Not a Fan; Misunderstood God

Along with my podcast partner, John Poelstra, I have finished reading and then producing a number of podcasts assessing Kyle Idleman’s Not a Fan and Darin Hufford’s Misunderstood God.  During these podcasts I was generally unimpressed with these books because I perceived a number of issues with both of them, and one problem in particular.

One way of expressing the problem is that these books both make broad claims yet are actually too narrow.  So where they ‘broadly’ aim at presenting the most important aspect(s) of the Christian faith I think that they fail because they lack correct understandings about (and so, as a result, fail correctly to formulate) who God is, what human beings are, and what the relationship between the two is / should be.

Stated differently, their understandings and formulations are skewed because they are derived too narrowly, and it seems to me that this is in three regards.

First, they offer an insufficient reading of the biblical text.  In this regard my podcast partner John Poelstra qualified Idleman’s use of Scripture as “amateur,” which I think is entirely accurate.  Hufford, by contrast, actually makes no use of Scripture at all: beyond applying the general framework of 1 Cor. 13 to his chapter layout he makes not a single biblical reference.

In other words, to the degree that I have formed my opinions of Christianity from a fairly attentive and rigorous focus on Scripture I necessarily need (and should expect!) Christian authors writing on Christianity to buttress their points with a similarly attentive and rigorous approach to Scripture.  To put it another way, I’m looking for more truth than I currently have, not less!  So when we’re making truth claims based on the Bible I want to be more assured (not less!) that those claims are legitimate, particularly if what’s at stake is me changing my mind about some aspect of the Christian faith.

Second, the points and arguments of each author lack sufficient integration with other, valid information sources (my mentor likes to call these other “informers”).  The basic point here is twofold.

On the one hand, while the biblical text may be rightly interpreted as containing truth claims about God, humanity, and the natural world, such claims are presented as being sufficient but not comprehensive regarding such matters (even regarding God, who is both greater than the text and who is best / most fully imaged in Jesus the Christ, who is the logos—the living word!).

On the other hand, incorporation of other, valid information sources mirrors the basic orientation that must, in my opinion, characterize Christian interaction (both with the Bible, other Christians, and non-Christians): dialogue.  Too often Christians take the position of dispute—defensively presenting their perspective as both comprehensive and ultimate.  Instead we need to assume a posture of openness that allows us to incorporate more truth into our understandings (because if all truth is God’s truth we need not fear it, no matter where we find it) AND fosters productive interaction with outsiders by demonstrating a willingness to listen while maintaining the possibility of critique.

So Idleman’s emphasis on “following”—and particularly, why Christians don’t follow Jesus well—would have appeared much more credible if his viewpoint was informed by thinkers like Neil Fiore or Merold Westphal, whereas Hufford’s emphasis on love would been better grounded (and so seemed more convincing) if he had integrated the thought and research of someone like Brené Brown.

Third, these authors propose an impoverished view of human beings insofar as they target only one aspect of humanness.  By “humanness” I’m referring to the various components that make up human beings (such as our individuation, relationality, situatedness, rationality, emotions, imagination, will, experiences, knowledge claims, situatedness, etc.).  So in these two cases Idleman emphasizes ‘the will’ above all else, whereas for Hufford it is ‘the heart’ or the emotions.

Yet a full and robust presentation of the relation between God and human beings must likewise address (and incorporate) the entirety of the human being!  In other words, both reason and the emotions / feelings, the will and the imagination, as well experiences and knowledge claims—the entirety of what it means to be human must both be considered and incorporated into any presentation of what is most crucial to the Christian faith.

So from my perspective, from both my studies and my experience, that which is most essential to the Christian God and human beings may best be summarized under the flexible co-centrality of love and truth, truth and love.  Yet my belief is that these ‘top level’ characteristics / orientations do not suppress or deny the scope of our humanness but rather situate it properly, by most accurately representing that context within which the full scope of our humanness can meet the richest and most biblical portrayal of who God is, a harmony that is also borne out by my personal experience of / with God.

