Wednesday, March 21, 2012

On Being the Body

This is a guest post from my brother Wayland. This is the same Wayland from the "On A Mission From God" post. I like his theology the most when he is ranting. I have posted this here with minor edits and his implicit permission.

You are a functioning member of the Body of Christ by wanting to be a member and acting on it. Thoughts without action are a disease and faith without works is dead. 

This has nothing to do with being saved, or not being saved. No one has enough faith to be saved because no one can do anything to be saved. I would submit that it is pointless to try and quantify such a thing. To admit anything into the discussion along the lines of something we should do to be saved is to lose sight of grace.

What I am talking about is the process of actually being the Body, which, unlike salvation, requires something on our part. Specifically, up to and including sacrificing everything to accomplish the work set before us, just like Jesus sacrificed everything to save the world. This is all to say that, in my view, salvation and being the Body are two different things.

Jesus descended into death to atone for the sins of the world, which to my understanding means everyone.

Being the Body on the other hand seems to include a lot more than salvation, especially when you consider that there is no suffering and no death and no poverty and no corruption and no prostitution and no exploitation and no murder and no war and no homeless people and no drug addiction and no financial collapse and no global heroin trade and no HIV and no manic depression and no religious violence and no orphans and no child soldiers, etc, etc, etc, in the Kingdom of Heaven. Now when we take into account that, as the Body, we are the representation of the Kingdom of Heaven, it follows that there is a lot of work to be done.

Thinking about these things and not doing anything about them is a disease. Having faith that they will change and not actually working to change them is dead.

If you have faith the size of a grain of sand, you can move mountains. Again though, I say that faith is not something that should be quantified. I would actually liken it to salvation. Something you step into. You know what is right and what the leading of the Spirit is and....... you act on it. This is what I mean by faith. This is what the Body does. This is what being a member of it constitutes.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Shameless Foundations: Part 4-God's Position

Part 1
Part 2
Part 3

So God must be pretty pissed off at us for screwing up right? If we listen to much of the tradition that is what we would gather. This tradition does not act out of mean intent. Rather out of a desire to build the glory of God. However, the tradition has taken as its model of glory an understanding that has arisen out of the chaos that we have become subjected to.

Inadvertently, and with the best of intentions, the tradition has portrayed the glory of God as a petulant seven-year-old: "I made this and it is mine, now you messed it up, so I am going to play mean now." As if God is so insecure that he would have a tantrum. As if the Creator of all worries about his rights.

God doesn't need our defense of his glory to feel good about himself.

Remember in Part 1 I mentioned the dangers of turning God into a set of principles and deriving an ideology from those principles? This is a case in point.

The traditional notion of God's glory and what it means to us comes out of a set of supposedly ultimate principles that are supposed to describe the concept of God. First, I see no good reason why God should either have to or even want to conform himself to a set of principles that we have set up as conditions for us to conceptualize him as God. Second, God can do what God wants to do. The Creator of all has no obligation to behave in ways that we set out for him.

So our only really legitimate course of action is to look at what God does to figure out the the way God behaves.

When we look at this we do not see a petulant child. We do not see a God who says, "You messed this up, screw you all."

When we disobeyed and ate from the tree that God had commanded us not to he didn't slam down in a bolt of lightening and beat the crap out of us. He talked to us. He took us seriously enough to ask us what was up (as if he didn't know) almost as though he actually did intend to work through and with us to get his plan accomplished.

He comes into the garden and asks, "Hey, where are you guys?" We were hiding and said so and said that we were hiding because we were ashamed that we were naked. We had not been ashamed before. God knows this and asks "Who told you that you were naked?" And goes on to observe, "Oh, you must have eaten from that tree, why would you do that?" Our response its to start passing the buck of blame. Our primordial understanding of the character of God lacked the revelation of God's care for and committed interest in our well being. I have always wondered, in light of the span of the later story what would have happened if we would have, instead of passing the blame, said, "I screwed up. I disobeyed you. I did what you told me not to do. I should not have done that."* However this is not what happened. We persisted in our resistance.

