The Witness of the Creeds

Christians all around the world adhere to two significant creeds – the Apostles Creed and the Nicene Creed.   Often, though, these are two very important pieces of Christianity that can be easily forgotten.

A creed is a statement of belief.   Both of these are short summaries of what a Christian believes!   They easily sum up the story of Christ in a concise way, yet they are also theologically and scripturally accurate. I would challenge you to seek to commit them to your heart and mind.  Seek to understand them faithfully with the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

These two great pieces of music, ‘We Believe‘ from the Newsboys and ‘Manifesto‘ by The City Harmonic, might also help.   Check them out!

When someone asks you what you believe as a Christian, or asks you what your testimony is, perhaps by joining in with the rest of the witness of Christ’s body throughout the past two millenia, you might give the best answer – simple, concise, accurate, and to the point:

The Apostles Creed

I believe in God almighty
And in Jesus Christ, his only son, our Lord
Who was born of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary
Who was crucified under Pontius Pilate and was buried
And the third day rose from the dead
Who ascended into heaven
And sitteth on the right hand of the Father
Whence he cometh to judge the living and the dead
And in the Holy Ghost
The holy church
The remission of sins
The resurrection of the flesh
The life everlasting.

There is also another version of this creed:

I believe in God the Father almighty
I also believe in Jesus Christ his only son, our Lord,
conceived of the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary,
suffered under Pontius Pilate, crucified, dead and buried; he descended into hell,
rose again the third day,
ascended into heaven,
sat down at the right hand of the Father,
thence he is to come to judge the living and the dead.
I believe in the Holy Ghost,
the Holy Catholic Church, the communion of saints,
the remission of sins,
the resurrection of the flesh and life eternal.

The Nicene Creed

We believe in one God the Father All-sovereign, maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible;

And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, Begotten of the Father before all the ages, Light of Light, true God of true God, begotten not made, of one substance with the Father, through whom all things were made; who for us men and for our salvation came down from the heavens, and was made flesh of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary, and became man, and was crucified for us under Pontius Pilate, and suffered and was buried, and rose again on the third day according to the Scriptures, and ascended into the heavens, and sitteth on the right hand of the Father, and cometh again with glory to judge the living and dead, of whose kingdom there shall be no end:

And in the Holy Spirit, the Lord and the Life-giver, that proceedeth from the Father*, who with the Father, who with the Father and Son is worshipped together and glorified together, who spake through the prophets:

In one holy Catholic and Apostolic Church:

We acknowledge one baptism unto remission of sins. We look for a resurrection of the dead, and the life of the age to come.

*There is division between the Roman Catholic Church and Orthodox churches regarding this phrase.  One of the main reasons for this division is that the Western church began inserting this phrase into the creed without consulting the Eastern church.

“It’s where my demons hide”

The musical group Imagine Dragons has written quite a profound song.  You may have heard it about a thousand times on the radio recently – it’s called Demons.

However, in seeking to understand the story of humanity in relation to God, this particular song also has a certain theological significance.  Perhaps Imagine Dragons did not intend that; yet when seeking to accurately, and poetically, understand humanity, just as this group has done, an experience with God is inevitable.

The lyrics speak for themselves regarding the human condition:

When the days are cold
And the cards all fold
And the saints we see
Are all made of gold

When your dreams all fail
And the ones we hail
Are the worst of all
And the blood’s run stale

I wanna hide the truth
I wanna shelter you
But with the beast inside
There’s nowhere we can hide

No matter what we breed
We still are made of greed
This is my kingdom come
This is my kingdom come

When you feel my heat
Look into my eyes
It’s where my demons hide
It’s where my demons hide
Don’t get too close
It’s dark inside
It’s where my demons hide
It’s where my demons hide

At the curtain’s call
It’s the last of all
When the lights fade out
All the sinners crawl

So they dug your grave
And the masquerade
Will come calling out
At the mess you’ve made

Don’t wanna let you down
But I am hell bound
Though this is all for you
Don’t wanna hide the truth

No matter what we breed
We still are made of greed
This is my kingdom come
This is my kingdom come

When you feel my heat
Look into my eyes
It’s where my demons hide
It’s where my demons hide
Don’t get too close
It’s dark inside
It’s where my demons hide
It’s where my demons hide

They say it’s what you make
I say it’s up to fate
It’s woven in my soul
I need to let you go

Your eyes, they shine so bright
I wanna save that light
I can’t escape this now
Unless you show me how

When you feel my heat
Look into my eyes
It’s where my demons hide
It’s where my demons hide
Don’t get too close
It’s dark inside
It’s where my demons hide
It’s where my demons hide

God certainly understands this condition.  The writers of Genesis state, “The Lord saw that the wickedness of humankind was great in the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil continually” (Genesis 6:5, NRSV).  And God grieved because of it.  He saw the demons hiding within the hearts of people.

