A Provocation on the Humanist God

At this stage in history I feel the need to qualify the statement “I believe in God” with what KIND of God I believe in. It is no longer enough to consider God as merely the singular Divine Source and Destiny of all worlds, the Ultimate Reality in which all beings inhere, and Ultimate Value toward which all beings are drawn. Because that template of God is used to support radically different visions of God’s character. For many God is at worst hateful and meddling (as in the God of so many Brands of angry Fundamentalism), and at best apathetic and neglectful (as in so many rehashed versions of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism). Rather, I see God in and through Jesus Christ, and ONLY in and through Jesus Christ. And the God I see in Jesus is a thoroughly HUMANISTIC God, because God became thoroughly HUMAN in Jesus. Jesus reveals God’s chief concern is humans, or more precisely, persons made in God’s image (since these are the only fully sentient, metacognitive, communicative persons we find on this particular planet). God wants persons, each and every one of them, to not only survive, but thrive, and have the opportunity to grow into the fullness of the Divine Potential embodied in them. Full human flourishing for every human life: This is what God wants for us, and what God has shown us, in Jesus Christ. Full freedom. Full capacity. Full healing. Full knowledge. Full bellies. Full minds. Full hearts. Abundant life for all humanity. This is the goal of the Humanist God, because Jesus is God incarnate in a Human life. We may need to widen this thesis to include other persons, once we discover or create other kinds of persons, who are also made in God’s image (whether Aliens or Artificial Intelligences or Genetically engineered beings). But for the last 10,000 years, it seems we are having a hard enough time grasping how much God loves all of humanity. So for now, let us start with humanity, and focus our attention on Jesus Christ, the Humanist God. 


A Provocation on Polytheism

I used to think polytheism was ludicrous. But if I didn't know better, I would think that old gods with names like Mars and Mammon, Eros and Eris, Thanatos and Dionysios, are actually orchestrating events in our society. What is more, it seems like they are all perfectly willing to dress up as Jesus of Nazareth, so long as we worship and sacrifice to the values they embody.

A Provocation on socio-economics and mental health

In our society we systematically deny the social aspect of psychological health primarily because of our economic system. The engine that runs our society is profit. Profit is driven by consumption. Consumption is driven by demand. And demand is driven by human cravings. So we have to develop a system that maximizes existing cravings (through greed, anger, fear, hedonism, addiction) while also creating new cravings for new products (think smart phones, social media, virtual reality... none of which existed 15 years ago). A society of people that deeply engaged in insatiable craving will necessarily be sick sick sick (ask Jesus and Buddha: They agree on this!). So, if we raise social awareness, we would heal people of social sickness, which would drive down craving, driving down demand, driving down consumption, driving down profit. And so the best way to keep the machine running is to deny the socio-economic aspect of mental health problems altogether, and create a myth that everything is the result of individual sickness and individual responsibility (this also drives up demand for pharmaceuticals to medicate and placate, thus creating profits for those corporations). And that is precisely the society we live in. This myth is the very essence of libertarian political and economic thought. 


A provocation on Spiritual Liberation

“Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is Freedom” (2Corinthians 3.17). This is a manifesto of Liberation. The Spirit liberates us from bondage to death so that we may be free to actualize our full potential in life. Thus the hallmark of the Spirit’s presence is precisely Liberation to Love, that is freedom to give ourselves for the abundant life of all. We are set free from selfishness and self concern and self serving, so we can engage with the life of the Other. Cf. Jacques Ellul, The Subversion of Christianity. Page 13. 

A provocation on Technology

“Any sufficiently advanced technology must be regarded as magic [or miracle]” (Arthur C. Clarke). Technology is miracle explained and magic democratized. Technology— the capacity to act and effect change— is unconditionally good in the same way as Creation is unconditionally good (cf. Genesis 1). But, like Creation— which is the environment upon which and within which we act technologically— Technology can be used for good (the giving of life and fulfilling of potential) or abused for evil (the taking of life and destruction of potential). 