Now the unfortunate results of our disobedience are not at all out of proportion to that disobedience. God doesn't destroy us. God doesn't beat the ever-loving crap out of us. God didn't impale us and stick red hot pokers in our eyes. God had designed and commissioned us to carry out his plan of bringing this world to completion. To go out and subdue the chaotic and futile earth. We rejected the connection that would have enabled us to carry out that plan. God merely released us into the world to experience for ourselves the chaotic futility that he had designed us to overcome.

He releases us but he does not reject us. Rather than berating us for our stupid insistence on the evils of nakedness he gives us clothes. And he lets us die rather than live forever in our subjection to futility.

We find a similar sort of story with Cain and Abel. And then we go out and multiply and fail to subdue the the chaotic futility. Rather, we wholeheartedly contribute to it. God had made us to complete this world because he wanted it completed and he wanted to do it through us and we were tearing it apart. In frustration and regret God decides to start over. Take it back to before the garden and then decide whether to try again.

But no. He finds a way to keep this plan on track. There is at least one person who is willing to obey him. God says, "I can work with that. We can try to reset to the garden with someone who is willing to obey."

So, Noah and the Flood.

After the reset,  God reminds us that we created us for and recommissions us, but it is different this time, "Be fruitful and multiply; increase abundantly on the earth and multiply on it." There is no subduing. The breath is gone from us. We have not the power to carry out our full purpose. God is just hoping for obedience at this point, but with his finished earth final goal still fully in view he decides that if it gets this bad again he will figure out another way to get his plan done than flooding out the world.

What can we say about God?  He is committed to overcome adversity in order to get his plan accomplished. This plan is for the completion of the world. He created us as central to getting that plan done. He is committed to us and getting us back on track with the ultimate plan. Our place in that plan involves a radically tight bond between us and God. Our disobedience to God endangers that bond.

This is the conclusion of this series. In the next one we will look at how God interacts with us to finally accomplish his grand strategy and get the completed world filled with humans, fully alive and in radical union with him: his very presence in this world.

*This interaction points right back to Part 2. Nudity is not the point. God himself makes the conclusion: "Who told you were must have eaten from the tree, you have clearly come to your own conclusions as to what is good and what is evil and are obeying that in opposition to obeying me." (Obviously this is an extension of the text, but it is fully warranted and right as well.)  We had set up our own system of morality and were obeying that rather than God. We can obey a system of morality or we can obey God. Not both. This is important. Notice that we were naked before we gained the knowledge of good and evil. It was only when we gained that knowledge that we decided that nakedness was bad. Before we gained that knowledge all we had was "Yes, Father." The very notion of good and evil was meaningless. When the totality of our assessment of action is limited to "Yes, Father" the categories of good and evil have no content. In obeying a system of morality, a law, we are withholding obedience to God and giving it to another.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Go Forth And Conquer

The majority of humanity operates at the level of reptilian stimulus-response, this includes Christians. "There might be danger so we should hide." There is pain in the box so we take our hand out. But this is death.

We stand blinded behind our walls of protection. Walls that we have constructed to give us a sense of security in the open world that we find ourselves in. We build walls so that we can see that we are "in," so that we can touch and handle our "assurance of salvation." Like a medieval city that acts like it were under siege, we get sick and diseased as if the siege were real and we invite any passing army to fill the void around our walls.

Our only assurance of salvation is God's promise of victory. If Jesus is for real and the incarnation true then to participate in Christ is is to participate in the way God wins the victory. The actual redemption of this world involves radical pouring out, aggressive identification, and ultimate commitment. Our survival depends on this

The chaotic evil that pervades this world is not a conceptual problem to be understood but a practical problem to be annihilated. We are engaged in a war of conquest for our inheritance. Our success depends on us constantly engaging. Attack, attack, attack! Shine the light, Shine the light until there is no darkness. Go out and fuck shit up because when we hide in apparent safety we lose.

This is the movement of the Spirit: to bring the Kingdom of God on earth, and those who are of the Spirit live by the movement of the Spirit.

The Father has given the inheritance, the Son has empowered the inheritors to take possession, and by the Spirit we go forth and multiply and subdue the earth, bringing the creation and redemption to completion. And we look like Jesus as we do it.

