We should maintain that if an interpretation of any word in any religion leads to disharmony and does not positively further the welfare of the many, then such an interpretation is to be regarded as wrong; that is, against the will of God, or as the working of Satan or Mara.

Buddhadasa Bikkhu, a Thai Buddhist Monk

Sunday, February 22, 2015

God: the Problem

It is often claimed that the great doctrinal issue among Christians today is the nature and authority of the Bible.  It is a divide between literalists and non-literalists on the one hand.  Or, again, it a division that pits those hold a high regard for the scriptures versus those who have a less lofty view of the Bible.  It may well be true that the Bible is the great doctrinal issue of our time.  If so, however, the problem of God is not far behind—and probably linked.

In fact, God has always been a problem for the followers of Christ.  Almost from the beginning, we inherited two distinct traditions concerning the nature of God, one from Jewish theology and the other from Greek philosophy.  From Judaism we learned that God is intimately involved in the affairs of humanity, hears and sometimes answers prayers, appears in various guises, and speaks to us.  Yes, God is also the creator of all that is and thus far beyond us—yet the psalmist affirms that God has made us "little lower" than the messengers of heaven (Psalm 8:5).  And we Christians are convinced that Jesus in preeminently God With Us.  Our Greek heritage, however, throws all of this into doubt.  It affirms that God is Beyond all beyonds, unnamable, unimaginable, and even non-existent in the way the created universe exists.  We are warned that the moment we call anything by the name "God," that thing is not God.  We are warned that we cannot even say that, "God is love," because such a statement reduces God to human terms, puts God on a human scale.

If the Bible is the great doctrinal divide of our time, then the nature of God is the great theological divide—and long, long has been.  Stated most directly, the divide is between those who understand God to be in some sense an independent entity that is real as the universe is real and those who believe that God is not an entity in any way that we can call an entity and does not exist as we understand existence.

Like the various doctrines of scripture, so too the various theological positions on the nature of God cannot actually be so easily divided into two neat camps.  But they do represent two tendencies, one seeing God primarily as Present with us and the other understanding God to be Beyond all possible beyonds.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

God's Ways

Sometimes we do dumb things, sometimes they are done to us.  Sometimes we are insenitive, sometimes we are collatoral damage of insensitivity.  Things are said that should not be said or left unsaid when they should be said.  Some things we get over in a day or two, others linger interminably.  Things happen to us that can leave deep scars, and we do things that can leave others deeply hurt.

There is usually no good way out of the situations we get ourselves into.  At least, it seems that way.  In hindsight, however, sometimes the dumb things we do and are done to us turn out to have had something more than a silver lining.  They had unintended good consequences, if we have the wit to see them.  And sometimes a prayer uttered in hurt or embarrassment or confusion is answered, and the clinging fog of life clears for a time.  Things weren't what they seemed to be.  And on occasion we have the wisdom to do or say something that brings healing into the dumb situations we find ourselves trapped within.

Without being naive about it, there are paths through the Valley of the Shadow, the Valley of the Fog.  The wrongs we do and the ones done to us—there are healing ways through them.  Unintended consequences themselves have unintended consequences, which don't exactly make things easier but do eventually bring us out of the fog into the light of day.  Embedded even in our worst are other ways, what those of us who hold a theist's faith might call God's Ways.  Our prayer is, "Lord, help me to find one of your  Ways."  Amen.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Wondering About the Facts

In our world, something is not real if it is not factual—not true if it doesn't accord with the facts.  This is so obvious that it is just plain common sense, beyond any the need to question.  We believe in facts.  They are our portal into reality.

Fair enough.  Fair enough, that is, until one starts to think about the meaning of the word, "fact."  The Free Dictionary definition of "fact" seems to be both representative of and somewhat more precise than other online definitions; and what it boils down to is that a fact is a fact because it states or describes something that is real.  It is a fact because it really happened.  It is factual because it really is the case.  It is a fact because it describes a piece of what is really real. By that same token, a scientific fact is "an observation that has been confirmed repeatedly and is accepted as true (although its truth is never final)" and, more simply, "facts learned by observing."

