Category Archives: theology

Engaging Religious Pluralism – Is Jesus the only way? – Part 1

I grew up with the belief that Christianity is an exclusive religion. We have the “one, true, and only way to get out of hell card.” Come to us you can experience God’s blessings.

This raised many questions:

What about those who lived before Jesus? How could they possibly be “saved”?

What about those who died and have never heard about Jesus?

What about those of other faiths?

Here are the simple steps I took in my own journey.

Step 1 – If God exists, then all truth comes from God. This is true not only of all religions, but of science as well. Thus, if science reveals a long evolutionary process of creation then I need to figure out how to read and interpret the Bible in light of this evidence.

Step 2 – I saw truth, goodness, and compassion in people of other religions (and no religions at all) that I believed came from God. If Jesus was the only way, why do I find so much to celebrate in others who don’t claim to have Jesus?

Step 3 – Do I have to believe that Jesus is the only way? I began to wrestle with the Bible, my experience, and my upbringing to see if there was a way to be a Christian without being exclusive.

Two One Way roadsigns indicating opposite directions over blue sky - confusion concept

So first the Bible.

The go to text is John 14:6, Jesus said to him, ‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.'” 

Plain, simple, straightforward, right?

Only pulling one text (or several) out of context and putting it into another context is not good interpretation.

The way or the path of Jesus is the way to God correct? Then what is that path?

I believe that path is the path of death and resurrection, which, interestingly enough, is a path found in most religious traditions. Paradoxically, the path of Jesus is a path to life, yet one must go through death in order to experience this life (resurrection). Isn’t this what all the major wisdom traditions tell us?

When Jesus talks about death, I used to think he meant that I couldn’t act on any impulses because they were all selfish. I should resist buying nice clothes, food, etc for if I denied these things that was “dying to self.” I no longer find this true or helpful, actually it is quite destructive.

The way of death and resurrection is the way to die to our own ego, our sense of superiority, our need to be right or correct, our need to see the world in black and white, our need to have clear boundaries of who is “in” and who is “out.” What I thought was “dying to self” was actually only bolstering up and feeding my ego and sense of superiority…wow!

This is also the great temptation of all religious people at the immature levels.

Interestingly enough, it was the religious leaders during the life of Jesus who seem to struggle with this the most. They did not want to die to these things for it is ultimately a death of the ego. We learn from them that one can use religion to feed the ego and go against this path.

I find it very fascinating that a religion that claims to follow the way of Jesus-  the way of death and resurrection – has a strong tendency to walk a different path and to create more exclusion, bigotry, racism, sexism etc.

Marcus Borg wrote that there are three ways of seeing one’s religion:

1 – The absolutist understanding – one’s own religion is the absolute and only truth

2- the reductionist understanding – all religion is a human invention

3- the sacramental understanding – “religions are human constructions in response to the experiences of the sacred.”

Eventually, through a long and difficult journey, I have come to the third understanding and would agree with Borg when he wrote, “Each of the enduring religions is a mediator of ‘the absolute,’ but not ‘absolute’ itself.”

If God exists, then God cannot be fully known or captured in any one religion.

The question then becomes, “why be a Christian?”

For me personally, I am a Christian because this is the tradition most familiar to me. It is the tradition I was raised in and it is one I continue to find beautiful and compelling. It is “in my bones” so to speak and is very much a part of who I am. It has and continues to be the way I find a deep connection to God.

That being said, I have little interest in converting someone else. If someone is seeking a tradition, or they are wanting to go deeper, I enjoy walking with them. If they are walking along another path or tradition, I don’t feel it is my job to convince them to “change sides.” Rather, I see my job as reflecting the image of God to them and helping them along their path.

I love the story of a Christian who came to the Dalai Lama wanting to convert to Buddhism. His response was to encourage the Christian to follow his tradition (Christianity) in a deeper way.

What a beautiful story!

 

 

Pre-rational, rational, and transrational – part 2

A few weeks ago I did a post on prerational, rational, and transrational here.

I have since come back to this on a regular basis  as I have continued to wrestle through a very specific question.

Why am I most attracted to a certain kind of person, thinker, author, speaker, or spiritual leader? Some are great thinkers, yet I still feel left lacking.

For me, there are people who have greatly impacted my life who I would say live in a prerational stage. These people focus on the heart (and often, unintentionally neglect the intellect). When questions or doubts are raised, they immediately go into defense mode. For these people, belief or faith is a house of cards – if you pull one card out, the entire thing collapses. As I mentioned, my life has been greatly impacted by many people in this stage and I am very thankful for their influence in my life. Many of these people are very passionate people who love God immensely.

Then there seems to be people who I would say live in the rational stage. They are open to questions and doubts and have very thoughtful answers to many of them. These people tend to embrace critical biblical scholarship, science, archeology etc. I am very thankful for those in this stage who have given me a way to be a Christian as I have moved beyond a prerational stage.

While I have and continue to be influenced by those in a rational stage, I find that those who I am most drawn to, those whom I find most life from, have something more.  So I have been asking;

What is that more?

What do they have that others don’t have?

Why, when they speak, do I feel like they are speaking to me at a deeper level than just the heart or the head – almost at a soulish level?

moving_beyond_banner

A simple answer is to say they combine both the head and the heart, but I still feel like that is lacking. Maybe it would be more accurate to say that they combine the head and the heart and yet move beyond. Somehow, in someway, they engage my heart and my head, yet unlock so much more inside of me.

