Embracing Post-Modernity within Christendom

A few weeks ago I saw a Facebook post which read something along the lines of “Post-modernity is the biggest current threat to Christianity.” This person had quoted the statement from a book, though I remember neither the book title nor the author. Nonetheless, I thought it was a rather interesting sentiment for several reasons.

It implies that the only way to be a legitimate Christian is to think in a “modern” way … which is completely not true! Christianity existed before the modern era. Serious men and women of God existed before the modern era of technology, industrialism, reason, philosophy. and so forth. We, somehow, are not more Christian than them. To think that we can somehow be more loving of God and more loving of other people simply because we exist in a period of time we have labeled as “modern” is actually an arrogant statement! It needlessly diminishes our beloved Church’s rich history of demonstrating love to humanity and those in need (granted, there are some black spots, but the good far outweighs the bad).

Moreover, there are even some pockets of the world that could still be considered “pre-modern”; yet they have still received the gospel and are attempting to live in Christ-like ways. The gospel and modernism are not synonymous, nor should they be. A lot of evil and oppression from the “modern” world onto places perceived as “not modern” has occurred (“not modern” typically defined by the western world). This has usually involved forcing many to abandon their cultures and embrace aspects of the western world, typically to support that western culture and location while keeping their way of life subservient. For example, a lot of the chocolate industry is on the backs of slave labor in third world countries. More recently, we have the example of “blood” minerals from Africa, used in our electronics.

Perhaps, in considering this, Christians should not be so quick to defend modernism.

The reality is that God has existed before modernism. Believe it or not, people worshipped God with all their heart, mind, and strength before 18th century Europe existed. The stone age, the bronze age, the iron age, the time of Christ, the medieval period, etc. – people still worshipped God.

In scripture, we learn how God has revealed himself over time through the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. We have grown and learned to recognize God’s truth and respond to God’s revelation in love.

God has existed since before the first moment of creation and long before the first humans. God has existed eternally in the past and will exist eternally in the future, no matter what label we, as his creation, attempt to put on a specific time period. And people will continue to worship God in truth and love, no matter what label we will use in the future to brand an era.

We are moving into a post-modern world. That is really just the bottom line. To try to hang on to modernism is like trying to hang onto a slippery rope; it is futile. Modernism is passing into history. The world’s systems of thinking are moving on, whether you are with them or not.

Many times, post-modernism is meeting scattered pockets of pre-modernism and skipping right over modernism!

Modernism is typically marked as a product of the enlightenment (which was actually a fairly anti-Christian movement in and of itself – ironic for the Christian defending modernism) and the industrial age. We have tight systems of philosophy and rationale, often closed off to new and different ideas, so that they can be presented as a complete, everything-comes-with-it, package.

Within Christianity, we have adapted (rightfully so) for the purposes of missionally presenting God within this type of modern culture. We’ve attempted to show Christianity as a complete, everything comes-with-it, package. While that is perhaps a start to demonstrating God, it is only a start, probably even a misguided start, because the truth is that we can never fully understand God and present him as a philosophical system of thinking that is a completely understandable yet complicated package!

That implies that we’ve somehow got God totally figured out, which is definitely not true.

Post-modernism throws much of that out of the window.   It says that maybe we don’t have everything figured out and that there might be some other ideas that can help us better understand the big picture.   But it also says that we will never completely understand the big picture, but we can still always learn more about it; this is both a pre-modern and post-modern idea.   It’s like a puzzle, constantly rearranging itself, in an attempt to move towards the goal of completion, yet realizing it will never be completed.   These are all actually Christian ideas!

I can understand why modernism, which likes to remove threats, would react against post-modernism, especially within Christianity.   The modern says, “This is the way it is with God.”   The post-modern says, “Maybe that’s not exactly the way it is with God, but maybe God could be like this as well.”   While both are seeking to find a fuller truth and still be faithful to God, the modern may think that they have the truth, or the system for finding that truth, already figured out. The post-modern may think that maybe this truth really isn’t completely figured out after all, or that a system doesn’t necessarily work, but we can still learn how to get to that truth and be faithful to God by thinking in some other ways.

Ultimately though, both are seeking after the same truth, which is the truth of God.   Moderns should be aware, because they will inevitably come upon a “post-modern” idea that actually helps them understand God a little more!

In understanding this, it’s quite easy to figure out why an author would write, “Post-modernity is the biggest current threat to Christianity.”

What the author should really say is, “Post-modernity is the biggest threat to an established and comfortable way a certain group of people (which is actually only a sect within the broader population of Christianity) has thought about Christianity within relatively recent history.”   Like I mentioned before, Christians have lived and worshipped in truth and love before modernism without committing heresy.   Christians will do the same after.   Whether we realize it or not, the story of God does not revolve around Christians living between the 18th and 20th centuries in the western world.

Besides simply recognizing the reality of the era we live in, post-modernity is rather freeing.   With the rise of pluralism, Christians are free to say, “Yes, I’m a Christian and I can learn to live with many other groups of people who think differently than me.   But because I’m a Christian, I’m also free to think like a Christian, act like a Christian, and live like a Christian.   Perhaps others can also learn to live with groups of people who think differently than them!”

Relativism, the idea that one would say that all religions are simply the same, should not be a threat in true post-modernity.   What post-modernity says is that religions are different (honestly, to say that all religions are the same, while it may sound like ‘enlightened’ thinking, is incredibly simplistic, demonstrates a lack of understanding between religions, and is actually insulting to all religions). And with that, one can embrace their religion without having to say that another religion is the same as theirs!   The Muslim, the Jew, the Christian, the Buddhist, or the Hindu does not have to feel pressure to make their respective belief systems relativistic or equal to others.