We normally consider facts to be transparent.  We can see through them to subsequent facts leading to the confirmation of hypotheses.  We are less often aware of factuality as a mindset, a set of values, and a prejudice.  How we define reality determines our conception of factuality, and there is no value-free, neutral, unprejudiced definition of reality, not even in the sciences.  Equally important is what we define as unreal.  In science, divine causation is considered to be not real scientifically, and the Holy Spirit  considered outside the realm of scientific reality.

Our definitions of reality by which we determine factuality are all human definitions based on what we think is real.  When theists absolutize their definitions, we are justly criticized for doing so.  Scientists often escapes criticism for absolutizing their definitions because they supposedly have a handle on what is really, really real.  The trouble is, of course, that they don't.  All human definitions of reality are limited ones, incomplete and open to criticism—all of them.  Facts are ultimately human creations.  Vast numbers of what people take to be "facts" do not in fact accord with actual realities.  Scientific "facts" turn out not to be factual.

The point is a simple one: we put too much trust in factuality.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Jerry Kill as Big Ten Coach of the Year?

Minnesota Gophers head football coach, Jerry Kill, has been named Big Ten Coach of the Year.  Those of us who are Gopher's fans are quite happy with his selection.  It seems warranted.  Some folks in Ohio, however, are not happy.  Urban Meyer, head coach at Ohio State, seems to them a much worthier choice.  Their case has two points.  First, in spite of Ohio State's continued football success over the last twenty years (one losing season, numerous ten win seasons), no head coach has won the coach of the year award.  It is incredible to them that this should be the case.

Second, OSU's record this year is in every sense superior to Minnesota's.  OSU won their head to head clash in Minneapolis.  OSU has defeated several highly considered opponents including Michigan State.  The Buckeyes regularly recruit at a higher level than Minnesota.  Meyer has had to contend with a number of serious problems including losing one of the best quarterbacks in the country for the season.  (It turned out that the replacement QB is arguably even better).  In every regard, these arguments are compelling.

Yet, there is a compelling argument for Kill as well.  Looking at the Gopher's record over the twenty years tells the story: one ten win season, few winning seasons—in short a marked lack of success and prominence most of the time esp. when compared to Ohio State.  That is, Urban Meyer's unarguable success continues the long-standing success of OSU football.  Kill's putting together back-to-back eight win seasons in Minnesota, on the other hand, stands in marked contrast to the team's past when that has happened only once.  Indeed, going back to 1960, Minnesota has had eight-win seasons only seven times including the two under Coach Kill.  Going back just to 1994, OSU has had 17 eight-win seasons or better.

Meyer's accomplishments represent an admirable continuation of the OSU winning tradition built on a superior football culture.  Not every coach can come into a winning situation and keep it going.  Kill's seemingly more modest accomplishments in Minnesota, on the other hand, stand in marked contrast to what has gone before.  He inherited a mess, and he has thus far turned things around in a remarkable fashion.

The question is, in sum, what is the measure of coaching success that would lead to being named coach of the year in the Big Ten?  Is it superior success continuing a tradition of superior success?  Is it measurably improved success turning around a tradition of mediocrity?  Honestly, a case could be made in either direction, but making that choice requires deciding on the measure of coaching success.  The judges this year chose the return of Minnesota to relevance in the Big Ten after two generations largely of irrelevance their standard for 2014.  Gopher fans are glad they did.  We're still not used to winning things like this.

Monday, December 1, 2014

It's the Culture, Stupid

While many mainline churches are healthy, most are not.  They are in decline.  They share in a culture of decline that is marked not only by statistical decline but also by avoiding talking about their decline.  In a strange sort of way, they are acquiescing to their own decline and eventual demise.  Pastors play a large contributing role in all of this, but it is the churches themselves that play the major role.

