Michael Pahl’s Handy-Dandy Handbook of Christian Words and Phrases

Have you ever had two people understand something you’ve said in two very different ways? It happens to all of us sometime. I’ve had it happen to me when I preach, more than once. This happens even when I use common Christian words or phrases derived from the Bible—maybe especially when I do so. It can be a little disconcerting, to say the least.

Part of this is just me needing to look for ways to communicate more clearly. Part of it, however, is our natural tendency to hear what we expect to hear. When we’re in a church and someone speaks about “faith” or “heaven,” for example, or they say “Jesus saves us from our sins,” we are inclined to hear those things in a particular “churchy” or “Christianese” kind of way.

But many of these words or phrases don’t mean for me what they often mean in popular Christianity. The reason? I don’t think the popular understandings actually reflect the biblical ideas behind these words or phrases, at least not completely.

Well, if you’re ever in doubt about what I might mean when I talk about “salvation,” or when I say, “Jesus is Lord,” I’ve created this nifty little guide: Michael Pahl’s Handy-Dandy Handbook of Christian Words and Phrases. Who knows? Maybe I’ll start handing this out before I preach every Sunday.

God. God is depicted in a myriad of different ways in Scripture. These are all metaphors: God is in some sense comparable to a “Father,” for instance, or a “Mother,” or a “Lord,” or a “Rock,” just to name a few. Even “God” is a metaphor: God is analogous to the “gods” of other nations and religions, comparable to what we typically think of when we think of a “deity.” Some biblical descriptions, however, take a different tack: God is YHWH, “I Am Who I Am,” for instance, or God is “the one in whom we live and move and have our being,” or “God is love.” When I speak of “God,” I’m thinking more along those lines: God is “the ground and source of all being, personhood, and love.” I don’t imagine that God is merely “a being,” a distinct being within the universe, like us only bigger and stronger and immortal and invisible.

heaven. The Bible doesn’t speak of “heaven” as “our eternal home.” The New Testament understanding of life after death is simply being “with the Lord” or “with Christ.” In the end this includes living in transformed bodies in a renewed earthly creation (“resurrection” to a “new heavens and new earth”). In the Bible “heaven” means either 1) “the skies,” 2) “God’s dwelling,” or 3) a roundabout way of saying “God” (e.g. “kingdom of heaven” = “kingdom of God”). I don’t use the word “heaven” very often myself because of how it is misunderstood, but when I do it’s along the lines of 2) above: “the ‘place’ where God is most ‘fully present.’” Usually I use the word to speak of the biblical hope of “heaven” come down to earth, God’s presence being fully realized among us within a renewed creation.

sin. We tend to think of “sin” as “personal moral failure”: we’ve crossed a boundary established by God, and these boundaries are mostly related to our private lives or individual relationships. This way of thinking about sin isn’t wrong, it’s just incomplete, and if this is the only way we think about sin then it can be unhelpful and unhealthy. I think a better (and more holistically biblical) way of thinking about sin is as “all the ways we harm others, ourselves, and the natural world through our settled thoughts, our words, our actions, and our inaction.” This “harm” can be thought of as “preventing or hindering flourishing life.” With regard to people this can most practically be understood as keeping them from having their most basic needs met: needs for clean air and water, nutritious food, basic health, security and freedom, meaningful relationships, love and respect. This sin is more than just “personal moral failure,” then—it also includes collective sins such as systemic injustice, as well as actions that harm the natural world.

salvation. In Scripture the language of “salvation” is most often about “rescue” or “deliverance” from some real-life peril, but it also can include ideas of “healing” and “restoration,” whether physically or relationally, individually or collectively. Then there’s all the related biblical words like “redemption,” “reconciliation,” and so on, which are really variations on the “restoration” idea. When I speak of “salvation” or being “saved” or God as “Saviour,” I mean something along the lines of “God delivering us from all the ways we harm others, ourselves, and the natural world, and bringing about a full and flourishing life for all creation.” I don’t mean “God rescuing us from future eternal torture so that we can live a disembodied existence somewhere else forever with God.”

kingdom of God. In much popular thinking the “kingdom of God” or “kingdom of heaven” is equivalent to “heaven,” which is thought of as “our eternal home” (see “heaven” above). But for early Jews, including Jesus and the authors of the New Testament, “kingdom of God” was a way of referring to “God ruling over God’s people and all the peoples of the earth.” When I use the phrase “kingdom of God,” I’m trying to capture Jesus’ particular understanding of this earthly rule of God, something along the lines of “God’s vision of a world of justice, peace, and flourishing life, which becomes a reality when people live according to God’s way of love.”

Jesus Christ. “Christ” is not Jesus’ second name; “Christ” is a title. And it’s not a title of divinity; it’s a human title. “Christ,” or “Messiah,” was most commonly a way of referring to the human kings in the line of ancient Israel’s King David. Eventually it came to refer to the ultimate Messiah, “the king from David’s dynasty who brings about God’s kingdom on earth.” The phrase “Jesus Christ,” then is a mini-creed: “Jesus is the one who makes real God’s vision of justice, peace, and life on earth.”

Son of God. This phrase has a dual meaning in the New Testament. Some writings, Mark’s Gospel, for example, use “Son of God” in one of its Old Testament senses, as a way of referring to the kings in the line of David. In this sense the phrase is equivalent to “Christ” or “Messiah,” and has no overtones of divinity. Other writings, most notably John’s Gospel, use “Son of God” with a clear implication of divinity. I believe both to be true of Jesus, and how I use this phrase tends to depend on which New Testament books I’m talking about: Jesus is “the one who makes real God’s vision of justice, peace, and life on earth,” and Jesus is “the one who uniquely embodies God, showing us most clearly and completely who God is and how God works in the world.”

Jesus is Lord. This doesn’t mean “Jesus controls everything that happens.” Nor does it merely mean “Jesus is the boss of me.” “Lord” in the ancient world had connotations of “master,” yes, but it was also a common way of speaking of human rulers—kings, emperors, and the like. With none of these was the idea that they controlled a person’s life circumstances; it was that they commanded their obedience or allegiance. To say that “Jesus is Lord,” then, means that “Jesus is greater than all human rulers and any powers-that-be in this world, and so he holds our ultimate allegiance in all things.”

gospel. The New Testament word “gospel” means “good news.” The “gospel” is not merely that “God sent Jesus to die for our sins so that we can be forgiven and go to heaven when we die.” It’s the “good news that God has acted in Jesus—through his life, teachings, death, and resurrection—to make right everything that has gone wrong in the world.” In other words, it’s a way of summing up pretty much everything I’ve described above.

faith. We tend to think of “faith” either as “believing certain things to be true,” or “trusting in someone to do something.” The New Testament language of “faith” includes those ideas, but also others: “faith” (pistis) can mean everything from “belief” to “trust” to “faithfulness” to “fidelity” to “allegiance.” When I use the word “faith” I can mean any or all of those, following the New Testament usage. All of those are the response God desires from us: “believing what God says to be true, trusting in God through all things, being faithful to God and following God’s way of love.”

love. Some people hear “love” and think “affection,” a surge of warmth and fondness toward others. Others hear “love” and think “tolerance,” acknowledging and accepting others and their actions with a kind of benign smilingness. Some, perhaps conditioned by Christianity, hear “love” and think “self-sacrifice.” Others, of course, hear “love” and think “romance” or even “sex”: physical, emotional, even erotic intimacy. None of these are bad, but on their own they are incomplete. In the New Testament, love is consistently portrayed as loving the way Jesus loved. It is more along the lines, then, of “freely giving ourselves for others so that they might experience flourishing life together with us, even if we feel they don’t deserve it, even when it hurts us to do so.” This love, I’m convinced, is at the heart of who God is, what Jesus taught and lived out unto death, and how God’s “salvation,” the “kingdom of God,” comes about.

