Friday, July 23, 2010
Wednesday, July 14, 2010
I recently began reading Stephen Prothero's newest book, God Is Not One, after hearing about its release and a corresponding blog discussion set to begin over at Jesus Creed. I was intrigued at the author's motive for writing such a book. Closing the introduction to the book, Prothero says the following:
One of the most common misconceptions about the world's religions is that they plumb the same depths, ask the same questions. They do not. Only religions that see God as all good ask how a good God can allow millions to die in tsunamis. Only religions that believe in souls ask whether your soul exists before you are born and what happens to it after you die. And only religions that think we have one soul ask after "the soul" in the singular. Every religion, however, asks after the human condition. Here we are in these human bodies. What now? What next? What are we to become? (Prothero, God Is Not One, 24).
The American-pluralistic ideology functions under the belief that, if we can find that which is common-among people of competing beliefs, then we will eventually live in peace with one another: Muslims with Christians; Jews with Hindus; Buddhists with Confucians. This pluralism requires a politically-liberal stance, where any of the "private" attributes of being a person or community - beliefs, cultural practices, stories, accidents of history - are kept at arms length away from public policy formation. This is known as the "veil of ignorance," where it is acceptable to holds these beliefs and practices, but only as long as they are kept within the "private life." According to this political liberal agenda which creates much of the pluralism of American culture, it is only then that we will be able to esteem such values as peace, justice, freedom, and equality.
The issue that I see with this, and the point that Prothero is making, is that if we eliminate these beliefs and cultural practices, we are eliminating the very essence of who a person is: all in favor of a cookie-cutter uniformity. And in fact, the elimination of these differences is impossible, because we are not even asking the same questions. Prothero states the all religions sense that something is wrong with the way things are and that something needs to be done to make things right. However, these eight major (competing) religions do not agree on either the problem or the solution.
The masking of differences between persons makes words like tolerance and respect "empty virtues." Real tolerance and respect is not ignorance of our differences, but is an acknowledgement that the most important things in our lives - our beliefs, our customs, our rituals - may be different and even competing. Tolerance and respect are developed virtues in lasting relationships formed out of a stance of humility.
I am very excited to continue learning about other religions. However, I have felt uncomfortable reading about these religious beliefs and practices from such an objective/scholarly perspective of Stephen Prothero. Really putting his thoughts into practice requires, as I said, the "work" of humbly building relationships with people over time.
Monday, July 12, 2010
I am afraid that I did not communicate as clearly as I had hoped to in my previous posting. My goal was to show that Jesus was revealing something about the character of God in Matthew 5:38-42. In this passage, when Jesus instructs his followers to "turn the other cheek" and "give also your cloak" and "go an extra mile," he was not instructing his followers to adhere to a more "morally acceptable" way of defeating such "human enemies," but instead was showing that "this is life in the kingdom of God." In this kingdom life, the question is not "Am I more morally justified if I achieve victory through non-violence or violence?' but "How will we live knowing that victory is already won?" and that it is not a victory over other persons, but over the powers of darkness, sin, and ultimately - death.
We are immersing ourselves in the book of James throughout the summer at Life on the Vine and in Westmont, and the text for the morning was James 3:1-12. The emphasis was primarily on James 3:6, where we are duly warned of the power of language and words to either be used under the "reign of God" or the "rule of evil"; language is rarely, if ever, neutral. Instead, language has the power to create, or to destroy; to encourage, or to condemn; to bring peace, or to bring war. Preaching at LOV is never an isolated event, but rather is part of a liturgy that collectively calls and shapes us into transformation for the mission of God in the world. Therefore, after concluding the message, the preacher always leads the congregation in corporate prayer as a time to confess sin and engage the spoken word as co-participants and members of the body. All that to say, that there was no shortage of prayers from people who realized the truth of James' warning about the tongue.
Words were spoken this morning that struck me personally, and left me feeling a need to amend that previous blog post with this one. Each week we gather corporately for participation at the Eucharistic table. The words that struck me came just before receiving the bread and the cup:
"Jesus, on the night when he was betrayed took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, "This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me." In the same way he took the cup also, after supper, saying, "This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me." - 1 Corinthians 11:23b-26
"On the night when he was betrayed..."
- he took revenge
- he retaliated
- he slandered
- he violently humiliated his opponent
- he non-violently humiliated his opponent
"On the night when he was betrayed..."
- he took a loaf of bread, gave thanks, broke it, and gave it
These were not mere lessons in morality. Jesus was not urging his followers to "do" something that He was unwilling to do. In fact, it was never about "doing" anything, but about being: becoming "like Christ."
I had not intended to open up a violence vs. non-violence or pacifism debate, nor did I pretend to be speaking any practical words to international conflict scenarios. My intention of that post - and this - was to show that Jesus called followers to become like himself, not because it worked in rearranging WHO was in power, because this is life characterized in the kingdom of God: a kingdom where the following are the two greatest commandments:
When the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” He said to him, “ ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” (Matthew 22:34-40, NRSV)
Wednesday, July 7, 2010
I vividly remember being surprised and frustrated by Jesus' words in Matthew 5:38-42. My earliest memory of interacting with this passage (although I'm sure I had heard it previously) was in middle school. Already by this time, I had studied martial arts enough to know that, when someone throws a punch at you, you have only a few options:
- Side step the punch, in order to counter punch
- Block the punch, in order to counter punch
- Absorb the punch by tensing your muscles, in order to counter punch
But in this passage, Jesus is instructing his followers to react differently to violence:
"You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you." (NRSV)
These words of Jesus were frustrating, because I had been raised in a system of belief that taught that our most distinctive characteristics of being human were our individual rights. When these rights were violated, justice was to be sought. I was a firm believer in lex talionis: an eye for an eye.