And this, I wager, is what Christians both want and would expect to see: a view of God and self that accurately reflects the biblical claims; understandings and experiences of self and God / self with God that both confirm and enliven those same claims.

Grace and Truth or Love and Truth?

I take my sense of the word “grace” mostly from the New Testament (the word “charis” in Greek), though the English word grace is also found in Jeremiah 31, a crucial chapter relative to the “new covenant.”  Now there are some 155 uses of “charis” in the the NT (115 or so being translated as “grace”) and all of them bear examination.  For the sake of space I am focusing here on Romans 4:16.1

I have chosen this example because it offers a terse but ready contextualization for the use of grace (“charis”) in what I believe to be its correct context: in connection with both promise and covenant.

Romans 4:16  “For this reason it [the promise to Abraham] depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all his descendants, not only to the adherents of the law but also to those that share the faith of Abraham (for he is the father of us all . . .”  Grace in this sense means “a beneficent disposition towards someone” in the sense of “that which one grants to another / the action of one who volunteers to do something not otherwise obligatory.”  (From the Bauer-Danke Greek / English lexicon).

Two points appear important:

On the one hand, Romans 4:1-25 is considered to be a logical unit and the use of grace in Rom 4:16 in contextualized by its use in Rom 4:4, where “charis” is translated as “gift.”  Particularly, grace is the mode or manner of the action—the ‘how’, if you like.  So we have the close association between grace and gift: that which is given freely and without being earned.

On the other hand, Rom 4:16 is a wonderful encapsulation of grace within its actual context: the extraordinary reality that a) God committed to a promise before entering into the covenant (in Gen 12) and b) God “made good” on this promise by “making good” on the covenant, through the life and death of Jesus the Christ (see Rom 3:21-26, much of Rom 5, etc.).

In other words, grace (“charis”) is how God both a) began his main dealings with humankind through Israel and b) completed those dealing to the inclusion of all peoples, through Jesus.  But note that if grace is how God acted, it is not why.

Why did God choose to freely give both full relationship (via the covenant) and the means for that relationship to be accomplished (via the life and death of Jesus)?  While I would like to go much deeper with my argument here, the most basic answer is that God acted / chose to act according to God’s character.  And against those who focus on sovereignty to the exclusion of all else, the Bible clearly characterizes God as both sovereign and father / parent.

So with such clear biblical indications as “God is love” (1 John 4) and “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believed in him should may not perish but may have eternal life” (John 3), I attribute the ‘Why’ of God’s action to God’s passionate love (in general and for humanity specifically), such that God enacted God’s love toward us for the purpose of furthering relationship with us and for establishing God’s kingdom with and through us.

God does require certain things of us as our sovereign, but the gift—the grace—of God comes to us as a matter of God’s love and specifically as an expression of God’s fatherly and parental love. In other words, grace is that mode of expression by which God most truly expresses God-self: grace shows God’s love in its truest and fullest light.

In this sense, while I deeply value grace as God’s “mode of engagement” that makes my relationship with God possible (i.e., how the relationship has been made possible) love, along with truth, is the overarching orientation both from God to me and from me to God.

Love is the reason why God offered grace in the first place (and God could legitimately do so because God is truly sovereign and truly father / parent).  Likewise, being loved by God and truly known by God are the reasons why I am nowhere more content and more myself than in my relationship with God (and why I both am passionately in love with God and seek to proclaim God’s existence and character as being truly true).

Without Jesus, apparently, we all “Suck”

What?!

But, on second thought, maybe I should not be too surprised:

In Kyle Idleman’s popular not a fan he states “that the reason that we were put on this planet is to answer this one question,” that being, “What if there really is a heaven and a hell, and where I spend eternity comes down to this one question?”  (p. 21, italics his).

For Kyle, Christianity is about reward and punishment.  Either we will accept Jesus and believe (and so receive the reward of heaven) or we reject Jesus and disbelieve (and so suffer the punishment of hell).  Further, throughout the book Kyle is at pains to emphasize how Christianity “costs” a great deal, such as how Christians should hate everyone else by comparison to how much they love God and how, as a Christian, I should “empty myself of me” to make space for the Holy Spirit. (pp 65 & 95).

