Sunday, July 26, 2009

Jesus and the meaning of truth

Truth is the reflection of reality. To know the truth is to grasp the meaning of things, to understand the nature of what exists. Truth is the goal of wisdom, the reward of insight, the culmination of scholarship. The greatest minds of all ages have pursued truth. Some say that it is to know the mind of God.

Truth has been more than a minor pursuit in the history and cultures of mankind. Philosophy and religion, education and scholarship have all reached for it. The way in which people thought of truth framed the way they interacted with the world. To some schools, truth was something that transcended this world – and something that people had to transcend this world to understand. When truth was seen as transcendent, this world was seen as an illusion or an obstacle, something relatively valueless. Each view of truth had its own implications. If truth is impersonal, then the personal – human beings – are less valued. If truth is dispassionate, then feelings may not be trustworthy; they may not even be relevant. If truth is ruthless, then there is not much for mercy or compassion.

Jesus’ disciples reported him saying something that would frame the quest for reality in an entirely different way. They reported him as saying, “I am the truth.”

This poses a different challenge to each of the different ways of thinking about truth, so that different people would be shocked by this for different reasons. Those who thought of truth as a transcendent thing for the pristine realms of pure thought– these would be offended by the idea of truth walking the lowly soil of this world. Those who thought of truth as impersonal would speak of truth in sentences beginning “It is”, rather than “I am.” Jesus challenged the idea that the ultimate reality was impersonal, that people were irrelevant in the quest for truth. This last thought – that ultimate reality might be personal rather than impersonal – has far-reaching implications in our thoughts about ethics and morality.

But regardless of which particular thought about truth was being challenged, almost all would be shocked by a particular human laying personal claim to such a key place in the knowledge of reality. There has been much made of the fact that this saying is recorded in the fourth gospel -- the one likely written between sixty and seventy years after the events recorded, as far distant from that day as World War II is from ours. Still, it bears noticing that from the first of the gospels to the last of the gospels, all four gospels are essentially biographies. All four defined what should be passed along, what should be known, as Jesus.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Jesus and the meaning of holiness

Holiness has never been adequately defined. Some define it as separation, as in a separation from the profane. Some define it as dedication or consecration to use in God's service. These definitions do not even come close to describing the impressions that surround us when we perceive the Holy. The best definition I have yet heard is that holiness means being indwelt by the glory and presence of God. This, at least, captures some part of the profound beauty, awe, and wonder that we typically sense in the presence of the Holy.

There is no doubt some reason for those who see holiness as a separation from the profane. The ancient call was to "Come out from among them and be separate." Many Christians will think of the ancient Jewish Temple and tabernacle with their careful regulations for purity and separation. Still, here again in the Temple and the tabernacle we definitely see places that are indwelt by the glory and presence of God. They were special places to come, places where even the omnipresent God was specially and particularly present for his people -- or perhaps just particularly evident and accessible, places where God had chosen to reveal himself, chosen to meet with his people.

In Jesus, we see the presence of God on earth in a way that we have never seen before. The very idea that here in a man we have Emmanuel, God With Us, threatens and challenges the idea of a separation between sacred and profane. While the the previous separation of sacred and profane protected the sacred by giving it its own dedicated and inviolable space, it also in some measure protected the profane by confining the Holy. Here in Jesus of Nazareth we see holiness moving to challenge the profane on its own ground. As the ancient Temple was destroyed and there was apparently no more safe place for holiness, God had left the Temple and had made his people into the living stones of the new temple. Now there was no more safe place for the profane.

In Jesus, we see God's movement clearly: he sought out people that were by no means holy, and these he called to a new life. The low, the profane, the outcast, the vile and despicable of society -- these were the ones he sought out. Holiness did not depend on the beauty of the raw materials but on the power of the love of God. Out of people who were nothing, he created us and called us to be holy. And for these redeemed, the call was not "Come out and be separate," but instead "Go into all the world."