Another way to say this is to use the Webster definition of transrational –  going beyond or surpassing human reason or the rational.

Those in the prerational stage are often antagonistic toward those in other stages for they see them as wrong, relativistic, heretical, liberal etc. They often say something along the lines of, “stop thinking so much and just accept it.”

Those in the rational stage are often antagonistic those in the prerational stage. They define themselves often by what they are not – they are not prerational (not necessarily always a bad thing). Getting back to my question, those who I am most drawn to are those who are not antagonistic toward others, but somehow transcend and include both the prerational and the rational stages.

As I am thankful to those in the rational stage who continue to shape me, it has left me feeling a little…how do I say it… stale?

To help clarify I can use and example drawing from the Bible. Those in the prerational stage simply accept these stories as literal, historical and factual truth. The story happened exactly as the Bible says it happened for it is the Word of God and must be accepted at face value.

The rational stage cannot except this for it engages the mind through science, archeology, common sense and experience. The story did not happen exactly as the Bible says it happened. In some ways it takes the life out of the story because it is out to prove that the stories are false, which leaves me with the question, “what then does it mean?”

The transrational stage moves through the rational, engages the mind, yet isn’t bothered by the “either/or” statements made by the other stages. The point isn’t if the story literally happened (though they have moved through the rational and understand that it may not be historically accurate), but the truth that the story conveys – it speaks to the human even if it did not literally happen.

Another example is that the prerational often sees the world as divided by the “natural” and the “supernatural”. God is seen sitting back, somewhere in the sky, and occasionally intervenes, i.e. divine intervention.

The rational draws from the intellect and see’s the world as a “natural” state. Since they do not see arms growing or the blind seeing there is not “supernatural”, only “natural”.

The transrational embraces mystery and paradox. The world is not divided into the “natural” and the “supernatural”, yet they realize not everything can be explained by our five senses. God is working, through all things and in all places, yet not in an “interventionist” sort of way, but in another, far more persuasive and evolutionary sort of way – gently pulling us forward toward more love, compassion and inclusion. In other words, the “natural” vs. “supernatural” is a false dichotomy and the transrational embraces the intellect while moving beyond just an intellectual understanding or knowing.

Those I am most drawn to seem to simply be. They choose to widen the circle and to redefine what it means to be a Christian – without the need to push anyone out. In a way, they seem to be paving a third way forward beyond two polarizing options.

To the prerational stage, the transrational seems like the rational in that it engages the head and is seen as – false, heretical, liberal etc. To the rational, the transrational seems to much like the prerational in that it seems to focus more on the heart (though the transrational does not neglect the head) and accepts that not everything can be explained by the rational mind.

In a sentence, those whom I am most drawn to are those who have moved beyond the prerational and rational, engage the heart and the head, and yet live with wonder and awe as they experience the great Mystery I call God.

What do you think? Does any of this make sense?

Is the universe benevolent?

What kind of world are we living in?

Are we living in a universe that is against us?

Is God on the edge of a throne somewhere just waiting for us to mess up so that God can smight us?

For some, God is someone to be feared.  God is a righteous and holy being who cannot stand to be around us when we mess up. This view of our world, God, and the universe affects people in very real ways.

angry-god

I have been in several conversations  where it has become clear to me that some people see God, the world, and the universe in a very different light than I do.

Now, before I even get to far into this, let me say that this view of God can be and is often defended using the Bible. But then again, so many hurtful and destructive things have been defending using the Bible so it really shouldn’t surprise us all that much. The Bible, like religion, can be helpful or hurtful. It can be used to speak life or death. The Bible, like religion, can be used to feed the ego and enhance our sense of being right or superior – it can create more boundaries of who is “in” and who is “out”.

Often, people who see God as an angry tyrant ready to destroy the “wicked” are fairly uptight themselves – after all if you have this view then you are constantly walking on egg shells – how exhausting!

I know this to be true because I lived much of my life here and can speak from experience. Everything needs to be defended and seen as a threat. The world is a terrible place and “Satan” is out to get you if you let your guard down for even a moment. This can take many forms; the Muslims are trying to take over the world, the liberals are out to get you, atheists are evil, evolution is deceiving our children etc etc.

When I am in conversations with people who see things differently – this can be concerning the LGBTQ community, evolution, science, hell, judgement, holiness, the Bible, righteousness, what salvation means, if the Christian truth is exclusive,  etc – what I have become aware of is that

beneath all of this is our view of God.

Is God benevolent or is God an angry tyrant? Does God’s holiness mean God cannot stand to be around us “sinners” – what an awful picture of God that paints – no wonder people are rejecting that god, I do to!

As I mentioned above, this is an exhausting way to live. The good news however, is that you don’t have to live this way. God, Reality, the Universe (however you define the Divine) is wholly and completely benevolent. God’s dream is for the world to flourish and God understands that you and I will make mistakes and occasionally mess up in the process.

So, it’s going to be ok. You can breath easy and don’t need to be anxious or fearful but can trust that God is working through your life, your decisions, and yes, even your mistakes.

I think God is best defined as love. Fear or anxiety do not exist in the domain of love. Where there is love, perfect and complete love, there is no fear.

