Saturday, May 31, 2014

Top Ten Reasons Why Theological Debate Doesn't Work

#10 - Everyone compares what they actually believe to the "logical implications" of what the other guy believes.

This is why you get Calvinists arguing that Arminianism logically implies that we want to take credit for our own salvation, and Arminians arguing that Calvinism logically implies that God is the author of evil. Complementarians think egalitarianism implies erasing of all gender differences and egalitarians think complementarians simply want to keep women down. None of these groups actually believes what the other side says they should, and we all cry foul when someone else does it to us, but we all have the tendency to do a reductio ad absurdum on someone else's argument, no matter how much they protest that that's not what they believe.

#9 - We're more interested in winning the debate than in learning from one another's perspectives.

There's way too much ego involved in these debates, much more than most of us are willing to admit. All of us think that we've just won the deciding point and the other guy is going to cry "Uncle!" at our masterful display of dizzying logic. But it never happens. Either they just don't see our point the way we do, or even if they feel cornered, nobody likes to admit failure, especially in public, and what's more public than the internet? Moreover, internet debates are generally "won" by whoever has the most time to sit at a computer and respond to everything point by point. The rhetorical ability to debate has little to do with truth, and we may as well all admit it.

#8 - We're profoundly influenced by what we grew up with, and so is everyone else.

"Influenced," by the way, applies whether we still cling to the same beliefs or whether we've rejected them. We're all, almost always, in the process of protecting or repudiating the beliefs we grew up with. It's the lens through which we learned to understand the world in the first place, and it continues to influence the way in which we frame truth claims, both ours and other people's. We should recognize that much of what we think we disagree with we actually don't understand, because it's been framed in a way that's foreign to our accustomed way of perceiving reality and thinking through things. This leads to....

#7 - Most of our disagreements are on the presuppositional level, so arguing doesn't get at the root issues.

This is why we go around in circles with someone and we can't understand why they can't understand the points we're making. The actual disagreement lies below the level of logical argumentation. Just as geometry has certain axioms--principles that themselves can't be proven but seem self-evident and so become the building blocks of all other proofs--logic always rests on presuppositions, things that seem obvious to us but are themselves unprovable. These are often buried, unstated premises, assumed but not consciously thought of by those who hold them. For example, some will hold that "God is love" necessarily implies a certain kind of egalitarianism, an equal measure of love given to all, and this will work itself out in certain ways when it comes to topics such as soteriology and ecclesiology. For others, "God is sovereign" necessarily implies other conclusions about how and to whom God bestows love, giftings, and position. These are the kinds of differences that make what is self-evidently true to one person incomprehensible and horrifying to another.

#6 - We assault one another's motives rather than assessing one another's arguments.

When we disagree with someone else, we find it extraordinarily difficult to imagine that they actually believe what they say they believe. They must have an agenda! They must have a bias! There must be some reason why they refuse to accept my clearly articulated and logically unassailable truth! So we accuse someone of arguing out of fear, or out of arrogance, or of accommodating culture, or of being blindly hostile to culture, or of being a modernist, or of being a postmodernist, of "giving in" to some kind of pressure, of being unreasonably stubborn. The truth is, none of these issues matters. Let's be honest: everyone has conscious and unconscious agendas, and conscious and unconscious fears. The truth may coincide or not coincide with any of these in various instances. What matters is not why someone takes a position, but whether the position they've taken is true.

#5 - We get bogged down in historical arguments that may have little relevance now.

You see this happening when, for example, someone argues that backing off on any particular point that the Reformers held is the first step on the road back to Rome. Or when we question the salvation of someone who has a different understanding of infant vs. believer's baptism. Or even when we label someone a Calvinist or a Pelagian, as though they were actually slavish devotees of these long-dead teachers. One of my favorite professors in seminary made the observation that conservative Methodists and Presbyterians had more in common with one another than either would have with liberal members of their own denominations. That should give us pause. Divisions persist even when the initial reasons for them have faded. How many of us know or care about the filioque clause of the Apostles' Creed or the distinction between three-dimensional statues and flat icons?

#4 - We data mine Scripture for answers to questions, whether or not those questions were intended to be addressed by those passages.

Throughout the two millenia since Jesus' time, a lot of questions have come up that weren't live issues to the people who were writing Scripture. Many doctrines, such as the Trinity and the divine and human natures of Jesus, were hammered out in the centuries following the close of the canon. While Scripture might have clear things to say on these or other questions that aren't directly addressed by the text, we need to be extraordinarily cautious about pulling passages out of context just because it seems to support a point of view that we hold. The first step in interpretation is to understand what the passage meant at the time it was written to its intended audience.

#3 - We play "My verse trumps your verse" instead of trying to understand each passage on its own terms.

Every theological point of view (yes, that includes yours) has difficulty with some passages.  When such passages are brought up in debate, the usual means of dealing with them is to respond with, "Yeah, but what about <insert more congenial passage here>." The implication is that because my favorite passage is so self-evidently clear, your favorite passage cannot possibly mean what it seems to mean--in fact, I don't even feel the need to deal with yours until you deal with mine. We're all operating with a canon-within-the-canon, a set of favorite passages that form the lens through which we view all the others. If we were more honest, we'd try harder to deal with the "difficult" passages (those that don't say what we want them to say) on their own terms, in their own contexts, rather than simply running back to the ones that confirm our prior views.

#2 - A lot of what we believe comes from gut level response rather than logical analysis.

 We're quite ready to recognize this in everyone other than ourselves. I've made a clear logical connection; you've made a faulty slippery slope argument. I've thought all these issues through; you're clearly talking off the top of your head. I have reasons for what I believe; you're just repeating the standard line. Let's face it, Sheldon, you're not nearly as logical as you think you are. Neither am I. In what we believe, we all have reasons in which reason plays no part.

And the number one reason why theological debate doesn't work (especially on the internet) is....

#1 - We're just too darned proud to back down and admit what we don't know.

Except for those whose stock in trade is asserting that they know nothing, implying that no one else really knows anything either. They always seem very sure about that.

