This Blog Is Under Construction

Please bear with us. This blog is in the process of being assembled.

Which of course accounts for the general disorder, building materials lying all about the place, the sound of jackhammers in the background, and the fellows in hard hats bustling around with their shirts off.  We’ve WARNED them and WARNED them about that.

Anticipated live date: May 2016.

This blog is actually part of a much larger endeavor called The 25 Blogs Project.

This here blog, along with its 24 companions, will begin going live in the summer of 2016, hitting the streets at the rate of several per month from May through September.

If you’d like to learn more about what in the world is going on around here, we cordially invite you to visit the information page for The 25 Blogs Project.

The Face of God (Part One)

The importance of faces

Faces matter.

The expression on a person’s face matters:  the alertness of the eyes, the hardness or gentleness of the features, the movement of the mouth and brow, whether there is a receptive or listening aspect in the person’s expression.

We all understand this based on our past experience with people and relationships.  What is going on in someone’s face, the expression of the face, the eyes, the mouth, has everything to do with how we interpret the things that we hear the person saying.

What we see happening on the person’s face also has everything to do with how we believe the person is hearing what we are saying.

And finally, what we see happening on the person’s face has everything to do with what we believe the person is thinking about us.

 

Does God have a face?

Does the question seem odd to you? In fact, can we have a show of hands… how many of you thought, “Of course not!” in response to that question?  ‘Fess up.

The fact is, God does have a Face.

Before I go on to illuminate what may seem a shocking assertion to have made about a purely spiritual being, we need to talk for a moment about the many unhelpful ways in which so many of us have learned to think of God. These are not ideas that we’ve gotten from what God reveals about Himself in the Bible. We got them from religious tradition, popular representations of divinity, perhaps even caricatures devised by the Enemy to put us off the scent of Who God really is.

It may be that one of the following will seem uncomfortably familiar to you.

Many people tend to picture Him as an abstraction, a Vast Cosmic Idea, or as an energy force evenly distributed throughout the universe. Right? “The Force is strong with this one.” Lots of folk conceptualize Him as what we might call ‘the galactic God,’ off being all impassive and sovereign and whatnot way out at the farthest reaches of the universe. There’s also ‘the amorphous God,’ sort of shapeless and indistinct and ooey, gaseous, foglike, ghostlike… not someone that you could really imagine having a conversation with. And what about ‘the pantheistic God’—so deeply embedded in the workings of nature that It’s difficult to understand Him as a Person.

Yet He is a Person.

In fact, He’s the one Person in the universe to Whom the term ‘person’ most truly applies. He’s an Infinite Person, which complicates things a bit, but that doesn’t mean He’s somehow less than personal. Oh no. He is the origin, the source, the fountainhead of all personhood. He’s the reason why there are any other persons at all, why you and I are persons. He’s the original and archetypal Person. He is the model of personhood; we are the copies.

When God represents Himself in the Scripture, it is usually in strongly personal terms.  He speaks of being girded about with His garments; He speaks of having a strong right arm, and a heart, and eyes that see what is going on around the earth.

He speaks of having a face.

Now, when God talks of His Face, we can choose to regard this as a metaphor, a literary use of language to depict things that are too lofty and marvelous for us to understand. But if God is using metaphors when He represents Himself as having a body and a face, we certainly must appreciate that they are strong metaphors—selected by God Himself—and should be taken seriously.

Or maybe He isn’t using metaphors at all, and really wishes to be taken at face value, as having an actual face. He certainly does use this kind of imagery again and again, over and over, throughout the Scriptures.  Maybe he has a face and a body in some esoteric, pan-dimensional way that we cannot even hope to grasp or picture accurately.

At any rate, it is evidently important to God that we envision Him as having a Face.  I think this has a significance far greater than what we generally assign to it.

When we relate to God, He wants us to imagine ourselves relating to a real Person: A Person Who has a Face.

 

Christmas, the Incarnation, and the Face of God in Christ

We have now entered the Christmas season: the period from December 25th to January 5th. During this time of the year, we are accustomed to focus attention on how the Son of God assumed human form in order to carry out His cosmic work of salvation, liberation, and warfare.

There is one aspect of the Incarnation, however, that is (I think) of particular importance to the way we relate to God the Father.

It is in Christ that God reveals to us His Face.

The sacrificial system that God furnished His people with in the Old Testament gave them an opportunity—albeit temporary—to know that their sins had been atoned for. However, that system did not enable the people to look upon God’s Face. They were terrified at the very thought of the Face of God, and rightly so; His Face, surging with holiness, passion and power, was too overwhelming for any human individual or community to encounter without being overwhelmed, disintegrated.

In Christ, we have a Great High Priest—as the writer of the book of Hebrews is quick to point out—Who also happens to be the One Supreme Sacrifice offered on our behalf, an infinite, eternal and final sacrifice. Praise be to God for His infinite mercy!

But more to our purpose, we have something in Christ that the Old Testament believers could only dream of…

We have permanent access to the Face of God.

And in Christ, that Face, so overwhelming in its passion, power and holiness, is revealed to be a Face of Infinite Love.

The Face of God (Part Two)

In Dallas Willard’s contemporary classic work, The Divine Conspiracy, the basic theme is that there’s a conflict of cosmic proportions going on around us: God is on the move, he’s building His kingdom, but He’s doing it in ways that are secret or not easily understood by the mass of humanity. And He’s calling us to join Him in what He’s got going on.  This is what Willard means by the ‘Divine Conspiracy.’

All of which is terrific stuff. But this little meditation on prayer was inspired by something that Willard says almost offhandedly at one point, when he is talking about God’s attitude toward us:

When you pray… (1) Look God in the face

A relationship with God is a real relationship, every bit as real as the familiar relationships we have with family and friends. A relationship with God is, however, unique, in that God—an infinite being—is involved. We must resist the temptation to understand God in impersonal terms. He is a Person, albeit a Person of Infinite and Cosmic magnitude.