How do you understand these words? What often-misunderstood “Christian words” would you add?

Do Christians Really Need to Believe in Jesus’ Resurrection?

It’s a question I’ve heard many times over the years: “Do Christians really need to believe in Jesus’ resurrection?”

It is, after all, a pretty difficult idea to accept. And this is not just a modern difficulty—it’s been obvious to humans for a very long time that dead people stay dead.

It can also seem irrelevant, even unnecessary. Many Christians focus on Jesus’ death, some on Jesus’ teachings and way of life. What difference does it make whether Jesus was raised from the dead or not?

I used to think the answer to the question, however, was a straightforward and resounding, “Yes, of course we have to believe in Jesus’ resurrection!” But now I think the question requires a little more nuance.

Jesus’ resurrection is specifically mentioned dozens of times in the New Testament, by almost every author. The one notable exception is the author of the letter we know as the Epistle of James, yet even there Jesus’ resurrection is probably behind phrases like “our glorious Lord Jesus Christ” (Jas 2:1).

This particular example from James points to the reality that even where Jesus’ resurrection is not explicitly mentioned in the New Testament it’s almost always there in the background. It can be seen in language of Jesus and “glory,” Jesus as “Lord,” Jesus as “exalted” or “at God’s right hand,” and more.

Jesus’ resurrection is everywhere in the New Testament. It is even affirmed in the Gospel stories well before their resurrection accounts. All four Gospels foreshadow Jesus’ resurrection before the end, even having Jesus predict it in advance.

Jesus’ resurrection is also in all the earliest and universal creeds of Christianity. The informal “Rule of Faith,” the early Old Roman Creed, the later Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds—these all have Jesus’ resurrection at the centre, often with the language of the very primitive “Gospel Creed” cited by Paul in 1 Corinthians 15:3-5, that Jesus “was raised on the third day.”

All this is to say that the resurrection of Jesus is pretty important to Christian faith and life.

But here’s where the nuance comes in.

The New Testament emphasizes Jesus’ resurrection throughout, yes. But there is a diversity of perspectives in the New Testament as to exactly what Jesus’ resurrection looked like and how best to understand it.

Some New Testament accounts give rather bare-bones descriptions of Jesus’ resurrection state, as if what had happened were little more than the resuscitation of a corpse. Others view Jesus’ resurrection as still “bodily” in some way, yet with a “body” of a different kind than our present, earthly bodies. Some use “vision” language to describe Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances, while others are sure to emphasize the real flesh-and-blood nature of their encounter with the risen Jesus.

And then there’s what Jesus’ resurrection means. The idea that Jesus’ resurrection was a divine vindication of Jesus runs right through the New Testament, but beyond that there’s plenty of diversity. Jesus’ resurrection as participation in the coming new creation, as foretaste of the future resurrection, as victory over sin and death, as manifestation of God’s power—all these and more get explored by various New Testament authors.

So, part of the nuance required with saying that “Yes, Christians should believe in Jesus’ resurrection,” is recognizing that there is room for a diversity of perspectives on exactly what happened in Jesus’ resurrection and what this event means.

But there’s more. There’s a fascinating statement in the conclusion to Matthew’s account of the resurrected Jesus. It’s often skipped over because we Christians are so eager to get to the Great Commission. The risen Jesus has gathered with the Eleven disciples, and there in Matthew 28:17 are these words: “When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted.”

“Some doubted.” Even after everything they had witnessed, even with the resurrected Jesus standing in front of them, “some doubted.” To me this only makes sense as an expression of doubt that the Jesus standing before them was truly who he said he was, that Jesus had truly been resurrected from the dead. Doubt like this, even among the Eleven remaining apostles!

All this suggests that however vital the resurrection of Jesus is to Christian faith and life, there is room among followers of Jesus for diverse understandings of Jesus’ resurrection, and even for those who doubt whether it really happened at all.

But why is Jesus’ resurrection so important?

Put another way, why do we need Jesus’ resurrection in Christian theology? What would we lose if we simply left off this particular belief? Would it have been such a big deal if Jesus’ story had just ended with his death?

Well, I wrote a whole book about this that you can check out. But I’d highlight these as the most significant reasons.

First, Jesus’ resurrection is Jesus’ vindication by God. The powers-that-be had given their verdict on Jesus: guilty, and therefore to be shamed and cast out and executed on a cross. However, by raising Jesus from the dead God reverses that verdict: Jesus is declared righteous by God, he is glorified and worthy of all honour, he is brought to God’s right hand, and he is given true life untouched by sin and death.

This has a whole world of implications. That God has vindicated Jesus means that Jesus’ teaching is as Jesus claimed it to be: having the authority of God. It means Jesus’ way of life is as Jesus claimed it to be: evidence of God’s kingdom, the outworking of God’s good news for the world. It means Jesus’ death was not simply a horrific tragedy, the death of an innocent man; it is the very undoing of the ways of the world, the way of death, and so it is the epitome of God’s love and wisdom and power.

This was a world-changing belief for those early followers of Jesus, that the crucified Jesus of Nazareth had been raised from the dead by God. This is why we have the Gospels, why we have the New Testament, why Jesus is more than just a historical footnote as yet another failed Messiah: because these early Jesus-followers believed Jesus had appeared to them, resurrected and fully alive.

Caravaggio, The Incredulity of Saint Thomas

Second, Jesus’ resurrection is creation’s affirmation by God. This is why the bodily nature of Jesus’ resurrection is so important (however “bodily” is understood). By resurrecting Jesus in body God affirms the essential goodness of our bodies, the goodness of the created order, the goodness of human existence and human history.

This also has several profound implications. Christianity, the way of Jesus, is not some kind of disembodied ideal, trying to renounce our human desires or deny our essential humanity. These things are given by God, and they are good—and this is affirmed not only by humanity’s creation but also by Jesus’ resurrection.

This means that salvation, then, is not some kind of disembodied ideal. Salvation is not about escaping our bodies, flying up and away from the world, and living eternally as spiritual beings up in heaven. Jesus’ resurrection affirms that God’s desire in salvation is to transform us and our world, restoring humanity and creation to God’s original intention, all things experiencing justice and peace and flourishing life, heaven come down to earth.

And the fact that God has raised Jesus from the dead means that all this—this whole grand sweep of salvation—has begun, and it is assured to one day reach its completion.

So, “Do Christians really need to believe in Jesus’ resurrection?”

Jesus’ resurrection is vital to Christian faith and life. It’s a pillar—even, I would say, the very foundation—of Christian theology and ethics and mission.

However, if you find yourself thinking of Jesus’ resurrection differently than others, or even if you’ve got your doubts about whether it really happened, there is plenty of room for you among the followers of Jesus—just like there was for those first disciples.

As a companion to this, be sure to check out my post, “Why in the World Do I Believe in Jesus’ Resurrection?” As well, you might want to see my reflections on “faithful doubting”: “Confessions of a Faithful Doubter.”

I’m an Atheist

Okay, it’s confession time: I’m an atheist.

It’s true. But probably not in the way you’re thinking.

atheistEarly Christians were sometimes called “atheists,” did you know that? Not because they didn’t believe in God, but because they didn’t believe in the Romans’ gods. In a world in which there were many “gods” and “lords,” for Christians there was only the one true God, the Creator, and one true Lord, Jesus.