Creation, ‘The World Was Made So That Christ Might Be Born’


January 4, 2014 by Bobby Grow by Bobby Grow

In some of my posts, especially of late, we have been thinking about the Christian doctrine of Creation; as corollary, we have also been considering our relation to creation in and through Christ. The first step we ought to engage, in our consideration of such things, is to wonder about the God-world relation and what purpose he has always already intended for creation as the counterpoint to his gracious life of love, from which he created. It becomes quickly obvious, as we read the New Testament, and work out the theo-logical implications of Trintarian and Christo-logical assumptions, therein; that creation was created with Christ in mind, and us in Christ. So that God’s original intent, was in and through Christ, to bring all of creation (and humanity as the pinnacle of his creation) into his life of perichoretic (interpenetrating) love (self-giving, subject-in-distinction=Trinity). Scottish theologian, David Fergusson, helps us understand how all of this has played out in the history of interpretation:

The notion of ‘wisdom’ provides further evidence of the integration of creation and salvation in the Old Testament. As the creative agency of God, wisdom is celebrated in the Psalms, Proverbs, Job, and some of the deutero-canonical works. In some places, such as Proverbs 8, wisdom is personified as a divine agent. The divine wisdom by which the world is created is also apparent in the regularity of nature, the divine law, and human affairs. This notion of ‘wisdom’ is later fused with the Greek concept of ‘Logos’ and becomes vital for expressing the linking of creation and Christology in the New Testament. In the prologue to John’s Gospel the Word (Logos) of God is the one by whom and through whom the world is created. This Word which is made present to Israel becomes incarnate in Jesus Christ. In this cosmic Christology, the significance of Jesus is understood with respect to the origin and purpose of the created order. Already in Paul’s writing and elsewhere in the New Testament epistles, we find similar cosmic themes (e.g. 1 Cor. 8:6, Col. 1:15-20, Heb. 1:1-4). By describing creation as Christ-centred, these passages offer two related trajectories of thought. First, the origin and final purpose of the cosmos is disclosed with the coming of Christ into the world and his resurrection from the dead. Second, the significance of Christ is maximally understood reference to his creative and redeeming power throughout the created universe. Writers at different periods in the history of the church would later use this cosmic Christology to describe the appearance of the incarnate Christ as the crowning moment of history. No longer understood merely as an emergency measure to counteract the effects of sin and evil, the incarnation was the fulfillment of an eternal purpose. The world was made so that Christ might be born. This is captured in Karl Barth’s dictum that creation is ‘the external basis of the covenant’ (Barth 1958: 94). [David Fergusson, Chapter 4: Creation, 76-7 in The Oxford Handbook of Systematic Theology, edited by John Webster, Kathryn Tanner, and Iain Torrance]

In the history what David Fergusson is describing is known as the Scotist Thesis; viz. that the plan was always for Jesus to incarnate to bring humanity and creation into the divine dialogue and life of communion through union with the Son. The ‘Fall’ intensified the Incarnation in a way that is tragic, but rife with the redemptive hope of the resurrection and advent life! I follow the Scotist thesis on this front. My friend, brother in Christ, Evangelical Calvinist co-conspirator, Myk Habets has written this to open up his essay entitled On Getting First Things First: Assessing Claims for the Primacy of Christ (©The author 2008. Journal compilation ©The Dominican Council/Blackwell Publishing Ltd. 2008, 9600 Garsington Road, Oxford OX4 2DQ, UK, and 350 Main Street, Malden MA 02148, USA DOI:10.1111/j.1741-2005.2008.00240.x):

According to Christian tradition Jesus Christ is pre-eminent over all creation as the Alpha and the Omega, the ‘beginning and the end’ (Rev 1.8, 21.6; 22.13). This belief, when theologically considered, is known as the primacy of Christ.1 The specific issue this doctrine addresses is the question: Was sin the efficient or the primary cause of the incarnation? This essay seeks to model the practice of modal logic in relation to the primacy of Christ, not to satisfy the cravings of speculative theologians but to reverently penetrate the evangelical mystery of the incarnation, specifically, the two alternatives: either ‘God became man independently of sin,’ or its contradiction, ‘God became man because of sin’. . . .

Wouldn’t you agree that ‘the world was made so that Christ might be born’?

15 He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. 16 For by Him all things were created that are in heaven and that are on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or powers. All things were created through Him and for Him. 17 And He is before all things, and in Him all things consist. 18 And He is the head of the body, the church, who is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in all things He may have the preeminence. 19 For it pleased the Father that in Him all the fullness should dwell, 20 and by Him to reconcile all things to Himself, by Him, whether things on earth or things in heaven, having made peace through the blood of His cross. 21 And you, who once were alienated and enemies in your mind by wicked works, yet now He has reconciled 22 in the body of His flesh through death, to present you holy, and blameless, and above reproach in His sight— 23 if indeed you continue in the faith, grounded and steadfast, and are not moved away from the hope of the gospel which you heard, which was preached to every creature under heaven, of which I, Paul, became a minister. ~Colossians 1:15-23


Friday, May 30, 2014

10 Life Lessons From A Navy Seal. I Will Always Remember #4.!SntOk

Naval Admiral William H. McRaven returned to his alma mater last week and spoke to the graduates with lessons he learned from his basic SEAL training.

Here’s his amazing Commencement Address at University of Texas at Austin 2014 from Business Insider.
The University’s slogan is,
“What starts here changes the world.”

