Wednesday, July 09, 2014

Abraham's Faith and Divine Psychosis

It has been a while since I've done a sermon. This is based on the lectionary passage for June 29th, 2014 (which is when I originally planned on posting it): Genesis 22.1b-14. It is the story of Abraham offering his sacrifice to God. As one of the most controversial passages in the Hebrew Bible, it is a tough one to preach. But, here goes.

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Sunday, July 06, 2014

What the Hell do We do with...Hell (Part 4)

Having already taken a brief look at conservative and moderate theologies of hell, the last episode began an exploration to a revisionist approach. In that episode, I asked whether we had better language for dealing with the same issues that hell addresses, and I chose to work with language of "justice".

Justice has boundaries. Crossing those boundaries leads us into injustice. Now it is time to ask how the language of justice helps us to deal with such transgressions.

I argue that there are different understandings of justice, which is largely based on where we are emotionally or developmentally. When I talk about divine justice, what I don't mean is "retributive justice." For those who want to learn more about the issues around retributive justice, I recommend reading works by Rene Girard. He is an anthropologist who explores the place of violence in cultures and the dynamic of "scapegoating". Also, consider the work of Walter Wink, with his emphasis on non-violence.

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Sunday, June 29, 2014

What the Hell do We do with...Hell (Part 3)

Whereas the first and second episodes in this series offer synopses of a conservative and moderate/traditionalist perspectives on hell, this one introduces us to what I consider to be a "revisionist" approach. The goal of the revisionist isn't to preserve the Christian tradition or to retranslate it. Rather, the goal is to reinvent Christianity for today.

Reinvention isn't simply making things up as we go along. Rather the process of reinvention takes seriously that which has gone before. It looks at previous theology in context and it tries to understand "why" the theology is as it is. It asks: What is the theology trying to do for its adherents as they make sense of their lives? Then, it asks: Is there a way to linguistically meet that human need in a way that is culturally appropriate today? So, while while approach recognizes and respects past Christian articulations, it doesn't privilege them.

Because this is the overall perspective I promote, this episode and the next will focus on a postmodern, revisionist, reinvention of "hell".

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Friday, June 20, 2014

What the Hell do We do with...Hell (Part 2)

In this four-part series, I explore various contemporary understandings of hell. Last episode looked at a couple of conservative evangelical approaches. This episode looks at a more moderate approach.

Those whom mainliners consider to be "moderates" (I prefer the term "traditionalists") are often very similar to evangelicals who consider themselves to be "progressive". Moderate traditionalists and progressive evangelicals struggle to maintain what they perceive as historical authoritative doctrine, while at the same time recognizing a certain disconnect from today's scientific worldview.

What we see is a desire to retain the traditional language, but they do so with a twist. The traditionalist approach is about "reinterpretation."This reinterpretation allows traditionalists to maintain a sense of continuity with the past, presumably to preserve their sense of historical authenticity, while seeking to be more relevant. As a result, the primary shift from a conservative to a moderate understanding of hell seems to be a focus more on the here and now than the afterlife.

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Sunday, June 15, 2014

What the Hell do We do with...Hell? (Part 1)

My impression is that many (if not most) progressives don't believe in "hell". This whole idea that a God who is love would consign someone to eternal torment just because they didn't say the magic words, didn't sign up with the right group, or did bad things is downright absurd to us. Even within Evangelicalism, we see a progressive contingent moving toward this position. Perhaps this is reflected most fully in Rob Bell's Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived.

In this four-part series, I want to look at three different ways of dealing with the problem of hell: conservative, traditionalist, and revisionist. This part looks at the conservative approach. Many conservatives (primarily fundamentalist) simply accept that hell exists, simply because they believe the Bible says it is so. Other conservatives, however, struggle with the seeming incompatibility of hell and a loving God. So, they have come up with their own solution that retains, but modifies, the concept of hell.

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Commenting Policy

I approach virtual space the same way I do personal space. I don't go into someone else's space and disrespect the host. I expect the same respect of anyone who comes into my space.

Before commenting, remember this blog serves a specific function. It is meant to resource those who are genuinely interested in exploring a progressive or revisionist approach to Christianity. I hope those who want to discuss this will chime in. However, those who come here with an intent to argue, convert, or discredit will not be tolerated. General "trolling" (such as inauthentic questions or comments) will be removed. Arguing is not likely to lead to their restoration. If anything, it will verify the accuracy of my assessment.

Second, I expect those who participate to use language that is respectful of all others participating. Any flaming or questionable commentary will be removed. Restatements will be allowed, as long as they take a more appropriate tone.

In sum, my expectation is that those who come into my space is simple: behave respectfully toward myself and others. I don't think it's too much to ask.

Tuesday, March 04, 2014

Reflection on Ash Wednesday

From dust, to dust
While in seminary, four of us students set out to walk the outdoor labyrinth at Sinsinawa on Ash Wednesday. Actually, the trip was a mistake. We scheduled it on Ash Wednesday because we forgot what day it was. We decided to go anyway, and it was the best worship experience I can remember from my time there.

We entered the walk path one after another, giving enough space between us. I was the last to go in, which made me last to reach the center. I remember sitting in silence with the others. It was a slightly brisk night, so I wore a windbreaker. The sun had set, and the path was lit by torches. The time and space felt ordinary and sacred all at the same time. It was as if the two worlds had collided and truly become one. Sitting in the dust in silence, with the slight wind chilling me, I experienced the most powerful Ash Wednesday to date.
From dust you have come, and to dust you shall return.
Those are the words typically used during the imposition of ashes in the sign of the cross on foreheads in liturgical services.
Ashes to ashes and dust to dust.
Those are the words typically used a funerals.