So this is what I mean when I say I’m an atheist. I’m using the word in its ancient sense. I mean there are plenty of “gods” that I don’t believe in—even some that are popular among Christians. Some of these are “gods” that I simply do not believe exist. Others are “gods” that, even if they do exist, do not hold my allegiance.

Here are a few of these gods I don’t believe in:

I don’t believe in a god who is a “supernatural being.” That is, I do not believe God is a bigger, stronger, and smarter version of ourselves—who also happens to be immortal and invisible. In fact, I do not believe God is “a being” at all, as if God is merely one being among many in the universe, albeit the most powerful one. Instead, I believe God is being itself, the One “in whom we live and move and have our being,” the One “from whom and through whom and for whom are all things.” God is that without which nothing would exist. God is being, not merely a being.

I gave up looking for “evidence” of God a long time ago, or denying God’s existence for lack of such evidence: “a being” might leave traces of its existence, but “being” just is. I also no longer look to God as an all-controlling chess master, or a benevolent grandparent, or a strict police officer. Some of these sorts of projections of ourselves are helpful metaphors, useful analogies for God (like God as “father” or “mother”). Others, I’m convinced, are distortions of the true and living God (like God as all-controlling chess master).

I don’t believe in a god who is simply a force, some kind of energy field or “higher power.” (Great, I just ticked off two groups I like: Star Wars fans and Alcoholics Anonymous.) Rather, I believe God is person—not only “personal” but personhood itself, consciousness itself, awareness of self in distinction from other and in relation to other. Just as there is something rather than nothing because God is, so also there is consciousness in the universe because God is.

I don’t believe in a god who commits violence, or commands it, or even endorses it. I believe “God is love”—not only “loving” but love itself, the giving of self for other, for the good of the other. God cannot be other than love; God cannot not love. God always and only works for the good of the other. That which brings flourishing life and well-being: this is God. That which damages or degrades or destroys: this is not-God. Just as there is something rather than nothing because God is, and there is consciousness in the universe because God is, so also there is good in the world because God is.

This is a hard thing for most Christians to accept, partly because many passages in the Bible don’t reflect this view of God, and partly, I think if we’re honest, because we like having a way to justify our own violence. Not outlandish, over-the-top violence, of course. Just our civilized violence, our sanitized violence: the death of vicious enemies over there, or of condemned criminals among us here, demons all. Yet because of Jesus I am convinced that God is love, not harm, and that God brings life, not death—even for enemies and criminals. Isn’t that the gospel?

I don’t believe in the gods “Prosperity” and “Security.” “Prosperity” goes by other names: “Wealth,” “Profit,” or simply “Success.” Jesus called it “Mammon,” and he said one cannot serve both this god and the one true God. Then there’s “Security,” also known as “Comfort” or “Safety.” Prosperity and Security are the twin gods of the modern nation-state. Listen to any political campaign, and these gods are sure to be invoked: “The Economy” and “National Security,” they’re often called. These twins are sacrosanct: they are so obviously good things, who would dare to question them? Who doesn’t want prosperity and security for themselves and those they love?

Yet Jesus never promised prosperity and security to his followers, and he so dramatically gave these up himself. The problem with them? When prosperity and security hold our highest allegiance, whether as individuals or as a society or as a nation during an election year, then we pursue them at the expense of others—including the ailing earth, the needy neighbour, the suffering stranger, and the enemy “other.” The end result is only loss for us all.

There’s a whole pantheon of gods I don’t believe in: the powers-that-be, or the “powers of this age.” These are all our social and political and economic structures and systems, along with the human leaders that support them and the internal “spirit” or ethos that drives them. Presidents and prime ministers, governments and administrations, nations and nationalism, kingdoms and empire, colonialism and racism, theocracy and democracy, capitalism and socialism and so many more.

These, too, are not all inherently bad. Some can bring social order out of chaos, after all. Many even originate out of a desire for the common good. But when we put all our hope in these people and processes, when we give our total allegiance to a nation or an ideology, we’re giving them a power that only belongs to God. Then we’re sure to be disappointed and that power will probably be abused. And when these powers-that-be perpetuate structural evil or systemic injustice, they become “evil powers.” And then they must be resisted, not followed; they must be defied, not deified. Some can be redeemed, but only through deep, collective repentance.

I admit it, I’m an atheist. But by that I simply mean I’m with the Apostle Paul: “There is no God but one. Indeed, even though there may be so-called gods in heaven or on earth—as in fact there are many gods and many lords—yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist” (1 Cor 8:4-6).

Related to modern atheism is another term: humanism. Check out Humanist Canada’s website to learn more. Many Christians have been “humanists” since humanist ideals were first formulated in the late Renaissance. I consider myself to be in the tradition of “Christian humanism.”

“The Word Made Flesh”: On Doing Theology Afresh

A Jew, a Greek, and a Roman walk into a church. No joke.

Imagine it: a Jew, a Greek, and a Roman walk into a church, back in the first century. Let’s say it’s a gathering of believers in Ephesus. And imagine that they happen to do this on the day a brand-new opening to John’s Gospel is debuted. They hear, for the first time ever, these words:

In the beginning was the Word, the Logos, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

How would each one hear this?

Our first-century Jew might hear this as being about God’s creative command, the “word” God spoke at creation. They might hear this as being about God’s perfect wisdom, by which God created all things. They might hear this as being about God’s prophetic message, the essential “word” God has been communicating since the beginning of time.

Our Greek, however, would hear something different. They might hear this language of “word” or logos, and understand it as referring to the logical principle that under girds the whole universal order, the clear light of reason that holds everything together.

And our Roman? Well, they’d probably hear this along the lines of our Greek. But it’s possible they might hear this language of “word” or logos as the underlying rational law, the binding covenant among people, that keeps society from falling into disorder and chaos. Romans, after all, were big on law on order.

Three different people, hearing the exact same words, but hearing different things.

And all three would be right.

That’s the astonishing beauty of John’s opening prologue: the author has taken something so simple, the basic Greek word for “word,” logos, and used it in a way that makes sense in all those different ways, maybe more.

God’s creative command, God’s perfect wisdom, God’s prophetic message. The logical principle that holds together all reality. The rational law that keeps us from chaos. All these things are the Word, the Logos, that John is talking about.

And this is what makes the sudden turn at verse 14 so dramatic: This Logos, this Word, “became flesh and lived among us” in the person of Jesus of Nazareth.

Mic drop. Stunned silence. Then a flurry of questions.

Really? This man Jesus—the one that was crucified as a lawbreaker—he embodies the law that keeps us from social chaos? This Jew from backwoods Galilee embodies the underlying logic of all reality? Jesus of Nazareth embodies God’s creative command, God’s perfect wisdom, God’s prophetic message? Really?

We’re so used to this passage we don’t even blink when we hear it. But trust me, to anyone hearing this at the end of the first century—Jew, Greek, or Roman—this would have been shocking, even scandalous. It was cutting edge theology, outside the box of any faith tradition passed on by mothers or fathers.

In a moment of creative inspiration, the author of John’s prologue has hit upon this idea of Jesus as the “Word,” the Logos. It’s such a simple thought—a common, everyday word for “word.” But it taps into the complexity of the author’s world—Jews, Greeks, Romans, and more all could hear different nuances of the word logos, and so glimpse something of the full significance of what God has done for us in Jesus.

The author of these words has used his God-given imagination to tap into ideas from the culture of his day and talk in fresh ways about God and creation, Jesus and our world—to do theology, in other words.

And it’s not just John. In fact, the Bible from cover to cover models exactly this kind of “creatively imagining God in fresh ways by tapping into the culture around us.” From Genesis to Revelation, the biblical authors all follow the same pattern.

