Christ-centered Environmentalism and the Global Warming Boogeyman

This article developed in response to some questions a student posted on facebook about "global warming". It was too long to post there, so now it is here:

I have two sides on the issue of environmentalism. On one side, we have to care about the environment, because God does. He made it. He says its good. He has given us stewardship over it, and we will have to answer for how we have used what he has loaned us. If he cares about "the birds of the air... and the flowers of the field" (cf. Matthew 6), then we have to care about it too. Furthermore, this earth is what his children live on. If pollution is hurting his children, in the form of disease, bad water, acid rain, and other problems, then it is hurting God, and honestly, pissing him off. That is why I care about the environment, why I recycle, why I like bio-fuels and so forth. As follower of Christ we need to do everything we can to stop the destruction of God's world, and to redeem EVERYTHING for Christ's sake: people, places, and pollution included.

On the other side, I think this "global warming" thing may be a bunch of hoooey. When the volcano Krakatoa exploded in 1883 it put more pollutants in the air in a few days than all humans did during the entire 20th century. Krakatoa (ONE volcano!) put enough crap in the air to affect temperatures globally for several years, and this does not count the dozens or hundreds of other volcanoes that erupted. Far more methane, carbon dioxide, and pollution is put into the air by the waste products of the world's cattle, chickens, and farm animals than all of the automobiles and factories of the world combined. And, to top it off, we know that the temperature of the world has fluctuated wildly in ages past with long-term heat waves and ice-ages. And that happened without humans or human industry at all. We have only been paying attention to our temperatures for about two centuries, which is a blip on the radar screen of world history. Long story short, we know less than jack here, and what we do know points to a natural cause and not a man-made one. It is more probable that "global warming" is a conspiracy by politicians to grab more tax-money and power from you than it is a genuine crisis.

And, if global warming IS "man-made" then blaming the American SUV with all of its emissions controls is the wrong "man" to look at. Instead, look at industries in developing nations where they have little or no pollution controls. There are industrial areas in China, India, and Russia (to name a few!) where entire rivers and eco-systems are decimated, whole populations are sick, and tons of pollution goes into the air every day. And, if you think automobile smog is bad in the US, go to a busy developing-world city where they have a jillion motorcycles and no emissions controls. It is very hard to breathe (I know, I have been there). This is not to say that the US can't do better. We can, we should, and we need to. But it is to say that we lead the pack in controlling pollution, and other countries need to catch up.

The reason to care about the environment is because it hurts God's children, God's creatures, and God's property. If we don’t care about it, it’s a bit like a dog that takes a sh*t in its own dog-crate. I think "global warming" is a false issue that distracts us from the real reason to care about the environment, which is to share God's love and care for our Creator's creation. And, like I said above, I think "global warming" may just be a tool used by politicians to gain votes, power, and tax-money from us. God always calls us to care for persons more than things, and concrete realities rather than theory. In fact, good intentions and good theories often get quite twisted when we pursue them without care for the concrete effects they have on real people. For instance, think how many laws, rules, and regulation no longer apply, and may actually harm people, because they are pursued for their own sake (with "zero tolerance"!), rather than thinking how these rules affect real people in concrete situations.

Global warming is theoretical, undefined, and impersonal. It is almost impossible to tell how it started, nor if it is getting better or worse. And because it is so vague and ill-defined, it is the perfect tool to scare the hell out of people, and cause them to give money and power to the "experts" and the politicians to protect them from the bogeyman. In fact, it is just plain dumb to care about the environment only because of some illusive temperature effect that may or may not be due to us, which may or may not get worse. If global warming IS because of humans, then doing the kinds of things we need to do to care for God's property and God's children will solve it, without even having to pay attention to it. If global warming IS NOT because of humans, then nothing we do will matter anyway.

Conspiracy theories abound because it makes someone money, sells product to someone, and gives power through fear to those in control. I think global warming may be just another conspiracy theory that is distracting us from God's mission. Our lives should not be governed by fear that "the sky is falling". Our lives should be governed by love, as we try to love our neighbors as ourselves. All of our neighbors, starting with humans and extending out to the beasts of the field, and the birds of the sky, and the fish of the water, and the glorious creation that they inhabit. May we all become environmentalists because of love, not because of fear. Amen+


Face to Face with the Love that will not Die

Before reading this, do the following "thought experiment". If I say "hell", what does it make you think about? Don't read this next sentence until you have thought about that for a second. If I say "God's love", what does it make you think about? If I say "the God revealed in Jesus Christ", what do you think about? Finally, think about this: How do hell, God's love, and the God revealed in Jesus Christ fit together? Now, ponder these Scriptures:

1 John 4:8 God is Love.

Hebrews 12:29 Our God is a consuming fire.

Hebrews 10:30-31 For we know him who said, "Vengeance is mine; I will repay." And again, "The Lord will judge his people." It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.

1 Corinthians 3:11-15 For no one can lay a foundation other than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. Now if anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw- each one's work will become manifest, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed by fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done. If the work that anyone has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward. If anyone's work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire.