Hold that thought.  When recently asked (here) why he has been so successful in turning around the football program at the University of Minnesota, head coach Jerry Kill answered, "I guess the No. 1 thing is the culture, trying to get everybody on the same page...That was difficult. It always is, by the way, when you take a new job.”  Football success wasn't possible without a change in culture.  That change didn't guarantee that the Golden Gophers would suddenly become a relevant program, but without the change in culture there was also no possibility that it would becoming a winning team.  One key cultural change Kill identified, for example, was improving the players' grades.

Returning to the church, it is clear that declining local mainline churches require a change in culture.  It is, unfortunately, far more difficult to sell that need to congregations than it is to young football players who want to win football games.  Churches are prone to actively resist such change.  They are frequently committed to the proposition that they can overcome decline by continuing to do what they are doing, but only better.  There is a reason.  Change might accelerate decline.  Better the devil you know than the one you don't.

Nonetheless, it is all about changing the culture of decline.  The problem with all of the how-to manuals and books and audio cassettes and websites dedicated to that change is that culture is a profoundly local thing, even the culture of decline.  What works in one place may well not work at all in another.  The one constant is the need to change the local church's culture of decline.  And one crucial place to begin is to talk about it.  Not talking means not changing.  Changing a church's culture also requires finding leverage points, which are easier to change and will promote changes in other places—such as introducing a small group ministry into the church.

In any event, it is all about the culture.

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Turning the World on Its Head

"Inversion" is a key biblical motif: it is the way God works in the world.  For Christians, it represents the way we are called to respond to the good news of Jesus.  The biblical model for inversion is the Exodus where God liberated a slave people, transforming their future.  God values that which the world despises, sees weakness as strength, and finds wisdom in places the world ignores.  In the Kingdom, God will stand the world on its head: the great will become the least and the last will become the first.

Inversion is also when an NFL star offensive lineman walks away from a multi-million dollar contract to become a farmer in North Carolina—because of his faith, which calls him to a life of service to those in need.  Jason Brown is the man, and what he did was to buy a thousand acre farm near Louisburg, NC, learn farming, and begin to raise crops to give away to food pantries.  His motivation is his Christian faith, which inspires him to value service over the prestige and the wealth that comes from being a top-level pro-football player.  Read his story (here) and see a video clip of an interview with him (here).  Inversion.  A powerful biblical theme.  Amen.

Friday, November 28, 2014

The Book of Samuel as Feminist Literature

Tiarini's Amnon et Tamar
II Samuel 13 is an awful chapter.  It contains the story of the rape of David's beautiful daughter, Tamar, by her half-brother and David's son, Amnon—and its aftermath.  As the story goes, Amnon "loved" Tamar, tricked her into his bedroom with the unwitting help of his father, and raped her.  His love then turned to loathing, and he forced her to leave him in the face of her pleas that he not double her disgrace.  After two years, Tamar's brother and David's son, Absalom kills Amnon and then flees in fear of his life.  David was left in grief with a chaotic family situation filled with tragedy.  It is clear from the larger story that the ultimate source of all of this was his lust for Bathsheba and murder of her husband, Uriah (II Samuel 11-12).

In both the stories of Bathsheba and Tamar, it is clear that women are treated as the objects of male lust.  In both cases, the consequences of that lust are dire—destructive of the women affected as well as the male perpetrators.  And in both cases, there was no legal recourse in ancient times to protect Bathsheba from David or Tamar from Amnon.  If a man was powerful enough he could do pretty much whatever he wanted with a woman he desired irrespective of her feelings or wishes.  This was apparently especially the case with beautiful women, which adds the further insight that feminine beauty in the stories is at best a two-edged sword—not without its own dangers to the attractive woman.

