On Letting the Bible Get Too Close

The man had a way with words. About that, there can be no doubt. In my view, he was a master of putting such a sharp edge on things that one could hardly read what he said without one of two reactions — simply dismiss them as meaningless hyperbole or let them cut to the quick our own hypocrisy. My sense is that the latter is almost always the appropriate response, but to each her own. Our own need to see ourselves as friends of God who are faithfully living out the gospel frequently trumps any invitation to visit the possibility that we might be seriously off track. I wish my own writing were as trenchant as the following quote, but alas, I’ll have to settle for sharing his words:

The matter is quite simple. The Bible is very easy to understand. But we Christians are a bunch of scheming swindlers. We pretend to be unable to understand it because we know very well that the minute we understand we are obliged to act accordingly. Take any words in the New Testament and forget everything except pledging yourself to act accordingly. My God, you will say, if I do that my whole life will be ruined. How would I ever get on in the world?

Herein lies the real place of Christian scholarship. Christian scholarship is the Church’s prodigious invention to defend itself against the Bible, to ensure that we can continue to be good Christians without the Bible coming too close. Oh, priceless scholarship, what would we do without you? Dreadful it is to fall into the hands of the living God. Yes, it is even dreadful to be alone with the New Testament.

Søren Kierkegaard, Provocations (Plough, 2002), 193

Hyperbole, you suppose? Perhaps, but one of the things that makes hyperbole successful as a literary trope is that the exaggerations deployed unmask an underlying truth in a powerful way. The underlying truth here? That neither understanding Scripture nor following Jesus is all that complicated, and the thing that prevents us from faithfully imitating Christ is that we really don’t want to. Let that sink in. The primary obstacle is that we just don’t really want to bear the cost of being imitators of Christ.

Do me a favor. For the next few minutes, let Kierkegaard’s words have your undivided attention as you ponder their truthfulness. Have we tried to “be good Christians without letting the Bible come to close?”

How often have we dismissed Jesus’s words, if we be honest, not because they are hard to understand, but because they mess with our comfort? How often have we allowed ourselves to be persuaded that the admonition to “turn the other cheek” really means pretty much the opposite of what it sounds like?

Do we find persuasive the argument that we really can’t “elevate the interest of others over our own” because, as we all know, we’d be taken advantage of? Do we find consonance in the idea that we can, at the same time, “love our enemies as ourselves” and demonize them, kill them, or otherwise do them harm?

Have we drawn comfort from exegetical arguments that allow us to see no relevance for us in the words to “sell all you have and give to the poor” because, after all, we really enjoy our stuff?

Let me suggest that affirmative answers to those questions are indicative of a desire to feel good about our Christian faith while simultaneously eviscerating it of the very things that would transform us into the image of Christ.

If you’re still with me, let me suggest a second “test” to see how much we may have fallen prey to the criticism Kierkegaard levels. In addition to embracing interpretations of Scripture that allow us to avoid things that challenge our comforts, do we also find Scripture crystal clear on those things we find morally unacceptable, but to which we are not tempted?

For example, do we find passages addressing how we treat immigrants and refugees so needing of nuance that they have nothing to say to us today, but find passages about homosexuality crystal clear? In short, do we find passages, the following of which would cost us our comforts, hopelessly ambiguous while finding those which do not directly affect our comforts easy to understand and apply? If we apply these tests and find ourselves, in a moment of unfettered honesty, answering them affirmatively, we just might be one of those whom Kierkegaard had in mind when he said we desire to be see ourselves as “good Christians” without the Bible coming to close. And, if you’re like me, you must admit that, altogether too often, Kierkegaard has named us for what we are.

May God grant us conversion of our imaginations so that we might be able to envision and to embody the imitation of Christ!

Are All Biases Created Equal?

I recall a conversation with a friend recently (hardly the first of its kind and one I am betting many of you have also experienced). A generalized version went something like this:

Him: Well, I believe that … (some long and complicated description of his position on some issue X).

Me: I think that’s mistaken, but I can see why you might believe that. After all, it aligns with the biases you have demonstrated in our various discussions.

He (having read his Lyotard … or learned from his school of thought, expresses his own suspicion that my biases are really a play for power on my own terms): We all have biases. You have biases as well and the reason you hold the position you do, and thus reject mine, is due to those biases.

