) into the realm of infinite possibilities (which is the one liberating reality).
I am the resurrection and the life
Through this death of self, I believe we can also discover how the resurrection is not simply a historical event, but is also a sacramental, present reality.  After leaving behind our old, dead selves and transcending them, we embody the resurrection in this life!  In her book “Christianity After Religion: The End of Church and the Birth of a New Spiritual Awakening”, Diana Butler Bass writes about an exchange she witnessed between Bishop Dan Corrigan and a parishioner.  This person asked the Bishop: “do you believe in the resurrection?”  And his answer was: “Yes. I believe in the resurrection. I’ve seen it too many times not to.”

In Luke 24:13-35, there is a story where two of the disciples are walking along the road to Emmaus after Jesus’ death.  According to the text, Jesus comes along beside them and is walking with them, but they do not recognize him.  They walk with him for a ways and are involved in a discussion the whole time, without ever realizing who it is that they are speaking to.  Afterwards, they invite him to eat with them, and still they do not recognize him!  It isn’t until he breaks the bread and passes it out to them that they realize whose presence they were in.  Recognizing the resurrection required a new level of consciousness on the part of these disciples.

We should also seek the find the resurrection in our present life - the resurrection of former addicts, amputees who learned to live without their limbs, formerly homeless people who built a life out of the rubble of their past, and many other ways that the resurrection happens in real life.  And we should take part in this process - we should lift our neighbors up out of the ashes of their former lives, and incarnate the resurrection in our present world.

In “Christ in Evolution”, Ilia Delio writes:

The cross and resurrection won the victory over evil, but it is the task of the Spirit, and those led by the Spirit, to implement that victory in and for the whole world. The victory is found not in the life of Jesus alone but in his death and resurrection. It is in the resurrection that the power of Jesus as the Christ is experienced.
In my next post, I will explore how love is like the wind.

Friday, January 10, 2014

The Idolatry of Our Age - Part IV: Leave the Shire

I have been writing on the subject of how the concept of idolatry applies in our modern age.  This post is a continuation on this theme - if you have not done so already, you might want to read the beginning of the series:

  • Part I explores the idea that God is not like an idol which can be manipulated to fulfill our desires
  • Part II explores how our limitations prevent us from understanding infinite reality
  • Part III explores how the Bible is worshiped over the person of Christ

Leave the Shire
In my last post, I wrote about a phrase that was used by ancient Jews to describe the relationship between a disciple and his/her Rabbi: the dust of the Rabbi.  This phrase described how a disciple would follow their Rabbi so closely that the dust from the feet of the Rabbi that was kicked up would cover the disciple.

I believe that this picture adds clearer meaning to a strange story in Matthew 14:22-33.  In this strange and miraculous tale, Jesus has instructed his disciples to part ways with him for a while, and sent them in a boat to cross to “the other side” - Decapolis, on the other side of the sea of Galilee.  As they are crossing this body of water, Jesus decides to catch up with them and, according to the story, walks right out on top of the water.  When the disciples see him they react with terror, but Jesus assures them that there’s no need to be afraid.

With the picture of “the dust of the Rabbi”, Peter’s next move comes as no surprise - as a disciple, you would see every action of your Rabbi as part of a lesson of some sort, and you were to learn through mimesis.  So Peter says “if it’s you, tell me to come out on the water!”  Jesus simply says “come”, and Peter jumps out of the boat.  You see, in Peter’s understanding, Jesus wouldn’t do anything in view of his disciples that he didn’t believe his disciples could also do - the whole point of the Rabbi/disciple relationship is to transform the disciples into the character of the Rabbi.

So, with this understanding in mind, the next part of the story is illuminated further.  Peter is out of the boat, and he starts walking on the water towards Jesus.  But then his focus is diverted, and he notices the wind and becomes afraid.  As a result of this loss of focus and fear, Peter begins to sink.  In verse 31 of the passage, Jesus explains this reaction as a result of a lack of faith.  But it’s not Peter’s lack of faith in Jesus that is the problem - Peter sees Jesus walking on the water and believes he can do this!  The problem is Peter’s lack of faith in himself!  Peter didn’t believe that he could do these great things that he saw Jesus doing!