In the Bible, He repeatedly reveals Himself as having a Face. Whether He intends this to be taken literally or figuratively is not the point; the point is that God has given us a way of thinking about Him, of relating to Him.

When we converse with a person, we do so while looking upon the person’s face.

So when we pray, we should do so imagining that we are gazing into the Face of the One to Whom we are addressing our thoughts, feelings, and entreaties.

 

When you pray… (2) Know that God is looking you in the face

The things that the Bible says about God’s countenance would not make any sense unless that countenance were turned in our direction.

God sees you.  He knows you.  He emphasizes repeatedly in Scripture the degree to which He is aware of you. He is paying deep attention to you; He knows at least as much about your inner world as He does about the birds of the air and the hairs of your head… and He certainly knows everything there is to know about them.

God sees all of the kind, constructive and meaningful things that you’ve done, the things that are aligned with the architecture of heaven. He also sees the damaging, insensitive, rebellious, chaos-breeding things you’ve done, the things that align with the architecture of this present darkness.

But He sees far, far more than this.

He sees the confused systems of motivation out of which your choices emerge. He sees your areas of woundedness and the ways in which your background may have handicapped you in your ability to respond to the people around you. He sees your anger, your pain, your frustrations and the ways in which your perceptions may be distorted by factors you are unaware of.  In other words, God not only sees your sins, He knows all about why you’ve tended to walk in those particular sins. He sees fifteen layers further into the depths of your personhood than you are able to. He, as they say, gets you. He knows infinitely more about you than even you do. He is better equipped to be patient with you than you are, never mind your detractors; when He looks upon you, He sees the whole of you, every deeply-buried crevice, into the diseased places from which patterns of wickedness come… and He alone knows how to excise those places of infection, cleanse the wounds and bring complete healing to your inner places.

So when we pray, we should do so knowing that God has turned His face toward us, is giving us His complete attention… He knows us, He gets us, He knows the entirety of who we are, and he knows why… and He is listening with rapt attention for what we’re about to say.

 

When you pray… (3) Know that the expression on His face is a smile

This must be acknowledged: Obviously, there is a stern aspect to God’s nature. We would have to tear the Old Testament out of our Bibles, as well as significant passages in the New Testament, if we wished to deny this.

His sternness is toward those who are under His judgment, who have defied His grace, who are in rebellion against Him.

We must not apply to ourselves passages in the Bible where God is talking about His enemies.  We are not His enemies.  If we are in Christ, then we are His adopted children, citizens in His Kingdom, members of His household.

When we were His enemies, it would have been accurate to say that the Face of God was turned away from us. The expression on His Face at that time was not a smile; it was one of sorrow, of anger, of deep disturbance within His Spirit. But the work of Christ on our behalf changes all that: changes it utterly.

God loves us, He loves you. God goes to great lengths in Scripture to convince us that He loves us—those who are in Christ, whose sins have been cleansed by the blood of Christ, and who have been personally ushered into the Presence of the Father by Christ. He assures us that His will toward us is benevolent, that He desires joy and blessing for us.

Friends, the expression on the Father’s face is not one of condemnation.

So when we pray, we should do so with a certain vision in our minds: that we are looking God in the face as we talk with Him, and He is likewise looking us in the face, and the expression on His face is one of benevolence, acceptance, gentleness, grace, yearning, tenderness, and love.

Merry Christmas, Y’All!

Season’s Greetings, and Happy Holidays to each and every one (i.e., both) of you!

It being the Christmas season and all…

[…and let me just interject at this point that i have very little patience with people who take delight in correcting you when you call December “the Christmas season,” after which they explain, with seemingly infinite patience, that the weeks leading up to Christmas are actually the “Advent” season, and the “Christmas” season does not technically begin until Christmas Day…]

[…from which point it extends through January 5th (the “twelve days of Christmas” that you’ve heard about in songs and never really understood), after which the Christmas season is officially concluded with the Feast of the Epiphany (January 6th), the holiday on which is celebrated the arrival of the Wise Men from the East…]

[…i have very little patience with these people, i say, because, when they correct you for calling the weeks leading up to Christmas Day “the Christmas season,” and they tell you no, it’s not the Christmas season, it’s Advent, what they’re actually doing is substituting one completely arbitrary formulation for another, both invented by men and neither one found anywhere in the New Testament…]

[…and honestly, it does not matter what nomenclature you use in signaling your enthusiasm for the festival on which we celebrate the coming of Jesus Christ into the world…]

…so, it being the Christmas season and all, it seems fitting that we should take a little time to investigate the issue of what sorts of things we should be saying to people, to wish them joy during this season of the year.

Every year for at least the past decade or so, the issue has come up. It’s actually a ridiculous controversy, but since both religious and nonreligious people (as well as religious people who are not Christians) often tend to make a big deal of it, it’s worth our time to enter the field, clarify the issues a bit, and hopefully arrive at some salutary conclusions.

In case you’ve spent the past couple of decades encased in the same stuff that Han Solo–in The Empire Strikes Back–found himself frozen in, here’s a summary of the debate:

When i encounter someone downtown, and it’s, oh, let’s say December 19th, and i would like to confer a seasonally-appropriate joyous blessing on the other person, should i wish this person a “Merry Christmas”?

1. Yes, because it is, in fact, the Christmas (or Advent, which amounts to the same thing) season, whether the other person acknowledges it to be so or not.

2. No, because you’re risking offending somebody by stepping on their irreligious toes, and offending people is the cardinal sin of the 21st century.

Those people who are inclined to be contentious on this particular issue tend to line up behind either Answer #1 or Answer #2.  Lots of people (whether religious or ir-) have no particular opinion, and really don’t care whether you wish them a Happy Christmas, or you tell them that fairies are arriving on the backs of unicorns to sprinkle them with magical dust.  They’re just happy to be greeted pleasantly during a holiday-themed season of the year.  These people are not the targets of my blog post.  I’m talking to the people who are ardently committed to Answer #1 or Answer #2.

