Thursday, October 29, 2009

Jesus’ Life Offers a Model of Contentment

We live in a restless and discontented age. Each day we are confronted with problems and circumstances that test our peace and contentment. We worry about financial problems, health problems, and family problems. We are anxious about raising our children, succeeding at work, and maintaining a certain standard of living.

Moreover, the pace of our daily lives, the demands of nanosecond technology, and the drive to outdo others are only a few of the factors that contribute to our anxiety and restlessness. We never have enough time or enough money to do and buy all we think we need. We are a discontented and stressed out generation.

Why are we discontented? Why are we restless? Perhaps the most challenging obstacle to finding satisfaction in life is that we are constantly in want. We live in what someone has called the “prison of want”. We always want what is bigger, nicer, faster, and newer. We want a new job, a new car, a new house, a new gadget, and new clothes because we believe that such things will provide lasting contentment.

We want because we live lives of comparison. We see what others have and we want something better. We see what others become and we want to become something better. We are in a constant pace to keep up with and even out do our neighbors.

We also want because the illusion of comfort convinces us that we will be happier with more stuff, with a new job, with a new car, and many other things we desire. We want possessions and prestige because we have the false impression that these will take away the pains and disappointments we experience in life. Yet, unhealthy wanting only leads to lust, jealousy, anger, resentment, failure, and sadly, a life that never finds contentment.

So what is the secret of contentment? How can we live lives free of anxiety and filled with satisfaction? How can we overcome the desire to want? We find the answer in the model of living that Jesus gave to us. Never wanting or desiring that which was not given by God, Jesus, though continually living in the shadow of death, found contentment in his relationship with God and others. Three primary characteristics of Jesus’ life demonstrate this very idea.

First Jesus found contentment through living in God’s presence. He was in constant communion with God, being led by God’s Spirit to do the will of God. Through living in presence of God, Jesus found satisfaction and peace. The famous Psalm 23 captures the essence of what Jesus knew to be true; living in God’s presence and looking to God for the needs and blessings of life leads to a life of peace and contentment.

Second, Jesus found contentment by living in God’s present. We are always looking past today to tomorrow, and we rush through life without appreciating the present that God has given to us. Jesus’ life, however, reflected his command, “Do not worry about tomorrow.” He embraced the present time that God had given him as an opportunity to embrace the will of God for him. In this he found peace.

The Psalmist of Psalm 118 reminds us that each day is “the day that the Lord has made” and we should “rejoice and be glad in it.” Instead of rushing through our lives of stress and strain, hoping that each day will be better than the previous one, we ought to live in the present that God has given us, finding God’s grace for today even if our circumstances are painful.

Lastly, Jesus found contentment in relationships with others. Though spending much time alone in communion with God, Jesus was not insular. Indeed, we might say that his time alone with God resulted in his intentional act of creating relationships with others. In those relationships, though sometimes disappointing, Jesus found friendship, community, and contentment.

To find peace and contentment, we must cherish our fellowship with others, whether they are family, friends, or even strangers. We must reject our relationships with things, and embrace the people God leads in our lives. The greatest gift we have is not the things, the possessions, the prestige, or the popularity we find in life. The greatest gifts we have in life are the relationships God has given us. Instead of replacing these relationships with busyness, superficiality, and isolation, we should ensure that we give priority to building loving relationships with the people God has placed in our lives.

We will never find contentment in the things of this world that rust and decay. Nor will we experience peace through the things of this world that bring fleeting pleasure. True contentment is experienced through living in the presence of God, the present God has given us, and with the people God has led into our lives, even as we live in a world that is so discontented.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

What Would My Perfect Church Look Like?

I’ll be the first to admit that I do not attend church every Sunday. In fact, there are many Sundays when I find greater respite and spiritual renewal as I sip on a cup of coffee and think about life, God, and our place in this world. I know, I know, this is not the ideal situation for a believer, for we are certainly given commands to gather for worship with God’s people on the Lord’s Day.

It’s not that I am against church as a whole, or against certain churches. And I am certainly not against worship, for worship is central to our faith. It’s just that I find many congregations to be either too formal and structured in their worship or too informal and touchy-feely in their worship. Honestly, I do prefer the former to the latter, but worship can become so rigid in these settings that we fail to appreciate the emotional aspect of an encounter with the divine.