A true post-modern would recognize the difference in religions, and therefore, respect the beliefs of those practicing their religion, without having to feel like they need to attack another’s religion.   But this does not mean that we cannot have intelligent and informed conversations regarding one another’s religion and the search for truth.   Unfortunately, though, we can also expect that the popular, often non-religious world, will completely misunderstand the intent of these conversations, both between religions and within a religion.

We have the freedom to embrace post-modernity within Christianity, which means we have the freedom to practice our religion and worship God in a Christian manner in truth and in love.   We can critically examine our beliefs as Christians, freely say that a belief in Jesus Christ really is what we believe after examining why, further examine new and different ideas to see if they help us grow in our relationships with Christ, and examine how we are demonstrating the love that God calls us to show to people in our lives.

Perhaps, most of all, people in a post-modern world aren’t necessarily looking for a philosophical system of thinking that is a completely understandable yet complicated package.   Rather, while a post-modern is still always wanting to learn more intellectual information, but still trying to make sense of it in a complicated world (which should never be forgotten!), they are more importantly looking for a religion that backs up that intellectual information with actions that agree with those beliefs.   This may give us the most freedom to embrace post-modernity within Christendom – the freedom to missionally demonstrate to others the love, grace, mercy, and forgiveness which Christ commands of us.

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Saviour, Cast a Pitying Eye

“Saviour, cast a pitying eye,
Bid my sins and sorrows end;
Whither should a sinner fly
Art not thou the sinner’s friend.
Rest in thee I gasp to find,
Wretched I, and poor, and blind.

“Haste, O haste, to my relief!
From the iron furnace take;
Bid me of my sin and grief,
For thy love and mercy’s sake;
Set my heart at liberty,
Show forth all thy power in me.

“Me, the vilest of the race,
Most unholy, most unclean;
Me, the farthest from thy face,
Full of misery and sin;
Me with arms of love receive,
Me, of sinners chief, forgive!

“Jesus, on thine only name
For salvation I depend,
In thy gracious hands I am,
Save me, save me to the end;
Let the utmost grace be given,
Save me quite from hell to heaven.”

Mr. Charles Wesley, thank you for these beautiful, true, and poetic words. We humble ourselves, fallen creatures full of sin and selfishness, before God.

The life, death, and resurrection of Christ is our only hope and salvation, our only cure.

Because of Christ, we live empowered by the Spirit to be in the life of God.

In Defense of Theology as Critical to Faith

Unfortunately, many times when the term theology is mentioned, people meet the word with reactions that are not always the greatest. There may be, for one reason or another, a negative association with academics and the practice of critically thinking about God, or perhaps there may be the idea that varying theologies could challenge the safety and comfort level of one’s understanding of God. While God is inherently mystery and we can never fully know God, we can still begin to learn about God. This is, in fact, what theology is – learning about God and the various aspects of his story. Well, at least it is learning as much as we are able to!

I’ve often heard the question: “Why do we need theology when we have the Bible?” Indeed, scripture is certainly our foundation; however, scripture is not God. Confusing the two is something of which we need to be careful. Scripture, nonetheless, points to God and is the best way of understanding God; thus, we really cannot separate theology from scripture! And Christ is both the fulfillment of scripture and the fullest revelation of the Father. Still, in considering scripture we are even influenced by our own theological traditions to read the Bible through a certain lens!

One of my favorite ideas of rejecting theology is not so blatant, but rather it is a much more quiet view which says: “Theology is great, so long as I agree with it.” Implicit in that statement is that one is not actually open to considering new ideas, possibly because they may be perceived as threats to a safe and comfortable way of thinking; on the surface it appears that one enjoys the study of theology, but further down it is a cover for not wanting to critically think about other ways of understanding God.

Or we take the popularized Donald Miller approach, tending to downplay not only theology but Christian academics in general when it comes to our beautiful religion. Granted, Miller wrote an article bashing academics within Christianity some time ago; nonetheless, and although apparently toned down, he continues to perpetuate this idea of anti-“religion” and anti-“scholar.” He argues that the academics have only served to divide Christianity.

In reading his article, it is fairly easy to see that his logic fails. Disagreements occurred before; disagreements will inevitably occur again in our ignorance of God’s mystery. The new world without academics will not be a happy place because even if you get rid of the scholars, disagreements will pop up again! Only this time, there will no longer be anyone to intelligently and respectfully discuss the issues. However many people are in the world, academic or non-academic, that’s how many different views there will be about God. Donald Miller, I suppose, evidently takes it for granted that everyone will simply agree with and happily go along with his doctrine of God.

We see variations of the idea further advanced with the argument that Christianity is not a religion. This is evident in Jeff Bethke’s popular YouTube video; the young man, a self professed non-pastor and non-theologian, has now written a book on a subject which he claims he is not an expert on. The book, I’m sure, will sell. But I suppose I should give him the benefit of the doubt; Jeff, I’m sure I will find your book very interesting!

Christianity is indeed a religion, with theology being critical to understanding it and our individual and communal relationship to God. We cannot reduce the whole of Christianity to simply an American individualistic mindset of me and God, when, while the relationship is fundamentally essential, Christianity is oh, so much more; and the story of the oh, such more is amazingly beautiful.

There is a danger to reductionism; it does damage to understanding the system as a whole. To try to understand God simplistically in terms of only an individualistic relationship causes us to ignore other important aspects of our faith: community, creation, justice, mercy, history, etc. To dismiss theology and religion is to ignore thousands of years of people, tradition, and Christian thought which, believe it or not, makes at least some rational sense of the way God works. And who knows, we may actually relate to a past Christian thinker who challenges us to think in new ways, deepening our own understanding of God! We may find that we even agree with some of the movements within the stream of this great religion! We may even find that in examining theology and attempting to understand God, we are better able to love both God and our neighbors as Christ commands us.