Romans 8:35-39 Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? …Yet, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Matthew 7:11 If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him!

And think about what Jesus teaches us in the Prodigal Son while you are at it (Luke 15 if you need to look it up).

Have you pondered all of these things in your heart? Good. Now you can read the rest of this.

A few days ago, I wrote an article on hell, and how some of our false ideas about it became so popular. A few months ago, I wrote two massive 8000+ word articles on the idea of a "Redemptive Hell", and why it makes more sense of Scripture and Systematic Theology than any contending version of what hell is. Today I just want to write a short post on why hell is real, why we don't want to go there, and why it is not God's last word to those in hell.

I guess my big problems with the traditional views of hell really began in 2004 with the reading of Brian McLaren's "The Last Word and the Word after that" and CS Lewis' "Great Divorce" and "George MacDonald" anthology. The problems were defined better through some great conversations with my friend Steve. And the problems got worse with the birth of my daughter Elise.

And here is the central problem: How can God our Father stop loving us? And, if it is true that God will not stop loving us, how can God give up on us? And if God will not give up on us, then how can hell be God's final Word to a vast majority of humanity who has either died without Christ, or died while rejecting the incomplete Christ they knew through the (often hypocritical) preaching, teaching, and example of His Church?

It seems that I have come to believe so much in Scripture, and come to love Jesus so much, that I simply cannot disbelieve what it (quite literally) says in places like 1Corinthians 15, Philippians 2, Romans 5, and 9-11, the Gospel of John, and Colossians. I simply can no longer dismiss promises that God will reconcile all things to Himself through Jesus Christ, and that every knee in heaven, earth, and under the earth will bow in worship and confess in praise that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father. I can no longer simply believe that the Bible is exaggerating when it says that God's Love will never give up, never fail, and never keep a record of wrongs (cf. 1Co. 13). I simply cannot call it naïve optimism or dramatic overstatement that just as "in Adam all die" so "in Christ all will be made alive" because God "so loved the world that He gave his one and only Son that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life".

And, since having my daughter, I can no longer imagine that God could stop loving us. Jesus (above) says that if we, even though we are evil, know how to do good to our children (because we love them), then just imagine how much more God knows how to do good to us. Our love for our children, as great as it may seem to us, is but a pale reflection of God's love for us. And I refuse to believe that if I just understood God's love more, I would understand how he could stop loving his children, or give up and give them over to un-ending destruction. That's not God's love. That's satanic! My love, as a born-again, Scripture-trusting, Christ-believing, Spirit-filled Christian father, bears witness to the even greater love of God my Father. If I cannot imagine giving up on my children, how much more can God not imagine giving up on us!

I can imagine that God might have to give us a huge, hellish "time out", by allowing us to perish and be separated from everyone else so that we can no longer spread our hurtful, selfish, sinful infection to others. I can see why hell is necessary, and I believe that hell is a reality. And from my experience in my own soul, in Christ's church, and in God's world, I believe that people DO and WILL go to hell, because heaven would be hellish if they were allowed into it, in their current state.

But I can no longer believe that hell is a destination of no reprieve. Instead, it seems that hell is a tool of last resort. I believe that hell is "being face to face with the love that will not die". It is being in solitary confinement with Him who is the consuming fire of Love. It is our Father saying:

Fine, you can deny my love and even deny my reality, but I will never deny you. And I will keep you alone with me so that you cannot hurt anyone else with your sinfulness. And it will be you and me here alone forever, if you want it to be. And you will never see another soul until you choose to accept my love and my forgiveness and become a loving child of God like my Child Jesus is. I give you the choice. You can receive my love and say to me "Thy will be done", or you can deny me and I will say to you "Thy will be done". It's your choice. I am waiting…

Why is it a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God? Because he will torture us forever if we do not obey him? No! It is fearful because it will kill our selfishness to come face to face with him who is unselfish, unfathomable, unrelenting love. His perfect love will sear our conscience and convict us of all that is mean and cruel inside of us. The fire of His Love will purify and refine us of everything that stops us from being in perfect communion with Him and His children. He wants to kill everything in us that uses Him and manipulates others for our own gratification, and the part of us that wants selfish gratification is afraid of that reality. Deathly afraid. He will not give up, not stop, and not hold back until He has made us into a perfectly loving child of God who can fully share in Him as a friend shares love with another friend and as a wife shares intimacy with her husband. We cannot hide from his love, but we will be stripped naked and see ourselves as we really are in the presence of His perfect Love.

That is why it is fearful. Not because God will give up on us, but because God won't!

Can someone stay in hell forever? Theoretically, yes. It is vaguely possible that someone could be alone in solitary confinement with God forever and stubbornly keep denying His love forever, like a two-year old that never stops having a temper tantrum. It is thinkable that someone could grasp the unreality of their sin for all eternity and never loosen their grip to receive the love they are living inside of. There is a potential that someone could choose personal misery and desperately close the eyes of their soul to the light of Christ for un-ending ages upon ages.

But, somehow I doubt that a creature will ever be able to out-stubborn its Creator. Not our Creator, the one that defeated death in Jesus Christ.

