Blog Archives

Flotsam and jetsam (3/25)

I’ve been on a mini blog sabbatical the last couple of days. It’s spring break around here. And, while I never actually take time off for spring break, I do use it to get caught up on all the projects that have been piling up around my office. It’s my version of spring cleaning. But, here are a couple of interesting posts from the last few days.

I have seen evidence of three characteristics that seem to pass as virtues today. In some parts of the Christian world, these are now embraced as Christian virtue: doubt, opaqueness, and an emphasis on asking rather than answering questions.

That is, people become Universalists because they need to, not because it’s true.   All who become Universalists do so because they fear the consequences of their loved one’s rejection of salvation.

No doubt, some Christians get worked up over the smallest controversies, making a forest fire out of a Yankee Candle. But there is an opposite danger–and that is to be so calm, so middle-of-the-road, so above-the-fray that you no longer feel the danger of false doctrine. You always sound analytical, never alarmed. Always crying for much-neglected conversation, never crying over a much-maligned cross. There is something worse than hurting feelings, and that is trampling upon human hearts.

The temptation to idolatry is multifaceted and ever-present, and therefore must be fought without respite.Harmonizing Keller, Wright, Beale, and Scripture leads us to three antidotes: (1) the identification of idols and their attractions; (2) the embrace of the gospel and its idol-destroying promises; and (3) the worship and imitation of the One True God rather than false gods.

It is sometimes stated that the life of the historical Jesus ends with his death, and there is a sense in which this is true. Historical study can only provide access to the human life of Jesus, and his human life, like all human lives, ended when he died. The resurrection per se is not an event like other events in human history, and for this reason cannot be studied with the tools of historical study, either to confirm it or deny it. This does not mean, however, that one cannot attempt to evaluate the historicity of some of the events mentioned in the stories that also include details connected with the rise of Christian belief in the resurrection.

  • Roger Olson has an excellent post on what he means by “the new fundamentalism,” the growing “via media” between traditional fundamentalism and post WWII evangelicalism.

What I see emerging, that in my opinion is not being recognized by most evangelical leaders, is a third way–a via media between movement fundamentalism and the postfundamentalist evangelicalism.  People from movement fundamentalism are emerging out of their isolation into this third way and calling it “conservative evangelicalism.”  People from postfundamentalist evangelicalism are adopting this third way and calling it “conservative evangelicalism.”

Before you criticize, be sure you understand the person and perspective with which you are taking issue. If you lack understanding you are essentially picking a fight with an opponent who does not exist. You’ll make a lot of noise, sell a few books, or attract people to your blog, but your criticism lacks wisdom and integrity.

Does the millennium matter?

Whenever I teach one of our theology survey courses, I begin the semester with a promise. If I can’t provide a compelling reason that some theological issue makes a significant difference for life, ministry, or theology, we won’t spend time on it. That doesn’t mean that it’s not worth talking about, only that it must not fall in that top tier of issues that we need to stay focused on in a relatively brief survey course.

Right now, we’re working through eschatology. And, on tap for tomorrow afternoon – the millennium. At the end of our last class, I asked the students to wrestle with whether they thought that issues relative to the tribulation really mattered all that much. So, we’ll start with that tomorrow. But, by the end of class we’ll be discussing views of the millennium, and I’ll be asking the same question again.

So, what do you think? Do views of the millennium really make a significant difference for life, ministry, and/or theology? Or, are the different millennial views really just ways of keeping under-employed theologians busy so they’re not out causing problems? (Nothing is worse than a bored theologian.) Where do you put the millennium on your list of theological issues? Is it something that you’re willing to debate over, or do you see it as a non-issue that is only worth speculating about when it’s late and your internet connection is down?

When Lazarus died, Jesus wept – grief, mourning, and “getting on with life”

We don’t know how to grieve. That’s the thought that has been floating around in my head for a few days now. We know how to cry, we know how to be sad, and we know how to “get on with life.” But we don’t know how to grieve, how to mourn, how to process the pain of deep loss. And, oddly enough, as I was processing these thoughts, I found an interesting connection between an ancient religious tradition and a modern chick flick.