And what I said next does not really much matter because, as we all know, we are at one of those impasses that arises so often in every day disputes — I am biased, you are biased, whatever shall we do?

Of course, I am hardly going to deny that we all have biases. We all have life experiences that form us, that guide our thinking, and that, at least initially, provide us with the presuppositions that enable us to form complex positions. Having admitted the reality of the biases that influence us, however, I have to ask: It is really the case that all biases are equal and, thus, equally damaging to the validity of an argument? The short answer is, I think, a resounding “No!”

We all remember Lyotard’s definition, albeit oversimplified as he admits, that postmodernism is characterized by an incredulity toward metanarratives. That is, the postmodern philosopher argues that we should exhibit a suspicion toward all comprehensive ways of seeing the world. Why are we justified in exercising this “hermeneutic of suspicion”? Because when these metanarratives, these comprehensive means of interpreting the world, are unmasked, what lies at their center is a play for power. In other words, we hold the presuppositions we do, we embrace the ideologies that we do, and we interpret the world the way we do because that way reinforces our power. Upton Sinclair, on a smaller scale, put it this way, “It is hard to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on his not understanding it.” Accordingly, then, we ought not be surprised that the person whose wealth depends on a market for fossil fuels will have a hard time accepting that the use of those fuels makes a significant contribution to global climate change.

The centerpiece of the concern here is just this: the biases we hold, the ways of seeing the world we embrace, are all too often driven by our own self-interests and, thus, our biases cause us to see things in self-serving ways. The corrupting influence of self-interest drives us to see things the way we do – or, does so quite often.

So, to return to our original question: Are all biases created equal? Initially, it seems that they are, that our self-interest corrupts our way of seeing the world so that we tend to bring things into orbit around ourselves. How does this or that impact me, that becomes the question. And, as long as our own self-interest drives our biases, then we have to say that all biases are to be treated with suspicion. But, this is not the last word.

In Interpreting God and the Postmodern Self, Anthony Thiselton argues that metanarratives need not necessarily be disguised plays for power. In fact, he argues that the Christian way of understanding the world, when properly understood and embraced, undermines Lyotard’s suspicion toward all metanarratives. Why? Because properly understood, in the biblical metanarrative God calls us to elevate the interests of others over our own. We are to be driven by a holy love that loves our neighbors as ourselves. Thiselton observes that such a metanarrative undermines the suspicion that all metanarratives are disguised play for power. How can a way of seeing things that puts the interest of the other first be a self-interested play for power? Thistelton puts it like this: “A love in which a self genuinely gives to the Other in the interests of the Other dissolves the acids of suspicion and deception.”

Are all biases created equal? No, they are not. When a person acts, not in their own self-interest, but because of their love of those who are other to him or her, that bias is not a basis for suspicion, but rather a basis for affirmation. Biases that drive a person to embody, for example, the biblical concern for those on the margins of society — the widow, the orphan, the sick, the outcast — are good and appropriate biases because they push us to be the people God has called us to be. It is true that all too often, perhaps most always, biases are self-serving. As such, they are to be called out, suspected, and unmasked. But, when bias is for the care of the “least of these,” they are, in fact, praiseworthy and out to be encouraged. The Christian faith calls us to no less.

Are We Just Too Quarrelsome?

The trouble is that they’re so quarrelsome. As soon as anyone arrives he settles in some street. Before he’s been there twenty-four hours he quarrels with his neighbour. Before the week is over he’s quarreled so badly that he decides to move. Very like he finds the next street empty because all the people there have quarreled with their neighbours — and moved. So he settles in. If by any chance the street is full, he goes further. But even if he stays, it makes no odds. He’s sure to have another quarrel pretty soon and then he’ll move on again. Finally he’ll move right out to the edge of the town and build a new house. (C. S. Lewis, The Great Divorce)

In The Great Divorce, Lewis has one of the characters give this as an answer to the question, asked by the story teller, regarding what seemed a meager population in hell: Why did it seem deserted? Well, because the residents simply couldn’t stand to be around each other — their tendency to quarrel, their basically antisocial behaviors, led them to move again and again just to get away from each other.