So where Christianity is about gaining reward and avoiding punishment, and where loving God means (practically) hating others and effacing myself, it’s not surprising to find something like www.withoutjesusisuck.com (WJIS).  Both exemplify a key notion in evangelical Christianity: at best you’re a problem; at worst you’re worthless.

But this should raise a few questions:

Why would God create something that “sucks”?  Why, indeed, would God love something that “sucks”?  And why would God purportedly die for something that “sucks”?

Now many evangelicals would be quick to interject: “No!  God created us as wonderful, and then we messed it up by sinning.  While we sin we can do nothing right.  And the fact that God loves us so much that God gave up his only son to die for us and take away our sin, that is the wonder and mystery of God’s love that we can never comprehend.”

Yet the upshot of an incomprehensible situation, obviously, is that we can’t figure it out.  So we have only two options: either believe or don’t.  In fact, we are right back with Kyle Idleman’s two choices.  And really, if you can actually believe that God is real, then practically there is no choice: no sane or moral person would choose not to be a Christian.  Pretty nifty how that works, huh?

Not really.  I think it’s crap (and I’m not even Scottish).

First, the idea that God’s love for us is incomprehensible is both bogus and unbiblical.  Bogus because if God’s “love” were completely unrelated to human love then it would be impossible to experience it as love—it would not be “love” in any sense that we know it.  Unbiblical because the Bible is totally clear on this point: in order to be in right relationship with God we can and must experience God’s love, we must “taste and see” God’s goodness 1.  And this experience must, at minimum, be comprehensible and “square with” our general understandings of love.

Second, God loves us now, as we are.  For as I’ve tried to argue elsewhere, sin is not the problem but its symptom.  The problem?  Not being in right relationship with God, and a major part of the solution (along with having better, truer understandings of who God is, who humans are, and how the two should relate) is that we experience God’s love and understand it as such.

Third, it is clear that I can and do act, think, etc., in ways that are good.  Not “good” in some sort of absolute, modernist way—no one is arguing for that.  No, in the same way that Postmodernism never means “absolutely anything goes” (outside of advertisements for pizza toppings), so “doing right things” is not a claim to absolute goodness that challenges either God’s holiness or the necessity of Jesus dying in fulfillment of the covenant.

So you don’t suck, and neither do I.

God loves you, and God loves me. God loves us now, as we really are, and also as we best could be, as seen through the lens of God’s love and God’s truth.

And that’s the T-shirt we need.

Obama is Buddhist?

 

“God has taken them home.”

So U.S. President Obama accounts for the wanton killing of grade schoolers in Newtown, CT.  But does this view sit well with us?  Does it ease our pain or explain the unthinkable?  And does it present God in a way that encourages trust or hope?

My answer: e) None of the above.

Situations like Sandy Hook are so terrifying that it can be tempting to think that God must be pulling the strings.  We want to believe that someone is in control and that somewhere there is good to be found in it.  Yet ironically, by diminishing human agency and responsibility for evil we likewise strip ourselves of our agency and responsibility for good.

For if this is all God’s will, then really we can do nothing about it: who can resist God?

No.  Far from rekindling hope or even allowing fuller expression of our grief, at best this view results in complacency.  At worst, I reckon it results in despair.

Complacency because taking what is evil and “sanctifying” it (through ascribing it to God) subverts our most natural human responses: should we grieve or feel upset about God’s will?  At best the implication is that our grief and rage are really misplaced—the result of being too limited (or if you theology is more heavy-handed, too sinful) to understand that this is all for some “greater good.”  Ironically again, such a view has more in common with Buddhism than Christianity.

Despair because, faced with this perspective, we must necessarily understand our emotions, goals, and even our children as insignificant—unimportant before the lofty designs of God.  For a god who “calls home” little children via such murderous and seemingly purposeless action is, like a maleficent version of Zeus, a fearful entity indeed.  Before such a God we cannot but despair.

Many reject this god.  And those that accept it?  Well, is it any wonder that so much of evangelical Christianity seems based on fear and rule-following rather than on love and truth?