All of this is fodder for feminist reflection.  In his commentary on I and II Samuel, The David Story (Norton, 1999), furthermore, Robert Alter comments at the beginning of II Samuel 14 (p. 275) that at several critical moments in the David story enterprising, resourceful women intervene to take the story in new directions.  This in a book otherwise dominated by "powerful martial men."  Women, that is, are a central part of the David story but exercise their influence in a way clearly different from men.  In sum, the stories of women in the Book of Samuel describe both the weakness and the power of women's place in ancient Israelite society and inspire reflection on their place in ours.

Whether or not the ancient writer and redactors of the Book of Samuel intended it to be a commentary on the place of women in society is not really the point.  In our context, it is possible to read it that way.  One of the core concerns of the Old Testament is justice.  Yahweh was a God of justice.  When Nathan confronted David (II Samuel 12) that was precisely the point that he made, and it is clear that Bathsheba as well as Uriah were the victims of lustful injustice.  Tamar suffered a double injustice (raped and then rejected).  While it is important to understand the original intention of the author and the subsidiary intentions of the redactors of this story, it is also important for us to read it with 21st century eyes.

The Book of Samuel, in sum, is inescapably a source for reflection on feminist issues and concerns.  Perhaps, unexpectedly.  Generally, overlooked.  But there it is.  Amen.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Walking Away Without Rancor or Regret

The Barna Group has recently published a study entitled, Churchless: Understanding Today's Unchurched and How to Connect with Them (Tyndale Momentum, 2014), which draws on data collected over the last two decades to examine trends in American attitudes towards church involvement.  In a summary piece, "Five Trends Among the Unchurched," the major findings of the study are summarized as follows:

  • Secularization Is on the Rise
  • People Are Less Open to the Idea of Church
  • Church going is no longer mainstream
  • There is less interest in worship and less loyalty to a single church
  • There Is Skepticism about Churches' Contributions to Society
In a sense, there is nothing new here.  We all know these trends are taking place and have generated a vast literature, which has had no visible influence on reversing them.  Meanwhile, our young people continue to walk away from the church without rancor and without regret.
What I suspect is not happening is that mainline churches that still have a degree of strength make any serious effort to address these issues themselves.  I suspect that the data and reflections contained in the vast literature on church decline are being little studied or discussed in local congregations.  And I suspect that there is a disinclination to do so.  This may be because the decline feels so overpowering that there seems little reason for even talking about it.  It is almost certain that there is little discussion because in many (most?) churches members seldom share with each other on a deeper level.  Church consists largely of a set of activities that they carry out.  Any deeper study or discussions is confined to a few, if that.  Institutional inertia, moreover, is a powerful force and creates conditions where it is all but impossible to deal with the quiet, slow-moving but seemingly inevitable crisis of decline.

We just keep on walking without talking.  Since we don't want to be accused of "talking the talk but not walking the walk," we just don't talk.  Meanwhile the challenge remains and the books and studies and articles on decline pile up.  And churches keep on declining and dying.

Friday, November 7, 2014

Bridging the Gulf: David, Goliath, & Us

One of the most pressing challenges facing mainline churches and pastors is to bridge the gap between scripture and our modern world.  The story of Goliath in I Samuel 17, for example, can be easily dismissed as at best irrelevant to our modern world and at worst as an example of the violent God of the Old Testament.  Thoughtful Jewish and Christian readers will have trouble discovering a spiritual message in the story, which seems to highlight David's prowess as a warrior—and his cleverness.  There are obvious discrepancies between chapters 16 and 17, which to a modern reader are jarring.  The ancient writer seems not have been even a good story teller.  Now, a close study of the chapter relying on commentaries and other scholarly aids, will clear up some of these issues, but for the average reader of the Bible such academic helps do not offer a satisfying means for understanding the modern day relevance of the story of David and Goliath.

One obvious response, of course, is that there are relatively few "average readers" of the Bible in mainline churches, esp. of books like I Samuel.  Even then, a number of those readers would see the story of David and Goliath as being historical and therefore not necessarily in need of theological parsing.  Many others would simply shrug their shoulders thinking that if it is in the Bible then it must be OK.  So, why sweat it?