The pastor of the church I attend recently started a sermon with this quotation from Lewis, and I have to admit my mind began immediately to wander. Surely Lewis has hit upon a truism about human nature.

What makes us so quarrelsome? What makes us so quarrelsome that we find ourselves unable to live around “those” people (whomever “those” might be for us)? Is it the need to be in control? I want things my way, albeit for reasons I think critically important. If I can’t have things be as I think they should be, well, then, I shall have to move on to “greener pastures” where folks are more enlightened and, thus, see things my way.

My mind was in full tilt meander mode by now, and the possibility of returning to the sermon had been lost. So, where would my meandering mind take me next? To the outworkings of the Protestant Reformation, as it turns out. While I had and have no intention of relitigating the issues around the abuses that the Reformers thought required a break from Rome, one has to wonder — with some 30,000+ different Protestant denominations in the world today — how much of this need to “separate from the heretics” was driven by theological necessity and how much from the need of different groups to “be in control”? On the one hand, I’m confident that every single branch in this mad spawning of new denominations and movements was undertaken because someone thought their particular issue was so important that separation was part of a good Christian witness. On the other hand, really? There are some 30,000 points of disagreement on Christian doctrine and practice such that the same God who said that followers of Jesus would be known by our love and unity will someday say, “Well done, good and faithful servant” to each one of these schismatics? Color me highly skeptical.

I didn’t get onto this line of thinking because my own beloved United Methodist denomination has seemed on the edge of schism for many years now. Once there, though, it was hard not to take that step. Are the issues facing us so severe that God will be pleased with “agreeing to go our separate ways”? The same God who inspired the early church to use only the strongest language when condemning the tendency to schism? They used metaphors like rending the body of Christ or tearing limbs from the body of our Lord. They left little doubt how they felt about those who would separate themselves to form other bodies of faith. Yet, here we are to the point where, once again, voices from both sides of the issue are calling for separation in light of their exasperation at being unable to forge a path forward where the two parties remain united. And, let us, just for a second, imagine that this path of separation is taken. Will we then be happy that we have excluded from our worshipping community those who see matters different than us? If history is any indicator, the answer to that would be no. In fact, a friend of mine who engages regularly in this debate informed me recently that he had heard one individual comment, “We are making progress on the issue of homosexual practice, and once we get it resolved, we are going to deal with whether we should allow women in ministry.” In other words, even before this split has been accomplished, we are identifying the basis for the next one.

To be clear, the rumination that consumed me that Sunday morning and since hasn’t been based on my conclusion concerning which side of the issue is right and which is wrong. Rather, my concern is much deeper than that and cuts to the core of what it means to be witnesses to the Triune God in the world today. Jesus prayed that we be one as Father, Son, and Spirit are one; so far, though, we seem either unwilling or unable (most likely some of both) to find a solution that keeps us in communion. Maybe Lewis was right, not just about the inhabitants of hell in his story, but of all the sons and daughters of Adam and Eve.

Are We Just Too Quarrelsome?

The trouble is that they’re so quarrelsome. As soon as anyone arrives he settles in some street. Before he’s been there twenty-four hours he quarrels with his neighbour. Before the week is over he’s quarreled so badly that he decides to move. Very like he finds the next street empty because all the people there have quarreled with their neighbours — and moved. So he settles in. If by any chance the street is full, he goes further. But even if he stays, it makes no odds. He’s sure to have another quarrel pretty soon and then he’ll move on again. Finally he’ll move right out to the edge of the town and build a new house. (C. S. Lewis, The Great Divorce)

In The Great Divorce, Lewis has one of the characters give this as an answer to the question, asked by the story teller, regarding what seemed a meager population in hell: Why did it seem deserted? Well, because the residents simply couldn’t stand to be around each other — their tendency to quarrel, their basically antisocial behaviors, led them to move again and again just to get away from each other.

The pastor of the church I attend recently started a sermon with this quotation from Lewis, and I have to admit my mind began immediately to wander. Surely Lewis has hit upon a truism about human nature.

What makes us so quarrelsome? What makes us so quarrelsome that we find ourselves unable to live around “those” people (whomever “those” might be for us)? Is it the need to be in control? I want things my way, albeit for reasons I think critically important. If I can’t have things be as I think they should be, well, then, I shall have to move on to “greener pastures” where folks are more enlightened and, thus, see things my way.

