2007-04-29

ARE YOU SHEEPISH?

ARE YOU SHEEPISH?
A Sermon for Year C, Easter 4
By Nathan L. Bostian

Let us pray: Come Lord Jesus: Fill us with your Spirit, and drive far from this place anything that would distract us from you. Let your Word transform our mind, reform our heart, and conform our will: That we may know you more clearly, and love you more dearly, and follow you more nearly, now and forever. Amen+

In the interests of Orthodox Christianity, I would like to start off tonight's sermon in a very unorthodox way. I want to ask you a silly question, and I would like your silly response:

When you were a kid (or an adult!) what animal did you want to be, and why? [ASK AROUND FOR ANSWERS]

I have to admit that I never really fantasized about being an animal. An astronaut, or a knight, or GI Joe, yes. But animals: not so much.

However, I thought that it would be really cool to be a huge, ferocious bird of some type. An Eagle, or a Falcon: Something with huge talons and that blood-curdling scream that would make your prey wet itself. And yeah, the idea of flying was pretty cool too.

But there is one animal hardly anyone fantasizes about being: A sheep.

Have you ever been around sheep for any length of time? I mean, in Sunday School as kids we got great felt-board pictures of happy fluffy sheep. And if you were lucky, you got to make one out of cotton balls, and take to your parents. But, the reality is not so cuddly…

First of all, sheep stink. Have you ever petted a sheep and smelled your hand? It's enough to make your eyes water. They smell because of the urine and feces… and Lord knows what else is growing in that fur. They are dirty, messy, smelly creatures who have no way of grooming themselves. Sheep are eating and pooping machines!

Second of all, sheep are dumb and near sighted. They have been known to eat their way off of a cliff, if their shepherd is not careful. They only focus about what is right in front of them, right here, right now. They only care about feeding their stomachs.

Third of all, sheep are pretty defenseless. I mean, they can kick hard and hurt you (especially if they kick a man in the just the right spot!). And they can take a good nip out of you, especially if you get between them and their food. But, if a truly ferocious animal comes into a sheep pen- like a wolf or a mountain lion- they are toast.

Finally, sheep are cranky. If they are hungry or thirsty, they are not meek and docile. They complain and whine and BAA BAA BAA. They will chew on your clothes. They will ram into you, and into each other, if they think someone has something good to eat. And if you think sheep just sit there while you try to shear them, think again!

At shearing time, it is a wrestling match that would be tough for Hulk Hogan or the Rock. They bite, kick, yelp, head butt, and try to run. I know people who shear sheep, and they are some of the toughest folks I have ever met.

Maybe that is why Jesus compares us to sheep. I know I have many days when I am messy, cranky, defenseless, and dumb. Many times I am near-sighted, and I only care about the next thing I can consume to meet MY needs. And I can be grumpy, complaining, mean, rude, and even… smelly… How about you?

And this is the point where I admit that out of all of the images that Jesus uses to talk about our relationship with him, the image of sheep is the one I like the least. I don't like it for two reasons:

First, in all of the dozens of sermons I have heard about sheep- until one I heard last week- I have never figured out WHY Jesus would want to save sheep. I mean, if sheep are so worthless and bad, why would the shepherd even CARE about them? The image of the sheep shows us how bad we NEED the good shepherd, but it does not seem to tell us WHY the shepherd would want to save us in the first place.

Second, like all of you in this room, I would rather be another, better animal… ANY animal… Anything except a sheep.

I mean, couldn't I be a dog. Dogs are friendly, warm, lovable, and even helpful. But dogs have one and only one thing they want out of life: They want to feel good. They want to live to party and howl at the moon. They will eat anything that tastes good, and if they are in heat, they will run out the door and take anything they can get! They will do anything to get their head patted, their belly rubbed, and their mouth around that treat in your hands.

The motus operandi of the dog is to achieve happy feelings and avoid bad feelings. There is nothing greater to life. I can be a dog. Can you? Are there days when your whole purpose in life is achieve pleasure, and avoid pain?

But, how about a cat? I am not the biggest cat fan in the world, but my mother is. She says that cats have ever-so-much more personality than dogs. You can pet them and cuddle them: but on THEIR terms. Cats are calm and collected and always aloof.

If dogs live for pleasure, then the goal of a cat's life is pride. Cats are better than all other animals, and they know it, and you know it… Because they have YOU trained. They look down their noses at sloppy dogs, and stupid sheep. They are one of the only animals who can sneer…

Do you have days when you are a cat? Are there times when you raise your self up, by putting down others, because you are more enlightened, more cultured, more intelligent, or just more…

I know there are days I am a cat. And when I am it shows…

Or perhaps some of us have wanted to be a racing stallion or a majestic mare. Beautiful, powerful, and successful: these animals decorate more paintings than just about any other animal except humans. Their mane is just so, their muscles ripple, they race and do not grow tired… They are, in a word, studs.

Is it a horse you want to be? The person who turns heads when they enter the room. The "winner". The "success". The "professional".

I have days I want to be a horse. How about you?

But there are those of us who are not happy enough to be dogs, nor coy enough to be cats, nor successful enough to be horses. And we resent the hell out of them for it. So we choose a different strategy, a different mascot:

We choose to be a Rhinocerous. Powerful, ferocious, armor plated. Rhinos are feared even by the King of the Beasts: The Lion. In fact, not many human weapons can take down a Rhino. The Rhino dominates the animal world by sheer power.

Are you a Rhino that tries to dominate your world by sheer power? Do you keep others out, by building up armor plates, to keep everyone away from the real you deep inside?

What is your armor plating, your source of power? Is it having all the answers, and using your intellect to annihilate your opponents? Is it being the dedicated martyr, that always does everything, yet never gets the appreciation you deserve? Is it using guilt and anger to always keep others under your control?

We all have days when we are pleasure seeking dogs, or pride seeking cats, or prestige seeking horses, or power seeking rhinos. But a sheep, believe it or not, does something that NONE of these animals will ever do.

All of these animals exist to TAKE from others. But sheep are PRODUCING animals. Out of all of these animals, only sheep can produce something that is of value to others. They were made to produce, to benefit others, and they do it NATURALLY.

In the ancient middle east, you could use sheep for many things: You could milk them, eat them, or skin them. But this was not their main value, and in all honesty you could use better animals to milk, eat, or skin. But, sheep had one thing that none of the other domestic animals had: Their wool.

With the wool of a sheep you could make tunics, togas, blankets, tents, and any number of other cloth items… All without killing the sheep. Sheep, in the ancient middle east, were the perfect renewable resource! Sure, Egyptian cotton might breathe better, but would you want it on a cold desert night to keep you warm? Sure, papyrus was easier to find, but would you want to use a place-mat for a shirt?

And I think this is why Jesus uses the metaphor of sheep. Because on one hand: Sheep REALLY need a shepherd. Like I said, they are messy, cranky, dumb, nearsighted, and almost defenseless to the enemy… Just like we are.

But, on the other hand, they are uniquely productive creatures. And in the hands of a master craftsman, the thread and fabric made from sheep can create masterpieces! To switch the metaphor just a bit, I think this is the idea behind what Paul says in Ephesians 2:8-10:

"For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God-- not the result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are His masterpiece, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life."

Like sheep, we cannot save ourselves. We fall into ditches all the time, and cannot pull ourselves out. We are constantly attacked by forces of evil and consumerism, that will utterly consume us like a rabid wolf, unless we have a shepherd to do battle or us.

But, once we allow the shepherd to save us and guide us, we begin to live into what we were made to be all along: A uniquely creative masterpiece, that does good works, which really change the world.

What kind of masterpiece will we be? The original text of this Ephesians passage uses the Greek word for a sculpture or a piece of pottery. But, if you will allow me a little prophetic imagination, I am thinking about another kind of masterpiece that is in line with our "sheepishness".

Do you have anyone in your life that does needlepoint work? My wife, my mother, and my grandmother all do needlepoint. My grandmother won championships for her work. She would spend days on end, patiently weaving together the most intricate and creative pieces.

One of the things that always struck me about her work was how it looked in the process of making it: It looked horrible right up until the end. It was splotchy on top, and from the underside it was just a knotted tangle of random colors.

Then, one day, you could see it: A picture of a lamb, or a cat, or a dog, or a horse, or a rhino… Yes, she actually did do pictures of all of these animals, and a hundred others.

Somehow, in the hands of a master craftswoman, the random threads became something beautiful. From the underside it looked like nothing but a tangle of random string, but from the top, it was breathtaking.

Imagine for a moment you are a sheep. And each one of you has a different color coat. Some are white, some brown, some yellow, some blue, some red, some… Tie dyed. Each of you has a unique coat, with a unique color, that God made only for you.

If you hold back your life, from the Good Shepherd, and your coat from His Father the Master Craftsman, you can never, ever become what you were made to be. The enemy will come in and slaughter you. Your unique color will never be woven into the fabric of creation.

If you refuse to drink from the Living Water of God's Holy Spirit, and instead choose to drink from the polluted wells of consumer society, you will never grow the coat God designed you to have. You will grow sick, and die. But, there is another way…

Don't despise your sheepishness. Don't walk around life trying to be a cat, or a dog, or a horse, or a rhino. Be a sheep. Listen for the Shepherd's voice amidst the maddening noise of the world.

Give thanks for the times when you are sheared- even though they are often painful- knowing that God is making something beautiful out of all of your trouble, just like He made resurrection out of the death of His Son.

And, if you surrender yourself to the guidance of the Good Shepherd, He will lead you to the pasture of life, because He alone has walked through the valley of Death, and He knows the way home.

If you drink deeply from the Spirit's living water, you will grow healthy and strong, and your coat will be shining and glorious.

And if you surrender yourself to be sheared by the Father, who is the Master Craftsman, he will take your wool and weave it into a picture that you scarcely would have imagined, and never will forget.

And now, may you find true life in the Living Water of the Spirit. May you find true Love in the arms of the Good Shepherd, Jesus Christ. And may you find true purpose in the Master Craftsman, God the Father Almighty. Amen+

2007-04-25

Restoring or Distorting Christianity?