Friday, July 17, 2009

Jesus and the meaning of orthodoxy

When we think about orthodoxy, we are considering the whole world of what is right, what is true, what is known - and the realm of accepted opinion. Our own thoughts are tested against other thinkers throughout the millennia; and all thoughts are tested back against the life and teachings of Jesus.

Where should we start? It is easy to become boxed in by what has come before us. Even those of us who are determined not to be confined to the thoughts of previous ages often find ourselves drawn into the same conversation. And this is right; this line of thought, this struggle to understand did not begin with us.

For a Christian, the question is always this: what really happened with Jesus? Who was he? What did he say, and what did he mean by it? What do we learn from it and what do we do with it?

For the earliest Christians, their mission was to teach Christ. Those who had known Christ directly traveled the known world with their message. The first guarantee of orthodoxy was having known Christ, and, by definition, what was taught by those who knew Christ was orthodoxy. The disciples did not go forth as sages or gurus, but as witnesses of the extraordinary life and teachings of Jesus. The early Christian writings reflect this in their talk of first-hand knowledge, of witness and of testimony, "What we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and our hands have touched, this we proclaim." There was no other opinion they had to agree with or expectation they needed meet other than the reality of Christ as they had known him.

It was important for the early Christian community that their message did not change from what the apostles had told them. There was emphasis on holding onto the same truth they had known from the beginning, passing on the same thing they had received. All this we see in the early writings now collected into the New Testament, where those who had not known Christ in the flesh emphasized the importance of carefully preserving the message as originally given them by the first witnesses. We see it also outside the New Testament, where there was an early Christian community devoted to making sure the teachings stayed true to the message once given. For these Christians, the guarantee of truthfulness was that the teaching matched what the apostles taught.

In time, the meaning of orthodoxy shifted. Instead of meaning what the apostles taught, it meant what the previous generation had taught. If each generation was careful, that worked out well; but sometimes not so much. Over time, orthodoxy came to mean not what we knew of Christ through those with firsthand knowledge, nor simply remaining faithful to what those first ones had taught and so could be known with reasonable certainty. In time, orthodoxy also came to mean the allowable interpretations determined by councils of scholars, church leaders, and statesmen. At its best, orthodoxy meant the accumulation of the riches of thought and insights of the ages. At its worst, it meant devotion and enthusiasm shackled by the limits of an unimaginative committee that may not have always had quite the same agenda as Jesus himself. At times, it has meant adherence to a philosophical theory or theological system enforced by various more or less coercive means and extending far beyond the bounds of what many Christians would consider justifiable based on the life and teachings of Jesus.

It is the job of each new generation of Christian to separate the different kinds of things that call themselves orthodoxy, and -- as we were taught from the beginning -- to test everything and hold onto what is good. It is not only easy but also fashionable to criticize orthodoxy for some of the wrong turns it has taken over the years. At its worst, orthodoxy has meant being bound to a party line rather than testing everything and holding onto what is good. But that general approach -- testing everything and holding onto what is good -- was the original method of orthodoxy. It had the goal of being faithful to the original person and message of Christ.

If we care at all about being faithful to the reality of Jesus, then we grant that orthodoxy is a legitimate idea. It takes an utter contempt for reality and for truthfulness to despise the general idea of orthodoxy. The alternative to orthodoxy, in principle, is to say that each person should invent what he pleases with no regard to the historical realities surrounding Jesus, to forget the early decades of the church and the knowledge passed on by those who knew him in person. For about half a century, those who had known Jesus in person remained to pour out their memories of someone who was, after all, a particular person who lived in a particular time and place, and that they particularly had known.

So the question becomes this: Does orthodoxy take on a life of its own and dictate how we can think about Jesus, or does what we know of Jesus define orthodoxy?

The stakes are higher than they might seem at first. As soon as we decide that our thought about Jesus will take on a life of their own apart from Jesus, as soon as our thought becomes a system to which the reality of Jesus must conform, we have robbed Jesus of his paradigm-shattering place, of his central and formative place that the apostles proclaimed about him. There have been endless reconstructions of Jesus putting themselves forwards as "orthodoxy" in the sense of reflecting the reality of Jesus, but which still insist on dictating what we are allowed to see, whether we are told we are supposed to see a hypostatic union of one person of the triune Godhead with humanity, or we are supposed to see a cynical sage.