My mind was in full tilt meander mode by now, and the possibility of returning to the sermon had been lost. So, where would my meandering mind take me next? To the outworkings of the Protestant Reformation, as it turns out. While I had and have no intention of relitigating the issues around the abuses that the Reformers thought required a break from Rome, one has to wonder — with some 30,000+ different Protestant denominations in the world today — how much of this need to “separate from the heretics” was driven by theological necessity and how much from the need of different groups to “be in control”? On the one hand, I’m confident that every single branch in this mad spawning of new denominations and movements was undertaken because someone thought their particular issue was so important that separation was part of a good Christian witness. On the other hand, really? There are some 30,000 points of disagreement on Christian doctrine and practice such that the same God who said that followers of Jesus would be known by our love and unity will someday say, “Well done, good and faithful servant” to each one of these schismatics? Color me highly skeptical.

I didn’t get onto this line of thinking because my own beloved United Methodist denomination has seemed on the edge of schism for many years now. Once there, though, it was hard not to take that step. Are the issues facing us so severe that God will be pleased with “agreeing to go our separate ways”? The same God who inspired the early church to use only the strongest language when condemning the tendency to schism? They used metaphors like rending the body of Christ or tearing limbs from the body of our Lord. They left little doubt how they felt about those who would separate themselves to form other bodies of faith. Yet, here we are to the point where, once again, voices from both sides of the issue are calling for separation in light of their exasperation at being unable to forge a path forward where the two parties remain united. And, let us, just for a second, imagine that this path of separation is taken. Will we then be happy that we have excluded from our worshipping community those who see matters different than us? If history is any indicator, the answer to that would be no. In fact, a friend of mine who engages regularly in this debate informed me recently that he had heard one individual comment, “We are making progress on the issue of homosexual practice, and once we get it resolved, we are going to deal with whether we should allow women in ministry.” In other words, even before this split has been accomplished, we are identifying the basis for the next one.

To be clear, the rumination that consumed me that Sunday morning and since hasn’t been based on my conclusion concerning which side of the issue is right and which is wrong. Rather, my concern is much deeper than that and cuts to the core of what it means to be witnesses to the Triune God in the world today. Jesus prayed that we be one as Father, Son, and Spirit are one; so far, though, we seem either unwilling or unable (most likely some of both) to find a solution that keeps us in communion. Maybe Lewis was right, not just about the inhabitants of hell in his story, but of all the sons and daughters of Adam and Eve.

A Sexually Obsessed Culture

I imagine that most readers, after reading the title for this blog, are inclined to let out a hearty “Amen!” However, that title might be meant in a somewhat different way than it is often deployed in Christian circles. I’m not thinking of “the media elites” or “Hollywood” or “the liberals” when I talk about a sex-obsessed culture. I’m talking about us Christians and our seeming inability to engage in healthy dialog about Christian faith and sexuality. Let me see if an anecdote might help clarify what I mean.

I know a couple whose son was involved in an internship with a Christian ministry. As it turned out, their son’s girlfriend was also participating in an internship at the same place with that same ministry. As one might expect with a Christian ministry, there were regular teaching times, centered around studying Scripture. At one point during the internship, the parents received a call from their distraught child, concerned about all the things they were being taught and how they related to the relationship between the son and his girlfriend. So, the parents set off for a visit, hoping to understand better what they were experiencing.

My friend sat with the young couple and listened initially to them talk through the ways in which the scriptural teaching was oriented and how it seemed intentionally, but often indirectly, brought to focus on boyfriend-girlfriend relationships. As my friend recounted the story, he said that he found himself growing more and more angry by the minute at what he took to be unhealthy teaching around human sexuality and dating relationships, virtually all of which was handled more implicitly than explicitly. Time will not allow space to walk through those teachings and how my friend found them to be inadequate. Instead, let me say it the way he said it to me: “Chuck, these leaders were so concerned to make sure that these kids did not engage in premarital sex that they were willing to screw them up fifteen other ways.” As I explored this with him more, it became clear that what he was seeing was poor use of Scripture aimed, not at helping kids to understand human sexuality, but rather to persuade them to avoid having sex before they were married. And, if the biblical texts were taken out of context and if the teaching was attempting to achieve that end through avoidance rather than engagement, well, so what? The goal was worth it, they seemed to think. My friend, rather strongly, felt otherwise.

