Wednesday, October 21, 2020

Think on these things

Whatever is lovely, excellent, or praiseworthy, think on these things ... 

Sunday, October 18, 2020

Trinity: Why did Christians develop such a different understanding of God?

All of Jesus' original apostles were Jewish. Of the documents in the New Testament, only two (Luke and Acts) were known to be written by a Gentile. To the best of our knowledge, the rest of the New Testament was written by people who were life-long Jews, who continued to see themselves as Jews while understanding Jesus as the Messiah. In the Second Temple era there were different Jewish groups with different opinions on various points of law and texts, but none of those mainstream groups disputed monotheism: There is only one God, and God is one. 

From that background, why not keep to the most obvious solution: That Jesus is simply human, and so the Jewish understanding of God remains unchanged? It's important to any following discussion that we take the first step seriously and make the first point clear: Why is there a need for any discussion at all? The whole question could have been a non-starter; possibly the most natural view of that topic would have been as a non-starter; so why did something else happen? 

Or to come from the other direction, we can look at the alternatives to the Trinity that have been considered. Over the centuries, Christians wrestled with other options such as: Maybe Jesus was fully divine and his humanity was merely an appearance; or maybe Jesus was adopted by God; or maybe Jesus was the one through whom all things were made as the first of God's creations. Still in our times we see alternatives like: Maybe Jesus was an angel, or maybe Jesus is a god but not the God of this world, or maybe God is one and Jesus is one way that God appears to us. (These are my fumbling attempts to summarize the views of Jehovah's Witnesses, Mormons, and Oneness Pentecostals; if anyone can suggest a clearer way to word those, or finds a more accurate way to summarize, those suggestions would be welcome.) 

Why take a quick survey of the alternatives? To show that even the Christians who have not agreed with the doctrine of the Trinity generally don't say that Jesus is simply human. Even among feuding sects who hesitate to recognize each other as belonging to the same religion, there's an unintended consensus on that one point: There's more going on with Jesus than "simply human". 

If we were to make a decision tree of how people understand him, the first point might be, "Is Jesus simply human?" At that point, not only the prevalent Christian theologies but most of the alternative Christian theologies join together in the same answer: No. 

For this blog, most of the readers are familiar with the reasons why the answer is generally: No. In the New Testament, the early records of Jesus introduce him with John the Baptist fulfilling prophecies about preparing the way for the LORD -- texts that in the original language use the Divine Name. Even in the shortest, possibly least-theological gospel in the New Testament, that of Mark, we find his opponents challenging him over whether he is laying claim to God's authority: "Who can forgive sins but God alone?" And even in that early document we find words attributed to Jesus in which he questions their understanding of the promised Messiah: "Why does David call him Lord?" 

The alternative gospels -- the ones outside the New Testament -- do not present us with a merely human Jesus either. Consider the Coptic Gospel of Thomas: "Jesus said, 'I am the light that is over all things. I am all: from me all came forth, and to me all attained. Split a piece of wood; I am there. Lift up the stone, and you will find me there.'" (Saying #77)

These few texts are not presented in order to prove any point, but as a sample of the reasons why someone might look at the documents and think: Jesus' followers didn't think he was simply human; and unless they were inventing what he said then Jesus didn't consider himself simply human either. That lies at the heart of why Christians developed a different understanding of God, and to some extent still wrestle with it today: How exactly do we understand the information that we have, being faithful to the facts as we know them? 

(Part of a series)

Sunday, October 11, 2020

Reviewing the Trinity: Authority, Proof Texts, and Ways Forward

I have a long-standing interest in the tracing the origins of the teachings of the church. The Trinity has an interesting place among Christian doctrines: it is never directly taught in Scripture; there are Scriptures that seem to support it and others that seem to contradict it. It has been the subject of much debate, and conversation is fenced off carefully: the wrong answer may find you excommunicated from many churches. Despite the problems with the doctrine, I'm not aware of a better explanation for how God is described in the sayings of Jesus and the writings of the apostles. This post will not propose to resolve that, but to size up the "authority" approach and the familiar proof-text pool for avenues to move the conversation forward. 