The two creation stories that start off the Bible draw on language and ideas from other ancient creation stories—like those from Egypt or Mesopotamia—to describe what it means to say that the God of Israel, Yahweh, is the Creator of the world.

The Law of Moses draws on language and ideas from other ancient law codes—like the Babylonian Law of Hammurabi—to shape the distinctive terms of Yahweh’s covenant with Israel.

The Hebrew prophets draw on the patterns of poetry and prophecy from the world around them, in order to call the people of Israel back to Yahweh and point them to God’s future salvation in God’s coming kingdom.

The Gospels took a fairly recent genre of literature in the Roman world—the biography—and used it to create their own kind of story—a Gospel, a presentation of the good news of God’s kingdom drawing near in Jesus of Nazareth.

Jesus himself took a common technique of Jewish Rabbis—the parable story—along with the stuff of everyday life—farmers and seeds, kings and banquets—and used them to describe God and God’s kingdom.

God did not merely plant the exact words of the Bible into the minds of the biblical authors, and then they wrote them down. God worked through their creative imaginations as they drew on all kinds of things from the culture around them to make sense of what it meant for them at that moment to live in faithfulness to God.

Of course, we’re not prophets or apostles. We don’t claim any special inspiration by God. We’re not Jesus. We don’t claim to uniquely embody God.

But we are called to look to these inspired prophets and apostles in order to figure out how to faithfully follow Jesus—including how we think and speak about God and our world, how we do theology. The biblical authors and Jesus himself model for us how to do theology in our own day and age: using our imaginations to draw on all kinds of things from our culture to think and speak about God and creation, Jesus and our world—and then to live in faithfulness to the God whom we believe in our hearts and confess with our mouths.

This, you could say, is how the Word is made flesh in every generation, incarnated in every culture around the globe—including right here among us in Morden, Manitoba.

Adapted from a sermon preached at Morden Mennonite on October 16, 2016, part of a series called “Stirring Our Imagination.” Cross-posted from http://www.mordenmennonitechurch.wordpress.com. © Michael W. Pahl.

Seeing God Face to Face

Seeking God’s Face

“Come,” my heart says, “seek his face!”
Your face, O Lord, do I seek.

There are many ways to think about Christian spirituality, but these words from Psalm 27 do a pretty good job of summing it all up. You could say that the spiritual life is all about “seeking God’s face.”

Different words are used by different people, of course. Pursuing God, desiring God, knowing God, experiencing God, loving God. Being filled with the Spirit, walking in the Spirit. Being at one with our Creator, touching the transcendent, sensing the divine.

Different words are used by different people, both Christians and others. But they all reflect the same longing: there is a spiritual dimension to being human.

There is something within us that craves something beyond us.

“Come,” my heart says, “seek his face!”
Your face, O Lord, do I seek.

This longing to experience God, to “seek God’s face,” comes through in different ways throughout the biblical stories.

In Genesis 3 God walks with Adam and Eve in the garden in the cool of the day—until that fateful day when sin enters the story, and they hide from the Lord God. They are ashamed because of their selfish, prideful actions, and they no longer want to see God’s face.

In Exodus 33 Moses asks to see Yahweh’s divine glory. God allows Moses to see a measure of his glory, but God says to him, “you cannot see my face; for no one shall see me and live.” Even that measure of divine glory, that glimpse of Yahweh’s back, is enough to make Moses glow with the radiance of his experience of God.

In Isaiah 6 Isaiah sees a vision in the temple: the Lord God, sitting on a throne, high and lofty, surrounded by heavenly beings. Really, though, Isaiah can only see God’s feet: God’s face is too high, too holy, too transcendent, too far beyond for anyone to see.

Each of these Old Testament stories, and many others besides, point to this “something within us that craves something beyond us,” this human longing to know God, to touch the transcendent, to sense the divine. Yet the people in each of these stories never quite get there. They get a taste of God, a fleeting glimpse, or they hide from God or put God behind all kinds of protective barriers.

And so that longing of Psalm 27 continues:

“Come,” my heart says, “seek his face!”
Your face, O Lord, do I seek.

Seeing God’s Face

There is a profound shift that happens in the New Testament with all this: yes, there is still something within us that craves something beyond us—but that something beyond us has now come among us.

We no longer need to search desperately for the face of God—because God has already shown his face, and it’s the face of Jesus.

This is what’s behind John’s words in John 1: “The Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory…full of grace and truth… No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.” God has shown her face, and it’s the face of Jesus.

This is what’s behind Paul’s words in Colossians 1 and 2: Christ “is the image of the invisible God”; “in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily.” God has shown his face, and it’s the face of Jesus.

This is what’s behind the anonymous author of Hebrews words in Hebrews 1: “In these last days God has spoken to us by a Son… He is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being.” God has shown her face, and it’s the face of Jesus.

James Tissot (French, 1836−1902). Jesus Goes Up Alone onto a Mountain to Pray (detail), 1886−94. Opaque watercolor over graphite on gray wove paper, 1138 x 61⁄4 in. (28.9 × 15.9 cm). Brooklyn Museum, Purchased by public subscription, 00.159.137From Matthew to Revelation, the New Testament writings are united in the conviction that the man Jesus of Nazareth shows us the God of Israel. The man Jesus, who lived a certain way and taught certain things, who healed the sick and forgave sinners and cast out evil powers, who suffered and died and was raised to life again—this man Jesus shows us who God is.

God has shown God’s face, and it’s the face of Jesus. So to “seek God’s face” we need to seek the face of Jesus.

How do we do this? How can we, two thousand years after Jesus walked this earth, see Jesus, and so see the face of God?

As the Bible itself acknowledges, we can no longer see Jesus in the flesh (John 20:29; 1 Peter 1:8). But we can still see the imprint of Jesus, we can still discern the Spirit of Jesus. How do we do this?

Well, we can read the Bible’s stories of Jesus, the Gospels. Read Matthew, or Mark, or Luke, or John. And as you read, ask yourself some questions.

What does this tell me about Jesus? What does this tell me about Jesus’ character, his desires, his motivation, his way of thinking, his way of life?

And so, then, what does this tell me about God, who God is, how God relates to us? The character of Jesus is the character of God. The desires of Jesus are God’s desires. The things that motivate Jesus to speak or act, those are the things that motivate God. How does Jesus think? That’s a window into how God thinks. How does Jesus live his life? That’s a parallel to how God acts in the world.

And then, what does this tell me about who I am, who I can become? No, we are not God, we cannot be God. But we are all created in God’s image, we can reflect God in all these ways.

So the character of Jesus shows us the character we should seek to develop ourselves. The desires of Jesus show us what we should desire. The things that motivate Jesus to speak or act, those are the things that should motivate us. How does Jesus think? That’s a pattern for how we should think. How does Jesus live his life? That’s a model for how we should seek to live our lives in our world today.

So we can see the face of God in Jesus by reading the Bible’s stories of Jesus. But we can also read Jesus’ Bible, our Old Testament. Read Genesis, or Deuteronomy, or the Psalms, or Isaiah, or Daniel, or Amos. Read any Old Testament book—but read it in the light of Jesus.

So ask yourself: How does this particular passage parallel Jesus’ character, his desires, his motivation, his way of thinking, his way of life? How do I see the God revealed in Jesus, here in this Old Testament book?

Then re-read the Bible’s stories of Jesus. Go back and do it all again.

We can read the letters and other writings of Jesus’ first followers, our New Testament. Read Acts, or Romans, or 1 Corinthians, or Ephesians, or Philippians, or Hebrews, or James, or 1 John, or Revelation.