To be completely accurate, i need to point out that there are actually two different levels to the debate.  One level involves the question of whether everyone SHOULD be using the vocabulary of Christmas when talking about the December holidays.  The second level involves whether it is even OKAY (socially acceptable, commercially viable, or legally permissible) to employ the vocabulary of Christmas during the December holidays.

Understand: It is possible to address one of these two levels without even touching the other; they are, in fact, distinct controversies.  Regrettably, these two levels of argumentation are routinely jumbled together, and the resultant arguments tend to become incoherent.  I am here chiefly concerned with the first level of the debate: whether Christmas is the default holiday toward which the month of December naturally gravitates, and to which we ought all to be making reference when we wish each other joy.

Further complicating the issue(s), however, is this: the people who embrace Answer #1 tend (usually) to be engaging the first level of the debate, while the people who embrace Answer #2 tend (often) to be engaging the second level of the debate.

In other words, it’s the “no” camp that tend to be interested in the legality of public Christmas celebration.  They (some of them, typically the strident atheists) are willing to make use of the power of the state, where available, to enforce the non-celebration of Christmas.  By contrast, i am unaware of a corresponding “yes” position, in which the power of the state would be employed to FORCE everyone to celebrate Christmas.  I’ve never met anyone who believes that.  It’s a struggle between those who desire the freedom to celebrate Christ’s birth, and those who think this freedom should not be allowed.

Let me just briefly touch on the second level of the debate, because it is easily disposed of.  It’s a non-issue.

Yes, of course it should be considered both socially acceptable and legally permissible to (publicly) talk about Christmas, celebrate Christmas, sing Christmas songs, put up Christmas decorations, set up public Nativity scenes, decorate the store windows with obviously “Christmas”-themed materials, etc.  To deny this is to deny the most basic canons of civil freedom, as defined in the U.S. Constitution and built into the American consciousness.

Now, as to the question of whether privately-owned businesses have the right to restrict their own or their employees’ speech and patterns of celebration during the Christmas season–for instance, should their employees say “Merry Christmas!” when answering the phone–i guess the answer to this is “yes” as well.  I mean, “Yes, a private company may dictate standards related to employee behavior.”  But let’s be clear.  In saying that privately owned businesses are permitted to make decisions based on the owner’s perception of what’s appropriate or what will best serve the bottom line, we need to be consistent, and agree that if he can exercise such judgment in the area of celebrating Christmas (or not) as a part of his company culture, he is equally free to exercise such judgment in every other area, including hiring practices, selection of insurance plans, etc.  But let’s not even go there.  This blog entry is about the holidays, not civil liberties.

Back to the issue at hand.

Should everyone make use of a “Christmas”-oriented vocabulary when celebrating the December holidays?  Well, the very manner in which the issue is framed in people’s minds leads to an unnecessary confusion.  Here’s the problem:

There are LOTS of holidays in the month of December.  Christmas is one of them.

I would argue, and that vehemently, that Christmas Day is far and away the most significant of all the holidays celebrated during the closing weeks of the year and the opening weeks of the new year.  But the question is not, “What’s the most important holiday encountered in the winter season?”  The question is, “What ought i to wish my friends and neighbors during the winter season?”  And the answer to that second question… the question that needs to be answered in order for this silly discussion to be resolved… does not exist.  It cannot be answered.

You see, if there were an answer to that question, it would depend on which holiday i happened to be thinking of at the time.  It would depend on what holiday the other person happened to be thinking of at the time.  It would depend on the setting (physical, religious, socio-cultural) in which we both found ourselves.

You have to understand that there are literally dozens of holidays in the month of December.  In addition to Christmas Eve and Christmas Day (nearly universally acknowledged by Christians), there is also the Feast Day of St. Nicholas (December 6), known to the Dutch as “Sinterklaas Dag.”  Maybe you don’t care about celebrating a Saints’ Day–i can’t say i’m particular to them, in general, myself–but the convoluted process by which St. Nicholas of Myra, a 4th century bishop, came to be associated with “Santa Claus” at Christmas has a lot to do with that particular day and the celebrations associated with it–not just in the Netherlands, but in many European countries.

And hey, while we’re on the topic of saints’ days, it begs to be observed that every single day of the year is paved several layers thick with observances dedicated to various persons acknowledged as “saints” by the Roman Catholic church.  EVERY SINGLE DAY.  Of the YEAR.  Including DECEMBER.  That means that, going on saints’ days alone, December is crammed with probably at least a hundred holidays, right there. My personal favorite is the Feast of St. John of the Cross (December 14th).  I’ve read a great deal of what Fray Juan wrote, and a great deal that has been written about him, and have concluded that he was a righteous dude.  But there’s also the Feast Day of St. Stephen–December 26 (“Good King Wenceslas looked out, on the Feast of Stephen…”).  And the Feast Day of St. John the Apostle / Evangelist–December 27.  And the day dedicated to the Holy Innocents, the little babies killed by order of Herod the Great–December 28.

And then there’s “New Year’s.”  For a lot of people, New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day (holidays that, honestly, seem to me pretty meaningless) pack more emotional punch than does Christmas, and they look forward with unbridled zest to social and athletic events occurring on or around these holidays.

But wait, there’s more.

Everyone knows about Chanukah and Kwanzaa.  Chanukah is a venerable Jewish holiday (eight days long) commemorating events that occurred in the Holy Land over 2000 years ago, during the period between the Biblical Testaments; it’s a genuinely significant holiday.  If one of my Jewish neighbors invited me over to his house to help celebrate Chanukah, i’d be deeply honored.  And Kwanzaa is a sort of synthetic Pan-African holiday (one week long) that has no real roots in history or ethnic tradition; it was invented in the 1960’s.  But hey, whatever people want to celebrate.  If one of my African-American neighbors were ever to wish me a “Habari Gani!” (not that this has ever happened or is likely to–i haven’t noticed that most Black Americans even observe Kwanzaa), i’d answer, “Yo, yo, the same right back at you.”