The "authority" approach does not seem capable of resolving the matter fully. By the "authority" approach, I mean the situation where the church cites its authority to resolve disputes over its own teachings and declares the question resolved, or claims the Spirit's guidance. That creates pockets of acceptance wherever that particular source of authority is respected or that particular claim of guidance is believed. Outside of that scope, the claim is only as respected as the reasoning that supports it; the teaching must prove its legitimacy. That brings us back to the original sayings of Jesus and the writings of the apostles, and how we understand those. 

Beyond the most obvious point -- that the Trinity is not taught directly -- several other points catch my attention about the texts brought to support the different views: 

  • The gospels of Mark and Luke are cited less often, despite their interest in Jesus' identity
  • Only a few passages in Matthew are cited, again though there is interest in Jesus' identity
  • The Gospel of John has some of the more directly applicable comments for both sides of the debate. When both sides rely on the same document, it raises questions about whether we may have misunderstood the document. 
  • There is also an item that isn't directly addressed very often: Even in passages that are quoted as proof of the Trinity, when the word "God" occurs it generally refers to the Father specifically. 

The doctrine of the Trinity seems to have a specific job: to safeguard our insistence that God is one, and to reconcile that with the divinity of Christ. That is: rather than the idea being developed directly for its own sake and on its own basis, it seems to have been developed indirectly to serve a function of supporting other teachings. 

In the centuries since the development of the doctrine of the Trinity, the teachers of the church have often read the Bible while focusing on academic points that touch on this doctrine, rather than focusing on the original point. For example, how often can we discuss the blessing "The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all" without focusing on Christ's grace, or God's love, or the Spirit's fellowship? In some ways, drawing the different verses into the controversy has been a disservice to their original message. 

Since the doctrine of the Trinity seems to have been developed indirectly, and since a return to the original sources seems the most productive approach, I hope to spend some time in the coming weeks looking at what the Scriptures say about the identity of Christ, and how we understand that in light of the oneness of God. 

Sunday, October 04, 2020

Is it possible to speak the truth without love?

 I have found myself wondering lately whether it is possible to speak the truth without love. Up until recently I would have said "Yes, but it will sound like a noisy gong or clanging cymbal;" it brings discredit on the word 'truth' to use it as a tool of hatred. I've seen it done so often. The phrase "brutal honesty" generally claims the right to use truth as a tool of brutality. 

But recently I have given more attention to how deeply distorted our thoughts become under the influence of hatred and its gateway emotions such as anger and fear. Is any person rightly the subject of pure hatred? Is there a human being without any redeeming qualities? Is there anyone who is completely without decency? I have not met them; they show up commonly in stories meant to entertain: stories meant to frighten children. 

If no person is honestly seen as an object of hatred, then no discussion of the person that comes from a place of hatred is a fully honest one. The hatred distorts the one thing most important to the conversation about another human being: their humanity. So I am considering the possibility that when the Bible tells us to "speak the truth with love," that it may not be possible to speak the truth without it. 

Cutting-room floor: It doesn't fit neatly into my main point so it's here as a post-script. I'm having trouble seeing if there's any difference between "telling half the truth" and "telling a half-truth" (which is a euphemism for lying). And yet how many places these days do we hear only half the truth? 

Sunday, September 27, 2020

Bless those who curse you, pray for those who persecute you

"Bless those who curse you, pray for those who persecute you" -- Jesus

If ever a nation was in need of prayer, that is our nation today. 

Lord, may we work together with gentleness

And rebuild respect

May we recall your compassion for us

And consider your love for our neighbor

May we put down our zeal to find fault in others

Grant us a Sabbath rest from our own anger

May we see that every fault that can be found

Is nothing but what is common to humankind

And can be found in friend and enemy alike. 

May I extend to those who hate me the same grace that I would to a friend. 

May I bless those who curse me

May I pray for those who persecute me

May I greet those who would turn their backs

If someone aims arrogant words against me

May I win them over without words

May I encourage the timid

And walk the path of faithfulness

May justice and peace be reacquainted

May truth be spoken with love

May those who sow discord find us slow to believe evil of others

May we doubt the evil that we have come to believe

As the evil one is the father of lies

May we forget our enmity and remember our neighbor

May we turn away from the ranks of the Accuser

And weaken the forces of evil by deserting our hatred

Sunday, September 20, 2020

Why I am religious, not just spiritual

For many years now, the elite tiers in our culture have frowned upon religion -- specifically on Christian religion; we generally give a pass to anyone else. There is a peer pressure to talk about "meditation" rather than "prayer": though religious people may do both, spiritual people are far more likely to meditate. There is a certain peer pressure, a certain gateway-to-acceptance, to identify as "spiritual, not religious." And the opposition to "organized religion" is so well-established that there are long-standing jokes about "Don't worry about us; we're not that organized" -- long-established jokes meant to deflect the long-established hostile environment. In light of that, I wanted to state why I am religious, not just spiritual. 