A provocation on Scriptural inspiration

God inspired Scripture not only to show us what to DO, but also to show us what NOT to do. The Bible is not only filled with positive examples to imitate, but also negative examples to avoid. So beware, lest you model your life on a negative example and invite your own destruction. For we can tell the intent of the Spirit’s inspiration of a text by asking what end it resulted in. Did the text result in death and destruction and character that is the inversion of Christ? Then the Spirit inspired it that we may avoid its example. Did the text result in Life and Love and striving for Christlikeness? Then the Spirit inspired it that we may follow its example. 

On Provocations

I have a great many short and incomplete thoughts that I think might be worth discussing. Call them "provocations" to thought and discussion. I hope they give you something to ponder and meditate on. I will be posting them under the title of "A provocation on..." These will be a couple of sentences, and not more than a paragraph. I will keep them all topically under their appropriate topic, as well as under the topic of provocations.


The Trajectory we follow in interpreting Scripture

For the last several years, I have been tweaking a Hebrew and Greek daily Scripture reading system, with a lectionary for reading through the English Bible every year and a half. If you are interested in viewing or using it, a PDF is available HERE

What is of interest here is that, in the introduction to this reader (pages 2-3), I most clearly lay out how I interpret Scripture, and the main concerns I pay attention to when seeking to understand what God has revealed to us through Scripture. I have written elsewhere about how I apply the Biblical laws to our ethical life, and how Scriptural difficulties are worked out when we see Scripture as a process of Developmental Revelation, which is on a trajectory that is fulfilled in the person of Jesus Christ. In this understanding, to use words spoken by Martin Luther King Jr.: The Moral Arc of History (and Scripture) is long, but it trends toward Justice. This view has been shaped by voices as diverse as CS Lewis (in terms of overall narrative development of History), NT Wright (in terms of looking at the Old Testament from the perspective of the New Testament), Rabbi Jonathan Sacks (in his work on confronting violence in the Torah). 


When Goodness is repellant and Evil is seductive

I just saw Venom, and along with it a preview for Captain Marvel. Very enjoyable movie, and interesting preview. But I realized something that has always struck me as hollow about the Marvel Universe, and most other movie universes* from DC to Star Wars to Harry Potter to Indiana Jones. That is this: Evil is not evil until it is truly seductive, and Good is not good unless it is truly repellant. 

Let me explain. 


Things left behind

Some prefer to leave behind
Buildings and statues
That stay static and inert
Until they crumble
To dust

I prefer to leave behind
Ideas and stories
That ever change and evolve
Until they inspire us
To live


Childlike Faith and the Neverending Story

I watched the Neverending Story with my kids this morning. This movie impressed me deeply as a child with a view of imagination, and multiple dimensions of reality, which shaped me at a deep level. In many ways this movie and several other books I read as a young person “baptized my imagination” to experience our co-authorship, with God, of the great unfolding Story of Creation and Redemption centered in Christ. What I did not realize until watching this movie as an adult: 

First, this movie may be the best illustration of Jesus’ saying that the Kingdom of God belongs to those with childlike faith which I have ever seen. 

Second, it is a potent critique of living in a world culture of Consumerism, in which every Corporation and advertisement seeks to co-opt our imagination, and stop us from dreaming, with the lie that their products can satisfy our every desire, and bring us to true happiness. 


On Sickness, Healing, and Unforgiveness

“But whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will never have forgiveness, but is guilty of an everlasting sin.” (Jesus, according to Mark 3:29)

“Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors... If you forgive others their transgressions, your heavenly Father will forgive you. But if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your transgressions.” (Jesus, according to Matthew 6:12–15)

Out of all the things Jesus said and did, at the top of his list were Love, forgiveness, and healing. Jesus taught and acted as if all things could be forgiven and healed, no matter how big or how small. From little children, to squabbling siblings, to women caught in immorality, to a thief dying on a cross, to his best friend denying him in his time of need: Jesus forgave everything, and healed everyone, out of his deep Love. 

