Tuesday, May 31, 2011

There is No Other God but God

In Acts 17:22-31 we read about Paul’s preaching to the Athenians, whom Paul acknowledges to be religious, particularly concerning the image they have dedicated to an “unknown God.” Paul’s message, however, is to proclaim to these Athenians that this God is not unknown. Rather, the unknown God to which they have erected this image is the one true God of the universe; “the God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth.”

Of course, the God to whom Paul refers is the God who entered into a covenant with Abraham. This is also the God who redeemed Israel out of Egypt and brought them into the Promised Land. And, although the relationship between God and the people was sometimes rocky because of rebellion, God remained faithful to God’s people.

But wait a minute. The Paul we read about in Acts 17 is not the Paul of Jewish monotheism; at least in the very strictest sense that Jews would understand. Rather, he is the Paul who now follows Jesus as Lord. Although he once persecuted the followers of Jesus for committing what he considered blaspheme, he became a follower of this Jesus, offering to Jesus both allegiance and worship. Does this mean that because Paul is now a follower and apostle of Jesus that the God he proclaims to the Athenians is a different God than the one of his ancestors? Does this mean that because Paul worships and serves Jesus as Lord, he has rejected the God of his own people, the Jews?

The answer is clearly no. At least Paul does not see it this way. Paul remains convinced that he still worships and follows the God of Abraham, even though he now holds to the idea that God has revealed God’s self in Jesus Christ. Though his fellow Jews who did not follow Jesus would accuse Paul of transgressing the very heart of Judaism, that being monotheism, Paul believed that Jesus was the incarnation of God, who was and is in eternal union and oneness with the God of Abraham. God and Jesus were not two separate Gods. God and Jesus, along with the Spirit, are manifestations of the one God.

And from that point, normative Christianity has always believed that Christians and Jews worship the same God. Although there were movements among some Christian sects in the centuries of its infancy that wanted to distinguish the God of Jesus from the God of the Jews, believing they were two separate gods, the view that won out recognized the oneness of God in both traditions. Christians have always believed that they worship the same God as the Jews.

But this raises a question for us concerning the third Abrahamic faith. If we affirm that Christians and Jews worship the same God, but each faith understands God differently, then can we say that Muslims also worship the same God, though they understand that God differently? In other words, while Christians have always believed they worship the God of Abraham, can Christians also affirm that Muslims worship that same God? After all, Muslims affirm not only the oneness of God, but also that they worship the same God as Jews and Christians. Can Christians say the same?

This is a question that I have given a lot of thought to lately, and I have recently been helped in my thinking by theologian Miroslav Volf, whose book, Allah: A Christian Response, offers some fairly persuasive points on this very question. (You can also find Volf’s lecture on his book here.) I have thought along the same lines of argument that Volf presents, but his thoughts are much more erudite than my own.

Volf’s central argument is that the God of Christianity and the God of Islam are sufficiently similar that we would be hard pressed to say that they are different Gods. Despite the fact that Christians and Muslims do not have the same exact beliefs about God, and particularly concerning the nature of salvation, Volf draws the following conclusions about God on which there is agreement between Christians and Muslims:

1. There is only one God, the one and only divine being.
2. God created everything that is not God.
3. God is radically different from everything that is not God.
4. God is good.
5. God commands that we love God with our whole being.
6. God commands that we love our neighbors as ourselves.
(Volf, Miroslav (2011). Allah: A Christian Response (Kindle Locations 1873-1879). Harper Collins, Inc.. Kindle Edition.)

Volf suggests that this means that the God of Christianity and the God of Islam are sufficiently similar to suggest that both religious groups are pointing to the same God when they say these things about God and when they offer worship to God. I am in agreement with him.

I could offer more of Volf’s arguments that I find both intriguing and convincing, but I will leave it up to readers to appraise Volf’s book on their own. I do think that how Christians and Muslims understand God is an important question that needs discussing, but a more crucial issue to address in relation to the argument over whether these two faiths worship the same God is how Christians should relate to Muslims.

There is no doubt that our culture has always been suspicious of Muslims, but this suspicion was particularly heightened after September 11, 2001. Even in recent months, faithful Muslims have been challenged and persecuted over the building of Mosques, the misconception most of us have about Sharia Law, and Islam itself has been called a cult and a false religion by more than a few politicians and preachers.

Christians ought to be on the front lines to defend the rights of Muslims to practice their faith. While some may not agree that Christians and Muslims worship the same God, if we claim to follow Christ, and if we claim to understand God as a God of love, then we must be people of love, and we must affirm this belief in our own practice of love toward others. Not to do so is to deny our Christian faith.