Of course, I have my own ideas about what church should be like, and my ideas may differ from many folks. Moreover, my ideas may be too utopian to be realistic; but aren’t we all at least looking for the perfect church?

By perfect church, I am not implying perfection as meaning without problems. I don’t avoid church because of problems. Furthermore, I don’t think I will find a church that meets all my expectations. Churches may have divine missions, and many may carry these out well, but churches are still human institutions, and thus they are imperfect.

But what would my church look like, if I could create one? What would be the characteristics of what I would see as a “perfect” church?

In my mind, there are central characteristics that I find essential for a church that is seeking to be what God intends it to be. This list is not exhaustive, as I could probably make some additions to it. Nevertheless, for me, these attributes are most important.

First, since I am speaking about a Christian church, the church would be one that believes Jesus to be an expression of God to humanity and the life and teachings of Jesus as the model for living as humans created in the image of God. The church would be focused on following Jesus as a way of discovering our common humanity and our relationship to God.

This would not mean that we would have to believe that Christianity is the only true religion, and thus the only true way to know God. Indeed, this church would reject this exclusive mentality and embrace the pluralist idea that all religions, including Christianity, are ways of explaining the divine and how humans relate to the divine, and no one religion is truer than the others.

Second, the church I envision would be progressive. I have already defined in two separate articles what I mean when I say I am a progressive Christian, but to summarize my point, a progressive church would see theology not as a stagnant set of doctrines, but as a practice of engaging with the world. A progressive Christian church would be interested in conversations about God, Jesus, and human existence, and how these conversations serve as transformative for faithful living, rather than focusing on repeating and reinforcing theological doctrines.

And in being a progressive congregation, this church would practice a third vital characteristic: critical reflection. A church that is interested in the conversations about God would reflect and think critically and rationally about faith and practice without resorting to providing preconceived theological answers. It would struggle with the hard questions of life and, though seeking to discover answers to those questions, would be satisfied with living with the mysteries of God.

Yet, this church would also appreciate other ways of knowing and explaining the world. Instead of rejecting such ways of knowing, such as science, this church would incorporate these into the conversations about theology and reflect critically on how the two relate.

The congregation I imagine would be inclusive and welcoming. Accepting the diversity that exists in God’s good creation is a way of recognizing the breadth and depth of God’s love. Welcoming folks from all walks of life, whether they are of a different gender, race, nationality, social class, or sexual orientation is a hallmark to a faithful congregation that values that all have access to a life with God and God’s people.

And, my church would value social justice over spiritual salvation. This does not mean that the gospel is not spiritually transforming, for it certainly is. But the church I hope for would see the rule of God as more than a spiritual presence by returning to the political and social justice message of Jesus.

The church I would like to be a part of would proclaim a message so radical that it would see poverty and simplicity as virtues of faithful living, rather than prosperity as that which is blessed by God. It would see both the value of giving to those in need and also the divine mission to call governments to set policies that are just and fair for the poor. It would be a church that sees the Beatitudes not as high ideals we cannot attain, but as a way of life.

These are the characteristics I believe are vital to the “perfect” church. Perhaps I hope for too much. Perhaps I will not ever see a church like this. Most of the problem lies, however, with my own failures at being what I would hope a church to be. Maybe this is why I often avoid church.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Jesus without Borders

Borders are interesting concepts that have been around since the dawn of creation. Borders are those barriers that we construct to keep those we want out, out. Nations have borders, and in our current political climate, there is much discussion about keeping our borders more secure, making sure that not just anyone comes through them.

But nations are not the only entities that create borders. We as individuals create property borders that mark what is ours and what is not. Particularly in societies, like our own, that value personal property, we often build fences around those borders to ensure our privacy and to let those around us know that what is inside the wall belongs to us and not to them.

But societies often create borders within their social structures. We create borders and barriers to prevent us from community with others who are not like us. Race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, physical ability, class and economics are all borders we have created that keep others at a distance from us.