I have to admit—I kinda like it.
“What starts here changes the world.”
Tonight there are almost 8,000 students graduating from UT.
That great paragon of analytical rigor, Ask.Com says that the average American will meet 10,000 people in their lifetime.
That’s a lot of folks.
But, if every one of you changed the lives of just ten people—and each one of those folks changed the lives of another ten people—just ten—then in five generations—125 years—the class of 2014 will have changed the lives of 800 million people.
800 million people—think of it—over twice the population of the United States. Go one more generation and you can change the entire population of the world—8 billion people.
If you think it’s hard to change the lives of ten people—change their lives forever—you’re wrong.
I saw it happen every day in Iraq and Afghanistan.
A young Army officer makes a decision to go left instead of right down a road in Baghdad and the ten soldiers in his squad are saved from close-in ambush.
In Kandahar province, Afghanistan, a non-commissioned officer from the Female Engagement Team senses something isn’t right and directs the infantry platoon away from a 500 pound IED, saving the lives of a dozen soldiers.
But, if you think about it, not only were these soldiers saved by the decisions of one person, but their children yet unborn—were also saved. And their children’s children—were saved.
Generations were saved by one decision—by one person.
But changing the world can happen anywhere and anyone can do it.
So, what starts here can indeed change the world, but the question is… what will the world look like after you change it?
Well, I am confident that it will look much, much better, but if you will humor this old sailor for just a moment, I have a few suggestions that may help you on your way to a better a world.
And while these lessons were learned during my time in the military, I can assure you that it matters not whether you ever served a day in uniform.
It matters not your gender, your ethnic or religious background, your orientation, or your social status.
Our struggles in this world are similar and the lessons to overcome those struggles and to move forward—changing ourselves and the world around us—will apply equally to all.
I have been a Navy SEAL for 36 years. But it all began when I left UT for Basic SEAL training in Coronado, California.
Basic SEAL training is six months of long torturous runs in the soft sand, midnight swims in the cold water off San Diego, obstacles courses, unending calisthenics, days without sleep and always being cold, wet and miserable.
It is six months of being constantly harassed by professionally trained warriors who seek to find the weak of mind and body and eliminate them from ever becoming a Navy SEAL.
But, the training also seeks to find those students who can lead in an environment of constant stress, chaos, failure and hardships.
To me basic SEAL training was a life time of challenges crammed into six months.
So, here are the ten lessons I learned from basic SEAL training that hopefully will be of value to you as you move forward in life.
Every morning in basic SEAL training, my instructors, who at the time were all Vietnam veterans, would show up in my barracks room and the first thing they would inspect was your bed.
If you did it right, the corners would be square, the covers pulled tight, the pillow centered just under the headboard and the extra blanket folded neatly at the foot of the rack—rack—that’s Navy talk for bed.
It was a simple task—mundane at best. But every morning we were required to make our bed to perfection. It seemed a little ridiculous at the time, particularly in light of the fact that were aspiring to be real warriors, tough battle hardened SEALs—but the wisdom of this simple act has been proven to me many times over.
If you make your bed every morning you will have accomplished the first task of the day. It will give you a small sense of pride and it will encourage you to do another task and another and another.
By the end of the day, that one task completed will have turned into many tasks completed. Making your bed will also reinforce the fact that little things in life matter.
If you can’t do the little things right, you will never do the big things right.
And, if by chance you have a miserable day, you will come home to a bed that is made—that you made—and a made bed gives you encouragement that tomorrow will be better.
#1. If you want to change the world, start off by making your bed.
During SEAL training the students are broken down into boat crews. Each crew is seven students—three on each side of a small rubber boat and one coxswain to help guide the dingy.
Every day your boat crew forms up on the beach and is instructed to get through the surf zone and paddle several miles down the coast.
In the winter, the surf off San Diego can get to be 8 to 10 feet high and it is exceedingly difficult to paddle through the plunging surf unless everyone digs in.
Every paddle must be synchronized to the stroke count of the coxswain. Everyone must exert equal effort or the boat will turn against the wave and be unceremoniously tossed back on the beach.
For the boat to make it to its destination, everyone must paddle.
You can’t change the world alone—you will need some help— and to truly get from your starting point to your destination takes friends, colleagues, the good will of strangers and a strong coxswain to guide them.
#2. If you want to change the world, find someone to help you paddle.
Over a few weeks of difficult training my SEAL class which started with 150 men was down to just 35. There were now six boat crews of seven men each.
I was in the boat with the tall guys, but the best boat crew we had was made up of the the little guys—the munchkin crew we called them—no one was over about 5-foot five.
The munchkin boat crew had one American Indian, one African American, one Polish American, one Greek American, one Italian American, and two tough kids from the mid-west.
They out paddled, out-ran, and out swam all the other boat crews.
The big men in the other boat crews would always make good natured fun of the tiny little flippers the munchkins put on their tiny little feet prior to every swim.
But somehow these little guys, from every corner of the Nation and the world, always had the last laugh— swimming faster than everyone and reaching the shore long before the rest of us.
SEAL training was a great equalizer. Nothing mattered but your will to succeed. Not your color, not your ethnic background, not your education and not your social status.
#3. If you want to change the world, measure a person by the size of their heart, not the size of their flippers.
Several times a week, the instructors would line up the class and do a uniform inspection. It was exceptionally thorough.
Your hat had to be perfectly starched, your uniform immaculately pressed and your belt buckle shiny and void of any smudges.
But it seemed that no matter how much effort you put into starching your hat, or pressing your uniform or polishing your belt buckle—- it just wasn’t good enough.
The instructors would find “something” wrong.
For failing the uniform inspection, the student had to run, fully clothed into the surfzone and then, wet from head to toe, roll around on the beach until every part of your body was covered with sand.
The effect was known as a “sugar cookie.” You stayed in that uniform the rest of the day—cold, wet and sandy.
There were many a student who just couldn’t accept the fact that all their effort was in vain. That no matter how hard they tried to get the uniform right—it was unappreciated.
Those students didn’t make it through training.
Those students didn’t understand the purpose of the drill. You were never going to succeed. You were never going to have a perfect uniform.
Sometimes no matter how well you prepare or how well you perform you still end up as a sugar cookie.
It’s just the way life is sometimes.
#4. If you want to change the world get over being a sugar cookie and keep moving forward.
Every day during training you were challenged with multiple physical events—long runs, long swims, obstacle courses, hours of calisthenics—something designed to test your mettle.
Every event had standards—times you had to meet. If you failed to meet those standards your name was posted on a list and at the end of the day those on the list were invited to—a “circus.”
A circus was two hours of additional calisthenics—designed to wear you down, to break your spirit, to force you to quit.
No one wanted a circus.
A circus meant that for that day you didn’t measure up. A circus meant more fatigue—and more fatigue meant that the following day would be more difficult—and more circuses were likely.
But at some time during SEAL training, everyone—everyone—made the circus list.
But an interesting thing happened to those who were constantly on the list. Over time those students-—who did two hours of extra calisthenics—got stronger and stronger.
The pain of the circuses built inner strength-built physical resiliency.
Life is filled with circuses.
You will fail. You will likely fail often. It will be painful. It will be discouraging. At times it will test you to your very core.
#5. But if you want to change the world, don’t be afraid of the circuses.
At least twice a week, the trainees were required to run the obstacle course. The obstacle course contained 25 obstacles including a 10-foot high wall, a 30-foot cargo net, and a barbed wire crawl to name a few.
But the most challenging obstacle was the slide for life. It had a three level 30 foot tower at one end and a one level tower at the other. In between was a 200-foot long rope.
You had to climb the three tiered tower and once at the top, you grabbed the rope, swung underneath the rope and pulled yourself hand over hand until you got to the other end.
The record for the obstacle course had stood for years when my class began training in 1977.
The record seemed unbeatable, until one day, a student decided to go down the slide for life—head first.
Instead of swinging his body underneath the rope and inching his way down, he bravely mounted the TOP of the rope and thrust himself forward.
It was a dangerous move—seemingly foolish, and fraught with risk. Failure could mean injury and being dropped from the training.
Without hesitation—the student slid down the rope—perilously fast, instead of several minutes, it only took him half that time and by the end of the course he had broken the record.
#6. If you want to change the world sometimes you have to slide down the obstacle head first.
During the land warfare phase of training, the students are flown out to San Clemente Island which lies off the coast of San Diego.
The waters off San Clemente are a breeding ground for the great white sharks. To pass SEAL training there are a series of long swims that must be completed. One—is the night swim.
Before the swim the instructors joyfully brief the trainees on all the species of sharks that inhabit the waters off San Clemente.
They assure you, however, that no student has ever been eaten by a shark—at least not recently.
But, you are also taught that if a shark begins to circle your position—stand your ground. Do not swim away. Do not act afraid.
And if the shark, hungry for a midnight snack, darts towards you—then summons up all your strength and punch him in the snout and he will turn and swim away.
There are a lot of sharks in the world. If you hope to complete the swim you will have to deal with them.
#7. So, if you want to change the world, don’t back down from the sharks.
As Navy SEALs one of our jobs is to conduct underwater attacks against enemy shipping. We practiced this technique extensively during basic training.
The ship attack mission is where a pair of SEAL divers is dropped off outside an enemy harbor and then swims well over two miles—underwater—using nothing but a depth gauge and a compass to get to their target.
During the entire swim, even well below the surface there is some light that comes through. It is comforting to know that there is open water above you.
But as you approach the ship, which is tied to a pier, the light begins to fade. The steel structure of the ship blocks the moonlight—it blocks the surrounding street lamps—it blocks all ambient light.
To be successful in your mission, you have to swim under the ship and find the keel—the center line and the deepest part of the ship.
This is your objective. But the keel is also the darkest part of the ship—where you cannot see your hand in front of your face, where the noise from the ship’s machinery is deafening and where it is easy to get disoriented and fail.
Every SEAL knows that under the keel, at the darkest moment of the mission—is the time when you must be calm, composed—when all your tactical skills, your physical power and all your inner strength must be brought to bear.
#8. If you want to change the world, you must be your very best in the darkest moment.
The ninth week of training is referred to as “Hell Week.” It is six days of no sleep, constant physical and mental harassment and—one special day at the Mud Flats—the Mud Flats are an area between San Diego and Tijuana where the water runs off and creates the Tijuana slue’s—a swampy patch of terrain where the mud will engulf you.
It is on Wednesday of Hell Week that you paddle down to the mud flats and spend the next 15 hours trying to survive the freezing cold mud, the howling wind and the incessant pressure to quit from the instructors.
As the sun began to set that Wednesday evening, my training class, having committed some “egregious infraction of the rules” was ordered into the mud.
The mud consumed each man till there was nothing visible but our heads. The instructors told us we could leave the mud if only five men would quit—just five men and we could get out of the oppressive cold.
Looking around the mud flat it was apparent that some students were about to give up. It was still over eight hours till the sun came up—eight more hours of bone chilling cold.
The chattering teeth and shivering moans of the trainees were so loud it was hard to hear anything and then, one voice began to echo through the night—one voice raised in song.
The song was terribly out of tune, but sung with great enthusiasm.
One voice became two and two became three and before long everyone in the class was singing.
We knew that if one man could rise above the misery then others could as well.
The instructors threatened us with more time in the mud if we kept up the singing—but the singing persisted.
And somehow—the mud seemed a little warmer, the wind a little tamer and the dawn not so far away.
If I have learned anything in my time traveling the world, it is the power of hope. The power of one person—Washington, Lincoln, King, Mandela and even a young girl from Pakistan—Malala—one person can change the world by giving people hope.
#9. So, if you want to change the world, start singing when you’re up to your neck in mud.
Finally, in SEAL training there is a bell. A brass bell that hangs in the center of the compound for all the students to see.
All you have to do to quit—is ring the bell. Ring the bell and you no longer have to wake up at 5 o’clock. Ring the bell and you no longer have to do the freezing cold swims.
Ring the bell and you no longer have to do the runs, the obstacle course, the PT—and you no longer have to endure the hardships of training.
Just ring the bell.
#10. If you want to change the world don’t ever, ever ring the bell.
To the graduating class of 2014, you are moments away from graduating. Moments away from beginning your journey through life. Moments away from starting to change the world—for the better.
It will not be easy.
But, YOU are the class of 2014—the class that can affect the lives of 800 million people in the next century.
Start each day with a task completed.
Find someone to help you through life.
Respect everyone.
Know that life is not fair and that you will fail often, but if you take take some risks, step up when the times are toughest, face down the bullies, lift up the downtrodden and never, ever give up—if you do these things, then next generation and the generations that follow will live in a world far better than the one we have today and—what started here will indeed have changed the world—for the better.
Thank you very much. Hook ‘em horns.