Indeed, I would say that those who claim to be Christians who do not love their neighbors and their enemies are following and worshiping a different God than the God of Jesus.

None of what I have said compromises my fundamental Christian beliefs. Indeed, I remain solidly Christian because I affirm that Jesus is one with God, and it is through Jesus that Christians gain our entrance into the knowledge of God. But I can at the same time affirm that the God I seek to serve and worship is also the same God that both Jews and Muslims seek to serve and worship. For although I affirm the revelation of God in Christ, I also affirm the authenticity of experiencing God through the other two Abrahamic faiths.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Can Faith and Doubt Coexist?

At the bottom of my email messages, just below my contact information, I have this quote from Thomas Merton, "A person is known better by his questions than his answers." I have it there because these words sum up my understanding of religious faith. Faith is not about answers. Faith is about questions.

This way of thinking, for some odd reason, comes natural to me. In fact, those who know me very well, know that I am adventurous when it comes to asking questions about the Bible, theology, and the practice of faith. For me, no question is off limits. I am not satisfied with the idea that if the Bible says it, then that settles it, for the questions are too numerous and too serious. And, let’s be honest, the Bible could be wrong.

That’s why I like Thomas, Jesus’ disciple we call “Doubting Thomas”. When I read the story of Thomas from John 20, I resonate with this figure who, unfortunately, has become the straw-man for those who need proof of Jesus’ resurrection. His nickname has become synonymous with all those who cannot believe without proof. But was Thomas such a bad guy? Were his doubts about Jesus’ resurrection an expression of his lack of faith? And, was Jesus condemning Thomas for his doubts? I am inclined to say no to all three of these questions.

But I think the most refreshing thing for me about Thomas is that he expresses what it means to be human. We are prone to doubts and confusion simply because we are finite human beings. We are inclined not to believe certain things simply because our minds are so grounded in our experience as a way to gain certain knowledge. And so, it is only natural for us to be skeptical about certain things, especially those things that seem to be far fetched ideas. And religious ideas can be very far fetched.

I’ll be completely honest, but I hope you will excuse my honesty at this point. When I compare the various religious traditions and what they say about God, a serious look at Christianity suggests that our closely held beliefs are about as crazy as you can get.

Seriously. Think about it. Is it entirely reasonable to believe in a God who had a son, who this God had killed so that the sins of humanity, committed against that God, could be forgiven? If you don’t think those are far fetched ideas, then you should speak to a Jew or a Muslim, who look with great confusion at Christianity.

But we could push this even further by talking about the existence of God in the first place. For centuries philosophers have argued for the existence of God from a rational position. Their classical arguments are well structured and nuanced.

But even though these philosophical arguments are very sophisticated, they cannot prove that God does indeed exist. In fact, although it is easy for our culture to despise atheists and agnostics for their lack of belief in God, the reality is that the arguments against the existence of God that atheists propose are perhaps more convincing than those that argue for God’s existence.

The point I am trying to make is that faith is often a tough thing; at least it is for me. I wish I could stop the questions and simply just say I believe. But, unlike many folks I know, I cannot. I have actually heard people say that it is not a matter of not being able to believe, it is a matter of not wanting to believe. But this is false. Many people want to believe, including me, but sometimes those beliefs are not possible.

I cannot force myself to believe everything just because the Bible says it or because Christian tradition teaches it. I can certainly accept many things from the Bible and from the traditional teachings of the church, but I also have my doubts, and often these doubts are numerous and quite intense. Indeed, there are days that I doubt that God really does exist, or that prayer does work, or that Jesus was raised from the dead, and even if rising from the dead means a physical resurrection.

But, I came to a place in my life many years ago when I decided to be honest with myself. I decided that I would not just keep saying I believed in God or Jesus or certain things about either God or Jesus. For me, faith is not an absolute belief or knowledge that God exists, that Jesus rose from the dead, or that everything happens for a reason. And, I am particularly doubt stricken when I see the suffering in our world.

Perhaps what really does it for me is the way that we think of God in very personal and individualistic terms. I am not saying that God is not personal, or that God cannot be described in personal terms. What I am saying is that there are views of God that, in my mind, actually fly in the face of believing in the God many Christians claim exists.

For example, I have heard people say they prayed about things such as getting a certain job and they got it, and then they attribute this to God, when at the same time thousands, even tens of thousands are killed by a tsunami. I have a huge problem with this. Why would I want to believe in a God who is concerned that my happiness is achieved, but who seems to be unconcerned with the deaths of thousands?

But that is just one of those quirky questions that is always at the forefront of my mind. That is why Merton’s quote is at the bottom of my email. I prefer to live with the questions rather than the answers. For me, this is the life of faith.