Yet, perhaps the most entrenched borders that we find in human existence are the borders established by religions. These have a long history dating back to the ancient world when the sacred spaces of a temple represented the barrier between the profane and the sacred.

For example, the Jewish Temple is known for the walls that separated various courts. The court of the Gentiles, the outer most court, was designed for the Gentiles to worship Israel’s God, but they could go no further. The court of the women created places where the women could enter, but they could go no further into the temple. And those with infirmities and diseases were forbidden from any part of the temple due to their impurity.

We also know from reading the stories about Jesus’ encounter with those determined to be unclean, that he was often chastised by the religious leaders of Israel for his association with them. Whether he was in the company of a leper, a person under demonic possession, or a woman of disrepute, Jesus was always condemned by the religious leaders for crossing the religious and social borders that separated what they established as pure and impure.

Indeed, Jesus was confronted with a borders and barriers mentality wherever he went. A society structured on strict class systems, especially those based on religion, is so ingrained in keeping those barriers and restrictions that it finds troubling and threatening a person like Jesus who crosses those barriers to make contact with those on the outside.

Or to put it another way, Jesus faced a religious society in which there were insiders and outsiders, and it was those on the inside who determined not only who was inside the borders, but perhaps most tragically, who must remain outside the borders.

Mark picks up on this insider-outsider mentality that humans have toward others, especially when it comes to religion, and makes it an underlying theme in his Gospel. Mark takes this theme, however, and turns it on its head. In other words, Mark communicates through his narrative that those who think they are insiders are actually outsiders, and those who think they are only outsiders become insiders.

Of particular importance for this theme is the way the disciples are often portrayed as outsiders. These twelve men, who seem to be insiders who are privy to some private moments and private teachings of Jesus, appear, at times, not to understand Jesus fully. Though they believe they are insiders, they sometimes act more like outsiders, and at points they express attitudes or superiority and exclusion.

This attitude among the disciples is expressed by John in Mark 9, when he comes to Jesus enthusiastically telling Jesus that he has stopped a rogue exorcist from casting out demons in Jesus’ name. He tells Jesus that he stopped this person because, “He was not following us.”

However, if we read John’s statement carefully, we may determine that John’s concern seems to be whether one can be a legitimate follower of Christ without being part of the group of twelve- the insiders. In other words, John wants a Jesus that has borders; a Jesus whose name and authority is only allowed to be used by those approved by the insiders. John wants a Jesus who prevents just anyone from serving in his name.

In our own Christian pilgrimages, we have all run across this kind of attitude, and perhaps we have occasionally played the role of John in our own relationships with others. It is very easy for us to take positions of theological certitude, construct our religious fences, and designate those on the outside as outsiders in order to make sure they remain outside the borders.

The fact is, however, if we continually draw the borders in such a way as to exclude others because they are not joined to our way of thinking and believing, then we have not truly sought to follow Jesus. Rather, we are seeking to be followed. When we exclude others because they are not following us, we fail just like John. Claiming to be insiders in the Jesus movement, we expose ourselves as outsiders.

John sought to place limits on Jesus in an effort to say who could serve him. By doing so, he drew borders around the community of faith as a way of stating who is inside and who remains outside. But Jesus, by being true to his example of welcoming the young child in this same context, and by declaring that the rule of God is a movement of welcome and embrace, was breaking down the walls and borders of separation that prevented those called outsiders from a life with God.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Between Athens and Jerusalem: Reading Liberal Books at Christian Universities

Blogger's Note: September 26-October 3 is Banned Books Week. The following essay, written in April of 2005, is my telling of my own experience when the administration of a private Christian university at which I taught attempted to ban a book that I had chosen for a course. In reaction, I stood my ground and used the book.

This essay originally appeared in the SBL Forum, an on-line publication of the Society of Biblical Literature. You can find the original post at

"What indeed has Athens to do with Jerusalem? What concord is there between the Academy and the Church?" These questions, posed by the Patristic theologian Tertullian in The Prescriptions against Heresies, continue to haunt educators at church-related universities. Recent and longstanding controversies at these universities fuel debate about what it means for a liberal arts university to call itself Christian or, vice versa, for a Christian university to call itself a liberal arts university. Certainly the mission of these intuitions is to educate, to spur critical and creative thinking, and to develop lifelong learners. Yet this can become tricky when one takes into account the fact that these institutions have a constituency in the pews of the churches, a constituency that often does not understand the complexities of a true liberal arts education. In this often conflicting context, I have recently dealt with my own controversy.