[The following is a letter written to some hokey heretics who run a website called http://restoringchristianity.com. Their ideas stem from a familiar hyper-protestant assumption that they are "restoring" the "true Church" after it has been corrupted for 19 centuries. This, of course, assumes that God allowed His Church to be lost for nearly 2000 years without doing anything until he raised up this new group to restore everything! Anyway, the three keys to the website are:

1. They claim there is no Trinity, Jesus is not God, and the only God is the Father. But, if you wonder why Trinitarianism makes sense (and they don't!), and why Jesus is God, read CS Lewis "Mere Christianity", Peter Kreeft's "Handbook of Christian Apologetics", Thomas Oden's "Systematic Theology", Athanasius' "On the Incarnation", and Augustine's "De Trinitatae".


2. They claim that salvation is conditional, and we must be baptized into Christ to be saved. But, of course, one may ask: How would baptism save us if Christ is not divine, since we are being included in Him? It would seem that only God could save us and bring us to God, and if Christ is not God, he is a created being like us who needs to be saved just as we do.
3. They claim that their anti-Trinitarianism is a new idea, and unknown for most of Church History. This is utterly bogus too. Read on to find out more!

So, I wrote this letter to mock their assumptions, in a tone which makes it sound like I approve of them. Everything here is tongue-in-cheek. But note, I never actually use words of approval. I wonder if they will catch on…]


Welcome to the club!

It looks like you have found what I like to call the "open secret": The belief that Jesus is not a god, much less "the God". So many have often wondered why simple-minded Christians (and many with much more intellectual firepower) would want to affirm such a complex and paradoxical doctrine.

As you have so shrewdly noted, we must allow our pure reason and logic to govern our interpretation of the Scriptures, and allow no conceptions of God which are not fully comprehendible within the bounds of individual, personal reason at all. We are individuals made in God's image- the image of a solitary, single individual Mind- and therefore we cannot allow any so-called community, tradition, or other human invention to impede our rational progress. It is obvious to all enlightened people that this is the only way.

Thus, we were quite obviously made to stand alone as solitary individuals before God, with our chief test in life to comprehend and assent to Truth as God has propositionally revealed His Truth in Scripture. There is no higher purpose for humankind than the rational apprehension of, and application of, propositional Truth! We shall know the Truth, and the Truth shall set us free!

So, I am quite excited you have unshackled yourself from the chains of all tradition, community, and the so-called historical development of Christian doctrine. In fact, this leads to my critique of your website:

You claim that what you present is the "minority" position in Christian history. You also demonstrate a somewhat limited knowledge of the facts of history. Why sell yourself short? Why sell human intellect and intuition short?

If you will, let me instruct you on some historical facts about the belief in one unitary God, as opposed to a Trinity, and why this may be the majority view of God, not a minority.

First of all, it is clear that the Jews believed in a single, simple Divine Unity. Whether through human reason alone, or through borrowing from the Jews, the ancient Greek philosophers such as Plato and Artistotle believed in Divine Unity too. In fact, Islam can be seen as a misguided attempt to restore Divine Unity from the paradoxical concept of the Trinity.

Secondly, I would argue that Divine Unity has either been a strong minority, or actual majority, belief within Christianity for it's entire History, especially within its self-proclaimed Intellectually Enlightened followers.

During the first few centuries, belief in Divine Unity was expressed among a number of movements that later were deemed "heretical". Gnostics, Dynamic Monarchians, Adoptionists, Ebionites, Manichees, and a host of other Christian groups that were eventually declared outside of "the Church" held views similar to, or identical to, Divine Unity. For a biased but useful sketch of such movements, check out Irenaeus' five books of "Against Heresies" (Adversus Haereses),

The Biblical scholar and theologian Arius let the cat out of the bag and openly declared Divine Unity in the 300's. Contrary to your [mis]reading of history, Arius almost took the day and defeated the arch-Trinitarian bishop Athanasius. Most of the Roman Emperors of the fourth century were smart enough to realize the practical wisdom of Divine Unity, and tried to suppress the Trinity doctrine any way they could, and get rid of the Nicene Creed. Even the great Empweror Constantine and his friend bishop Eusebius held views similar to Divine Unity.

Throughout the middle ages, many thinkers and groups held views of Divine Unity. These people were ruthlessly dealt with by capital punishment and even by open warfare (in some Crusades and the Inquistion). Groups that held views like Divine Unity include the Albigenses, Cathari, and Bogomiles. Unitarianism grew nonetheless in certain areas, notably Spain, until the condemnation of Felix of Urgel by the Frankish Church in A.D. 799. Since these groups and thinkers were so ruthlessly dealt with, we do not have any idea what their extent was. However, we do know there were enough of them to demand a seven year crusade to stamp out the Albigenses.

As an organized movement Unitarianism, first in Poland and Hungary, dates from the Anabaptists of the Reformation, but not until recently have there been Unitarian denominations. It was revived in the Reformation period and was most obvious among Socinians. It spread particularly in Poland and Hungary in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and later in England and America.

Prominent anti-Trinitarian proponents were Girgio Blandrata, Francis David, Michael Servetus, Fausto Sozzini, and John Biddle. Servetus died at the stake for his views, but others fared better. In Poland the physician Blandrata dominated the early phases of the movement until 1563. In 1565, Polish Unitarians were excluded from the Reformed Church, but created their own “Minor Church” and issued the Unitarian Racovian Catechism in 1605. After the death of Sozzini (1604) they lost influence. In 1638 Jesuits took over their college, and in 1658 Unitarians were expelled from Poland.

Meanwhile Blandrata had gone to Hungary and won his monarch John Sigismund to anti-Trinitarianism. David was made Unitarian bishop in 1568, but had troubles after the king’s death, and died in the dungeon. Although harassed by the government, Unitarians created a common confession in 1638, and later were recognized.

English Unitarianism is traced to John Biddle, although no separate congregation existed until Theophilus Lindsey formed Essex Chapel, London. Joseph Priestley ministered to Unitarian congregations in Leeds and later Birmingham before a mob destroyed his chapel and his belongings. In 1794 he went to the United States and formed a church at Northumberland, Pennsylvania. English Unitarians were recognized by law in 1813; the British and Foreign Unitarian Association was formed in 1825; and in 1881 the national conference was created.

Alongside of this is he development of English Deism, which holds a doctrine of Divine Unity and actually boasted having many (if not most) of the English clergy and university professors during the 17th-19th centuries, although most could not be "open" about their Deistic views because English Law demanded adherence to Trinitarianism if they were to hold clerical positions or professorships.

Isaac Newton, who had Deistic leanings, had begun to unlock the secrets of the universe, while John Locke peered into the human mind. Locke’s "Reasonableness of Christianity" (1695) was a spur to the rationalization of the Christian faith, and it is implicitly anti-Trinitarian, although though he disavowed claims of Deists to be following his lead.

As early as 1624 Lord Herbert of Cherbury had taught that all religions had five basic ideas in common and denied the need for revelation. In 1696 John Toland published "Christianity not Mysterious", and Matthew Tindal produced the most competent exposition of this natural religion in "Christianity as old as the Creation" (1730). Both of these books highlight the idea that Divine Unity is the most rationalistic form of religious belief, and the type of religious belief most universally known to enlightened people.

And, back on the continent in Germany and France, the ideals of Divine Unity took over early, and all but wiped out Trinitarian belief by the mid-1800's. Philosophers like Immanuel Kant, and theologians like Fredereich Schleirmacher, were very successful in pointing out how irrational belief in the Trinity was, and how it needed to be re-interpreted at worst, abandoned at best. In fact, the State Church of the Nazis taught a form of Divine Unity developed from German rationalism.

But the most successful Unitarian church body has been in the USA. Prominent Americans like Thomas Jefferson and Ben Franklin held anti-Trinitarian ideas. The first Unitarian congregation—King’s Chapel, Boston—was formed out of the oldest Episcopal parish in America when the rector, James Freeman, ignored references in the Book of Common Prayer to the Trinity and the divinity of Christ. American Unitarianism developed in the Congregational churches of Massachusetts. More recently, Jehovah's Witnesses have developed and thrived from an essentially Unitarian theology.

So, far from being a hidden idea, or a minority opinion, I would argue that what you espouse on your website is at least one form of regular, garden variety Religion (if not THE form).

So congratulations on going where the natural human mind takes you: To a non-divine, non-mysterious, non-problematic Jesus Christ. You are now just like everyone else who denies that Jesus is YHWH (i.e. Lord). Perhaps your streamlined, rationalized faith will lead you to greater self-esteem, more self-reliance, and liberation from the bondage of classical Christianity. And may providence direct you as you seek to "restore Christianity", and may God reward you according to what your doctrine deserves.

2007-04-22

DRAMA AND DOGMA

DRAMA AND DOGMA
A Sermon for Year C, Easter-3
By Nathan L. Bostian

Let us pray: Come Lord Jesus: Fill us with your Spirit, and drive far from this place anything that would distract us from you. Let your Word transform our mind, reform our heart, and conform our will: That we may know you more clearly, and love you more dearly, and follow you more nearly, now and forever. Amen+

I have to admit it: I love the 80's. One of the reasons why my wife and I got rid of cable TV, is because we wasted literally whole days of our lives watching the various VH-1 renditions of "I love the 80's" and mockumentaries of hair bands and all-time worst rap songs.

I am a child of the 80's, and in many ways I will always be stuck in the era of Reaganomics, female shoulder pads, Tom Cruise bomber jackets, acid washed jeans, and t-shirts for "The Cure". Sometimes I still listen to Synth Rock, Punk Rock, Hair Bands, and rap songs performed by guys who wore enormous clocks around their necks.

And, its not just me. It seems that everyone I know has a fascination with some era in history, whether it is the one they grew up in, or an era much earlier than that.

And that leads me to a question: Why do we have such a love-hate relationship with history? Because it seems like culture is schizophrenic on this subject (and a hundred others!)

On one hand, our culture makes money hand-over-fist by playing on our nostalgia. We dedicate whole channels to it (the History Channel: All Nazis, all the time!). We make movies about it all the time, whether tales of fallen dictators, stories about sinking ships, or tragedies about greased-down Greek warriors. And every five years you can be assured that some type of retro fashion trend will be dug out of the closet, and make everything old, new again.

Yet, as much as we love nostalgia, we usually hate history. Very few of us have any interest in knowing it, and even fewer of us think we can learn from it. Most of us suffer from a self-imposed blindness that CS Lewis calls "chronological snobbery". It is the false belief that just because we have computers, flush toilets, and other technological advances over past ages, we are also more advanced than they are socially, morally, and spiritually.