Monday, May 23, 2011

End-Time Delusions and the False Prophets Who Create Them

(In light of the "rapture" not taking place this past Saturday, I am re-posting a piece that I wrote back in November of 2009.)

I thought Hal Lindsey was dead, but I discovered he is quite alive when I ran into him on TV the other night. But not only is he very much alive, the end-times prophecy that forms the basis of his theological and political perspective on the world is also very much alive.

While Lindsey is a senior figure of this movement, perhaps the most prolific prophet of end-time theology is John Hagee. Hagee is a master at using charts and graphs to offer exactly how things are going to happen in the end.

But by reaching many more people than what Lindsey and Hagee could ever reach, the Left Behind Series has done more to popularize end-time theology. This series of books has contributed greatly to the growing fascination that many Christians have with the end-times.

The basic teaching of end-time theology has several key points that are important to understand. First, those who preach this message believe that a person known as the anti-Christ will rise up and rule the world. The problem is that for decades now, many have pointed to various historical figures as the anti-Christ.

Second, there is the idea of a rapture, which will take place at a point in time in which Christians will somehow disappear from earth, apparently teleporting to heaven much like a scene out of Star Trek. The idea is that Christians will be taken from earth before things get really bad.

Third, Israel plays a significant role in Christian end-time theology. Indeed, these prophets equate ancient Israel directly with the State of Israel. They preach that America must support Israel’s desire to hold on to confiscated land in order to be on God’s side, despite the atrocities the Israeli government may carry out against the Palestinians.

But the most egregious theological error these prophets preach is that the world will end in an apocalyptic battle in the Middle East, when Muslim nations will attack Israel and the world will erupt in a cataclysmic war to end all wars. Indeed, many of them express joy as they salivate over the prospects of an end-time war.

What are we to make of these teachings that are not just harmless ramblings from crazy street preachers? How are we to understand their messages, and better yet, critique them in light of the gospel of peace that Jesus proclaimed?

A starting point for us might be to look at what Jesus says in Mark 13, where we hear him speak about one of the most catastrophic events to take place in Jerusalem during the first century; the destruction of the temple.

As Mark 13 begins, we find Jesus and his disciples coming out of the temple. As they come out, one of the disciples points to the temple saying, "Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!"

Did Jesus not know that the temple was large and magnificent? Had this fact escaped him? No, Jesus knew very well how large and magnificent the temple was; everyone did. Thus, a reasonable explanation as to why the disciple draws Jesus’ attention to the magnitude of the building is to remind Jesus of the significance of the temple for the faithful in and around Jerusalem.

Indeed, for the Jews, and for Jewish followers of Jesus who continued to frequent the temple, the temple was a constant reminder of God’s presence among them despite the oppression of Roman rule. The temple was the one sure foundation in the religious life of the people. This is perhaps why the disciple points out the large stones to Jesus. But this is also why Jesus takes this moment to talk about the temple’s destruction.

But the response of the four disciples to Jesus’ words about the temple is very revealing. “Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign that all these things are about to be accomplished?"

Notice the emphasis of their query. When will this happen? What will be the sign that this is about to happen? These followers of Jesus sound much like Hal Lindsey, John Hagee, and the rest of the false prophets of end-time doom. Focused on the signs of the end, they try to see these signs in significant historical events. But Jesus uses this as a teaching moment to warn them, and to warn them particularly against false prophets who come in his name.

In his warning about the false prophets, Jesus says to these sign-seeking disciples that the events we interpret as signs of the end are always happening and will continue to happen. They are not signs that the end is here, and if some are preaching this, they are false prophets who will lead us astray.

The message that these false prophets have is that the world is ending, so let’s not only look for the signs, let’s also hurry things along. Let’s forget about seeking good in the world, making peace in the world, and improving our world. Let’s instead focus our attention on how quickly we can get to the end.

Jesus is not unaware that catastrophic events like natural disasters, famines, and wars cause us to think things are getting worse in the world. But he is not calling us to see them as signs that the end is near. Jesus is telling us that these events should call us to action as his followers; they should move us to live the gospel more faithfully until the end.

Living the gospel faithfully expresses a lasting hope that does not need to look for signs of what is to come. The events that unfold in our world that cause those false prophets to preach their doomsday gospel about the end, are really the events that ought to continually shake us into action as Christ’s ambassadors who are called to live and proclaim the good news, not the bad news.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Christian Faith in Flux

(Note to readers: After about a 5 month hiatus due to various important responsibilities, I am hoping to return to consistent writing and posting. Please continue to check back.)