I currently teach at a small, church-related, liberal arts university in the South, in the so-called Bible Belt. The current curriculum at this university requires students to complete a core of liberal arts and interdisciplinary study courses. The curriculum currently in place requires students to take two one-hour readings courses, one at the sophomore level and the other at the junior level. For these courses, volunteer faculty members, who are paid a stipend, choose a book that they would like to read with a group of about fifteen to twenty students. In general, these books should have some importance and some scholarly merit, but not be too difficult for the average undergraduate student. Students sign up for two books in a semester and read these in rotation, six weeks for the first book and six weeks for the second. Thus a faculty member participating in this venture will read a book with two different groups of students in a semester. While methods for assessing student learning vary, most instructors require students to write response papers for their grades.The current state of the course has allowed each faculty member to choose the book to be read in his or her own course. No specific criteria have been established for the selection of books, giving faculty great freedom to choose important books.

I was asked by the coordinator of the course if I would be interested in teaching the sophomore level course. I had led four different semesters at the junior level, and I had chosen books that were thought provoking for our students, who for the most part are theologically and politically conservative. The books I had selected, though challenging to students' thinking, made it under the radar of those who would be concerned about the general liberal tendencies of parts or all of these books. This changed when I chose a book for the sophomore readings course that would meet in the fall of 2004.

I had spent the summer reading through some books that had sat on my desk for months. Of these books, one struck me as having the potential of challenging students, while written at a level that non-theological majors could understand. The book was Marcus Borg's The Heart of Christianity.

I knew when I chose the book that, like all the others I had read with students before, this book would present a degree of controversy. I did not select the book for this reason, however. I chose the book because it presents some very challenging ideas, many with which I have strong disagreement, but much with which I do agree. I selected the text because it causes the reader to think, which in my mind leads to a better formation of both knowledge and faith. I chose the book because I am convinced that students need to read such books for themselves, albeit with some informative guidance. Little did I know that the selection of this text would create a row.

But a row did arise. The stir was not created by the book per se; rather, the controversy arose over the fact that a book authored by Marcus Borg, an infamous figure in the Jesus Seminar, was in our campus bookstore, much less assigned as required reading for a course. This caused great consternation among some of the administrators, who feared that the reading of such a text would become known to those in the churches. The fear was that pastors and laypeople would not understand why we were reading a text by a well-known liberal thinker who doubts that most of what is written about Jesus in the canonical Gospels actually happened. This all came to a boiling point when I was asked to defend my choice of the text to the administration, which I was happy to do, not out of obligation to the administration, but out of a desire to argue that reading such texts is part and parcel of our being a liberal arts university.

I have now come to understand that the issue was not necessarily Borg's book in particular. The content of the book is not the biggest problem here. The book only points to the larger issue of whether any liberal-minded books should be read at church-related universities and what the answer to this question means for true liberal arts education. Can a Christian university permit students to read such books and yet remain true to its mission as Christian? If the answer to this questions is no, then it begs the question as to whether that university can continue to call itself a liberal arts university.

If we Christian educators, or perhaps better, if we educators who happen to be Christian see our mission as developing lifelong learners and critical thinkers, then we need to guide students on how to learn and how to think critically. This may mean reading uncomfortable books as we guide them to think critically about the issues they raise. Such work does not demand that we advocate every idea written in these books, nor does it insist that we dismiss scholars like Borg a priori just because we disagree with some of their thoughts and writings.

I am convinced that students should read scholars like Borg because their knowledge of more liberal thinkers should not be solely left to the interpretations of others. I shudder to think that we have come to the point where self-appointed answer-giving professors must shield undiscerning students. This is an insult to students and is not the mission of education where independent critical thinking is the hallmark.