Now, granted, this is one story about one ministry and one young couple traversing the difficult and complicated ritual of courting. One might be tempted to suggest either that my friend overreacted or that this one ministry was an exception to otherwise sound Christian teaching about human sexuality.Unfortunately, I think these would be mistaken conclusions. First, one merely need reference any one of a number of studies by folks like George Barna, which indicate that divorce is not only as bad among Christians as non-Christians, but is actually worse the more conservative the Christian group. Or to studies that show spousal abuse is far, far too frequent in clergy circles. Or to studies that show a high incidence of the use of pornography among clergy. Or perhaps we should consider all those unfortunate cases where clergy are overtaken by sexual misconduct. No, dismissing this example as either over reaction or an exception to otherwise healthy Christian attitudes about sex simply wouldn’t comport with the data.

One writer commented of Plato that he often seemed embarrassed to have a body, that somehow the life of the mind or the life of the soul were more noble and not inherently evil as was the body. Sadly, we Christians too often take the wonderful gift of physicality that God has given us and we simply avoid explicit and concrete ways of addressing and celebrating out physicality and our sexuality.

So, going back to my title — we do live in a sex obsessed culture, right here within the church. We have become obsessed with formally laying down a set of don’ts (I wish I could say a set of does and don’ts, but we seem to miss the former) that are aimed to get our children through the difficult teen years without succumbing to sexual sin. But the means we use are so narrowly contrived that they are better understood as obstacles preventing premarital sex than as the beginning of lifelong habits of discipleship that won’t just help us survive those years, but will prepare us for the joys and disappointments of our sexual being.

I wish I had more concrete things to say about the right steps forward. I am convinced that they are wrapped up in an overt celebration (and not just acceptance) of human physicality and sexuality grounded in a healthy grasp of God’s creative intent, in teaching that does not merely have as its goal avoiding sex until marriage, but rather more positively presents the case for the wonderful gifts God has given us in our physicality and sexuality, a teaching that does not shy away from those aspects of creation and that situates their proper use in a constellation of practices of the Christian life. I wish I could say more, but alas, I will have to leave the more to other voices.

More, the Solution to Everything…. Or, is it?

With 2016 an election year, a range of political issues are front and center in public debate, issues such as national defense, immigration policy, and of course, economic policy. As followers of Jesus, we Christians ought to ponder these issues carefully as we make our decisions about whom we will support for public office. Not surprisingly, economic policy is almost always tied to the success of a political campaign. Anyone over 30 likely remembers James Carville’s claim, “It’s the economy, stupid” — a way to remind his team which issue mattered most. What’s interesting, however, is the extent to which every candidate offers the same solution: “I will grow the economy!” In short, each candidate’s solution to our economic woes is to make the economy bigger. As followers of Jesus, can we so easily align ourselves with the “more is better” way of seeing economic challenges? I don’t think so, for at least three reasons.

Before naming those, though, we need to draw out some implications of the “growing the economy” strategy. In short, to pursue such a strategy means engaging in policies and activities that cause GDP to grow in a nontrivial way, which in turn requires the production and corresponding purchase of more goods and services. The goal is to create more aggregate demand, which encourages producers to manufacture more goods and services for consumers to purchase, thereby satisfying the increased aggregate demand. But, demand for what? Well, new and bigger houses, newer cars, more and flashier electronic goodies, more restaurants to feed our appetites, etc. Correspondingly, of course, all that growth means growth in the amount of trash that we toss into the environment. In fact, the correlation between economic growth and growth in the amount of disposable trash has long been tightly correlated. This hints at some problems related to solving our economic challenges through “growing the economy.” Let’s make that more explicit.

First, as pesky as it may be, we who claim to be followers of Jesus have to take seriously the call to “mortify the deeds of the flesh.” To affirm mortification of the flesh is not to insist that physical goods are intrinsically evil, but it is to recognize that human wants and desires quickly spiral out of control when not carefully checked. So, while not requiring a vow of poverty, we are called to resist the siren song of desire that impels us on ever to more — more to eat, more to drink, and newer and better homes and cars and clothes. History has more than adequately demonstrated that, without intentionality, our desires know no upper limit. A look at even the monastic movement within Christianity shows the ease with which comfort and desire take control of us.