For Christians it will come as no surprise that spirituality is part of our faith: that spirituality is the heart of our faith. Some of the best-loved Bible passages are spiritual, such as the ancient Psalmist's cry "Create in me a clean heart, O God," or St Paul's reminders that build on Jesus' teachings: that the law is fulfilled by love. 

Yet spirituality alone, without the framework of faith, tends to be wishy-washy. If it can be anything that I want it to be, then it is limited by myself -- and limited to myself. This ultra-subjectivity means that there are no grounded intellectual discussions to be had with someone who shares the same reality, no firm basis for the growth of understanding, no consensus to be formed. My spirituality can guide me, and your spirituality can guide you; but it doesn't generally lead us to organize for the common good.

And it is that shared belief with its result of organizing for the common good that are among the strong suits of religion. Yes: I'm aware of the long line of people eager to bring a catalog of times when religious people have made bad calls. In a healthy religious system, the bad actors are called out by other religious people based on those shared values and shared rules of life. The moral absolutes of the faith empower even the lowest person to take on a corrupt person who has gained power: the standard outranks the person. A good religion makes the bad actors in its ranks accountable to a higher authority, and so puts a stop to them. It is true that bad people exist, and that bad people will abuse whatever kind of power is handy, whether it's religious or political or economic or educational or any other kind they can find. The fact that bad people use power in bad ways is not, rightly, a call to become disorganized but a call to check ourselves and clean house.

The different values and particulars of each religion have led down different paths, so I will speak here to Christianity, while other faiths can ably speak to their own experience. 

Christianity has from its foundation worked kindness toward our neighbors as part of our faith. In the first years when Jesus led Christianity with his own physical presence, he helped peoples' physical needs by healing the sick and feeding the hungry. He met peoples' needs of acceptance by his presence and his practice of hospitality. He met peoples' spiritual needs by teaching, building up their understanding and faith, their compassion and their hope, their sense of connection to their neighbors. He taught as one who has authority.

Still in the early years of the faith when the New Testament was being written, the early Christians were already organizing to get food to widows and to the poor, and organizing to get disaster relief to famine-stricken areas. We know this because the New Testament mentions some of the efforts there. The organization of religious efforts is a blessing to those who receive the generosity and kindness that are the intent of the organization. Down the centuries, churches have fed countless poor, hungry, and bereaved people in their time of need. Churches have organized to create and sustain hospitals and schools, charitable organizations and disaster relief funds. Down to this day, I have seen churches take the lead in disaster relief. A few years ago after hurricane Harvey, I was grateful to receive some free meals dropped off just-in-time by church groups, as I worked at a clothing distribution center, or helped with a cleanup crew in a flooded home. The people of Christ have been there for me, just as I hope I have been there for others.

Jesus left a clear call to those who follow him, a clear picture of how he judges our actions as good: 

"I was hungry and you fed me. I was thirsty and you gave me a drink. I was a stranger and you welcomed me. I was naked and you clothed me. I was sick and you visited me, in prison and you came to me. ... Whatever you did for the least of these brothers of mine, you did it for me."

I am grateful for the organization of religion so that we can do greater things to help our neighbors. I am grateful for the fellowship of my brothers and sisters in the faith. I am grateful for the shared music and art that enrich our lives. I am grateful for the intellectual heritage of so many great thinkers. I am grateful for the spiritual heritage of so many saints. And I am grateful for Jesus' authority -- which I recall him citing on these occasions: the authority to cleanse the Temple (that is, to purify religion to what it should be), and the authority to forgive sins.

Sunday, September 13, 2020

To everything there is a season: A time for peace?

The book of Ecclesiastes has a well-known and timeless poem:

To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven:
A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to harvest;
A time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up;
A time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance;
A time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;
A time to get, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to cast away;
A time to rend, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
A time to love, and a time to hate; a time of war, and a time of peace.