In reality Obama’s view denies us the very substance that the Psalmist would have us rely upon, both in coming to embrace God and as that which fosters and furthers right relationship with God: the created order, within which we are called to “taste and see” God’s goodness.

Now hear me rightly: I see no goodness in this situation.  It is not something “in light of which” I believe in God but something “despite which” I still believe.  But neither is this a situation where Christians should encourage complacency or despair.  Rather, I think the first step is to recognize that the problem of evil is not simply an issue or even a big issue.  To my mind it is the issue.

And if my personal experience with evil is any guide, the second step is for Christians to stand against it and—in evil’s overwhelming shadow—to tell our tales of how God has acted in our lives to heal and mend us.

And this, I think, is where goodness can possibly be found amid evil: not that God solves our issues or addresses all our concerns, but that in place of evil God offers Godself.  Not through the historical work of Christ or theological explanation, important as these are.  But rather as acts of healing and liberation within our everyday existence that convince our minds, inspire our imaginations, and win our hearts—acts of knowing us more truly than we know ourselves and loving us more deeply than we love ourselves.

So against the view that God’ goodness is invisible or, at best, unfathomable, Christians must not only claim with their words but demonstrate—and attest to how God has demonstrated—in their lived existence that God is good.  And we do so not because of but despite the wanton evil that we are able (and clearly, all too wiling) to inflcit upon each other.

Atheism’s “religious” significance—Part 3

 

Recently I have suggested that Christians need first to listen to atheists (before critiquing them) in order to see what we hold in common and to see atheists more as God sees them.  Now I want to take that a step further:

Listening to atheism’s critiques can help Christians better follow Christ.

Come again??

Nope, I mean it.  Literally.

Nor is this some nifty footwork born of Reformed theology.  In other words, I am not suggesting that atheists are some “canonized group” that God has destined to live and die as God’s adversaries, to test and refine the character of us “true believers.”

No.  I firmly believe that God loves all humanity equally and desires that all—all—humans come into right relationship with God.

Instead, the issue is deeper and more complex.  The issue is that the church is not what it should be because it has adopted postures that wrongly collapse tensions necessary to right Christian living into rigidified hierarchies.  Further, because these same hierarchies are presented as articles of faithfulness within the church, the church is effectively blinded to the problem.  In such cases I believe that it takes critically informed outsiders to awaken the church to these unbalances.

So what are these postures?

First, the theological tension between the Holy Spirit’s assistance of believers and the unavoidable effects of sin1 is often collapsed.  The upshot is that many Christians over-emphasize the Spirit’s benefits to the point that it all but obscures the fact that we remain finite humans apt to turn our backs on God (often by deceiving ourselves about how–and how much– we embrace the very practices and beliefs that we claim to disavow).

Once this first tension is collapsed into a hierarchy it becomes all too easy similarly to rigidify confidence over humility, such as in situations where Christians engage with non-Christians, particularly hostile non-Christians or atheists.  Typically these Christians preemptively (and to their detriment) disparage the insights of non-Christians regarding Christian practice, belief, and Scripture because they “know more (and better)” than the non-Christians.

Second, the interpretive (or hermeneutical) tension between biblical truth and lived experience in knowing God (and to live the Christian life) is often collapsed.  The upshot is that many Christians over-emphasize biblical truth to the point that it obscures how love (as central to God’s character) and Christian living both find their fullest expression in committed engagement, not mere examination.

Once this second tension is collapsed it becomes all too easy again to rigidify (attachment to Biblical) truth over love (of neighbour) in situations where such Christians engage with fellow Christians who read the Bible differently.  Typically these Christians disregard the insights of their fellows, such as Liberation Theologians,2 but in doing so they fail to love they neighbour as themselves by failing to respect his or her ideas and texts as their own.

So what does this all mean?

In both cases it means that the church is no longer what it should be.  On the one hand, setting confidence over humility encourages exclusion of other views such that Christians risk falling “into a situation of interpretive arrogance, . . . thinking our words are God’s word.” (Reading in Communion, 110, italics mine).  On the other hand, setting textual explanation over lived understanding (and valuing [biblical] truth over love [of neighbor]) is reductionistic, with the consequence that Christian communities risk being “at best introspective and at worst sectarian.” (Reading, 110).