There are holidays observed in other religious and national traditions.  I’m sure the month of December is crammed with many dozens of holidays deriving from various cultural traditions and belief-systems–and, America being the diverse melting pot that it is, there are grillions of people in Miami, New York, New Orleans and Los Angeles, heck, even Atlanta, who hail from furrin parts and who have brought a rich tapestry of celebratory days with them.

I must haste to add that many of these days are pagan observances dedicated to demonic gods and corrupt belief-systems, but it’s unclear to me what the relationship is between (1) whether a holiday represents the true structure of divine action and human life, and (2) whether it is socially okay for people to observe the day and greet each other accordingly.  If someone were to wish me “Happy day dedicated to the demons whom i worship!” i suppose my reply would be, “Er, uhm, much joy to you!”  And if i had sufficient cash on me, i might offer to buy ’em a beer and talk about spiritual reality.  Because here is a person who is deeply confused regarding the basic structure of Reality.  The point being this: the other person is perfectly at liberty to wish me a happy “thwondrakalini,” if such a horrifically-named holiday does indeed exist.  And i am free to wish him a happy Christmas.  Neither of us can legitimately be chastised for wishing the other a happy holiday.

The error, really, is in thinking that a “season” of the year is invariably dominated by a particular holiday.

We think of early July, for instance, as the “Independence Day” season, with fireworks, picnics and (on dishearteningly rare occasions) discussion of American political life, the reasons for the American Revolution, and an analysis of America’s founding documents.  Then there’s the Easter season and the Thanksgiving season, and, inexplicably, the “Hallowe’en” season.  The period leading up to St. Patrick’s Day features sales on green undergarments, and the days introducing Valentine’s Day (which is actually called “St. Valentine’s Day,” yo) are a gold mine for manufacturers of candy and greeting cards.

But holidays and actual calendar days are not the same thing.

May i repeat that, for emphasis?  Because it’s really the single most important sentence in this blog post.

Holidays and actual calendar days are not the same thing.

A calendar day is a geophysical reality.  A holiday is a cultural reality.  They map over each other in various ways, but no calendar day can be immutably fastened to a holiday observance.  The sidereal spinning of the earth as it hurtles through the heavens does not, in some essential manner, attach to our treasured holiday observances.

Hunker down with me here, and let’s randomly pick a calendar day–say, September 22nd.  Is there a recognizable holiday on September 22?  There may be, and my readership may be about to abandon the reading of this blog en masse (all two of y’all) for not knowing such an elementary fact.  But whether or not there’s a famous holiday on that calendar day, one that everyone celebrates, the fact is that there are likely several holidays stacked on that one calendar day, each of which is observed by some ethnic or religious community, some of whom are doubtless living in Brooklyn.  There are only 365 calendar days, but there are thousands of holidays.

So, to say that only one or two holidays may be observed and acknowledged during a given month is just not realistic.  Every day of the year has a whole glomp of holidays stuck to it.  That’s just the way things are.

So.  What should i wish people during the month of December?  Why, a Merry Christmas, of course!  Because that’s what i’m excited about: the coming of the Son of God into the world–an objective fact that did indeed occur, in time and space, and which is, objectively, the single most important event in the history of the human race–to establish a Kingdom that had theretofore existed in incipient form among the Jews, but which was now being thrown open to the nations: The Kingdom of God.  That’s good news worth celebrating!

Note however, that my neighbors are not required to wish me a reciprocal “Merry Christmas” if they’re not as excited as i am about this important news.  You can’t make someone share your excitement about the good things you know to have happened, if they haven’t had access to the same information you have.

I will, therefore, wish you a Blessed Christmas season, accompanied by my hope that you will encounter the Living Christ (who does, objectively, exist–not as religious myth, symbol or ritual, but as the reigning Lord over a Cosmic Kingdom that “cannot be shaken”) in a deeper, richer and more immediate way than you ever have.

And if you choose to reply with a reference to some funky holiday that only one obscure tribe in the Punjab has ever even heard of, well then, a happy one of those to you, as well.

A Sort of Introduction, Part Seven: The Christian Church, and the Kingdom of God

The opening run of entries in this blog has featured a series of introductory posts; that is to say, introductions to the sorts of things you’re likely to catch me saying (when, that is, i eventually get around to saying things) on a variety of topics, including education, worldview, philosophy and theology.

The present entry is about the community of God’s people, and what that looks like.

Someone will immediately object, “But that falls under Christian theology, and you addressed that in the last post! Move on to something else.” Ah, but i think the discussion of what God’s people are all about is important enough to merit a post all by itself. You’ll see.

After this entry, there will only be two more introductory posts: a survey of some issues in society and culture, and a sneak peek at some modes of creative expression (rhetorical dialogues, poetry, short fiction, experimental and whimsical pieces) that you may be able to expect leaking out of this blog at various points.

The Church, Christian Community, and the Kingdom of God

Someone might say that these are three equivalent expressions; but in fact, they refer to three distinct but overlapping things. If, that is, we insist on using the term ‘church’ the way almost everybody uses it. But more on that issue in a bit.

(1) What is the Kingdom?
The central theme of the New Testament is that the Kingdom of God has arrived, and we are invited to get on board, to join God in the vast and dangerous project in which He is involved among the nations. It’s the message the New Testament starts out with in the preaching of John the Baptist, and it’s the message of Jesus throughout the gospels. It’s the basic message we encounter in the NT epistles.

Interestingly, this is not the message that Christian preachers often present as the core teaching of Christianity. They often give the impression that personal, individual salvation (which means that when you die, you get to go to heaven) is the Christian message. And, admittedly, we do all enter the Kingdom one at a time, through Christ, as individuals. But once we’ve entered… this is called ‘becoming a Christian’… what next?

Dallas Willard used the expression ‘The Divine Conspiracy’ to characterize God’s Kingdom, and i think that’s just terrific. God is up to something—it’s wide-ranging and world-changing—it’s mysterious and often easily misunderstood—and there’s an Enemy who is dead-set on keeping it from happening. Of course, as readers of the Bible we know that the Enemy (a finite being) will not succeed in frustrating God’s ultimate purposes, but that doesn’t mean there won’t be a Tartarus of a lot of turbulence in the meantime.

