In the United States, the right-wing side of the Christian community recently became enraged when an evangelical pastor posted a pic on FB and Twitter of a Bible labeled as “fiction” at Costco. Ed Stetzer at Christianity Today is connected with the pastor on Twitter and talked with him about it. Here’s the piece: http://www.christianitytoday.com/edstetzer/2013/november/another-day-another-faux-christian-outrage-costcos-fiction-.html?visit_source=twitter
Near the end of his comments, Pastor Caleb Kaltenbach said the Bible always confronts people with a question: Is it true or not? This is a valid question, in our Western minds. We always want to weigh things empirically with analysis and ask if “it” is true or not. This may be a proposition or set of propositions, ideas or concepts posed for belief. However, the Bible isn’t on our Western post-Enlightenment wavelength and faith is seated in the soul, not the mind. The mind cannot believe; it can only think.
I believe the Bible was inspired by the Holy Spirit, but written by people. Those people were inspired, but there are different ways in which they could be inspired at one given time. There are layers of inspiration, as there are layers of meaning in the text and the writers did not think as we do. For them, and for faith itself, the empirical question doesn’t arise: not because an answer that “yes, it is true” is presupposed, but because sacred text is an ocean we dive into for exploration. That exploration is, in part, an intellectual exercise – we play with how doctrines look from different angles and through different filters. Church history is rich with different doctrinal structures, and they are sometimes so completely different that they seem worlds apart. Closer together, there are different nuances of meaning that shed very different light on Biblical teachings. So, the question that a Biblical way of thinking starts with is not “Is it true?,” but “How is it true.” We ask this, not because we’ve settled the very valid, though Western question we all have, but because we realize we must go on a journey of exploring the matter before we can ask that question.
The whole time, as we are conducting this intellectual exercise, we discover that our eyes themselves (figuratively-speaking) are being changed. We Westerners are obsessed with what we look at, whereas the Bible is more concerned with how we look at it. Our Western – binary – way of processing information doesn’t quite fit with reading the Bible. To do so is to treat it as a textbook or a constitution, which was how the Old Testament Law was treated and most of the Christian church has brought this way of thinking to the New Testament. There are pieces of Biblical text that should be interpreted literally, but even with some of those, context sheds a unique light on that literal interpretation that will leave us with different understandings of the Bible’s teaching compared to what we end up with when context is not our framework for handling the text. Our perception – how we think – can be changed and in that, it is not just our minds that touch transformation. That re-formative power is the Word of God in the midst of the text. This is the Bible’s power.
Christ is the Word of God. It is not the Bible itself that transforms us – Christ does by means of the Holy Spirit. The Bible is called out by the Spirit as the training ground in and through which we encounter Christ, the Word of God, who is The Truth.
Not only do we Westerners come to the Bible with the default question posed as “is it true?,” we also ask “what is truth?” This assumes the answer is ideological.
In Christianity, the question is not posed as “what” is truth, but “who” is truth. Let’s explore that:
Dietrich Bonhoeffer posed a couple hypothetical scenarios in “Ethics” in which there is a certain tension. In one, there is a schoolboy who is continually late for class. His father is an alcoholic and the boy’s tardiness stems, in one way or another, from his father’s addiction. The teacher knows the child’s father is an alcoholic and on one occasion when the boy is late to school, the instructor calls him out when he enters the classroom. “What’s the matter Johnny, was your father drunk again?” The boy is put on the spot and embarrassed in front of all his classmates. Bonhoeffer points out that there are two Commandments at play here: Thou Shalt Not Lie and Thou Shalt Honor Thy Father and Mother. The boy is in a “catch 22.” He can tell the truth and hang his father out to dry by not protecting him from the disgrace he has brought upon himself and, one may say, deserves, or the boy can lie and obviously break that commandment.
Bonhoeffer reasons that the boy should not only lie, but lie for all he is worth. The brilliant theologian maintained that if the boy tells the truth, he dishonors his father and honors the teacher. If he lies, he honors his father and dishonors the teacher. Bearing relationship in mind, the boy has a greater duty to be faithful to his father and his relationship with his father than he does whatever relationship he has with the teacher. So, for Bonhoeffer, “truth” and “faithfulness” are interchangeable terms.
In the other scenario, a woman living in Nazi Germany is hiding a Jewish family in her basement. After serving them a meal, she comes back upstairs and hears a knock at the door. It’s the Gestapo. They are patrolling door-to-door on the hunt for Jews. They ask her if she has seen any Jews lately. What is she to do? Now, I think common sense dictates she should lie and not so much as blink an eye at the mere hint it could be a transgression or a sin in any manner. However, religion can get in the way when it thinks of truth in philosophical terms. In a college course called “Christian Philosophy,” the professor proposed this scenario and put the question to the class: What should the woman do? One student said she should “tell the truth and trust God.”