So what should be done?  Instead of dispute, we need dialogue.

For Christians, dialogue begins by believing that if all truth is God’s truth then we need not fear truth, wherever it may be found.  Dialogue also involves loving the other by listening to them—engaging with their perspectives not by “trying to discover the weakness in what is said, but in bringing out its real strength.” (p Truth & Method, 367).

Dialogue as loving one’s neighbour does not imply uncritical acceptance of another’s conclusions, but rather means prioritizing listening to critique by perceiving their appraisals of Christian practice and belief as “gifts” which may allow Christians to see themselves more truthfully.3

Atheism’s “religious” significance—Part 2

 

Q:  What might happen if Christians first dialogued with atheists about our points of agreement, rather than disputed our disagreements?

From the average Christian, stunned silence.  Or questions like: What would be the point of that?

The point, actually, would be learning something.  And not simply something trivial about “those poor atheists” en route to witnessing to them, but something deeply true (and perhaps even essential) about ourselves as Christians.

More stunned silence, I wager.  But consider this:

Where the Bible indicates that Christians (and all people) “know in part”1 it is calling for Christians to hold confidence and humility in flexible and variable tension.  Thus “knowing in part” implies that all truth is God’s truth (and not ours, as Christians)2 and therefore that Christians should welcome truth wherever it is found (even, as Augustine notes, within “the teachings of the pagans”3).

Hence the need for “tension”: maintaining suppleness regarding how much confidence versus how much humility we apply in any given situation, with the practical upshot that we cultivate the flexibility to adjust this proportion based on new contexts and new information.

In the most general sense, the result of maintaining this tension (and not assuming that we know all that we need to know about atheists) is that we hold off our criticism long enough to listen.  And in listening we find some shocking similarities.  For example, we learn that even the most ardent atheists are concerned about the same things we Christians are.

So where Bertrand Russell vouches that “‘the good life is one inspired by love and guided by knowledge’ ” (of which he claims love is the greater)4, a discussion with such outsiders to Christianity embraces considerations (like love and truth) with which Christians may competently and enthusiastically engage.  Moreover, when we attain Bertrand Russell’s goals we are actually faced with “the problem of good:” having to account for and express wonder at truth, and at the reality of being loved and in love.

Next, where Christians can acknowledge that the atheist’s demand for proof of God’s existence amounts to a common need to “taste and see” God’s goodness (“common” because such experiences of God not only strengthen but create faith), Christians learn not to subordinate experience and sense perceptions to theology.5

So rather than disputing atheists with Scripture Christians can agree, in our post-Shoah world, that God’s love must “show up” in opposition to evil.  Thus instead of disdaining the human need to validate–and the created ability to perceive–goodness in our lived experience, Christians can foster dialogues about what counts as goodness in the ‘here and now’.

Last, given that “no one is born a Christian”6 and that God approaches humanity in creative and surprising ways, Christian must not insist that atheists “think like them” before these outsiders can understand or love aright.

Rather, productively dialoging with outsiders requires Christians to recognize their own conversions (i.e., the situations and understandings that enabled new experiences of God’s truth and love for them) as the gold standard that underwrites their arguments and validates their theological viewpoints.  Thus defending our Christian convictions requires not theological but personal explanation (which in turn contain theological, philosophical, psychological, historical elements and so forth).

This personal content is not superfluous but is intrinsically necessary as that which renders our philosophical arguments and theological viewpoints plausible and enticing to those outside of Christianity.

So by listening to atheists Christians first understand that they have misjudged how much we share in common with them.  Second, the conversations arising from an awareness of shared interests are less disputes fueled by our need to defend God’s truth (and to present biblical truth claims) as dialogues explaining our experiences of God’s truth and love (as our personal, embodied examples of biblical truth values).

To conclude,

When we first dialogue with them, Atheists then become people that need to be understood and loved rather than enemies that need to be contradicted, defeated, or converted.  In other words, we are able to treat them as God sees them: tremendously valuable and worthy of respect… just like us.