Thank you DLM for writing this post. You have helped to re-catalyze my understanding of why we do what we do.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Shameless Foundations: Part 3-Things Go Wrong

Part 1
Part 2

So God chose to make this world and put us in this world. God has largely ordered the cosmos out of his primordial lump of chaotic stuff but a significant degree of disorder remains. Into this he decides to carve out a a bit that looks remarkably finished. Into this corner of the world God then sticks creatures that are made out of the stuff of this world and makes them alive by putting his own life into them, making these creatures become his own very presence in this world, not above this world but in this world. He then makes clear why he made these creatures with a great commission: "Go out from this corner, become numerous, and bring this world to completion."

And then we ate a bit of fruit, started blaming each other, and lost the ability to do what we were designed to do. Instead of us going out and bringing the chaotic futility in the world into useful structure, we went out and became subjected to that very futility.

Now, even though we had the breath of God in us that gave us the sort of life force that would enable us to carry out our commission we did not have all that was needed. However much of himself God put in us was enough for us to do our job but we still needed instruction on how to get that job done. We can see our lack of knowledge in that God gave us a command: "do not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, if you do you will die." This is something important that he seems confident that we would not know otherwise. I don't think that this sort of lack of pragmatic knowledge about what may be dangerous in the environment is all that is going on. It would seem that God's direction to us to "finish the earth" would indicate that there is a completed state that God is expecting. Furthermore, it appears that he has some manner of strategy whereby to achieve it that he hasn't built into us, neither into the earth stuff he made us out of nor into the bit of himself that he put into us. So to be successful at the purpose for which we were designed and put on this earth we would need to obey God.

Okay, wait. Where did this obey stuff come from? Remember that this story does not necessarily intend to be a historical account of some dude named Adam and his hot broad Eve and whether or not they had bellybuttons. The primary point of this story is to get at what is going on in the world in terms of God, humans, the rest of the world, how problematic the world is, and that the world is at odds with how we expect it should be. So the tree might not actually be a magic apple tree that takes away our superpowers. It may just represent something else. Now remember that the tree is not the tree of evil, we do not consume evil by eating of that tree. It is the tree of "the knowledge of good and evil." Knowing both good and evil. Consuming this "fruit" is taking into ourselves the distinction of good from evil. We gain our own understanding of right from wrong. We have a term for this: systematized morality or ethics. Why is it that this would lead to death?

Well, remember the thing that I haven't mentioned yet? There was another tree in the garden. The tree of life. Remember what made us living beings? God breathing into us his Spirit. In the two trees the story places these two things in opposition: knowledge of good and evil (ethical regulations as such) and life (being the very presence of God in the world.) Now, God is not us, God made all of this, and God has a plan and strategy for how to finish what he has started. For us to know what this plan and strategy is he has to tell us, for us to execute God's plan and strategy we need to obey him. If we are obeying a set of ethical regulations are we obeying God? No, we are obeying a set of ethical regulations. If we are not obeying God and his strategy and plan for this world are we truly his presence in the world? No, in disobeying God we set ourselves over against his plans for the world and in doing so we lost that which made us alive (the tree of life, the breath of God), that which made us the very presence of God in this world. Having lost that life force by which we would have been able to subdue the useless chaos of the not yet complete creation, we became subjected to its futility.

Out in the chaos of the world, unable to break free of the stupid futility, useless chaos and weeping and wailing and the gnashing of teeth.

Part 4

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Shameless Foundations: Part 2-Humanity

Part 1

So God is shaping the world out of the chaotic lump of cosmic stuff. Making progress, things are taking shape, then he gets to us.

God formed humanity out of the stuff of this earth. We are intrinsically part of this place. We do not belong somewhere else. This is literally our native ground.

