Sunday, November 26, 2023

Christian Reconciliation: Starting within our own denominations

In Ken Schenck's recent post, he mentions

The divide between the academy and the grassroots church seems larger than ever. The academy has a tendency to be dismissive because it knows stuff, but the popular church has its own interests and is making itself heard. I have long mourned the seeming inability of the two to communicate with each other. They both need each other.

That reminded me of one of C.S Lewis' essays in which he, as an articulate member of the laity, addressed that topic by invitation. While I'm not planning to repeat his points in general, I'll mention as a starter one thing he said (paraphrased, to save me digging through my Lewis collection to lay hands on the exact words): When the pastor visited, there was a time when the layman was concerned not to reveal that he believed fewer points of faith than the pastor; now he may find himself concerned not to reveal that he believes so much more. With Lewis' light touch, he gets to the heart of many of our differences. 

And talking about our differences carries the risk of any conversation delayed, any relationship neglected: each side is likely to have more to discuss, and more frustration, than can be productively tackled in one sitting. Without a sustained effort to bridge the gap, it grows wider. 

To check in with Mr Schenck's comments again: 
A lot of scholarly banter is the process of sorting through ideas, so I suppose much of the process of this sort of scholarship does not end up going anywhere. Probably most papers at SBL, IBR (Institute for Biblical Research), or ETS (Evangelical Theological Society) end up unhelpful to anyone but the presenter.
Some of the laity use discussion boards -- and blogs -- the same way. Working through our thoughts can take time and development. Iron sharpens iron, and all that. Speaking as grassroots, I don't mind that some academic pursuits are academic (if you'll pardon flipping to another definition of the word). I appreciate how much thinking can go into a single well-distilled drop of clarity. And yet a drop of clarity about the life of Christ is worth more than a drop of clarity about the influence of Roman imperialism on Paul's letters. 

So I read Mr Schenck's thoughts as an opportunity, and reply with hopes to participate in an overdue conversation. I've collected some thoughts -- and pared back my list, to keep it conversation-sized: 
  • I'd like to see the academy more interested in the life and teachings of Jesus. I have wondered whether the search for fresh material is the driving force behind neglecting the one thing needful? 
  • I'd like to see the academy more interested in reading the Bible on its own terms. The deep-dives into historical context seemed meant to empower us to read the Bible on its own terms, yet (to the outsider here) the academy looks lost in the weeds, without coming back to read the Bible on its own terms much. When I read an academic's Bible study, it tends to dissect the material rather than magnify it. 
  • I'd like to see the academy exhibit more trust in the Bible to convey God's spiritual and moral guidance -- along with more interest in spiritual and moral guidance. (When is the last time we heard a well-reasoned, Scriptural warning against divisions and factionalism, for example? Or materials on repentance, forgiveness, amends?) It seems that the development of spiritual resources has often been left to those outside the family of faith -- leading to an erosion of trust, and in the sheep going elsewhere to be fed
  • It looks like there is a strong tendency toward credentialism. In the history of the church, there has been a steady stream of saints and spiritual leaders who were from the community rather than the academy. With modern credentialing and publishing, is the academy cutting off some of the church's resources? 
I have so much else that I could say -- and yet experience teaches that more is not always better as a first step. I'd be glad if this became a wider conversation. 

Sunday, November 19, 2023

Thankful for ...

It has been a challenging year, and this season of gratitude is a welcome reminder of what is still good. This year I am grateful for: my children, my uncle, my friends, a safe home, a steady job. I am grateful for food, and health, and relative peace. 

Wishing all a happy Thanksgiving, safe travels, and kind company. 

Sunday, November 12, 2023

Your own personal theologians

 In my morning's blog readings, MJH over at Pocket Scroll's piece caught my eye. It was based on a social media post by a professor: 

After Christ and your family, committing to a few key theologians is a profoundly life-giving enterprise. My studies have been largely framed by Augustine, Calvin, Torrance, and de Lubac. I imagine these figures will always be with me. (H/T MJH at The Pocket Scroll)

It's a little like the "Five Authors" meme that went around some years back, but without the restrictions on the number of companions. 