Another way to say this is when one becomes fully conscious and awaken to God, they will no longer live in fear. Instead of seeing the world as a threat, one actually walks through it with eyes wide open in wonder and awe. God doesn’t need to be feared, but rather can be trusted because of God’s benevolence.

God is on your side and wants the best for you – how great is that!

Evangelism – the dirty “e” word

“The word evangelism still sends shivers down the spines of many people” says N.T. Wright.

I would say it does that to me.

I was taught to evangelize using the four spiritual laws which was a way of proselytizing or trying to convert the other. Often we would do this with complete strangers or sometimes at church as we tried to convince others that if they would just mentally check off the right box, then God wouldn’t send them to hell.

evangelism

Is there another way to think of evangelism?

I think there is, though in all honesty I don’t think I would use the word in my personal vocab because it has to many negative connotations.

I am doing some research for a paper and I dusted off a classic book, Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church by N.T. Wright – probably the single most influential book in my life…next to the Bible of course.

N.T. Wright suggests that there is a different, more accurate way of evangelizing than the traditional framework of heaven and hell. In my own mindset, I struggle with the idea of a loving God punishing humans for eternity because they did not accept Jesus as their personal Lord and Savior. I think the good news is much better and more inclusive than this.

Drawing from Wright, I would paraphrase evangelism as saying

God’s new world is breaking in right here and right now and we are invited to be a part.

Yes, it’s that simple, and yet so inspiring for several reasons.

First, it states that God has a vision, a direction, a hope, a dream for the world. It’s not random or accidental.

Second, it states that this world matters. It matters to God and it should matter to us. In fact, while many misinterpret the Scriptures to give Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth (BIBLE), or to give us an evacuation plan, the story told in the Bible is ironically the exact opposite. The story is about this world, how God cares for this world, and how God is working to bring a just and peaceful world. Yes, global warming matters (shout out to Pope Francis for making sure this is on the forefront of our minds!), the global economy matters, the life of plants and animals matter, equality for all matters.

Third, we are invited to be a part. We can hinder the hope or the dream of God, or we can be a part of seeing God’s hope and dream come to fruition! As N.T. Wright puts it, “saying no to the things that diminish human flourishing…saying yes to the things that enhance them.”

I suspect that there are whole swaths of people who would not call themselves a Christian or would never set foot in a church that are actually doing a better job at working toward God’s hope and dream than some of us Christians are.

N.T. Wright concludes this section by writing, “And, of course, evangelism  will flourish best if the church is giving itself to works of justice (putting things to rights in the community) and works of beauty (highlighting the glory of creation and the glory yet to be revealed).”

Justice and beauty!

What a great way to see evangelism!

And the greatest part is that this can be done in numerous, creative ways. Through health care, education, politics, religion, business, photography, art, design, science, study, writing, building, law, teaching…the list is endless.

Is evangelism a dirty word? Perhaps, but I think there is a different, and I would argue, more accurate way of understanding this in light of the Biblical story.

May we sense the invitation to work for a more just, more peaceful, and more sustainable world and may we be able to see the ways that we are already doing this and to continue find creative ways to continue to do this into the future.

Same sex marriage equality

In light of the Supreme Court hearings and future decisions about same sex marriages in the states, I wanted to reflect on this personally. I wrote a little about my personal journey toward LGBTQ inclusion here, and someday I may write about how to understand same sex marriage in light of Scripture, but today I felt like writing something more from the heart than the head.

Same-sex marriage supporters demonstrate in front of the Supreme Court on March 27, 2013 in Washington, DC. The rights of married same-sex couples will come under scrutiny at the US Supreme Court on Wednesday in the second of two landmark cases being considered by the top judicial panel. After the nine justices mulled arguments on a California law that outlawed gay marriage on Tuesday, they will take up a challenge to the legality of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). The 1996 law prevents couples who have tied the knot in nine states -- where same-sex marriage is legal -- from enjoying the same federal rights as heterosexual couples. AFP PHOTO/Jewel Samad        (Photo credit should read JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images)

While there are many nuances, there are clearly two major sides to the LGBTQ argument.

First, you have the conservative side who believe same sex marriage is a compromise, a redefinition of traditional marriage that God instituted to be between one man and one women. This group also see’s itself as defending truth (actually, somewhat ironically this is true of both sides), but more importantly they see themselves defending the Bible and 2,000 years of church tradition.

Second, you have the more progressives that see same sex marriage as a civil rights issue. Just like slavery and racial issues, it is about equality. This group wants to see equal rights given to all those in same sex marriages that are given to those in heterosexual marriages. While many are not religious, this group also contains a growing number of religious people that believe God has created each person, gay or straight, in God’s image. They do not interpret the Bible to condemn same sex marriage, but believe it is God’s desire for everyone who wants to be in a committed relationship to enjoy this.

Let me be up front, I’m a progressive – no if’s and’s or but’s about it!

But, I haven’t always been.

I vividly remember about 7 years ago a good friend suggesting that same sex marriages is the slavery issues of our day. This was the first, of many times I would hear this. Sadly, I didn’t know how to respond. I’m going to be honest here, I was raised to see homosexuality as a sin and I had never questioned this and I was in my mid 20s! When my friend said this, I was speechless. I wonder what he thought as I starred at him not knowing what to think or to say. He handled it well, but it left me with many questions.