Now, how the text talks about the establishment of humanity is important, and a little history is in order. In the cultures around which this story was written there were certain rituals for worship that are pertinent to the meaning of the Biblical story. When it was determined that a new temple was in order the first thing to be done was to plant a sacred grove, a garden if you will, that would demarcate the holy precinct. Then the priests would form the image of the god out of clay, or wood, or metal and would put it in the garden. Then the priests would perform a ceremony in which the breath or spirit of whatever god the image was of would come into the idol and the image would thereby become the very presence of that god in the earth. If you don't know the Biblical story take a look at it in the first two chapters of Genesis. Notice the similarities. The Genesis story was written to people familiar with these forms of worship. Notice how Genesis subverts the story and applies it to humanity. After establishing the the sacred grove, God himself forms the human as an image of himself, he places the human in the garden and puts his breath or spirit into the human and this breath is the thing that makes the human a living being. Let it hit hard: the human is the idol that God himself formed of himself and then put his own Spirit into to make the human the very presence of himself in the world.

By God's decision we are made of the stuff of this world, this is our place, and God has designed us to be his very presence in this world and in the beginning that is what we were. That is what we were intended to be. God also had a purpose for us. He made us for a job, a function, a task and not merely to simply be in some blissed out garden of Eden. First we were to tend the garden, then God gave us our orders. God formed us here and made us his very presence in this world to "go forth and multiply and subdue the earth."

Okay, remember that the garden was a special niche that God had carved out of the larger world which he was making, that is, wresting from chaos and futility. God could very well have fully ordered the whole thing completely but the way he did it is how he in fact decided to do it. In this context God forms us as his image, puts us that carved out garden, makes us into his very presence in the world and then commands us to complete the last bits of making this world. In us, God put himself into this world to finish making it but in such a way that we, this world's native inhabitants, get the huge dignity and honor and responsibility of fully participating in this act of creation.

What I have said here differs somewhat from most standard understandings on many points of this story. One big one is the "image of God." In most models the "image of God" is taken in terms of a reflection in a mirror or a painting. Such understandings work to find links between humans and God in terms of attributes (in the same way a picture is similar to the model that posed for it.) They derive principles of the divine nature from looking at the seemingly higher aspects of humanity: we are creative, God is creative therefore creativity is part of what it is to be the image of God the same with choice making, rationality, etc. What we end up with is a collection of observed human attributes that we project on or link to the divine nature (at least to the degree that we claim to know and understand it as such.) All this "image of God" does is ratify the human as defined by the human as next to the divine in the human's own eyes. What I am proposing is not some formal similarity but an actual presence. This actual presence constitutes the power by which we may accomplish the task for which we were designed--which brings me to the other difference I want to point out. In most models, humans are passive creatures put here kinda to just hang out and be mellow with God and stuff. What I am saying is that humanity is instrumental. God created us to a specific function within this creation. A function that if we don't do doesn't get done.

You are designed by God to be his very presence in this world, filled with his breath, to bring the perfection of this world to completion.

Part 3 
Part 4

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Shameless Foundations: Part 1-The Beginning

I was planning on holding off starting this series until I had finished the "Running From A Shameful Gospel" series: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3.  I had my strategy planned out to get the list of criticisms all out before I started the constructive work that I am starting here. The problem is that it is really difficult for me to critically analyze something that I have left behind. At some point I will go back and finish that series. But, after I published my last post I realized that I had better get some constructive "This is what I believe and these are the foundations, see I am not quite the sort of dangerous raving heretic you are starting to think I am" sort of material up here in an attempt to not completely alienate conscientious Christians.

This is what is going on in the world.

God chose to make this world in the way that he decided to make this world. He made this world rather than some other world, which he could very well have done. In fact, he my very well have done so but that is not particularly relevant to us because this, in fact, is the world that he put us in. He may very well have put creatures very like us in other worlds but neither is that relevant because, again, we are, in fact, here. This is important to remember this lest we decide to turn God into a set of principles and derive an ideology from our interpretation of those principles. This world derives from the contingency of God's decision making and not from some set of supposedly absolute principles. God can do whatever God wants to do for whatever reasons God wants to do it. Who are we to tell him otherwise?

So, God decided to make this world. He then got down to it however he got down to it. Whether he did it fast or slow or a little here a little there it doesn't really matter. I have no intention of embroiling myself in the ideologically prejudiced (on both sides) street fights (picturing "Anchor Man") as to how the universe came into being. At a deep epistemological level we can't really prove anything and even if someone happened to "get the right answer" there is no way we could be sure that it was in fact right. Human knowledge is limited not only in the amount of stuff we can know but in the surety we can actually have of the accuracy of that knowledge. So stand back and let me work what I got.