We are sure that if THEY had the level of technology WE have, all they would do would be wage endless wars on each other, with staggering death tolls, all while technologically rich countries systematically oppress poorer countries. Wait a minute…

Anyway… There is no greater evidence of chronological snobbery than among those who believe that the classical Christian faith- especially as expressed in our Creed- that this faith is hopelessly outdated, and needs a new image. They want to do the theological equivalent of "pimp my ride".

A great example of this is found in an interesting book I was recently given called "Creating Uncommon Worship". On one hand, it is filled with many interesting ways to make our style of liturgical worship more rich and impacting. On the other hand, it is also filled with a revisionist attack on classical Christianity, particularly the Creed.

It's author says that the Creed causes us to turn a "somersault in an unceasing attempt to make sense of… thought forms and issues which no longer have much meaning for us." It is "an indication of the perverseness of the Church in obscuring Jesus behind a smokescreen of fourth-century philosophical jargon."

Notice the first move here. The Creed is not wrong because it is untrue, but because it is old. It is the Creed's fault for not using up-to-date language that we can understand… not OUR responsibility to try and understand what it is really saying, and ONLY THEN judge it.

Could you imagine if you required your psychology, calculus, or economics professors to speak in "thought forms and issues" that were meaningful to you, before you took notes? Would you tell the IRS to use jargon you could understand, before paying your taxes?

I think it makes sense that if we are going to really try to understand God, it might require us to stretch our brains a bit… Don't you?

Then the author pulls his second weapon: Inclusion. He says "Those Christian traditions which today insist on the Nicene Creed as the only permissible creedal formula exhibit a mind-blowing insensitivity to how far humankind has since traveled"

There you have it. Because it is old and crusty- not because it is untrue- the Creed violates our sense of inclusivity, and the triumph of our undeniable progress… undeniable as long as you don't speak to any victim of the genocides or world-wars of the last century.

To be more inclusive, the author says that the local "community of faith might take on the project of writing its own creed, giving unique expression to the life and power of God in its midst."

Let me get this straight. By creating a local creed, written by a small group of people, from one place, at one time, we are more inclusive than using a Creed that has been used for dozens of centuries, by every tribe, and tongue, and sex, and age, of people.

Yep, that's REAL inclusive.

Actually, it is the ultimate form of Ageism, because it ignores and excludes whole eras of humanity, in favor of our little clique here and now. If we want to be really inclusive, shouldn't we actually include the whole Church through all time and not just a select group of wealthy folk, educated in the western intellectual tradition?

GK Chesterton calls this the "democracy of the dead", because we allow the whole communion of saints- not just our little club of like-minded people- to guide us in our life in Christ.

The third weapon he pulls out is what I call the "enlightened sneer". He uses it when he says that those who use a Creed demonstrate "a marked lack of creativity", and that "[t]o recite parrot-fashion the Nicene Creed is no way… for grown-ups to reaffirm their faith."

Someone has said that a picture is worth a thousand words. If that is true, a sneer is worth a thousand pictures. With one facial contortion, without any argument at all, the argument gets decided.

[SNEERING] "Oh, you couldn't possibly believe that old-fashioned idea, could you?"

With one roll of the eyes, the opposition is silenced…

[SNEERING, EYE ROLLING] "Oh, not that tired stuff again."

The sneer is the perfect tactic for the person who feels like rejecting something, but cannot come up with any valid reason why. Just gather a group of people who look like you, and think like you, and by using the sneer you can reject ANYONE and ANYTHING as utterly irrelevant… Without EVER actually justifying it!

Just say they are not "creative", or they are just "parrots", or they are not "adult". And if that doesn’t work, simply flash that ever-so-knowing look to your friends that signifies that "we KNOW we are SO much smarter than these peasants".

But notice, the author here has proved nothing, other than His own taste. He has not demonstrated whether the Creed was right or wrong, true or false. He has simply shown that His enlightened community does not LIKE it.

The closest he comes to any factual statement about the Creed is to note that it was "not handed down to us from God on tablets of stone", but was a product of fierce debate, fighting, and historical development. But this does not make the Creed untrue, because EVERY field of knowledge, from Scripture to Science, comes to us through fierce debate, fighting, and historical development.

He also repeats the myth that the Creed- and classical Christianity- came about because it had all of the power on its side. In actual reality, Saint Athanasius, the greatest proponent of the Creed and the faith it proclaimed, was EXILED at least five times because He would not stop teaching it.

This is because the Creedal faith proclaims a Reality that threatens human power:

It starts by proclaiming that God is a Trinity. God is three Persons in one unified Being, three Subjects in one Object, three Personalities in one Reality.

God is Triune because God is Love. The inner-reality of God is Love, shared between the Father, Son, and Spirit for all eternity… and our creation and salvation, are entirely from the overflow of this Love.

The next thing the Creed proclaims- which flows logically from the Reality of the Trinity- is that this God became uniquely and fully present, in space and time, in the Person of Jesus of Nazareth. In Jesus the unknown God becomes knowable, and the untouchable God is touched.

This is why the Creed says that Jesus is "God from God", and the same "Being" as the Father. It means He is fully part of the Reality that is God, and there was never a time when He wasn't God.

This is also why it says that Jesus is "light from light". The metaphor here is fire. Fire is three aspects of one reality: The Source, the Light, and the Heat. These three aspects are different, but can never exist apart from each other. The Father is the Source, Jesus is the Light, and the Holy Spirit is the heat.

And this is why the Creed says that Jesus is "begotten" of the Father, and not "made". The analogy here is that humans MAKE things that are not human- like computers, cars, and furniture. But humans can only BEGAT- or cause the birth of- other humans. Jesus comes forth from the Father, but not as something made by the Father. Instead, the Creator can only begat someone that is the same as the Creator. Jesus is one with this Creator, not just His creation.

Now, for the first three centuries of this faith, the Church was persecuted from outside by the Roman State, and from the inside from pseudo-Christian groups who wanted to create a easier-to-control, more "culturally-relevant", faith.

And once Christianity became the religion of the Roman Empire, it did not mean that the rich, complex Trinitarian faith won. In fact, most Roman emperors, for a century after Christianity became accepted, saw that a fully Divine Christ was a threat to their power.

If the Church proclaimed a Jesus who was fully God, then that meant that Christ was more important than the Empire, and even more important than the Emperor. With a fully divine Christ, if the choice was "follow the Emperor" or "follow Christ", the choice was clear.

But, if the Church proclaimed a simple, unitary God, and a Christ who was just a really good guy- and not the God-man- then the Emperor had a place to stand. The Emperor is God's man on earth, just like Jesus was. And, if Christ is not God, the Emperor's rules RULE. This is why 1700 years later Hitler supported a state religion which said Jesus was not God. It made his "final solution" possible.

So, for that century most Emperors condemned and exiled Church leaders who supported the Creed and the God-man it proclaimed. They wanted power, and they needed a tame Jesus to get it.

Yet, despite persecution, the Creed and the faith it represents won out. Not because those who supported it were more powerful, but because it more accurately reflected the Reality of God in Christ.

Now, I am not saying the Creed is perfect, nor that it is easy to understand. I am simply saying it is true, and it safeguards realities that are essential to knowing who God is, and who we are.

Perhaps the best objection I have heard about the Creed is this: In Scripture, when we read the Drama of Christ's life, death, and resurrection, we find something vibrant, passionate, and powerful. He appears personally. He impacts lives. He changes the world.

When we see the Drama of Heaven found in our reading from Revelation, we encounter something dynamic, fiery, and alive. How does this Drama relate to the cold, objective, complex Dogma we find in our Creed? Doesn’t this Creed somehow flatten our Faith and make it something LESS alive than the Jesus we worship?

Perhaps…

But, the Dogma of the Creed relates to the Drama of Jesus in the same way that skydiving classes relate to the actual experience of skydiving.

Now, you might be able to strap on a parachute, jump out of a plane, and land safely, without ever even reading the instructions or being instructed. You might… But would you really want to bet on it?

Would you complain that the instructor used too much jargon… or that what they described was not relevant to your experience?

No. You would get instructed. It would probably be slightly boring, and it would seem a little irrelevant. But it would make your actual experience of skydiving much more enjoyable, and it might just save your life.

Now, the Creed is a bit like a checklist before skydiving. It is a list of the essential things you need to remember on your journey with God. It was developed by three centuries of people who suffered and died for the Christ it preaches, and it has been re-affirmed by 17 centuries of people who suffered and lived for the God it proclaims.

It is the result of the Church wrestling with the fact that there is one God, but that somehow this God is known in Jesus, the Holy Spirit, and the Father. It comes from the deep realization that ONLY God can save us and bring us to Godself, and that Jesus is the ONE who does this. It stems from the understanding that we simply cannot find God on our own, but that God has found us in Jesus.

There is one thing I concur with the author on. He says our affirmation of faith "has to be something we are proud to say, not an embarrassment." We should be able to "[a]ffirm our faith in God and in the risen Lord Christ without having to cross our fingers behind our backs."

I agree. Let us declare our common belief in the Reality of the Triune God, who has been made known to us in Jesus Christ. Let us affirm our faith loudly and proudly with the whole Church, in every place, through all time. And let us remember that this is just a checklist to help us dive deep into the life of God, and not a substitute for the Drama of loving Christ passionately, with our whole heart. Amen+

And now join me in affirming this faith along with God's people around the world, and all of the prophets, saints, apostles, and martyrs who have gone before us, by praying together the words of our Creed found on page 358.

2007-04-16

SOME METAPHYSICAL CAUSES OF THE REFORMATION

In response to one of my posts, my buddy Matt asked a great question:

I have one question: You mentioned that if the Catholic Church would have listened to Aquinas, Augustine and others the Reformation may have been avoided. However, many Protestants believe that a major part of what sparked the Reformation was the scholastic synthesis of faith and reason achieved by Aquinas and exaggerated by Averroes and Ockam. Some believe that the problem of the Reformation was caused by Aquinas's "secularization" of faith. What would you say about that? Just curious.

