Question – What do you get when you cross a bad scientist with a poor theologian? (Hang with me here, this is not a bad joke!)
Answer – An atheist
I just finished reading a book in which the author stated, unambiguously and quite proudly, that he can prove that God exists. Foolproof, airtight, with not the slightest chance that there could be a mistake proof that God exists. I was quite in awe until I read what his “proofs” consisted of – a long list of arguments that have been put forward for centuries. A long list, I might add, that has been particularly ineffective in proving the existence of God, except for those who already believe in God. If you already believe in something, it is quite easy to prove it exists. It is when you try to convince someone who is utterly certain of the falsity of your proposition that your “proofs” tend to get shredded. I happen to believe in God, so I also happen to appreciate many of the “proofs” that the author put forward. I also know atheists who laugh out loud at the supposed “iron-clad” arguments that are set forth. Now, disbelief in one proposition does not equal proof of the opposite proposition, but still, poor arguments deserve to be destroyed.
Notice in the famous picture of the creation of Adam in the Sistine chapel. God and Adam reach toward each other, but there is a gap – an existential difference between the two. God urges us as humans to seek for him, but still, we are flesh and he is God, and we will always be just a hair short of fully understanding the nature of God. John even said of Jesus, the incarnate God on earth, “He came to his own home, and his own people received him not.” (John 1:11)
I am one who happens to believe that good science and good theology should not be enemies. They are different fields, and ask (and search for answers) to entirely different questions. Good science attempts to answer the questions “what” and “how”. Theology attempts to answer the questions “who” and “why”. That is why I suggest that when you mix bad science and bad theology all you end up with is an atheist. A good person, no doubt, but someone who has placed their trust in something that is not God.
I feel very strongly that if you have to prove the existence of your god, you have a very small god. In fact, if you CAN prove the existence of your god then you have succeeded in creating an idol larger than any god – yourself. Step back and work through this – if your science (whatever it may be) can prove beyond any shadow of a doubt that your god exists, then your god is smaller than your science. That is to say your science can explain your god; ergo, your science is bigger, more complex, and more profound, than your god. You have just made your intellect your idol – you may worship a “god,” but just like the story in Isaiah of the man who cuts down a tree, cooks his food with half of it and fashions a god out of the other half, your god is still a thing of your creation (see Isaiah 44:9-17). You can manipulate it, define it, examine it, and ultimately prove that it exists by some physical test.
Now compare that with the God of the Bible. Since we were just in Isaiah, let us stay there. Read Isaiah 40:9-31 (for just one passage). Now – how do we “prove” a God such as this exists? To what do you compare something that is incomparable? By what standard do you measure something that is beyond measure – or even comprehension? The folly of the peanut scientific mind is that it thinks it can define, measure, describe or explain that which cannot be rationally bounded.
Writing in the early 11th century A.D., a theologian by the name of Anselm formulated what is often referred to as the “ontological argument” of the existence of God. Strictly speaking, however, it is not a positive argument, but the expression of the impossibility to create such an argument. It goes something like this – If I can conceive of something bigger than God, that thing that I have imagined must be God. But this is a logical impossibility, as God is the most comprehensive being that can be conceived. God, therefore, is “that than which nothing bigger can be conceived.” God is bigger than any science, any scientist, and even any proof of his own existence.
We need to give up this infantile attempt to figure out a “bomb-proof” argument or proof that God exists, and simply get back to worshipping the God that scoffs at all our puny little attempts to control him.
“And without faith it is impossible to please him. For whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him.” (Hebrews 11:6, RSV emphasis mine.)
Some little voice in the back of my head tells me to follow up just a tad bit on my post yesterday. There I made the somewhat (?) confusing statement that I agreed more with someone that I ultimately would disagree than with someone who, on the surface, I should agree. It is a frustrating feeling. However, while still firmly believing that what I said is true, I also think that I may have inadvertently said something that I do not believe is true.
Theology matters. It matters greatly. We cannot avoid that truth, no matter how fervently we might wish to. There are hundreds, perhaps even thousands of separate groups that all claim in some fashion to be “Christian.” Many of these groups proclaim doctrines that are diametrically opposite to doctrines taught by other “Christian” groups. Yet, with no apparent sense of confusion or shame, everyone seems to go along with the idea that all of these groups are somehow on the same page and headed in the same direction. Logic, if not theology itself, makes this a foolish conclusion.