My intention in reading this book with students was to prod them to think more about their faith, which I think is precipitated by reading those who think differently. Churches and Christian universities have done a poor job at teaching people to think theologically. We preach theology. We teach theology. We even indoctrinate theology. But rarely do we take up the hard task of helping students learn to think theologically. These respective methodologies are vastly different. As theological educators, we are compelled to guide students to develop a practice of thinking critically about their faith. Our goal is never to tear down what students believe, but to help them grasp a faith that is truly their own. The goal is to dialogue and to help them find their own way of thinking through the complex issues of our faith, thereby setting them on a path toward wisdom.

I imagine that at most state universities one would find a predisposition against books written from a faith perspective. Would we not, as Christian liberal arts institutions, want to rise above the increasingly entrenched dichotomy between conservative and liberal, offering opportunities to hear various voices speak? And in doing so, should we not be humble enough to admit that there are positive contributions made by those who think differently from us, even when such difference is vast? And if we can come to this point, have we not reached the true goal of education, which is to consider all the evidence and to draw thoughtful and critical conclusions from that evidence? This to me is the essence of learning in a liberal arts tradition.

There seems to be a theological issue at stake here as well. Jesus tells us very clearly that the whole law is summed up in the commandment to love God with all your heart, all your soul, and your entire mind. Love implies openness to God that requires us to open our hearts, our souls, and indeed our very minds to God. Yet, Jesus also reminds us that the second commandment is just as important as the first: "Love your neighbor as yourself." If love for God is openness to God, then love for our neighbor is openness to our neighbor and what our neighbor has to say. This does not mean that we will agree with our neighbor, but it does mean that we ought to be good listeners of what our neighbor has to say. This, in my opinion, is not only the essence of education; it is our call from God.

While the row over this book caused trepidation for me—as I felt vulnerable to attacks by those who disagreed with my choice—the journey through reading this book with students gave me a peace about this choice and a confirmation that students can think for themselves. In leading each discussion over the assigned reading, I intentionally asked open-ended questions so that each student could respond from her or his own perspective and interpretation of Borg. If students struggled to understand a particular argument or if I felt they might have been misinterpreting Borg on some point, I gently guided them to discover for themselves a fuller understanding. In this way, I tried to ensure my goals were met—that each student would read and grasp Borg's argument apart from an authority figure who interprets for them.

Although most of the students vigorously disagreed with Borg on many points, they did allow Borg to challenge, and sometimes even change, their thinking. Perhaps what I hoped for was what others feared. Regardless of whether the students agreed in part or disagreed wholly with Borg, they did engage him and they responded with thoughtful questions, critical responses, and well-written papers clarifying both their understanding of his arguments and their agreement or disagreement with him. One student candidly shared with me how he had become so disgusted with Christianity that he had seriously thought of becoming a Buddhist. However, as he expressed in his response paper, Borg gave him a place to be Christian. I still wonder how my critics would have responded to this student's openness.

There was a response, however, that I did not fully anticipate. Unlike my critics, not one student suggested or hinted that there was a problem in reading this book. Each of them volunteered to read this book, and the majority of them engaged it thoughtfully regardless of whether they agreed with Borg or not. Moreover, and this to me was a strong vindication of reading this book, when some students got wind that some faculty and some among the administration were on the verge of censorship, these students voiced their opposition to the administration, arguing that these are the kinds of books they should be reading in college. One parent of a student wrote to a top administrator giving his support to the reading of such books as well as asserting his support of an institution that still values education and not indoctrination.

Perhaps Tertullian was prophetic by asking the questions, "What indeed has Athens to do with Jerusalem? What concord is there between the Academy and the Church?" The dichotomy still exists in our current theological and political environment. My story is one of many. My story, however, has further reminded me that Christian liberal arts colleges, and particularly those open-minded educators who teach at them, do not have an easy road to travel. The difficulty is in fulfilling both aspects of the mission of these institutions, to be Christian and liberal arts. Neglecting or abandoning one will cause said institutions to become less than what they can be. No one says it will be easy. Yet, those institutions that call themselves Christian and liberal arts, and those who teach at them, must travel the sometimes treacherous road between Athens and Jerusalem.

Why I am a Progressive Christian (Part 2)

In my last column, I told briefly my story of being a progressive Christian by first describing why I am a Christian and why I continue to choose to be a Christian. The thing that has been my saving grace, that which has kept me from abandoning my faith, is that I have chosen to identify myself as a progressive Christian.