In response to Matt:

Actually, my friend, I strongly disagree with the analysis that Aquinas' scholastic theology as a cause of the Reformation. Here's the reasons:

Averroës (d. 1198) was the Islamic philosopher who sought to combine Aristotle with Islamic theology, and thus forge a route between theology, science, and politics in the golden age of Islamic civilization. In the west, we like to think of Averroës as doing something totally new, but he really wasn't. The Eastern Church NEVER lost the Greek philosophical tradition like the West did. The East was doing theology in light of the contributions of both Plato, the various Neo-Platonic schools, and Aristotle the entire time. Averroës got his information about Aristotle from the Islamic conquest of Alexandria and other centers of Eastern learning.

When Aquinas (d. 1274) reclaimed Aristotle (via Islamic sources, coming mainly through Moorish Spain and ports in Italy) for use in Christian theology, it was radically new to the largely Platonic West, but nothing new in the East. His synthesis of faith and reason, using Aristotle as a tool was nothing new to the Eastern Church, who had been reading Aristotle in Greek the entire time that the West was bogged down in barbarians and had forgotten all about their classical heritage (all except the Irish, but that is another story). The use of Aristotle in the West eventually led to the twin developments of the experimental / scientific method on one hand, and nominalism on the other hand. This then provided the philosophical underpinnings of the reformation. yet, none of these developed in the East, which, ironically, had been using Aristotle for centuries. Why?

It all starts with Plato. Plato had created a thought system where everything was reasoned from the top-down, by deduction from universal principles to specific applications. In an over-simplification of Plato's system, it is not necessary to consult empirical data to draw conclusions. Reasoning from universals is all that is needed to gain valid conclusions. Aristotle represented a mediating position, that still had room for universals, but also required inducing universal principals by examining specific data. Yet, universals were still a real entity toward which specific data pointed to in Aristotles scheme. The clear weakness in Plato's system was that it had no real use for the specific, concrete facts of daily existence, except as mirrors of universals. Plotinus and other Neo-Platonists took this to its logical extreme and declared that matter is bad and is to be discounted altogether. We should strive for pure spiritual existence in the world of the forms. This got transmuted into the manifold forms of Gnosticism, which all had the central theme that humans were trapped spiritual essences that had to flee evil matter by understanding esoteric spiritual knowledge.

Aristotle was an attempt to mediate between the importance of matter and spirit, universal and particular. Yet, the West's greatest early theologian, Augustine, was not Aristotelian. He was a convert to Christianity from Manichean dualism, which was basically a variety of Neo-Platonic thought. Augustine's default metaphysics then was a Christianized version of Platonism. As a believer in the Incarnation and the goodness of creation, Augustine rejects those aspects of Platonism that demean material existence. Yet, there is still a great tendency in Augustine and all other Western theology up to the modern era to rank "spirit" above "matter", put "faith" above "reason", and have a somewhat negative view of embodied life, including sexuality.

Aquinas, seeing the advances of Islamic society, and the opportunities offered by Aristotle's philosophical framework, chose to exploit it. And, he put the role of philosophy in a very wise place: as handmaiden, or servant, to theology. Not an equal partnership. This is wise, because it does not let the philosophy dominate the theology (as in later folks like Kant, Hegel, Schleiermacher, Bultmann, and such). Neither does it deny philosophy altogether and pretend it doesn't exist, only to have it silently infiltrate the Christian worldview (like how American individualism and pluralism has infected so many of our church bodies in the USA). Aquinas chose to use a philosophy which allowed for full value to be given to both spirit and matter, both universal and particular.

In the West, the positive development of this was the rise of modern science. Those who followed him led by stages to a group of thinkers who studied the natural world to understand the universal physical laws that governed the interaction of matter. But, negatively, folks like Occam (d. 1349) took this emphasis on particular, specific evidence and ran it into the ground. In Occam's philosophy of nominalism, universals became merely "names" (Latin nominus) granted to groups or categories of individual things. Also, nominalism likewise streamlined the concept of "cause". For Aquinas and others, causality was multifaceted. There was a material cause (the physical stuff involved), the formal cause (that form or pattern which makes the matter what it is), the efficient cause (the agent that acts), and the final cause (the purpose or goal of the activity). For nominalists the cause is whatever could be reduced to the simplest answer, without "multiplying causes". Usually this meant only acknowledging a material cause, and possibly an efficient cause.

Thus, for Platonists, a chair is a chair because it participates in the universal form of "chairness" that exists in the world of forms. The specific chair is not near as "real" as the spiritual form of "chair". For Aristotle and Aquinas, a chair is a chair because it participates in universal laws (formal cause) that govern the interaction of matter and energy (material cause), formed by an intelligent designer (efficient cause), who makes it for the goal of handling the human posterior (final cause). For nominalism, a chair is merely a name assigned to a bunch of things that are similar in being able to hold human butts. It is a helpful fiction to make sense of the world (like all language). Its only real cause is the interaction of matter and energy. Attempts to reach for a cause greater than that is either borrowing (wrongly) from Aristotle, or can be (rightly) reduced to matter and energy interacting.

In my estimation, Aristotle is the rightful mediating position between over-emphasizing the spiritual world of universal forms on one hand, and the material world of bare particulars on the other:

--------------------------
[Universal - Spiritual]

- - Spiritual monism - Pantheism - Gnosticism

- - Plato - Neo-Platonism - Plotinus

- - Aristotle - Aquinas

- - Occam - Nominalism

- - Material monism - Radical empiricism - Deconstruction

[Particular - Material]
--------------------------

Early nominalists had a place for minds and spiritual particulars in their scheme of things. But it was only time until the nominalist questioning of causes and universals turned on itself, and decided that invisible minds and invisible spirits were both un-needed hypotheses to explain the causality of the natural world (hence the famous Enlightenment statement: "God? I have no need of that hypothesis."). In my way-too-simplified schema of Western Intellectual history, Medieval Nominalism leads to Reformation Memorialism. For instance, Eucharist becomes a memorial meal rather than a participation in the Universal essence of Christ. Justification becomes a legal name pronounced on sinners as "not guilty", instead of an actual ontological transformation from sinner into new creation. The Church is no longer an ontological unity as "the Body of Christ", but merely a Name to denote a collection of like-minded individuals with the same faith. Thus, it becomes easy to split the Church because the Church is nothing but a helpful name to call things.

Reformation Memorialism becomes Enlightenment Rationalism. All natural phenomena can be understood as cause and effect by rational minds. Reason is exalted over all, and is supposedly universally available to all people who will objectively look at the evidence. Furthermore, the mass destruction caused by the wars of Religion between Christian and Christian lead to the practical conclusions that: (a) If there is a spiritual reality, it has little power to stop human suffering at the least, and at the most it is positively dangerous; (b) Spirituality must be confined to the private sphere, because in the public sphere it wreaks havoc.

Enlightenment Rationalism becomes Modern Empiricism. Cause and effect are no longer so much understood by reason, as by our bare senses and technical skill, replicating experiments on sensible matter over and over until we master natural processes. The other difference between Enlightenment Rationalism and Modern Empiricism is that in the Enlightenment, the hypothesis of the human soul as some type of entity distinct from the matter of the body was still generally accepted. But, in modern empiricism the nominalist tendency even negates the need for the soul, and the rational self itself becomes just a part of the process of cause and effect.

Modern Empiricism leads the hyper-modern deconstruction. Minds don’t mean anything. Words don't mean anything. Everything is just a bunch of particulars, with no overarching reason, purpose, metanarrative, or mind governing it. All that is left is power and manipulation of the particulars. Words are just games and legal fiction to manipulate people and gain power over situations. In the words of Valdomort in the Sorcerer's Stone: "There is no good and evil, there is only power, and those too weak to seek it". The philosophy of hell, the abolition of man.

All this means is that it was not Aquinas' use of Aristotle that led to the Reformation, because the use of Aristotle in the East never led to anything like Nominalism, nor to a Church-splitting reformation. Granted, the East never went through the type of scientific revolution that the West went through (although Islamic society had a small scientific revolution). But, apparently it is possible to use Aristotle as a metaphysical mediating position without falling into the errors of Nominalism and her children.

So, what accounts for the rise of Nominalism, which formed the philosophy that metaphysically validated the Reformation?

It think it is the Western lust for power and control. The West has been pre-occupied with power for 1500 years, largely as a hangover from the early middle ages. In the early middle ages (the fall of Rome- 400-600 AD), the Church of Rome had a unique position in Western civilization, namely that the Western Church, her Pope, and her monasteries basically held the West together during the conquests of the Barbarian tribes. For centuries, the Pope and his bishops had to function as political kings to protect citizens, negotiate treaties, and even wage wars, to keep civilization intact. The Western Church came to own and govern huge tracts of land, and the citizens who lived in it. After this, the Western Church went into the King-making business, acting as the divine guarantor of secular power, reaching a high point when the Pope crowned (and validated) Charlemagne as the new Holy Roman Emperor around 800 AD. The political power of the Western Church reached its zenith in the Crusades, when the Pope was able to unite all Europe in open warfare.

The Eastern Church, while not immune to intense struggles over political power, never was able to gain the same type of power monopoly the Roman Church did. It always had to share power with a strong governmental arm, which it could never fully control. For one thing, until the 1400's there was always a governmental structure that protected the people from most invasions, so that the Eastern Church never had the opportunity, nor ability to get a monopoly on the ruling business. Even when Islam took over much of the Eastern sphere, the Eastern Church was still largely able to function as a tolerated, yet politically powerless, minority group. Thus, the Eastern Church became either the "religious arm" of the governmental complex of Christendom (as in the Byzantine Empire), or it became a tolerated minority (as in Islamic societies). The power grabs of the Eastern Church were mainly religious in nature, except for the occasional plot to overthrow an emperor here and there. Contrast this with the Papacy, who actually had several Popes make the claim that ALL religious and secular power on Earth flows from the throne of Peter.

All of this is to say that what started out as something good became something very, very bad. Power corrupted the deep DNA of the Western Church. Near 1054 this led the Pope to try and add the phrase "and the Son" (filioque) to the ecumenical Nicene Creed on his own authority. In this move, theological rationale for such a change was second to the political move, which was basically to say that if the Pope could successfully change the Creed itself on his own power, then he effectively proved his right to rule as monarch over the entire Church. This led to the mutual excommunication of Eastern and Western Churches in 1054. Later, in the fourth crusade, the Pope added insult to injury by allowing Western Christians to pillage and burn the Byzantine Empire, and the seat of the Eastern Church in Constantinople.

