Thursday, July 28, 2011

Evaluating Spiritual Growth

How would you chart the movement and direction of your spiritual life? How would you describe your spiritual maturity or immaturity?

The criteria that so many Western Christians use for spiritual measurement and evaluation, I believe, are non-issues with God. Many Christians in the West measure their level of spiritual maturity by looking at two components: All the religious, church-related activities they are engaged in, or the beliefs they have adopted. Neither component concerns God all that much.

Beliefs are important to the extent that they determine attitudes and lifestyle. Spiritually healthy beliefs are important for a healthy, transformative spirituality, but in- and-of themselves beliefs are not the measurement of spirituality.

Religious activities can be a mixed bag. They can be instrumental and vital in nurturing spiritual growth, or they can be stifling and spiritually diminishing. The prophets railed against the people of God and their religious leaders when they became engrossed and entrenched in religious activity and worship, and yet neglected to care for the poor and oppressed—the widows, orphans, and the most vulnerable in the land (read Isa. 1).

There is one overarching measurement that is true for Christians in all cultures, times, and places, though it has many different traits, qualities, and cultural expressions: LOVE. Our capacity to and expression of love is the ultimate measurement of our spirituality.

Are we growing in love? If we are growing in love, then as we age, we will be, like Jesus, growing in wisdom and grace—with God and our sisters and brothers in the human family (Luke 2:52). Are we becoming more patient, understanding, forgiving, self-giving, generous, compassionate, and inclusive?

This involves much more than being nice. Richard Rohr has commented: “One of the best covers for very narcissistic people is to be polite, smiling, and thoroughly civilized. Hitler loved animals and classical music.”

Healthy Christianity and churches will be continually looking for ways to help disciples of Jesus grow in love. Consider how much emphasis today is given to externals, doctrinal formulas, correct rituals, Bible quotes, flags and badges and pledges, personal success, and superficial emotions. It’s mostly sentiment and style, with very little spiritual substance.

To know God well is to love well—sacrificially, inclusively, graciously, and unconditionally. The question to ask regarding our spiritual growth: Am I loving others (all others, including the creation) today better than I did yesterday?

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

The Bible Is Not the Final Word

Three times in the book of Acts, Paul’s experience of his encounter with the living Christ is told. In Acts 9, Luke reports the story. In Acts 22, Luke has Paul recount his experience to an unruly temple crowd. And in Acts 26, Paul retells his experience to Festus and King Agrippa. Paul’s own brief account of his encounter with Christ is found in Galatians 1:13–17.

Paul explains this experience as a revelation— “God was pleased . . . to reveal his Son to me”—and as a calling through grace “to proclaim Christ among the Gentiles.” Paul says that after this encounter he did not “confer with any human being,” nor did he go up to Jerusalem to get the endorsement of the Twelve (“those who were already apostles before me”), but went, at once, to Arabia, and then afterward to Damascus where he began proclaiming that Jesus was the Messiah. We don’t know how long he stayed in solitude in Arabia, where he was apparently sorting things out.

Paul underwent a major transformation as a result of this experience. Scholars of Paul, while noting that he was a very complex man and, like all transformational spiritual leaders, was marked by both contradictions and theological and spiritual growth as he served Christ and engaged in mission, nevertheless, remind us that he was forever changed by his dramatic experience of Christ on the Damascus Road. Paul based his authority as an apostle on this experience. Paul’s experience of the living Christ took preeminence over every external authority, including the Scriptures. In fact, Paul reinterpreted the Scriptures in light of his mystical experience of Christ.

Paul, however, still valued his religious tradition. He always considered himself to be a Jewish follower of the Messiah. He would never have claimed to be a Christian in the way that the word is used today by most Christians. We know that he valued the traditions of Jesus passed down orally, because he tells the Corinthians that he passed on to them the tradition regarding Jesus’ death and resurrection that he “had received” (see 1 Cor. 15:3-11). Yet, in that very passage, he grounds his own apostleship, not on the tradition he had received, but his own personal experience of the living Christ, who appeared to him as “last of all [the apostles], as to one untimely born.”

The lesson we can learn is this: Paul’s experience of the living Christ always took priority and precedence over his tradition and every external authority, even the Bible itself. Healthy and transformative spirituality will always value experience over tradition and the sacred texts. The tradition and the sacred texts are important, but our actual experience of the Divine is more important.

As Christians, our experience of the living Christ, who is able by his grace to transform our prejudices, jealousies, resentments, and hate into forgiveness, love, and reconciliation, is always more important than what the preachers and dogmatists tell us the Bible says.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Is Rob Bell Still an Evangelical?

In a recent interview by Kim Lawton of PBS Religion and Ethics, author and columnist Lisa Miller, Pastor Rob Bell, author of Love Wins, and Mary Vanden Berg, Assistant Professor of Christian Theology at Calvin Theological Seminary, raise some important issues about where Rob Bell stands in relation to evangelical Christianity.

Miller notes that what upset people most about Rob Bell was that he calls himself a conservative evangelical Christian. If he called himself an Episcopalian, she observes, nobody would have batted an eye.

Miller, of course, is right. This is what sent Bell’s book, Love Wins, ringing throughout the land (pun intended). As Miller comments, Bell’s position on heaven, hell, and the possible salvation of every person, “is a radical upheaval of that entire worldview.” This is why popular conservative pastor, John Piper, tweeted, “So long Bell,” when he first heard of Bell’s position (even before he read the book). He was talking about Bell’s departure from traditional/conservative Christianity.