All except for one thing.


Bart Ehrman, Theodicy, and Leaving Evangelicalism

Recently I posted a chart about various models of dealing with "Theodicy" (the problem of how evil and God can co-exist in the same reality). Someone asked me if I had read the 2009 book by New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman on Theodicy entitled "God's Problem". Now I have read a couple of Ehrman books on Biblical studies, and heave seen several of his debates, lectures, and interviews (including him talking about his deconversion and the problem of suffering). But I have never read this book, although I have heard him sum it up several times in his videos on YouTube.

Ehrman's book and his talks strike me as having very similar themes to other books I have read, particularly by Evangelicals who have lost their faith. As a former Evangelical, I have experienced much of what Ehrman (and others like him) have experienced, except that it turned me to a broader and deeper faith in Christ rather than abandoning Christ. While I disagree with Ehrman on several core ideas, from the Divinity of Christ to the basic reliability of Scripture, I do find him to be a rational, honest, and well-intentioned thinker who is pursuing the truth as best he can. Erman’s story, as I understand it, points out several gaping holes (or persistent heresies) in American Evangelicalism:


Models of Theodicy Chart

How do we deal with God allowing evil and suffering? This ever-daunting "Problem of Evil" is one of the biggest perennial problems in Theology and the Philosophy of Religion. It is one of the things I have blogged about the most on this website, with articles big and small discussing the problem from all kinds of perspectives. Today in teaching Philosophy, we talked about the subject once again. And as a result I decided to turn my class notes into a chart. You can click the image above, or download the PDF here, to see it.

Heresies Alive!

This weekend I was honored to teach seminarians about the Age of the "Ecumenical Councils" and help them understand the heresies which helped define orthodoxy in the Imperial Church. One of the persistent problems in teaching this material is the interconnected and confusing convergence of different groups in the early Church and the specialized terminology they used to explain themselves and condemn each other. 

So, to help students understand these issues and concepts, I find it helpful to discuss how we find these heresies alive and well in our churches today. We tend to think of heresies as something that happened "back then" which are only of academic interest today. But the fact is, the same heresies pop up over and over and affect people in profound ways. Thus, I created the chart above (and available in PDF HERE) which helps students connect these heresies with the contemporary world. 


Models of Metaphysical Cosmology

In my philosophy class my students are trying to wrap their minds around what is different about how Plato and Aristotle viewed Reality, and how this relates to other thinkers and models of Reality. Basically, Plato is seen as the prototypical rationalist, viewing Reality from the "top down", while Aristotle is seen as a proto-empiricist, viewing Reality from the "bottom up". If this is already confusing, Crash Course has a nice summary HERE.

Anyway, there are many terms that could be used for comparing different views of how to understand the essence of Reality. In one way, we are discussing Metaphysics, because it is a discussion of how the realm of physical reality might relate to "higher" or more fundamental levels of reality (if there are such levels). In another way, we are discussing Ontology, because we are trying to understand what the natures of things are, and what are the essential aspects that make a thing what it is. In a final sense, we are discussing Cosmology, because we are seeking to understand the nature of the Universe (the Cosmos) in relation to various ways of understanding Ultimate Reality. 

So, I have chosen to call it "Models of Metaphysical Cosmology". I know people may disagree, but it's what I will go with right now. My summary chart for teaching can be seen by clicking the JPEG at the top of this post, or by clicking on THIS PDF.

And, if you are up for more charts, you can see my whole collection of charts for teaching Religion, Scripture, Theology, and Philosophy HERE


Truth is always Stranger

Tertullian once said “I believe because it is absurd”. It is the strangeness of an idea— it’s undeniable texture and inconsistent density— which is a hallmark of its truthfulness, and not the smoothness and consistency of an idea. The old quip that “truth is stranger than fiction” has much in common with Tertullian here. Fictions have smoothness and consistency, clear beginnings and symmetrical endings. But reality makes twists and turns which, while they do not contradict reason, neither can they be predicted by reason. Real things are irreducible, and defy being fully encapsulated in a conceptual system, to be rendered completely predictable, and hence controllable. 