You see, much of modern Christianity has made Jesus into an ancient superhero - we read his comics and say “oh, how cool is that?”, and that’s the whole point of it all: to read about Jesus and profess our belief in and affection for these stories. 

As Robert Capon puts it, in "Hunting the Divine Fox":

The true paradigm of the ordinary American view of Jesus is Superman: "Faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive, able to leap tall buildings in a single bound.  It’s Superman!  Strange visitor from another planet, who came to earth with powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal men, and who, disguised as Clark Kent, mild-mannered reporter for a great metropolitan newspaper, fights a never ending battle from truth, justice, and the American Way."  If that isn’t popular Christology, I’ll eat my hat.  Jesus – gentle, meek and mild, but with secret, souped-up, more-than-human insides – bumbles around for thirty-three years, nearly gets himself done in for good by the Kryptonite Kross, but at the last minute, struggles into the phone booth of the Empty Tomb, changes into his Easter suit and with a single bound, leaps back up to the planet Heaven.  It’s got it all – including, just so you shouldn’t miss the lesson, kiddies: He never once touches Lois Lane.
But Jesus cuts right into this idea in John 14:12:
Very truly I tell you, whoever believes in me will do the works I have been doing, and they will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father.

Did you catch that?  The followers of Jesus will do greater things than what Jesus has been doing?

Later on in the passage, Jesus drives the point that belief plays out in action home in verse 23 when he says: 
Anyone who loves me will obey my teaching.
There’s a simple analogy that can be made to clear this up a bit.  Jesus’ story is an embodiment of the truth within the common themes in every hero myth in literature.  This is something that the author J.R.R. Tolkien picked up on, and which was alluded to in various ways throughout his most famous fantasy series, “The Lord of the Rings”.  The story of Frodo in this series follows a very common pattern - the pattern of the hero’s journey.

The hero’s journey starts out with the hero - who at this point is a very plain and ordinary person - being called to go on an adventure by a mentor who often has a supernatural appearance.  Often in these tales, the call is resisted or refused at first and various excuses are given - the hero has important things at home to attend to, the journey is too dangerous, the hero feels that there’s no way he could possibly make any difference, etc.  But in every hero’s journey tale, these excuses eventually fade away in light of the importance of the quest, and the hero makes the decision to commit.  Often, in return for this commitment, the hero receives some sort of talisman that gives him supernatural aid - in Frodo’s case, the ring of power.

But once the hero makes this commitment and sets out, he or she is immediately beset by a challenge of some sort - this is called the Threshold Guardian.  The Threshold Guardian’s goal is to prevent the hero from leaving the safety of his or her home, and in Frodo’s story this Threshold Guardian comes in the form of the fearful Ringwraiths, whom Frodo faces again and again throughout the story, which is part of the temptations and sufferings that every hero experiences.

At some point in every hero’s journey, the hero experiences a sort of death of his old self, which always occurs when the hero faces his deepest, darkest fear.  But the hero overcomes this great fear and emerges through a type of resurrection, where their true nature - much greater than what they were before - is then revealed.  They return to their home a much different person and often find that the darkness outside - which the people of their home were ignorant of and even in denial of at the beginning of the story - has invaded their home.  And it is only because of the hero’s journey and resulting change that they are then able to help the people of their old home overcome difficulty and conflict.  

But the hardest part of the story is always that first step - in “The Fellowship of the Ring”, Bilbo says:
The scariest thing on earth is stepping out of our front door, because we don't know what adventures we'll walk into.
We see so often this version of Christianity that protects its idolatrous ideas - its conceptual forms of stone - by withdrawing from the world.  Like the people of the Shire, they are completely unaware of the darkness of the world outside.  What so often happens when a person withdraws like this is that they construct their own false reality in their mind. 

But the funny thing about the story of the hero’s journey that Jesus presents is that Jesus is not the hero of the story.  Not if you believe John 14:12.  No, in light of this passage, we learn that Jesus is the mentor character - the “Gandalf” of the story!  He is the one calling us to go on a hero’s journey!  He is the one telling us to leave our comfortable world to face the death of our false selves and emerge in resurrection, refined to reveal the nature of our true selves!  We are not called as Christians to withdraw from the world - we are called to embrace it and through this embrace, we learn who God is, and thus who we are!