There may be some who take millions upon millions of our years to repent and accept God's Love in Christ. There may be some so dead-set on denying Jesus that they will take eons to admit that all of God's fullness is revealed in Him. And there may be some who for ages will hold on to their guilt and hurt and not allow their sin to be put to death through Jesus' one-time offering of Himself on the Cross.

But, in the end, I hope with a sure hope that Jesus will redeem all of Creation and reconcile all things to His Father through His death and resurrection. I don't think anyone will get there apart from Him, because to know God is to know Christ (since He IS God Incarnate). And thus, if someone says "no" to Christ, they are saying "no" to God. But, in His time, using hell as a last-ditch tool, I hope that God will bring all people to say "Yes" to Him in Christ. It is not some vague, pie-in-the-sky, hell-denying, Christ-avoiding, pluralistic Universalism. It is a hard, concrete, specific hope in a God who has proved that His Love will NEVER die in a specific place and time, through a very historical resurrection of a very real Person.

And I do not call this hope a doctrine or a dogma. I cannot be certain of it. I can only see hints and pointers to it all through Scripture. And God does not have to redeem everything to be God, or to please me. God is not confined to any boxes, and God does not "owe" it to anyone to save all. Quite the other way around. We owe it all to Him, and there is no way to repay because we have screwed everything up! Yet, God repayed Himself perfect obedience by becoming human in Christ and living a perfect life for us all. To forgive us, God has to take all the consequences of our sin, suffering, and death into Himself and not allow us to be destroyed by it. This He has done by dying for us on the Cross, and defeating death by rising again. And since He is the Eternal God, His death is an eternal death that puts to death an eternal amount of consequences for an eternal amount of sin.

Everything that hinders us from coming back to God has been dealt with once-for-all in Jesus. Everything except our acceptance of it, and desire to live in it. And I have a certain hope that, since God has done all of this for us in Jesus Christ, he will complete His work and bring us to that acceptance in this world or the next (or the next!). After all, if God did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things necessary to live in Him? (cf. Romans 8:32 ) It's not a certainty, but a hope. And St. Paul reminds us that "hope does not put us to shame, because God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us" (Romans 5:5).

Let's put it logically in three theses: Thesis 1: Does God really love every single person he has created and desire them to be saved? If we trust the clear meaning of Scripture, then the answer is yes. Thesis 2: Does God have the power to accomplish what he desires? Again, the clear import of Scripture is yes. Thesis 3: Will God accomplish the redemption of all people as He desires? That's a good question. Well, if the Father really does desire all to be saved (thesis 1), and He has the power to save all through His Son who has crucified all sin, and His Spirit who has the ability to woo even the most unrepentant sinner back to Him (thesis 2), then the answer seems inescapable, even if the certainty is merely hopeful.

So what is hell? It is coming face to face with this love that will never die, known fully only in Jesus Christ. And what is heaven? It is coming face with this love that will never die, known fully only in Jesus Christ. And what is the difference? Whether we experience this reality as warmth and comfort, or as flames and misery, depends entirely on how much we have surrendered our entire selves- body, spirit, and soul- to love like Jesus does.

And, if this is hell, and God will love anyone no matter what, then why share Christ with others? I guess that is answered best by a series of questions: If you really love Jesus with all your self, how can you NOT tell others? If you really love others, how can you NOT tell them about the source of your Love, which is Jesus and his death and resurrection? If you were a doctor, could you just walk past a car wreck with lots of injured and dying people, and say "I don't need to help them, they are going to God anyway"? If you had a antidote to a epidemic, could you just say "I don't feel like injecting anyone and curing them, because they will go to God anyway"? If you believe in the power and persistence of the Love of Christ to heal everyone, how could you for a moment not choose to live in it for your own sake, and share it with everyone for the sake of others?

And finally, how could you knowingly and purposefully live in sin and selfishness if you know that you are going to be refined by the fire of Him who is perfect Love, and spend forever in His presence and in the presence of everyone you have ever known? If you know you can't escape God's Love, and that God will never give up until you Love like He does, it changes the way you live now and forever.

May we all live our lives, every day in every way, as people who will forever be face to face with the Love that will not die. Amen+


What the Hell is Hell?

This morning Andrew Green (a fellow theomedian) asked me the following question:

It says that demons are tempters in the Bible, but does it ever say that they are tormentors (I know that the two terms are synonymous in some circumstances, but that's not what I mean)? It seems to me that culture picked up somewhere that when we go to hell, lots of happy little demons get to torture us all day long. Where did we get that?

So, I answered with the following:

The Greek word for "temptation" is also the word for "trial/tribulation/torment" (Gk: pei-ras-mos). So yes, implicit in the "job description" found in peirasmos is BOTH temptation AND torment. Think about Job. Satan BOTH whispers temptation to job through the wife ("curse God and die") AND Satan torments Job by disasters and plagues (cf. Job 1-2). And you see the same pattern in the Bible. Satan both tempts Jesus and Peter, as well as taking control of hapless human hosts and throwing them into fires and gruesome stuff like that.