Outside Scripture, my theological companions are:

  1. St Athanasius - The friend who introduced me to Athanasius said he was "nearly canonical" in a context where that meant "as inspiring, and God-focused, and spirit-filled, as the best passages of Scripture". On The Incarnation is a rare work of theology: inspired insight into God's actions brings both appreciation for and understanding of God's love for us. Without a hint of a classroom or an orthodoxy-checker in sight, his thoughts set the bar for what would be called orthodoxy in the church for centuries to come. 
  2. Eusebius the Historian - His approach to reality, historicity, and context -- the epistemology of faith -- matters to me even if he isn’t ranked as a theologian, 
  3. Dietrich Bonhoeffer - For his embodiment of the principle that God should set the agenda in theology, and that Scripture should set the curriculum in Biblical Studies
  4. A.J. Heschel - His view of the Sabbath -- and by implication, the Sinai Covenant Law in general -- shows the "lost treasure" aspects of things we too often allow to be brushed off as unmodern. 
  5. Vladimir Lossky -- For not apologizing for loving beauty and mystery, for standing up for their place in serious theology in light of God's holiness.
  6. Therese of Lisieux -- To me, her life counts as theology. When St Paul wrote that we ourselves are living Scriptures (paraphrased), he could have had her in mind. I think Rome even recognized her as Doctor of the Church, which is a far shorter list than their list of saints. I've recently been pondering how to structure a liturgical service based on her writings. 
  7. J.R.R. Tolkien -- Tolkien packs deeper theology into his works, and I have in mind LOTR especially. His writings call out the worldly short-sightedness of imagining that despair is "wisdom", the companion mistakes of viewing hope as foolish and viewing humble pursuits as unworthy. He advocates humility about our knowledge, and the good that comes from taking the incalculable risk of loving an enemy. 
  8. C.S. Lewis -- While I can become frustrated that his technical theology falls into what seems like beginners' mistakes, still his compassion for everyday concerns fills an important gap and is well-done. And when he ventures into children's stories, his love of beauty, his "baptized imagination", is a glorious thing.

I'd be glad to hear of anyone else's thoughts on their companions in understanding God and Scripture. 

Sunday, November 05, 2023

The parables of the lost sheep, the lost coin

Years ago, an avid Bible student pointed out to me some encouraging features of the "Parables of the Lost" in Luke 15. The lost sheep and the lost coin have something in common: the lost do nothing at all to help their being found. The lost sheep was not seeking a shepherd. The lost coin did not hop into the dustpan. They were both oblivious to the heartache they were causing by being lost. The sheep may not have had any concept that the shepherd valued him. And the lost things also did not have any special claim to fame. The shepherd doesn't value the sheep for its performance; it's not a circus-sheep doing circus-tricks with some sort of unusual value. The sheep is not worth more or less than the next sheep. The sheep is valued just because it belongs to the flock. It is the shepherd's sheep, and the shepherd is a good shepherd, so he is bringing it back somewhere safe. In the same way the coin is not a trick coin, not more or less valuable than the next coin. It just belongs to the woman whose thoughts turn to it. 

And so we are treasured whether we know it or not. We are sought whether we realize it or not. God values us -- and we do not have to earn being valued. There is no special performance required before God values us. He is looking for our return -- hoping for our return -- every day. 

Sunday, October 29, 2023

The first casualty of war

About the growing conflict in the Middle East: 

There is an old saying that the first casualty of war is the truth. If truth is the first casualty, it doesn't fall alone. Some other early casualties are peace-of-mind, the willingness to believe that other people are decent even if they have ties to either side / the other side / both sides / neither side, the willingness to give people the benefit of the doubt, and some curiosity about why some people see things differently. The Ten Commandments definitely get broken a fair few times if we judge our neighbors too quickly. There is a temptation to listen -- and repeat -- when we may not know the facts for ourselves. We may find ourselves bearing false tales, or bearing false witness against others, or having false witness borne against us in turn. 

I think that praying for our enemies has a special relevance when there are wars and rumors of war. Any side may fall to the temptation to tell only their own side, see only their own side. May there be peace and justice in our time. Peace does not come from retaliation or escalation, or even from annihilating the opposition. Peace needs to be built, and building peace takes understanding and compassion. Where those are in short supply, let the faithful speak faithfully. 

Sunday, October 22, 2023

Rejoicing in the hope of the glory of God

I'm continuing to contemplate hope. As I study the Scriptures, I am intrigued by how strongly Paul focuses on hope in his letter to Rome. I found this passage of Scripture stretches my heart and mind in new directions: 
Therefore being justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom we also have access by faith into this grace in which stand, and we rejoice in the hope of the glory of God. We rejoice also in our trials knowing that trials work patience, and patience experience, and experience hope. And hope does not disappoint us, because the love of God is shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Spirit which is given to us. (Romans 5:1-5)
"The hope of the glory of God" is encouraging for me to consider. When I think of his glory, I think of the beauty of his holiness, that unique combination of power and purity at the heart of creation. It brings me thoughts of the last day, of justice, of restoration, of peace. Paul says we rejoice in the hope of the glory of God. It's a glad thought, a celebration here and now. I could look forward to the glory of God the way that a child looks forward to Christmas, and my days would be better for it. 