The Christianity that withdraws from the world is a religion of idolatry - it remains safe in its home in the Shire, ignorant of the troubles of the world around, even denying their existence when word from the outside arrives.  I see this so often in Christianity: an attitude that says that even the act of engaging with “outsiders” - people of differing cultures, political identities, theological ideas, scientific ideas, etc. - is a transgression.  Knowledge is dangerous to this form of Christianity, and it is treated with contempt.  And those who live in this environment build for themselves a reality that looks nothing like the world outside, and whenever anything from the outside world comes into their perspective, they immediately reject anything that does not match this construction of ideas.  This often results in a complete rejection of science - or to put it more precisely, Christians often seem to construct their own version of science by starting with the image they already had and building science around it.

But the Bible does not teach withdrawal from science as the way to understand God - the Bible teaches that it is the creation itself which teaches us about God!  Psalm 19:1-2 says that the heavens declare the glory of God, and that they “pour forth speech” day and night, revealing knowledge!  This Psalm declares that the skies are a love note from God Himself, and by reading it we learn His character!  

In the story of Job, when God answers Job, He continually asks Job to contemplate His greatness by...pointing to various acts of creation!  This section even starts out by saying the God spoke out of a storm!  (See Job chapters 38-41)  

Romans 1:20 continues this theme and says that God’s invisible qualities can be understood through what has been made!

When Christians withdraw from the world of science and treat it with contempt, what they are really doing is rejecting God in favor of an idol.  Christianity has a duty to engage creation to discern the glory of God.  Pope John Paul II once said:

Science can purify religion from error and superstition. Religion can purify science from idolatry and false absolutes.
In one of my previous posts, I wrote about a view of God that perceives God through embracing all of creation in love.  Through this embrace, we experience the miracle in the mundane - as Albert Einstein wrote:
There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle.
Not only can we challenge our idols through a continual contemplation of creation - embracing scientific methods of perceiving the logos - but we must also seek to find Christ in our neighbor.  In the parable of the sheep and the goats (see Matthew 25:31-46) Jesus implies that the way to experience God is through embracing our fellow man in love and caring for the needs of “the least of these”.  Jesus also said that “where two or three have gathered together in my name, I am there in their midst.” (Matthew 18:20).  This helps us to understand that in order to challenge our own filters of understanding, we must seek to understand our neighbor (and even our enemies are our neighbors, since Jesus commands us to love our enemies in Matthew 5:43-48) in order to experience Jesus. 

So often we make idols out of false realities - false images of ourselves based on what we own, what we profess to believe as true, or political identities.  These are the Threshold Guardians - the Ringwraiths - which prevent us from taking the first step out our front door and beginning our journey out of the Shire.  But when Jesus says that he is found when two or three gather in his name, I believe that this does not mean “two or three people who are exactly like me.”  Because all throughout Jesus’ life, we see him with people of all different kinds: fishermen, tax collectors, prostitutes, Roman centurions, and even Pharisees!  In order to find Jesus, we cannot huddle in the dark corner of safety - we must leave the Shire!  Through Jesus, we see that the love of our neighbor - who might even be our “enemy” - is the lens through which we will see the Truth in the scriptures!  To follow Jesus is to transcend tribalism and idealism - to cast off our false, ego-driven images of self - and to embrace those who are “different”.  

Through the love of our neighbor, we discover our true self.

In my next post, I will explore the meaning of resurrection in our daily lives.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

The Idolatry of Our Age - Part III: An Idol of Paper and Ink

I have been writing on the subject of how the concept of idolatry applies in our modern age.  This post is a continuation on this theme - if you have not done so already, you might want to read the beginning of the series:
  • Part I explores the idea that God is not like an idol which can be manipulated to fulfill our desires
  • Part II explores how our limitations prevent us from understanding infinite reality

An Idol of Paper and Ink 
In my last post, I touched on the idea that when we accept finite, unchanging views of God, we have created a conceptual idol.  I touched on the idea that inerrancy is one way this kind of conceptual idol is expressed.  I explored how, even if the Bible is inerrant, this does not guarantee that our understanding of it is.  And to believe that our own understanding of it is not flawed is to ignore two thousand years of history.