The good news (or bad news, depending on your views) is that attempting to avoid theology is impossible. If you have an understanding of God, no matter what it is, you have a theology. Even trying to avoid certain theologies is unrealistic. There are systems of thought that have been at work shaping the way Christians think a long time before any of us were even born. This is the irony of ‘non-denominational’; it is at best ‘inter-denominational.’ Even to simply claim ‘Protestant’ is to stake an identity in a type of western, non-Roman Catholic theology. Lutheranism, Calvinism, Wesleyanism, Arminianism, Anglicanism, Roman Catholicism, Greek Orthodoxy, Coptic Christianity, etc.: the list goes on. Some type of theology has shaped you. It is why I laugh when people like Donald Miller and Francis Chan claim that they do not subscribe to one particular view; in their writings, it is clear which traditions have influenced them. They perpetuate a subtle, and at times not-so-subtle, Calvinist understanding of God. They also perpetuate a type of modern fundamentalism, influenced by John Piper, that hints: “My system of Christian thinking is simply the right system of Christian thinking; that’s the bottom line.”

I write all of this not to bring down Donald Miller, Francis Chan, Jeff Bethke, and John Piper, but to point out that we are all in some way influenced by various theologies. And although I disagree with Calvinist thought, I will still love them as my family in Christ.

The challenge is for each one of us to learn to recognize these influences and ask ourselves the difficult questions of what we truly believe and why we believe it. Do we believe something about God simply because we have been influenced to think in a certain way? Or do we believe something about God because we have truly chewed on it and struggled with it in our own journey of faith?

I am Wesleyan-Arminian in my thoughts concerning God; after wrestling with various issues and questions, it is the tradition I’ve found I agree with the most. I am well aware of the Wesleyan-Arminian theological influences I’ve grown up with in the Church of the Nazarene; however, it is not just a way of thinking I’ve blindly accepted. If someone arrives at Calvinism or Lutheranism or Wesleyan-Arminianism or Roman Catholicism or Coptic Christianity in considering God and wrestling with whatever questions presented themselves in their journey in Christianity, then I respect them in their decision. Ultimately, the best view is not to consider a world where everyone blindly agrees with Donald Miller’s version of God, but to have loving conversation within the theological traditions of the Christian religion so that we may grow stronger together.

We are all influenced by theology. We all have our own theology. Are we willing to learn and wrestle with our theological influences? Are we willing to consider the implications of what our own theology really means? Are we willing to be challenged to grow in our understanding of God, shaped by Scripture, yet also filter through various theological ways of thinking?

We really cannot forget how Jesus responded to one of the Pharisees, an expert in the law, regarding the greatest commandment: “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.'”

Perhaps theology is a discipline which we should not be afraid of after all, but an area for each one of us to embrace whole-heartedly as we continue in our own understanding of building a relationship with God.

A Lesson in Holiness: Father Emilio ‘Meelo’ Sandoz, S.J., Ph.D.

The story of Emilio Sandoz, the fictional Jesuit priest of Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow, has a lesson to teach us about holiness.   Now, I have yet to read Children of God, the sequel to The Sparrow; regardless, I believe the lesson still stands.   And if you have not yet read The Sparrow, and whether you like science-fiction or not, it is an excellent book which will both challenge you and move you. I highly recommend this book!

In a previous post, At the Edge of Science and Theology: ‘Cosmic Speculative Theology‘, I wrote about the possibility of intelligent life on other planets and what that might mean for Christianity; Mary Doria Russell does a great job of exploring this concept in The Sparrow. Father Sandoz, along with a few friends, find life on the planet Rakhat in the Alpha Centauri system of our galaxy; he and a group of Jesuit missionaries are able to go to Rakhat. The reader experiences the positive of what holiness truly is – love for God and love for neighbor. And while these are not human beings, the Runa and Jana’ata are another species of God’s intelligent creatures; the Jesuits show them the great love that they deserve.

But in the negative of what holiness is – a lack of sin – we are forced to face perhaps our most difficult challenge in practicing the positive of what holiness is – love. I don’t mean ‘negative’ in a way that has a bad connotation; I mean ‘positive’ and ‘negative’ simply in terms of what holiness is and is not. It is just the plus side of thinking – love – and the minus side of thinking – not sinning.

Nonetheless, events happen on Rakhat which haunt Emilio to the point where he can barely speak of them. These events are so horrendous that they cause Emilio to struggle with overwhelming and crippling amounts of both shame and guilt.

When he returns to Earth, he becomes an outcast because of the public’s perception of what happened on Rakhat.

I belong to a denomination called The Church of the Nazarene, part of the Wesleyan-Arminian branch of protestant Christianity; we have a strong focus on holiness.   We discuss theological doctrines like ‘Christian Perfection’ and ‘Entire Sanctification’; these are the ideas that, through God’s power in the Son and the Spirit, we are filled with God’s love so much that it is as if there is no more for sin!   It is a sound doctrine, but there is a very strong focus on avoiding sin or even any perception of sin.

The great temptation and danger is to only think of holiness in terms of what it is not – not sinning – rather than what it is – fully living in God’s love! And when we only think in terms of what it is not, then we miss what it is!   Inevitably, we must ask: what will we do when we are confronted with sin, whether it is in ourselves or in another’s life?

If we see sin, or even the perception of sin, in another’s life, then distance and separate ourselves from the person and offer nothing but sharp words, we miss the opportunity to show and live the positive of what holiness is – love. If we run from our own sin within us and don’t deal with it in the right way, criticizing ourselves and becoming our own worst enemy, it can weigh us down to the point that we are crippled with overwhelming guilt and shame.