These frustrations lasted until my sophomore year of high school, when I spent a week at one of my favorite places of childhood: Green Lake Bible Camp. I remember that this passage came up in discussion one day while in the middle of a bible study. The chaplain at the camp for the summer shed a new revelation that made me appreciate the wisdom of Jesus' teaching about lex talionis.
She stated that Jesus' was not advocating a "get steam rolled by the enemy" mentality - ignoring the justice due to the offender - but was instead teaching a non-violent means of humiliating the perpetrator. With her interpretation (which many people hold today), when Jesus says, "if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also," he was not laying down his pride, but was instead humiliating and shaming the offender. The logic went something like this: if you turned your cheek after being slapped, you were forcing the perpetrator to strike you in a way that showed that they were "out of control." The same logic of "shaming" the offender in a non-violent form has been used for the "giving of the cloak" and also the "going an extra mile" examples. (see David Ewarts one page summary on this understanding here).
The point she was making was that Jesus was a wise teacher who knew how to defeat and humiliate his opponents without using violence or violent resistance.
I remember liking this idea. I could still be the victor, AND I would be in line with the greatest moral teacher of all time!
As the years have passed since receiving this lesson in moral combat, I have come to question its validity. Jesus' is not teaching a moral lesson about how to humiliate someone else, but is instead describing God's character. God does not teach us to love our enemies so that they will be shamed by our generosity, but teaches us to love our enemies because he loves them. Jesus was not teaching a "less violent" way to invert power roles, but was instead showing that the kingdom of God is without such roles.
Jesus did not die in order to drive the final moral dagger into the hearts of the Pharisees and unbelievers: he died on the cross because it was the cosmic act of God's giving-ness to reconcile and restore creation.
Let us not play the games of the world, seeking power over one another via violent or non-violent means. Jesus did not come to give lessons of morality, teaching us more holy ways of ruling over one another. Jesus became human, died, and was raised for the reconciliation of all things. Thanks be to God.
Tuesday, July 6, 2010
Lydia Ruth is two weeks old today. If you read my earlier post, you already know about the roller coaster ride she was on, screaming her beautifully healthy lungs as she entered into this world. Her mother and I have also been riding a roller coaster over the last two weeks, as we have sought to move into a new home and new community, all of which began on the day of her discharge from the hospital.
Becoming a father has been an incredible gift. Every pastor and wise person that I have known has preached a message that went something like: "becoming a parent will open your eyes to previously locked and inaccessible wisdom" (or something like that). Jamie shared at our first church service in Westmont that she is learning how to trust God each night as she lays Lydia down into the cradle and attempts to get some sleep herself. When talking about Lydia, Jamie made the comment that, "I can't believe you can love someone so much in such a short amount of time." When I asked what she meant by 'love' in this statement, she replied, "Wanting to care for, provide for, and protect." We are learning (or should I say, "experiencing") a type of love that is so much different than the "loves" we have previously experienced.
That is why, when we gathered for worship on Sunday, the icon hit so hard. The icon was Vecellio Tiziano's "Sacrifice of Isaac" (1542-44), visually depicting the shocking story of Genesis 22.
It's a story that I have heard preached on countless of times (not to mention the number of times I have studied this passage devotionally and academically).
Never has the story troubled me to the degree it has since becoming a father. Seeing Tiziano's Isaac character innocently bent over, kneeling atop a stack of wood, waiting to be lit as a sacrifice while his father raises a sword above his head - there are few stories that can knock the wind out of a person like this one. The boy-Isaac's question is heartbreaking: "The fire and the wood are here, but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?" (Gen. 22:7) Abraham's answer: "God himself will provide the lamb for a burnt offering, my son" (Gen. 22:8). But it isn't because of Abraham's faith or trust in God that the angel calls out to stop the sacrifice, but because Abraham feared God (Gen. 22:12). Because Abraham feared the Lord - a fear that was more powerful than the immense love for his own son - God makes a promise:
"I will indeed bless you, and I will make your offspring as numerous as the stars of heaven and as the sand that is on the seashore. And your offspring shall possess the gate of their enemies, and by your offspring shall all the nations of the earth gain blessing for themselves, because you have obeyed my voice" (Gen. 22:17-18)
I am still not comfortable with this story (and in fact it has hard for me to even think about this picture as a father), but I don't think it's one of those stories that we should strive to "understand," or "imitate," or even remotely feel "good about," other than that, because of Abraham's fear and obedience, God promises to bless the nations. This story is the story of our ancestors; the beginning moments of God's covenant made complete in Jesus Christ.
We welcome Lydia Ruth Engelhardt into our family and home as a fully loved child of God. Many faithful saints have practiced seeing Christ in the most rejected and unthinkable persons; we are learning to see Christ in a two week old beautiful baby girl. And it is because of God's faithfulness to the covenant made with Abraham and fulfilled in Jesus Christ that Lydia Ruth does not have to achieve the love of her father or Father, but is already called a "child of God."
Jamie and I will continue to pray for Lydia, not because she is ours, but because she is created and loved by God. Specific things to pray for:
- That she would gain weight (she was born at 5 lbs 2 ounces, which is fine for a 4.5 week preemie, but we would like to see her gain weight at a steady rhythm)
- That her lungs and heart would continue to develop (she shows no signs of danger in these areas, but again, because she is a preemie, we are always concerned)
- That Jamie and I will grow in patience and love as parents