(2) How many kingdoms are there?
Here’s an interesting thing. The Bible clearly represents the world as a battleground between two cosmic power-systems: (a) the kingdom of this present darkness, limited to planet earth, and presided over by Satan and his vast network of demons / false gods / evil spirits… and (b) the Kingdom of God, which extends throughout the universe and to those places on earth where people are in communion with Him, through the access provided by Jesus Christ.

But what’s interesting about this scenario is that it rarely comes into play when preachers and theologians are talking about their lives, their church communities, their cities, the nations, the socio-cultural dynamics of the world around us. When these people talk, you kind of get the impression that there’s God, and there’s seven billion human beings, many of whom are in rebellion against God. And that’s it. Just God and people. No mention of the Enemy’s kingdom. Isn’t that strange? It’s like we are willing to acknowledge the fact of Satan and his kingdom when pressed, but we find it to be an embarrassment and refer to it only when it’s absolutely necessary.

If your view of reality doesn’t take into account the central, defining fact that the world we live in is a battleground between two spiritual kingdoms, then i’m sorry, but i just have to say it: your worldview is not a Christian worldview. It’s something else. Something much smaller. Perhaps Stoicism, or Platonism, with Jesus added on.

Life and history make no sense at all if you ignore this core aspect of how reality works.

(3) What is the Church?
We read in the Old Testament book of Genesis that God began pretty early on, establishing personal contact with people and organizing a community with which He would be doing business. Throughout the Old Testament, the primary group of folks we see interacting with God were the Jews, descended from Abraham, Isaac, Israel and the Patriarchs. This is the case all the way to the end of the Old Testament, and was in fact still the case at the beginning of the New Testament.

Something else we find in the New Testament is God enlarging the community of people with whom He is carrying on relations. Through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, even those outside the Jewish community were suddenly able to enter into a relationship with God. The pool of those enjoying a connection with God began to expand dramatically during the first century, and has been (basically) expanding ever since.

This is what’s meant by the English term ‘church,’ as used in the Bible. It’s the community of people who are involved in a relationship with God, and who tend to gather together to commune with Him and with each other, and to explore the larger implications of relationship with God.

The word ‘church’ has created a great deal of confusion during the past 1700 years or so, because many people have used it to mean other things that it doesn’t really mean: institutions, organizations, networks of ‘priests’ and ‘bishops,’ buildings used for religious purposes, religious meetings, worship events, etc.

These are all things that the church—meaning God’s people—can and often do participate in, but these buildings and meetings and organizations are not the church. The church is people: God’s people. If all the buildings were to be firebombed overnight and all the organizations dissolved, the church would remain, because the church is us… connected together by Jesus.

(4) A different perspective on ‘Church History.’
Once you understand that the church is not made up of institutions and buildings, Popes and bishops and religious conferences and religious meetings, then your sense of what ‘church history’ has been all about is transformed. Church history is actually the story of what God’s people have been up to for the past two thousand years or so. And in many cases, what they’ve been up to has been being persecuted by the people running the religious institutions and occupying the religious buildings—a point not lost on John Foxe when he wrote his famous Book of Martyrs.

The church is the body of God’s people, those who are united by the supernatural life given by Jesus Christ when a person enters into relationship with Him. The history of the people who have done this is the history of the church, whether those people are operating within or outside of recognized institutions.

This means that, though much of what large religious organizations have been up to may be very interesting, and may have impacted the church in a variety of ways, the history of these institutions is not the history of the church. Church history is the story of the men and women who have genuinely entered into life through Jesus Christ, and have lived their lives to love and serve God the Father through Him. Often tucked away in monastic communities or isolated villages, sometimes serving as missionaries, and sometimes serving within the hierarchies of religious institutions, these are the people through whom God has been working to bring about His purposes on earth from the time of Jesus and His apostles to the present day.

(5) A few observations about Christian Community.
The New Testament has a great deal to say about what’s involved in being God’s people. Here’s some of what you’ll find:

The first point that begs to be made is that the church, the community of Jesus Christ, is just that: a community. If communities of Christians choose to organize themselves into institutions, and build buildings, and hold regular formal meetings, that’s fine, but none of that should be allowed to distract attention from the need to function as a community. This means that, whether or not they have regular ‘services’ in an auditorium, they do make it a point to get together in small groups (with everyone participating—the Bible is clear on this) to share what God is doing in their lives, to pray together, to share insights from the Scriptures, etc. The “in-your-face” aspect of Christianity is essential, while the large meetings in auditoriums are nice, but optional.

If you just do a read-through of the New Testament, and try to imagine the writers addressing their observations to people meeting once a week in a large temple, as opposed to smaller groups of people meeting over a meal in each other’s homes, you’ll quickly see what i mean. Everything in the New Testament makes ten times more sense when you realize the essentially community-based texture of the church.

Here’s another point. In the Old Testament, only a small minority of God’s people were classified as ‘priests,’ those who bring to God what the people are offering, and who bring to the people what God is offering. In the New Testament, all of us who are in Christ are classified as ‘priests.’

Although the New Testament does specify that wise, mature, anointed men should be identified to provide leadership for God’s people, it’s important to understand that all of God’s people have been endowed with gifts, and all are to be involved in ministry on some level. A good many of these gifts are listed in places like Romans 12, I Corinthians 12-14 and Ephesians 4, but these are probably just representative samplings of the thousands of gifting and combinations of gifts that God makes available to his people. If you’re a Christian, you’ve got spiritual gifts, and there’s got to be some way that you can employ your gifts for the benefit fo your brothers and sisters in Christ, and/or for the expansion of the Kingdom.