Is Christianity “the one true way”?

 

I believe that it is.  But what does this mean?

To begin, I do not mean that only in Christianity is there truth.  Nor do I mean that one can only understand truth if one is a Christian.  Rather, I mean that only in Christianity do I find love that is fully true and fully “for me” and truth that knows me, affirms me, critiques me, and yet offers me back to myself as more the self I long to be than any other.

Here’s why:

My imagination, reason, emotions—all of my faculties and what it is for me to be human and “me”—and my experiences with and of God point to love and truth as being at the core of human existence.  In other words, they are the most essential elements for and within the existence of human beings.

Now this is a big claim, I know.  And beyond questions about a) the exact nature of love and truth, and b) my response to those who don’t value truth and love as I do, there is another issue: isn’t personal experience rather too limited a basis for one’s beliefs?

For I have not arrived at this conclusion based on an existential comparison of various religions—I have not been a Jew, a Hindu, a Muslim, etc. and then compared such with my experience as a Christian.

No, my claim is not that my experience is more real / meaningful than that of others, but that a) love and truth are more essential to right human existence than all else, and b) that love and truth have their origin in the Christian God love and that in relationship with this God we experience the fulfillment of love and truth in our lives.

So my personal experience must be commensurate with who God claims to be.  Only then will there be reciprocity between my truth, as truth-for-me, and God’s ultimate truth, or Truth.

In other words, examining a religion’s truth claims is crucial, because we can only expect from a religion what it claims to offer.  And for me the biblical truth claims are radically different from what I perceive elsewhere:

  1. God created us to be in loving, truthful relationship with us and so that we might be likewise related with God, the earth, our fellows, and ourselves;
  2. We do things that sunder those relationship, which we call ‘sin’;
  3. God chose a people (Israel) and made an arrangement with them (a covenant) for the purpose of dealing with sin and its result, which is separation from God and ultimately death (more on this later).  By Israel keeping the covenant the whole world was to come into right relationship with God;
  4. However, Israel instead viewed the covenant as a matter of national pride (rather than national responsibility) and distorted its laws, which broke the covenant;
  5. Jesus came to fulfill the covenant by living as Israel was to have lived and by accepting the consequences of Israel having broken the covenant (i.e., death) upon his person, so that Israel was not destroyed;
  6. Fulfilling the covenant did not simply result in continuing the old testamental norms but inaugurated the far grander reality of the Kingdom of God, whereby all of existence is able to be reconciled to God through Jesus;
  7. This “new way” meant that the whole world could now be in right  relationship with God, and that God was not simply our sovereign (as with Israel) but our father (as Jesus taught a revolutionary new way to pray: “Our Father who is in heaven . . .”);
  8. So Christians are essentially characterized in two ways, as reflects who God is: as servants who offer obedient service to God the sovereign (i.e., being beholden to God’s t/Truth) and as children who love God, even as God who is our true Father loves us (i.e., being in love with God, who loves us and is love).

The point is this: love and truth are integral to God’s nature (and to the relationship that God desires with us), yet they are likewise quintessentially human (as essential to becoming fully the creatures that we are meant to be, through being in right relationship with God).

Sin, Part Deux

 

Formulate, express, reformulate, clarify.

One of the best things about this writing process is the opportunity to interact with thoughtful people and, from that, to reformulate and clarify my thoughts.

In a recent conversation someone remarked that if Jesus came to take away our sin then isn’t being without sin what it means to be in right relationship with God?

In a nutshell, No.

For sin is not so much “stuff we do wrong against God” as anything that takes out of right relationship with ourselves, others, our world, and particularly God.

Perhaps a comparison will help.  Take Steve Brown’s book, Three Free Sins: God’s Not Mad at You.  For Brown we have “3 free sins” because nothing—nothing—Christians do can separate us from God (and God’s love) because of Christ’s death on the cross.  But I am saying that nothing can separate anyone—anyone, Christian or no—from the love of God because of who God is.