Either way, we forget three of God’s most basic qualities in holiness: grace, forgiveness, and compassion.   We lose sight of Matthew 6:12: “And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.”

With news of the events on Rakhat, there was the idea among Earth’s people, and even many of Emilio’s colleagues in the Society of Jesus, that Emilio must have done something horrible and sinful. In the pursuit of holiness to the point of self-righteousness, there was little grace shown to Emilio. There was a strong initial tendency to focus on the negative of holiness – not sinning – rather than a demonstration of the positive of holiness – love.

We should always be willing to understand circumstances and do the right thing in the midst of a bad situation; this is being faithful to God. But it should not be to the point where we miss the opportunity to demonstrate love with grace, forgiveness, and compassion. To love, no matter what (and it really, really, REALLY means no matter what!), is our most basic obligation as Christians; it is what separates a true Christian from the rest of the world. In the pursuit of holiness, Christian perfection, and entire sanctification, a disposition towards love, to include grace, forgiveness, and compassion, is where we must lean to first.

Christ, our example in holiness, came to offer grace, forgiveness, and compassion to the demon-possessed man running wild, the woman at the well who had been already been with so many men, the woman accused of adultery and about to be stoned, the man who struggled to believe, and the tax collector who stole and cheated so many people out of money. Christ came to this world to offer grace, forgiveness, and compassion to even the criminals and the depraved hanging on the crosses next to him on Calvary.

Christ came to offer his love to the people that the fictional Emilio Sandoz represents – the misunderstood, the broken, and the ones struggling with crippling guilt and shame. And Christ came even to offer love to the people who would jump to conclusions and judgment about Emilio.

Christ came for you and for me. Christ came for the sinners.

Christ was beaten, suffered, and died.   He slowly and painfully suffocated to death while hanging on a cross in one of the world’s most barbaric forms of execution. He came so that through this atoning sacrifice, we, the sinners, might finally be reconciled to God.

Christ came so that you and I, absolutely broken people, yet still God’s loved and created beings, might have hope in true life and love of God through the risen, living Christ. Christ came so that you and I can learn and live the positive of what holiness really is – love.

Christ came so that you and I, in being a positive example of Christ’s holiness, can show God’s love to the depraved, the criminals, the adulterers, the demon-possessed, the thieves, the frauds, the unbelieving, and the liars.

Christ died for the ones who sinned against him, the ones who beat him, clamored for his crucifixion, sentenced him to death, nailed him to a cross, spit on him and mocked him as they watched him die so that – yes – even they could receive God’s love and be a part of Christ’s family.

As I mentioned before, perhaps our most difficult challenge in holiness is not necessarily practicing the negative – not sinning  – but practicing the positive – love.   Christ died for all; are we willing to show the type of love that Christ showed to all?

Father Emilio ‘Meelo’ Sandoz, S.J., Ph.D. offers us a challenging reminder to focus on what holiness is. And the lesson? With Christ as our example, and by the power of the Spirit of God working within us, the positive of what holiness is – love, to include grace, forgiveness, and compassion – is something that we must live out towards one another every day, no matter what, and no matter whom.

At the Edge of Science and Theology: ‘Cosmic Speculative Theology’

Just about a year ago, I read C.S. Lewis’ classic books known as ‘The Space Trilogy.’   Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandra, and That Hideous Strength are, without a doubt, essential reading and some of his best work.   While they can be considered Christian science fiction, Lewis makes some truly great theological points.   And granted, while they are written from the scientific perspective of a mid-20th century knowledge of the universe, Lewis provides the very beginnings of a foundation for our own future theological understanding of life outside earth.   Not only did he begin to speculate on the theological implications of worlds outside our own planet in ‘The Space Trilogy,’ but he also raised similar questions in several of his short stories and in an unfinished work titled The Dark Tower.

Today, and in the decades and centuries to come, our knowledge of the universe will turn from what we once thought was simply science fiction into a very tangible reality.   CNN just recently featured an article stating that there are at least five known planets that could potentially allow for life to exist: Kepler-62e, Kepler-62f, Kepler-69c, Kepler-22b, and Gliese-581g.   The number of these ‘earth’-like planets will only increase as technology improves; a more in-depth list of potential life-sustaining planets can be found here.   With these discoveries, the probability that we will not only discover planets that allow for basic life, but also for intelligent life, will increase as well.   It could definitely be the case that there are other planets out there with human-like creatures with similar cognitive capabilities!

That is exciting news!   But it also means that we are not at the center of the ‘intelligent-life’ universe.   Centuries ago, Galileo challenged a common assumption of the Church; today, and in the decades and centuries to come, we as the Church might need to come to grips with the possibility that God created other intelligent life-forms which inhabit many other beautiful, lush, life-filled planets in our universe.   Perhaps these creatures live on one of the Kepler planets listed above; perhaps they don’t.   But perhaps they also live on one not yet discovered.   Scripture explains the story of God and humanity on earth; it is silent on the story of God and possible intelligent life on other planets.   However, it does discuss the story of creation and God; the universe is God’s creation.   But how God has interacted with other possible intelligent life on other planets, we honestly don’t really know.

If we believe that God is the God of the universe, and if we believe that God’s actions have cosmic implications, then at the point in the future when we discover another intelligent form of life in the universe, and we have not allowed for that possibility, we will be asking ourselves many, many, many tough questions.   Those will be questions that we could be thinking about now.   It’s better to be prepared for the future rather than end up decades or centuries behind; lagging behind is a place where the Church has often unfortunately been.