Yeah, that's how it works...

Now, one of the problems you’ll find with claiming that the Bible is inerrant is that it raises the question: which one?  You see, what we call “the Bible” is a collection of various writings that were voted on in a council hundreds of years ago.  And if you study your history, you’ll find that in 367 AD, Athanasius came up with a list of books which was later approved by Pope Damascus I in 382 AD and ratified by the Council of Rome the same year.  This canon contained 73 books.  Later on, councils at Hippo in 393 AD and Carthage in 397 AD confirmed this canonization.  In 405 AD, Pope Innocent I wrote a letter to the Bishop of Toulouse affirming this canon, and the Council of Carthage reaffirmed this list in 419 AD (which Pope Boniface agreed upon).  But, the Council of Trent then removed 7 books from this canon in 1546 AD, and now the Protestant Bible holds 66 of the original 73 books!  Additionally, the original King James version of the Bible, published in 1611 AD, held 80 books!  So if you wish to say that the Bible is inerrant, the first question would be: which one?

Next, you’d have to ask the question: which translation of the Bible is inerrant?  It is exceedingly difficult to accurately translate the extinct, ancient languages of Greek and Hebrew into English for a number of different reasons.  One issue that translators have to deal with is that Greek and Hebrew words often had multiple meanings, and the authors would often play on this by choosing words that could work within the text with more than one of the meanings - perhaps indicating that the author wanted us to consider all meanings of the word in the context.  Another problem is that these languages often had more than one word for a concept - for instance, Greek has three different words for “love”, which all have a different nuance to them.  Furthermore, one should always consider this little headache when considering the difficulties of translating from Greek to modern English:


But that’s not all - perhaps the biggest problem with inerrancy is that it claims more about the Bible than the Bible claims for itself.  Actually, the Bible makes specific claims that it is not inerrant.  For example, in I Cor. 7:12, Paul clarifies very specifically that what he is saying comes from himself, not the Lord.  So if we believe that the Bible is the direct words from God dropped down from the sky in whole-cloth, how do we distinguish between this statement which Paul claims did not come from the Lord and every other statement?  Is this the only one that didn’t come directly from the mouth of God without any filter whatsoever?  

Further on in the same chapter, in verse 25, Paul states that he has no commandment from God but that he gives his judgment anyways “as one who by the Lord’s mercy is trustworthy.”  There’s another one that didn’t come directly from the mouth of God!  Then again, in 2 Corinthians 11:17 Paul says that what he just stated earlier in the chapter was not Paul talking as the Lord would, but as a fool!   Paul deliberately said something foolish in order to prove a point!

And then we have the scientific problems with taking the Bible as inerrant - if you know your history, you know that Martin Luther (who invented the phrase sola scriptura) interpreted Joshua 10:10-15 as indicating that the sun revolved around the earth, not the other way around.  When scientific views began to contradict this view through Coperinicus, Luther said:

There is talk of a new astrologer who wants to prove that the earth moves and goes around instead of the sky, the sun, the moon, just as if somebody were moving in a carriage or ship might hold that he was sitting still and at rest while the earth and the trees walked and moved. But that is how things are nowadays: when a man wishes to be clever he must needs invent something special, and the way he does it must needs be the best! The fool wants to turn the whole art of astronomy upside-down. However, as Holy Scripture tells us, so did Joshua bid the sun to stand still and not the earth.

Well, Luther lost this battle, and now this passage is interpreted metaphorically.  But the question is - would the original authors have understood it this way?  There are plenty of scholars who would say no:

Add to this the problem of dealing with the many contradictions within the Bible - which I have written about at greater length in another post - and you have a massive headache to deal with.

Now, if you ask someone who believes in inerrancy why they believe this, they will most likely point to 2 Tim. 3:16-17 as the “proof” that the Bible is inerrant.  But this passage does not say that the Bible is inerrant.  It says scriptures are “God-breathed” - or in some versions, “inspired by”.  So the first question that is raised is: what is included in the word “scriptures”, since the canon had not been developed at this time?  