As a way of describing what I mean when I say that I am a progressive Christian, it might be helpful to begin by differentiating, at least from my perspective, how being a progressive Christian is dissimilar to being a conservative or liberal Christian. I do not consider myself either a conservative or a liberal, although I might identify more with the liberal side if I was forced to choose between only these two. Yet, neither of these is satisfactory as a label I apply to myself.

In my effort to describe my impressions of conservative and liberal Christians in such a short space, I will inevitably stereotype both groups. My intention, however, is not to suggest the either group is homogeneous. Rather, I am attempting to highlight what I view as basic characteristics of each perspective.

Conservative Christians remain resolute in holding onto the traditional beliefs of the Christian faith and typically believe in the literal interpretation of the Bible. They are rarely, if ever, open to new ways of understanding the faith and they are usually resistant to seeing the truth in other religions. Moreover, they tend to exclude others who think differently from them. In their minds, if the Bible says it, that settles it, and no one should question it. I reject this perspective as being too rigid and antiquated.

Liberal Christians, for the most part, tend to reject any notion of the supernatural. Many liberals discard the notion that the Bible has any real influence on our faith. Their approach to faith is very individualistic and they tend to promote the idea that whatever one wants to believe is acceptable. They may also view all religions as essentially the same, which they are not. I find this approach to faith too weak and to some extent unthinking.

For me, the term progressive Christianity suggests a faith that is moving forward; a faith that is progressing toward what God desires from and for humanity. Yet, at the same time, progressive Christians do not negate the value of the past, and especially the sacred text of that past. Indeed, when it comes to the Bible, progressive Christians are different from both conservatives, who place too much authority on the Bible, and from liberals, who reject the Bible as having much validity at all.

Instead, progressive Christians take the Bible seriously, but not always literally. As a progressive Christian, I am interested in doing the serious work of biblical interpretation that values the Bible as a sacred text, but that also understands these texts as having a human origin. In this limited space, I cannot detail my thoughts on the Bible here, but anyone interested in my ideas might read my essays at and

Progressive Christianity is not about intellectually accepting a set of propositions about God, Jesus, and the Bible in order that we might go to a place called heaven when we die. In fact, being a Christian is not about life after death, whether in a place called heaven or a place called hell, if these even really exist. Rather, being a progressive Christian is about being transformed by Jesus’ teachings and way of life. It is about finding one’s existence as a follower of Christ in this life. It is about living one’s life here and now.

Moreover, the idea of being a progressive Christian implies one who is open minded to new and different ways of knowing and experiencing God. Instead of simply declaring that this or that religious idea is truth, as a progressive, I am more interested in the conversations about what truth is and how we find it. I am more interested in the journey on the path that will lead to truth than in saying I have found that truth.

Thus, as a progressive Christian, I cannot assume that the way I think about God or the way my religion tells me to think about God is definitive. Human knowledge about the divine and the language we use to describe the divine are limited, and any revelation a religion may claim to have about God is also limited. No sacred text is any more valid than the other in the claims it makes about God, for all of them, including the sacred text of Christianity, are human ways of expressing how humans understand God.

But perhaps the greatest reason I am a progressive Christian is that I find at the heart of Jesus’ teachings not a message of forensic salvation from one’s sins, but rather a message of transformation that leads me to deny myself, take up my cross and follow him in self-giving service to others.

Thus, as a progressive Christian I accept the reality that it is humanly difficult to love, serve and embrace others. But instead of being a conservative who judges, rejects and condemns others, and instead of being a liberal who preaches an ineffective message of tolerance, I must struggle in my journey of faith to be more inclusive and embracing of those I am called to serve.

In this sense, progressive Christianity is certainly about spiritual transformation, the transformation of the self. But it is also about social transformation; transforming our societies in ways that reflect the central ideas of Jesus: love, compassion, inclusion, justice and peace.

Thus, I make no apologies for being a progressive Christian. I am happy in my own skin. But more importantly, as I continually reflect on the central teachings of Jesus, I find progressive Christianity to be a more faithful reflection of Jesus and more realistically relevant for our world.