A person cannot be a Calvinistic-Arminian, nor an Arminian-Calvinist. A person cannot be a Cessationist-Pentecostal, nor a Pentecostal-Cessationist. A person cannot be a Catholic-Protestant, nor a Protestant-Catholic. The same bifurcation holds true with Pedo-baptists and Credo-baptists, egalitarians and complementarians, transubstantiationalists, consubstantiationalists and symbolists. Many other theological issues that have divided Christianity simply will not allow for cheap and meaningless compromise for the sake of a supposed unity.
Theology matters. When I say that I agree with someone with whom I must ultimately disagree, I am not saying that I can set aside the substantive disagreement for the sake of the more temporary agreement. Now, mark these words carefully – I am not saying that such a person is not in a saved relationship with his or her God. I simply am not in a position to make eternal judgments. However, I can, based on my understanding of the Scripture, decide whether what I understand of his or her position is true. I can also be taught, and I reserve the right to teach what I believe to be the truth.
I hold many doctrines to be of such weight that I simply cannot “agree” with those who hold clearly opposing conclusions. I may be correct, the other person may be correct, or a third option is possible – that neither one of us is entirely correct and the absolute truth of the matter lies in some third possibility. But, I cannot simply lay aside my conclusions and convictions simply in order to avoid hurting someone else’s feelings, or to massage some flimsy and ultimately false “unity.”
I chose the image above this post for a reason. The realm of theology describes the void where the woman is frozen. There is an absolute truth to which she is headed – in my image that would be the eternal and unalterable truth of God. There is an equally solid truth from which she is jumping – the truth of our convictions. Theology is that space in the middle – theology is a searching, a probing, a “working out” of that which we can see but yet that which is still not under our feet. But theology is not just some whimsical, “pie in the sky by and by when we die” exercise that a few pointy-heads secluded in their ivory towers can participate in. Theology is built on solid study of the Bible – the solid rock upon which all theology must be built. Theology might be described as a leap (and other images are certainly legitimate), but theology is not a blind leap, nor is it a careless leap. Theology is a well-measured, calculated and purposeful leap into the mind and heart of God.
So, theology really matters. I agree with some theologians, and disagree with some – often the same theologian and often in the same book, chapter, or even page. We all see as through a glass, darkly. Or, a fog, depending on our point of view.
It is spring break week here in the fog so I have been doing some catch-up reading. I am reading two books in particular, one that is stimulating and enjoyable and the other that is, well, just painful. What I find particularly disturbing is that the book I am being challenged by and the one that I am enjoying is written by someone with whom I have much to disagree. The book that I am reading just because I feel like I have to (for reasons that will go undisclosed) is written by someone who is a member of the Church of Christ. In fact, in certain parts of the country he would be idolized, yea worshipped, if he were to step up to a pulpit and start preaching. He is certainly no “average” member of the Church of Christ. He is about as far to the right as you can get within the fellowship of the churches of Christ without being anti-institutional, non-Sunday school or one-cup-only for the fruit of the vine during communion.
The one with whom I have doctrinal issues writes in a manner as to promote his beliefs without putting down any others, and with the intention of building up the body of Christ. The other uses derogatory terms to describe his “enemies,” makes no effort to mask his ridicule of their positions, and offers no apologies to “calling them out by name.” The first authors uses hermeneutical processes that are agreed upon by most scholars today; the other uses a hermeneutical principle that only he and a few others find convincing. The first author is willing to consider options other than his own conclusions; the second summarily dismisses any challenges to his conclusions as coming from someone who do not love God nor do they respect the Bible. Even when the second author makes a conclusion that I agree with I am frequently appalled at his logic and his condescending tone.
Have you ever agreed with someone you disagree with more than you agree with someone you agree with?
I have often said, and firmly believe, that I learn more from someone I disagree with, if they present their positions fairly and openly, than I do from someone that, for every other reason, I should agree with. Maybe I am weird that way. I would just much rather discuss religion with someone who knows and understands what he/she believes than with someone of my own faith group who simply parrots what some teacher/preacher/parent/friend once said. And that goes for those on both ends of the “conservative/liberal” spectrum. Wild-eyed liberals turn me off just as fast, if not faster, than closed-fisted reactionaries.
At the end of one of my undergraduate semesters a question was posed to our professor as to how we should respond when someone says/teaches something in error concerning the topic we had just completed studying (I am not sure whether it was Greek, Romans or Revelation – I can remember the professor and the statement, but not the subject). The professor paused for a moment as if to collect his thoughts. Very slowly he said, “Gentlemen, you must be very careful in those situations. Challenging someone’s long held beliefs is perilous work. But bad theology must be named as bad theology.”