One could argue that Bell has moved out of the camp of evangelicalism into the camp of progressive Christianity. One of the fundamental differences between progressive Christianity and evangelical Christianity is how each group understands and interprets the biblical teachings on judgment.

Most progressive Christians do not ignore or deny the reality of judgment. In fact, I myself, as a progressive Christian, believe that judgment can be quite painful and severe. But, I believe that it is always redemptive, restorative, and corrective in nature, not punitive, retributive, or intended for punishment equal to the offense.

Bell basically takes this position in his book. In the interview with Religion and Ethics he says that judgment flows out of love, that it is important to start with love: “God’s love is for us to flourish in God’s good world. For us to flourish in God’s good world, judgments have to be made . . . that puts judgment in its proper place.”

The problem for Bell in the evangelical Christian community is that the Bible doesn’t always take that position. Both restorative judgment and vindictive/retributive judgment can be found in the Bible. Because the New Testament emerged out of a milieu pervaded by apocalyptic perspectives and beliefs, retributive judgment is quite frequent in the New Testament. Progressive Christians rightfully acknowledge that an apocalyptic orientation greatly influenced the first followers of Jesus, and many progressives would contend, influenced Jesus himself. (See my book, A Faith Worth Living: The Dynamics of an Inclusive Gospel, pp. 97–117).

I share Bell’s belief on heaven, hell, and the possibility of universal salvation. His understanding of judgment in the context of divine love is how progressive Christians interpret it. But what Bell has failed to do, and what he must do, if he hopes to stay within the evangelical Christian fold, is provide an adequate biblical hermeneutic for his position that somehow manages to maintain the high (idolatrous?) view of biblical authority that evangelicals demand.

In the interview with Religion and Ethics, Professor Vanden Berg, a representative of the majority evangelical position, says that “the Bible’s pretty clear that when the end comes that’s the end. You don’t have a second chance.” She concedes that it is possible that God could offer a second chance if God wanted, but for her the bottom line is: “What does the Bible say? The biblical text doesn’t say that at all.” This is the bottom line for most evangelicals: What does the Bible actually say?

The question is: Can Rob Bell offer a sufficient enough biblical hermeneutic to justify his beliefs that will hold water within the evangelical community. I seriously doubt it. I predict that Rob Bell will become a fresh, new spokesperson for progressive Christianity. Much the way Brian McLaren started out within the evangelical tradition, but clearly is now a champion of progressive Christian beliefs and practices, I predict Rob Bell will, also, cross over. It’s inevitable.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

An Authentic Christian Reading of the Bible

It takes spiritual eyes to read the Bible in a healthy, transformative way. The Bible can be (and has been) employed as an instrument of oppression and evil, as well as an instrument of change and transformation. All Christians who debate public and faith issues among each other or in a public forum use Scripture to support their arguments. Whether the issues relate to sexual orientation, women pastors or deacons, the role of government, the right to wage war, the role of the military, divorce, the nature of Jesus, or the nature of judgment and salvation, Scripture is quoted and interpreted by all Christians engaged in the debate. The critical question concerns how we use Scripture, how we interpret the Bible, what framework and guiding principles we use to make sense of Scripture and apply it to our lives and communities.

Some years ago, I, along with three other pastors, tried to change the policy regarding women’s participation in an Eastern Kentucky Baptist Association of the Southern Baptist Convention. As the policy stood, women could not speak publicly to any issue up for a vote at the annual meeting. I spoke for the proposed amendment. I appealed to passages in the Gospels revealing how Jesus was egalitarian in his ministry and mission, calling women disciples. I talked about the social vision of God’s new creation expounded by Paul in Galatians—how “in Christ” all social, sexual, and racial barriers are abolished. I pointed to Scriptures demonstrating that women served as coworkers and partners with Paul in preaching and teaching the gospel.

Do you know what happened? Those who opposed the change quoted Scripture, too. They quoted 1 Cor. 14:34 that says women should be silent and subordinate in the church, and if they have anything to say they should ask their husbands at home. Someone asked, “What if they don’t have husbands?” They said, “They need to get husbands.” Then they quoted that troublesome text in 1 Timothy 2 that says women should be submissive and not teach in the presence of men, because Adam was created first and the woman was the one who was deceived by the serpent. It’s in the Bible, they said. And they were right. It’s in the Bible.

And what the Bible says, God says, right? I don’t know of any thing that has done more harm in and to the church than this simple equation: What the Bible says is equal to what God says. The direct identification of God’s Voice with what the Bible says has been used to justify all sorts of destructive biases and oppressive practices. Think of all the preachers who raise their voices declaring, “The Bible says . . .” assuming that this is what God says. The damage this has done is immense.

In the story of Jesus’ transfiguration in the Gospels, Moses and Elijah (representatives of the Law and the Prophets) appear with Jesus (see Luke 9:28-36). But it is Jesus who alone is affirmed by the Divine Voice: “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him.” The Law and the Prophets find fulfillment in Jesus. Listen to Jesus, the Voice declares.

Here is the key to a holistic, healthy, and transformative Christian reading of the Bible. Jesus is the lens through which Christians see. A truly constructive, redemptive, and transformative Christian reading of Scripture filters our understanding of the biblical stories and writings through the ultimate story, the story of Jesus. This means that an authentic Christian reading of the Bible will always be tilted and biased toward the things that Jesus stood for—the love, forgiveness, compassion, and grace embodied in Jesus’ life, death, and vindication.