How Jesus became “God,” per Ehrman

May 29, 2014

Having been asked to review Bart Ehrman’s new book, How Jesus Became God (HarperOne, 2014), for the Christian Century, I take the opportunity here also to comment on it.  This book is another of his now “best-selling” publications directed to a general readership, and, as with these earlier books (e.g., Misquoting Jesus), this one seems intended to startle na├»ve Christians uninformed about biblical scholarship, agitate and respond to Christian apologists, and reassure fellow sceptics and agnostics (Ehrman’s self-description) that they have some basis for their doubts.

Ehrman is generally a good communicator, and one of the positive things one can say about the book is that it is clearly written, and readily accessible to readers with little or no prior acquaintance with the issues and scholarly methods involved in the topic.  Indeed, at a number of places Ehrman gives an admirably clear description of this or that technical matter, e.g., his explanation of how scholars identify places in Paul’s letters (e.g., Romans 1:3-4; Philippians 2:6-11) where he likely incorporates earlier Christian confessional and liturgical traditions.

But, whereas in some of his previous general-reader books, Ehrman drew upon his recognized expertise (especially in NT textual criticism), in this book he deals with a subject on which he is not particularly known as a contributor.  So, he draws heavily on the work of other scholars (including my own), and with commendable acknowledgement.  Unfortunately, however, on several matters he seems to rely on now discredited views, or over-simplify or misunderstand things.

But before I turn to criticism, I want to note a few more positive things.  With probably the majority of NT scholars, Ehrman emphasizes that the exalted claims about Jesus reflected in the NT (e.g., that Jesus shares divine glory, divine rule, the divine name, and is to be given universal reverence) all appeared soon in the aftermath of Jesus’ execution.  These convictions were based primarily on experiences of the risen/exalted Jesus (“visions” in Ehrman’s terms) by Jesus’ followers, which conveyed the conviction that God had raised Jesus from death and had uniquely exalted him as Christ and Lord.

Ehrman (rightly in my view) also notes that these lofty claims about Jesus reflected in the NT seem to have erupted very early, so early that they are presupposed as widely shared already by the time Paul wrote his letters (from ca. 50 CE and thereafter).  In a commendable example of changing his mind, Ehrman acknowledges that prior to immersing himself in the evidence and scholarly analysis for this book, he had assumed a much slower and more drawn-out process, but was driven to conclude that these remarkable Christological beliefs erupted much earlier and much more fully than he had thought.  It’s always reassuring when a scholar admits to learning something new, and even to changing his/her mind.

Moreover, Ehrman argues (again, rightly in my view), that the early claim that Jesus is Messiah, require us to conclude also that Jesus had excited such hopes about himself during his own ministry.  Indeed, this was likely the reason that the Roman authority moved against him and crucified him.  (“Messiah” = typically a divinely appointed ruler/deliverer, a claim that would have been seen as sedition against Rome.)  As Ehrman observes, resurrection by itself would not have connoted that Jesus is Messiah.  But, if Jesus’ followers had held such a hope during his ministry, then Jesus’ resurrection would quite readily have been taken as God’s validation of Jesus as Messiah.  (This, by the way, is basically the argument made by the great Yale NT scholar, Nils Dahl, decades ago.)

To cite another commendable matter, early in the book, Ehrman helpfully and clearly explains the limits of historical inquiry, particularly noting that historical analysis is not able to judge the validity of theological claims.  So, he notes, historians cannot really judge the question of whether God raised Jesus from death.  All historical analysis can do is to explore when and in what circumstances such claims emerged, what people seem to have meant in making such claims, and what the subsequent effects were.