These thoughts started rattling around a few days ago when I read an iMonk piece on the importance of mourning and grieving in community. That piece included a quote from Lauren Winner’s book Mudhouse Sabbath: An Invitation to a Life of Spiritual Discipline explaining her concern that we lack the traditions and rituals necessary to grieve effectively:

What churches often do less well is grieve. We lack a ritual for the long and tiring process that is sorrow and loss. A friend of mine whose husband recently died put it like this: “For about two weeks the church was really the church—really awesomely, wonderfully the church. Everyone came to the house, baked casseroles, carried Kleenex. But then the two weeks ended, and so did the consolation calls.” While you the mourner are still bawling your eyes out and slamming fists into the wall, everyone else, understandably, forgets and goes back to their normal lives and you find, after all those crowds of people, that you are left alone. You are without the church, and without a church vocab-ulary for what happens to the living after the dead are dead.

The piece goes on to explain the advantages that a religious tradition like Judaism has in the way that it approaches grieving. Unlike most of our churches today, Judaism has explicit rituals and traditions for grieving, making it clear that grieving is a discipline that involves both the mourner and the community in a process that will take months, and even years, to complete. Thus, unlike our approach, which tends to emphasize the quick-fix and and an individualistic, therapeutic model of grieving, the Jewish tradition emphasizes that grieving is a long-term, communal, and deeply religious affair.

While I was still processing these ideas, my wife and I watched P.S. I Love You. I have to admit that I went into the movie expecting a fairly standard chick flick. And, you can definitely watch the movie from this perspective. It’s a story of a girl who meets the boy of her dreams, loses him, and learns, haltingly, to love again. Very touching.

My wife hated it.

That by itself is odd. My wife loves chick flicks. She’s seen While You Were Sleeping and Notting Hill more times than I can count. What was different here? Passionate love. Touchingly humorous side stories. Quirky supporting characters. Strong female lead (Hilary Swank is terrific). She should have loved this movie.

But, it wasn’t primarily a movie about love; it was really a movie about loss. Even more, it was a movie about the fact that we don’t know how to grieve.

Early in the movie, the main character loses her husband—the love of her life, her soul mate—to a brain stumor. And, of course, she immediately begins to grieve. The problem is that she really doesn’t know how. She locks herself in her apartment, cries a lot, watches old movies, and imagines that her husband is still around. She’s alone, desperately trying to process her uncontainable grief. As I watched, I mourned her inability to mourn—her loneliness, isolation, and frustration.

And the people around her have no idea how to help. Her mom just advises her to “Get back on your feet.” Her friends really want to be there for her, but the best they can come up with is to encourage her get back to work, go out for a night of fun, and, after a suitable period of sadness, hook up with some random Irish guy. Everyone in the story lacks a sense of how to grieve.

Everyone, but one.

Fortunately, one person in the story understands that grieving is more than just feeling bad for a while and moving on. Rather than showing her ways of escaping her grief, this one person helps her enter into her grief more deeply, gently coaxing her through rituals designed to help her remember, celebrate, mourn, laugh, and cry, rejoicing in the memory of the relationship even as she experiences the pain of its loss.

As I watched the movie, I came to a better appreciation for the argument that we lack rituals, traditions for mourning. We don’t have any intentional, communal activities meant to lead us through the process of grieving. Instead, we are expected to privatize our grief, be sad for a while, and either “get on with life” or seek professional, therapeutic assistance. It’s as though we’ve determined that Paul’s declaration that death has “no sting” means that we should not grieve. But, the fact that Christ has conquered death does not mean that loss has no pain. It only means that it is a pain that we can understand in the context of a greater hope. But it is still pain—deep, abiding, and often bitter, pain. When Lazarus died, Jesus wept.

I don’t know how to grieve. I don’t offer any answers for what this might look like. But, I’m coming to recognize the inadequacy of the typical evangelical approach to mourning. Mourning does not come naturally; it should not come naturally. To grieve properly, we need help. And, I’m open to suggestions for what a deeper, more intentional, more tradition-al approach to mourning might look like.

 

Flotsam and jetsam (10/21)

Purdue University scholars found that between 1996 and 2004, Americans who saw Christian identity as a “very important” attribute of being American increased from 38 percent to 49 percent.

The process started with a selection committee, chosen from the Lausanne network including one representative from each of 12 regions globally. That committee chose a selection director for each of 200 countries. According to Lindsay Brown, international director for Cape Town 2010, the committee looked for “Christian statesmen” who would be fair-minded in trying to represent the whole church in their country, not merely their friends or fellow church members. That chair gathered a selection committee, vested with the authority to choose delegates for their country.

Any religion’s greatest prayers should be addressed to the whole world. If a prayer only speaks to you, that’s fine. But I would like to hear you speaking to all of us. The Lord’s Prayer is the greatest because it comes from the heart of Judaism and the lips of Christianity—but speaks to the conscience of the world.

Sheep bites can’t kill me, but the gnawing will make life miserable a few days each year.

