"Before you can search for truth, you must be interested in finding it." -Miroslav Volf

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

A Response to a Response to "Embodiment"

Note: I would have just posted this in the comment section of the above post, but my response wouldn't fit, as anyone who reads on shall soon see. J Here's a link to the original post, with comments: "Embodiment."

Here's my response to an anonymous commenter, whose invitation to dialogue I accepted with some reservation (his/her comments in bold):

To "Scared of Ducks"...I guess, anonymous ye shall remain. J As you probably know, if you’ve been reading my blog for some time, you and I fundamentally disagree about a number of matters. Your opinion is not unique; if I understand your meaning right, your perspective generally aligns with much of conservative evangelicalism, one way of “being Christian.” Though many such Christians might disagree with your conclusions and methods, you for the most part don’t stand alone. J

Because I don’t know you, I don’t know if you are open and searching, or generally settled on what you believe. But if I may push back on a few things you said...

Your open-mindedness is to be commended, for it most certainly comes from a heart that seeks to accept people. And while I agree with your eventual motive, I can’t seem to rectify the fact that God is present in many different faiths. Jesus said in John 14:6, “I am The Way, The Truth, and The Life. No one comes to the Father except through Me.” For me, it seems to stress that Jesus, God, or Christianity is the only way that one can get into Heaven.

When you suggest that God is not present in non-Christian faiths, I hope you recognize that you are going against a long tradition of Christians who acknowledge God’s activity in other religions, such as missionaries who “found God” when they assumed they were bringing God to the “receiving culture.”

Your exclusivism, not surprisingly, makes me uncomfortable. It’s one thing to say people are wrong about God; I’ve been wrong about God. I used to think God made women for my benefit; now I’m absolutely sure that’s not God’s intention. It’s one thing to be particular about Christ as the one who saves; it’s another to discredit the religious experience of millions and say they are not in fact worshipping or being changed by the One, the Creator God, but by figments of their imagination. It just seems irresponsible to say that.

Regarding John 14:6. Forgive me for putting words in your mouth, but, to me, your interpretation suggests you understand the human predicament as being this: all humans are destined toward eternal hell because we are deserving of it for how horrible we are; by consciously articulating the reality that Jesus satisfied God’s need to punish someone for our wrongdoing, we avoid this awful fate. Should one fail to “get it” and say "yes, that's how it is" in this lifetime, one is eternally “screwed.” Because this is your perspective it forms a starting point for how you interpret passages, and thus you assume that John’s version of Jesus’ lengthy sermon suggests that one needs to be aware of Jesus’ significance (aka, confess him as Lord, accept him into your heart) to “go to heaven when you die.”

Ok, but do you know that there are other ways to understand this passage? Here’s a sampling:

1) Jesus is a responding to a specific question, as Thomas densely (in my opinion) asks Jesus about the way to what appears to be God’s future Kingdom, the new creation (not necessarily “heaven” as a place where souls go the minute one dies), to which Jesus essentially responds: “Thomas! It’s me! Look at me! I’m the way!” Jesus is not necessarily making universal pronouncements so that people in the year 2011 will have “a Bible” of theological lessons. He was answering a question, one which he might have answered differently in a different context.

2) In light of Jesus’ preaching on judgment and end times, and the possibility that everyone will one day recognize Jesus as Lord (Phil 2:10-12), I suspect that if one is to really “get” who God is, one will have to admit, even if they were wrong in this life, that Jesus is Lord. Jesus is thus the way to the Father. Some theologians give space for the possibility that this recognition could take place postmortem.

3) Christ, John’s preexistent “logos,” is present in all people, and his way is especially noticeable where the kind of character and actions evident in Jesus are demonstrated. So people who don’t know who Jesus is or have rejected the “Jesus” of preachers and missionaries are actually connected to this Christ. This one especially doesn’t jive with your theology as I understand it, as Jesus acts as more of a ticket to be punched than a means of more fully being united with God right now in this life, not just in the next…am I right?

This brings me to my next topic. God is love, yes, it is also said in the Bible that if one does not know love, they do not know God, because He is love. But I also find that He is so much more than that. He is just, He is grace, and He is holy. Love and justice are not mutually exclusive- as we have experienced from our parents.

God is more than love: I agree. God is both just and loving; I'm fine with that. I’m not sure what you’ve heard me saying here and in other posts about what justice is—you seem to understand God’s justice as punishment for ignorance about God; you might call it punishment for sin or rebellion or whatever, but I don’t think that’s really what you mean.

You would probably say that I’m “going to heaven” because I know Jesus, no matter how wretched of a person I am, whereas Ghandi (or pick your non-Christian saint) is not going to heaven because he wasn’t a Christian. So Ghandi will be punished for not realizing he should have spent more time reading a Bible than fighting injustice. Maybe you wouldn’t say this, but your words, as best as I understand them, point that direction.

Also, what kind of justice did you experience from your parents? My parents were just and used punishment as a means to help me grow, fix me, help me mature; it served a greater, constructive end, not to give me unrelenting consequences for being bad. That kind of restorative justice doesn’t sound like your version of justice.

And in His inherent justness, I can’t believe that He would put everyone in heaven.

So, first I think you should consider other ways of thinking about life in God’s Kingdom and the new creation (or heaven) than a place you "get put.” I might be nitpicking your language choice, but language reveals a lot about our assumptions. First, a thought experiment: what if God did “put” all in heaven? If you get to heaven and realize everyone is in heaven, would that annoy you? Would you think, “wow, I’m not so sure about this God…this doesn’t seem fair!” And why would that feel unfair or unjust, if it did? An innate sense of how justice works? Maybe a sense of entitlement?