The point of the creation story(s) in scripture is not to give a modern textbook blow-by-blow of what actually happened. The people who wrote them and read them didn't care about that. The writers cared about God's relationship to this world and mankind's place in it. Now, telling a story talking about that in terms of the original formation of everything seems to me like a pretty crunchy thing to do. They wrote it, we didn't, who are we to complain. So what do they say?

God's creative movement in this world constitutes pushing back, even subverting the "formless and void." Actually a better modern translation of this would be "useless and chaotic." Now these adjectives describe the initial state of the cosmic "all of this." The picture is like God started by just kinda throwing a lump of stuff out there and it is a big mess which he then begins to form. Right off there is the clear impression the the Spirit or Breath has a very important function in policing the useless chaos (the "deep" was a particularly potent image of the power of that useless chaos the power of meaningless futility.) So God progressively orders the world bit by bit and then humans happen....

Part 2 
Part 3 
Part 4

Monday, March 5, 2012

A Rabbi, An Imam And A Pastor Walk Onto A Stage....: Part 2

Here is Part 1

In a strict sense Christians don't worship the same God. From an epistemological viewpoint what we worship is our idea or understanding of God and there are as many of those as there are people. All that a human has access to as far as worshiping God is a participation in worship empowered by the Holy Spirit. Now since this is a general human condition there is no self-evident reason to limit or segregate this by sociological boundaries. If there are boundaries they would be set by the selective empowering of the Holy Spirit to worship. And the only legitimate way to assess any possible boundaries is to assess the empowering of the Holy Spirit. It seems to me that we do not have access to this data, at least with respect to worship.

We could, however, look for Holy Spirit empowerment in other more possibly verifiable contexts and postulate that Holy Spirit empowerment in these areas implies empowerment in the area of worship (though I believe a case for this could be made I will suffice to observe here that such a case is assumed to apply within the sociological bounds of Christianity.) This leads us to establishing criteria for assessing the empowerment of the Holy Spirit; in itself a tricky task. As with establishing any criteria we want to include everything that is pertinent without including anything that would give a false result.*

For the sake of argument I will propose that the fundamental work of the Holy Spirit is most simply to enact the "Thy kingdom come, thy will be done" of the Lord's prayer and that the multiple descriptions of the action of the Holy Spirit in scripture are examples of this fundamental work. From this I posit that an act that makes the earth more like heaven is empowered by the Holy Spirit. What follows is that if a Muslim acts in such a way that the earth becomes more like heaven then they are doing so by the empowerment of the Holy Spirit and that it is then reasonable to assume that they may very well, by the same empowerment, participate in true worship of God.

All we need then is a single example of this empowerment in more than one of the religions represented to falsify the distinctions upon which the interfaith discussion was based. We lose our beloved us/them beliefs. We are stuck with all just being people.

The obvious criticism of this line of reasoning is, "What about doctrine (a.k.a. believing the right stuff)?" To which I would respond, "What about doctrine?"

Doctrine is a network of logical propositions to which we may or may not give mental assent. If we set this mental assent to logical propositions as prior in importance to the work of the Holy Spirit then my reasoning falls down. However, buyer beware. With this we run into some at least equally severe problems. What doctrine is right doctrine? How right does it need to be? How much is enough? Who gets to make these determinations as to what is actually right and enough? What constitutes mental assent? Moreover, how could we possibly know with surety that we had the right answers to these questions; and, what difference would it really make other than enabling us to observe for ourselves who is in and who is out?

I do not see a really good reason for setting the priority this way. First, I don't see a good reason from the scriptural data since it appears that doctrine is derived from the Spirit rather than the other way around. And second, in the application, I just don't see anything of value gained and quite a bit of otherwise unfounded problems introduced.

This whole analysis leads to some very difficult implications. First, in a very important sense it places Christianity on a par with all other religions because it cuts the "in/out" pie on lines that show no intrinsic regard for religious commitments. From this a whole host of other Christianity-specific problems arise such as: why be Christian, why evangelize, what about the uniqueness of Christianity, isn't believing the truth important? These are all good questions to ask. So, let us ask them. If my reasoning holds,` then why be Christian, why evangelize, what about uniqueness and the importance of truth?