One more thing. Communities of Christians should be places of healing and refuge. Street people, folks who are enslaved by heroin, prostitutes, homosexuals, divorced people, married people, single people, children and the elderly should be able to discover Christ in the gathered community of His people. And His supernatural power should be in evidence, whether the needs involve physical healing, the breaking of addictions, deliverance from evil spirits, healing from sexual brokenness, healing of broken hearts, or whatever. People who need God should be able to find Him at work among His people.

(6) Christian Communities as platoons.
If you take all of what’s been said up to this point, here’s what it adds up to: We who have been saved out of the Enemy’s kingdom by the power of Jesus Christ, are now God’s army.

However, we are utterly unlike the conventional sort of army.

We are an army of healers, bringing the reality of who God is to people and places where it’s needed. This is what the New Testament means when it refers to us Christians, in several different places, as ‘priests.’ We are a Kingdom of priests: we are those who dispense the goodness of God to people who need it—including each other.

This means that we need to be at His disposal, and we need to realize that our ‘weapons’ are in fact weapons of truth, love, healing and supernatural power. Christians who spend a lot of time arguing with non-Christians, perhaps even in an angry and abusive way, are really missing out on the joy of Who He Is and of what we’ve been called to do in and for Him.

 

I think i’ve taken up enough of your valuable time for now. There are only two more installments in this introductory series, and then we’ll be ready to actually begin blogging! I realize that i’ve been taking a long time to get this sucker under way. But one must observe the proper rites.

A Sort of Introduction, Part Six: Theology and the Christian Life

We’re slowly making our way through an introductory series of posts to this freshly-hatched blog. Three more entries, and we should be done. Then it’s on to bigger and better things! The cultural roar will never be the same again.

I’ve slightly rearranged and condensed the topics that i’ve been planning to buzz through in this introductory series. What i’ve been announcing is that the next three topics were going to be:

Theology and the Kingdom of God
Discipleship and the Christian Life
The Church and Christian Community

However, i’ve boiled these three line-items down to two in the interest of both time and better cohesion. Today’s topic is “Theology and the Christian Life,” and the next one is going to be “The Church, Christian Community, and the Kingdom of God.” Aahhh. Much better.

Christian Theology and the Christian Life

To hear some educated Christians talk, you’d think that something called ‘theology’ is what Christianity is all about. They live to discuss theology, study theology, read theology. Is ‘theology’ really that central to the Christian life?

Well, yes and no. I suppose a lot hangs on what you mean by theology.

(1) What is theology?
We run into the same problems with the word ‘theology’ that we ran into with the word ‘philosophy.’ In one corner, you’ve got people for whom theology means something fairly simple: a basic body of ideas about God, what His world is all about, and what He’s got in mind concerning us. In the other corner, you’ve got the people for whom theology is a high-falutin’ system of assertions, proof-texts, arguments and implications, thousands of pages’ worth. So when someone from this second corner expresses in interest in reading or discussing ‘theology,’ they mean the hardcore stuff. These people are serious. They’re talking about shooting theology directly into the vein.

Honestly, my sympathy lies more with the people in the first corner. The older i get and the more theology i read—and the more i read the Bible—the less patience i have with academic theology. That may sound horrible, and ignorant, to someone seated in the second corner, but i’m not embarrassed to say it.

The Bible isn’t a book of theology. It’s a collection of divinely inspired writings that are all about, in various ways, the relationship between God and His people.

Which leads us to the idea of systematic theology.

(2) The advantages and dangers of systematic theology.
Academic theologians tend to enjoy organizing all of their opinions about God into boxes.

‘Systematic theology’ is what you get when a theologian takes everything that he thinks about various aspects of Christian theology and organizes it by topics. Some of these topics are ‘God,’ ‘Jesus,’ ‘The Holy Spirit,’ ‘Divine Revelation,’ ‘Creation,’ ‘Man,’ ‘Sin,’ ‘Redemption,’ ‘The Christian Life,’ ‘The Church,’ ‘The Kingdom of God,’ ‘Spiritual Warfare,’ ‘The Judgment,’ and ‘The End of the World.’ (I’ve used simple, common-sense language to identify these topics; many theologians prefer more impressive-sounding alternatives, such as ‘Pneumatology.’) When you pick up a volume of systematic theology, it will generally be organized into sections devoted to these topics. Theologians from various Christian traditions will identify and organize the topics differently, and a theologian from Tradition A will give much more emphasis to certain topics than to others, while a theologian from Tradition B will prioritize quite differently.

The obvious advantage to creating systematic theology is that it allows you to gather into one place everything that you believe to be true about God and His way of doing things, and organize the information in a way that makes sense to you. That makes all the material easier to grasp and to access.

The Bible is not a systematically arranged body of material. It’s a scruffy compendium of marvelous revelation from God in a variety of literary forms, gathered over a period of about 1500 years, addressing a wildly diverse spectrum of personal and historical situations. God never designed it as a textbook on theology, and if we’re to have a topically organized theology book, it’s up to us to create it, using the Bible as raw material.

The obvious disadvantages are, oddly, nearly identical to the advantages.

Is the Bible really ‘raw material’ for our efforts in creating systematically arranged theology? Or is it a double-edged sword, living and active, piercing to the heart of every issue and to our own innermost places?

See, one enormous problem with systematic theology is that it’s addictive. A theology book arranged by topics is easier to wrap your head around than is God’s actual revelation in Scripture, and many people find themselves leaning more heavily on the theology they’ve read, or been taught from a pulpit, than on God’s Holy Word. It all fits together into a neat system, and we tend to go for that. We are terrified of ambiguity and mystery, and God’s word is full of both. Substituting the reading of theology for the reading of God’s word is a way of saying, “I want to understand more than i want to be changed.”

Related to this is the fact that systematic theologies are, after all, carefully arranged collections of the opinions of men. They are not God’s inspired Scripture. They may be densely stocked with Bible verses, but those verses were carefully chosen, arranged and interpreted to support a theological position. For every book of systematic theology supporting one theological perspective, you can find an equally scholarly one supporting a very different position. And there are hundreds of these books out there. Religious scholars have been creating them ever since the Middle Ages. Some of the longer ones are available as multi-volume sets, and it’s not unheard of for a systematic theology to clock in at 1000, 2000 or even 3000 pages.