Second, we have to be more specific about the economic problem to be solved through the promised economic growth. Most frequently, economic growth is supposed to create jobs, thereby reducing unemployment and, by creating demand for more jobs, also creating upwards pressure on wages. In other words, the growth in the economic pie will solve the problem of lagging middleclass wages. However, middleclass wages have been decoupled from GDP growth to a large extent for about 40 years now. By that I mean that the overwhelming increase in wealth has gone to the richest among us. In other words, the economic playing field has been slanted ever increasingly in the direction of the already-wealthy. Without structural changes, a mere focus on GDP growth will do little, if anything, to solve the problem for which it is proposed as a solution. Rather, there is little reason to see that overall economic growth would have any other outcome than to further fuel wealth concentration.

Third, given the correlation between GDP growth and the impact on the global environment (both in terms of the amount of trash it creates as well as the extent to which it consumes limited, global resources), one can easily see that “growing the economy” cannot be seen as so simple and without serious downsides. Energy and raw materials are consumed to create the goods that will cause the economy to grow. Higher aggregate demand and more rapid turnover, either in consumer goods or largely items like houses or cars, leads to increased pressure for locations to rid ourselves of our trash. In short, there is no avoiding the fact that “growing the economy” will also multiply stressors on an already stressed global environment. Dead zones and enormous floating fields of plastic are just a couple of the consequences of our current levels of consumption.

Can we as Christians readily affirm this pathway to resolving our economic woes? No, I really don’t think so. How they ought we as Christians to respond to these challenges? That’s the focus of a future blog.

Politics and Alternative Soteriologies

The 2016 election cycle promises to be one of the most acrimonious of my lifetime. Even though civil political discourse has been broken for some time now, the hateful, mean-spirited dialog has already extended well beyond the traditional “politics of personal destruction.” As a Christian, I wish I could say that those who self-identify as followers of Jesus will be a beacon of more compassionate and civil dialog between the candidates and their parties. However, the reality is very different, with several popular Christian leaders already demonstrating a complete willingness to participate in the worst forms of fearmongering and bellicosity. In such times, I find it necessary to take a step back and remind myself of a few things.

William T. Cavenaugh, in his book Theopolitical Imaginations (T&T Clark, 2003), warned that too frequently the nation state has come to function in a way that invites seeing it as an alternative soteriology to that offered by the gospel. Just consider some of the narrative being deployed by political operatives. In many ways, those narratives can be reduced to “We are in really big trouble and the only way to move forward safely is through government headed by me (or my party).” The manufacture of discontent with the “way things are,” the stoking of fear of those not like us, and the promise that only “my party’s way” will enable us to recapture our “former greatness” – these are the rhetorical tools used to communicate, and where possible inculcate, faith in their version of this alternative soteriology.

As James Davidson Hunter writes in To Change the World, over the past 30 years, there has been “a tendency toward the politicization of nearly everything” ([Oxford University Press, 2010], 101) Since we live in a multicultural world wherein different cultures are motivated by different values, Hunter notes, politics seems to offer a way to reinforce social consensus through law. Along these lines, a colleague once pointed out an interesting historical correlation. If you look at congressional voting patterns prior to the mid-1980s, the surest indicator of how a given member of congress would vote was their religious affiliation. If Catholic, they would vote as a Catholic; if Southern Baptists, then like Southern Baptists. After the mid-1980s, though, the surest indicator of voting patterns shifted to party affiliation. In other words, political ideological commitments came to trump a person’s theological commitments. Or, more likely, they simply lost the ability to separate them, confusing their political commitments with their faith commitments.

So, the question becomes: how do we as Christians participate in the political process in such a way as to avoid the conflation of our faith and ideological commitments? And how do we resist the immediacy the political process seems to offer, that is, how do we resist trusting it as an alternative soteriology? First, perhaps one of the surest indications that we have confused our ideology with our faith arises when we make comments like this one: “A serious Christian couldn’t vote for ___________” (fill in the blank with the party with which you most disagree).