But, to turn now to critical comments, it’s curious that Ehrman then devotes a section of the ensuing discussion to comparing early experiences of the risen Jesus with apparitions of deceased loved ones to the bereaved, and with other such phenomena.  The point of doing so, quite obviously, seems to be to give reasons for taking early Christian experiences as hallucinations, and so not really valid.  To do this, however, is (in Ehrman’s own terms) to move from historical analysis to something else.  To be specific, this discussion seems more aimed to counter Christian apologists and give justification for doubting Christian claims.  But this makes just a bit coy his profession of not being concerned to judge the question whether experiences of the risen Jesus were valid.

As I’ve mentioned, on several matters Ehrman seems ill-informed and/or not current.  For example, he assumes that the expression “the son of man” (used numerous times by Jesus in the Gospels) was a recognized title of a figure well-known in ancient Jewish eschatological hopes.  So, Ehrman continues (on this assumption), Jesus must have been referring to this future figure, not to himself.  But from at least the 1970s it has been clear that this assumption is baseless.  There is, in fact, no evidence that “the son of man” was a fixed title, or that there was a known figure who bore it, in ancient Jewish tradition.  So (as is clearly the way the Gospel writers took the expression), Jesus’ use of “the son of man” (NB:  with the definite article) seems to have been simply a distinctive self-referential expression/idiom.

To cite another example of the curious misunderstanding of some things, Ehrman repeatedly refers to the early Christian doctrine of Jesus’ incarnation as portraying him as “temporarily human.”  But from the NT onward, and even  in subsequent centuries, Jesus’ assumption of humanity was emphatically portrayed as irrevocable.  Indeed, it is as a resurrected and glorified human that he serves (in classical Christian thought) as the paradigm for the ultimate salvation of believers.  (Of course, in classical Christian belief Jesus is also divine, but not at the expense of a genuine, and irrevocable, humanity.)

At a few other points, Ehrman refers to the Christology of this or that NT text, noting that Jesus is not pictured as God the Father.  I take this as implying that this is significant somehow, as if later Christians did identify Jesus as the Father. But Jesus was never pictured as God the Father, neither in any NT text nor in any classical Christian text thereafter.  Indeed, from Justin Martyr onward, Christian writers typically note that “God the Father” and “the Son” are “numerically distinct,” that is, distinguished, in the expressions of the doctrine of the “Trinity.”

As a final criticism, Ehrman posits that the key to Paul’s Christology is that he thought of Jesus as an (or the) angel (of God/the Lord).  That, says Ehrman, explains how Paul could ascribe “pre-existence” to Jesus, and how, as a devout Jew, he could countenance worshipping Jesus.  As the key basis for this notion, Ehrman invokes a peculiar reading of Galatians 4:14, where Paul says that in his initial visit the Galatians received him “as an angel of God, as Christ Jesus.”  Ehrman insists that this is to be read as a flat appositive construction, in which “an angel of God” = “Christ Jesus.”   But this isn’t actually as compelling a claim as he thinks.  Even Gieschen (on whose work Ehrman relies here) presents this reading of the construction as only a distinct “possibility.”  And most scholars (myself included) don’t think it really works.  The grammar certainly doesn’t require it, and it seems more reasonable to take it as a kind of stair-step statement, “angel of God” and “Christ Jesus” as ascending categories.

Moreover, Ehrman fails to consider other evidence that Paul distinguished between Jesus and angels, as for example in Romans 8:38-39, where Paul lyrically asserts that “nothing in all creation,” including angels, can separate believers from God’s love in “Christ Jesus our Lord.”   Or note 1 Cor. 6:3, where Paul asserts that, on the basis of their redemption in Christ, believers will judge angels (in the eschatological consummation).  In short, Paul’s Christology seems to place Jesus in a category of his own, superior and distinct from angels.

Further, contra Ehrman, there is, in fact, no evidence of angels receiving worship in any known Jewish circles of Paul’s day.  So, the worship given to Jesus isn’t really paralleled or made more understandable by positing that Jesus was regarded as an angel.

As to Jesus’ “pre-existence,” Ehrman seems not to know the indications that in ancient Jewish apocalyptic thought one or another kind of pre-existence could be ascribed to eschatological figures (as Nils Dahl noted long ago in another important essay, and as R. G. Hamerton-Kelly documented more fully).

On these and a few other matters, in short, Ehrman’s discussion is misinformed, which is curious given that the jacket promotional blurb describes the book as the product of eight years of research and writing.  But, notwithstanding its defects and sometimes slanted handling of matters, it will perhaps have some positive effect.  The general public today is widely unaware of how remarkable were the beliefs about Jesus and the extraordinary place of Jesus in the devotional practices of earliest Christian circles.  So, if the book sells as well as his previous general-reader books, in addition to enriching Ehrman’s bank balance further, this one might help general readers to appreciate more how astonishing these early beliefs and devotional practices were

Thursday, May 29, 2014

N. T. Wright on Paul’s “Plight”

In Paul and the Faithfulness of God, N. T. Wright has a wonderful section dealing with the multifaceted “plight” in Paul’s theological outlook. For Paul, far more has gone wrong than simply humanity being sinful and in need of being set right with God. The problem of evil is multi-dimensional, including personal and cosmic aspects. This, of course, makes salvation multi-dimensional for Paul.

The larger section of which the below is an excerpt is well worth reading, not least because it demonstrates the emptiness of the claim that Wright and others who read Paul from a “new perspective” don’t take sin seriously.

The ideas of personal sin and salvation, and the role of Israel’s Torah in relation to those questions, remain important, indeed obviously vital, in Paul. But instead of approaching them through the framework of mediaeval and Reformational theories, we must relocate them within the much larger Jewish framework: monotheism versus idolatry, Torah-keeping versus immorality, the social, cultural and political meanings which went with those antitheses, and not least the larger global and even ‘cosmic’ perspective which was glimpsed from time to time within Israel’s scriptures and later traditions and which Paul brought more fully into the open. We must not, in other words, collude with the relatively modern break-up of ‘the problem of evil’ into ‘natural evil’ on the one hand and ‘human sin’ on the other. Nor, in particular, must we go along with the classic western assumption (still evident in the continuing mainstream tradition and in Sanders’s revisionist proposals) that ‘salvation’ will mean the rescue of humans away from the present world. Insofar as second-temple Jews reflected on such things, they saw evil of all sorts as an unhappy jumble of disasters at all these levels, and ‘salvation’ as rescue from evil (whether personal, political or cosmic) rather than as rescue from the created world. Their monotheism was expressed in the cry for justice and the plea for rescue, two of the great themes of Isaiah 40—55: in other words, for a radical change of affairs within the created world. Paul’s revised monotheism declared that justice had been done, and rescue provided, in the Messiah and by the spirit. This gave him a much sharper vision of ‘the problem’, but it did not create it from scratch.