You see my friend and I were on very similar pages in almost all theological, political,  and ecological issues so this surprised me. I am very thankful for this conversation, and many others since, that have forced me to think more deeply upon this.

As I mentioned, I grew up in a conservative Christian environment and viewed homosexuality as a sin. It was wrong and God hated it. I remember frequently using phrases growing up such as, “what are you gay?”, “dude, that’s so gay”, etc. Though it was done in  ignorance, I regret these things. There very well may have been someone wrestling with their sexuality, and I was only adding to the pain and confusion.

This also lead to a feeling of self righteousness within me. I felt I had the truth and gay people needed to hear it. It was the loving thing to do, or so I thought. I spoke out against homosexuality in ways I believed were in line with the ways God would speak out against it. I argued with those who were from the LGBTQ community, and I am ashamed to say, I added to their pain and marginalization. I alienated them. Deep down inside I felt righteous because they were wrong and I was right.

Our culture is shifting and American’s are more likely to be inclusive. This is also reflected in the religious shift where many denominations that once opposed same sex marriage have now become inclusive. There is also a growing number of evangelicals who have shifted their understandings.

Here’s what I predict.

Same sex marriage will be legal in all 50 US cities (this seems pretty clear).

Conservatives, while becoming less influential, will entrench themselves and try to stake out as much area as possible. They will continue to believe that they are standing for God’s truth and will see themselves as many have in the past who have stood against the greater secular culture.

This is where we, as progressives, have a choice.

I shared a little of my background in hope to show how conservatives think. They truly believe they are right, and progressives are wrong. They truly believe they are defending God’s truth, God’s word, in the face of relativism and increasing secularism. While I do believe this group will decrease, they will continue to push for influence and power for they believe they have a righteous cause. I think they are wrong, but I also relate to them because I understand what it is like to be in their shoes.

Here is my hope.

My hope is that as progressives, we do not debate or argue in hurtful ways. My hope is that as the consciousness shifts and we sense momentum on our side, that we exercise restraint and keep from lashing out at those who make us angry or hurt us because of their words. My hope is that we don’t take all of the pain, hurt, frustration that we have felt (Esp. those from the LGBTQ community who have been most affected) and unleash it upon conservatives. While we are tempted to do this, I suspect this temptation will only increase. I think there is a better way – the way of Jesus.

In a recent interview, one of the leading and most influential theologians,  Walter Brueggemann, was asked about the LGBTQ community and acceptance. He responded:

The only thing that will change people’s minds about this is getting to know people who happen to be gay or lesbian or bisexual, and what you discover is that they’re people just like us. To overcome our fears, I think it is basically fear, means getting to know people and to see that they are not a threat.

I think there is a time for clear, thoughtful, Biblical instruction, but that is most helpful when someone is open and seeking. In my experience, the majority of the time we are firing missiles back and forth and arguing biblical texts in a way that misses the point. If someone asks, we should be able to have an answer, but the majority of conservatives are not asking but are seeking to persuade. Does this mean we sit back idly? Absolutely not! But it does mean that in our dialogue what stands out above all else is not how persuasive we are or how firm we are or how convinced we are, but how loving and compassionate we are – yes our actions do indeed speak louder than our words.

I changed from one who was extremely opposed to same sex marriage to one who is fighting for it. This change was a slow process, and much of this change was influenced by those who I knew that were gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender.  l began to see these people as…well…people just like myself.  I believe all people, gay or straight,  are loved and accepted by the God revealed in Jesus.

If you are a part of the LGBTQ community my heart is with you. You are not in an easy place. While there is a shift, it will take time and you will no doubt continue to experience pain and frustration. For whatever it is worth, I stand with you. We can have sound, thoughtful reasons for fighting for same sex marriage equality. While we continue to press forward, as progressives, let’s rise above the angry and hostile debates and seek to offer gentle and loving answers. Let’s allow our lives and actions to speak (along with our words), for our actions do speak louder. Let my story be an example that conservatives can change, but this change will not be brought about by anger or bitterness but by people seeing love within us.  Conservatives believe they are on the right side, fighting for truth and for God, let’s allow our lives to show that the divine love is shining in and through us.

May we have grace in the midst of this difficult and exciting time as we look forward to a future where our children and grandchildren will not know a time where this was ever an issue!

Does the Bible contradict itself?

A few weeks ago I wrote about genocide that was commanded by God in the Bible. This week I wanted to finish the two part serious on Peter Enns book, The Bible Tells Me So…Why Defending Scripture Has Made US Unable To Read It.

Some would deny that the Bible contracts itself or offers differing perspectives, but anyone who has studied the Bible in depth cannot deny these – though many do enter into intense gymnastics to jump around or try to explain away the contradictions.

bibleContradictions

Enns talks about the fact that there are four different gospel stories that do not all line up perfectly. It should also be noted that while these gospels are traditionally attributed to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, these disciples were unlikely the authors of these gospel accounts (John is one exception – though it was redacted heavily). Each gospel writer tells their story in unique ways because they were addressing a specific audience and wanted to get specific points across.

The birth of Jesus is not even mentioned in Mark (the first gospel written) or John. Many scholars agree that Matthew most likely created some of his birth stories (e.g. the Magi and killing of babies by King Herod).

And then there’s the resurrection story.

Who is first to find an empty tomb?