The spiritual DNA of power and control flowed down for centuries from the Popes into the bishops and hierarchy of the Church, and into the early universities. On the university level, theology started to cease being a tool for spiritual formation (as it always was in the East), and started to be a kind of game or contest of one-upmanship. The debate format became institutionalized in the forms of Western scholastic theology. Theology became a way of asserting one group's dominance over the other, one mind's dominance over many. Faith seeking understanding began to yield way to understanding seeking power.

The western desire for power, control, and rebellion was a movement looking for a theology / philosophy to back it up. As long as one truly holds the metaphysical underpinnings of a Platonic or Aristotelian system, then one cannot break up the Church and/or leave Her without doing damage to a real universal entity. In those systems, if one departs from the visible Church, one ontologically breaks themselves off from the Body of Christ. Furthermore, such a thought system makes it harder to break up any corporate entity, because any corporate entity (such as a marriage, a family, or a nation) is a real ontological entity. But, if one ascribes to nominalism (or any of its progeny), one does not actually break up an entity if one leaves the Church, or breaks up a corporate entity. All one has done is re-group a set of particulars into a new group and given them a name.

To bring it all back to the initial question: I view the synthesis of Aristotle by Aquinas as one of the wisest mediating positions between the extremes of Platonism (and its progeny) and Nominalism (and its progeny). Aquinas in many ways (but not all) represents a good way to get the West back on track.

So, using Aristotilian-Thomistic terms, I would say that the cause of the Reformation was:

1. The drive for power, control, and rebellion by the Western Church (final cause)

2. Nominalist metaphysics (formal cause)

3. A Church badly abused by excesses of clericalism, lack of catechesis and formation, and an insane "pop-theology" of salvation by bribing God (material cause)

4. A series of Church leaders bold enough to speak out, and a bunch of local barons and kings willing to use the reformation for a land grab (efficient cause)

2007-04-15

THE REALITY YOU CAN BET YOUR LIFE ON

THE REALITY YOU CAN BET YOUR LIFE ON
A Sermon for Year C, Easter 2
By Nathan L. Bostian

Let us pray: Come Lord Jesus: Fill us with your Spirit, and drive far from this place anything that would distract us from you. Let your Word transform our mind, reform our heart, and conform our will: That we may know you more clearly, and love you more dearly, and follow you more nearly: So others may see your light shining through us, and they too may share in the abundant life of our God. Amen+

Have you ever been lied to? I mean, right to your face lied to? How did you know they were lying?

My wife, Kim, has a child in class who consistently forgets homework, forgets to get report cards signed, forgets to come to school, and forgets to treat other people like human beings. And she always has an excuse. Well, my uncle died… And when Kim finds out there was no funeral, it is Kim who somehow misunderstood her.

What she meant to say was that her grandmother has DIE-abetes and had to go into the hospital… And when Kim finds out that's not true, then it is the student's sister who went to court. That's why she didn't get it done. She piles up lie upon lie upon lie, until she is so deep she can't get out. Then she cries and cries. Its never her fault. You've met folks like that… Maybe you've been someone like that.

So, how do you tell someone is lying to you? Other than gut feeling, I think we depend on three major things to tell us if someone is lying: First, does their explanation fit the facts? Is their excuse the most probable, reasonable explanation of what you see?

Second, what is their motive? What do they stand to get out of it? Why would they want to say something like that? Third, what does their lifestyle look like? Do they act and live like someone who is basically trustworthy, or something far less?

In the case of Kim's student, the answer is clear. The explanations don't fit the facts, the kid's motive is to avoid responsibility and consequences, and her lifestyle shows a consistent pattern of manipulating the truth.

But there is another, perhaps more difficult, case: How do we know if someone is unknowingly repeating someone else's lie? Everyone in this room who has email knows an example of what I am talking about: Urban Myths. We get dozens of them every week in our inbox.

The kind I am particularly wary of is political emails. Those who are zealots of either side of the political spectrum generally enjoy spamming libelous gossip, of the worst kind, about the leaders of the opposition. During the Clinton years, it was wild accusations from the right about Clintonian conspiracy theories. Now, it is the left-wing's hobby to do the same thing to the Bush administration.

How can we tell if such things are no more than repeated lies? Well, I think the three factors I outlined above deal with this too: First there is the motive factor. Does the person repeating the gossip, want to believe what it says, for personal satisfaction? Here is a quick test to see if someone is a political zealot: Do they want to believe the worst about their opponents, to prove they are superior to them?

Second, does the explanation make the best sense out of the facts? One of my favorite sources for checking the facts about urban myths is snopes.com. The next time you get an email you think might be mythical gossip, check snopes.com out.

Third, does the lifestyle of the person or organization bear out that they are trustworthy? Are they the kind of folks you would want to testify at your trial, or back you up in a crisis?

And this question- how do you sniff out a lie- brings us to our readings today. Christians make lots of claims about Christ and His resurrection. We claim that this resurrection changes everything: It gives us power to live this life, with love and purpose, and it gives us a sure hope for the next life. We claim that this is the central event in history, and that it has the power to transform the world.

And all of this hinges on whether the resurrection is- in any real sense- true. Did it happen in reality? St. Paul himself says in his first letter to Corinth "If Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith." He says that we are to be pitied, for being duped by such a gullible lie, if it did not happen in reality. If it isn't real, we should sleep in on Sundays, and go to Starbucks, because all of this worship of a Risen Christ is just a bunch of bull.

So, here comes the question: Is the Church repeating a lie, knowingly lying, or telling the truth about the resurrection? It's an important question, and everything we are doing here right now hinges on it.

And if we claim to follow the God of Truth, we have to ask questions about truth. Hard questions. Questions that will lead us to turn away from falsehood, and change our lives.

There is this persistent caricature of Christian faith that says that faith is blind. It is "believing what ain't so". And there are a fair share of Christians who buy into this. They get mad at Thomas for asking questions, to try and make sense of what he was hearing.

But Thomas was right on. Because we don't have to throw our brains out to believe in Christ. And when Thomas expressed an honest doubt- not a satirical, sneering dare for God to show Himself, but an honest desire to know reality- then Jesus showed Him Reality, in His hands, and in His side.

Faith is not that which works against reason, and believes in something despite the evidence. Faith is that which listens to reason, and trusts in the most logical, plausible explanation of the data.

So, what is the most logical, plausible explanation of the data for the resurrection? Is the Church repeating a lie, lying, or telling the Truth?

First, lets look at the motive for the Church proclaiming Christ's resurrection. And lets look at the Church before Christianity became the socially acceptable, upwardly mobile, officially sanctioned religion of the Roman Empire, which nice citizens were (and still are!) expected to be a part of.

For the first 300 years of the Christian movement, what did you get for proclaiming- and standing for- faith in the Resurrected Christ? You got mocked, socially isolated, persecuted, and on some occasions, executed in exquisitely cruel ways. Just like Christ.

Now, usually when you are trying to pull a con job, you get something definite out of it: money, power, pleasure, or social status. The Church got none of this. In fact, quite the opposite.

Jesus and all of his apostles- except John- were martyred for what they proclaimed. And this pattern continued for the next few hundred years. So, that tells me that either Jesus and His disciples were the most inept- and persistent- con men in history… Or they actually believed what they were saying is true.

It seems that their motive was sincere, but that does not mean that they were not sincerely wrong.

And so we turn to the issue of lifestyle. Did the Church live as we would expect them to live if the resurrection were true? Does their life bear out that the resurrection is a reality?

Now, what I am NOT asking here is whether or not the early Christians exhibited a lifestyle that is acceptable to polite society. They most definitely did not. Just look at the text from Acts!

They prayed loudly and demonstratively, believed God was speaking through them, and claimed God did miracles among them… And, for goodness sake, they even spoke in tongues!

They were actually serious about this Jesus stuff, and thought Jesus could change the world! Then and now, there is a style of merely aesthetic, enculturated, religious belief, that is very offended by such behavior. It sneers at it. It mocks it. It feels it cannot learn anything from such uncultured, low-rent, backwards behavior.

But we are not asking if they were uncultured or poor or even emotional. We are asking if their lifestyle is that which we might expect from people who lived for a Risen Savior.

And we have to admit that it was.

How else can we explain something that took a group of scared, timid, cowardly disciples and turned them into bold missionaries that took this message of Christ around the world? How else can we explain the fact that, supernatural events such as healings and signs and wonders, followed them everywhere they preached?

And, how else can we explain the un-selfish, un-conditional, un-stoppable love exhibited by the early Christians? One of the things that Pagan Romans pointed out about early Christians was that, not only did they take care of their own poor, but everyone else's as well! It was the love of the early Christian movement, and their willingness to die for what they believed, that eventually conquered the Roman Empire- for better or for worse.

So, it seems that the early Church had both the motives and the lifestyle that would indicate that the resurrection is true. But perhaps there is another explanation for why this is so. Perhaps they are just a well-intentioned group, that was deceived by a severe kind of group-think, which made them believe and live as if the resurrection was true.

That leads us to ask the question of what explanation best fits the data that we find, in the four Gospel accounts, in Paul's resurrection account in First Corinthians chapter 15, in the rest of the New Testament, and in the writings of Christians and their non-Christian critics in the early Christian era.

Now, for the last two centuries, it has been popular for a certain form of "enlightened" scholar, who lives in the age of Newtonian physics and modern engineering, and who has seen the triumph of human technology, to cast doubt on everything we find in Scripture, and come up with innovative new hypothesis to explain the "Jesus Event".

But, unenlightened people like myself, who live in the age of quantum physics and genetic engineering, and who are well aware of the carnage created by human technology in the last century, may well question the "enlightened" assumptions of such people.

Who has a better chance at knowing the reality behind the "Jesus Event"? Shall we trust the testimony of people who lived within two decades to two centuries from the New Testament, who were in the same basic culture, who spoke the same language, who had access to sources and traditions we do not have anymore, and who suffered and died for the Resurrected Christ?

Or, shall we believe European and American scholars, who live at least 18 centuries separate from the events of the New Testament, who speak other languages, who live in radically different cultures, who have partial and fragmentary access to early sources, and who gain social prestige, and university positions by inventing creative and novel ways, to re-explain or refute the faith of the Church?