In my 30-plus years serving the church in a number of capacities I have learned the truth of that statement over and over again, and have marveled at the wisdom of the professor who uttered it. Bad theology kills, no matter how loved or worshipped the speaker/writer/teacher is. Bad theology must be named as bad theology.
And doggone bad theology is the worst.
The death penalty has been on my mind quite a bit lately. One reason is that I am teaching a course on Christian Ethics, and the topic came up as a part of the curriculum. Another reason is that there is a case currently in the headlines about a woman on death row who has, by virtually all accounts, made a complete change in her life and has become a Christian, and has been doing remarkable work with other inmates as she has contact with them. Many, both in the secular and the religious worlds, are working for the commutation of her sentence so that she be spared her execution.
I try to keep abreast of arguments on both sides of this issue. One of my mentors (by distance, and now only through his writings as he has passed away) was an avowed anti-death penalty advocate. I read his arguments closely, and while I agree with some of his logic, there are some other aspects of his (and the entire anti-death penalty movement) that I have great difficulty in accepting. So, I write this post as both a statement of my current position, and as a refutation, or a challenge if you will, of some aspects of the anti-death penalty moment that I would like to see clarified or explained.
As I understand the main theological objection to the death penalty, Jesus established in the Sermon on the Mount, and through later teachings as well, that his disciples are to forgive, are not to employ any means of violence, are not to retaliate in any way, and are to bear with any injustice, all for the sake of the Kingdom of God. This is a strong argument, and cannot be dismissed with the flippant attitude that many pro-death penalty advocates demonstrate. In this line of thinking Jesus has abrogated the Old Testament permission to take “life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth.” While this is a strong argument, I believe there is an inherent flaw – a contradiction that weakens the argument significantly, if not totally.
The primary Old Testament passages relating to capital punishment (especially in relation to murder) are Genesis 9:6, Exodus 21:12-17, and Numbers 35:9-34. There is another key passage that must be included in the discussion, and that is the law relating to false witnesses, Deuteronomy 19:15-21. These passages reveal several critical components of capital punishment that I believe are NOT addressed by many anti-capital punishment advocates.
First, the basis of capital punishment is not revenge, retaliation, or retribution. The basis – the foundation – for the use of the death penalty in the case of murder is that murder violates the nature of God himself. Murder certainly is a violent crime – as is rape and kidnapping, other crimes for which the death penalty could be used. Murder violates the bond of humans in community, as does rape, kidnapping, and the sexual sins for which a person could be executed – adultery, bestiality, even homosexuality. But, while all of these crimes and violations of the Law violated God’s holiness, only the crime of murder violated his nature. Thus, the only crime for which there was no chance for a substitution was the crime of murder (Num. 35:31).
Second, to reverse the rationale or the exercise of capital punishment is to tacitly admit that the God of the Old Testament was a vengeful, angry, violent God, but the God of the New Testament is a kind, loving, forgiving God. It is to tear apart the Trinity – Jehovah is the God of the Old Testament, a warring, violent God; but Jesus is the God of the New Testament, a kind, gentle, forgiving God. This is a separation of the nature of God that I simply cannot accept. God is clearly described in the Old Testament as a forgiving God who seeks the restoration of a broken relationship with man. God is just as clearly described in the New Testament as a God who will ultimately judge the disobedient and unrepentant sinner.
Third, and directly related to the last point, when we turn the God of the New Testament into an exclusively kind, gentle, loving, forgiving God we create a god in our own image. We are just so kind, so loving, so forgiving, so much more mature than those bloodthirsty Israelites that we need a god who looks and acts like us. We need a compassionate god – and a god that condones capital punishment simply will not do. So, we create a new god – an anti-capital punishment god, and we do everything that we can to separate him from the God of the Old Testament. But this is pure idolatry. When we say we worship the God of the Bible, we must let the Bible describe who God is, and then we either accept that God or we reject that God. We cannot create him in our own image.
That leads me to my last point. I have a suspicion that one reason so many are so afraid of allowing that God can still condone the use of capital punishment is that we fear our own punishment. If murder (and other sins, to be perfectly honest) demand the death penalty, then hell is a very real possibility. But, if God utterly and totally reversed himself on that blessed night in Bethlehem when a little baby was born to the virgin Mary, then maybe there really is not a hell after all – how can a God who has abolished the death penalty actually use the ultimate death penalty?
As I said above – I continue to consider this question deeply. I know that in the United States we have employed the death penalty very unevenly and very unjustly. We certainly do not apply the penalty as it is described in the Bible. To pause for a season to make sure our system does not perpetrate the sins of our past is a wise move. However, our very human and very broken use of the penalty does not in and of itself eliminate the just and proper use of the penalty.