In exploring the tension between commandments and how to live out being faithful to them in real-life situations, the point Bonhoeffer makes is that to be faithful is to be true. So, for us, faithfulness to Christ is our very faith. This may play itself out differently from one situation to the next and it may require breaking a rule or two because it is a living faith as opposed to a static religion based on rules and “traditions of men,” as Jesus called them.
In Christian teaching, how things are framed and the angle we take on them makes all the difference in the world. For example, some of us think Jesus is our savior because he died on the cross. For others, he died on the cross because he is our savior – period. These are not subtle differences because they have completely different ripple effects. Let’s explore them just a little bit.
If I say Jesus is our savior because of his death on the cross, I am placing Christ himself to the side of his death. What I’m really saying is that his death is our savior. This makes perfect sense if one has been taught one of the “blood atonement” theories. I have written extensively about that in other posts.
However, If I say Jesus died on the cross (for our sin) because he is our savior, I am saying two key things: 1. He is our savior in his person, his “being” and that does not depend on anything he did; and 2. I am placing “blood atonement” theories on the back-burner behind recapitulation theory.
These are some pretty thick theological statements, so I will unpack them in as concise a manner as I can. Most of the time, when religious people speak of “the cross,” or “the blood,” they are using the language symbolically – pointing to the crucifixion. This is because their theological and doctrinal model places the crucifixion at the center as relating most-essentially to our salvation. This is because they have been taught a doctrine that says Jesus died to appease God in some way, be it God’s righteousness/justice or those things and God’s supposed wrath. Entire books have been written on this subject, but our purpose here is to look at framing and the difference it makes in how Christian teaching is internalized by the faithful. In the case of blood-based atonement doctrine, the death of Jesus on the cross is framed in the Temple sacrifice of the Old Testament. In the O.T., religion painted a picture of a god who was mad at human transgressions – the things we do that break God’s law. God couldn’t just up and forgive this; a penalty had to be paid and people thought that meant giving a sacrifice. They thought God had instituted this system in order to make forgiveness possible. Again, this is a concise summary.
Flash forward to Christ. Part of the benefit of framing his death in Temple sacrifice is that it enabled the church with a doctrine they could use as a tool. They could say God gave a sacrifice so huge that it applies once and for all. This enabled people to move beyond their felt-need to appease God by killing animals every year at the Temple. They believed God needed or required this; now they can move beyond that and explore new understandings of who God is. In that void, the church had a new understanding of God to present to them that revolved around Christ as “the image of the invisible God.” Not divorced from Christ’s “doing,” this places focus on Christ’s person.
So, if a Christian says Jesus died for our sin because he is our savior, one is placing focus on his person. He is our savior, not his death or (symbolically) the cross itself. One is also placing emphasis on the separation (sin) that took place in the Garden of Eden, more so than on the sins, or sinful acts, we commit as a result. When we place the emphasis on the root issue, we are boiling things back one more step from Jesus “doing” to his “being.” So, now his death on the cross is an extension of the role he plays as our savior in his person. In this role, the early church taught that Christ is God’s “New Adam” who recapitulates the separation Adam is held responsible for in the Garden of Eden.
When our understanding of atonement moves from Temple sacrifice as a framework, which as a doctrine dates no earlier than the 10th Century, to framing it in Christ’s role as the New Adam, which dates back to the end of the 1st Century, we can see the significant difference framing means to religious teaching.
The meaning of the cross is not diminished in the least, but when we further explore the ripple effect, we could go so far as to say our atonement was ushered in when Christ was born. Christmas and Easter are One. They play something like the set of book ends on what theologians call “salvation history” from Genesis to Revelation – except we are still living out the timeline.
“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’ (Matthew 7:21-23, ESV)
The Christian church, in the U.S. at least, presents itself in a wide array of styles and attitudes. They range from a handful of tatted-up and pierced-up strays and misfits (I claim these terms for myself) meeting in a New York City bar to hear the Gospel from the son of a former televangelist to the churches in “everytown, USA” full of grey-haired people in suits and dresses with a roaring pipe organ that can be heard down the street.