Now, about extending that to the afterworld, I think you find two streams of thought:

a) The Greco-Roman myths of Hades, and torment by evil spirits found there, indirectly add a great deal to Christian thought about hell. In these myths, Zeus, in retributive divine wrath, sends beings to Hades to eternally endure "just punishment" found in stuff like Narcissus being forever in love with his own reflection, and Sisyphus who was doomed to roll a rock up a hill for eternity. Interestingly, it is also in the Greco-Roman myths that one truly finds the idea of an eternal, non-ending torment that has no end to it. In Hades there are a host of daemons led by the god of the underworld to make sure that these punishments are carried out forever ad nauseum. Only on a few occasions do people escape Hades, and that is when someone from the land of the living has enough love and courage to go to Hades to rescue them.

b) Now, I am sure it is obvious how many of these ideas parallel Scripture (especially the hero who descends to the dead to free the captives in Hades!). So, it was quite natural for all of these ideas to be “read into” Scripture as if they were all quite naturally found there.

Within the first few centuries of Christianity, especially after Christianity began to forget or minimize its Jewish heritage, these ideas were read into Scriptures that would "receive" these ideas as possible interpretations.

Thus, when we read in Revelation 12 and 20 that Satan and his horde were "cast down" from heaven, they read in the idea that they had been thrust into hell. When we read that some demons are chained up in "the abyss" or "tartarus", they read in the idea that the demonic homeland is now hell, with earth as a kind of "workplace" or "vacation spot" where they got out of hell to come tempt. Finally, when we read Jesus saying in Matthew 13 that the eternal fire "was prepared for devil and his angels", they read in the idea that Satan lived in the fire with his angels.

And, since the Greek "Underworld" was controlled by the death-god Hades, they eventually read that into the Scriptures to. Hell, the eternal fire, became no longer something controlled by God and used for God's purposes, but instead became a separate realm under the control of the Devil. And from this foundation grew up all of the midieval hell-visions we read, culminating in Dante's "Inferno" and "Purgatorio".

Now, with that said, let me say this: Dante's work is INCREDIBLE and there are many great spiritual lessons to be learned from him (he was a moral and spiritual genius). Even if his vision of the topology and population of hell is in error, the core purpose and meaning of his vision is not, and we should pay attention to it.

I also think the medieval mis-readings of the Biblical passages on hell should be a warning to us. They innocently read cultural notions into the Biblical text in order to make sense of them, and help make sense to the people they preached to. And this is a good and noble starting point as a "step-ladder" to help people get to the massive structure of Biblical teaching. But somewhere the step-ladder became part of the architecture. We need to learn from them and be careful that our "step-ladder" analogies and examples do not become part of our Biblical architecture. There is a place for analogies and examples that help people “get into” the Biblical narrative, but it is a limited place, and if we don’t confine that place, they will grow out of control (like the hell tradition we are talking about here).

Finally, I would recommend the following correctives to our ideas of hell:

1. When the demons were cast out of hell, their primary locale is here on earth to try and destroy those who God loves (Rev. 12)

2. If some demons are being held in "hell/the abyss/tartarus", they are being punished by God there. They are not allowed to roam around and hurt others, because hell IS something like solitary confinement.

3. Hell is a reality that God owns and is in control of, and which he uses for his own redemptive purposes.

4. I think there is a good chance that the eternal fire of hell IS the unmediated presence of God's refining Love, since God alone is the “consuming fire” (cf. Deu. 4.24; Heb. 12.29; 1Co. 3).

5. Hell does not seem to be eternal in the Greek sense of "unending time". Rather, it is eternal in the Hebrew sense of "the perfect/complete amount of time".

6. Purgatory may in fact be a better understanding of hell than the traditional vision of hell. That’s a great debate and essay I need to write sometime.

7. The one place where the Greco-Roman tradition may be incredibly helpful is in the image of the Brave Conqueror who alone has the power to rescue the helpless from Hades by descending into the realm of the dead and carrying people out of it (cf. Eph. 4.7-10).

I realize that several of these things are quite controversial, but I think that we must ask several hard questions on subjects like this, and they are questions that directly affect how we see God. And how we see God directly affects how we see ourselves and others made in God’s image. I think at the core of all of these questions is this: Is God ultimately retributive or redemptive? How we answer this question drastically affects how we see our purpose in this life, and God’s purpose for the next life.


The 2006 Bostian Christmas Letter

Happy Hannakah, Awesome Advent, Merry Christmas, and Ecstatic Epiphany from the Bostians!

We hope this letter finds you enjoying the winter holy-days and possibly even winter weather (it feels a lot like Spring here in North Texas). 2006 has been a big year for the Bostians, full of all manner of awesome blessings. What kind of blessings, you ask? Well, here is a quick list of all the cool things that God did in our lives (or at least helped us endure!).

2006 came and Elise was off and running… quite literally. She figured out how to run, thereby increasing our band-aid budget for the next 12 years or so. When February came, Kim had to face her nemesis: the standardized TAKS test that all teachers and students in Texas are forced to do battle with every year. A phenomenal percentage of her students passed the test, despite the fact that many of them are, shall we say “English challenged”. This, of course, earned Kim a pie in the face from each of her students who passed. A little teacher humiliation can provide a great deal of motivation!