I am certainly open to the possibility that Jesus did, in fact, abolish the use of capital punishment. However, in order for me to be fully convinced, the objections that I have raised above must be answered. If murder in particular so violated the nature of a life creating and sustaining God, and if God in his divine justice system created such an explicit and carefully nuanced method of determining guilt and the protection of the innocent, how can we, as mere mortals, claim that justice system is unfair? Is it not OUR system that is unfair?
Just another flight through the thick fog of our broken humanity, and trying to see the light of God’s word clearly and faithfully.
Andrew Root, Bonhoeffer as Youth Worker: A Theological Vision for Discipleship and Life Together (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2014)
I am a Bonhoefferophile. Happiness to me (if I cannot be fly fishing somewhere on a cold trout stream) is a big cup of Earl Grey tea, a book by or about Bonhoeffer, and a long afternoon. But, that having been said, there is nothing worse than a bad book about Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Regardless of how much you like steak, there come a point that if it is cooked poorly, even a filet mignon is a wretched piece of meat. So, when I heard that a book about Dietrich Bonhoeffer as a youth worker had been published, I was immediately and deeply suspicious. Possibly no theologian has been used and abused more than Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Liberals see Bonhoeffer as the consummate liberal, conservatives see Bonhoeffer as a flag carrying conservative. I was afraid to find that Mr. Root would make Dietrich Bonhoeffer out to be the paragon of modern “pizza and praise God party” youth minister. I read some encouraging reviews, so I cautiously bought the book. The siren call of another study on Bonhoeffer was just too strong to resist.
Boy, am I glad I did.
My fears of Mr. Root transposing American youth ministry onto Bonhoeffer were dispelled on p. 3 when he wrote, “Actually, as we’ll see in the chapters below, Dietrich Bonhoeffer more than likely would have been strongly against many of the forms American youth ministry has taken since its inception.” Mr. Root is still too kind, but at least he put my mind at ease. The rest of the book served this summary well – he clearly demonstrated the vast difference between Bonhoeffer and American elitist, entitlement based youth ministry.
Root’s work is divided into 14 chapters and runs 208 pages long – so the book moves quickly. Root takes a chronological approach to studying Bonhoeffer’s work with youth, which is not the only way to study Bonhoeffer’s theology, but it works very well in this case. Root demonstrates that throughout his work with youth (which is far more extensive than most people realize), Bonhoeffer was consistent and demanding. Bonhoeffer was a theologian first and foremost and not at all concerned with the “bottom line” that defines so much American youth ministry. However, he was particularly adept at recognizing the capacity of his audience to perceive and adopt theological concepts, and so Bonhoeffer was a master at pedagogy as well as theology. Reading this book illuminates how important it is for a youth worker to be firmly grounded in theology, as well as methodology to convey that theology. (Note especially chapter 6, “Tears for Mr. Wolf: Barcelona and After”, and chapter 9, “They Killed Their Last Teacher! The Wedding Confirmation Class.”)
I am afraid that many (if not most) American youth ministers will not like this book – if they even understand what Root is saying. Most American youth ministry creates idols out of young people. “Do this, or we will lose our youth!” “Don’t do that, or say that, because our young people will not like it and they will leave!” Most critical, youth ministry in America treats theology like the plague – you can do just about anything, but for crying out loud stay away from theology. Even if you have to (horrors) talk about God, make sure he comes across as a BFF, so that you will not scare the poor little darlings.
Bonhoeffer, as Root so powerfully and eloquently demonstrates, viewed young people as individuals who were both capable and responsible for learning about the great and deep things of God. And Bonhoeffer viewed youth ministry as a critical part of the entire congregation – Bonhoeffer never wavered from his insistence that the church, and especially the congregation, was the center of the world for the Christian. I think Bonhoeffer would be aghast at the way our youth ministries pull young people away from the church – we actually destroy the community of the saints by isolating one of its most critical components.
Root demonstrates beyond question that for Bonhoeffer, theology had to be the center for youth ministry. How he managed to accomplish what he did is another story – certainly not everyone is going to be as gifted as Bonhoeffer in working with youth. But, if you love young people, if you are concerned about the young people in your church, and especially if you are currently involved in ministering to young people, this is one book you need to buy, read, and most important, fit into your ministry.
Just do not expect to find a 21st century youth minister in Dietrich Bonhoeffer. He was not, and for that we should all be very grateful.