Can Cattle Breeding trigger the Apocalypse?

A friend recently sent me an article with the overblown and click-baity title of "Birth of first red heifer in 2000 years fulfills Bible prophecy and signals end of days". He asked me what I thought about this. In reply, I told him I’m probably the most un-fun Bible scholar to play this game with. 

This absurd article is based on an obscure read of Numbers 19 where it says “This is a requirement of the law that the Lord has commanded:  Tell the Israelites to bring you a red heifer without defect or blemish and that has never been under a yoke. …  This will be a lasting ordinance both for the Israelites and for the aliens living among them.” [verses 1–2, 10] 

Some sects of fundamentalist Christians interpret it this way: Jesus cannot return until the Third Temple is built in Jerusalem; The Third Temple cannot function unless there are Red Heifers to sacrifice there; Therefore if and when a Red Heifer is born, it will trigger the building of the Third Temple, which will trigger the return of Jesus. Don't blame me for the logical holes in this: I'm just reporting what a subsection of a subsection of a subsection of Christians believe. 

Here are some of the many reasons why this interpretation is problematic...


Jesus, the Bible, and Private Property

Recently one of our History classes viewed this video in which Billy Graham makes the claim that “Jesus... taught the value of private property” (start at 5:14 for the whole quote). This seems to be an odd claim for the teachings of Jesus, and it generated quite the class discussion, after which the teacher asked me to make sense of Graham’s claim. 

I’ve actually been reading and thinking about this subject for the last 20+ years, but I’ve never penned anything publicly about it. In that time, I have travelled quite a distance politically and economically. I ended the 1990’s and began the 2000’s as a Christian Libertarian, convinced of the goodness and Divine sanction of the Free Market and its Invisible Hand to find the best solution to all social ills. I fundamentally resonated with George W. Bush’s vision of compassionate conservatism and market based public-private partnerships to do good in the world. 

Two decades later, in the midst of an interminable War on Terror which diverts trillions of dollars to the Military Industrial Complex, after a Bank Bailout that diverted trillions of dollars of public money to private coffers, after Occupy and Bernie Sanders and staggering levels of wealth inequality, as we watch public institutions and civic life desiccated and destroyed by ravenous Global Consumerism, after reading and re-reading and re-re-reading Scripture and Christian Tradition on economics and social justice, I have come to reject the naive Christian Libertarianism I embraced as a 20-something. 

As you may guess by now, I am convinced that the Bible as a whole, and Jesus in particular, do not support the post-enlightenment Capitalist concept of "private" property, in which "goods are irrevocably and unaccountably owned and controlled by the libertarian freedom of atomistic individuals, without connection to a higher duty, social purpose, or larger community".

In fact, to understand Jesus’ teaching on property, we have to look at the whole trajectory of the Bible on these issues. And, in short, the Bible nowhere supports our odd and recently formed concept of “private” property. It may be used to support ownership and property in a very publicly accountable sense, with many responsibilities tied to ownership. But it does not support private ownership unaccountable to other social, ethical, or spiritual responsibilities. 


Pontius Pilate and the inversion of Cynicism

One of the many things that interest me about the Passion narrative in the Gospel of John is how he writes Pilate. Pilate is the epitome of worldly wise, battle hardened, cynical wisdom. His one liners of “What is Truth?” (John 18.38) and “What I have written, I have written” (John 19.22) show us the sardonic gallows humor of a man who doesn’t believe anything anymore, except the power of power to crush and silence. And yet...
This is a bunch of stuff to make us think hard about our incredible love affair with the God of the universe, our astounding infidelities against him, and his incredible grace to heal and restore us through Christ. Everything on this site is copyright © 1996-2015 by Nathan L. Bostian so if you use it, cite me... otherwise you break the 8th commandment, and make God unhappy. You can contact the author by posting a comment.