(The fact that Christians lived without a canonized Bible for the first 3 centuries is problematic for inerrantists and sola scriptura believers in and of itself.)  

Also, being inspired by God is not the same thing as “coming directly from the mouth of God to us without any filter whatsoever" now, is it?  I've been inspired by many things in my lifetime - art, music, poetry, my wife and children, events in my life - and it meant nothing like that.

This makes people who have been raised to believe in inerrancy very uneasy - they say “if the Bible isn’t inerrant, how can we trust it?”  Easy - do you trust your mother?  Is she inerrant?  No?  Well, have you learned many things from her?  Did she teach you how to live before she sent you off into adulthood?

The way I look at the Bible can be summed up in the phrase: progressive revelation.  I believe that throughout history, God progressively revealed bits and pieces of his character through the various writings, people, and events in Biblical history.  And this reached a culmination in the character of Jesus Christ.  

In John 5:39-40, Jesus says:

You study the Scriptures diligently because you think that in them you have eternal life. These are the very Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life.
This verse is saying that the Scriptures themselves are not Truth - they are finite signposts pointing towards infinite truth!  And infinite truth is embodied not in paper and ink, but in a person - the person of Jesus Christ!  If you want to understand Truth, you need to get to know this person!

I like how scholar Marcus Borg puts this in "Jesus: Uncovering the Life, Teachings, and Relevance of a Religious Revolutionary":

Christians also speak of the Bible as the revelation of God, indeed as the “Word of God.” Yet orthodox Christian theology from ancient times has affirmed that the decisive revelation of God is Jesus. The Bible is “the Word” become words, God’s revelation in human words; Jesus is “the Word ” become flesh, God’s revelation in a human life. Thus Jesus is more decisive than the Bible.
In the Jewish culture, a Rabbi would teach children the Torah starting at a very young age.  And then, when these children reached the age of 15, children would request to be disciples.  This process was somewhat similar to applying to college - the best Rabbi’s would have many applicants and would choose the best of the best, much like Harvard would.  What’s very interesting is that Jesus reversed this by choosing his disciples - he asked them.  And he didn’t go after the richest, best, and brightest - he went for the “dregs” of society.  

The Jews had a phrase they used to describe how a disciple behaved when he was an
apprentice to a Rabbi - "in the dust of the Rabbi."  What this phrase meant was that the disciple would follow his Rabbi so closely that the dust kicked up from the Rabbi’s sandals would scatter all over this disciple - he didn’t want to miss a single beat, but wanted to observe everything his Rabbi did.

This phrase - the dust of the Rabbi - illuminates the hubris of those who claim to be able to understand the scriptures without having ever studied the historical context they are set in.  And it also shows the weakness of claiming to understand them simply by reading, rather than through practicing them - living them out in real life.  When a “Christian” refuses to find understanding of Jesus’ words through living them out, he makes Jesus into a static, dead idol of stone.

In John 15:4, Jesus says that if we abide in him, he will abide in us.  To understand Jesus’ words, we must live the way Jesus lived!  Paul says in Romans 13:14 that we should clothe ourselves in Jesus, and in Galatians 3:27 he repeats this theme.  

To live the Christian life is to enter into dialogue with peoples of all tribes and all statuses in unconditional love, just as Jesus did, and to give with no expectancy of the returns, accepting whatever comes.  This is the surrender of love that Jesus showed on the night that he was betrayed, giving himself as a gift and pouring out God’s love into the world.  In the act of the cross, Jesus showed us the mystery of the paradox of vulnerable power.  To live like Christ is to accept this vulnerability and express it in whatever ways are possible - entering into dialogue with all who are available to us and making ourselves available as a gift, even unto death.

Jesus is the door...but you have to step through to infinity...
Jesus is the living embodiment of the Word, thus the true fulfillment of the scriptures.  And if the Word is infinite, then no understanding of this person fully encapsulates this reality - Jesus is a finite point of reality which opens the door to knowledge of infinite reality, and thus “knowing Jesus” means that one has become fluid and open to infinite change.  Christ is the perfect union between an infinite God and finite creation, and Jesus prays in the Garden of Gethsemane that we would have that same union (see John 17).   