2006 was also Nate’s (probably) final year in youth ministry, since he has now become the Episcopal College Chaplain at Southern Methodist University. In 2006 he led his junior high and high school students to do several service projects, lots of retreats, dozens of Bible studies, discussions, and Starbucks sessions, and a mission trip to New Orleans. The New Orleans trip was probably the best mission trip he has ever done during his youth ministry, even though it was not easy to help students deal with the physical destruction and spiritual devastation that Katrina wrought upon “the Big Easy”. Later that summer, Nate also helped co-lead a team of students from the Diocese of Dallas to go to Uganda on a trip that was part mission (they helped build an orphanage and worked with needy kids) and part diplomacy (they met with all kinds of church leaders and even made the evening news in Kampala, Uganda on several occasions).

However, in August Nate was asked to apply for the college ministry position at SMU, and after a long series of interviews, lots of tears, and even more prayer, he was chosen to become a “college chaplain” in late October. It was an odd time to start at a university, since everyone was in the middle of mid-term exams (including Nate!). But, over the course of the semester, Nate made several contacts and more students began coming out to Canterbury House worship. The ministry has an incredible amount of potential, many opportunities to grow, and several challenges to overcome, but we have a lot of support from a great board and a great Diocese. In fact, we are building a new chapel and ministry facility across the street from SMU, which should be ready in June 2007.

2006 was also a year of travel for the Bostian family as well. We went to Hot Springs, Little Rock, and Mount Petit Jean in Arkansas, as well as Sea World in San Antonio. We also went on a train tour of Dallas-Fort Worth and went to the Dallas World Aquarium. They were wonderful trips, with lots of natural beauty. One of the little-known facts about Sea World is that they serve free “sample” beer (since they are owned by the Anheuser-Busch Companies). So, Elise saw a dolphin, then Daddy celebrated with a beer. Elise saw Shamu, then Daddy celebrated with a beer. Elise saw the Walrus show, then Daddy… you get the idea. It was a great vacation!

About the end of summer Elise learned how to string together sentences, and she discovered two words that will get her a long way in today’s consumer economy: “Mine!” and “No!” Yes, she is definitely, and defiantly, two years old! We celebrated her birthday in October, and she fell in love with Elmo (just like every other toddler in America!) Is there a twelve-step recovery group for Elmo obsession, because we may need that before long… Anyway, to celebrate her birthday Mommy and Daddy gave Elise a brand new home office and bookshelves from IKEA. Elise was not so excited, so Mommy and Daddy will be using it until Elise goes to grad school.

And did we mention that our smallest dog, Alex, was growing a smaller dog on his neck? Well, he was: a huge benign fatty tumor. A few hundred dollars and 9 ounces of dog removal later, we have one dog again instead of Siamese twins. He is happy. And so is his dog-brother Petey.

More recently, Kim was nominated to be “teacher of the year” again at Herbert Marcus Elementary. She lost a close election, but she’s still “teacher of the year” in our house! She is co-teaching math and science with another teacher who teaches English and social studies. Her co-teacher, Mr. Singh, is a really nice, very intelligent, committed Christian who is 27 and single… so if you know anyone, we are looking to set him up! One of the interesting things about school this year is that several of her students have asked questions which have allowed Kim to share her faith with them. Not only is she teaching the “three R’s”, but she is ministering to her kids as well.

Elise started school this year too: Primrose educational childcare. She loves her class and her teachers, and they love her too. And, yes, Nate is STILL in school (will it ever end?!?). This is his last year for academic work, and the 2007-2008 school year will be his “supervised internship” as a college chaplain. After this he will graduate with his “Master’s of Divinity” degree (ain’t that the most pretentious name for a degree ever?). Anyway, with that diploma, and successfully passing the Episcopal “General Ordination Exams” (GOE’s), he will be eligible for ordination to holy orders. So, sometime around summer 2008, God willing and the bishop ordaining, Nate should be wearing a collar.

That’s about it from us. Hope 2007 finds you blessed and growing into all that God has made you to be. May God the Father protect you and yours from every assault of the enemy. May the Lord Jesus Christ heal you from every infirmity in body, spirit, and soul. And may God’s Holy Spirit bless you to bless others, and guide you to be whole. Amen+

Lots of Love,
Nate, Kim, and Elise


Of Tightropes, Foundations, and a Healthy Church

I have been wanting to write something about the nature of true "orthodoxy" for quite some time, but every time I get started it quickly becomes thousands of words long. So, I am going to attempt to say something short… Well, at least short for me.

There is a common version of "orthodox" theology out there that likens the Christian worldview to an unassailable Stronghold built upon an unmovable foundation. This Castle must be defended day after day from the attacks of barbarian "unbelievers", and the rising torrent of the flood of Godless "culture". Yet, the Strong Castle remains unmoved. It never advances out from the Rock it is built on, but calls all to flee from the Land of the Godless and find refuge in its static, changeless walls.