While the reconstructionist-orthodox give us a bowdlerized Jesus and the Chalcedonian-style orthodox give us a philosophical prism, no system of understanding Jesus ever gains full acceptance in the context of Christianity, and there is a reason why this must be so: the early Christians did not proclaim a system of understanding Jesus. They proclaimed Jesus. A system tries to put Jesus in the background while other concerns rise to the fore to explain him. A system like this is designed to show how, in light of something else that defines Christ, we can make sense of Christ. But the Christ that was proclaimed is not someone who we understand in the light of something else -- something that matters more, something that explains more, something that puts him in his place so that we can understand him in his context with his more important surroundings. The Christ that was proclaimed by those who knew him is the light in which we understand those other things. If we are faithful to the first generation of Christians, then that is the challenge of orthodoxy: not to make a system to explain and define Christ, but to define and re-think all those other supposedly more important things in light of Christ.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Teenage Sunday school

I teach a teenage Sunday school class, and I wanted to share a few of the best insights I've learned from my students over the last couple of years. I'll also pass along one that was not exactly insightful, but was too good to keep to myself. You'll know which one ...

Q. Can you think of any reasons why God may have chosen Mary to be Jesus' mother?
A. She's humble.
Q. How do you know?
A. Well, anyone else would have said, "Why, thank you, of course you chose me." But she was like, "Why me?"

Q. So Satan was just baiting Jesus with the "If you really are God's son" bit. Did Jesus ever prove to Satan that he was God's son?
A. Yes.
Q. When? How?
A. When he didn't take the bait.

When learning by memory where to find certain key Bible passages, in case they ever want to look up the passage for reference -- a student comes up with an interesting memory device.
The Ten Commandments is in Exodus 20. That's the second book of the Bible (2), it's the Ten Commandments (10), 2 x 10 = 20, so it's in Exodus 20.

Q. What is God like?
A. Omnipotent.
A. Omniscient.
A. Omnivorous.

I kid you not, that was one of the answers I got, and the kid wasn't kidding, he was just having a vocabulary-challenged moment where all the 75-cent words sounded alike to him. I actually didn't like the first two answers much better, being far too canned to have been their own thoughts. ;)

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Theodicy: Why it's like bringing a knife to a gun fight

It's been a few years since I last wrote about theodicy -- the question of how to reconcile an image of a good God with that of a suffering world. I still believe that theodicy as a line of argument is a questionable enterprise: If the key point is how we defend God on paper, instead of how God defends us in the real world, then we’ve already conceded the most essential point. That approach also begs the question whether logic and reason have enough potency for the job, or whether setting logic against pure evil is like bringing a knife to a gun fight. Even if reason "wins" we still die, and that kind of victory will always remain empty. Ultimately, no explanation ever satisfies. We don't want an explanation; we want the good that was lost, or that might have been.

No, make no mistake, the only thing that defeats the problem of evil is the world being set straight again. The meaningful defeat of evil includes not only the end of evil, but the restoration of any good that was lost to evil. That includes not only the end of death, but the reversal of death for those who have died, and their restoration to life.

This is the message Christ brought: not that evil somehow makes sense, but that evil will be consigned to the scrap heaps of history.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Christian sects: Our most distinctive doctrines

I have spent some time pondering the different Christian groups, our similarities and our differences. We have a large common ground, and then we have our distinctive doctrines. These are often doctrines about which our group has thought long and hard, areas in which we take a unique pride as our special identifying mark.

I have noticed that each group's most distinctive doctrine -- the one which they hold but almost nobody else does -- is very likely to be a matter of pride with them. It is their marker, like a mockingbird's white stripe, a quick way in which each group can recognize its own as quick as a flash. Most groups are both vocal and defensive about their markers. Most groups have devoted a large portion of their theological thought to the area in which their own group is unique, to establishing and defending their claim to correctness. Each group typically considers that marker to be the sign of the most true, most devoted, most pure religion.