To understand this is to understand that the reality of Christ is not exhausted through Jesus’ historicity - rather, Christ is the center of reality itself which incorporates all.  Christ is the very life of the universe itself in a union with finite creation - infinite expressed through creaturely union.  Through this view, we see that Jesus is not an exception to creation, but the fulfillment of the purpose of Creation.  In him, we find the meaning of what it means to be truly human in its very fullest sense - that is, the union of finite humanity with infinite God.  This transforms the finite, static view of Jesus Christ as an ancient superhero we merely observe from our viewpoint into a fluid, living and present reality - New Creation continually arising and changing and shaping the Universe.  If we solidify our views in rigidity, we enter into death, but even this will not conquer Christ as Christ has conquered death itself.  But by embracing the change of the Holy Spirit working in the world - the act of New Creation - and by accepting the death of our old, rigid selves, we are able to say, with Paul: “For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.” (Philippians 1:21)

If God is infinite and eternal, than no understanding we can ever have of this being is ever truly representative of this God, but can only be incomplete and very likely incorrect in some ways.  To understand this is to understand that every understanding of God is an idol, and we must continually strive to destroy our own idols without judging our neighbor, for by judging our neighbor we judge ourselves (Luke 6:37).  This does not mean we cease to try to understand, but rather we should embrace the journey of understanding itself.

In "A New Kind of Christianity: Ten Questions That Are Transforming the Faith", Brian McLaren wrote:

...idols freeze one’s understanding of God in stone, as it were. This approach also warns us about the danger of another kind of idolatry to which we today are more susceptible. Although few of us today are tempted to freeze our understanding of God in graven images, we may too quickly freeze our understanding in printed images, rigid conceptual idols not chiseled in wood or stone but printed on paper in books, housed not in temples but in seminaries and denominational headquarters, worshiped not through ancient ceremonies and rituals but through contemporary sermons and songs.
To guard against these conceptual idols, we must understand that an infinite God is a God of eternal mystery.  We must understand that each new day, if we are truly experiencing God, we will be continually evolving our understanding of Him/Her (that's right - God has no sex, but is both sexes and neither sex at the same time, and it's a grave misfortune that English has no sexless pronoun with which to address this being).

In "The Birth of Satan: Tracing the Devil's Biblical Roots", authors T. J. Wray and Gregory Mobley write:

In the mid-twentieth century, the German theologian Paul Tillich formulated the phrase “the God above (or beyond) God.”  Tillich’s words remind believers that in Jewish terms, at the heart of monotheistic faith is the enigma of “I am who I am,” that in Christian terms, “we see through a glass darkly,” and that in Muslim terms, even the ninety-nine names for Allah do not suffice. The God of the cosmos, a universe eons old and light-years big, is only hinted at in human theologies, however accurately.

This eternal mystery of infinite being is also hinted at in The Tao Te Ching:

The Tao that can be spoken is not the eternal Tao
The name that can be named is not the eternal name
Likewise, in the Lankavatara Sutra it is written:
These teachings are only a finger pointing to the Noble wisdom.... They are intended for the consideration and guidance of the discriminating minds of all people, but they are not the Truth itself, which can only be self-realized within one’s own deepest consciousness.
In my next post, I would like to explore how infinite reality expresses itself through the model of death and resurrection.

Monday, January 6, 2014

The Idolatry of Our Age - Part II: A Rigid Form of Stone

I have been writing on the subject of how the concept of idolatry applies in our modern age.  This post is a continuation on this theme - if you have not done so already, you might want to read the first part of this series.

A Rigid Form of Stone
The second important aspect of idolatry that I think we need to understand is that the nature of idolatry is to rigidly define belief in something that we don't - and can't, really - know all (or even really that much) about.  The idol is a guess at what a god would look like that has been frozen in stone.  It is a cold, rigid form that is unmovable, and refuses to admit the weak ground on which its definition was based.