Putting it another way, not acting, thinking, or being of a disposition that distances us from God is not the same thing as being in right relationship with God, just as knowing about God’s love is not the same thing as being in love with God, and having all of one’s orientations informed and directed by one’s love.  Right acting—obedience—is essential for right relationship between humans and the Christian God but is not the relationship itself.

For example, the older brother in the parable of the prodigal son (Luke 15) did all the “right things” and yet was not in right relationship with his father, his brother, or even himself.

Why?

Because he lacked love.  He was completely obedient—he had done everything right—yet he was not rightly disposed towards his father, his brother, or himself.  And this was made clear by his response at his brother’s homecoming.

The error here is that there are two categories that are integral to God and essential to Christianity: love and truth.  In my experience, evangelical Christians typically set truth over love while liberal Christians set love over truth.  Neither works (though we’ll put that discussion on hold for now).

So I would say that we have “no free sins,” because every act, disposition, thought, etc. that puts me into improper relationship with myself, my fellows, my world, and with God is moving me further from my goal and not closer to it.  For what is the goal of one who is in love?  It is to be with the beloved, to be close to that one, engaged with that one.

So it is not a question of “what will be held against us” or of God loving us less on account of our wrongdoing.  Rather, it is a question of who we are and where we are versus who and where we long to be as those beloved of (and in love with) God.  In this context sin is not something that counts against us but that which, to whatever degree, keeps the lover from the beloved.

The pivotal point is this:

It is not only that God loves me but that I love God, because the fitting response to love—by one who in truth knows me more truly that I know myself and who, in love, loves me more deeply than I love myself—is love.

So sin is important, but the primary focus is that God loves us, God desires us, and longs to hear our voices.  And when I sin, I cannot love / relate to / be with God as I long to.

In this sense, then, we come full circle in that we fulfill a command (“Love the lord your God”) that is our greatest command and yet which is our greatest joy to fulfill.  And indeed, how much more could the “law be written within my heart” (Jer 31:33) than that it is my greatest joy to fulfill my greatest command? (NRSV)

Is Sin real?

 

Sin is not the problem with humanity.

Whew!  Nice to get that bit of “heresy” out the way!  But of course, sin must be the problem with humanity.  That’s what the Bible tells us: sin is the problem, and Jesus is the answer, right?

Wrong.

Think about it this way: if sin is the wrong way to be, then sin’s opposite would be the right way to be, which is holy.  So if sin is the problem, and Jesus is the answer, then Jesus came and died to make us holy, right?  But while the New Testament speaks of Christ’s death as removing sin, that is not the goal.  If it were, the matter would be left there.

But it’s not.

Rather, the goal is plainly stated: as part of inaugurating the kingdom of God—that is, claiming all of existence for God and as God’s—Jesus came to renew right relationship between God and all things.  Dealing with sin is part of solving the problem, but it is not the problem.  The problem is that all things (foremost among them, perhaps, human beings) are not in right relationship with God.

Or better, that God loves us and longs for us, but our relationship with God is sundered and needs fixing.

If this is so, then God never see us simply as “sinners” in need of grace but as Gregg, John, Sally, and Matt, whom God loves with wild abandon and whom God longs to embrace as God’s own, beautiful and beloved children.  God does not so much seek to make us right as to hold us tight—not so much to right our behaviours as to right our hearts (and to write God’s law within our hearts, as Jer 33:31), and then our behaviours will follow.

Now I am not, for all of that, suggesting that the notion of sin is nonsensical, oppressive or outdated.  Nor am I implying that the rightness of our thoughts, words, and actions are unimportant—both to ourselves and to God.  Perhaps I could say it this way: God’s love (and truth) are focal, but sin matters.

God’s love being focal means that Christianity is not about rules.  It means that as a Christian I never get to the point where I am “a hopeless case,” “unforgivable,” or “worthless.”

In short, for me the deep reality of God’s loves and God’s truth means that when people ask why I am a Christian I give them this reason: because I have been convinced by God’s truth and fallen in love with God, who loves and heals me.  Because I have felt the deep, deep desire of God for me and, like Augustine says, “the satiation of God’s love is insatiable.”