Well, for one thing the story offers an important example of "inversion," the idea that God turns things upside down for the sake of justice and the furthering of the divine will.  The paradigmatic story of inversion is the Exodus, a motif and paradigm that is repeated in other places in scripture.  More generally, the story of David and Goliath challenges us to appreciate the ways in which our religious fore bearers struggled to understand God's place in their world and lives.  We don't necessarily have to agree with their conclusions or feel comfortable with the blood and guts of the killing of Goliath, but their stories force us to rethink our understanding.  Brueggemann at least gets us started in our rethinking with his observation that, "The story [of David and Goliath] is also set as a paradigm of bold faith in an arena of fear, threat, and defiance."

Short of chucking the Bible, including David and Goliath, entirely, mainline churches need to make a priority of recovering for the whole church the meaning of even the obscure corners of the Bible.  As importantly, mainline congregations need to work overtime at reclaiming a concern for understanding the Bible as a living document.  This is not an easy task in our multi-focused, multi-tasking world where anything "old" is treated with suspicion.  A daunting task - but an exciting one as well for those who take it on.

Monday, September 1, 2014

Avatar & Incarnation

Quite a bit has been written in the blogosphere about the theological implications and message of the 2009 movie, Avatar.  From a sample supplied for me by a Google search on the subject, "avatar and theology," there is obviously the usual range of responses from appreciation to deprecation.  A couple of the ones I looked at, however, caught my attention because they wrestle with the nature of Jake Sully's incarnation in a Na'vi avatar designed by human exobiologists.

One is a post entitled, "Scalp Locks, Gaia, and the Incarnation: History and Theology in James Cameron’s Avatar," by Wen Reagan, which comments on the manner in which a human is put into a Na'vi body. Reagan points out the obvious parallel between the movie's version of incarnation and the Christian understanding of the Incarnation of God in Christ.  He esp. highlights the way in which by the end of the movie the human Jake Sully has become a Na'vi, actually leaving his human body entirely.  Reagan observes, "But in the end, we don’t get a glimpse of Vishnu, safe to retreat from his current avatar and come again in another one. Instead, we get a glimpse of Christ, as Jake takes on the risk of fully embracing the Na’vi by becoming one of them, forever." Garrett East in a post entitled, "James Cameron's Avatar and the Critical Response: An Alternative Perspective," picks up on this same theme of the transformation of a human into another species by arguing that the central theme of the whole movie is the conversion of Jake Sully. He writes, "In essence, I think Avatar could be described as a conversion story," and goes on to observe that this conversion,
requires not only a change of mind and intellectual assent, but a whole new embodied way of life. It requires new eyes, new ears, a new language, and a new heart. It is a relearning of what is right and what is wrong. It is a transfer of allegiance from one people to another (the Na'vi), from one God to another (Eywa). It requires that Jake become nothing less than a new creature in a new creation...We are watching the story of a man who moves from despair, death, hate, and disbelief to hope, life, love, and even faith. When we watch Jake Sully’s story, we are watching a story about conversion.
All of which is to say a central dual theme of the story of Avatar is incarnation and conversion.

Most practicing Christians for most of the last two thousand years have held a view of incarnation not very different from that described in Avatar.  In Jesus of Nazareth, the essence of God was transferred into a human body.  God was in Christ just as Jake was in a Na'vi body.  Now, if we start to think about it, there are differences; but most of the time we don't think about it.  God was in Jesus; Jake was in a Na'vi body.  The movie makes a very important observation, however.  You can't place a person into another body and expect that there won't be any change.

One of the themes of the Book of Genesis is that God does indeed change.  In the story of the Flood, God set a rainbow in the sky as a promise that God would never again use violence against the human race and the rest of creation (Genesis 9:1-17).  Did, then, becoming incarnate in Jesus change God?  If so, how so?  If not, then how can we claim that Jesus was at one and the same time fully God and fully human?  Is it not change an essential element of our nature?