Monday, May 16, 2011

Belief Is Not the Same Thing as a Living Faith

Abraham Maslow contended that any adequate understanding of religious faith must take into consideration “peak experiences.” By peak experiences Maslow was referring to experiences of existential communion with an Ultimate Reality that transcends the limited self.

Mystics who have had such experiences have reported that they felt a deep, expansive sense of belonging to every other person and to all creation, where they could see the beauty and goodness of all things. The mystics of various religious traditions call this Reality different names: God, the Really Real, the Presence, Cosmic Christ, Spirit, Source of Life, Ultimate Reality, Ground of Being, etc.

The beliefs we use to describe this experience and Reality will always be inadequate. A living faith is the means by which we connect, commune, and cooperate with the Divine Spirit that is within every human being (we are all made in God’s image). Our beliefs are merely pointers, our human way of trying to grasp and explain it.

All genuine mystical encounter seems to move the individual or community toward a more inclusive worldview and acceptance. The mystics tell us that whenever we respond in love, whenever we share our resources and forgive and show mercy and stand with the downtrodden we step into the flow of the Divine Life.

I can’t think of anything more urgently needed today than this sense of mutual belonging with all humankind and with all creation. There are many religions and many belief systems, because the Unfathomable Mystery at the heart of life itself is beyond our grasp and understanding. Beliefs tend to divide us; but a living faith that enables us to experience the Unconditional Love that is gently guiding the universe in a non-coercive way has the power to unite us.

We might think of it this way: We are all in the River in a boat, the River being the Divine Spirit “in whom we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28). There are many different kinds of boats with which to navigate the River and we are all in some kind of boat. The boat represents our belief system, our worldview, the way we see God and the world and our relationship to both. We all (even atheists) have some sort of belief system.

Some of us are navigating the river well. Others of us are bouncing off rocks, stuck in the mud, or running aground. Still others are fighting the river, trying to go against the flow. And then there are many who are asleep in their boats; they are not consciously aware that they are in a boat in the River.

At the heart of an inclusive Christian gospel is the deep conviction that all creation is God’s household and we are all God’s children. The Divine Spirit (the living, cosmic Christ) resides in each one of us. We are all in the River.

When our belief system is healthy, we are able to flow with the River. Our beliefs will help inspire, sustain, and grow a living faith (a dynamic trust) that keeps us in conscious communion and cooperation with God’s redemptive presence. I say “conscious” because we all are connected, we all are in the River, though many of us are not aware or awake to God’s redemptive presence.

When our belief system is unhealthy and toxic—fear-based, arrogant, and rooted in hate or prejudice—it will stifle, hinder, and impede a living faith. It will keep us spiritually stagnant, and perhaps make us spiritually repugnant to fair-minded people.

I long for the day when more Christians will embrace an inclusive gospel. For when that happens we will spend less time attempting to convert people to our way of thinking/believing and trying to get them to join our “chosen” group. And we will spend more time seeking peace, pursuing justice for the most vulnerable, practicing forgiveness, taking care of creation, and humbly serving one another. (For a more complete discussion of the dynamics of an inclusive gospel see my book, A Faith Worth Living.)

Monday, May 9, 2011

Salvation Is Now, Not Later

One of the ways many traditional Christians have avoided real change/conversion has been to make the gospel of Jesus primarily about going to heaven and avoiding hell. I think this is particularly true for many of us who have made “heaven” the reward for believing the right things. We use all sorts of language for this: accepting Christ into one’s heart, making a decision for Christ, having a born again experience, trusting Christ as personal Savior, etc. (all these expressions mean different things to different people).

The problem is that many Christians who feel they have made this “decision” think that they are guaranteed heaven and see no real need to change now. With the promise of heaven secured, one’s ego can easily pad and protect itself in ways that avoid dealing with the pride, negativity, and greed that resides there. When whole groups of people (evangelical Christians?) are committed to ego protection and defense, real personal or communal transformation rarely happens. Being a Christian, then, becomes nothing more than believing the correct doctrine, observing the proper rites and rituals, or saying the appropriate words. The ego is not touched and the heart is not changed.