And ask yourself: How does this particular passage describe Jesus? How does this New Testament book take the character and attitudes and life and death and resurrection of Jesus, and apply it to the specific situation of these early Christians and their world?

Then re-read the Bible’s stories of Jesus. Go back and do it all again.

We can think about Jesus, ponder his way of life, mull over his teachings, contemplate his sufferings, revel in his resurrection. We can gather together with other Christians and consider Jesus together, honour Jesus together, cry out to Jesus together, bow down to Jesus together.

Then re-read the Bible’s stories of Jesus.

We can talk about Jesus. Read well-researched books about Jesus. Watch time-tested films about Jesus. Study classic paintings of Jesus. We can see how other people have envisioned the man from Galilee.

Then re-read the Bible’s stories of Jesus.

James Tissot (French, 1836–1902). Jesus Sits by the Seashore and Preaches, 1886–96. Opaque watercolor over graphite on gray wove paper, 103⁄16 x 79⁄16 in. (25.9 × 19.2 cm). Brooklyn Museum, Purchased by public subscription, 00.159.109We can look for Jesus in other people. The poor, the stranger, the suffering. The merciful, the gentle, the steadfast, the kind. We can look for Jesus in ourselves. In our own hardships and sorrows, in our own moments of joy and delight, in our own sometimes-surprising feelings of empathy and compassion and forgiveness.

Then re-read the Bible’s stories of Jesus.

You get the picture.

We can see the imprint of Jesus, the Spirit of Jesus, in lots of different places, and so see God’s face. But we see Jesus most clearly, most completely, in the stories and teachings of Scripture. Indeed, this is what the Bible is for.

The Bible is not an encyclopedia of all truth—though it speaks the truth we most need to hear. It is not a comprehensive moral handbook—though it gives us guidance on how to live.

No, the Bible is first and foremost a witness to Jesus. We read the Bible to see Jesus.

And then, as we learn about Jesus from the Bible, we can learn to see Jesus in other places. And when we see Jesus, we see who God is, and we see who we can become as those created in God’s image.

Seeing God Face to Face

Let me leave you with two Bible verses to ponder.

2 Corinthians 3:18 says that as we “see the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, we are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another.” Paul is talking about looking to Jesus, seeing God’s glory in Jesus, and being transformed in the process, being re-made in the image of God in Jesus. That’s just what I’ve been talking about: seeing Jesus, and so seeing God, and so seeing who we can become as those created in God’s image.

But you’ll notice the little phrase, “as though reflected in a mirror.” It’s an acknowledgment that we don’t see Jesus face to face. Even in looking to Scripture to see Jesus, even in carefully discerning the imprint of Jesus, the Spirit of Jesus, diligently seeking Jesus’ face in all the ways I’ve talked about, it is still only like seeing a reflection of Jesus in a mirror.

1 Corinthians 13:12 picks up on that same idea, but gives us some powerful encouragement: “For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.

“Come,” my heart says, “seek his face!”
Your face, O Lord, do I seek.

There is something within us that craves something beyond us—and that something beyond us has now come among us in Jesus.

God has shown his face, and it’s the face of Jesus.

For now, we see Jesus’ face by looking for his imprint in the Scriptures, by looking for his Spirit in his followers and in the world. But one day—one day!—we will see Jesus face to face.

And then our craving for something beyond us—the transcendent, the divine, the presence of God—will be fulfilled. Then our quest to seek God’s face will finally be at an end—an end which will be just the beginning of a new and even better story “which goes on forever: in which every chapter is better than the one before” (C. S. Lewis, The Last Battle).

This is adapted from my sermon at Morden Mennonite Church on February 21, 2016. Artwork is by James Tissot; click on pictures for more details. Cross-posted from http://www.mordenmennonitechurch.wordpress.com. © Michael W. Pahl

Christians Need to Be More Conservative, Not Less

It’s happened again.

The other day someone casually referred to me as “liberal” (don’t worry, Peter, I don’t hold it against you). Every time that happens I kind of smile to myself—if it’s said innocently—or else I cringe inwardly—if it’s said pejoratively.

It’s not that I particularly mind being called “liberal.” In some circles that’s the worst thing anyone can be. But the word can be a wonderful compliment: think of a doctor who is “liberal” with their time, or a wealthy person who is “liberal” with their charitable giving. (Or maybe a Christian who is “liberal” with their love, “liberal” in the grace and mercy they show to others…?)

It’s more that the word doesn’t really fit me in the way people seem to think.

Most often people seem to think I am theologically “liberal.” That’s very strange.

They might mean (though I doubt it) that I hold to classic liberal theology, that I’m a disciple of Friedrich Schleiermacher or Adolf von Harnack. But I don’t, and I’m not.

Or they might mean (more likely) that I don’t believe in the classic doctrines of Christianity, that I am not theologically “orthodox.” But I do, and I am.

I believe in the Trinity, one God in three persons. I believe that Jesus is truly God and truly man. I hold fast to the good news of salvation through Jesus, Messiah and Lord and Son of God, who died for our sins and was bodily resurrected. I look to the Scriptures as divinely inspired and authoritative for Christian belief and practice. I can recite the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds without batting an eye or crossing my fingers behind my back—pretty much the definition of being “theologically orthodox.”

In other words, I’m actually quite conservative, theologically speaking. Within the whole spectrum of Christian beliefs through history and around the globe, I’m pretty securely on the conservative side of things.

Here’s the real issue, it seems to me: I don’t fit a lot of people’s culturally conditioned notions of how “conservative Christians” act, or what else they believe.

Beliefs like biblical inerrancy or young earth creationism or penal substitutionary atonement or the rapture have crept into Christian thinking over the past few centuries, and have become part of the package of “conservative Christianity”—but they are actually recent theological innovations, not historical Christian orthodoxy.

Likewise, things like upholding “family values” or “traditional marriage,” or being a “Christian nation,” or supporting war efforts or gun rights or free-market capitalism, or abstaining from alcohol, have become part and parcel of “conservative Christianity”—but they have actually grown out of our particular Western culture, with nothing timeless or universal about them.

Some of these sorts of things I may agree with in one sense or to a certain degree, but I hold them loosely. Other things, well beyond these examples, I have questioned and continue to wonder about. Many of these sorts of things I simply don’t believe in or agree with. Some I’m even convinced are actually harmful distortions of genuine Christian faith.

But in many “conservative Christian” circles, these kinds of beliefs and ideas and behaviours tend to get all lumped together with genuine Christian orthodoxy: believing in biblical inerrancy is on par with believing in the Trinity, upholding heterosexual marriage is on the same level as upholding the gospel, and so on.

liberalYou’ll have noticed the quotation marks around “conservative Christians” through all this. That’s not because I don’t think these folks are truly Christian. It’s partly because that’s just the common phrase used to describe Christians who hold to these kinds of views. But it’s also because I’m not convinced they really are all that conservative.

Yes, you’ve heard it here first: “conservative Christians” are not conservative enough. They need to be more conservative, not less.

They need to go back to genuine, generous, historic Christian orthodoxy—and hold fast to it, being wary of all those trendy theological innovations like biblical inerrancy or young-earth creationism.

They need to go back to the original, apostolic, gospel story of Jesus—and hold fast to it, being cautious of all those recent cultural accretions like “family values” or teetotalism.

They need to go back to our sacred Scriptures, that diverse collection of ancient human writings inspired by God—and hold fast to it, being suspicious of all those simplistic assertions of right and wrong.

We Christians—all of us—need to be more conservative, not less.

And if we do so, we might actually find ourselves becoming truly liberal—in the best senses of the word.

Cross-posted from http://www.mordenmennonitechurch.wordpress.com. © Michael W. Pahl.