In contrast to the unmoving stone form of the idol, the Bible describes God as an infinite being beyond our understanding.  Psalm 147:5 declares that God's understanding has no limit.  Isaiah 40:28 repeats this theme:

Do you not know?
Have you not heard?
The Lord is the everlasting God,
the Creator of the ends of the earth.
He will not grow tired or weary,
and his understanding no one can fathom.
Psalm 33:13 declares that God sees all, and I Chronicles 28:9 expands this concept to declare that God is even able to search every heart and understand every desire and thought.  Jeremiah 32:17 declares that nothing is too hard for God, and in Matthew 19:26, Jesus declares that nothing is impossible for God.

With such an infinite being in mind, so completely outside of our ability to conceive and imagine, you would think that men who follow this God would practice humility in theological matters and would deal with their fellow humans with patience as we all seek to understand the unfathomable, right?

Wrong.  There is a very pervasive form of idolatry that is rampant in the church today.  Those who subscribe to this form of idolatry succumb to an unmoving, stone-cold pride, using God as a bludgeoning club to pound each other with and drive fear and shame into each other's hearts.  They use knowledge as a form of power over one another, rather than as a healing bandage.

Those who worship this idol declare the inerrancy of scripture as their defense, and declare with unmoving pride: "sola scriptura!" (Latin for "by scripture alone".)

But there is a naive dishonesty to this declaration.  You see, when most people defiantly declare "sola scriptura", what they usually seem to be saying is that scripture is easy to understand and we should take the most basic face-value interpretation as the right one.  They act as though, by doing this, we can safely assume that we are not actually using our own views as a filter for interpretation.

But this is really quite naive and dishonest - it's impossible not to interpret a text!  Whenever anyone tries to interpret anyone else's words without context, what they are actually doing is forming a sort of autobiography.  This is a prevailing theme in the work of French philosopher Jacques Derrida - pure ideas do not pass from one human to another, but must pass through the filter of language, which is then passed through the filter of the life experience of the receiving party.  We build structures of thought upon our social upbringing, and whenever new ideas are presented to us, we then compare these to the structures we've already built in order to find out if and how they fit.  But to be honest about a text, we should really study the context of the writer's life in order to form a better picture of the ideas they may have been trying to present. 

Frank Schaeffer wrote in "Patience With God: Faith for People Who Don't Like Religion (or Atheism)":

...we can't look at ourselves, only through ourselves.  We're stuck inside the painting we're trying to critique and paint at the same time - in other words, our lives.  A scientist... is trapped trying to figure out what is going on inside his head while using his head to do the figuring.
You see, we must also be aware of our own context - the context of our own lives and limitations of observational powers.  And we must be aware at our human tendency towards cognitive biases

Quantum physics posits that the only way we can know anything is by understanding how our own vantage point affects our observation.  In quantum physics there is a problem known as the "observer effect" (which would make a great name for a band, by the way) where an observation actually effects what is being observed.  For example, in order to check the pressure of a tire, you must let out some of the air, thus changing the pressure.  In physics, in order to detect an electron, a photon must bounce off of it, which will change the behavior of the electron.

What a person who declares the inerrancy of scripture and using the phrase "sola scriptura" is doing is to pretend that they have no context through which they are filtering their understanding.  Perhaps even worse, they are declaring that the finite understanding of an infinite God acquired thousands of years ago is a complete understanding of this God.  And even if this is so, their own understanding of this finite understanding - lacking the context in which this understanding was acquired - couldn't possibly be wrong on any accounts.  This is no less than an idol of concepts.

In my next post, I will explore some of the other problems with the claims of inerrancy and how it relates to idolatry, as this deserves more exploration.

Saturday, January 4, 2014

The Idolatry of Our Age - Part I: Blessings and Fulfillment

The Bible is full of things that are very ancient - ancient history, ancient laws, ancient stories.  Sometimes it's hard to understand how these things apply to our modern world, full of technology and scientific knowledge.  One of the ideas that may be hard to apply is the concept of idolatry.  In the "Ten Commandments", the second commandment has to do with idolatry - the Israelites are instructed not to make an image of anything in heaven or earth and bow down to it (see Exodus 20:4-6).  But what does this mean for us today?  I don't often see people bowing down to a this mean we're safe?  We've got this one covered?