In Matthew it was two women – Mary Magdalene and the other Mary and are greeted by an earthquake and an angel.

In Luke there are many women including Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of Jesus, and the other women. No earthquake and not angel but two men (the two men could be interpreted as angels).

Marks gospel has a shorter and a longer ending. The longer ending was most likely added on sometime in the second century. The shorter ending has four who visit the empty tomb – Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Solome. They see one man (not two) and do not experience an earthquake.

John’s story has Mary Magdalene who goes alone to the empty tomb and runs back to tell the disciples. Peter and another disciple race back to the tomb. There is no angel, no man, and no earthquake.

So we have four differing accounts. Was it two women? Four women? One women? Did they see an angel or angels or men? Was there an earthquake? These answers depend upon which gospel story one is reading from.

Enns then writes about the two differing stories within the Christian Old Testament. The first story is told in 1 & 2 Samuel and 1 & 2 Kings while the Israelites were in exile. The second story that was written about two centuries later, after the exile, is 1 & 2 Chronicles. These two stories note different details and do not always agree.

This reminds me a lot of the prophets which we talked about at length my Hebrew Bible class. The different prophets challenged each other, saw things differently, and disagreed because each was wrestling through their current context in light of the past and trying their best to see into the future.

2 Samuel 24 states, “Again the anger of the Lord was kindled against Israel, and he incited David against them…”

1 Chronicles 21 states, “Satan stood up against Israel, and incited David to count the people of Israel.”

So which is it? Was it God or was it Satan? (I wrote about the evolution of the view of Satan here).

Below is a short (not exhaustive list) of other places the Bible contradicts itself take from a great book by Kenton Sparks titled Sacred Word Broken Word: Biblical Authority & the Dark Side of Scripture

In some places God changing God’s mind and others claim that God never changes God’s mind – Gen 6:6-7; James 1:17

Some places describe God as having a physical body and others no body – Is 6:1; Amos 9:1; Jn 4:24.

Some texts say that Israel knew God’s name as Yahweh, while other texts say that they did not know God’s name – Gen 28:16; Ex 6:2-3.

Some texts tell Israel to boil the Passover meal and another forbids boiling it – Deut 16:7, Ex 12:9.

Some texts declare that God will judge the children of sinners and others say that God will not harm them – Ex 20:5; Deut 24:16.

One text says that Jesus’ family was originally from Nazareth, and another that says Bethlehem – Luke 2:1-4; Matt 1-2.

One text says that Jesus’ family moved to Nazareth soon after his birth, and another that says this took place several years after – Luke 2:39-40; Matt 1-2.

One text declares that there is no excuse for idol worshipers and another gives them an excuse – Rom 1:18-23; Acts 17:29-31.

One text says David paid 50 shekels of silver for Israel’s temple site, and another that says he paid 600 shekels of gold – 2 Sam 24:24; I Chron 21:25.

The Bible claims there was a world wide flood that killed almost everything, but geological  evidence proves this never happened.

If one reads the Bible seriously, one cannot just ignore these things and claim the Bible is without error.

How then should we read these stories?

I think a better way to read these stories is to ask why the original authors wrote these stories down the way they did. There was a point, a reason, why these stories exist (and others don’t) and continued to be passed along.

If one believes that God inspired the Bible, and believes that God’s Spirit was at work among the people who canonized the Bible, then we have these stories for a reason. I do not think that the reason we have these stories is to give us a rule book for how we are to live in the 21st century, but rather they are to give us a way people have engaged with the divine through their perspectives, their times, and in their places.

The Bible, as Enns suggests, is not a simple how-to manuel where we look how God acted in one stories and we extract that to mean that is how God acts in all times and places. The Bible is much more complex than that.

I cannot write without adding what I see as the crux of the story – Jesus. I read the Bible as a human journey to better understanding God, i.e. progressive revelation. This revelation climaxes in Jesus who I believe is the image of God. Jesus shows us that God is not distant, angry, or punitive, but is loving, forgiving, and merciful.

Unfortunately, a lot of violence has been and continues to be done in the name of a non violent and loving God. I would say that this god is not the god revealed in Jesus, but just as the Israel often viewed God as violent because of their consciousness at the time, we continue to struggle with ways to better understand God today. In this way the Bible seems most relevant to us in the 21st century!

 

Is the Bible Inerrant?…and did God command genocide?

A few weeks ago I wrote a blog about the first chapter of Peter Enns new book The Bible Tells me so…why Defending Scripture Has Made Us Unable To Read It.

ennsreview-1

I have since finished the book, it’s fantastic!

I wanted to reflect on what I saw as the main points of the book and where I resonated the most.

The main point of the book is that too many people have attempted to defend the Bible as an inerrant rule book that gives one harmonious story and picture of God, and this view has thus hindered them from reading the Bible as it is.

Enns’s conclusion?

The Bible doesn’t behave like a divinely dictated, inerrant rule book. The Bible contradicts itself, gives various pictures of God, and often tells stories that are not factually or historically true.

Enns jumps right into the complexity by dealing with one of the hardest stories in the Hebrew Scriptures, the genocide of the Canaanites that was commanded by God.

In the book of Joshua it states, “For it was the Lord’s doing to harden their hearts so that they would come against Israel in battle, in order that they might be utterly destroyed, and might receive no mercy, but be exterminated, just as the Lord had commanded Moses.”

dt20_16-17

Enns writes, “It’s hard to appeal to the God of the Bible to condemn genocide today when the God of the Bible commanded genocide yesterday.”