“We should re-think our theology? Say what?”

Earlier this summer I preached a sermon on grieving the losses in our lives, whether it’s the loss of someone we love through death or the loss of something we have invested with great significance—a relationship, a career, a home. In the sermon I talked about the need to adjust to the new reality of life without that person or entity we have cherished so much.

I gave some practical suggestions of the kinds of adjustments that might need to be made, adjustments in how we think, in how we live our lives day by day. And one of those suggestions was this: we might need to re-think our theology in light of the loss we have experienced.

I got a bit of push-back on this. “Re-think our theology? No, our theology shouldn’t change according to our experience. Our theology should be a rudder that guides us through the difficult waters. It should be an anchor that holds us firm through the storms of life.”

I understand the impulse behind this push-back. We know we can’t always trust our feelings; how much less when we’re shell-shocked after a traumatic experience. And there is a lot of truth to the idea that whether or not we survive the storms of life depends in large measure on how well we have prepared ourselves—physically, emotionally, psychologically, and also theologically—during the calm before the storm.

It’s also true that the New Testament in various ways speaks of a body of Christian teaching common to all followers of Jesus—and so doesn’t change with the changing times. At its heart is the first-order, foundation-level “gospel” of Christ crucified and risen which Paul claims all the apostles proclaimed (1 Cor 15:1-11). This bare-bones, good-news story about Jesus focused on his death and resurrection, brought together with some early Christian traditions about God (e.g. Matt 28:19; 1 Cor 8:6), became the framework for this common Christian teaching—eventually expressed succinctly in the earliest creeds such as the Apostles’ Creed.

So what do I mean when I say we may need to re-think our theology in light our life experiences?

“Theology” is a human endeavour. It is something we as human beings do, our attempts at making sense of our experiences of God and of everything else in relationship to God.

There are many different theologies out there, even many different Christian theologies. In fact, if we want to get very specific, there are as many different theologies as there are human beings trying to make sense of God and the world around them. That’s a lot of theologies.

Even if we focus just on one particular branch of Christian theology—say, Anabaptist theology—it’s pretty obvious that this theology changes over time. Anabaptists today don’t believe everything in exactly the same way as the original Anabaptists did. We might try to remain faithful to what we believe are the essentials of Anabaptism, but there’s been a lot of theological water under the Anabaptist bridge in five hundred years—and a lot of streams branching off as theological differences have emerged.

This is also true of our own individual theologies. If you’re in your middle years like I am, I sure hope you don’t believe all the same things about God as you did when you were a child, or a teenager, or a young adult. If you do, pretty much any Christian would say your faith has not grown, you have not been maturing spiritually.

For myself, the basic structure of my theology hasn’t changed much since my early university days. But the details of my theology have altered significantly since then, and even how I understand that basic structure is very different. And then there are the peripheral matters—things you won’t find in the New Testament’s gospel summaries, for instance, or in the Apostles’ Creed, say. Many of these have changed 180° for me, or simply fallen by the wayside as unworthy of my strong conviction.

When I say our theology may need to change—or even that, over the course of our life, our theology had better change—this is what I mean by “theology”: our particular ways of understanding and expressing and prioritizing our beliefs about God and everything else in relationship to God.

But if our theology can or even should change over time, what is it that doesn’t change?

The answer, of course, is God.

Our understanding of God changes, but God doesn’t change. Our experience of God changes, but God doesn’t change.

YHWH LoveGod—Being, Person, Love—is the same God, always. Put in biblical terms, the God who created the heavens and the earth, is the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, is Yahweh the covenant God of Israel, is the Word made flesh in Jesus of Nazareth, is the Spirit indwelling the Church and blowing where it pleases in the wider world.

We don’t put our faith in theology. We put our faith in God.

Our theology supports our faith in God—but it is not God.

Our theology helps us make sense of our experience of God—but it is not God.

Our theology gives us some tools to think about God and speak of God—but it is not God.

It is God who guides us through the difficult waters. God is the anchor that holds us firm through the storms of life. If, when these storms come, we have put our faith in a system of beliefs and not in the true and living God, we may find our “faith” shattered beyond repair.

And sometimes, that’s exactly what we need.

Cross-posted from http://www.mordenmennonitechurch.wordpress.com. © Michael W. Pahl.

Love, Above All

Love is All We NeedScripture and Jesus on Love | What is Love?
Love, Above All | How Should We Then Love?

In my first post I got on my soapbox and boldly declared: “Love is all we need, folks! All we need is love!”

Image: Stephen Hopkins

In our complex, chaotic, confusing world, we Christians don’t need greater certainty about our particular brand of doctrine. We don’t need to find the latest and greatest or oldest and truest form of worship. We don’t need more political engagement, more activism for the Christian cause.

Theology, liturgy, politics, and more are not inherently wrong, of course, and can even be very good, even vitally important—but none of these is the one thing we need more than anything else.

We need to love each other.

All we need is love.

Love is all we need.

Sounds simplistic and naïve, I know. Sounds idealistic, and darn near impossible. Sounds suspiciously like some liberal agenda, or some trendy “spiritual-but-not-religious” kick.

But I say, “Love is all we need,” because I believe Scripture points us to this. I believe Jesus points us to this. That was part two.

I say, “Love is all we need,” because I believe the love Scripture and Jesus point to is not mere tolerance, or mere affection, but something far more, far more substantial, far more necessary. That was part three.

And now I say, “Love is all we need,” because I believe all other divine commands and human virtues—including holiness and truth-speaking—are subsumed under love, governed by love, even defined by love.

Think back to the way the Bible, and particularly the New Testament, speaks about love. Jesus and Paul agree that the whole point of Scripture is love: every command, every promise, every story, every poem in the Bible hangs on the hook of love, loving God and loving others (Matt 22:35-40; Rom 13:8-10). John concurs, affirming that this love is the defining characteristic of the true life of God, truly knowing God, truly being a disciple of Jesus (1 John 3:11-20; 4:7-21; John 13:35).

Paul talks about love as the virtue that “binds together” all other virtues, including the virtues of moral holiness and truthful speech (Col 3:5-14). Love for others, Paul says, is more important than seeking true knowledge, or striving for sinless purity, or having great faith. There are three things that “abide,” he stresses: “faith, hope, and love—but the greatest of these is love” (1 Cor 12:31-13:13).

Underlying these and similar biblical texts is the notion that every ideal humans are to strive for, every virtue Christians are to cultivate, is subsumed under love, governed by love, even defined by love.

How does this work? A few musings—and be prepared, this is the most abstract and “theological” of all these posts on love.

Love incorporates all the other Christian virtues. Again, I’m not talking about a sentimental affection or a clinical self-sacrifice, a benign tolerance or an intense intimacy. I’m talking about the love that God shows us in Jesus, the love that freely gives oneself for the good of the other, to share together in the flourishing life of God. Any human ideal or Christian virtue you can conceive of is subsumed under this love.

You can trust someone without loving them, but you can’t love in this way without trust. You can hope without love, but this Jesus-love includes hope. It’s possible to have justice without love, but not love without justice. Peace, patience, courage, faithfulness, self-control, joy, and more—they’re all the same, woven into the fabric of a Christ-like love.

Clothe in LoveLove defines and governs all the other Christian virtues. If one ever seeks a justice that is not loving toward all involved, then one has not found true justice. If one strives for a faithfulness that is not compassionate or charitable toward others, then one has not found true faithfulness. If we ever feel a tension between holiness and love, or between truth and love, or between any other ideal or virtue and love, we must choose love—because it is in love that we will realize the potential of all other virtues and ideals.