But when we understand “heaven” and “hell” primarily as spiritual symbols of our spiritual state in the present, we are more likely to assume some responsibility for how we live. Authentic spirituality is always about “today.” It’s about seeing, doing, waiting, trusting, loving, caring, sharing, and serving now, rather than something we are given in the future as the result of believing the right things or being a part of the “in” group. Jesus said, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me” (Luke 9:23). Following Jesus daily, being led by the Spirit of the living Christ daily, living daily in and for the kingdom of God, is not optional. It is at the very heart and core of the good news Jesus proclaimed and embodied.

Jesus certainly believed in a future resurrection, as did his early followers (whose writings make up our New Testament). But that was never at the center of the gospel he proclaimed. Jesus called his disciples into a mindset, lifestyle, and lifetime of change. And I have no doubt that whatever constitutes life in a resurrected state (which is all speculation from our side of it) continuing change will be part of it.

Salvation is a continual process, never a completed state. When one stage is complete, we simply enter another. One who is being saved, one who is spiritual, is one who invites and welcomes the indwelling Spirit to teach her/him how to love. This involves breaking old habits of ego protection, negative reactions, and selfish behavior and attitudes, and allowing the Spirit, whose very nature is Love and Grace, access to our innermost being. The Spirit inspires and empowers new patterns of reaction and interaction with others in ways that are pervaded by forgiveness and compassion. We learn to die daily to the old, false self as we learn to put on the new, Christ self (read Eph 4-5 and Col 3).

When we do church right, this is what we are teaching one another—how to “walk in the way of love, just as Christ loved us” (Eph 5:2).

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Must Christians Believe in the Second Coming of Christ?

I am currently teaching the Gospel of Luke on Wednesday evenings and this week’s text raises issues that those of us who preach and teach an inclusive gospel must deal with. The text is Luke 17:20–37 where the kingdom of God is presented as both a present and future reality. My focus here is on the part that deals with the kingdom as future.

In response to a question raised by some Pharisees as to when the kingdom will come, Jesus tells them that the kingdom of God is in their midst (could be translated “within” them). Either way, the emphasis is on its present reality.

But does this mean that there will be no future realization/fulfillment of the kingdom? Jesus seems to be responding to this implied question in his teaching to his disciples in Luke 17:22–37.

The kingdom formula seems to be: Already here, but not yet in any complete sense; in our midst, but still to come; has come and will come; now and in the future. Many of us have a hard time keeping this balance.

Paul seems to be dealing with an imbalance in his first letter to the Corinthians. His whole discussion of Jesus’ resurrection and the future resurrection of the body in 1 Cor. 15 apparently was needed in view of the overemphasis some in the congregation were placing on the spiritual resurrection disciples experience in the present. Evidently, there was too much “realized eschatology” in Corinth and not enough “future eschatology.”

In my youth, I erred in just the opposite direction. When I was in high school I carried around for a year or so Hal Lindsay’s book, The Late Great Planet Earth, along with my New Scofield Reference Bible, looking for Jesus to come back just any day.

I think Rob Bell’s book, Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived, is, in one way, a reaction to too much “futurizing” by evangelical Christians to the neglect of collaborating and partnering with the Spirit of the living Christ and others to help see God’s kingdom realized now. Many evangelical Christians have certainly invested too much time in the interest of heaven and hell and not enough time helping bring heaven to earth.

In these verses in Luke, Jesus appears to be saying that the future version of the kingdom will come very suddenly and decisively. There will be no mistaking its arrival. For “on the day the Son of Man is revealed” it will be like lightning flashing across the sky from one end to the other.

Also, people will be doing what they normally do. They will be engaged in all their normal activities: “eating, drinking, marrying and being given in marriage . . . buying and selling, planting and building.” But then, as suddenly as disaster fell upon the victims of the flood and the city of Sodom, so will judgment fall and the kingdom come.