Regardless of who we are, what we do, or what we believe, we like to be around others who share the same interests and opinions. It is the most natural and logical of situations. We seek out those with whom we have the most in common and situations where we feel the most comfortable. It would be ridiculous to constantly want to be around people who disagree with us or to be in situations where we constantly feel threatened.
Nowhere is this phenomenon more apparent than in issues of faith. Christians want to be with other Christians, not Muslims. Muslims want to pray in Mosques, not Cathedrals. Even more specific, Roman Catholics like to worship with fellow Catholics, Lutherans with Lutherans, and Baptists with Baptists. I choose to worship with fellow members of the churches of Christ. It is there that I am at home. I know the language. I am with family.
Even certain doctrines or beliefs within a specific faith or faith community have their own boundaries. Within the churches of Christ we have those who accept separate Sunday school classes for different ages, and those who believe the congregation should not be divided. We have those who believe it is wrong to eat a common meal in the church building, and those who have full sized gyms and coffee houses in their buildings. We have those who partake of the Lord’s Supper with one cup and one loaf, and those who have the oversized thimbles full of grape juice and multiple little crackers. Instruments of music, female worship leaders – every question creates new divisions and either creates or deepens animosities.
And every division creates a new echo chamber. It is impossible not to recognize that each position comes complete with a venue to promote that opinion. As early as the second generation of the Restoration Movement, members were divided as to whether they were “Advocate men” or “Standard men.” (Women, I suppose, were identified by their husband’s allegiance). Then there came the Firm Foundation, and the Gospel Guardian, and the Heretic Detector (I kid you not), and Contending for the Faith and the Spiritual Sword and then Image and then Wineskins – and the beat goes on. Each journal, and sometimes associated lectureship, has rules about who can, and more importantly, who cannot be included in their “circle.” Although in the early years of the Restoration Movement many journals carried written debates and articles that conveyed opinions contrary to the editor, that day has long since disappeared. Now, in order to be accepted by any journal or any lectureship a writer or speaker must be fully vetted, and if there is any shibboleth that cannot be explained, he (or she) is simply excluded.
Every journal and every lectureship within the fellowship of the Churches of Christ today is simply an echo chamber of the opinions and attitudes of those who edit/direct it. Oh, you may have the rogue conservative that travels out west or the closet progressive that manages to sneak in the midwest somewhere, but those situations are rare to the point of being isolated, and perhaps embarrassing to the powers-that-be once they are discovered.
So conservatives speak and write in echo chambers that simply reinforce their interpretations and opinions, and progressives speak and write in echo chambers that reinforce their interpretations and opinions. I am not exactly sure how to change that situation. Like I said, who wants to be in a place where they are threatened and made to feel like a lamb in the middle of a wolf convention? Not I, said this sheep.
But I just wonder (thinking out loud here), if some of the outrageously stupid things that were said in these echo chambers were spoken in a venue where they could be challenged and proven to be utterly baseless, would the condition of the average church member not be much healthier? I mean, to be absolutely honest and utterly frustrated here . . . it cannot be that it is scripturally wrong to hold or participate in a particular belief or practice and at the same time for that belief or practice to be scripturally right and blessed by God. One belief or practice is (a) wrong, and therefore a sin, or (b) right and therefore blessed by God or (c ) it is not a scriptural issue to begin with and therefore is neither (a) nor (b). But it cannot be both (a) and (b). Likewise, a passage of Scripture cannot have diametrically opposite interpretations and both (or all, if there be more than one radically different interpretation) be correct. One interpretation must be false. Jesus did not suggest that the Pharisees and Sadducees were merely mistaken. He called them blind guides and fools, and a brood of snakes. I get the impression Jesus believed the Pharisees and Sadducees were BOTH flat out, positively, absolutely wrong.
I have grown weary trying to hear a sane and honest, and yet direct, debate about some issues facing the Church of Christ today. There are a lot of people talking and writing and pontificating and lecturing and other sundry things. But they are all doing so in their respective echo chambers, where they receive standing ovations and feel-good reviews and everyone goes away happy. It is easy to feel good about what you hear in an echo chamber.
Problem is, Jesus did not say to listen to the voices in an echo chamber. He said to listen to his voice. God said listen to the voice of Jesus. It seems to me that the ONE voice we are not paying attention to today is the ONLY voice we should be listening to.
One of the joys I have is teaching and learning from some really great young people. The other day following class a few of us were discussing various topics, and one of the things we were talking about was faithful obedience. The story of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego and their great statement of faith came up,
O Nebuchadnezzar, we have no need to answer you in this matter. If it be so, Our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace; and he will deliver us out of your hand, O king. But if not, be it known to you, O king, that we will not serve your gods or worship the golden image which you have set up. (Daniel 3:16-18, RSV)
One of the students told the group he had prepared a lesson on the difference between faith and fear. The lesson is profound, so I share it with you.