And certainly, there is much Scriptural (and Traditional) backing for such an idea. The Apostles (and their teachings) are pictured as our foundation, with Jesus Himself as our chief cornerstone in multiple Scriptures (cf. Eph 2.20). Certainly numerous Psalms speak of Yahweh as our "crag and stronghold", and a "castle to keep us safe". God's commands and promises in Scripture are pictured as unchanging and reliable, something we can build our lives on like a house built on stable ground (cf.Psalm 119). And then there is the end of Jesus' Sermon on the Mount, where our Lord tells us to build upon Him and His Word as our Rock, and not upon shifting sands (presumably including the fickled fads of culture and our own tastes).

But, have we pushed one Biblical metaphor too far, into a place that brings sickness to the Body of Christ? I mean, which is the controlling metaphor for God's people: A static structure, or a living Body? I think that the living model, pictured as a Body, a Family, a Marriage, and even an Army, is the controlling metaphor through which we must read metaphors of stasis and unchangeability. While this may sound subtle and theoretical, I think that there is something in this that deeply affects how we see God, and how we see ourselves, as His Church.

Over and again, Paul exhorts Timothy and Titus to teach "sound" doctrine (cf. 1 Tim. 1:10; 6:3; 2 Tim. 1:13; 4:3; Titus 1:9, 13; 2:1-2, 2:8). But "sound" is not a sound translation of the Greek words that underlie them (which come from the Greek root "hug-i-ees"). Most translations make these words sound like an obvious referent to a "sound" structure, or a "sound" building that is built on a firm foundation. But, this word is not used of material structures, but of physical bodies. It actually describes the health, wholeness, and equilibrium that is found in a healthy organism. The concept that it refers to is very similar to the Hebrew concept of Shalom, which is the defining feature of the Reign of God. Shalom means peace, harmony, health, and wholeness, both within people as individuals and within communities. Paul wants Titus and Timothy to teach "healthy" doctrine that helps people and communities to enter into the "shalom" of God. That is why his frequent greeting the communities and people he writes to is "grace and peace" to you from our Lord Jesus Christ (cf. Rom. 1:7; 1 Cor. 1:3; 2 Cor. 1:2; Gal. 1:3; Eph. 1:2; Phil. 1:2; Col. 1:2; 1 Thess. 1:1; 2 Thess. 1:2; Titus 1:4; Phlm. 1:3).

So, what does this have to do with orthodoxy and "foundationalism"? Well, there are two ways to have "peace": the "peace" found in a museum and the "peace" found in a marriage. Peace in a museum is relatively easy to attain. First, you kill everything and pose it just right. Second, you put it on display. Third, you never let people touch it. Finally, you just lock the doors and keep everyone out for fear they might mess up the relics. Then you have total peace and complete silence.

Then there is peace and harmony found in a marriage. It is found when two people constantly work together and communicate to resolve differences and hold in tension each other's needs and desires. It is the harmony found in a dance, as each partner takes turns leading and teaching the other. It is the harmony found in a really good symphony.

Now for the million dollar question: What type of peace does Christ want for His Body and Bride, the Church? The static, immovable peace of the museum, or the dynamic, balanced peace of the marriage? I think the answer is obvious, and for those who do not find it obvious I would be happy to spill a few thousand words trying to spell it out from Scripture, but not right now. God desires shalom to come through life and relationships, not peace that comes from death and frozen formulas.

It seems that orthodox thinking folks have a bad habit of freezing doctrine at one period of history (whether that is the 700's, 1500's, 1800's or 1950's), stopping people from touching it, and hiding it away from any serious inspection with the epithet "heretic", "unbeliever", or "outsider" for those who would question it. Doctrine becomes something more akin to admiring a statue than embracing a Person. Instead of being "healthy" teaching, it becomes something like rote memorization. It is like the image of doctrine as a Castle somehow kills the doctrine and puts the teaching of the Church to death.

But, how does this relate to the very important Biblical imagery of the foundation and the fortress? Do we just jettison language and metaphors that imply stasis and stability in favor of metaphors that favor process and change? And, if we do that, doesn’t that very quickly move us into a religion that looks very little like Christianity as we know it (and all of the problems that go with that, as exemplified by the downfall of revisionist mainline denominations everywhere)? Yes, if we jettison metaphors of stasis and stability we quickly get a different religion, a different Gospel, and a different Jesus.

But, I am not saying we should jettison anything, rather hold it in tension with other Biblical truths. In fact, tension between truths is what I think Orthodoxy is. I would argue that the Rock we build on, and the Castle we hide in, is not an "it", but rather a Person (or rather, Three Eternal Persons in One Being). I think that when we locate our stability in words and systems of doctrine we are precisely putting our hope in the wrong "thing", because what we hope in is not a "thing" but a Person. Yahweh is our "Stronghold". Jesus is "the Rock". It is not the system of words we use to describe God that is unchanging and totally reliable, but God Himself that is unchanging and totally reliable.