I wasn’t raised in a religious home, so I’ve never understood the stuffy formality and conformity thing. It mirrors the establishment, which is the opposite of Jesus. For me, my relationship with God was fresh and exciting. I was a radical and a non-conformist who didn’t trust the system. Yet, I grew up. I really, really did not want to, but we all want to find some measure of success and stability in this world and that means getting along. You end up conforming, even as you lose your hair or your butt gets bigger and your boobs sag and you grieve not having that tight body you had when you were 18, but God doesn’t give a shit about that. That’s good news.
I conformed. Well, somewhat. And the more I have suffered for being me in a world that wants to make me a cookie-cutter, the more tempting it has been to conform even more. We humans – we Christians – have a long history of doing that. The church got into bed with Rome. Then, after the Reformation, it got into bed with Western European wealth and aristocracy. Today, we know these churches as “mainline Protestant” denominations. Some of these churches have loosened up, but most of them haven’t.
I have been in these churches before; I went to one recently and good night! there were a lot of grey heads and suits! I’ve never understood this tradition of “giving God your best” by wearing what cultural norms and mores label as our “best” clothes, as though God gives a shit about that. What kind of God do we think God is? Don’t get me wrong – I’m not judging people or their motivations – I’m judging the religious practice itself. It seems quite divorced from reality.
One day, we’re going to stand before God and the only thing we can clothe ourselves in – then and now – is humility. In other words, nakedness. Radical vulnerability. In terms of the false self/ego/sinful nature, we are blind and helpless to perfect ourselves. We are totally deprived of any ability to kill our ego. No matter what we do, even our utter best is flawed. There is no perfection in us, so we can’t stand before God and make claim to our own righteousness – we have none. We can’t refer to our resumes of religious credentials and remind God of the Godly things we think we did. In all our ways, we are held captive by our false self – our ego and its pride.
The only thing we can do is be honest with ourselves about ourselves before God and embrace a humility based on and couched in the truth about our True Self. When we know there is a part of us beyond our ego; a divine fingerprint that is not separated from God as is our ego – then, and only then, can we be honest about our ego/fallen nature without despair and grief. Only then can we freely embrace the fact that we are blind and helpless, yielding to God our tendency to want to dress ourselves up in our own pretension.
For those of us who are religious (God, help us), we not only have to beware of the spirit of the world creeping into ourselves and our churches, but we also have to beware of the spirit of religion. It creeps up on us like the heat does on a frog in a frying pan. Religion can be its own ugly beast to which we conform to make ourselves presentable to God and each other. The whole time, it’s a ruse. Take it to the wall and some of us go so far as to “sanctify” our pride like the Pharisee who said “God, I thank you that I am not like that tax collector over there – that sinner!“
Some say we need “continuing reformation.” Maybe we do – not so much in terms of doctrines and politics, but one where we rest in God’s love for us all without a felt-need to pretend or prove ourselves. This takes grace, but it isn’t cheap. The price to our ego is high, because this grace requires our naked trust in God. There is no other clothing we can wear.
Mark 10:13-16: “People were bringing little children to him in order that he might touch them; and the disciples spoke sternly to them. But when Jesus saw this, he was indignant and said to them, ‘Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.’ And he took them up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them.”
I will first throw out some little-known big words, then we’ll talk about them.
Ketaphatic thinking comes natural to humans and is the way the dualistic mind operates. However, the contemplative mind thinks apophatically and God has to interrupt the former to shortcircuit it when putting someone on a crash course of reprogramming. This is what God did by blinding Paul and replacing his way of “seeing” over the next 14 years between his experience on the road to Damascus and when his Apostolic ministry began. OK, this is deep- stuff, so let’s unpack it and take away the headache I’ve already given you…
First, definitions: to think dualistically is to split everything we encounter into good and bad. Ketaphatic thinking is to look at and define something by what it is. We mostly know what something is by examination, but we also know what it is and conduct that examination by ruling out what it isn’t and framing what something is by what it isn’t. So, dualistic thinking enables ketaphatic thinking and they go hand-in-hand as two sides of the same coin. They belong to the ego, the false self, or sinful fallen nature.
In contrast, nondual thinking doesn’t automatically split things because it doesn’t look at, it looks through. It’s important to note that nondual thinking isn’t over-and-against dualistic thinking, but builds on it. It embraces analysis and the fact that some things are split – but it doesn’t assume it. Before it looks at, it looks through. It sees the big picture first, then looks at the subject matter in a more narrow fashion, whereas dualistic thinking only knows the narrow view and only looks at instead of through.