Fear says, “What if . . .” Fear says, “What if I fail, what if I get sick or die, what if this solution costs too much or does not achieve the goal for which we out to overcome, what if the people reject me, what if there are unforeseen setbacks, what if, what if, what if.”
Faith says, “Even if . . .” “Even if I fail, even if I get sick or die, even if this solution costs more that the value returned, even if the people reject me, even if there are unforeseen setbacks, I am going to follow God and his word, and I am not going to give in to fear.”
It was a powerful moment. Far too often I have collapsed under the weight of the “what ifs.” I am cautious by nature, almost to a fault (maybe certainly to a fault). I like to see the end before I take a step. Could I have uttered the words of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego? I shudder to think.
How many times do we worship false gods because we are afraid of the “what ifs.” How many good projects are not even attempted because of the “what ifs.” How much good could be accomplished if we would just say, “even if.” We really need to have the courage to swim against the crush of the crowds – the courage of our convictions.
I needed to hear that message. I hope it helps you too.
This semester’s schedule calls for me to get back into Christian ethics. So, in addition to the basic text I am using, I have been reading some sources that are “new” to me, John Howard Yoder, in particular. Yoder is perhaps the most persuasive and well-known among pacifist writers. Whether you agree with Yoder, disagree with Yoder, love him or hate him, if you are going to wade very deep into Christian ethics you have to deal with Yoder and the application of his views.
This, however, is not really a post about Yoder. Perhaps I will do that at another time.
What Yoder got me thinking about was how diluted Christianity has become. With very, very, few exceptions, most congregations of virtually every stripe or color of Christians have become conformational. This fact is astounding, given the reality that Jesus called upon his disciples to be transformed, and transformational, and the apostle Paul wrote emphatically that disciples of Christ are to be transformed and transformational. (see Romans 12:1-3)
To explain my terminology here, conformational Christianity is a Christianity that has conformed itself in one or more aspects to the culture in which it resides (for us Americans, that would be a free-market, capitalistic, militaristic, representative republic). We look like good Americans, we act like good Americans, we talk and buy and sell and defend and basically exist as if America was the “promised land” of which Moses spoke to the Israelites.
Transformational Christianity, both individual and communal, would examine that culture (or cultures) and work with the remnant of ideas that might be God affirming, and would reject or transform everything else in order to live fully and whole-heartedly within the “reign of God” on earth. A transformed Christianity would look nothing like its surrounding culture, except as that culture has itself been transformed by the Christian leaven working within it. A transformed people would be known by their inexplicable love for one another. They would be known for their total devotion to the ethics of the Kingdom of God. They would not be concerned about money or power or prestige or whether or not they were being treated fairly under the Constitution. A transformed church would live as if this world was a transition to a better world, a re-created Garden of Eden in which Christians will all share in a re-established image of God.
Conformational Christianity asks, “What is culture saying that we must do in order to appeal to consumers looking for the best religious deal?” Transformational Christianity asks, “How has Christ changed my life, and how can I go out and change my world.” Conformational Christianity asks, “What can we do to keep our young people from choosing another church or to leave the church altogether?” Transformational Christianity says, “I have no idea what you are talking about, our kids are begging for opportunities to serve and lead.” Conformational Christianity worries that maintaining any tradition will hamper its effort to “be relevant.” Transformational Christianity rejoices in traditions that keep its message pure and alive, while willingly looking for new ways to express its faith – with no regard whatsoever for the issue of “relevancy.” Transformational Christianity knows intuitively that a person cannot make the church “relevant” (what ever that means), it knows that the church is relevant for the purpose of transforming people’s lives as a basic, fundamental part of its existence.
I know of too many churches that are sell-outs to cultural pressure. They define the term, “conformational Christianity.” They conform to both the style and content that the western culture demands of them. In the words of Jesus’ parable, they are worthless, their fate is to be thrown on the dung heap.
Transformational churches are salt and light in the midst of a bent and broken world. Jesus called on his disciples to be transformational people (Matthew 5-7). Paul echoed that call in Romans 12. Peter called on the churches to whom he was writing to be a Holy people, just as the God they worship was Holy (1 Peter 1:13-16).
Be Holy. Be Transformed. Be Transforming. That is the challenge given to the Church of Christ. I pray we have the courage of our convictions, and that we can accept this challenge without fear or favor to any earthly power.