Simply put, no politician holds positions that are not, in some ways, at odds with the public life to which God calls us. Different followers of Jesus will come to different conclusions about the priority to be given to different kinds of public policy and their overall importance. The first step to preventing faith/ideology conflation is to recognize that those in the other “party” are neither demons nor my “party-mates” angels.

Second, we require a critical balance between seeing government as an alternative means of salvation on the one hand and seeing it as always a problem on the other. God ordained human governments and they have a role to play in ordering our public life. Yet, the hope of the world is Jesus and God has chosen the church as the ones who preach Christ and the salvation he brings to the world — a salvation that is holistic and includes all aspects of human existence. There are points of correlation with goods that can be mediated to us through government, but they can never replace the relationship building that God expects to be realized through local congregations.

Uncivil discourse will be the model we see most in this election cycle. But, may it be the case that the church serves increasingly as a model of civil discourse, a place where different voices can come together, a place where the best arguments of both sides are heard and respected. May we become the ones who undermine uncivil discourse, rather than the ones who participate in it!

The Impossibility of Obedience

Over the course of the last few semesters, I’ve been engaged in teaching a set of classes that focus on Christian practices — those practices that we engage for the purpose of being formed into the people of God. There are practices that focus on our internal formation and others that focus on our communal formation. All aim toward our being formed for relationship with God and others. It was serendipitous that I come across this passage from Jacques Ellul at the same time:

People were [are] being required to act as if they were [are] true Christians when very likely they were [are] not. This is the opposite of the biblical revelation. Here there is knowledge of the revealed God, faith in his love, acceptance of his will; and only on this basis is there an attempt to live in a way that corresponds to the love of God and his will. But there is no formulation of a “Christian” morality that is independent of faith. The Bible decrees no universal morality. It summons to conversion, and it then postulates a desire to live in harmony with God. Constantly in what became Christendom, however, and effort is made to achieve objective conduct without reference to the spiritual life, without the knowledge of God in Jesus Christ. (The Subversion of Christianity [Eerdmans, 1986], 41)

What Ellul suggests here is worth pondering. In the biblical revelation, in the biblical narratives, we are introduced to God, a God who desires to make himself known, who desires to be known primarily by his love. Through those biblical narratives, we find ourselves formed into a people who can trust and love God in return and, thus, come to accept his will for us. This is not simply a matter of following a set of rules, but rather a matter of formation, of being made into a particular kind of people, people able to love God, to trust God, and thus, to live out the life of faith. That life of faith is not predicated on acts of the will aimed at complying with a set of rules, but rather on the long and consistent engagement in a set of Christian practices that form the habits needed to navigate life in a way faithful to God and God’s intentions for humanity.

This takes time and consistency and discipline, things we humans often have in short supply. What are we to do? Rather than using the biblical narratives to guide us into the formation of Christian virtues through engaging in Christian practices, we attempt to short circuit the process by creating a moral code, a universal morality that lays out, in black and white, rules for our behavior. We convince ourselves that we can mold ourselves into compliance by sheer acts of the will, thereby obeying God’s commands — or, at least, obeying the moral code we have constructed from the narratives. But here’s the rub, according to Ellul, and I think he is right: apart from our formation in Christian virtue through engaging the Christian practices, it’s impossible to live up to any moral code we might abstract from Scripture, which bears any resemblance to what Jesus actually says we are to do and to be. This isn’t hard; it’s impossible.

What happens next, Ellul says, sadly rings too true:

Very quickly the church found intolerable and inapplicable features in what Jesus Christ demanded and proclaimed. [Ellul then cites two examples — the call to be perfect as our Heavenly Father is perfect and the second when Jesus says to “go and sell all that you have….”] The way opens, then, for the sapping work of theologians of all kinds, and then of lawyers, in an attempt to explain that Jesus wanted to say something other than what is written…. (42)

We are unwilling to admit that we cannot live up to the moral code that we have directly abstracted from the biblical revelation. This, of course, would undermine the whole idea that we can short circuit formation through the creation of a moral code and the adherence to that code through our own power. What other option do we have than to rationalize modifications to that code that make it at least appear attainable? Never mind that the gospel is eviscerated in the process and that the miracle of formation that God intends to work in us, through the Holy Spirit, is traded for a pale imitation. The biblical narratives call us to conversion of life, to adherence not to am impossible set of rules, but adherence to a way of being and living that forms us into a people in whom what Yoder called “little miracles of the Holy Spirit” can empower us to do the impossible, namely, to love our enemies, to imitate Christ, to be perfect as our Heavenly Father is perfect. A lifelong commitment to the practices that form us into the people of God is not for the faint of heart, but there is no shortcut to the depth of transformation, the impossible level of transformation, that Jesus calls us to.