Love precedes and supersedes moral holiness, being “separate from sin.” Before sin was in the world, before moral holiness was even a thing, there was love. After sin and death are dealt their final blow, when moral holiness is no longer a thing, there will still be love.

This is why holiness—in the sense of moral holiness, separation from sin—cannot be the central, most essential attribute of God. God is eternally holy, in the sense of being utterly distinct from all else, wholly other. But moral holiness is not an eternal attribute of God, unless we wish to say sin and evil are eternal.

God’s eternal holiness, God’s distinctness, God’s otherness, is shown first and foremost and always in love. It is, in fact, because God is distinct and other that God can love: love requires a distinction in personhood, an I and a thou, a self and an other, before it can give the self for the other, before it can love the other as it loves itself. Classic Christian theology understands God to have been loving in this way for an eternity as three persons in one God, and God’s love for humanity and all creation is simply an extension of this eternal love within the Trinity.

God is love. This is the essential nature of God’s character, God’s person. And so it is the defining feature of God’s ultimate self-revelation, Jesus Christ. And so it is to be the essential nature and defining feature of those created in God’s image, those being re-created in Christ’s image, God’s new humanity. Just as God’s holiness is manifest first and foremost and always in love, so it is with the holiness God calls Christians to. Our holiness, our distinctiveness, is seen in our love.

Love fulfils truth; it completes it. Love puts flesh on truth. It is truth put into proper practice. By itself, truth—in the sense of “correct knowledge about reality”—has no virtue. It is neither inherently good nor bad. Truth only becomes virtuous, it only becomes good, when it is used in good ways for good ends.

This doesn’t mean that truth has no value. It is valuable and necessary, even in relation to love. Love should be guided by a right perception of reality, as best as we can discern that—recognizing that our knowledge of the truth is always incomplete (1 Cor 13:9-12).

But, while love without knowledge can still be virtuous, knowledge without love never is: it is as a resounding gong or clanging cymbal, it is as nothing at all (1 Cor 13:1-3). Such knowledge risks simply puffing us up in pride, while love—even ignorant love—always builds up others (1 Cor 8:1-3).

These ideas are behind the most significant dimension of a Christian understanding of “truth,” the idea that truth is not just about “correct knowledge of reality,” but that truth is ultimately about a Person, a Person who shows us a certain Way, a Way that leads to Life. Jesus is this Truth, and his Way is love, and this Jesus-love leads to Life (John 14:6).

In all this we’re circling around something very profound, and crucially important: love is at the heart of the gospel, and so at the centre of Christian theology and ethics.

The God who is love has, out of love, come in the person of Jesus, who taught an ethic of love and lived out a life of love, and who suffered in love for us in order to bring us with him into flourishing life, a life energized by the Spirit of Jesus and characterized in its very essence by our love for God and others. We might spend millions of pages and thousands of lifetimes exploring this trinitarian gospel of Jesus-love, but if we ever lose this focus in our theology and ethics, then we no longer have a theology or ethic worthy of being called “Christian.”

It’s love all the way through, no matter how you slice it. It’s love all the way down, from top to bottom. It’s love from beginning to end and everywhere in between.

I’ve sometimes heard people say that calling for love is somehow being wishy-washy. That somehow saying, “We need to love each other,” is being soft on holiness or truth. “Just take a stand, won’t you! Get off the fence on this issue, or that issue, or the next issue. Stand up for truth! Demand holiness!”

Well, here I stand. I can do no other. I give you the strongest moral imperative there is, the most profound truth one could ever declare:

We need to love each other.

All we need is love.

Love is all we need.

If we get this one thing right, everything else will fall into place. If we don’t get this right, nothing else will matter.

Up next, some concluding reflections on putting this love into practice.

Love is All We NeedScripture and Jesus on Love | What is Love?
Love, Above All | How Should We Then Love?

Cross-posted from http://www.mordenmennonitechurch.wordpress.com. © Michael W. Pahl.

On Not Throwing the Theological Baby Out with the Bathwater

I’ve been reflecting recently on my faith journey, in particular on the “stuff I believe” side of things. I think that journey could be summed up this way: continually sifting through it all, sorting out the essentials, casting off the non-essentials.

Throw out baby with bathwater 2I suspect many Christians go through that kind of process as they get older, whether consciously or not. But I think that’s especially true of those who grew up as I did within a more conservative stream of Christianity.

Very early in my thinking on things theological I determined one thing: this process of “essentializing” my faith would have to be done carefully. I was in my early 20s, and I distinctly recall thinking that it would be all too easy to look around at the sinking boat of my own faith tradition and jump ship to another, only to find that it was in an even worse state.

To quote an old saying, the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence.

Or another: don’t throw out the baby with the bathwater.

My faith journey has by and large been about draining bathwater and saving babies.

I don’t have any illusions that I’ve done that flawlessly, and I’m still very much on the journey. But I find it disheartening to see other Christians either so unthinkingly clinging to their faith tradition exactly as they have inherited it, or so carelessly casting off their faith tradition and jumping to a sinking ship worse off than the first.

There’s an awful lot of dirty theological bathwater still being bathed in, and there are an awful lot of good theological babies being thrown out.

Both sides of the problem trouble me, but lately I’ve been more concerned about the latter. For some reason it seems to me like progressives should know better. But all too often they don’t, and perfectly good theological babies get thrown out with all that dirty bathwater.

Scripture’s inspiration and authority get thrown out along with the naïve, uncritical readings of Scripture we grew up with—instead of developing a more nuanced, sophisticated view of what Scripture is and how its authority works for Christian faith and life.

Jesus’ uniqueness gets thrown out along with the negative, fear-based views of other religions we were taught—instead of exploring ways in which Jesus can still be “the Way, the Truth, and the Life” without denying the reality and truth of others’ religious experiences and claims.

The reality of sin and its devastating consequences gets thrown out along with the legalism and judgmentalism and harmful views of human nature that were modeled for us—instead of crafting healthy and helpful ways of thinking about the harms we commit against one another and our world.

And on and on it goes—babies thrown out with the bathwater.

But how do we stop that from happening? How do we discern the good theological babies when we’re trying ourselves to emerge from all that bad theological bathwater?

I’m sure there are many helpful answers that could be given. Here are two that I’ve found especially useful along the way.

First, don’t assume that the fundamentalist or conservative evangelical way of reading the Bible or thinking about Christianity is in fact the “original” or “authentic” or even “biblical” way.

Many people make this assumption—both conservatives and progressives. No, the Bible’s “divine inspiration” doesn’t mean that the Bible’s every narrative is a historical record or every depiction of nature is a scientific assertion, or that the Bible speaks to every imaginable issue, or speaks with a single, clear voice—so you can believe in biblical inspiration without holding to those rather modern ideas. No, “salvation” in the Bible doesn’t mean “getting to go to heaven when I die”—so you can speak of salvation but understand that in the more biblical terms of restoration, reconciliation, flourishing life, societal justice, and more.

Examples of such false assumptions could be multiplied many times over. Don’t give in to those assumptions, but instead do the hard work of careful biblical interpretation and wide-ranging theological reading and reflection yourself before you reject those long-held Christian beliefs. You might be surprised to discover that the traditional ideas mean something other, or something more, than what you were first taught—and they have real traction within our twenty-first century human experience.

And that leads to a second suggestion: in discerning essentials from non-essentials, let three theologies—biblical, historical, and global—be your guides.