 (Ecclesiastes 3:1-8)

I am having trouble reading the times right now. The atmosphere in the U.S. is tense, strained, distrustful. There is a near-expectation that the November election will bring orchestrated riots across the nation, much as it did four years ago. While there may be a certain amount of poor sportsmanship (to say the least) in rioting over election results, that's not at all enough to explain what happened. For the most part I chalked up the 2016 election riots -- or I should say, the susceptibility of many otherwise decent people to join the riots -- to the extreme levels of fear and hatred that had been carefully built by political rhetoric during and after the campaign cycle, both on the part of the politicians and their allies in like-minded media outlets.

Where do extremists come from, if not from extreme levels of hatred and fear? 

We, all of us as human beings, have a blind spot. We assume that not only are our thoughts and feelings justified (never mistaken or manipulated), but also that their scale is justified (never out-of-proportion). Back in the real world though, extreme rhetoric is a prime cause in moving people to be extremely angry, extremely hateful, extremely fearful, and to do extreme things. All the while, the new-minted extremists are fully convinced that they have a justified and proportionate response. A person's response is generally proportionate to something, but to what? In these cases, it has been proportionate to their fear or anger or hatred. But is their fear or anger or hatred proportionate to what is happening?

Imagine that you could measure anger. Maybe 1 point on the angry scale would be a proportionate reaction to an aggressive driver who cuts you off in traffic. Maybe 10 points on the angry scale would be a proportionate reaction to a drunk driver who endangered you and your loved ones. Here's the thing: if we're angry at a 10 point level, we start with the assumption that the other person did something 10-point bad. We don't consider "What if they did something 1-point bad and someone else exaggerated it or portrayed it in the worst possible light?" Or "What if it didn't actually happen as reported at all, or if someone is keeping certain facts out of the picture to make a good story better?" It is a natural human bias that the information we already know is the information that matters to us; there are people who abuse that trust. But we're so invested in believing our own reasonableness -- so invested in justifying our feelings and reactions -- that we easily recruit ourselves to defend the integrity of people who withheld vital information, in an effort to prove we can trust ourselves.

We're human: We do not have full knowledge, and information is brokered through notoriously unreliable channels. There are people in a position to manipulate us every time information is passed along. Basically every media outlet on the market is known to keep certain facts out of the picture, to filter information to suit the confirmation-bias of their party. We even find ourselves in the unfortunate situation where a reliable slant creates brand loyalty. It follows that, regardless of our preferred media outlet, our reactions are probably out of proportion to what they would be if we knew all the facts. If we consume mass media, we will quickly encounter areas where people are actively trying to manipulate us, starting with the emotions. The more volatile emotions can act like a hallucinogen: for example, fear distorts both our perceptions and our thinking. So does anger or hatred. Eventually the bias can get to the point where the contempt or fear persists and is the automatic reaction to the targeted person or view.

To mass-create extremists requires the willing participation of mass media outlets, the willing consumption of bias, and the willing justification of an extreme reaction. It also requires a willing disinterest in whether another point of view may have legitimate concerns. Each of those points is an opportunity to turn back the tide on the mass-creation of extremists. It takes discernment and (in these times) some amount of patience and courage. We can try to broaden our sources of information to find the information that is being filtered out. We can actively wonder what piece of the picture we are missing; the additional information may support views we haven't considered yet. We can entertain some skepticism about our own emotions after consuming political media, much as we might after watching a scary movie. We can think twice about justifying extreme reactions. And we can hold the media outlets accountable when they withhold or distort information, or manipulate volatile emotions. 

With the state of information today, I find it helpful to work from the premise that any politicized story is uncorroborated until seeing if the other side has possession of facts that are not being reported through the first outlet. Assuming that any political story is uncorroborated leads to a certain "Schrodinger's Cat" view of the news: any given story may or may not be true. I find myself with a whole zoo full of Schrodinger's cats. I will bet that it is more accurate than some of the certainties on the market.

I hope it is still a time for peace. But as anyone who watches the international scene knows, peace doesn't just happen. It takes willingness. That willingness is eroded by hatred and suspicion and fear. I'd encourage anyone who loves peace to tune out voices that promote hatred, suspicion, and fear. 

A time for peace -- I pray it's not too late.
(Slightly altered version of the lyrics to Turn, Turn, Turn -- based on Ecclesiastes)