*This establishment of Holy Spirit empowerment criteria is something that I would be very interested in hearing from readers on.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

A Rabbi, An Imam And A Pastor Walk Onto A Stage....: Part 1

Christian/Muslim discussion seems to be a pretty hot topic in some circles right now. Two circles in particular seem evident, 1) what passes for Christianity in US politics interacting with Islamic states, and 2) progressive Evangelicals attempting to figure out how to stay faithful to the Gospel within their progressive commitments. There are other circles but these seem to me the dominant voices. First, I have no clue if there are circles within Islam where this sort of dialog is such a big thing. Also, I have an interest in the dialog but I am neither political (as in I hold out little to no hope for actually effective political solutions to anything that really matters) nor am I particularly Evangelical (though that is a bit tenuous, since, like Canadians over against Americans, Evangelicals are really not sure what it actually means to be Evangelical except that they are not Catholic......maybe.)

That attempt at incisive cleverness aside; a rabbi, an imam, and a pastor walk into an auditorium......

A Christian Church that I frequent recently held a panel discussion at the Sunday morning service. Now this panel included a rabbi, an imam, and a pastor. The question to be addressed was, "Do we all worship the same God/god?"

Now, I have some rather particular and somewhat strong positions on the execution of a Sunday morning service (I will expose these at some point in the future as I foray into the field of pro-bono unsolicited blog-based church consulting.) Interestingly enough, this panel discussion sets a few of these positions at odds with each other and the result is interesting. While not directly proclaiming the Gospel, the panel had the opportunity to demonstrate the Gospel in action while at the same time being excellently timed marketing.

As it happens, I was, in the wickedness of my heart, earning a living and thus unable to be present at the meeting. However, I spoke to several people who were there to get an idea of how it went and what happened. I have gathered that it was mainly a PR press conference where an actual direct answer to the question posed was politely avoided. One of the people that I talked to said that the pastor commented on intimacy with God through Jesus and the rabbi and imam essentially said, "Great, but we don't need Jesus for that intimacy."

I think that the whole question and discussion was misframed. I believe that, judged on deeper criteria than strictly sociological assessment the distinctions between the participants are false to the discussion at hand (maybe "false" is too strong a word, possibly "misleading" would be better.)

More to come.

Do you hate cliffhangers with subsequent posts more than ridiculously long individual posts?

And well, here is Part 2

Thursday, March 1, 2012

You Don't Get To Choose Your Cross: Part 2

Here is Part 1

 And here is where it gets good:

We must neither cower in illusions of perfection nor capitulate to unrighteousness. Rather, continually recognize the contradiction into which we have been thrust, the true intolerable confluence we embody. We must throw ourselves into the struggle for it is in the very midst of this struggle that we are a witness. It is here that the judgement of eternity falls with creative power on the sin of the world. This is living redemption, subversive and creative.

To give an image from parenting: an example of perfection is of no value to our children since they themselves are not angels, as well, capitulation to destruction is a disservice to them since they are alive. Rather, they deserve to see the struggle and learn to fight the fight of a forgiven sinner, of a wounded soldier who will not leave the battle because they are the breath of God in a broken mind, the fiery core in a wayward heart, the very presence of God in a suicidal world.

We live the struggle in full (though through a mirror dimly) view of eternity. That fundamentally alters our current reality. The pain of the struggle becomes not something to be reflexively avoided but rather a powerful elixir to be wisely engaged, like climbing a mountain or giving birth. We embody the brokenness of the world and the light of eternity, birth-pain is inevitable and in it we are born along with the new heavens and the new earth.

God, in his love and wisdom, has placed us in the world, in this intolerable situation. He has however called us to not be of this world. What can this possibly mean? We are sent neck deep into the quagmire in order to be an actual presence here that is not of this place.

What can this subversive redemption be while we remain active if unwilling participants in the brokenness of that which we are sent to redeem?

We embody the contradiction, the intolerable confluence of life and death and it is in and out of this struggle that redemption becomes concrete, that the love of eternity comes into the very dirt of this world.
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