By biblical theology I don’t mean “the teaching of the Bible,” but rather the teachings of the Bible—plural—the Bible’s many theologies, in all their complex diversity-in-unity. Read the writings of Scripture carefully and in context, seeing both what makes them different and what holds them together. Do historical and global theology the same way: explore Christian thinking across time and space, through history and around the world, listening carefully for both dissonance and harmony. The harmony of Scripture and Church speaks to essentials, the dissonance to the ways in which God’s people have worked through the challenge of living out their faith in different times and places.

I know of no better antidote to either the narrowness of fundamentalism or the indulgence of hyper-progressivism than a good dose of biblical, historical, and global theology. Read widely across Scripture and through history, listen to diverse Christian voices from around the world, and allow your vision of Christian faith to expand as your list of essentials shrinks and your confidence in those few essentials grows.

Yes, there’s a lot of dirty water to be chucked in current versions of conservative Christianity.

But please, for the love of God, check the water for babies.

Cross-posted from http://www.mordenmennonitechurch.wordpress.com. © Michael W. Pahl.

The God Who Is

How do you imagine God?

It might seem like a strange question. Most Christians probably don’t consciously imagine God in a certain way. “God is spirit,” we know, and cannot be depicted in any physical form (John 4:24; Exod 20:4).

da Conegliano - God the FatherBut I think we do all have a working sketch of God in our heads, a kind of rough outline of what we imagine God to be like, at least at a subconscious level. This working sketch of God isn’t so much found in our theology—we can quickly recite something resembling an orthodox doctrine of God, using terms like “Trinity,” “Father,” “omnipotent,” “eternal,” and the like. Rather, you can see how we really think about God, that “working sketch of God” we have, in how we talk about God when we move beyond the theological jargon, how we think and speak of God in our everyday life.

And I’m more and more convinced that most people—not just most Christians, but most people—imagine God to be just like us, only bigger and better. God is a bigger and better—stronger, smarter, and saintlier, infinite, immortal, and invisible—version of ourselves.

You can see this in the way people look for evidence for God’s existence, some finding it, others not. It’s as if God is a being just like us, who exists in time and space in the same way we do, and so inevitably leaves behind traces of his presence. God is just like us, only invisible and everywhere, so if we find the right clues we can do a little CSI forensic work and prove beyond a reasonable doubt that God exists—or reject God’s existence on the same basis.

You can see this in the way people cling to language and metaphors for God as if the word is the thing itself—as if God really is a “he,” or a “Father,” or even a “god.” Most Christians, when pushed a little, would probably deny that God is male (that whole “God is spirit” thing), but many will still insist that masculine language for God is the only appropriate way to speak of God, instead of seeing this language for what it is: traditional language born of ancient patriarchal cultures.

You can see this in the way people pray. For some, it seems as if they believe we are literally coming into a king’s throne room, asking for royal favours. For others, it’s as if we are having a casual conversation with our best buddy—who just happens to be all-powerful and all-knowing.

You can see this in the way people speak of their “personal relationship with God”—and then in how they allow God in some areas of their life and keep God out of others, compartmentalizing their relationship with God just as we do all our other relationships.

You can see this in the way people think God meticulously controls everything that happens, from earthquakes and plane crashes, to that near-miss pulling out on the freeway or that amazing performance in the big game. For many people God is like a chess master manipulating the pawns on his board, or a puppeteer pulling the strings to make the world dance.

You can see this in these and many other ways. When you strip away all our theological jargon, most of us imagine God to be like us, only bigger and better.

Of course, one could well say that there are good reasons for thinking this way. The Bible mostly uses this kind of “God is like us only bigger” language to describe God, and it’s surely natural for us as humans to think and speak of deity in terms of our own human experience (what other experience can we use?).

But the Bible in many different ways points beyond this “God is like us only bigger” notion. God is the one “in whom we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28). God is the one “from whom and through whom and to whom are all things” (e.g. Rom 11:36). God is YHWH, “I Am…” (yes, the ellipsis is intentional).

Much of historic Christian theology and wider religious thought also points beyond this way of thinking about God as “like us only bigger.” Even just a bit of thoughtful reflection in light of the universe in which we find ourselves should dispel this idea.

So how then should we imagine God?

Well, we can start by ridding ourselves of the idea that we can come up with some kind of “pure description” of God, a way of thinking and speaking about God that is exactly as God is. All our language and thought reflects our human experience, our human cultures, and this is just as true of our language for God as it is of our language for dogs. In fact, this is even more the case when we are speaking of the Transcendent, the Infinite, the Divine—our language is inevitably metaphorical, it can only and always be analogy.

Understanding this can help us to properly use the language of the Bible for God, or the traditional terms of Christianity, or even popular God-talk. There is nothing inherently wrong with speaking of God as “he” or “Father,” for example. This language can even be helpful and good, as long as we understand that these words are mini-metaphors: “he” points to God’s personhood and not God’s maleness, and “Father” suggests that God reflects some ancient Jewish ideals of fatherhood and not that God is literally the male progenitor of offspring.

Of course, the flip side of this means that the biblical and traditional language for God is not the only language that can be used for God. There is no biblical or theological or wider religious reason why God cannot be spoken of as “she” and “Mother,” for instance. And sometimes the traditional language may cause problems in a particular culture and should be avoided. Imagine speaking of God as “King,” for example, in a culture where the only examples of monarchy have been irredeemably bad.

But is there a kind of bottom-line, trans-cultural, universal way to imagine God? The short answer is “no” (go back and read the last three paragraphs again). But there is a longer answer that qualifies this “no” somewhat, a way of thinking about God which I’ve found helpful.

You can get at this by looking at ways of thinking of the Divine that are common to historic Christian theology and even shared among the major religious traditions. When you do this, there are a few general notions that, though still mini-metaphors shaped by our human experience, are probably about as close as we can get to describing the essence of the Divine.*

Cianelli - Warm EmbraceFirst, God is Being. God is not a being, one being among many others. God is Being itself. God does not possess energy, as things in the universe do. God is Energy itself, pervading and sustaining the universe. God does not exist, as all things in time and space exist. God is Existence itself, and all things exist because God is, all things exist from and in and through and for God (pause on each of those prepositions for a moment). God does not live, in the way that living things are alive and not-dead. God is Life itself, the one in whom we live and move and have our being.

Second, God is Person. God is conscious self-awareness, conscious self-distinction, Consciousness itself. God is personal, relatable, the ultimate Subject who is and who acts in relation to the other. Just as God is the ground of being, so God is the ground of personhood: all things can be only because God is, and all persons can know and be known only because God sees and knows all things.

Third, God is Love. God not only relates to all things as a personal self, God relates to all things always and only in other-delighting, self-giving love: God loves. Even more, God is love: God cannot be anything other than love, the self joyfully given for the other. If God is Being, and God is Person, and God is Love, then the goal of all persons, who exist in God and are known by God, is love: loved by God, loving God, and loving others, in mutual enjoyment and delight.

Being. Person. Love. This is God.

Of course, this sharpens the claim at the heart of the Christian faith: it is this God who “became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14) in Jesus of Nazareth, “in whom all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell” (Col 1:19), in whom “the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily” (Col 2:9), who is “the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being” (Heb 1:3).

And this—transcendent Being, Person, and Love, embodied in the man Jesus who lived, taught, healed, suffered, died, and rose again—this is how I imagine God.

How about you? How do you imagine God?

Note: These thoughts run roughly parallel to those of David Bentley Hart in his book The Experience of God, though he uses the triad of Being, Consciousness, and Bliss to describe God and our experience of the Divine. I’ve been thinking of God in terms of Being-Person-Love for some time, but Hart’s book is helping to solidify this for me (I’m still in the middle of it—yes, it’s one of those books).

Cross-posted from http://www.mordenmennonitechurch.wordpress.com. © Michael W. Pahl.