Apophatic thinking defines things by what they aren’t. Instead of looking at and analyzing, it takes a broader view and gets a sense about what something is, but does not define it directly. The closest it comes to doing so is to define what peripheral things are and rule them out. For example, theology distinguishes between God’s essence and God’s energies. We say a lot of things about God, such as “God is omnipresent,” “God is transcendent and imminent” and “God is omniscient.” Picture a circle – these things we say about God are each partial descriptions and form a circumference while we speak not of the center, or essence of God, so as to define that which, ultimately, is mystery. Apophatic thinking acknowledges and respects that divine mystery. These two also go hand-in-hand, forming two sides of the same coin. In the deepest and oldest of the Christian tradition, this is called the contemplative mind.
I visited an evangelical Bible study group recently and the topic of discussion was forgiveness. It was a very small group consisting of three women, myself and another man. One of the ladies said “If we don’t forgive others for their sins against us, God can’t forgive us for our sins against Him.” This is when I broke my silence by correcting this heretical statement.
I clearly laid out the fact that God is love. Therefore, God is forgiveness. Our sins are forgiven every time – before we confess our sins, ask for forgiveness or release anger and bitterness toward another person. However, we can prevent ourselves from receiving God’s forgiveness if we don’t forgive others who wrong us or if we have unconfessed sin or something of that matter that disrupts our inner communion with God.
Unfortunately, the three women chose to actually argue against this spiritually-liberating truth and ganged up on me. They started by using scripture to make their point and went to a verse in Isaiah. I quickly pointed out that this was the Old Testament. This is significant because Christ had not been revealed when Isaiah lived or when the book bearing his name was written. The early church proclaimed Christ as “the image of the invisible God” who is the central revelation of God in all of human history – we know what God is like by looking to Jesus. The Old Testament was written at a time when humans thought God was much less loving than we know God to be because of Christ. Because of Christ and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit upon the early church, we have the Gospels and the rest of the New Testament, which proclaims God as being much more than loving, but as being love itself and in the highest form imaginable.
However, they argued this by proclaiming that the Bible is “the true word of God, every word.” The one lady asked me point blank “do you believe the Bible is the true word of God.” I paused because she was asking a loaded question, yet demanding a simple answer. Theology doesn’t work that way. One of the other ladies chimed in “is it God-breathed? Is it inspired?” I boldly proclaimed “It is definitely God-breathed and inspired.” The first lady asked “every word?” I must have paused again; I know I never blacked out, but I wish I had. “Conversations” like this give my soul a type of headache. They serve no purpose because I can’t help these people. I avoid “conversations” like this like the plague and even avoid these kind of people just to spare myself the frustration. They caught themselves, for which I give them credit, and admitted they were insensitive and intolerant. They asked me to forgive them, but I wasn’t angry. I didn’t respond to this as though I had been wronged. So, it stuck out to me that evangelicals think because they wrong someone, that other person feels wronged and is angry. Therefore, they assume that person needs to forgive. No! The offender needs to repent, confess and receive forgiveness. That stands on its own, but they refused to understand this point. It strikes me as arrogant to assume God needs to forgive us just because we sin. The sin is our issue, not God’s.
In reflecting on the event, I realize that evangelicals really have a problem with forgiveness. They think they are forgiven because Jesus died on the cross and that because He died on the cross and they have accepted Jesus as their personal Lord and Savior, that God the Father has forgiven them. No, No, No! Because of Jesus, the early church, the New Testament and our faith – we know we are forgiven! It is clear to me now that it is common for many, many evangelicals to not believe God IS love!
Traditional evangelicalism limits God by embracing a small god who only lives and works within cause and effect and a reward/punishment system. This is what people believed in under the Old Covenant, which means the days of the Old Testament. Christ came to put an end to all that and the early church carried on the work. Unfortunately, even in the 1st Century, church people were resurrecting the Old Covenant and dressing it up as the New Covenant by mixing Christ with an Old Covenant-driven theological model. This is what was happening in the Church at Galatia. Paul had an acute handle on what was going on there and addressed it bluntly in his letter, which we know as the Book of Galatians in the New Testament.
The overwhelming majority of evangelical Christians have embraced “Old Covenant 2.0″ under the guise of the New Covenant. When they fail to believe God is love, they fail to believe in Christ – yet in the very name of faith in Christ. Usually, it isn’t faith at all – it’s certitude. If you are ever in evangelical religious circles, watch for people automatically referring to the Bible and it’s supposed-teaching as their authority for religious ideas and concepts, instead of Christ’s teaching and the early church’s teaching about Christ. I have addressed this in greater detail in another blog: http://godislovechristianblog.wordpress.com/2013/05/07/the-church-has-lost-its-love-for-god-in-the-name-of-god/