When you’re reading theology, you have to be very, very careful. Dangerous stuff, theology. You may think that you arrived at a certain religious idea from your reading in the Bible, when in fact you got it from the writings of some theologian… or from a pastor, Sunday school teacher or popular preacher who was, in turn, influenced by reading the writings of some theologian.

(3) Theology as vain intellectual recreation.
I’ll just come right out and say it: many people who are obsessed with theology have made it into a false god, an idol of religious intellectualism, and they need to stop—in much the same way that a smoker, an alcoholic or a glutton may need to stop. I have sat in on a few too many discussions of abstruse religious controversies that i really don’t think are near the top of God’s list of priorities… that is, if His list of priorities can in any way be gleaned from the things that He chose to emphasize in the Bible.

Aside from serving as a vehicle whereby religious folk can puff themselves up with pride, there is another problem with over-emphasizing theology. When we set theology up as a free-standing academic discipline, we run the risk of turning it into an end in itself—disconnecting it from the rest of reality—and we create the impression that religious belief is irrelevant to human life, to society and culture, and to the way the universe operates. We make it sound as if Christian theology doesn’t have defining things to say about mathematics, the physical sciences, the life sciences, the human sciences, personhood, family, vocation, communication, recreation, the arts, literature, history, philosophy, government, economics, and human community.

I see two possible ways of addressing this problem, and you’ll find them in points #4 and #5.

(4) Theology and Worldview.
 Try this on for size: what if theology isn’t a free-standing discipline, it’s just a way of approaching worldview (see post #3 to this blog). In other words, theology isn’t an academic subject sitting out in a field all by its lonesome; it’s the backbone giving shape to, or a guidance system taking us through, the study of worldview. If this is true, then theology isn’t disconnected from the rest of reality. It’s inextricably bound up with the rest of reality!

But again, if this is true, then maybe we need to re-think, expand and extend the topics into which theology has traditionally been structured. If Christian theology does have defining things to say about every single dimension of human endeavor, then the way we approach the academic presentation of theology needs to reflect this. Systematic theologies shouldn’t be structured into ten or fifteen categories…they should be structured into fifty, or a hundred! Of course, this would make the writing of systematic theology a much more daunting, yea, even exhausting task. But if theology is the skeletal system that gives shape to worldview, then we need to be a lot more complete in the way we present our theologies.

That was the first way of resolving the ‘irrelevance’ problem with theology. Here’s the other.

(5) Christian theology and the Christian Life
What if theology isn’t a free-standing academic discipline, because it’s not an academic discipline at all? What if theology is really just the template by which we come to understand and order our lives before God? In which case theology isn’t a set of arcane topics to be debated while sipping boutique coffees; it’s simply an organized way of approaching the Christian life. Life as we walk it out in the presence of God, each other and the watching world.

So on this model, theology is really all about discipleship. Its purpose is to assist people in walking out their relationship with and service to God. And theology is at its worst when it wanders too far from the issues that really make up the stuff of our relationship to God and service to Him. The complex arguments over soteriological models may provide a fine evening’s recreation (see point #3), but they do not serve to draw us deeper into God.

Such an understanding provides a refreshing corrective to much that is distressing in the field of religious discourse.

(6) Christian Discipleship
No matter what you believe about the position represented in point #5, the fact remains that discipleship is at the center of what Christianity is about—and it’s a topic that’s going to come up with alarming regularity in this blog. What does the Christian life look like? How should our pattern of living be framed if we belong to God? What are our lives for, and in what ways can we best carry out our mission as God’s workers in a vast field of harvest? How do we connect to each other, as fellow citizens in the Kingdom of God? How do we relate to those who haven’t embraced citizenship in God’s Kingdom?

Much of what we discuss in future posts will be variations on a theme of, “What’s involved in being a part of God’s community, carrying out His vision for the world?”

Well, i think we’ve gone on long enough. Only three more entries to go in this introductory series, and here’s what they’re going to look like:

The Church, Christian Community, and the Kingdom of God
Society and Culture
Creative Expression: Rhetorical Dialogues, Poetry, Short Fiction, Experimental and Whimsical Pieces

Go Under the Mercy.

A Sort of Introduction, Part Five: Philosophy, Logic, Epistemology

This here blog is only six entries old, counting the one you’re looking at right now, and it seems we’re still enmired in introductory material.

I think of this blog in much the same way one would think about a book, and in a book, the bits you get to before anything else constitute the prefatory material: the introduction, foreword, preface, prologue, what have you—the material that sets you up for the rest of the book.

We’re still in that part of this blog, and will be for the next few entries.

The first part we encountered was the (as it were) prefatory prologue, the introduction-to-the-introduction, followed by sneak preview entries devoted to education and worldview. Then i departed from the pattern by re-blogging something spiritually potent that was written by a friend, and in the ensuing post i again departed from the rapidly disintegrating pattern by talking about the importance of an overall design in establishing the meaning of something (surprise, surprise).

Now, finally, we’re getting back to the blueprint for this introductory series.

This one’s going to be about philosophy.

What Is Philosophy?
Although i’d like to, i’m afraid i can’t say—in reference to philosophy— “This is what i do, and i can be pretty opinionated about it.” I’ve already said that in two previous posts about education and worldview, and i fear i’ve wrung all the juice out of it.

But…but…well, it is what i do, darn it. At any rate it’s a large part of what i do. I teach philosophy to teenagers, among other things, and a philosophical perspective is shot through the other things i teach (literature, history, Bible, theology, communication, etc.)

Now, if you’ve not studied philosophy, you may have only a vague idea of what it actually is. And if you have studied philosophy, you may have an even less accurate idea of what it is. (Ba-dum-cchhh.)

Some people who haven’t had much exposure to it, may think of ‘philosophy’ as indicating sort of a perspective on life. “Well, MY philosophy is…,” such a person might say. And that’s actually not too bad.