Whom shall we trust? Who has better access to the sources? Who has a more pure motive?

This is not to say that modern scholarship is useless. There are tons of things we can learn from it. If you don't believe me, ask Biblical scholars Dr. Roy Heller, or Dr. Fred Schmidt, at the seminary next door. This is just to say that scholarship which seeks to destroy, rather than build on, the faith of the early Church is deficient at best, and devious at worst.

And this is not to say that the Bible is a perfect book, free from problems, which dropped down from heaven on angel's wings. No, it is a human book through which God speaks Reality into our lives… if we will let Him.

And, as far as the key event of the Bible- the resurrection- if you read the different accounts for yourself, it is true that you will get slightly different stories from Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, and Paul. There are questions that get raised over the exact order of events, and who was where, and when. Some of these problems seem to be easily explained by reports from differing perspectives.

And some of these problems are much harder to explain.

But, have you ever been in a traffic court where multiple witnesses are testifying to the same car crash? Perhaps one was in the car, another was on the corner, another in a nearby store, and yet another watching from a building above.

They don't tell exactly the same details, and some of the details they tell the judge, may seem to be contradictory. But, from this testimony you can get a highly accurate picture of the event: The big red truck was trying to make a turn and miss the red light, but wound up blindsiding the station wagon going through the green light.

And the one thing you CANNOT say is that the wreck never happened, or it was a mass hallucination, or the drivers forgot where they parked the cars, or that it was a spiritual- not a historical- event.

Yet, that is what some "enlightened scholars" would have us believe about the resurrection. But, even with certain problems withstanding, the motive of the early Church, the lifestyle of the early Church, and the evidence of the early Church, leads us to only one most probable explanation:

Death blindsided Jesus Christ, but Jesus wrecked death forever by really, physically, historically rising from the dead.

THIS is a Reality you can bet your life on, and live your life for.

Now, may the Risen Christ show Himself to you as He did to Thomas. May you feel His presence, believe His Truth, and touch His Reality. And may He pour out upon you His resurrection Spirit, that you may make Him real to others too.

2007-04-14

WILL THE DEAD RISE UP AND PRAISE YOU?

WILL THE DEAD RISE UP AND PRAISE YOU?
A Sermon based on Psalm 88

By Nathan L. Bostian

Let us pray: Come Lord Jesus: Fill us with your Spirit, and drive far from this place anything that would distract us from you. Let your Word transform our mind, reform our heart, and conform our will: That we may know you more clearly, and love you more dearly, and follow you more nearly: So others may see your light shining through us, and they too may share in the abundant life of our God. Amen+

This is the week after Easter. The week after the event that changed history forever: When a dead and discredited Messiah defeated death itself and declared the dominion of a Love that cannot die! Jesus has triumphed over the grave! Let the whole Earth rejoice! The old has passed away, behold all things are new! Halleluiah!

Except… of course… for those who DON'T see all things new… Because, let's be honest, Christ's victory over the grave doesn't seem like such a victory for everyone. In fact, even if someone believes in the historical reality of Christ's bodily resurrection (like I do), the event itself raises legitimate, heart-breaking, questions for two types of people:

First, there are those who are still living with the reality that reality inside their soul has not changed. Jesus is risen, but they are still dead inside. If the resurrection is such a victory, how come they are not feeling the love?

Our Psalm today speaks of such people. Those who cry out from the depths of their soul to God: "I am counted among those who go down to the pit; I am like a man without strength… Your wrath lies heavily upon me; you have overwhelmed me with all your waves."

The Psalmist goes on: "Why, O LORD, do you reject me and hide your face from me? From my youth I have been afflicted and close to death; I have suffered your terrors and am in despair. Your wrath has swept over me; your terrors have destroyed me. All day long they surround me like a flood; they have completely engulfed me."

Can you relate? Have you ever been surrounded with the flood of your own sorrow? Have you ever felt the wrath of God laying on your back, crushing your bones with guilt? Have you ever been in a place where God's love and Christ's victory seem distant and remote… a parody of the hell you are living in, here and now?

Second, there are those who have lost loved ones who died without knowing this Jesus and His resurrection. In fact, they may have died actively denying Christ, Christianity, and even the whole "God-business" all together. Is Christ's resurrection a victory for them too? Or, has God just given up on them, thrown in the towel, and left them for dead? Even worse, is God torturing them in Hell as we speak, forever, without end?

Our Psalm cries out with these people as well: "You have taken my companions and loved ones from me; darkness is my closest friend!"

Then he launches into a series of questions that cut right to the heart of those who BOTH care about the fate of the lost, AND who also believe that Christ's resurrection is our only hope after death: "Do you show your wonders to the dead? Do those who are dead rise up and praise you? Is your love declared in the grave, your faithfulness in Destruction? Are your wonders known in the place of darkness, or your righteous deeds in the land of oblivion?"

Let me put these questions in post-resurrection terms: "God, your Word says that you are Love. Does that mean you are unconditional love that keeps on seeking your beloved, even past the grave? Or does that mean you are conditional love, that gives up on people who don't meet your expectations?"

"Jesus, you rose from the dead. Will those who died apart from you fail to see the wonder of your resurrection? Can death ultimately separate us from the Love of God that is found in you?"

Holy Spirit, your Word says we can't flee your presence even in the grave, and that you are able to take a heart of stone and make it live again. Can you make EVEN the dead rise up and praise God?"

Or, is the resurrection just "bad news" in disguise for those who are in the "out crowd"? Did God design a certain group, class, or race of people to be exempt from hope, who are too lost, too hopeless, to stubborn, too deceived, too damaged for God to reach and heal?

When all is said and done, does the Creator's Love heal His creature's corruption, or does our corruption defeat God's Love?

Have you ever cried out to God with such questions? Have you wanted to ask God, but were too afraid? Not afraid of God… but of yourself? Of your own doubt? Were you ever afraid that if you voiced such questions- even in the depths of your heart- that it would lead you to a strange and alien land far away from the God you hold so dear?

Then welcome. You are in good company.

Because doubts and questions are not the enemy of faith, but an ally. It is our doubts that lead us to ask questions. It is our questions that drive us to study and pray. And it is our study and prayer that lead us to deeper faith.

The enemy of faith is not doubt, but fear. Fear that our God- or, perhaps, the idol we have confused for God- is too little to withstand our questions, our doubts, and the cries of our heart. Fear stops growth. Fear quenches faith. Fear leads us to grasp our little pile of certainties with a death-grip, and firmly refuse to leave them and travel on a journey with Jesus to a place we never dreamed.

So, I ask you to tame your fears. Throw out your idols. Grab your questions and doubts, and let's take them to Jesus.

Because, I got news for you: It was Jesus' doubts and questions that led him on a messy, excruciating, wonderful, incredible journey that ended in an empty tomb. It started with his doubts right before he was arrested. He prayed "Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me. Yet, not my will but yours be done".

"Father, I am not so sure about this. Dad, I have doubts. Seriously, this plan seems really flawed. And to be honest, I don't think I can go through with it. Come on. Does it have to be this way? I don't know what to think here, but I am trusting you…"

Then, on the cross Jesus asked His final question "My God, my God! Why have you forsaken me?"

And this was not just his question. It is the question of the man who looses his wife, of the parent who lost her child, of the drug addict that lost his freedom, and of anyone who lost their faith and their will to live: "My God, my God! Why have you forsaken me?"

This doubt and this question: Where did it lead Jesus? It led him to the empty tomb. It led him to victory. It led him to real life. And I will confess that I truly believe that if we follow Jesus and we are honest with our doubts, and sincere with our questions, it will lead us to real life, victory, and an empty tomb as well.

Yet, our questions and doubts will lead us through the valley of death first. Without death, there is no resurrection. Our certainties will die. Our idols will be smashed. Our confidence will be shaken. But Jesus will hold on to us the whole time, even if we don’t feel Him.

But this leads us back to the question at hand: What does God do with those who are separated from His Love, either by death, by willful rebellion, or by both? The answer of the Hebrew prophets is that such people go down to the grave, which is also called "destruction" and "the pit", and it is usually pictured as a land of darkness, longing, and regret.

Jesus and the writers after Him enlarge this concept to become what we know of as hell, which is pictured by several metaphors: Consuming fire, darkness, isolation, weeping, gnashing of teeth, regret, wrath, and "the worm that does not die". If we believe the resurrection story, as I do, we have to assume that Jesus knew what he was talking about, since He descended there and conquered it by His resurrection.

What we simply CANNOT DO in dealing with our doubts and questions is simply "wish away" hell as if it does not exist: as if it is not a real option for people to choose. After all, Jesus talks about Hell more than anyone else, and he knows what He is talking about.

And, I would go further and say, along with CS Lewis, that neither hell nor heaven is something that is solely on the other side of death. They are rooted in this life and grow here and now, as we practice becoming more hellish, or more heavenly.

We can see this in our own souls, and in our communities, can't we? After all, can you envision Hitler and Stalin- if they stayed the same people they were when they died- standing along side Mother Theresa and Martin Luther King Jr. on the other side of death?

They couldn’t stand together before God in the same heaven, not because God would cast Hitler and Stalin out, but because the Love and Selflessness and Justice that made God's presence heavenly for Theresa and Martin would be hellish for Adolf and Joseph.

Heaven is not so much a place, as a Person: Being directly in the presence of the God who is pure Love shared forever among the Father, Son, and Spirit. And God wants perfectly healthy, perfectly loving, perfectly whole children to share in His dance of Love forever. In fact, He will not give up until we are wholly holy and able to fully share in His Love, as mature persons made in His image.

But God will not force His Love on anyone. And for those who will not say to God "Thy will be done", God will say to them "Thy will be done", and He will let them flee His presence and His Love. This is because, for those who are committed to their own selfishness and sin, heaven is simply hell for them.

So, we see why hell is necessary. If there is no quarantine for the infection of evil, heaven would simply become hell, as all of the social cancers of Earth were transposed and allowed to grow into eternity on the other side of death.

Those who are committed to being something less than what God has made them to be- who long to grasp a bit of their selfishness or a keep a touch of their sickness- simply cannot share in God's dance.

They are too weak and clumsy to dance the strong dance of perfect love. And if you have ever had to sit on the outside and watch others dance, while you sit ashamed of your two left feet, you know what it feels like: It is hell.