Enns goes a step further and writes, “…this God is flat-out terrifying: he comes across as a perennially hacked-off warrior-god, more Megatron than heavenly Father.”

If you are like me and have struggled with understanding how a loving God could command such atrocities your not alone!

Enns shows that the archeological evidence suggests the annihilation of the Canaanites never happened. (I have written about the historical inaccuracy of this here.)That’s correct…what the Bible claims to have happened appears to have never taken place…at least not on the scale that the story claims.

Before we get into other places where the Bible contradicts itself ( in Joshua it says that they annihilated all the Canaanites except for a few, but Judges makes it clear there were many still alive), we still need to answer the question of why this story is in the Bible.

Christians believe the Bible is somehow inspired by God. If this is the case, why would God allow such stories to become a part of the Bible?

Enns answers this (and I agree) by showing that God lets God’s people tell the story. The picture of God, in the case of the Canaanite annihilation, was not an accurate picture of God, but it was the way they viewed God at the time. Enns writes, “the ancient Israelites were an ancient tribal people. They saw the world and their God in tribal ways.”

I would add that we should be careful here to not think ourselves as having it all figured out. In another three thousand years I am sure people will look back upon us in many of the same ways we do to ancient people now.

So the story of the Canaanite annihilation is not a factually true story and God did not command genocide, but it was rather the view of ancient Israel of God as a tribal warrior deity similar to all other tribal warrior deities in the surrounding areas?

Yes.

Recently Richard Rohr wrote, “But, some will say, the Bible talks about God’s wrath. Yes, it does, but I would say that it was the people who were hateful at that point, and we wanted to create a God in our image. So we justify our wrath, our vengeance, and our violence by saying, ‘God orders us to kill all the Canaanites.'”

In other words, God works within whatever system or view humanity has of God at the time – even views that are not completely accurate (doesn’t this makes sense? If God is working through our limited views now, which I’m sure are not completely accurate, than our experiences would confirm this). We are limited in our perspectives. We see the world through certain lenses that our science, technology, archeology, cosmology makes available to us at the time. In the story of the Canaanites, the people of the Bible viewed their God in much the same way other people viewed their gods. Israel saw the world in much the same way other ancient people saw the world.

If the Bible is not an inerrant rule book or manual for life, what then is the Bible?

According to Enns, the Bible works, “as a model for our own spiritual journey. All of us are on a journey of faith to encounter God from our point of view.”

“The Bible presents a variety of points of view about God and what it means to walk in his ways. This stands to reason, since the biblical writers lived at different times, in different places, and wrote for different reasons. In reading the Bible we are watching the  spiritual journeys of people long ago.”

The Bible is inspired because it reveals the story of God that climaxes in Christ, yet it is always written from the perspective of humans and humans have different ways of seeing things.

So the Bible is not a simple, laid out, harmonious story that we just passively absorb. The Bible is a complex, multilayered, collection of stories with different perspectives that don’t always align. Thus, we are invited to enter into the story, engage with the story, learn from the story, struggle with the story, wrestle with the story, and even…yes…disagree with the story, in hope that we can continue the story of God in the present and into the future – this is actually what the people in the Bible were also doing when they wrote it down.

Where does the Devil come from?

In reading through the Christian Bible  (the New Testament), it is easy to picture Satan as an evil being who is God’s archenemy.

Texts such as Acts 5 and 26 suggest that Satan is not only other than God, but counter to God. For example, we read in Acts 26:18, “to open their eyes so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God”. Clearly this text is suggesting a force of “darkness” that is working against the powers of “light”, but the view of a cosmic battle between good and evil was not the commonly held view in the Hebrew Scriptures, in fact the idea of a Devil is nowhere to be found in the first five books of the Hebrew Scriptures.[1]

How did the idea of a Devil come to dominate the Christian mind?

Cartoon-Devil

In Chapter four of The River of God, Dr. Riley explains the evolution of Judaism from monism (a belief that the world is unified) to dualism (the belief in a comic battle between good and evil). For much of the time leading up to the writing of the Hebrew Scriptures, the Jewish people, along with all the surrounded ancient Near Eastern cultures, had no teaching or belief of a Devil, demons, or an eschatology including a heaven or a hell.[2] Texts such as Ps 78:69 which states that God, “founded the earth forever” and Ps 93:1 “the world is firmly established; it will not be moved” reflect the commonly held belief that the world would exist throughout eternity. In other words, they had no belief in the end of the world – what is called eschatology.

Concerning the beginning of the Hebrew dualistic view, Dr. Riley writes, “Such a cosmic dualism does not enter the River of God until the Persian invasion of Mesopotamia in the sixth century BCE. Before that time, all of the cultures of the ancient Near East lived in a world more or less at peace with itself”.[3] The conquering of Babylon by the Persian Empire brought with it Zoroastrianism. Zoroastrianism was a dualistic way of seeing the world in which there were two cosmic powers at war with one another, each with their own following of angels or demons.[4] While people who lived in the ancient Near East had a belief that the world was created out of chaos or already existing matter, Zoroastrianism brought a new view that the creation of the cosmos was brought about by God as a “battleground” where God and the Devil would fight for the loyalty of humankind.[5]

This duality took root very slowly in Israel after the return from Exile, and the majority of Jews still believed there was a most supreme God who lorded over other lesser gods or angels.[6] As dualism increased, people began to see that evil was the result of some form of lesser beings that choose to go against the most powerful deity.[7] Evil was now understood to be  brought about by Satan and his demon followers.