If our theology doesn’t account for at least the possibility of other intelligent life forms and the ability to begin to understand their context in God’s story, there is the potential for a lot of negative and unwanted consequences.   In the past, unneeded and unnecessary pain and death has resulted from not properly anticipating and wrestling with the theological and ethical questions of discovering the new ‘world’ on our own planet (i.e. the discovery of the Americas and the horrible treatment of indigenous peoples); we have the opportunity to avoid those same mistakes as Christians today.   Entirely new dimensions of both ethics and missions could be opened!

Since we only know what we know about the possibility of life on other planets, and we don’t know what we don’t know (and what we don’t know is a lot more than what we know – and I know – these are obvious statements), I have started to call this area, located at the edge of both science and theology, ‘Cosmic Speculative Theology.’

Paul writes in Romans 8:22 “…that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now.”   The universe, other planets, and other intelligent forms of life are included in ‘the whole creation.’   Questions to consider are: how might sin affect alien life forms, alien creations, and alien worlds? What could ‘fallenness’ look like for alien creations living on worlds that have different systems of physics and laws of nature?   I don’t think Paul, as a first century Jew, was even remotely thinking about these types of questions; nonetheless, they are questions that we, as 21st century followers of Christ, should probably begin to think about.

C.S. Lewis suggests in ‘The Space Trilogy’ that it is just earth that is affected by original sin; we could call this ‘The Silent Planet Theory.’   Could there be a ripple effect, almost a shockwave, that diminishes in strength as it extends out from earth, the focal point of original sin and the center of the breaking of creation?   And if so, would planets that are farther away from earth be less affected by original sin than our own planet?   We could call this ‘The Ripple Effect Theory.’

If we ever came into contact with intelligent life from other planets, would our own sinfulness and selfishness completely destroy their world in the way that it ravages our own earth?   We have been conditioned by Hollywood to believe that aliens are evil; but what if we, in our sinful state, are the evil ones who will destroy other planets when we finally interact with them, and in that sense spread the effects and consequences of original sin to worlds that have not had to deal with it?   Again, Lewis suggests these ideas in ‘The Space Trilogy.’

Or what if the damaging shockwave sent out from the moment of original sin remained equally strong the entire time, and other other intelligent life is just as sinful and selfish as we are apart from Christ?   This could be called ‘The Dark Tower Theory,’ based on Lewis’ unfinished work.

I tend to think that in some way, the entire universe is affected by the compounding effects of sin and original sin.   However, we don’t know exactly how and to what extent sin has affected other worlds.   Until we learn more in the decades and centuries to come about other planets, we can only speculate; this area of theology could today be called ‘Cosmic Speculative Hamartiology.’

And what could the work of Christ mean for other worlds and creations in the universe?   Paul alludes to the point that it is through Christ that all of the creation is saved and redeemed.   Christ’s life, death, and resurrection most likely have implications and consequences for the universe that are completely beyond our knowledge.   This could be called ‘Cosmic Speculative Soteriology‘ or ‘Cosmic Speculative Christology.’

The questions and the list of areas to think about goes on; you get the idea.   Nonetheless, all these areas are connected.   And still, while I label them as ‘speculative’ for now, and even though we don’t know the answers today, it is still an important area to consider.   Centuries or millenia from now, after a lot of study, and if Christ has not yet returned, we might finally be able remove the word ‘speculative’ from these areas.

I am well aware that for many people, the ideas I am discussing will not even be thought of as relevant or critical to theology today, or for that matter, ever.   I am also sure that a lot of people will read this post and immediately dismiss it.   Some will consider it to be controversial.   It’s okay.   I understand why it would be dismissed or controversial; I’m at the complete edge of both science and theology with these thoughts.   But if life on other planets is a legitimate possibility, which it is, then these questions are legitimate theological areas we need to start to think about.

For those who do not think this is important to think about at all, just give it a century or two (but probably less); it will be staring the Church directly in the face by then.   And of course, we may also end up discovering that there is no other intelligent life on other planets; although, I find that idea to be highly unlikely.   And like I mentioned before, this is one area where we as the Church don’t want to be caught completely off guard in, especially if the discovery of intelligent life is only a decade or two away!

Thoughts on Easter: “Spiritual but not Religious”

A large number of people label themselves as “spiritual but not religious.”   I can understand this viewpoint; for some it is because of bad experiences with a major world religion, such as Christianity, Judaism, or Islam.   For others, it is not necessarily because of a previous experience, but just that they are skeptical of the idea of “organized religion.”   Still, some may want to explore different religions before jumping into one; it is dipping one’s feet into the water before fully diving in.   In any case, and no matter what category a person falls under, the individuals who consider themselves “spiritual but not religious” recognize that there is something more to life than simply going after common and vain pursuits such as money and power.

However, the label “spiritual but not religious” is misleading; it implies that there is also a group of people who are “not spiritual and not religious.”   To be honest, I do not think it is even possible to be “not spiritual.”   The idea that one could not have a spiritual self at all, or that one could completely destroy or kill one’s spiritual self, does not make any sense.

The spirit is a characteristic of the physical body.   It’s like saying one is one; it simply is.   If you’ve read my previous post, “He’s living on the inside, roaring like a lion,” you’ll get a better idea of where I am coming from in stating this.   God created us; God breathed life into us, giving us a spirit.   In this life, the body and the spirit are inseparable.   They are intertwined into one existence – the human being.   What happens to the spirit after death, we do not know exactly (check out N.T. Wright’s Surprised by Hope); we have many ideas though.   Although, as a minister in Christianity, I believe that at the end of this sinful age there will be a resurrection of the dead and our spirit will return to our body through God’s power; we will live as one existence of the intertwined and inseparable physical and spiritual human being – the way God designed us to be – in a new eternal creation free from the bondage of death.   This is what is supported by Christian scripture and thousands of years of tradition.