The basic point can be put quite starkly. Paul already had ‘a problem’; all devout Jews did, as we have seen. The fact that it was not the same as the ‘problem’ of the conscience-stricken mediaeval moralist does not mean it was non-existent. It was the problem generated by creational and covenantal monotheism: why is the world in such a mess, and why is Israel still unredeemed? The revelation of Jesus as the crucified and risen Messiah meant, for Paul, that the covenant God had offered the solution to these problems – but, in offering the solution, Israel’s God had redefined the problems, had revealed that they had all along been far worse than anyone had imagined (p. 749).

More on “The Plight” from Wright

I’ve been reviewing some older critiques of “the new perspective on Paul” that mention specifically its lack of a theology of sin and salvation. It seems to me, however, that it’s more accurate to say that “the new perspective” broke the hegemony of a certain account of what Paul must have meant by the plight and the solution.

That is, many interpreters had assumed that for Paul, the problem is that humans are sinners and the solution is salvation. Humans are unrighteous and are at enmity with God, and they need righteousness and must be set right with God.

The revolution in Pauline studies that led to a global re-reading of Paul’s texts (all of them, not just our favorite ones) demonstrated that while all this is true, it is part of a much larger picture of what is wrong and how God has acted to set things right.

Grasping this more robust and far-reaching Scriptural depiction of what is wrong leads to a greater appreciation for God’s manifold action in Christ, and to a greater understanding of how God’s people inhabit and embody the massive (and under-explored) reality called “salvation.”

I say all this just to note that N. T. Wright in Paul and the Faithfulness of God does a very nice job of demonstrating what Paul saw as “the plight.” It wasn’t just that humans needed righteousness. In fact, the problem went beyond humans. It was cosmic in scope, including the entire creation.

What happens, then, when we put together these three elements, cross, resurrection and spirit? Paul has revised his previous understanding of the plight of the world, of humans and of Israel in line with his revision of monotheism itself. Standing behind it all was the strong early Christian belief that in Jesus and the holy spirit the covenant God had returned at last, and had acted decisively to judge and save. The sudden brightness of this light cast dark shadows: if this was what it looked like when YHWH returned, all sorts of things were called into question. The resurrection of Jesus constituted him as Messiah, but he remained the crucified Messiah, and if in the strange purposes of the One God the Messiah, his one and only true ‘son’, had had to die, it could only mean that the plight of Israel was far worse than had been thought. The resurrection itself demonstrated that the real enemy was not ‘the Gentiles’, not even the horrible spectre of pagan empire. The real enemy was Death itself, the ultimate anti-creation force, with Sin – the personified power of evil, doing duty apparently at some points for ‘the satan’ itself – as its henchman. Finally, the experience of the spirit revealed the extent to which hardness of heart and blindness of mind had been endemic up to that point across the whole human race. All these were there in Israel’s scriptures, but so far as we know nobody else in second-temple Judaism had brought them together in anything like the form we find them in Paul. It looks very much as though it was the gospel itself, both in proclamation and experience, which was the driver in bringing Paul to this fresh understanding of ‘the plight’ from which all humans, and the whole creation, needed to be rescued (761-2).

Earlier Jewish writers had seen quite a bit of this, of course. But for Paul the nature and extent of ‘the enemy’ and ‘the problem’ were revealed precisely in the act of their overthrow. The full horror of the threatening dragon became apparent only as it lay dead on the floor. The hints had been there already, including the biblical warnings about the corrosive and destructive principalities and powers standing behind outward political enemies and operating through the local and personal ‘sin’ of individuals. Neither Saul of Tarsus nor Paul the Apostle would have supposed one had to choose between the partial analyses offered by Genesis 3, Genesis 6 and Genesis 11: human rebellion, dark cosmic forces and the arrogance of empire all belonged together. A thoughtful and scripturally educated Pharisee could have figured that out already. But for Paul all of these were seen afresh in the light of the gospel. The fungus that had been growing on the visible side of the wall could now be seen as evidence of the damp that had been seeping in from behind. The worrying persistent and ingrained sin of Israel, not merely of the nations, was the tell-tale sign that the principalities and powers of Sin and Death had been at work all along in the covenant people, as well as in the idolatrous wider world (763).

Paul’s robust monotheism allowed fully for the fact of rebellious non-human ‘powers’ luring humans into idolatry and hence into collusion with their anti-creational and anti-human purposes. Sin in the human heart, darkness in the human mind, dehumanized behaviour in the human life: all went together with the rule of dark forces that operated through idols, including empires and their rulers, to thwart the purposes of the one creator God. And Israel, called to be the light of the world, had itself partaken of the darkness. Israel, too, was ‘in Adam’ (771).

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Postmodern Right and Wrong

Sunday, May 4, 2014

by Brad Duncan

In my previous three posts about postmodern Christian faith, I described a God that is more personal, and who values people over structure and systems of laws. Instead of pleasing God, we should know God in a healthy relationship in which we enjoy God's acceptance and love for us. Most Christians would agree. After all God is love, and the greatest commandment of Jesus is to "Love God. Love People". God is more pleased with us than we think. God brings freedom and acceptance to us, as the model of the perfect parents loving their children. The challenge for modern Christianity is to leave behind the structured approach to righteousness which places too high value on systems of laws to follow and organized institutions - which we are taught help us to please God. We need to approach our faith with an open mind, seeing ourselves, others, and the world as God sees us. We need to open our eyes to see the kingdom of good that God is building on Earth, and then to participate in this kingdom.

In this post I want to address the #1 concern of modern Christians who may consider a more open-minded approach to their faith. The issue is holiness. Does postmodernization of our faith abandon truth and our quest for living a pure, good, holy life in service to our God? Does itwater down God's character into something easy and flexible, so that just anything goes? Does it make Christians just the same as everyone else in the world, not set apart as God's children? This question is about the fundamental definitions of right and wrong. Since postmodern philosophy is famous for making truth relative or asserting that it is unknowable, this is a valid concern. Let me briefly try to address this question here. 

What is Good?

Those of us that love God and the Bible are called to a high ethical standard of behavior and treating others, which we call Good. Even our thoughts, beliefs and feelings are subject to scrutiny, because we recognize that what is in our heart will manifest itself in our outward words and behavior. Holiness is a word that describes our goal of having a pure heart that is fully committed to God so that we belong to God. Since God is described as Holy and representing all things Good and Pure, then Holiness also means that we emulate God's character. Without splitting hairs on definitions, we can see that broadly speaking all of these words are the same thing: holy, pure, good, and right. So, holiness is about the very notion of right and wrong, and our notions of right and wrong exactly correspond to our concept of God. We should emulate God's character order to live a pure life and have a pure heart.