And that brings us back to the question and the doubt: Does God keep them outside of the dance forever? Have they missed out on the beauty of heaven for eternity? Is there no hope?

Here is where you must make your own journey with Jesus. Because if I gave you some dogmatic definition about the ultimate fate of the lost, it would short circuit your growth. And if I gave you five easy steps to gain God's Love, I would be guilty of giving you an idol of efficiency, instead of the living God.

But I can give you some questions to ask along your journey:

First of all, if God is as good, gracious, and loving as He appears to be in Christ, why would God keep sinners alive in hell if not for a redemptive purpose? Why would he keep you alive right now, if he is not bringing something beautiful out of you?

Second, Scripture says that hell is eternal. "Eternal" is as long as we can possibly imagine. But, how long can someone possibly imagine being without God's love? How long could someone resist the health and wholeness found in Christ, now or after death?

Finally, some Scriptures say that nothing in creation- not even death- can separate us from God's Love in Christ. They say that God wills to save all, that God can save all, and that God eventually will reconcile all things to Himself in Christ. Yet, other Scriptures speak of some being lost in hell, and being cast out of God's presence. Which group of texts will be used to interpret the others? Will texts of damnation and despair be used to interpret texts of hope and love, or the other way around? Which fits best with the God revealed in Christ's resurrection?

Perhaps the eternal "flames" of hell the same as the relentless "consuming fire" of God's love, which burns away layers of selfishness and sickness until the soul finally "opens" and receives Christ… like a seed that eventually opens after being incubated by the Son's heat.

Perhaps we will all come to see the glory of the Lord, even if we have to go through hell to get there.

And perhaps, after every death, Christ Himself brings resurrection.

This Easter, may all of your questions and doubts lead you to share in Christ's death, that you may also partake in His resurrection, and live in His Love, now and forever. Amen+

2007-04-12

The Real Head of the Anglican Communion

All Hail the floating head of Archbishop Rowan Williams!

Whatever you do, do not look directly at his eyebrows... He will own your soul forever!

2007-04-07

WHAT WILL YOU DO WITH DEATH?

WHAT WILL YOU DO WITH DEATH?
A Sermon for Year C, Easter 1
By Nathan L. Bostian

Let us pray: Come Lord Jesus: Fill us with your Spirit, and drive far from this place anything that would distract us from you. Let your Word transform our mind, reform our heart, and conform our will: That we may know you more clearly, and love you more dearly, and follow you more nearly: So others may see your light shining through us, and they too may share in the abundant life of our God. Amen+

What do you do with death? Seriously… WHAT do YOU do with death? Have you ever mourned the passing of someone close to you? A Grandparent? A Parent? A Sibling? A Friend? Have you ever had to face your OWN death? How did you deal with it?

I know a little about several people here tonight. I know nearly nothing about some. I do not know if you have common hopes and dreams. I do not know if any of you have the same fears and anxieties. I have no idea if you have similar experiences growing up… or growing old. But I do know one thing we all have in common:

We will all die. [PAUSE]

And just to make the point (and illustrate how easily statistics can be manipulated to make any point you want), think about this: The world's number one cause of death is being born. That's right. They should put a surgeon general's warning on delivery rooms! And here is another statistic they try to hide from you: 100% of the people who breathe the Earth's atmosphere will die…

So, what do YOU do with death?

CS Lewis says that there are only three things we can do about death: Desire it, Fear it, or Ignore it. Of the three, ignoring is definitely the preferred method in our society. We ignore death by idolizing youth and excluding the aged. After all, when is the last time you saw an elderly person on a commercial that was not advertising life insurance, diabetes supplies, or a retirement village? And those commercials only run from 1am to 5am in the morning.

And what about our commercials, magazines, billboards, movies, music videos, and TV shows. What do we do see? The typical woman is trying desperately to look like she is 18-25 years old, unless she is a lingerie model, in which case she is made to look 13-18 years old.

But it is OK for a man to be older, with salt-and-pepper hair… just as long as he has some fine young thing on his arm. On TV, serious illnesses are cured in an hour, and homicides are solved in 30 minutes. We almost never talk about the years of slow recovery that a long illness or a lingering death really takes.

So, in a society where we close all the caskets… keep the young people away from funerals "for their own protection"… and put our elderly in "retirement centers" so their infirmity doesn't put a hitch in our active lifestyle… what do we do with the reality that we WILL face death? What do we do when we can't IGNORE it anymore?

When we can't ignore it… When we can't medicate it away with drugs legal or illegal… When the all the botox in the world, and all the surgery we can buy, can't stop the awareness of our encroaching mortality… How do we deal with the fear of death?

I suppose you could try the ever-popular materialist philosophy of those who are FAR too intelligent to believe in "religion" of any kind. You could rise up and throw off the "crutch" of religion, and boldly face death as the end of personal existence! I mean, it is FAR easier to imagine yourself ceasing to exist after death, than to imagine personal existence after death, isn't it?

Or is it? Can you close your eyes and imagine yourself NOT existing? Really?

And, if death is so "natural", how come it FEELS so unnatural? As the most evolved and adapted species on Earth, we should be free of all the hang-ups that hinder lesser life-forms, right? Then how come we are the only life-forms that think about death, and worry about it?

Ants and fish and dogs and cats do not fear death. They do not buy life insurance. They look blandly at it. Only we spend time and money and heartache worrying about death. If death was "natural" wouldn't we stare blandly at it too?

Maybe the fact that death does not FEEL natural points to the fact that we were made for something MORE than death…

Even physics has a law of the conservation of matter and energy. Nothing ever ceases to exist. Nothing… Ever… It is just transformed into something else. Matter becomes energy which becomes matter again. Animal becomes soil which becomes plant which becomes animal.

And all of this is governed by physical laws, that are not even physical at all. Laws like gravity, general relativity, logic, and mathematics do not physically exist. You can't see them, touch them, or put them in a test tube.

And yet, they endure forever, and govern everything we see, and touch, and put in test tubes. Without enduring, non-changing, non-physical laws to govern physical matter and energy, we could have no science at all. You can't test physical matter if there are no constants that guarantee matter is testable.

So, it seems like the most probable explanation for what happens to us after death, is that this soul- this self- which has governed our physical body for our entire life, somehow lives on. Just as the immaterial laws of physics or mathematics continue even when matter changes, so also the law of ourselves continues.

Our self may be transformed. We may become something very different from what we are right now- as different as matter is from energy, or plant is from animal- but we will live on. But how? How does the self continue?

So, perhaps the Eastern Religions are right when they say that the self is but a drop from the Sea of cosmic energy that is God. And after death, our drop returns to this sea, to be lost and dissolved forever into this impersonal force we call "God".

Maybe a bit of my drop, and a bit of your drop, and a bit of her drop, and a bit of his drop, are then re-combined and "spit out" back into the world, for an endless series of re-incarnations.

We don't know who we are, or where we come from, or where we're going- but we are bound by cosmic Karma to do it over and over forever.

Is this what will give us strength and comfort in the face of death? Is the best we can hope for a loss of everything we consider our "self", as we slip into eternal unconsciousness in the Sea of an impersonal force? Is this, in the end, any different from the materialist who says that when we die we simply cease to exist?

Well, perhaps my "process theology" professors at Seminary are right. For them, God is not merely a force, but a person who is a force. And for this God, the universe is his/her/its body, just like our physical bodies are the vehicle to carry our souls. God needs us, as God's body, to be God. Without us, God does not exist. And this God is the "world-soul" that learns and grows as the creatures in its universe learn and grow.

And, when we die, our personality is absorbed back into this world-soul. We exist in the memory of God. God holds us vividly, passionately, and privately within Godself as something like a DVD. God can pull down your DVD off the rack anytime, and watch you while eating popcorn. Who knows? Some of your outtakes might even make God's favorite blooper reel!

But, it is enough for you to just exist as a memory? As a DVD recording? Is that any better than ceasing to exist or merging with the ALL? I have this gut instinct that the transformation of our soul- whatever it will look like- will be something MORE than our personal existence right now, NOT something LESS. We will be MORE aware of who we really are, not less aware.

So, what do YOU do with DEATH?

The ancients- who were much closer to death on a daily basis than our disinfected society- spoke in myth and poem of a new kind of existence that overcame death. They spoke of whole worlds of existence after death- worlds that were both scary and magnificent, inviting and repelling, hopeful and hopeless. They spoke of gods who became men, who died, and who rose again. They spoke of love that was stronger than death, and they spoke of heroes who descended to the realm of the dead to rescue those they loved.


Then there was this "Hebrew" tribe- the word was originally slang term for outsiders and barbarians, but God chose them as His own people- and their prophets foretold of a time when their God would reign supreme over everyone and judge all people at the end of time. And, as time went on, they began to speak of a resurrection of the actual bodies of the dead, after which people would be judged and live forever.

Now, comes the big question: Does all of this myth and poetry and prophecy point to something, or point to nothing? The belief systems I have outlined say they point to nothing. At least they point to something far less than PERSONAL existence.

And, if God did not intervene in real history to do something, I guess the best answer to the question would be a shrug.

But, it is EASTER… And we believe that God HAS intervened to answer the question. He fulfilled the myths and poems and prophets by becoming the Myth made Fact. He entered into history as a specific person, at a specific time, and he faced death, and drank it down to its depths: and then He SPIT IT OUT by rising again from the dead.

And it wasn't some ghostly appearance of a disembodied spirit. In our Creed, and our Scriptures, we say that Jesus "rose from the dead". But the Greek word here is much more vivid… It is "nekros", the word for corpse… Jesus literally rose from the corpses because His physical body emerged from His tomb, and was transformed into something so glorious it is hard for us to imagine.

He IS the hero who descended to the dead and defeated death itself, and freed all those who were held in death. And he frees us too from the fear of death. Because in him, we learn that death is not the end. Rather, it is something like a final birth: Where we become fully, what we are trying to become, right now.

Think about our physical birth. The conception of a human fetus is the result of the death and transformation of the sperm and egg which create it. The birth of the fetus as an infant, and its growth into a mature adult is as different from life in the womb as you could possibly imagine. But it is the transformation and fulfillment of what life in the womb is meant for.