And God, revealed in Jesus Christ, is our beginning and our end, our Alpha and Omega. He is the unchanging Source that gives rise to all that is, and the Dynamic-yet-stable Love toward which all things go. He is the Rock at the beginning pushing us forward, and the Rock at the end beckoning us homeward. In the middle is a tightrope, which we walk on, in a journey from Eternal to Eternal. The tightrope flexes and bends, sways and swaggers, but it is firmly embedded at the beginning and the end in the Rock who does not move, and who will not fail.

Instead of building a castle as our vision of orthodoxy, how about walking a tightrope? Instead of constructing a fortress, how about we see ourselves balancing on a high wire? Instead of looking at theologians as expert engineers competing to see who can build the biggest, best skyscraper, how about seeing them as trapeze artists, masters of balance and movement?

Traditional versions of orthodoxy have tended to alleviate ambiguity between Scriptural truths (such as the twin facts of divine sovereignty and creaturely free will) by building up such a huge case for one that the other seems small and insignificant by comparison. For instance, the Augustinian/Calvinist tradition tends to build up the case for divine sovereignty so large, that it simply subsumes free will as a rather insignificant side effect of being under the control of the Creator. On the other hand, the Arminian and classical Liberal traditions build up the case for creaturely freedom to such an extent that one wonders if God is still involved with His creation at all. Both sides of this issue tend to ignore crucial evidence from the other side, or interpret Scriptural texts that disagree in hollow and artificial ways to make them say what they want said.

Instead of explaining away whatever does not fit well on our firm foundation, how about we walk in tension with them in the same way that quantum physics has been able to walk in tension with the wave-partical duality of light, or the indeterminate-yet-predictable nature of particle movements? What if we see that God the Father is our source of stability- our unchanging Source and Goal. What if we look at God the Son as the highwire we are walking on, carefully balancing between errors on the Left and errors on the Right in the same way that He balances between being fully Human and fully Divine? And what if we depended on God the Spirit as our balancing rod, which we grip tightly to keep us from falling off on one side or the other?

Then perhaps we could have a much more productive, creative engagement with a number of paradoxes that we find in Scripture and life, without explaining away either side. Perhaps we could be orthodox and healthy Christians by keeping a balanced tension between such issues as: Law and Mercy; Judgment and Forgiveness; Condemnation and salvation; Divine Sovereignty and Human Freedom; Creator and creation; Stability and change; Crisis and process; Scripture and culture; Truth and ambiguity; Community and individuality; Political "Left" and political "Right"; General and specific; The universality of God's Love and the particularity of God's Self-Revelation in Christ; Matter and spirit; Objective reality and subjective experience; Fact and Value; Truth and Love; Is/is not and should/should not; Scripture and tradition; Faith and reason; Revelation and science… just to name a few of the major paradoxes that have dominated philosophy and theology for the last 2000 years.

What if we developed a habit of thought that acknowledged the full reality of BOTH sides of all these dualities, without making one side "more real" than the other side? And what if we spent our time, not trying to explain away one side in terms of the other, but trying to find a way to understand the full participation of both sides in God's Creation. I think this "tensional" view of doctrine will lead us into the Shalom of God, and keep us more healthy and harmonious than "foundational" views of doctrine. I think this type of Orthodoxy better approximates our Creator, who in Himself is a balance between One and Three, a Community in Unity, without diminishing either side of His own Reality. I think this style of thinking best represents our Lord Jesus Christ, who is a tightrope walker between humanity and divinity, creature and Creator.

May we all come to walk the tightrope of Reality following Him.


Mere Mary: A Mary that Protestants and Catholics can celebrate together.

Last night I was blessed to watch the movie "The Nativity". I was not blessed because it was an accurate portrayal of what Scripture tells us about Mary and the Incarnation. It wasn't. Don't get me wrong. The costuming and setting were good attempts to capture the first century Judean ethos, and all of Jesus' family looked "Jew-ish". I mean, thank God they did not look like they came from the Charlton Heston school of Biblical impersonation. But the timing on the arrival of the Magi was all screwed up, the Bible says nothing about how many magi there were, and the portrayal of the Star of Bethlehem was a bit cheesy. And, to top it off, the birth scene looked a bit like a Hallmark card from the 1950's (but at least the actors looked Jew-ish!).

No, the reason why I was blessed was because it truly put a human face on a reality that we have a bad habit of church-ifying. We make Mary and Joseph into some more-than-human, less-than-approachable super-saints who we have no chance of ever coming close to. Protestant portrayals usually make her out to be stunningly beautiful with perfect skin and a tranquility that only Xanex could create. Catholic portrayals seem to make her into the all-powerful Queen of Heaven, who radiates the glory of God like Chernobyl radiates Cesium, and who we would be struck dead by, if we came into her presence.

The movie reminded us that Mary and Joseph were scared kids, trying with all their heart to serve God and keep their heads above water in the horrific economic and political turmoil that their homeland was going through. To top it off, they had to deal with what we would consider an "unwed" pregnancy, and all of the social stigma that went with that. Add to that the fear of the typical response when you might casually mention in a conversation "Yeah, God made me pregnant. I am going to have the Savior of the World".