So what about sin: what is it and why is it important?

To my mind, “sin” is things we do or maintain (acts, thoughts, or dispositions commissive or omissive–conscious, pre-conscious, or unconscious), that thwart our proper relationship with ourselves, our fellows, our world, and ultimately God.  Fleshing this out in terms of life’s daily activities is an important task, but it’s beyond the scope of this post.

Instead, I’d like to offer my main reasons for not jettisoning a concrete notion of sin.  First, because evil is real.  Second, because evil is real.  Third—need I go on?

The reality of evil is the reality that people suffer and die.  In that sense, insisting on evil’s reality is  an insistence that people matter.  So against the idea that sin burdens us with unnecessary guilt, maintaining the seriousness of evil and wrongdoing does not straightjacket our freedom but rather deeply affirms our worth.  As such, it is the crucial correlate to the biblical claim that God loves us.

The flipside of evil being real (and wrong) is that justice is necessary.  And this is one of the central claims of Jesus as Messiah: he came to deal with sin and death—with evil in all its various forms.  But the reality is, God’s justice is limited.

What… more heresy…?

I think not.  But you’ll have to wait until next post to decide.

Interpretation and love?

In my last post I argued that, for both Christians and non-Christians, we neither have—nor can have—certainty about the Bible’s claims nor about the validity of its claims.  In place of certainty we have interpretation.

Before rushing into a technical discussion about interpretation, however, it is important to situate such a discussion within its practical, real-life context.  Why?  Because this seemingly dry topic is important—important enough even to get “picky” about what interpretation is and how to do it—for a very practical and personal reason: people matter.

Typically we think of interpretation as focusing on ideas: techniques to help us know things better.  Certainly ideas are important and interpretation both requires that we think about ideas and helps us better to understand them. 

But ideas are not the point.  People are the point.

So this discussion of interpretation was actually borne from my earlier challenge that absolute / ultimate truth (or Truth) is only meaningful if it is true “for me.”  This challenge itself resulted from my claim that love and truth are essential to human existence, where I noted that the greatest truth-for-me is to be deeply loved by one who knows me truly, and whom I deeply love in return.

Thus where the desire to love and be loved is a central human aspiration, the pursuit of truth is integral to meaningful, human existence.  We may take this a step further and note that ours is not only a desire to be loved, but to be loved in and as who we are.  In other words, it is a desire not to be treated as an object but known profoundly—and being so known, to be cherished—as the self that we are.

Reframed, we desire to be known truly and loved profoundly by one / those whom we likewise know genuinely and love deeply.

So truth is integral to love in several ways.  First, I want the knowledge that others have about me to be true, so that their love is really for me: they don’t idolize me for isolated qualities nor value me mistakenly (as someone or something that I am not).  Rather they know my authentic self, and in so knowing me they love me. 

Second, in order for another to know me truly I must know and understand myself—as Socrates would say, I must know who I truly am.

Third, I likewise want to know my beloved truly.  So my beloved’s identity (as someone who claims to respect, be loyal to, and love me) must not be based on incomplete or false information (as an unconfessed affair, or a hidden need to marry in order to retain citizenship / have financial security, etc.)

Thus my interest in interpretation is neither to dethrone notions of ultimate t/Truth nor merely to supplant one view with another.  Rather, interpretation (of texts, experiences, situations, etc.) is a skill that matters because it allows us to gain some of our most meaningful connection to ourselves, to other people, and to evaluate how and how authentically they connect with us.

My point, then, is that truth remains connected with love, through and through.  And just as truth-seeking and truth-finding are integral to loving and being loved, so accurately assessing truth claims and truth values by way of interpretation is among the most meaningful of tasks.

In subsequent posts I reframe interpretation.  It is not an all-or-nothing hedge against relativism but is a skill that all possess and that can be improved with practice and knowledge.

In the end, interpretation helps keep us honest: it insists that we remain amongst the ambiguities and tensions inherent to our finite situation.  But it also gives gifts: we can have strong confidence in knowing (and so understanding) some things, even in knowing the that we love and, perhaps, are loved.