I have also noticed that, for most groups, it also happens to be the area where they are most likely to be mistaken, most likely to be mistaken badly, and least likely to be receptive to the thought that it is their weakest and most mistaken point, not their best and most valuable contribution.

I'm not going to pick on anyone else's group, tempting though it may be. I'll mention my own. In our particular group, there is a lot of emphasis on the doctrine of "fellowship". And of course all Christians have some basic familiarity with fellowship: it is the family-like bonding and common purpose which unites all Christians to each other through Christ. It is grounded in the shared hope given us by his resurrection, and by the promise that he will return. It is distinguished by brotherly love, by gentleness and respect. But our group, having made "fellowship" a distinctive marker, discuss it almost exclusively in terms of exclusion and excommunication. As we focus so much on "fellowship", we do not discuss how to build the brotherly love or encourage each other; we focus on how to make sure we don't have fellowship with anyone we shouldn't. And so our most distinctive doctrine, the area in which we pride ourselves, the area where our resources focus, has become the area in which we are most likely to forget the most important things that God wants us to learn about that very topic.

Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Getting rid of your enemies

There are a few basic approaches to getting rid of your enemies. Don't panic; I haven't gone over to the dark side. Trust me a moment while I explain.

Nobody wants enemies. It's awkward, it's uncomfortable. It can even be hate-inducing. Enemies are a constant temptation to sin. And we don't want temptation, do we? Or maybe we do. They're just begging us to repay them for that nasty turn they did to us. Enemies are intolerable; that's what makes them enemies. We are not at peace until all our enemies are gone.

There's the Mafia approach to enemies -- killing them. In this world, we do see that approach in action in reality. Or there's the propaganda approach to enemies -- character assassination. There's the fence sitting-approach, hoping things will blow over and someone (read: the other guy) will have a change of heart, but until then the enemy is studiously ignored. But all these approaches to enemies have one thing in common: We just can't have enemies in our lives. It's too uncomfortable.

Then there's Christ's challenge to us: another way to get rid of your enemies. Love them, and they're no longer enemies. Befriend them. Greet them. Be kind to them. To everyone. No matter how little they deserve it. Reconcile with them, convert them into friends. God's with us on this one: the situation is intolerable. We just can't have enemies.

Why is it so much easier to take any other approach than that one?

Sunday, July 05, 2009

If God is the gardener ...

It's there over and over in the Bible. "God planted a garden in the east." "The kingdom of heaven is like a man who planted ..." "The harvest is ready." "By its fruit you will know the tree." Lots more passages like that, though I won't start a catalog. My favorite of the stealth gardening verses, Mary Magdalen at the tomb: "She thought he was the gardener."

What is he trying to grow? This isn't a rhetorical question at all; I'm trying to figure it out. So what crops does he plant? There's the Tree of Life. He's creating more life ... that's what a seed is, after all, so we're on solid ground so far but very generic ground. Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil? There are theories that it would have been permitted if we had resisted taking it for selfish gain. The fruit of the spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, and kindness? I wonder. I very much wonder if that's what the crop was supposed to be.

So if that's the crop, how fruitful am I? Am I the little tree that hardly bore? The weedy patch? How many people do I love? And if the love is tainted by resentment or bitterness, does that work out to rotten fruit, something the birds pecked away at? And if I wanted this place to be the garden that God had envisioned, how do I love people more?

I think love starts at a very basic place: recognizing the good. That we do not recognize the good in each other is the most basic of the crimes we commit against each other every day. A full-fledged love also works to be a blessing; but the first blessing is that, to recognize and acknowledge the good in others, to take delight in what is good. "God saw that it was good." There is the foundation of thought about good and evil. And the most basic evil is being hard-hearted towards the good that is around us. It guarantees a small crop.

God grant me to see the goodness around me, especially in the people around me.