Flotsam and jetsam (9/29)

Conserve water, or this fish dies!

 

Morning links (9/20)

Flotsam and jetsam (9/14)

Eccentric Existence 14 (hope)

[We’re continuing our series on David Kelsey’s Eccentric Existence: A Theological Anthropology.]

Throughout this work, Kelsey has emphasized the open-endedness of being human – we are finite, contingent, mysterious, and (in our fallen state) sinfully ambiguous. At the same time, Kelsey has consistently pointed to the fact that we are beings summoned into relationship by God and called (despite the ambiguities) to live faithfully in our everyday realities. As we discussed in the last post, this means that although our action in the world is both important and necessary, any particular actions is wrapped in its own ambiguity. For Kelsey, the confidence that grounds human action lies not in our certainty that a particular action is indeed the “right” thing to do or that it will foster the growth of the Kingdom in the, but in a “joyous hope” that looks to the inbreaking of the Kingdom. For Kelsey, human life in this world seems best described as living faithfully in the midst of an inherently ambiguous world through a joyous hope that God will redeem human action in its ambiguous faithfulness and accomplish his eschatological purposes.

What is “Joyous Hopefulness”?

Kelsey begins his discussion with the following definition of hope:

hope, like faith…, is best construed as personal bodies’ attitude in which they are oriented toward their ultimate and proximate contexts. It is an attitude of expectancy that a good and desired transformation of our quotidian contexts,…now actually begun, will be fully actualized. (501-2)

The hope that Kelsey has in mind, then, is directed both toward God as its object and ground (ultimate context) and the world in which this hope is lived out and fulfilled (proximate context). Any hope that focuses on just one of these two poles will ultimately lapse into something that is sub-Christian and unable to ground meaningful human living.

And, Kelsey further defines Christian hope as that which expresses hope in joy. This “joyous hopefulness” corresponds to the “doxological gratitude” that is the only appropriate and faithful response to the divine summons that constitutes personal identity (see here).

The Public Nature of Hope

The twofold context of joyous hopefulness means that hope must always be public. Kelsey is keen to emphasize that joyous hopefulness cannot be understood merely as “a mode of subjective inwardness” (502). It is not merely a feeling or attitude. Instead, joyous hopefulness is “a disposition to enact certain types of practices publicly”  (502). And, by “disposition” he does not mean some kind of inner attitude that simply motivates human action. That still bifurcates hope from public practice in a way that Kelsey finds unsatisfying. Instead, he argues:

[E]nactments of eschatological hope cannot be defined without reference to the hope they enact. As appropriate response to the public eschatological mission Dei, eschatological hope is best defined as a personal bodies’ orientation that disposes them for enactments of certain practices in public proximate contexts….Joyous hopefulness is a settled and long-lasting attitude. It orients personal bodies in their quotidian contexts as agents, disposing them across extended periods of time to engage in certain types of socially established cooperative human action. (503)

Joyous Hope in an Ambiguous World

But, Kelsey wants to emphasize (yet again) that we live in an inherently ambiguous world and that this means that the possibility of hope does not lie in anything that we see in the world itself, but in the promise-keeping nature of God himself. Hope must always be grounded in our ultimate context or it will co-opted by the finite and sinful social structures and practices of the current age. For Kelsey, “the possibility of such hope lies solely in the actuality of God keeping God’s promise” (504), and never in our attempt to discern the “progress” that we think is taking place around us.

To a large degree, of course, this is because we live in a sinfully broken world. And, short of the eschatological culmination of God’s purposes, our proximate context will always remain sinfully ambiguous. Joyous hope in this age, then, “is a disposition to act hopefully in tyrannical and oppressive circumstances of excessive social and cultural control that appear to offer little possibility for individual human well-being” (504-5).

But, Kelsey also wants to remind us that much of the ambiguity lies in our creaturely finitude.

Hence, eschatological hope is not in the first instance hope despite sin and evil. The disposition to act hopefully is a disposition to act in creaturely quotidian circumstances in ways hopeful of their flourishing in eschatological blessing even when the quotidian happens to be neither chaotic nor especially oppressive, even were it, contrary to fact, not at all distorted by sin and bound in evil. (505)

Joyous hope, then, is a disposition to act publicly in the world, seeking the flourishing of all of God’s creation in faithful response to God’s call and the hopeful expectation “that eschatological blessing will be fully actualized in and upon our proximate contexts” (506). This does not rob human action of meaning, though it does relocate our source of confidence in the meaning of human action.

What does joyous hope look like?