But what is the character of God? What is right and wrong? This is the problem. Knowing "Good" depends on understanding the character of God, which means that understanding what is "Good" depends on our THEOLOGY! Unfortunately. Whatever we understand as God's character, defines the character we should live up to. As an extreme example, if we think God is mean and judgmental, then we will feel justified, even called, to live that example in our own lives. If we think God is harsh and authoritative, then we will be dogmatic and picky. If we think that God offers love conditionally, then we will systematically exclude others that fail those conditions. So, theology cannot be ignored. We must explore the character of God so we have a roadmap to follow. This is why postmodern theology is so important.

Just Follow

On the other hand since knowledge of God in heaven is necessarily abstract, and theology is difficult to agree on, we need another way! We can look to Jesus. Jesus was the only real way to understand God in concrete terms. If we can just follow Jesus, then we can be smarter about our theology, finding a more clear source and pattern of truth. As Jesus taught us, we can abandon religious baggage and requirements and just focus on character -- increasing the goodness and kindness in our lives, and undoing the corruption that comes from seeking personal gain. 

This is where there is common ground. Postmodern Christianity calls us to "just follow Jesus". Modern Christianity says the same thing!

Progressive postmodern faith in Christ is actually a call to a more authentic life of kindness and compassion, following the character and example of Christ, and leaving behind the baggage of extra requirements that have accumulated in time, culminating in the modern Church and modern understanding of the Bible. It calls us to acknowledge many of our collective actions which led to violence, discrimination, and elitism. We repent for giving power to the few and oppressing the weak. We often use the voice of Christ when we talk about peace, acceptance and kindness. Truth is relative only in the sense that applying the words and example of Christ in our daily lives is a challenging task and requires thinking and adjusting, knowing that our hearts are naturally inclined toward selfishness and may not readily see the way toward unselfishness and love. Like in the example of the good Samaritan, we often find ourselves inadvertently to be more like the morally deficient (but religiously correct) characters in the story, rather than the compassionate Samaritan. We want to be the Samaritan. The one who understands that "everyone is my neighbor". 

When it comes to following Christ, we are all on common ground. Following Christ is the point of the Bible and of Christianity. It defines right and wrong for us. It defines goodness in opposition to sin. It defines holiness.

In summary,
  • Following Jesus defines universal good. Behavior counter to this universal good is defined as "sin". 
  • Living a lifestyle dedicated to this universal good, so that we are set apart as Christ followers and children of God, is defined as "holiness" and should lead us, with God's help, to have a pure heart instead of a corrupt one. 
  • Goodness is selfless and kind, whereas sin is epitomized by seeking selfish gain and hurting others. 
  • Goodness also stands up for what is right: defending others against injustice, taking action, showing concern, embracing the wounded and healing the hurting. 

The community of faith is also about following Christ. When we come together as a community, one of our main goals is to encourage, teach, support and equip each other as we all follow Christ, so that our shared life experience will make it easier to do what's right when much of the world around us points us toward selfish gain.

Remembering the Ascension
Easter without Ascension is like Advent without Christmas. The comparison is inexact; unlike Advent, Easter is not a time of preparation. However, just as Christmas is the culminating event Christians prepare for during Advent, the Ascension is the culminating event of Jesus’s bodily Resurrection. The Ascension is Christ’s “enthronement.” What began as the cruelest mockery, Christ’s crucifixion as King of the Jews, ends with the most surprising vindication. He was indeed King and did receive a throne. Failing to remember and celebrate the Ascension means our Easter season is incomplete. This liturgical omission is akin to the white witch’s curse in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe – always winter but never Christmas.
Why do Protestants neglect the Ascension? The Ascension is still present in doctrine and confession. It’s in the Creed: “He ascended into heaven and sitteth on the right hand of God the Father Almighty. . . .” Protestant confessions include it, and the liturgical celebration of Ascension occurred early in the church’s history. Yet despite its liturgical and doctrinal centrality, most Protestant worship neglects it. Imagine the reaction if churches failed to celebrate Christmas, yet few believers will sense something is missing if the day of Ascension passes without mention.
Ultimately, this neglect is a mystery. Why did it disappear from our worship? Perhaps it had to do with an iconoclastic Protestantism that banned feast days along with pilgrimages, relics and other holy practices some Reformers deemed superstitious? Perhaps it has to do with modern historical critical interpretations of the Ascension in Luke and Acts that view it as a capitulation to the delay of theparousia? The early church was surprised by Christ’s failure to return, so they had him depart and the church replaced his promised Kingdom. To paraphrase Loisy’s famous words, interpreting Harnack, “Jesus proclaimed the Kingdom and what we got was the church instead.” Or perhaps it has to do with the modern loss of sacred space and time, and Protestantism’s accommodation to that loss? No day seems any more or less holy than another; all are reduced to the same status. Brad Gregory argues that the Protestant Reformation had the “unintended consequence” of producing a secularized space and time. But the Reformers neither intended nor faced a secular age that disenchanted space and time turning them into occasions for economic exchange in which time is money 24/7. Whatever the reason for the loss of the feast of the Ascension in Protestantism, taking time on the Thursday, forty days after Easter, to gather as a church and engage in a gratuitous celebration of Christ’s glorious Ascension could begin to structure time and space different from its secular commodification. Retrieving the feast day of the Ascension demonstrates this loss was not intrinsic to the Reformation. It truly was unintended and does not have to be.
What exactly does Christ do in the Ascension? Even more so than Luke-Acts,Hebrews offers the fullest theological interpretation of the Ascension. In the Ascension Christ enters into the heavenly holy of holies as priest-king offering his “blood.” What he presents is his life and obedience, symbolized by his blood. It is important to emphasize that what the Son presents to the Father in his Ascension is not his death. Jesus does not assuage the Father’s wrath, satisfying a divine blood lust through his own death. No reputable theologian, certainly not Anselm, taught that.  He makes this offering “through the eternal Spirit” as an “offering without blemish” (Heb. 8:14). All of this is, of course, highly symbolic and metaphoric language. A glorified, risen body that no longer knows limitations of space and time offers “blood” in a “heavenly sanctuary” and “sits” on the “right hand” of God, who of course has no hands. The images are odd, reflecting the biblical authors use of Psalm 110 to make sense of the paradoxical image of a crucified, enthroned King. Regardless, they convey the truth of Christ’s victory through earthly images that still require faith; they are not yet images that let us see face to face.
These two paradoxical images, the mocked, crucified Lord and the risen, ascended One, often provided the images within churches. Churches were once constructed with these two images, either in woodcuts or stained glass windows, flanking the opposite ends of the church. Upon entering the church, your eyes were directed toward the crucified, but in leaving the church you go out into the world led by an image of the risen, ascended Christ. Both images are necessary. The crucified without the risen, ascended Christ leads ineluctably to a disenchanted, even atheistic, culture. The ascended Christ without the crucified leads to triumphalism and a perverse celebration of ecclesial power. But when they are held together, the two images reflect the mysterious nature of the God who creates and redeems through an unexpected economy of divine giving. In refusing to cling to power, Christ is invested with it. This is a power that eternally bears the wounds of human existence not leaving them as wounds but healing them through the Spirit.
When we stop building churches that attest to its importance, when we forget the Ascension, Jesus’ body too easily disappears into the community that bears his name. Absorbing Christ into his church, or some other community, without remainder is always a temptation because it can make sense of Christianity without the messiness of the imagistic, metaphors of the Ascension. We can absorb Christ into the church by fetishizing the forms of his body that remain – Holy Scripture, the Eucharist, or the church itself. Christian tradition rightly refers to each of these as, in some sense, Christ’s body or word. When they lose connection to his Ascended body, they easily become our possessions rather than vice versa. The Ascension reminds us that Christ, as King, is the head of the body—we are not. If we lose the Ascension, Christ can also be absorbed without remainder into a secular community, which is then viewed as the logical consequence of God’s death on the cross. Just as Christianity disenchanted the Greek and Roman temples of the ancient world; so it finally turns on itself and disenchants the Christian and Jewish world. The crucifixion gets affirmed and so does a kind of “Spirit” resurrection, but the “Spirit” is now not only present in the community that creates a new ethical reality, the Spirit is nothing more than that community (possibly the democratic nation state or a future revolutionary society) that completes the liberation begun in the death of God. This secularizing of Christianity, oddly enough, has the same result as when the church absorbs Christ’s body. Christ’s body becomes fetishized as a present or future communal reality. A proper celebration and recognition of the Ascension resists both possibilities. Christ’s body cannot be absorbed into any community, not even the church, for he is seated at the right hand of the Father.
The Ascension also provides the church with its proper role – witness and expectation. The church is the body of Christ as it witnesses to Christ’s body and expects to be conformed to it through the Spirit. Christ’s absence in the Ascension makes possible the sending of the Spirit as the Johannine farewell discourses (John 14-17) along with Acts 1 attest. The sending of the Spirit constitutes the church and empowers it for mission through its witness and expectation of the restoration of all things in Christ. In this mission to bear witness to the restoration of all things the Church is often called “Easter people.” Unless we remember theparticular form of both Christ’s absence and presence in the Ascension, we will have no idea what this call looks like.
The mission of the church should never be self-absorbed. As inheritors of Abraham and Sarah’s mission to not be like the nations for the sake of the nations (Genesis12: 1-3), the church witnesses to the expectation that the one who sits on the throne will make all things new. The glory of all the nations will be affirmed, and truth and goodness will be the bonds that unite us. (Revelation 21:5, 22-27).