There is a fairly rigorous debate among Jesus scholars concerning what Jesus may have actually believed regarding the when and how of the kingdom’s future coming. There seems to be a growing number of scholars (represented by the likes of Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan, whom I like very much, but not so much their position here) that Jesus didn’t really believe and teach that the future kingdom was imminent and would come suddenly and decisively. They would contend that Luke 17:22–37 reflects what the early church believed (in this case the Lukan community), but not what Jesus believed. This is appealing, but I do not find it very likely. And though I am not a scholar, it does seem to me that most New Testament scholars do not regard it very likely either. (An excellent resource here is Dale C. Allison, Jesus of Nazareth: Millenarian Prophet.)

At any rate, there's not much debate at all among the scholars on what the early church believed as reflected in the New Testament. They believed in a rather sudden and decisive coming of the Son of Man to usher in the future aspect of the kingdom. And most of these passages (for example: Mark 13, Luke 21, Matt 24, 1 Thess 4–5, 2 Thess 2) are very apocalyptic and dualistic. (For an excellent description and explanation of apocalyptic for the educated lay Christian see Craig C. Hill, In God’s Time: The Bible and the Future.) One exception to this is the position of N. T. Wright, former Bishop of Durham in the Church of England. His writings have become quite popular here in America, and he takes the position that texts like Luke 17:22ff that speak of the glory and revelation of the Son of Man are actually about his resurrection/vindication, not his Second Coming and the future arrival of the kingdom. I am not aware, however, of any serious New Testament or Jesus scholar who follows his approach.

These apocalyptic, dualistic texts seem to clearly suggest that judgment precedes the arrival of the future kingdom and as a result, some are “in” and some are “out,” some are included while others are excluded. Here in Luke 17:34 “two people will be in one bed; one will be taken and the other left” (“I wish we’d all been ready” as I use to sing).

Does this pose a problem for those of us who believe in an inclusive gospel and universal restoration/reconciliation of all creation? That all depends. In the Bible there are both dualistic and inclusive texts, and it can probably be demonstrated that there are more dualistic ones than inclusive ones. One of my critiques of Rob Bell’s book, Love Wins, is that he makes no serious mention of the dualistic texts and offers no adequate hermeneutic for interpreting them. And there are a bunch of them in the New Testament, because the New Testament was written in a milieu where an apocalyptic orientation/worldview was dominant.

I interpret the apocalyptic texts this way: The apocalyptic vision of judgment in its different forms and expressions serves as a very colorful and poignant way of saying that there will be vindication. The prophetic cry for justice for the victims of injustice and the oppressed will not go unheeded. God will put things right. But we need to tread carefully here with much grace, because all of us, to one degree or another, are both victim/the oppressed and the victimizer/the oppressor. (For example, most Americans are complicit in the poverty and impoverishment of the “have nots” in our world, simply by being Americans. The world could not sustain our standard of living.)

I spiritualize and de-apocalypticise passages like Luke 17:22–37 that drip with an apocalyptic over coating. Did the early disciples believe in a literal Second Coming? In all likelihood they did. Must we believe in a literal Second Coming? Often the answer is: If you believe the Bible you do! Well, I don’t believe in a literal Second Coming and it doesn’t mean that I don’t believe the Bible. One can take the Bible seriously (which I obviously do or I wouldn’t be conducting a verse-by-verse study through the Gospel of Luke with my church), without having to take it literally.

Here in this apocalyptic, dualistic text are spiritual lessons for all disciples of Jesus. Jesus’ warning against complacency is applicable in all contexts. We always need to be awake to the present moment. The living Christ is present in the here and now. Jesus told his home town folks in the synagogue in Nazareth, just after he read his job description from Isaiah 61, “Today, this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing” (Luke 4:21). Today, the living Christ is present and at work, both in our midst and within us, looking for partners, friends, collaborators, sisters and brothers to live in communion with him and in cooperation with his will to bring heaven to earth.