And at our death we will be born into eternity, and fulfill what we are becoming in this life. We will fully grow into that heavenly self- or that hellish self- that we have been practicing to become for years… What you practice, you will become.

What kind of self will you give birth to after this life? What will your soul become? What will YOU do with death?

We don't have to wonder, or worry, or fear death. Christ has defeated death for us, and shown us the way home. And that way, is HIMSELF. And if we join ourselves to Him, and practice His life, we will be transformed in His likeness and share in His resurrection.

We join ourselves to Jesus by faith, by clinging to Him, like a drowning woman clings to her rescuer, like a dehydrated man clings to water.

We join ourselves to Him by Baptism, by being buried together with Him in death, so that we may share in His New Life.

We join ourselves to Him by walking with Him, following Him, and living the kind of Love that He shows us to live.

And we join ourselves to Him by Communion, as he shares his very presence with us in bread and wine, so that His resurrected life infects our bodies and becomes part of all we are.

BENEDICTION: Now may you be joined to Christ's death, that you may share in His resurrection. May you be baptized in His Love, may you cling to His Life, may you follow His footsteps, and may you partake of His resurrected life in this bread and this wine. Amen+

2007-04-01

JESUS AND GTD

JESUS AND GTD
A Sermon for Passion Sunday, Year C

I. INTRODUCTION: Today is the day when we come face to face with one of our curious and horrendous human tendencies: Our ability to completely turn our back on those who care for us the most when they don't meet our expectations. Did you notice what happened in the readings today? In the span of one week the crowd in Jerusalem went from welcoming Jesus as a King to spitting on Him as a criminal. The whole crowd. In one week the disciples went from being willing to die for Jesus to being unwilling to admit they even knew Him.

I want you to notice that [PAUSE].

They expected Jesus to be one thing, and He turned out to be another. They expected Jesus to be the Warrior Messiah who was going to destroy the Roman Army, kill all the infidels, and set up God's Kingdom on Earth, where all nations would grovel before the Jews and pay tribute money. What they got was a Jesus who came to usher in a Kingdom of Love, where ALL people- Jew AND Gentile- would Love God above all and Love each other as themselves.

The crowd expected power, and they got peace. They expected victory, and they got humility. The expected hate, and they got Love [PAUSE]. So, they turned on him and got rid of him.

And, like pretty much every story in the Bible, the important thing is not just that it happened then. But it happens now too. Because that crowd was not just them, then. It is us now. The only major difference in how we turn our backs on Jesus is that while their rejection was hot-blooded and violent, our rejection is often cold and bland. We simply don't care: about Jesus then, or about God now. We have better things to do. And we only think about God when it suits us… When we NEED something!

II. GTD DEFINED: Two years ago Oxford University Press published this book called "Soul Searching". It is a sociological study of several thousand interviews with teenagers and young adults across the US, across ethnicities, and across religions. However, by and large, even despite such diversity, there was one glaring commonality: It was the belief system espoused by the great majority of the youth surveyed, regardless of what religion they were an adherent of, and regardless of how they worshipped.

The study called the actual religion of most people "Moralistic Therapeutic Deism". Here is how they defined it (see if you have ever heard of this religion). The five main characteristics of this religion are:

"1. A God exists who created and ordered the world and watches over human life on earth.
2. God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught by the Bible and most world religions.
3. The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself.
4. God does not need to be particularly involved in one's life except when God is needed to resolve a problem.
5. Good people go to heaven when they die."

Sound familiar? Just today, I was writing this very sermon in a Starbucks and I heard someone almost yelling at another person that every person sees God in their own way and that we have ABSOLUTELY no right to say they are wrong about God. The supposed "intolerant" person was just sitting there, getting berated by open-mindedness… Ever been there?

Although I largely agree with how Soul Searching characterizes American religion- especially that variety prevalent on college campuses around the country- I would quibble with "Moralistic Therapeutic Deism" on just one point. I don't think it is moral. "Moral" assumes that someone must give up something they would normally do in order to satisfy some type of moral standard.

I don't think there is anything moral about "Moralistic Therapeutic Deism". It basically states that we should just be nice… not make waves… Don't stand up for anything in particular because you might be wrong or even worse, offend someone. It is basically self-preservation: Don't rock the boat so you don't get pushed out of the boat. Self-preservation is not morality. It is saving one's own butt.

Instead of moralistic, let's replace it with "generic". Generic Therapeutic Deism. It is generic because it will make God be anything to anyone, as long as it is not offensive and doesn't make any claims about God that could ever make anyone uncomfortable. It is therapeutic, because God exists to make us feel better about our life and our death. And it is deism because it assumes that, while God may exist, God doesn't really have anything to do with us.

It is a cold-blooded, mushy-oatmeal kind of religion, that covers everything with a vaguely religious glow (kind of like one of those special fuzzy lenses you use for photography to blur all of the wrinkles and pimples). Here is the hymn of Generic Therapeutic Deism (based on "Jesus Loves Me"):

Jesus loves me this I know
For a vague feeling tells me so
But your God is as good as mine
I'm sure your God makes you feel fine

Chorus:
I think some God loves me!
I think some God loves me!
I think some God loves me!
A vague feeling tells me so!

Your truth is yours and mine is mine
No one can know truth at this time
Our best guess is what we feel
Truth feels good, but guilt's not real
(chorus)

The Bible is such an old book
Modern thought has taken a good look
If its not new it can't be right
So only believe what's in your sight
(chorus)

III. JESUS AND GTD COMPARED: But, how does the warm-blooded Jesus and the cold-blooded god of Generic Therapeutic Deism (GTD for short) compare?

First, the god of GTD is Abstract and Universal. Jesus is Concrete and Specific. The God of GTD is anything to anyone, so it winds up being nothing to everyone. The bland vanilla pudding God. Jesus, on the other hand is so concrete that the Bible calls Him the Rock on which our lives are built. This offends postmodern sensibilities because we think that everyone should have equal access to the universal nebulous concept of God. It is a scandal that Jesus should be so particular and so concrete.

This is perhaps why, when the Bible calls Jesus "The Rock", it also calls Him "a stone of stumbling". Stumbling in Greek is skandalon. Where we get scandal from. The world stumbles on the particularity of Jesus, because in Jesus God becomes one of us… And that is hard to wrap our minds around. But if we are to know God this HAS to happen, because we do not fall in love with abstract universals. We do not reach out for vague ideas when we are drowning. We love real particular people. We reach out for real rocks to grasp onto to keep ourselves from sinking.

Second, the god of GTD is clean and bloodless. Nothing messy or uncouth about a vague concept. But Jesus is disturbingly messy and bloody. When you come into contact with GTD, you will never get dirty. In fact, you will never get anything at all. But, when you come into contact with Jesus you will get blood all over you. When you come into contact with Jesus, he will simultaneously heal you and destroy you.

He will heal you because in Him you will KNOW beyond a shadow of a doubt that there is a real God who really loves you and who has made you for an incredible purpose. He will destroy you, because if you keep touching Jesus, he will lead you to start feeling like God feels about EVERYBODY. You will start caring. Really caring. And you will really give yourself to help others.

And, if there is a real God who really helps us through our messy lives, doesn't it make sense that he would become messy too? A generic God cannot help us. It is too clean. We need a messy, bloody, offensive God who will reach into human history with His mighty hand and save us.

Third, the god of GTD leads us to mere toleration. The God in Jesus leads us to love. The best, most aspiring ideal that generi-god can lead us to is a semi-placid "Hey dude. It's cool. You believe what you want. I will believe what I want. You do your thing, and I won't do a dang thing to stop you." In the face of someone who is destroying their lives through stupid choices, toleration can only say "Hey maaan, it's their choice…"

But Jesus leads us to love. And while true love does tolerate and give freedom, it does further. It says "I will accept you like you are, but I will not leave you that way! I will not give up until you are fully healthy and wholly holy, just like Jesus". True love, just like the true God found in Jesus, gives up itself to save others and bring them to healing. Mere toleration could never lead to a Mother Theresa, but the Love of Christ can, and does, every day.

Fourth, when confronted with the horrendous reality of human suffering, the best the god of GTD can offer is a hospice. But Jesus offers healing. A hospice is a place where people are made comfortable while preparing to die. Their symptoms are medicated so they do not feel pain. Their minds are numbed to suffering. They are put safely in their own comfy world to await death. And, if there is no cure, that is the best they can do.

GTD has no cure. So, it gets us by with a "live and let live" philosophy of tolerance that tells everyone "You are good enough, and there is nothing you need to change. Just be yourself and have faith in faith and everything will turn out OK". HEY! Someone cue up the pink unicorns and the butterflys while we are at it!

But Jesus has a cure. It is resurrection. And Jesus brings us to REPENTANCE instead of a bland resignation that says "Just be who you are, and be comfy in your own selfishness". He says: "Repent! The Kingdom of God is here!" He is the great Physician who alone can heal our souls. And the first step to being healed is admitting we are sick, and surrendering ourselves to the care of the doctor.

Perhaps the reason that GTD is so popular is because it makes no demands, and gives no rewards. A vague ideal is never going to tell you to repent. A nebulous concept is never going to tell you that you are sick and you need to be healed. A distant God is never going to move into your heart and turn everything upside down.

V. THE CHOICE BEFORE US: But Jesus will. Instead of abstractness he gives us the real, concrete world. Instead of a clean, bloodless diety, He gives us a messy, bloody God who goes through suffering with us. Instead of toleration that gets out of our way, He gives us a love that never leaves us. Instead of hospice care leading to death, he gives us a healing that takes our death and resurrects it forever. Instead of resignation, he calls us to repentance.

And that is the call today. Repent! The Kingdom of God is near! Repent! Admit where you are sick and drowning, and reach out and cling to the only Rock that can heal and transform you! Repent! God wants to make you into something new… into a someone with purpose, who will do wonderful things that never even entered into your mind!

You can repent, or you can deny. You can join with the crowd 2000 years ago and shout "crucify him" by leaving here in a cold, bland indifference. Or you can join with the saints throughout the ages- those people who transformed the world and turned it upside down- and proclaim Christ crucified… and resurrected!

So who will you choose? Generi-god who offends no-one, and who is everything to anyone, except when you need it to be something to you? Or Jesus: bloody, messy, concrete, loving, dead and resurrected?

The choice is yours!
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.