I want to conclude this little mini-series on mysticism with some thoughts on how mere mortals can join the ranks of the mystics. As with virtually everything else that I write, I cannot claim any true originality here, only in the sense of putting these ideas together in the manner that I have.
To begin with, it should go without saying, but you must first of all desire to submit to the reign of God. This is so obvious, but then again, I am the master at discovering what everyone else already knows. If you do not want God to reign in your life, or in anyone else’s life, He simply will not force himself upon you. To want God to reign in your life you must be willing to surrender every other king in your life – money, prestige, power, status, country, possessions, even people. To say, “Thy kingdom come” means just that – not a democracy or a meritocracy, but a monarchy. Those who say they want God to reign in their life while continuing to submit to the principalities and powers of this world are deceiving themselves – and God cannot be deceived.
We are to seek God with all of our heart, soul, mind and strength. It is an all-or-nothing adventure. To join with Peter walking on the waves of the storm-washed sea we have to be willing to let go of the boat. This is the problem I see with most “Christianity” in America today. We are half-hearted at best. We want God plus America (or America plus God). We want God plus the Constitution. We want God plus the greatest armed forces the world has ever known. We want God plus every technological discovery that we have or ever will create. We do not want God, we want God plus something else. We want God.1. That is NOT seeking the kingdom of God. That is NOT seeking God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength. That is not seeking God’s kingdom first, and allowing him to add “all these things.”
Next, a person seeking the reign of God in their lives will conform their life to the pattern of Jesus. They will study the life and teachings of Christ as their only sure guide to learning the will of the Father. The beatitudes become no longer a list of virtues to emulate, but the reality of everyday life. The parables no longer serve as topics for academic study, but an entrance into the kingdom. Along with the life of Jesus they will absorb as much of the rest of Scripture as they possibly can. They will learn from the great inspired mystics – from Moses and Isaiah and Jeremiah and Daniel and Paul and Peter and John. Every page of the Bible will be to them a treasure of untold value – revealing the heart and will of God in heaven, whose reign they purely and entirely seek. Jesus, however, will be the center around which every other detail of Scripture revolves. Christ is the center, the norm, of a mystic life. It was Christ who inaugurated the ultimate reign of God, and it will be Christ who returns to fully embody that reign.
Third, a person seeking the reign of God will decide, based on what the Scriptures and Jesus teach them about the reign of God, whether they want to accept that reign or refuse it. Just because the reign was fervently desired in the first place does not mean that every person will decide to accept that reign. The rich young ruler went away sorrowful, even while he was on the very threshold of accepting the kingdom of God. The apostle Paul wrote of a certain Hymenaeus and Alexander who had made a shipwreck out of their faith, and who had apparently decided to rescind their allegiance to the reign of God. Experience tells me that many fit Jesus’ parable of the seed that falls on the weedy soil – the heart accepts the message with gladness but there is just too much “stuff” that chokes out God’s kingdom. So, following desire and discovery there comes the point of decision. Is God going to reign, or not? There is no other question, there is no other answer.
Finally, the one who places God as the king in their life will actually live as if God is the king of their life. How do you think Abraham had the courage to leave his father’s faith and country? How do you think Joseph was able to risk his life to remain pure? How do you think Moses had the nerve to stand up to Pharaoh? How do you think Daniel and his three friends had the courage to defy the king? How do you think Paul could stand up to Herod? How could John write from Patmos to tell the seven churches to stand up against Caesar? The answer to each and every situation was that these faithful, these disciples, these mystics, all had the kingdom of God securely implanted in their heart. They knew who was the king, and the earthly power that threatened them was simply not worthy of their fear, and certainly not of their devotion.
We are a nation of sanctimonious cowards. We fear the government. We fear losing our Constitution. We fear what will happen to us if, by some horrible circumstance, we are caught without our fully loaded handgun on our person. We fear what will happen if we stop building multi-million dollar airplanes to drop multi-million dollar bombs. We fear losing our freedom, yet we are too ignorant to realize that is striving for every human comfort and safety we have sacrificed our greatest freedom – the freedom to live in and expand the kingdom of God. The kingdom of God knows nothing of Constitutions and guns and airplanes and bombs. The symbols of the kingdom of God are a towel and a cross. The towel is to serve this world, and the cross is to die to it and for it.
As I started this series, I said that the world does not like mystics. The world punishes, persecutes, and even kills mystics. Jesus predicted his followers would be hated. Paul predicted his churches would face tribulation. John saw only martyrdom for those who remained faithful to the word of the cross. To share in the resurrection of Jesus we must first share in his death. When we invite the kingdom into our life, the hatred of the world will soon follow. But if we are to follow Jesus, how can it be any other way?