Eternity is now and now is all we have, so let’s live in tune with God’s dream for a new world of peace and righteousness, striving to help create God’s Beloved Community, awake to the Divine Spirit who is with us, in us, and for us, now and forever.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Jesus' Death and Resurrection: Review of Rob Bell (Part 4)

In chapter 5, "Dying" to Live," Bell writes about the death and resurrection of Jesus. It is important in any serious discussion and exposition of the good news to expound the significance of the death and resurrection of Christ. The first disciples very early in the development of the Jesus movement interpreted the death and resurrection of Jesus in a redemptive way. Even though the powers that be crucified Jesus, the early disciples believed that God was at work in and through the cross, using it as a means of redemption. But the crucial question: In what sense is Jesus’ death redemptive? How does Jesus’ death have saving efficacy? How does it work? I was disappointed that Bell did not offer an explanation.

Bell rightly acknowledges that there are different metaphors and images employed in the New Testament to speak of Christ’s death. Bells writes: “Is the cross about the end of the sacrificial system or a broken relationship that’s been reconciled or a guilty defendant who’s been set free or a battle that’s been won or the redeeming of something that was lost?” (p. 127). Bell says that the cross is about all of these things. And in one sense he’s right; all of these images are employed by the biblical writers. But what is desperately missing is an adequate atonement narrative that can bring these images together, so that there is some unity in the diversity. There is no attempt by Bell to connect his commentary on the cross with his understanding of heaven and hell and God’s desire to redeem the whole creation. This chapter, then, is somewhat disjointed, interrupting the flow of the narrative.

In the Gospels the death and resurrection of Jesus are presented as the culmination of his life, so that the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus form one piece that has redemptive significance. The contextual and particular historical situations that occasioned the New Testament epistles were not as conducive to a narrative exposition of the death and resurrection of Jesus as the Gospels, but there are hints in them that the death of Jesus should not be segregated from his life, that the theological significance of the death of Jesus must include the life he lived that led to his death. In other words, it is the entire Christ Event (life, death, resurrection/vindication, and reality of the living Christ) that has saving power and significance.

In my book, A Faith Worth Living: The Dynamics of an Inclusive Gospel, I attempt to show how the redeeming significance of Jesus’ nonviolent atonement fits hand-in-glove with Jesus’ nonviolent life and his proclamation and embodiment of the kingdom of God. I also offer a short explanation and critique of the substitutionary atonement model that continues to prevail in evangelical Christianity, but is now being more frequently challenged. My approach is pastoral and practical, as well as theological and biblical. For a more scholarly presentation I recommend J. Denny Weaver, The Nonviolent Atonement, and for an approach that combines scholarly and pastoral considerations I suggest Recovering the Scandal of the Cross by Joel B. Green and Mark D. Baker.

Bell does a better job connecting the significance of the resurrection to the good news of God’s intent to reconcile all things to God’s self. He writes: “The resurrection of Jesus inaugurates a new creation, one free from death, and it is bursting forth in Jesus himself right here in the midst of the first creation” (p. 133). Bell argues that God “inaugurated a movement in Jesus’ resurrection to renew, restore, and reconcile everything ‘on earth or in heaven.’ (Col. 1), just as God originally intended it” (p. 134).

I certainly concur, though I would say it a little differently. The life, death, and resurrection of Jesus constitute one movement. Jesus’ resurrection by God (a key point in the early Christian preaching) constituted God’s vindication of Jesus’ life and death (his message and ministry, his nonviolent, humble, compassionate way of life that culminated in death.) It was the Christ Event in it’s entirety that inaugurated the new creation, though Jesus’ resurrection was the crowning, confirming, validating aspect.

Bell concludes the chapter with an important commentary on how the process and pattern of death and resurrection constitute the process and pattern of Christian discipleship and authentic spirituality. This is a theme emphasized over and over in one way or another in the teachings of Jesus and powerfully exemplified through his own life, death, and resurrection.