There is a reason they sound so similar. We are all born, live our lives, and then die. That is the common thread that defines mortality. It is the pattern of existence that we all share. What we don't share are the details that make up our individual stories.

Many people consider Ash Wednesday to be a morbid holy day. The service can be heard as an echo of a funeral. The hymns sound like dirges. We are told that we are all going to die. And the silent procession moves through a darkened room. And (I suspect usually) the emphasis in the end is on how the eternal life of Christ overcomes the darkness of death. Indeed, we don't have to die; we can live eternally through Jesus Christ. It's no wonder many Christians don't highlight the evening on their calendars.

As for me, Ash Wednesday is actually my favorite holiday. There's a good chance it's because of the wannabe-goth in me. But I would prefer to think that it is because my spirituality has become more "human" through the years. Indeed, I believe my yearly Ash Wednesday reflections have contributed to my human-centric spiritual perspective.

The problem with the standard Ash Wednesday service is the way it portrays life. By focusing on a hope of eternal life through Christ, it takes our mortal life and makes it secondary to the "real" life that is to come. Today becomes nothing but a transition into tomorrow. It is as if this life is mainly to be endured until we are liberated from it and launched into something far better. This theology simply doesn't speak to where I am in my spiritual life any more.

I have come to experience Ash Wednesday as not a dismissal of, but a celebration of what it means to be a mortal human being. Yes, the grim reaper will come, but that's not really the point. While it might be the "end" of our story, it is the end of a story that creates the story's meaning. It is our awareness of the end that causes us to reflect on what is really important in this life. It nudges us to ask ourselves what it might mean for us to live vitally. As a dramatic celebration of human existence, it draws us into contemplating how we are part of a larger whole that is humanity itself, an identity that extends well beyond our own personal time and space.

Exciting as that interpretation is, however, I think I may have started to pass through even that.

I love Annabelle (my cat) and Loki (my dog). Later this month, we will celebrate Annabelle turning nine years old and Loki turning one. This will surely affect my evening meditations as it will be our first Ash Wednesday together. I will ponder the mistakes I've made with them. And I will relive our successes. Our life together has truly been filled with ups and downs. My fantasy would be that our time together would never ever end. But, the truth is that the end comes, whether we want it or not. If I were to estimate the odds based on age, Annabelle will die first, then Loki, then myself. The thought of losing either one of them pains me. But it also helps me to remember that I have a chance to give them a shot at amazing lives.

This is where I think I am growing. No, Annabelle and Loki aren't human. Regardless, together we form a household. They are like family to me. And they are helping me to realize that Ash Wednesday isn't about our mortality; it's about mortality itself. It isn't about that which makes human life meaningful; it is about that which makes all life meaningful (which includes cats and dogs). Just as the end of a story makes the rest of it significant, death claims the mortal life that we experience as mundane and transfigures it into the most sacred part of our existence. I feel as though the human-centric spirituality that I have embraced is changing into something else. Life is meant to be truly lived, whether it is human or not.

I'm not sure how this shift is going to affect me yet. And who knows, maybe I will return to where I have been after some time. This is all yet to be seen. Regardless, may we, and all creatures around us, live life to its fullest. And may we humans contribute to the fullness of life around us wherever we can.

Image source

Saturday, December 28, 2013

Sharing My Faith

10.1: "Now faith is the substance of things hoped for,
evidence of things not seen."
Years back, I worked as an administrative assistant for a rescue mission. People who used the services came from a variety of backgrounds, but they had all converged in a world where trust was not something easily offered. Near the end of my term there, I had regular contact with a young lad, named Cephas, who had run into some legal issues. He couldn't drive, so I offered to take him to his court date. I waited for some time in the back bench for the judge to finish with him. Then, I dropped him off at a house. Before he exited the car, he asked, "Why are you doing this? Helping me out, I mean. Why are you being so nice to me?" Taken back a bit, I didn't know what to say. I didn't see it as an odd thing at all. In fact, helping out in that minor way seemed natural. I finally answered with something like, "It's just a part of who I am." I admit that for a moment, I thought I should have some sort of religious response. After all, I was a seminary student. Years later, in retrospect, I now realize that I did.

Too often, "sharing one's faith" is confused with telling people about the blood-sacrifice of Jesus. I now understand faith differently. To quote the King James Version of Hebrews, "Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things now seen." (Heb 10.1) To put it another way, "faith" is the bond that ties me to a vision of the future that has enthralled me, and visions drive behavior inasmuch as they are truly claimed by me. When my vision for the future is reflected in my current behavior--thus realizing my hopes, dreams, and least in part--my spirituality has manifested itself in who I have become and what I am doing. It's one thing to say "I believe." To say, "I am becoming" is another thing entirely. "Show me your faith apart from your works," says James (2.18b), "and I by my works will show you my faith." A friend of mine once described james theology as saying "stick out your faith and say 'ahh'." Faith is incarnational. 

What religious and spiritual people actually do should never be seen as having little importance. Why do fundamentalists protest at the funerals of gays and lesbians? Why do soldiers kill in holy war? Why do people give of their time to soup kitchens? Why do families go to church? Why do millionairs give a portion of their income to charity? They do such things because this is (at least in part) who they are; this is how they share their faith.

Whether one actively decides to share one's faith is irrelevant. As an incarnational happenstance, faith cannot help but to be shared. it manifests in whatever we do. through the way we relate to others, our faith is realized. So the question we need to ask ourselves is, "Are we manifesting the faith we think we are?" And along with that, "Is it really worth the time and energy to enter more deeply into our vision for the future, so that we can help give birth to a new reality?"