Kelsey, of course, argues that it is impossible to provide a systematic schematization of joyous hopefulness. But, he does argue that it is possible to comment on its general shape.

we must say that in response to God relating to draw them to eschatological consummation, personal bodies’ practices of joyous hopefulness consist of socially established cooperative actions of personal bodies in community that exemplify, however incompletely, the quality of common life that constitutes personal bodies’ eschatological glory. (512)

So,  joyous hopefulness finds expression in “socially established cooperative actions…in community” that seek to model in our everyday realities (to the extent possible) the kind of life that will be characteristic of eschatological glory, which he summarizes briefly as being mysterious, cosmic, finite, contingent, marked by growth and development and by aspects that are both individualistic and communal.

And, though he refuses to describe specific practices since the details need to be worked out by each community in their quotidian, he does offer seven guidelines for such practices:

  1. They should be “utterly realistic” about our quotidian worlds.
  2. They should be holistic, orienting the “entire array of personal bodies’ powers” and shaping them toward eschatologically hopeful practices.
  3. They should cultivate the intellectual disciplines – critical reflection will be necessary to shape and guide these practices in an ambiguous world.
  4. They should discipline the affections – orienting our emotions (affections directed toward some object) in eschatologically hopeful ways.
  5. They should help us learn to be open to the “gift of help” – recognizing our contingency and dependence.
  6. They should direct us toward healthy dependence on others.
  7. They should discipline our “imaginative powers” – seeing the world in ways shaped by eschatological hope.

Again, though, it’s important to emphasize that for Kelsey a practice grounded in joyous hope, and therefore shaped in these seven ways, is not aimed at achieving the liberation of the world and the inbreaking of the Kingdom. We simply can’t accomplish these things and were never intended to. The Kingdom always breaks into the world from “outside” and is always a divine act, a gift. Joyously hopeful practices, on the other hand, are ways of modeling lives shaped by eschatological hope in the midst of finite and sinful ambiguity.

p. 501-2 “hope, like faith…, is best construed as personal bodies’ attitude in which they are oriented toward their ultimate and proximate contexts. It is an attitude of expectancy that a good and desired transformation of our quotidian contexts,…now actually begun, will be fully actualized.”

Eccentric Existence 13 (social action)

[We’re continuing our series on David Kelsey’s Eccentric Existence: A Theological Anthropology.]

In the previous post, we discussed the pneumatological framework of Kelsey’s theological anthropology. And, we saw that Kelsey presented the Spirit as both gift and promise. The Spirit is both the gracious presence of God with his creation (humanity’s ultimate context) and the promise that God will continue to lead all of creation (humanity’s proximate context) toward its eschatological telos. This immediately raises the question of human action in the world. Do we have any role to play in the eschatological consummation of God’s promised purposes? If so, what is that role and how should we go about it?

The Meaning of Human Action

According to Kelsey, “Perhaps the most important anthropological question about our proximate social contexts is whether historical change…is meaningful” (478). Is there any for us to look at the messy, complex world that we live in, as well as the sin and brokenness that so often accompanies even our most well-intentioned actions, and still come to the conclusion whether there is any real meaning to the historical changes that we work so hard to achieve.

Do such changes amount to a movement toward any goal of such transcendent value that it redeems the suffering and loss? Or is unrelenting historical change finally sheer ‘sound and fury, signifying nothing’? (478)

At this point, Kelsey sounds very much like James Davison Hunter in his recent work To Change the World. Both express significant reservations about whether we can have any real confidence about whether our actions really are leading to meaningful change in the world. Instead of working in accordance with God’s eschatological purposes, even envisioning ourselves as contributing to and ushering in God’s eschatological Kingdom, isn’t it entirely possible that we are instead acting in our own selfish best interests, furthering the sinful world orders that we seek to undermine? Does human action have any real meaning in this broken world? Or, are we hopelessly compromised in our sinfulness and can only wait in anxious anticipation for the fulfillment of God’s eschatological purposes. For Kelsey, it appears to be a little of both. He does want to affirm that human action in the world has meaning, but only in a highly qualified way.

The Ambiguous Nature of Human Action

If you’ve been following this series, this emphasis on the ambiguous nature of  human action should come as no surprise. Kelsey has routinely emphasized that sin, finiteness, and sinfulness all contribute to making it nearly impossible to systematize virtually any aspect of theological anthropology. Instead, at every turn we are confronted and frustrated by ambiguity and complexity. Human action in the world is no different.