Granted, some have given in to the demons hiding within their hearts.  Still, some glorify the demons; a world where all people gloat in their evil ways with no sense of repentance is most likely what God saw in the early chapters of Genesis.

Others may live in denial of aspects of the selfishness that grips them.  It’s okay; I think we’ve all been there at one point or another regarding some type of evil that has gripped our hearts in one way or another.  God has a way of revealing our mistakes and shortcomings and wrongdoings in us.  But by his grace he does not strike us with lightning; rather, he works with us to patiently change our hearts toward his goodness.  We learn to respond in humility so that the tendency toward sin within us may be vanquished.

Yet the lyrics of Demons almost speak of someone wrestling with the evil – the beast – that they fear is hiding within them.  They want to do the right thing, but they just can’t seem to do it.  They desire with all their heart to do it, but the beast inside has too much of a grip of them.  The person simply says, “Don’t get too close, it’s dark inside.”

The human condition – the depravity of humanity, seemingly woven within our souls, nearly inescapable.  As we look at the state of the world, as we honestly look at the state of our own individual hearts, escape from our sins seems impossible.  Many theological traditions have called this total depravity, the idea that sin is embedded so deeply within us that is impossible to root it out and finally get rid of it; no matter what we breed, we still are made of greed.

Still, other theological traditions like my own, the Church of the Nazarene, say that through the power of Christ and his Spirit within us, that disposition toward sin may replaced with a disposition toward God’s holy love.  The theological traditions debate about this point, which is good, but it can also turn into talking past one another.

The reality is not necessarily as clear-cut as we try to make it in our finite minds.  Sin has a grip, an incredibly strong grip, on our hearts.  This cannot be overlooked; but it does not mean that God cannot form us and mold us.  It does not mean that the Spirit cannot be at work within us, wrestling the sin and changing it toward love.

At the same time, though, we press on toward the goal, made possible by Christ, of erasing the tendency toward sin and replacing it with a tendency toward love.  This is, as well, a definite possibility in this life, but it must be one approached with humility, an awareness of our temptations and sins, and an attitude of constantly asking for forgiveness from God and others.

Most of us are probably somewhere in between – wrestling the demons.  But as long as we are seeking after God while wrestling, accept God’s grace, and look to Christ through all of our pains, trials, and failures in this world, we are moving in the right direction.

In understanding our own condition, we must remember that humanity and God are on a collision course.  A song like Demons cannot be complete without God; it only tells half the story.  But the collision is not because of some convoluted idea that God wants to destroy us because of our sins; it’s because God wants to save us from our sins and the pain they cause.

The initial crash has already happened.  Christ, very much the focal point of that crash, was born, crucified, and resurrected as both God and man.  Read scripture and you will find the many lives of people whom Christ has touched – lepers, pharisees, the blind, the lame, and yes, of course, the demon-inhabited.

Through each person allowing Christ to change their heart, that crash is continuing as God’s kingdom breaks further into our world, one person at a time.  God desperately desires you to be a part of that kingdom, no matter what demons or beasts inside you may be wrestling with.

Christ came to not only show how to overcome our selfish, sinful behaviors, he came so that in him, and by the power of his Spirit, we can actually have life in victory over our sins.  Whereas Cain said yes to his overwhelming temptation of killing his brother Abel, by Christ we can say no.

The demons of greed, of failure, of darkness, of fear of whatever beast we believe is inside us that we are currently wrestling, hiding from, and running from – these are the demons that Christ casts away.  These are the demons that Christ will work with us to conquer and overcome.  These are the demons that, by the same Spirit that is in Christ, can be vanquished.

Still, in humility, remember that sin is always lurking at the door, just as it was for Cain (Genesis 4:7, NRSV).  This is the total depravity within us, yet more importantly it is a depravity that, by Christ in us, we have the power to not open a door to that lurking sin.

By the power of the Spirit, we are formed to be Christ-like.  Remember, though, it takes time; it can take a lot of time.  So wherever your demons may hide, allow Christ to work on them.  Allow the Spirit to shape your heart to God’s heart, forcing out the sin and humbly replacing it with love.

As Christ said, “And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors” (Matthew 6:12, NRSV).  May God forgive us of our shortcomings, sins, and mistakes, and may God fill our hearts with his love toward him and one another.

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.

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!