There is no one who is “not spiritual.”   It is impossible.   We are all spiritual beings.   Granted, different people may deny or accept the reality of their spirituality on different levels, in effect, respectively, either suffocating or cultivating who they are.   But we are all spiritual on some level.   And as we become more in tune with ourselves, we realize that there is much more to life than simply the pursuit of vain items and materialism.   We begin to realize the importance of the connections that exist within this world.

Jesus summarized it as he echoed the Jewish Shema of Deuteronomy 6: “Jesus answered, ‘The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these'” (Mark 12:29-31).

A few weeks ago in one of my classes at the U.S. Army Chaplain Basic Officer Leadership Course, one of my Chaplain instructors gave us his thoughts on a definition of spirituality: it is a person connecting with the four c’s – the creator, the community, the conscience, and the creation.   Even if it is at a very basic level, we are all making these connections; we are becoming more in tune to the bigger picture of life.   And as a Christian, I believe God made each one of us to have a role in this bigger picture; God created us to be people who are not selfish individuals, but selfless people who are always recognizing the connections we have.

Religion is a vital tool in developing this spirituality.   Through religion, we cultivate and grow these connections and relationships.   And perhaps most importantly, we learn to first develop our connection with God so that we can better develop our connections with the community, the conscience, and the creation.   On our own, it is impossible to cultivate these connections.   But through a connection with God, and with God working in us and changing our hearts, our other connections will grow into something we never believed was possible.

Christianity is based on the person of Jesus Christ; this religion is centered on Christ’s life, death, and resurrection.   Through Christ, we can experience the amazing love of God in his grace, forgiveness, and mercy, despite all that we have done wrong in life.   Through Christ, we can become connected with God.   And through that connection with God, we can learn to truly love one another.   We can begin to understand ourselves, how we fit into the bigger picture of life, and be free from vain pursuits.

During this Easter season, I pray that no matter where we are on our spiritual journeys, whether we are struggling to take the very first step or have already been traveling for a thousand miles, we will begin to see the ultimate form of spirituality as a relationship with Christ.   I pray that we will use the tools that thousands of years of the Christian tradition have given us to develop our connections with the creator, the community, the conscience, and the creation.   I pray that we will explore and reflect on different aspects of what it means to be a Christian in whatever context we find ourselves in today.   I pray that we will begin to learn how to worship God with all of our heart, soul, mind, and strength.   And I pray that we learn to love our neighbors in the same way that we love ourselves.

This week is Holy Week in western Christianity. Soon our brothers and sisters in eastern Christiany will also be celebrating these Holy days of the Christian calendar.  Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter Sunday – this week is the pinnacle event of Christianity.   The significance of these days for our lives is the culmination of what it means to know ourselves and recognize our spirituality.   The life, death, and resurrection of the Christ and the Messiah is the sum of what our connections to the creator, the community, the conscience, and the creation mean in each of our lives.

Happy Easter.   Christ has risen.   Let us celebrate.

Humid Forest Paths

I had the opportunity to share this message with the West Chester Church of the Nazarene this morning. I hope that as you read it, you will be challenged to be a “doer of the word.”
….

“It was not too long ago that in the hot, humid countryside of Central America, there were two small children walking along a forest path. The path was half in the shade, half in the sun. By now, the little girl was almost beginning to wish that it would rain again, just to give them some relief from the hot temperatures and the humidity. As they walked, a snake warming itself on the sunny part of the path was disturbed by the two humans’ presence and it slithered back into the forest, not wanting to be bothered by the two small, thin human-shaped creatures.

“The two children had nothing. Well, they almost had nothing except for the clothes on their backs and the pants that they were wearing, but even those were pretty tattered by now. And it was not too long before that that those two children had just a couple pieces of fruit to eat and a piece of bread between them; but those little kids devoured those two sweet, delicious pieces of fruit, along with the semi-stale bread, almost the second they had received them from the poor man in the village they had been walking through.

“Somewhere, either in the village the two small children had already passed through or the village that they were coming up upon, the little girl thought for a moment that she could smell the aroma of coffee, similar to the aroma of coffee that her mother and father used to make before… well… before…. The little girl did not want to think about it. She looked at her brother and grabbed his hand. The two were alone now. Their mother was gone. And they had not seen their father in years. Their mother never talked about it, but the little boy, who was just a few years older than his sister, and who was just old enough to start realizing what was happening in the world around him, had figured out that it was not too long ago that there had been some sort of violence in the area where his village was. People from the outside, modern world, might call it a civil war, or maybe a drug war, or something similar and along those lines, but the little boy did not know about all of those things quite yet. He just knew that it was some kind of act of violence that taken his father away. But his mother, she was crying as she sent the two children away from their home. He did not know why or how, but deep down he knew that it would just be him and his sister, and somehow they had to make it in this world.

“That man in the previous village had been so nice; even the boy could tell that the man was poor and did not have much, but as the two little children passed by on the path through the small town in the hot humid weather, even the old man who wore such ragged clothes took pity on the boy and the girl, and just before taking a bite out of the delicious fruit himself, and out of the corner of his eye, he had seen the two kids walking, barely smiling and thin, as if they themselves had not had much food to eat either; and he knew within his heart that he could not eat his small meager lunch while these two kids had nothing. The boy took the fruit and the bread from the man who so graciously offered it, and he and his sister scarfed them up almost immediately. It had satisfied their hunger for now, but it would not be long before the two of them would be hungry again as they continued to walk on the hot, humid, forest path, half covered by shade and half engulfed by the blazing tropical sun.