The 21st century world is one that is in constant flux. The advances in technology, the continuing spread of globalization, the uprisings in the Arab world, and the growing interaction between diverse cultures presents our modern world with continuous and unstoppable change. This is indeed not the world the previous generation experienced, and it is not the world many of us envisioned in our formative years. But this world has come to us, or rather has been created by us, and thus we can either try to halt such rapid change or we can invest our energy into reframing our lives to fit within this change.

While such flux does have an impact on every part of our lives, both individually and as a society, one important aspect of our lives that is feeling the weight of these significant cultural, technological, and global shifts is religion and the values which are derivatives of religion. Shifts in religious culture are never isolated from the broader cultural changes. Any significant social, economic, and political shifts in a society will result in a shift in that society’s religious understanding and practice. History is evidence of this, particularly as one considers the social and political underpinnings of the Protestant Reformation.

Author Phyllis Tickle has called what Christianity is currently experiencing “The Great Emergence”, and she likens the current shift to the Protestant Reformation. While time will tell whether we are experiencing something akin to the Reformation, the Christian faith is certainly going through noteworthy challenges and adjustments. We will have to wait and see how these changes shape the future of religion, particularly for those who grew up in a so-called Christian America.

However, at the moment, there is at least a growing grassroots Christianity that has become more open and more progressive in its understanding of belief and practice. Much of this movement may have some of its roots in the theological battles that have engrossed various Christian traditions over the last few decades. Many of these progressive Christians, like me, have become weary of these schisms, seeing them as distracting the church from its authentic mission in the world.

Moreover, many of these Christians who have embraced the progressive label are beginning to understand the importance of working with others for the common good of the world, regardless of religious affiliation or no religious affiliation. These progressives are no longer buying sectarian views of the world. Rather, they understand the world as the community of humanity, and they are embracing a much larger call for people of faith to work toward the common good of humanity. All of this has and will continue to have an effect on the way Christians live in a society undergoing constant change.

As intelligent beings who are constantly receiving messages and signals through various experiences, we process these messages through our own frames of reference. These frames of reference are formed by our own histories, our own cultures, and our own beliefs, whether religious or not. But, in terms of religious beliefs, many people use religion as their primary way to understand life. This is not in itself a bad thing, but it can present challenges to people whose religious perspectives are confronted by the flux of our world.

If the church is to do more than survive the current and inevitable changes that are occurring in order to remain relevant in the midst of these shifts, then people of faith must rethink and reframe Christian belief and practice. By stating that we should rethink Christian beliefs, I am not suggesting that all of these are outdated, although some are. Nor am I saying that some of these important theological ideas should be thrown out, although some should. Indeed, what we confess about our faith is vitally important to Christian identity; without beliefs we cease to be Christian.

But theology is always formulated in context, whether that theology is shaped as formal or personal. While the Bible and our Christian traditions have significant influence on shaping our theology, our experiences will play a major part in what we develop as our theology. This means that the theology that has been passed down from generation to generation, whether based on the Bible or tradition, or some combination of both, becomes ours only after we have reframed it to our own world and through our own experiences.

Therefore, to be progressive means that we must take seriously the texts of the Bible, the creeds and confessions of the church, and the historic theology of our Christian heritage. To ignore them or to discard them completely will result in the loss of Christian identity. But to be progressive also means that we need not transfer all of this to our own context as if the Bible, the creeds and confessions, and the historic theology of our Christian heritage are stone tablets. We have to reframe these in order that Christian theology becomes relevant for every context.

This may not be an easy process, and it is certainly not a willy-nilly method. Moreover, some Christians will hold out as long as they can before embracing such change. Indeed, those who are fundamentalists are called this because they generally do not accept these changes to their fundamental understandings about the Christian faith. Fundamentalists will refuse to reframe religious beliefs, choosing instead to hold on to what they see as revealed and unchangeable truth.

But those who do embrace this change must somehow reframe their understandings of their beliefs about God, the Bible, and the Christian faith to fit their own context. Reframing can mean minor adjustments to what we believe about our faith, or it can bring about major paradigm shifts in the way we think and believe. This is not a haphazard or insincere approach to theology and faith, for we must remain in dialogue with the scriptures and the traditions that have been passed on to us. In reframing our faith, we are not completely throwing out the old in order to make room for the new.

“The only human institution which rejects progress is the cemetery.” If I am not mistaken, that statement has been attributed to Harold Wilson, British Prime Minister in the 1960s and 1970s. Regardless of who said it, the statement is apropos to the church’s place in a world of change. The church can remain a stagnant institution leading it to a place of irrelevancy in the changing world. Or, progressives can continue to lead the charge of reframing the Christian faith in order to remain authentically relevant to a world in constant flux.