Believers who fasted during Lent and prepared for the empty tomb during Easter vigil, and those who rose early on Easter morning to celebrate Christ’s resurrection should long for the culminating event of the Ascension. Yet it does not seem to be so. We cannot let Easter slowly dissipate into Pentecost without taking a day, the proper day, for the celebration of Christ’s Ascension. The feast day of the Ascension recognizes that God’s rule is found in Christ’s powerlessness, a rule that makes him King and Priest. He enters into the heavenly sanctuary to offer his life and obedience to heal the wounds of a broken creation. It is a rule that resists all attempts to fetishize his body, for it does not depend upon our preserving it. His body, thankfully, is not located in a monument that can be indicated, visited and tended like other bodies that remain in the grave. He is not here. Where then is he? Is he only in our imagination, in our ethical or political achievements? No. He is seated at the right hand of God the Father Almighty. Whatever that means it at least means this. We do not control him. We witness and wait. The feast day of the Ascension is where we learn to do that best. Why would we want to neglect it?

Denying Christ’s Body: The Dangers of Ecclesial Gnosticism

The oldest heresies in Christianity have been those that have denied the body—Christ’s body, our bodies.  Gnosticism is a name that applies to a good many of them, Docetism another.  The idea is that God is too great to have taken on a human body and that the material realities of our body are too lowly to be welcomed into the eternal kingdom of God.  The Docetists said that Christ appeared to be human but that he didn’t have real flesh and bones—he was human image without human substance.  The Gnostics believed that the body was the source of evil, a trap that we would move beyond in order to move into the highest emanations of a pure and disembodied Wisdom.
These heresies were and are popular and attractive because resonate—we often experience our bodies as a trap.  Who hasn’t wished that they could be free of their body at some point?  We have all had illnesses that have left us wanting to be free of our flesh.  We all have imperfections and limitations in our bodies that feel like they are holding back the spiritual sides of ourselves.  “The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak” is among our favorite verses.
These body problems, this hatred of the physical realities through which we are manifest in the world, are true not only of our bodies as individuals, but also of our part in Christ’s body—the church.  Many of us would be loath to use Docetic language when talking about the body of Christ manifest in Jesus of Nazareth, but we are effectively Docetists in the way we view the church as the body of Christ here and now.  We may say that we embrace the doctrine of the Incarnation, but we deny the Incarnation as now present—in the community of the faithful.  Many of us are, whether we know it or not, ecclesial Gnostics—we want to live away from the body of Christ, physically present in the community of faith.  Instead of the body we seek to discover some more pure form of Christianity, a form that meets all of our ideals and hopes and dreams—a form of faith that could never be contained in the troubled world of church bodies which inevitably mean committees, budgets, institutions, sin, disease, people we just don’t like or who are just so wrong.
Gnosticism is a problem when applied to our personal bodies—it denies the goodness of the physical world, the creation, our creatureliness.  More deeply it creates a kind of spirituality that is the perfect compliment to a consumerist culture that is focused on removing every boundary of the physical in order to gain an ever more efficient stream of little pleasures that never give us any lasting satisfactions.  And in the same way Gnosticism is a problem when applied to the body of Christ in the church—it is a denial of the way Christ is incarnate in the world now.  This denial leaves us open to a Choose Your Own Adventure kind of religion that never draws us up short with our limits, our dependencies, our need for others.
We would all like to have bodies without disease, bodies without limits, bodies that never give us any aches or pains or troubles.  We would all like to be in churches that never have problems, that always do what is right, that never force us into difficult discernments and always preach and teach us exactly what we think and believe.  But we cannot live in such realities if we want to live into the reality of the Incarnation, which says again that the body, personally and ecclesially, is good though fallen.  Christ came in the body to remind us of the goodness of our bodies, Christ left us the remembrance of his presence in the bread and wine of Eucharist to remind us of the goodness of creation, Christ became present again in the world through the church to teach us that we cannot be disciples without the community of the church.
Yes, sometimes our bodies give us trouble.  Sometimes we even have to under go serious treatments—surgery and chemo for cancers that have spread and hearts that have failed.  Sometimes bodies die.  But such realities cannot lead us to deny the body and its goodness, that our body really is a gift.  As troubled as our church bodies might be we cannot ignore that Jesus came to form a community and that we can only be Christ’s presence in the world through a community.  We exist through our bodies and in our bodies, through our communities and in our communities—it is time to start celebrating this in all its troubled glory rather than trying to escape for some pure spiritual state.

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