If He was to send everyone to heaven, whether they had accepted His Sacrifice or not, that would be unjust and contradictory to the entire reason why Jesus was on the cross. Jesus died to set us free from sin, so that God, in His holiness, could stand to be with us. Because He is so holy, His very nature repulses Him from anything evil. With the Lamb’s death, all wrong-doing ever done and that would ever be done was wiped out—no other method would have accomplished this.

All wrong-doing was wiped out?” Okay, fine, but what does that even mean to you in light of your whole argument? I think what you actually mean is not “with the Lamb’s death” but with your personal acknowledgement of that death, exclusively your sin is overlooked as an obstacle to heaven. Right? You're using a lot of Christian language that I too heard growing up, but in what seems a slightly inconsistent manner. There’s room for paradox and contradiction in the life of faith—there’s plenty of that in Scripture—but I wonder if you've considered all the implications of what you're saying here.

“…contradictory to the entire reason Jesus was on the cross?” Really? Is this the only conclusion to be reached? Maybe coercion is not consistent with God, forcing people to do what they don’t want (though maybe coercion is an act of mercy?); but a Muslim woman who has been faithful with what has been revealed to her, who at the day of judgment sees God and—like the experience many Christians may have, perhaps—has her illusions and misunderstandings about God removed, as the scales fall from her eyes and she experiences the love and greatness of the God she’d experienced all her life, but in a richer and more profound way because now she sees “in full” and no longer “in part” which includes seeing Jesus…would this scenario contradict the reason Jesus was on the cross?

I think Jesus was on the cross partly because powerful people hated him and wanted him dead, but also as a means of reconciling the world to God, as a demonstration of the relentless love of God for people who may want nothing to do with God, as a sign that the way of peace trumps the way of violence, and as a mysterious cosmic defeat of death as the final victor. I also think the cross is incomplete without a focus on the birth, life, and resurrection.

Also, I think I understand the traditional line of argument about God’s holiness and its incompatibility with evil…but…it this really a helpful way to think about God? To me, God, in Jesus and his engagement with “sinners,” was saying that he can stand to be with the worst of people, that he is not repulsed by things that are evil. I don’t think God is repulsed by me, though I’m pretty evil at times; nor do I think Jesus was repulsed by the prostitutes he spent time with. Maybe I’m coming at this from a more pragmatic than philosophical angle like you, but I hope you aren't telling people who aren’t Christian that God is repulsed by them and can’t stand to be with them until they change their minds about God.

It would also be unjust in that those who hadn’t accepted His gift might not have wanted to be with Him, and it would be torture to be in His presence for eternity. Additionally, it would also be unjust if He sent everyone to hell, especially after Jesus died for everyone. So there has to be some sort of middle ground- and that would be acceptance of His Sacrifice.

I don’t really follow you here, I’ll admit…maybe I’m tired and need more coffee. J I get “The Great Divorce” idea of heaven being unpleasant for some…but I don’t really know why your logical conclusion is that a “middle ground” of “acceptance” must be reached.

I do agree that the Church should be the embodiment of love—like Christian couples, or any other Christian. So that when others look at us, they think, “Wow, they seem to me what Jesus might have been like.” But I think that there is a way to be loving, without making excuses and embodying the culture as well.

I’m not sure what you’re getting at. Does “making excuses” and “embodying the culture” mean being less exclusive about where God can be found, or about how exclusive salvation is? I’ve reread your sentence a few times and can’t figure it out…sorry…unless you’re just expressing angst over Christians who are afraid to stand up and say that God hates sin. In which, case, yes, I agree! But let’s call out sins like greed and exclusion and hatred and fear of “the other” as well as the sin of “ignorance about Jesus' significance.”

Also, I believe that our purpose is more than to just embody Christ—as He says in 1 Corinthians 4:16—it’s also to glorify Him through anything and everything we do.

I agree…and our purpose is more than Corinthians 4:16 too…we’ve got lots of ways (and verses) to express our purpose, which is great as articulating our purpose in different ways helps different people think creatively and practically about how to love God or be faithful to God or however you want to put it. I assume 1 Corinthians 4:16 is a helpful verse for you…and good! It’s a great verse and applicable to many aspects of life.

Just my thoughts. :)

Feel free to respond or not respond. I have a feeling some of what I’ve said may sound odd, because I think we’re just coming at things from two very different angles. And sometimes I'm not as clear as I could be. :)

Also, here is some Scripture that might be helpful in thinking further about some of the concerns you’ve raised. Of course, don’t consider them as “nuggets” to be understood on their own…read them in the whole scope of the Scriptural witness: Matthew 25:31-46; John 1:9, 12:31-32; Acts 10:1-25; Phil 2:10-12; 2 Cor 5:19; 2 Peter 3:7-9

And pay attention to experience. I read Scripture, which helps me understand my world, my experience. I also “read” experience, which helps me understand Scripture. It’s a dialectical relationship, a two-way street, two books that inform one another. Biology, psychology, sociology, literary criticism, and conversations with real people—these are not things to be feared but embraced as ways God reveals Truth. They can be used when reading Scripture and don't need to be seen as enemies.

Hope this helps…I write not “to win” but to encourage creative thinking about theology and the search for Truth. Sometimes such a search can be painful; my choice of quote under the heading of my blog (Volf) is intentional.

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