Illustration from a Moravian haggadah of 1737, based on the printed Amsterdam haggadah of 1712.
Maybe not.  There is a Jewish collection of literature known as "Rabbah", which was a collection of commentaries by Jewish rabbi.  In the Genesis Rabbah, there is a story where a young Abraham is working in an idol shop.  The owner of the shop, named Terah, went on a trip and left Abraham in charge.  A man walked into the shop and asked to buy an idol.  Abraham asked him how old he was, and when he replied that he was fifty, Abraham said "you are fifty years old and would worship a day old statue?"  The man walked away in shame.  Later on, in the story, Abraham takes a stick and smashes all the idols but one, and then puts the stick in that idol's hands.  When Terah returns to the shop, he asks what happened to all his idols.  So Abraham tells him that woman walked in and wanted to make an offering to the idols, and then all the idols started fighting over who should get to eat the offering, and the biggest one took a stick and smashed all the others (I like the way Abraham thinks - brilliant prank!).  But Terah says that these idols are merely statues and have no knowledge!  So Abraham asks "then why do you bow down to them?"

The reason I bring this story up - besides the fact that it's a pretty funny story to begin with - is that I think it helps us to understand that the issue of idolatry is deeper than merely making a statue and bowing down in front of it.  Because if you realize that even the people back in this time understood that an idol was just a statue, then what was this all about?

I think that this story helps us to understand that the ancient cultures did not necessarily believe that the statues themselves were gods - what they more likely believed is that they were paying respects to the real gods whom these statues resembled, that these gods would see them doing this and would be pleased, and that these gods would bless them in return.  When we understand this, it makes it much easier to see how the principle still applies to today.

Blessings and Fulfillment

One of the things we ought to understand about ancient idolatry is that the idolater saw the worship of their idol as a means to an end.  They believed that by showing respect to these gods through their idol worship, the gods would then bless them.  It was like a cosmic bribe, of sorts.  But the problem was that this had a tendency to become a vicious cycle - when

you find out that bowing down to your idol did not result in all your dreams being fulfilled, well then maybe you should bow down one hundred times a day!  When that doesn't work?  Sacrifice something - put some of your possessions in front of the idol as a gift!  Well, the gods are "up in heaven", right?  So they can't take these things...hmm, what are we going to do...oh, I know!  Burn something in front of the idol - then the god you are worshiping will smell the nice scent up in heaven and will be pleased!  And then, surely, the gods will fulfill my dreams and bless me!  That didn't work?  Sacrifice something bigger - maybe something alive this time!  We'll kill an animal and burn it in front of the statue and maybe that will please the gods and they will bless me and all my desires will be fulfilled.  That didn't work?  Well, maybe we should sacrifice a person!

Yes, ancient cultures would even go so far as to sacrifice living human beings to their idols, all as part of a vicious cycle of trying to earn approval from the gods and win their affections so that we might be blessed and find fulfillment.  And as you can see, there's this vicious cycle that results.  Even if you get the things you want, and decide that they must have come from your idol, then what about next time?  What happens when you want or need more?  Or what if you actually end up getting more than you asked for?  Well, you should make a sacrifice to your idol to show your thanks!  You don't want to anger the gods by not being thankful, do you?

God is not a cosmic genie
The sad thing is that many modern forms of Christianity are really no different.  When churches preach about how "accepting Jesus into your heart" will bring you fulfillment, it is no different.  And then when your life feels no more full than it did before, the vicious cycle starts - well, you need to attend church more, or you need to tithe more, or you need to pray more often, or you need to read your Bible more often.  It's the same pattern of bribing an idol, which is presumed to be the source of all blessings and fulfillment.

This kind of thinking just reduces God to a product - just like that fancy car, or a big house, or a better job, if you could just acquire God, you'd be fulfilled!  If this is the way you think about God, then all you're doing is mimicking every other form of idolatry out there.

Peter Rollins writes in “The Idolatry of God: Breaking Our Addiction to Certainty and Satisfaction”:

For instead of God being that which fills the gap at the core of our being, we shall soon discover something much more amazing and liberating: namely that the God testified to in Christianity exposes the gap for what it is, obliterates it, and invites us to participate in an utterly different form of life, one that brings us beyond slavery to the Idol.
In the next post, I will explore how concepts of God can become like figures of stone which we bow down to.