First, Kelsey appeals to the Wisdom literature to contend that there is “no overall teleological order” (479). God did not create any single creaturely existence that precisely mirrors “the inexhaustibly rich and complex beauty of God’s glory” (479). So, the ambiguity of human action is integral to being God’s creatures. Rather than trying to find the ideal expression of God’s “will” in every situation, we are instead called to find the best expression of human faithfulness in our particular quotidian. And, it was precisely for this that God created us as creatures who have “their own time and space” (480). By giving us time an space to be ourselves, God creates the opportunity (and responsibility) to use that freedom for his glory. It’s our task to respond to this gracious gift in faithful hope.

Of course, our inherently creaturely complexity is rendered even more ambiguous by the reality of sin. Instead of just being manifold expressions of human faithfulness in our finite quotidian realities, the existence of God’s creatures is “radicalized into a living contradiction when their creatureliness is distorted in sin” (481). Thus, we fall into “inexplicable self-contradictoriness” (481) that renders human action opaque and often absurd.

Given these two kinds of ambiguity – the ambiguity inherent in being diverse creatures living in his manifold creation and related to by God in complex ways, and the ambiguity introduced by sin and its absurd contradiction of all that God intended – there is an inherent “ambiguity in every historical change that is apparently a change for the better” (484).

The Missio Dei

At this point, one would be forgiven for thinking that Kelsey was going to introduce a God-of-the-gaps resolution to the problem. Human action is ambiguous because of our finiteness and fallenness, but don’t worry, God’s action in the world will make sense out of everything. For Kelsey, though, the missio Dei actually introduces yet another source of ambiguity.

the missio Dei moves in God’s own very peculiar way sometimes with, sometimes against, and sometimes obliquely at cross-grain to the various trajectories of change that we can discern in our social and cultural contexts. (487)

Rather than clarifying the situation, we see that God’s action often works against what we might think of as the betterment of the world order and society. Indeed, Kelsey points to apocalyptic language as a great example of how the missio Dei often works against the natural currents of the world.

apocalyptic imagery concerns the structure of the cosmos, not the logic of history….Paul does not use apocalyptic rhetoric for that purpose. He uses it to describe a radical change in the structure of the world, a shift from an old creation to a new creation. (490)

We sometimes think that we can easily identify the ways in which God is at work in the world. But, what we are often doing is identifying God’s action with what we think the world really needs. When we see those things happening, we presume that it is God at work. Kelsey argues, though, that apocalyptic imagery forces us to consider the fact that God’s inauguration of the Kingdom through Jesus’ resurrection means that “all such principles used to constitute a socially constructive lived cosmos” have been radically relativized” (492-493). Instead of operating in accordance with our preconceptions and socially derived views of human flourishing, God breaks into the world and “unilaterally constitutes a new social reality, a new lived world” (496).

God’s work in the world thus constitutes another source of ambiguity in the world. The apocalyptic inbreaking of God’s eschatological reign is so radically other that we often fail to recognize it when we see it.

Grace and Judgment

At this point, one could legitimately begin to wonder if Kelsey’s qualified affirmation of human action in the world is really a resounding “no.” Given all this ambiguity, how could human action have real meaning? For Kelsey, the answer is to recognize both God’s grace and his judgment on all human action. Since all of our actions are inherently ambiguous, we must anticipate God’s judgment on everything that we do.This judgment is not simply the result of ambiguity, since at least some of the ambiguity comes from our the finiteness and diversity of God’s good creation. But, God’s judgment falls on “our idolatrous reliance on culturally relative values to generate such blessing on their own” (499). Thus, we can never afford to fall into a complacent confidence that assumes God’s stamp of approval on our actions. Instead, we should recognize the diversity, messiness, and brokenness of human existence, seeking to be faithful in every situation, but always also anticipating God’s judgment on our every action.

At the same time, though, we anticipate with eschatological hope God’s gracious mercy.  “God drawing humankind to eschatological consummation does entail that, by the creativity of God’s free love, what has been distorted will be transformed, the threat of meaninglessness overcome, and living deaths liberated into true life” (500). Even while anticipating God’s eschatological judgment on our actions in the world, we can still stand firm in our hope that God’s grace is sufficient and that he will accomplish his purposes in the world. Human action is not thereby rendered meaningless, we are still called to live faithfully in our quotidian, but it is seriously qualified in light of the inbreaking of God’ eschatological Kingdom and the sinful ambiguity of our creaturely contexts.

Flotsam and jetsam (9/2)

I’ve been out of town for a while, so I haven’t posted many links in the last couple of days. Here are some of the more interesting ones, just in case you missed them.