Yeah. They were understandably scared and freaked out. Yet they were faithful. Life got incredibly messy for them. Yet they were faithful. Many people were scandalized by them and rejected them. Yet they were faithful.

If think yourself a Biblical scholar, and will be offended if the movie doesn't perfectly (or even generally) match your own particular reading of Scripture, then don't see it. But, if you want a refresher on what it means that God took on flesh from a Virgin and dwelt among us, then watch it. And, if you have a friend who does not really understand the Christmas Story, by all means take them to it. It is really a great movie, for what it is great for.

That's what this movie blessed me with. It is a portrayal of Mary that both Protestants and Catholics can agree on, and need to be reminded of.

CS Lewis, in Mere Christianity, refuses to reveal his position about Mary on the grounds that feelings run too high along the Protestant-Catholic divide to say anything "Merely Marian" that both sides will agree to. Here is a brief roadmap of the issues involved: Was she cleansed of "original sin" by an "immaculate conception" in her mom's womb? Did she live a sinless life? Is she the "Mother of God" (or rather the "Bearer of God")? Did she ever have a sexual relationship with Joseph, or were all of Jesus' brothers and sisters step-siblings from Joseph's deceased first wife? Was her body "assumed" into heaven after her death so early Christians would not worship her remains? Is she the "Queen of Heaven" with a more-honored position than all of the other saints in heaven? Is she in some sense the "mother of the Church" since she is the mother of Him whose body the Church is? Should we pray and ask her to "pray for us sinners now at the hour of our death"? And, where does any and/or all of these issues fall into idolatry?

Catholics, Protestants, and Orthodox Christians disagree (sometimes violently) on all of these issues. And I have a position too, on each and every one of them. But, could it be that all of these issues, as important as they are, miss the main point we are supposed to "get" from Mary's Story? Could it be that there is a central meaning to Mary that every Christian can agree on, even if we do not agree on the facts surrounding her life? Is there a "Mere Mary" that is the key to understanding and valuing all "Merely Christian" understanding of her?

I think there is. I think we have mostly missed the boat, and forgot to keep "the main thing the main thing" in the Mary Story.

We all have times when we say (or write!) the wrong words, but have the right meaning, and anyone who will really take time to listen to us will understand what we mean even if the words we said are wrong. I have heard someone tell me "Don't listen to what I said! Listen to what I mean!" And they were right, the "spirit" of what they meant was deeper and more profound than the "letter" of that they said.

I think we are in a similar situation with Mary. Protestants, Catholics, Orthodox, and "The Nativity" all disagree on the details of Mary's life. But there is a common meaning that we can all agree on. Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, tries to get at this "Mere Mary" in his devotion "What Matters about Mary?" In it he says:

"When we meet Mary for the first time in the Bible, she is a person who, in the society of her day, doesn't matter in her own right - a single woman who will only become really significant when she gets married and continues the tribal line. God comes to her and calls her to take a massive risk. She is to step right outside the business of 'tribal lines', the male world of inheritance and power. By saying yes to God and letting God create a new world within her very body, she is saying no to some of the most dominant things in her world. She is risking rejection, perhaps destitution (as Matthew's gospel hints). She is putting herself, spirit and body, at God's service, with practically no idea of how deep the cost may be… This is someone who, at least as much as any great artist or scientist, is taking the risk of making the world different - breathing deeply and facing the price they'll have to pay whatever it may be.

The second thing is this. Jesus is a real human being, so he has a real human psychology. He learns how to be human as we do, from the people around him. Just as for all of us, the first faces and voices he sees will shape who he will be. So the mother of Jesus is central to Jesus' humanity - not in an abstract sense, but in a very concrete one. He learns how to be human from her. He learns from her how to respond to the terrible, risky calling of the Father. And as he learns how to be human, he acts out more and more fully on earth the eternal life of God that he was born to live among us. Mary's human discipleship is one of the conditions for Jesus' humanity to grow up and reveal that perfect fusion between divine love and human response that is his unique gift to the world. He is who he is because she was who she was."
We are called to do just what Mary did. Mary bore God's own life within herself, and as a result gave birth to Christ who saves the world. She did it by surrendering herself completely to God. She did not surrender into passivity. She actively surrendered into co-operating with God to bring His life into the world. Her self-giving declaration "I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word" is immediately followed by her actively getting up and traveling "with haste" into the hill country (Luke 1:38-39).

Jesus likewise calls us to actively surrender to His will and bear His life to save the world. He tells us that we are God's ambassadors and that God is making His appeal through us (2Corinthians 5:16-20). He tells us that those who receive us receive Him (Matthew 10.40). He tells us that we will do the same things (and even greater things!) than He did (John 14.12). We are to be Mary people, doing a Mary job, with a Mary identity. We are to co-operate with God as God's life powerfully operates in us, to bring the entire world to know, love, and follow Jesus Christ (cf. Colossians 1:29).

This is "Mere Mary": That we all should merely mimic Mary's mission to bear God's life to the world and give birth to sons and daughters of God through faith in her Son, our Savior, the Unique Eternal Son of God made human. May we all be Mere Marys.
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.