One of the clearest examples of this evolution in belief is found in comparing two Hebrew texts: 2 Samuel 24:1 and 1 Chronicles 21:1. The text from 2 Samuel, which was written before the exile, states, “Again the anger of the Lord was kindled against Israel, and he incited David against them saying, ‘Go, count the people of Israel and Judah’”. I Chronicles, written after the exile states, “Satan stood up against Israel, and incited David to count the people of Israel”.

So which is it?

Did God incite David or was it Satan?

This is a problem text for many who hold to an inerrant view of Scripture, but I think it clearly shows the evolution of belief among human history.

Dr. Riley shows that the idea of the Devil grows tremendously in the inter-testament period, and by first century, the idea of a Devil had fairly well solidified into the minds of many. This solidification was so dominant, as shown in Acts 5 and 26, that it’s impossible to understand the Christian Scriptures without the view of a Devil, demons, and a cosmic battle that will finally end with the destruction of the world and creation of a new one.

 

 

[1] Gregory J. Riley, The River of God (New York: HarperOne, 2001), 102.

[2] Ibid., 91.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid., 95.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid., 100.

[7] Ibid.

Lent – the death of the old and the rebirth of the new

So this Lent season I have been thinking about what Lent means to me and what it says to the world we live in today.

I was not raised to pay much attention to the church calender. Of course Christmas and Easter were always a big deal, but following the church calender through Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Easter, Pentecost, and ordinary time where never on my radar.

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Lent is that time of year where Christians prepare for the death and resurrection of Jesus. Often times this comes with giving up something in observance of this season.

I have specifically been thinking about the time between Palm Sunday, Good Friday, and Easter.

What happened in this time is one major faith shift.

I have gone through some pretty major faith shifts, but the biggest faith shift has been my picture of God.

I still remember very clearly not long ago someone on pastoral staff at a church who was suggesting that God brought about a recent hurricane to judge the “wicked”. This person quoted texts in the Hebrew Scriptures (Christian Old Testament) to prove that God had done this before and that God was doing it again.

I also remember during this time wrestling through different texts, their interpretations, and who God was when an old friend firmly tried to “rebuke” me (that’s a Christian way of saying your wrong) and declared that we should not wrestle with the Bible or God but we are to accept both as it is. Really? What this person was actually saying is that I needed to accept their interpretation of Scripture and their picture of God.

I also remember during this time hearing from an influential lay leader at a church that not only are Muslims wrong, but that they are evil and Christians need to be aware and stand against them or else they will take over our nation. This person had a very clear picture that America is a “Christian” nation and that any other religion is our enemy to be fought against.

I also remember during this time hearing from several about the importance of getting people to say a “sinner’s prayer” so that they do not go to hell and burn throughout eternity.

I remember thinking through these four examples (and many others) and realizing that I just don’t see things the same way. Each of these examples could be argued (and were) using the Bible. I didn’t have the words, or the theology, but I was going through a season of Lent. The old way of seeing and understanding God had died – I just hadn’t made it to Easter yet!

Jesus was suppose to be the Messiah (anointed one) and the Savior who was suppose to free Israel from the Roman Empire. Palm Sunday is a clear example of this as the people shouted Hosanna which means “Lord save us” – literally they were anticipating salvation from the Roman Empire just as God had saved them from the Egyptians in the book of Exodus and from the Babylonians during the Exile (587-539 BCE). So to them Hosanna clearly meant Lord save us from the Roman empire.

This makes perfect sense. As they understood God was a mighty warrior who conquered and defeated their [Israel’s] enemies. Yahweh was a God who brought about calamity, commanded genocide, and fought for Israel and would send people to hell in a moments notice.

Here comes Jesus, the one who was suppose to represent all of the descriptions above. Jesus would to be a mighty warrior who would conquer and defeat Israel’s enemies, the Romans. Jesus would bring peace to Israel through violence and the sword and would condemn to death those who oppose him.

  • Palm Sunday – people celebrated and expected this Jesus.
  • Good Friday – this Jesus was put to death.
  • Easter – Jesus was resurrected and shows a new way of seeing God.

I have recently heard that each serious Christian has one primary text that acts like a lens through which they read the rest of the Scriptures through.

During this time, and today, one of the biggest texts that I use is found in Colossians which says, “He [Jesus] is the image of the invisible God”. Also a similar text found in Hebrews 1v3, “The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being…”.

I understand not everyone believes that Jesus is divine, but it’s difficult to argue for a more beautiful way of seeing God. The one thing, above all others, that makes Christianity unique, is this idea that God entered into our humanity and showed us who God is and how to be fully human.

Now, I realize a lot of violence, destruction, oppression, and hatred have been used in the name of Jesus (much like it has been used by a few Muslim extremist today), but when one reads the life and teaching of Jesus it is very difficult to get a picture of a God who is violent, vengeful, angry, full of hate, and ready to torture people throughout eternity.

In fact, it seems to me that one gets the exact opposite picture of God. In my experience there are many people who do not believe in God, and when they talk about the God they do not believe in, I realize that often I do not  believe in that God either.