“Again, the girl noticed the aroma of coffee in the air, reminding her of her mother who had been so long gone. She tried to think just how long it had been, but could not tell exactly. Had it been weeks? Had it been months already? She squeezed her brother’s hand even harder. By now the boy had noticed the smell of the coffee in the air as well, and it too brought back memories that had not totally slipped away through the dreary days on the mountain paths. He did not know exactly what would happen, but at least for the sake of his sister, this little boy would pretend that he knew that everything would be fine.

“By now, they saw the village where the smell of the coffee was coming from. A slight smile crept across both the faces of the boy and the girl, brought to them unconsciously by the memories that were almost unknowingly being brought to the very backs of their minds, though hunger was still on the fronts of their minds. A small house came into view behind the trees. It had already been many hours since they last ate that small meager meal of a couple pieces of fruit and a piece of semi-stale bread, and both of their stomachs were beginning to tighten in their yearning to satisfy their hungry diets. The boy looked at his sister and squeezed her hand, now smiling. The boy started to walk faster towards the direction of the house, his sister almost directly on his heels. “Surely,” he thought, “surely they will give us something to eat.” The two got closer and closer to the house, the smell of coffee permeating the air, and the smell of bread and fruit and roasting meat growing stronger. Through a window he saw a woman, and as he looked toward her, the woman looked up, and caught the eyes of the two small children that were coming in her direction.

“Immediately she began to frown and yell something at them. The boy had heard it so many times before. The door opened and the woman and another man came out, both of them still yelling something, motioning with their hands and pointing away from the house as they yelled at the two small kids. The smile disappeared from the boys face, he looked to the ground and began to turn around. Another similar feeling, a sinking feeling, was beginning to rise within his stomach, but that feeling of heartache, it combined with hunger just long enough to make him forget about his and his sister’s hunger as the sadness welled within him, forcing a tear to form in the boy’s eye. He looked at his sister; she knew what was happening, for there were already tears in her eyes. There would be no food tonight. They had already eaten their meal for the day and that would be it. The next priority for the boy would simply be to find a somewhat safe place for the two to sleep, just like they had done for so many other countless nights as they wandered from forest village to forest village in the humid countryside.”

At this point please open your Bibles to James 1:19-27.

James 1:19-27 (NRSV)

19 You must understand this, my beloved: let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger;
20 for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness.
21 Therefore rid yourselves of all sordidness and rank growth of wickedness, and welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your souls.
22 But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves.
23 For if any are hearers of the word and not doers, they are like those who look at themselves in a mirror;
24 for they look at themselves and, on going away, immediately forget what they were like.
25 But those who look into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and persevere, being not hearers who forget but doers who act – they will be blessed in their doing.
26 If any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless.
27 Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unsustained by the world.

“It was at that point, that as the heat of the afternoon began to fade and the sun was just starting to make its descent in the hot, barren sky, and when the two children had walked a little bit further, that the boy saw another building; it was a somewhat vaguely familiar building, but it had been such a long time since the two kids had been in one like this, that they simply did not know what to expect if they were to knock on its door. The building was small and not fancy by any means, but to the outside wall it had a cross affixed to it. The boy and the girl did not know what to expect, but the boy realized that it may be their last hope for the evening. The two children thought to themselves that it would be so nice to not have to sleep outside anymore, but for just one night, be able to sleep under the shelter of a roof.

“And the two kids walked to the door of the small building with a cross affixed to the outside wall, the small boy holding the hand of his little sister, the two small children with rags for clothes who had barely eaten anything for days except for what the poor man gave them that morning. And the boy did not know if anyone would be inside or not, but he raised his hand, and knocked on the door of the church.”

Too often in the complicated and diverse branch of Christianity which we call Protestantism, a branch that we are a part of, we learn only half the picture. It is drilled into us (I’m speaking generally of Protestants now) that it is by faith alone which we are saved. That is certainly true; it is by a faith that responds to God’s abundant grace through which we enter into salvation, but that is just the beginning of the picture of this religion which we call Christianity. Salvation is entering into the kingdom of God; and now that we are part of the kingdom of God, salvation transforms into a vastly beautiful picture of love within the world. However it is a kingdom of love which we have entered into that demands action from its participants.

Sola fide; faith alone – the cause that Martin Luther championed almost exactly 500 years ago in response to the then corruption and abuses within the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church. Again, there is no doubt in my mind that is truly by God’s grace and love alone that God would invite us to be part of his kingdom. Our response to that grace and love is to have faith in God, Christ, and the Holy Spirit. We become one of God’s own through the work of Christ on the cross; we become, on both an individual and community basis as the Church, representatives of God’s kingdom of love to a world that is filled with desperate, hurting, hungry, and searching people. The Church is designed to be the earthly kingdom of God, comprised of you and me, and should be a bright light of active, holy, missional love on a hill, and a light visible for all the world to see, giving hope to all who need it as the world struggles in darkness.

That is a much richer concept of the full picture; it is a picture that compels those who are a part of this kingdom of holy love to act and do. It is a picture where salvation is the beginning of true life, and not necessarily the ends which we so often treat it as. It is a picture that is not simply content with merely hearing the word, but is only content with demonstrating this word of love to all people and all creation.

James challenges us, his fellow Christian brothers and sisters, we who claim to be a part of this kingdom which is based upon a foundation of an absolute, holy love that can only be found in both the Son of God and the Son of Humanity: Jesus Christ. James challenges us to not merely be hearers of the word, but be doers of the word. In fact, James says some challenging words in verses 22 through 24 which cannot be taken lightly: “But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves. For if any are hearers of the word and not doers, they are like those who look at themselves in the mirror; for they look at themselves and, on going away, immediately forget what they were like.” One who is only a hearer of the word forgets what the kingdom of God is like almost immediately; one can conclude that for someone who is only a hearer of the word and not a doer, their actions and their lives may not demonstrate who they claim to be.