The cross is not the terrible end of a pious, happy life. Instead, it stands at the beginning of community with Jesus Christ. Whenever Christ calls us, his call leads us to death. – Dietrich Bonhoeffer
One day the Pharisees asked Jesus, “When will the kingdom of God come?” Jesus replied, “The kingdom of God can’t be detected by visible signs. You won’t be able to say, ‘Here it is!’ or ‘It’s over there!’ For the kingdom of God is already among you. (Luke 17:20-21, NLT)
The kingdom is among us. I pray we want it. I pray we are searching for it. I pray we care enough to learn what it means. I pray we decide to accept it, and live like we accept it.
I pray we all, in whatever measure we can, will accept the call to be mystics – and begin to live as if the kingdom has arrived.
In my last post I said that some of my favorite people were mystics. The names I mentioned were all biblical characters, with the exception of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Barton Stone, and David Lipscomb. I could have mentioned a number of others, including Thomas Merton, Henri Nouwen, and maybe even C.S. Lewis, among others. As I have reflected on my post I felt that I needed to explain a littler further what I mean by mysticism, and how these individuals fit into my understanding of what it means to be a mystic.
First, mystics have a profound vision of the kingdom of God. You can see this very clearly in the inspired mystics – Moses, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Jesus, Paul, Peter, John. These individuals received either a very clear vision of God, or received inspiration and illumination far beyond the “normal” avenues of study and meditation. I place these visionaries on an entirely different plane than non-inspired mystics. The “non-inspired” mystics have also had a vision of the kingdom of God – one that drives their writing or preaching on a level that exceeds most “common” or non-mystical writing. There is a sense in reading these individuals that they see, or hear, or have been given, insight into the kingdom of God that is reserved for the few who (1) truly desire to have that kind of insight and (2) open themselves to receiving that kind of insight. None of the “non-inspired” mystics just woke up one morning with the clarity of vision that they have shared with the rest of us. God rewards those who seek him – he will be found if he is sought after. Mere seeking will not avail, however, if there is no heart prepared to welcome him. Mystics spend as much time preparing their heart to receive the kingdom as they do in seeking the kingdom. I think that is why so many earnest seekers never find the kingdom. They are simply unwilling to accept it when it is shown to them.
Second, once the kingdom is revealed, these individuals seize it. They believe God, not just believe in God. There is a radical transformation that takes place in the heart of a mystic, even if the mystic came from a position of belief to begin with. Some, such as a C.S. Lewis, came from a position of agnosticism, if not even outright atheism, and so their transformation is all the more astounding. There is a sense, however, in which believers can be converted – once the vision of the kingdom is received and accepted. The apostle Paul was perhaps the quintessential example of this – he was converted from faith to faith. I think the same could also be said of Isaiah, and Peter seemed to be on a never-ending cycle of renewed and expanded faith.
Finally, the mystics of whom I write did not stop with a simple apprehension and acceptance of the kingdom. They went out and lived as if the kingdom was really here, live and in living color, as the old saying used to go. They did not wait for “pie in the sky by and by.” They lived, taught, and wrote to transform their world into the kingdom that God intended. For their vision and their efforts many were killed – most of them in fact were either imprisoned or persecuted in some form or fashion. They remained faithful to their vision, however, and through their lives the world caught a greater glimpse of what the kingdom of God will ultimately look like.
This is why I place Bonhoeffer, Stone, and Lipscomb within the category of “mystic,” although for some the characterization may be laughable. These men, so disparate in many respects, all had a vision of the kingdom informed by the writings and teachings of the inspired mystics that we find in Scripture. They searched longingly for the kingdom, and when they had prepared their hearts to receive it – God let them see what the kingdom could be. Then, they went out and lived as if they kingdom was indeed, “among them” just as Jesus emphatically said it was. They challenged the status quo. They lived as kingdom subjects, and suffered as only kingdom subjects will suffer.
As I said, some of my favorite people – authors and saints – are mystics. I am coming to see the difference in their life and mine. I glory in their vision, and their faithful expression of that vision.
And, before anyone says it – yes, I know that these men were all flawed human beings, with the obvious exception of our Lord. None of them was perfect. This is why we proclaim our allegiance to Jesus, and not to any mortal human. The lives of the others can be illustrative, however, of what it means to be a disciple, a mystic. For their example I am truly grateful, and if some day someone looks back on my life and says, “there lived a mystic” then I will owe that epitaph to the example of these faithful, though flawed, mortal beings.