What does this mean for today?

I wonder if we need a season of Lent in our culture. I think that there are some very horrible and destructive ways of seeing God that should be put to death.

I have a feeling, that there is a growing number of people, like myself, for whom the old ways of seeing God no longer work. These people have entered into a Good Friday, and similar to the first followers of Jesus, it is easy to experience a disequilibrium of sorts.

During this time it is tempting to through the whole thing out the window (this is what the first followers of Jesus did and what we often do as well). While some are atheist because this seems to be the most rational way of understanding the world, I think some people are atheist because they have been presented with a god that doesn’t make sense and that is actually not worth worshiping and have rejected this god.

I think the invitation during this season of Lent for today is to hold on and continue the journey. While you may have gone through a Friday, the promise is that Friday does not have the last answer – Easter is just around the corner!

What is the Bible?

It is my belief that many of the divisions and debates within the Christian community can be funneled down to one simple question.

What is the Bible?

God-Write-the-Bible

How one answers the question determines so many other things that it is important to take the time to consider this question.

In my experience, whenever I am in a discussion with someone who disagrees with me, I often find that it is rooted in a different way of answering this question. For example, many who argue in a literal six day creation most often believe the Bible to be inerrant, while those who believe in evolution view the Bible differently.

Most know this, but the Bible is not a book, it’s actually a collection of books written by well over 40 different authors (many of which we do not know of), and written well over the span of a millennia. This means that there are many different genre’s within including: myth, poetry, history, wisdom, narrative, parable, prose, and some really obscure stuff called apocolytpic literature found in Daniel and Revelation.

There are many ways to answer this question, but I think most of them can be placed into three primary categories – each one also as a wide spectrum within.

1. The Bible is the inerrant Word of God.

This is the view I grew up with, and because of this it is the one I am most familiar with. As I mentioned above, people with this view have many small nuances, but most who hold to this view would see the Bible as without error.

Where they do not agree is whether the Bible is without error in it’s current English, the original languages, or the original writings called autographs – it gets very slippery here because a large number of people hold that the original writings are inerrant, but we don’t have any of the original writings (what we have are copies of copies of copies of copies etc).

Now, when pressed on issues like grammar, punctuation, etc. these people tend to lean away from thinking all of these things are without error, but are rather mistakes made by humans as they copied these texts.

These people tend to read the Bible literally. In other words, they believe in a literal Adam and Eve, a literal Noah, ark, and global flood, they usually believe Jonah spent three days in the belly of a fish, etc etc. They will tend to take any evidence that suggest certain aspects of the Bible to not be historically accurate as a threat – something they will defend vehemently.

When some suggest that the Bible contains historical inaccuracies and the impossibility of reading everything in the Bible literally, they tend to think that Satan (again a literal demonic being) is trying to blind people from the truth and that scholars and scientist are themselves  deceived, are deceiving others, or both.

2. The Bible is one big myth.

Many in this category see only two options: option 1 or option 2.

Many people will often think that either the Bible is historically accurate or it cannot be trusted. They may even have respect for the Bible, as a sacred writing for a religious community, but often view the Bible as a bunch of made up fairy tales.

In my experience, most people in this category tend to focus on the irrationality and inaccuracy of the Bible to show that it is just old stories made up by people who lived hundreds of years ago. They will point out that the Bible is archaic, old, outdated, and…come on…we live in the 21st century people!

3. The Bible is inspired by God

This is a very nuanced approach (as they all are), but overall people who hold this view tend to believe that God was working and continues to work through the Bible – it is inspired in ways other books are not.

These people believe that the Bible is not a scientific textbook, but is more accurately a faith book.

These people teach that the Bible is not always historically accurate, but also understand not everything must be historically accurate in order to present truths. They also understand that much of the Hebrew Scriptures were passed down orally for centuries and they were far less concerned with be perfectly historically accurate as they were in learning and retelling their stories while conveying the deeper truth within – whereas those of us who live in the 21st century often think of a picture or photograph (which shows every single detail), it is more accurate to think of a painting – both are true, but they do not show the exact same thing in the same detail.

These people think science and faith can go hand in hand, and are not afraid when science suggest that the way we interpret the Bible may be wrong.

These people also see that the Bible is not one singular voice, but rather a plurality of voices, each one bound by their culture, cosmology, worldview, etc. The Bible actually contains different perspectives and even different ways of seeing things – they would argue that this is to be expected in a book that has been written by so many different people spanning so many years.

Where do I stand?

I would fall into the third category and if I was asked what the Bible is I would respond by stating:

I think the Bible is a collection of books written by humans as they interpret the divine.

Inspired by God, written by man.

Because of this, we see human fingerprints all over the Scriptures. Some perspectives found within are more accurate than others. I do believe God was working through the limited understanding, cosmology, and consciousness of each of the authors – just like I believe God is still working through each of our limited understanding, cosmology, and consciousness.

In the pages of the Scriptures I see the divine pulling humanity forward into a greater consciousness, a greater awareness of what is right and what is wrong, how to live a fuller life, how to better take care and love others, how to live more economically and sustainably.

This way of thinking shapes the way I see the world at this moment.

I believe God is pulling us forward into greater consciousness.

The invitation is, will we enter into the growing expanse, or will we fight against it?