I've read this passage before -- and I remember years ago thinking the part about "rejoicing in our trials" was nonsense. During a season of hardship, I remember people telling me that on the other side things would be better again; I remember disbelieving it. "Trials work patience, and patience experience, and experience hope." While our hope is in God, a serious trial can take our eyes off God -- and a light which is not seen is no help at all. Now that I have been through more trials in life, it makes more sense: experience also teaches hope. St Paul knew of which he spoke, given the number of hardships he had endured. Shipwrecked, arrested, imprisoned, beaten, fleeing for his life at times. He knew that eventually one of those hardships would have his name on it and be his last in this world. In the meantime, he understood: Nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus. It took more experience before I understood that. 

Then Paul speaks of some fulfillment of hope in this present world: "because the love of God is shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Spirit which is given to us." This world has troubles; there is always need for the love of God. For an infusion into my own heart, that is a beautiful and desirable thing. I pray for the love of God to be shed abroad in my heart that way. If all of us who hope in God would have his love poured out into our hearts, and from there we pour that love into the world, then the world would change. We're human, we're fallen; it's too easy to grumble against each other and find fault with each other. Better that I should let the love of God be shed abroad in my heart by the Holy Spirit, better that I should receive that gift of love gladly. If we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, I would desire for that same peace to extend to each other as well. 

Sunday, October 15, 2023

A Living Hope

St Paul famously taught that the three greatest gifts of God's Spirit are faith, hope, and love -- and the greatest of these is love. Recently I have been studying each of these, and today am contemplating hope. To get a fresh view, I wanted a word cloud of the verses in the New Testament that discuss hope*: 

created at

The word cloud shows the words most commonly associated with hope in the New Testament by use in the same verse. In the AV ("King James") translation, "trust" is actually used as a translation of hope in many cases. The prominence of "trust" in the word cloud is because the thought or feeling of "trust" is so similar to "hope" that it can be a translator's judgment call which way to translate it. 

Paul's famous passage discusses faith, hope, and love specifically as gifts of the Spirit. The  word cloud gives us the bigger picture throughout the New Testament: the scriptures trace the reason for hope to God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, often as part of the same thought: 

Hope and God the Father

  • And have hope toward God ... that there shall be a resurrection of the dead, both of the just and unjust. Acts 24:15 
  • ... the hope of the promise made of God unto our fathers: Acts 26:6 
  • ... rejoice in hope of the glory of God. Romans 5:2 
  • And hope makes not ashamed; because the love of God is shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Ghost which is given unto us. Romans 5:5 
  • Now the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, that you may abound in hope, through the power of the Holy Ghost. Romans 15:13 
  • That at that time you were without Christ ... strangers from the covenants of promise, having no hope, and without God in the world: Ephesians 2:12 
  • To whom God would make known what is the riches of the glory of this mystery among the Gentiles; which is Christ in you, the hope of glory: Colossians 1:27 
  • Now our Lord Jesus Christ himself, and God, even our Father, which has loved us, and has given us everlasting consolation and good hope through grace, 2 Thessalonians 2:16 
  • For therefore we both labor and suffer reproach, because we trust in the living God, who is the Savior of all men, specially of those that believe. 1 Timothy 4:10 
  • In hope of eternal life, which God, that cannot lie, promised before the world began; Titus 1:2 
  • That by two immutable things, in which it was impossible for God to lie, we might have a strong consolation, who have fled for refuge to lay hold upon the hope set before us: Hebrews 6:18 
  • Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, which according to his abundant mercy has begotten us again unto a living hope by the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, 1 Peter 1:3 

Hope and Christ Jesus

Some of the verses here were also included when discussing the Father's role in hope, though some here are new: 

  • ... God would make known what is the riches of the glory ... which is Christ in you, the hope of glory: Colossians 1:27 
  • Now our Lord Jesus Christ himself, and God, even our Father, which has loved us, and has given us everlasting consolation and good hope through grace, 2 Thessalonians 2:16 
  • For what is our hope, or joy, or crown of rejoicing? Are not even you in the presence of our Lord Jesus Christ at his coming? 1 Thessalonians 2:19 
  • Paul, an apostle of Jesus Christ by the commandment of God our Savior, and Lord Jesus Christ, which is our hope; 1 Timothy 1:1 
  • Looking for that blessed hope, and the glorious appearing of the great God and our Savior Jesus Christ; Titus 2:13 
  • Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, which according to his abundant mercy has begotten us again unto a living hope by the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, 1 Peter 1:3 

I tend to think of hope only when I notice it is in short supply. And then, because it is in short supply I find it hard to refill. So it seems that hope is something that should be a staple in my walk of faith, and that re-reading these verses with their promises would lead to the faith in Christ that replenishes my hope. If I imagine it depends on my optimism then I mislead myself. It depends on waiting for God, and for Christ. 

* Methodology: searching for underlying Greek words elpizo and elpis by Strong numbers (G1679 or G1680 respectively). English text used an AV "King James" translation, slightly modernized. While those words are typically translated "hope" (66 times), it is also translated "trust" a number of times, and "faith" once.