In Memory: Wolfhart Pannenberg

He was, without a doubt, one of, if not the most, significant theologians of the second half of the 20th century. His command of things theological extended well beyond the norm, having written books on anthropology, the philosophy of science, metaphysics, and the inter-relationship between the natural sciences and theology, as well as the standard books one might expect from a systematic theologian. His work connecting the concepts of revelation and history (in a volume aptly named Revelation as History) will remain a part of his permanent legacy and his defense of the historicity of the resurrection (in Jesus: God and Man) has both delighted and frustrated theologians on both sides of the liberal/conservative divide. When Wolfhart Pannenberg died on 4 September 2014, the world of theology lost a giant.

Yes, it lost a giant and I cannot help but be pleased that Pannenberg will be remembered favorably for his enormous body of contributions that both challenged and advanced the work of theology. At the same time, I cannot help but feel a tinge of disappointment, disappointment that so few will ever know “the other Pannenberg,” the one who was warm and entertaining. The Pannenberg who traveled consistently with his wife Hilke Pannenberg. The Pannenberg who, in so doing, meant to communicate to the world that one could be both a deeply respected theologian and a man firmly committed to his spouse. He, too well, knew cases wherein that had not be true, and he aimed to model a different way of being.

To watch the two of them travel and interact together was one of the more delightful aspects of getting to know this “other side” of Pannenberg. Their playful banter was often hilarious. I recall an evening at our home in Kentucky. The Pannenbergs had gone out to eat lunch with one of my colleagues. When I asked where, Pannenberg, meaning to say they had gone to Red Lobster, answered that they had gone to the Red Herring. While the Americans gathered laughed, I asked Pannenberg if he knew what the phrase “red herring” meant to an American. He responded, laughing, “Oh, yes!” but his wife countered, “He does not!” Without missing a beat, and still laughing heartily, Pannenberg looked at me, while pointing to his wife, and said, “I do, but please tell her what it means.”

My doctoral dissertation was written on Pannenberg’s doctrine of God, and I was honored to have him comment on it as it was being written. I was nearing completion and Pannenberg was speaking at a conference in the US. In order for us to discuss his last input on the project, he arranged for me to join him and his wife at the conference. During dinner one evening, he asked that I sit with him so we could have our discussion. As I recall, he sat at the head of the table, I was to his left, Frau Pannenberg to my left, and another scholar sat across the table from me and to Pannenberg’s right. After we completed our business, conversation ranged over a wide field of topics. At one point, the scholar to his right asked Pannenberg, “So, what do you think about men and women?” I am not sure why, perhaps wishing to avoid a drift off into a discussion on homosexuality, I blurted out, “Oh, he thinks they are different.” Pannenberg immediately threw his head back in an infectious laugh. After a moment, he leaned back forward, still half laughing, and said, “Ah, yes, Herr Gutenson, and the difference is … delightful!” You can imagine the laughter around the table that ensued.

As I say, he was both a brilliant academic and a delightfully committed follower of Jesus. He had once written that he had been called many things, but a pietist was not one of them. I asked him if he had said this, and he affirmed it with a nod. Yet, later in the day, his wife would tell my wife and me that the two of them would rise early each day to read Scripture, sing, and pray together. I still recall her saying, with a smile, “He is so competitive in his singing. He has to be the best at everything!” A pietist? Well, no, but a couple with personal habits that would do a pietist proud.

It was a serendipitous series of events that provided me not only with the opportunity to study with Pannenberg, but also the time to get to know the “other Pannenberg” and his delightful wife. Although there will be no more chances to share the sort of laughter and fellowship around a table in this life, Pannenberg has only preceded us to that table where we will all again gather someday to enjoy each other in the presence of God forever. Save us a seat, Professor Pannenberg. We have many things yet to share!

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