There is power in this word – in what we call scripture. It is a power that brings us to life and gives the words on scripture’s pages application for our everyday lives; but it is a power given to it by God’s Holy Spirit, active and breathing this scripture to life every single day, both in the past and the present, and from now into eternity. And moreover, there is power in the Word, the incarnation of Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ is the incarnation of love and the incarnation of the ultimate message of this scripture: holy love. And by that power of holy love found in God and in scripture, there is power for our own lives to be changed. It is a change that is wrought in us so that we are no longer simply hearers of the word, but we become active doers of the word, living participants in the beautiful, loving kingdom of God. It is a change where we can become free from the bondage and death of sin, and become alive to the holy love that is so abundant within God, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit.

James says in verses 19 through 21, “You must understand this, my beloved: let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger; for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness. Therefore rid yourselves of all sordidness and rank growth of wickedness, and welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your souls.” By the power of God’s Holy Spirit working within our lives, we can turn from evil and from sin; we can rid our lives of unrighteous anger. We can rid ourselves of the sordidness and rank growth of wickedness that is caused by sin. And we can be restored into the image of God – the image of holy love. By welcoming with meekness the implanted word, we can become “quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to anger.” We can become doers of the word and not merely hearers of the word.

There is a hurting world out there; it is a world that is in pain and oftentimes filled with people who simply do not know where they can turn to. Some of us may encounter that world today, for others of us it may be later this week, but we will encounter it; in fact, the Church is called by God to go out and encounter it. Even today some of us may be a part of that hurting world, and some of us may be desperately seeking that hope and love which is found in the kingdom of God and which should be so abundant in the Church.

Those two little children, that boy and that girl who were hungry, tired, weary, wearing ragged clothing, and who did not have a place to sleep, they do not have to be found walking on a humid mountain path in Central America. Those children can be found in the beautiful cities of Europe, in the deserts of Africa, in the rural farms of Asia, in the islands of the Caribbean, in the mountains of South America, and in the outback of Australia. Those two little children can be found wandering the streets of our own North American cities, even as the United States is one of the wealthiest nations in the history of our planet. Those two kids can be found in the rural towns of the midwest, suffering through poverty. Those two little children can be found in the homeless and hungry beggar who we encounter at the train station, and even in the man or woman that we pass by as we walk down the streets of West Chester, Pennsylvania. No matter where we go, there is hunger, there are people who barely have enough clothes, and there is poverty. Whether it is the widow or the orphan, there are people who are in need of a helping hand. There are people seeking both hope and love.

I ask of us – of this congregation, of our denomination, the Church of the Nazarene, and of the global, universal, catholic Church which we are a part of – do not let our religion be worthless as James warns us. I pray that each one of us may not only be hearers of the word, but doers of the word and active participants in God’s kingdom of love, who live by the transforming power of the Holy Spirit to not only effect changes within ourselves, but who go out and do the loving work of Jesus Christ which still needs to be done in our broken and hurting world.

As we leave here today and encounter those two small children in the world, what will be our response? Will we merely be hearers of the word with no change in our lives, deceiving ourselves, and rendering our religion worthless? Or will we be doers of the word, caring for orphans and widows in their distress, and keeping ourselves sustained not by the selfishness of the world, but by the loving kingdom of God, and inviting others into the presence of holy love? When we encounter the poor and hungry man or woman, and when we encounter the heart that is crying out in pain and simply asking for love, will we be doers of the word, helping those who are in need? Or will we merely be hearers of the word? When we see those who are being treated with injustice in the world, will we be doers of the word, standing up and demanding justice for those who cannot ask for it themselves? Or will we merely be hearers of the word? When we see those who are not being shown mercy, no matter who it is, will we be doers of the word, representatives of the kingdom of God, and ask for mercy on their behalf? Or will we merely be hearers of the word?

Will we be doers of the word and be a light for the kingdom of God? Or will we merely be hearers of the word, deceiving ourselves, and forgetting just exactly what the word is the moment we walk away?

When I think of our congregation at the West Chester Church of the Nazarene, I am encouraged. When I walk through our doors, I am confident that I will find a loving group of people. I see in this congregation a group of people who love God with everything that they are and who love each other with that same holy love. I see a group of people who are demonstrating this love to those two small children, those people who are in need. It is demonstrated with our goal to raise $1,000 for an Alabaster offering this month (a goal we can reach!), our continuing drive to bring goods in for the West Chester Food Cupboard, our food backpack drive last month for local school children, and our help with Safe Harbor in the recent months.

Let this passage be a reminder to us to not ever give up on being doers of the word; allow these words to remind us to not ever give up on being a people who act on the faith and the grace by which we enter salvation. Let us not forget the whole, beautiful picture that is the kingdom of God and the fulfilling gospel of Jesus Christ. Allow James’ words to be an encouragement to never be content with merely hearing the word. Let this passage remind us of the power of the Holy Spirit to work in our lives, ridding ourselves of any sordidness or rank growth of wickedness, and continuing to transform us in holiness and love for others.

“When those two hungry and tired children knocked upon the door of that small church building, seeking help in their hour of need after walking all day on a hot and humid forest path, the door opened. We, the people of the Church, answered, giving food and shelter and demonstrating the love of God to both the little boy and his sister.”

Do not ever be content in being merely a hearer of the word, but live welcoming with meekness the power of the word and the power of God to change our lives, continually caring for the orphans and the widows, and all others who are in need.