A person with somewhat more exposure to the academic study of philosophy, might think of philosophy as an immense and ultimately self-contradictory network of complicated explanatory systems involving lots of fancy terms and arguments and impossibly dense nomenclature. This is unfortunately what you might get if you were to take university courses in philosophy, especially modern philosophy. But people, it doesn’t have to be that way!

Let’s stick closer to the first interpretation; i like it better.

There are several ways in which philosophy will make guest appearances in this blog. Let’s look at a few of them.

(1) Overall philosophical texture to the way i talk about things.
I tend to approach topics philosophically, even issues that you might not view as obviously ‘philosophical’ in character.

What this means is that–no matter the topic–i like to structure arguments carefully, to make sure the relevant terms have been defined, to uncover hidden assumptions and tacit arguments, to connect seemingly disparate facts and scenarios to form (or reveal) a larger picture. To me, philosophy touches / covers everything; it’s not just one subject among many. It’s the whole thing. It’s a way of engaging all issues, all data, all perspectives, all experiences, perceptions, beliefs and conflicts. And it sort of runs through my veins.

(2) References to or case studies from the history of philosophy.
From time to time, i’ll pull out examples of key figures or important controversies from the history of philosophy because i think they touch relevantly on things that are happening or being talked about today.

You may catch me referring to the conflict between the realists and the nominalists in late Medieval philosophy. Or perhaps the controversies between the rationalists (or idealists) and the empiricists in the 17th and 18th centuries. You may notice that i bring up certain ancient philosophers a lot (Socrates…Plato…Aristotle…) (“…morons!”) and likewise, i mention various modern philosophers (Kant…Hegel…Wittgenstein…) (“…also morons!”) It’s because i think the points that they were making back in the day are germane to issues that we’re dealing with now, and there’s no sense in re-inventing the wheel if really smart people have already suggested clever solutions to perennially vexing problems. Or, conversely, if the solutions that very smart people proposed hundreds of years ago were shown to be faulty, and some folks are proposing those same flawed solutions today, it would be helpful to be shown what’s wrong with them.

(3) Recurring topics in philosophy.
From time to time, you’ll find me bringing up subjects like the mind-body problem, the problem of the one and the many, the question of how much input our minds give to the way we experience reality. These are topics that have been on the lips of philosophers for a long time—in some cases, for thousands of years.

And when i use terms like ‘metaphysics,’ or ‘axiology,’ or ‘ontology,’ or ‘epistemology’ (see below), i’m referring to some of the major categories of philosophical discussion over the centuries. Metaphysics and ontology (not quite synonyms, but related) have to do with the nature of things, the ultimate character of reality and real things. Axiology has to do with worth, value, choices. What is good, and what is not good (“…Phaedrus”)? A good painting, a good moral decision, a good Chevy engine, a good government, a good society, a good life. Then there’s epistemology… but we’re about to address epistemology in the next section.

(4) Epistemology: The philosophy of knowledge.
This is an area of philosophy that comes up again and again (and again) in my teaching. If you were to divide all of philosophy into three enormous chunks, epistemology would be one of these. And to my way of thinking, it’s the most important of the three. You can’t start talking about what’s real (metaphysics or ontology) and you can’t begin addressing what’s good (axiology) until you’ve established a strategy for determining what’s true. And that’s what epistemology is all about.

What is knowledge? What the difference between truth and falsehood? How do we know what’s true? How does truth get into our noggins, and how can we be sure whether the things we (or other people) believe are correct? These are heavy questions, and this is at least as true in our postmodern era as it has been in other ages, when there tended to be more of a generally agreed-on sense of how to distinguish between what’s true and what isn’t.

My own approach is to structure all knowledge-acquisition into five categories: revelation, reason, intuition, observation, and tradition. In other words, if there is a belief, an idea, an impression or an item of information in your mind, it got there through one (or a combination) of those five vehicles. And the more we know about how the ideas that we adhere to got in there, the more successful we can be in critiquing them.

(5) Logic as a discipline.
Logic (which is sort of a sub-category of epistemology) will be a recurring theme in this blog. Sometimes we’ll be talking about it openly, because that’s just plain fun, and at other times we’ll be making intensive use of it even if we’re not examining the logic itself. Logic is the architecture by which ideas and arguments hold together, and it stands to reason (!) that a blog that’s dense with ideas and argumentation, will be a bit heavy on the logic.

We may dip from time to time into an examination of the elements of logic, and apply them in specific argumentative settings. And if we’re looking for opportunities to practice our skills in logical analysis, the current socio-political situation is a target rich environment. The discussions going ‘round these days concerning gender, sexuality and marriage are practically a logical wasteland. The discussions of abortion tend to be pretty barren of logical rigor. And discussions of the role of government in health care, religious liberty, and domestic surveillance, are so empty of logic that you might be tempted to assume that people are compiling their arguments by spinning around and randomly assembling words into sentences.

From time to time, just for fun, we’ll examine actual arguments encountered in blogs, advertising, the news, etc. as well as the implied arguments embedded in fiction and film.

I feel i need to mention at this point that my other blog, Calling All Flockbinkers (also on WordPress) is pretty much all about logic. However, that blog is an entirely different sort of animal from this one; it’s such a wonderland of wit, humor, absurdity, surrealism, goofiness and abject nonsense, that its overlap with the material covered in this blog is approximately 0%.  (Although, to be fair, my detractors may be tempted to characterize the present blog as a body of ‘absurdity,’ ‘goofiness’ and ‘abject nonsense,’ without any attendant ‘wit’ and very little ‘humor.’)

Well, that’s probably enough for now, wouldn’t you say? Here’s a sneak peek at the other subjects we’re going to be surveying over the next few entries:

Theology and the Kingdom of God
Discipleship and the Christian Life
The Church and Christian Community
Society and Culture
Creative Expression: Rhetorical Dialogues, Poetry, Short Fiction, Experimental and Whimsical Pieces

And beyond that? The sky’s the limit.