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So I’m studying for yet another exam. Religion education.

One of my probable exam questions will be: “explain the hindu conception(s) of God”. The lecturers have been pretty clear about their liberal views, so I’m pretty certain about what they want. The broader and more inclusive the answer the better. My answer should be something like:

“Hindu conceptions of God are incredibly diverse and enigmatic. Elements of pantheism, panentheism, polytheism and monotheism are evident…”

This would be followed by long explanations which I wont bother you with, except to make some observations about the nature of ‘holy’ texts:

The Upanishads depict God in Pantheistic terms in a few places:
“Now if a man worships another deity, thinking that the deity is one and he another, he does not know.”

Panentheistic:
“He who is this (Brahman) in man and he who is that (Brahman) in the sun, both are one.”

Then, in the Bhagavad Gita, we have statements strangely similar to the sort of ‘jealous’ monotheistic God expressed in the Judeo-Christian traditions:
“Give up then thy earthly duties, surrender thyself to me only.”

Finally, especially in the rural areas of India, there are many hindu devotees who jealously worship only their own deity among all those they recognise in the hindu pantheon. Theological and apologetic approaches to explaining the relationship between the deities and Deity itself matter very little to them.

Now, all this is very interesting from an external reference point. I’m sure my lecturers will be very happy with the breadth of my conceptualization of hinduism… I’m not so sure that practicing hindus would be so enthusiastic.

Which brings me to my point:

If I asked a hindu student to have a quick, inclusive study of Christianity, using only the biblical text, what would they come up with to answer the question: “How do Christians understand God?”

The answer to this question might make proponents of evangelical conceptualizations of biblical sufficiency a little uncomfortable.

Here’s what I think: I love the bible. I believe that the bible is inspired by God… But I’m starting to doubt that the bible is sufficient to bring us to knowledge of the full story of God’s story. Christ is the one who reveals God to mankind. Only a personal disciple-relationship with Christ can bring us into a meaningful knowledge of God. He is God’s Word to humankind. The life, words, and continuing ministry of Christ is the foundation of the church. Not the Bible.

I like Moses.

Many Christians are not particularly interested in this great Patriarch (because, let’s face it, he’s just not our guy). We like to create a hard line in the sand between the law (and Moses) on the one side, and faith (and Jesus) on the other side. But I think that’s a bum rap. Moses displayed amazing faith. In fact, I think he displays exactly the kind of faith that teachers need. The kind of brave faith that inspires.

First there was the burning bush. Now, apart from the obvious possibility that everyone who heard the story recounted (including Moses himself) would very likely have assumed it was the result of mild sunstoke combined with the inhilation of too much ‘sheep gas’ (methane being known to do all sorts of terrible things to the brain as well as the atmosphere), a bush burning in the wilderness is hardly everyone’s image of Deity. I mean, if God had appeared in a burning pillar of fire (wait… didn’t that happen later?) or even a burning baobab, that might have been a little more convincing, but a burning bush is not so amazing is it? And yet, off goes Moses, back to the country he had fled from in terror years earlier… following a burning bush.

Then there was the burning mountain. It must have been quite incredible. Certainly impressive enough to scare the idolotry out of the Israelites (no wait…?!). The people were so terrified that they begged Moses to speak to God on their behalves. At this point I would have looked up at the pyrotechnic peak and replied: “…sod off!” But Moses, man of great faith that he was, terrified as he was, climbed the Mountain and met with God. Well… strictly speaking, he met with God’s back. Apparently God’s front is a bit deadly to the uninitiated, so God hid Moses in the cleft of a rock, covered the cleft with his Great Hand, and then passed by, removing the obstructing limb in time for Moses to glimpse him leaving. Having climbed the fiery mountain and survived the near death encounter with God’s back, I think it’s safe to say that if I was Moses, I would have more than enough stories to tell my grandchildren. But not Moses…

Because, then we have the burning heart. Amazingly, Moses not only doesn’t stop associating with Burning Manifestations, he actively seeks them out (or rather, he seeks Him out). The Glory of God comes to settle in the Israelite camp and Moses makes a habit of meeting with God (in the aptly named ‘Tent of Meeting’) for the rest of his life. He spends so much time in the presence of our fiery Diety that his face acquires a distinct glow, which Moses has to cover with a veil so as not to freak the rest of the camp out. Moses face is burning.

But what about the burning heart? Well, actually, that belonged to Joshua rather than Moses. You see, Joshua used to sit quietly in the corner whenever Moses and God had their smokey pow-wows. He never said anything. He never voiced an opinion. He just sat quietly. Burning in his heart to have what Moses had: a face to face friendship with God. And God saw Joshua sitting in the corner. He saw his burning heart. And that’s why God chose Joshua as Moses’ replacement when the Israelites entered the Promised Land. He saw what Moses’ faith had inspired in Joshua.

And that’s why I like Moses so much. He spent his whole life actively and publicly seeking after God, and in doing so, inspired Joshua to do the same. As a teacher I think we can learn a lot from Moses about faith and discipleship.

I have watched A Fiddler on the Roof at least 30 times. If you haven’t seen it yet, do yourself a favour and buy or borrow a copy. It’s a story about how a simple, poor, and profoundly spiritual Jewish man must struggle to choose between his daughters’ happiness and his religious traditions. It’s sometimes halarious and sometimes heartbreaking. Like life.

Right at the start of the story, the lead character (played by the man known in the credits, rather mysteriously, only as ‘Topol’ in the days before Madonna, Cher, Prince and Puff Daddy/Puffy/PDiddy) somes up the meaning of the story beautifully:

“Because of our traditions, everyone here knows exactly who he is, and what God expects him to do”. And later, “Without our traditions, our lives would be as shakey as a fiddler on the roof”.

The rest of the movie involves Tevya (Topol) deconstructing this previously unshakable conviction as he attempts to hold onto his faith in God and his love for his daughters (who each fall in love with and marry increasingly scandelous men).

It’s a film that speaks strongly towards a conversation that is gaining momentum in the Church (and religion in general). People want to move away from traditions/religion and towards relationship (both vertical and horizontal). People scoff at conservatives who speak against gay marriage for having a religion based on propositional truths instead of relational truth (the jury is still out regarding how one can have any kind of religion without propositional doctrines). Most of the people I know fit neatly into one of two camps: those who desperately want to hold onto our traditions because they fear the effects of letting it slide. They talk about ‘the erosion of family values’ and ‘the humanistic trend in evangelical theology’. The other camp want desperately to be more than society’s moral watchdogs. They want to abandon dogma and unhelpful arguments and move into the communities where a difference can be made. They talk about ‘the irrelevance of another meeting’ and ‘the need for dialogue; not evangelism’.

Every one of us lives in tension between these two camps, and like Tevye, we must struggle with God and ourselves as we attempt to scratch out our simple, pleasant tune without falling off the roof and breaking our necks. We are all fiddlers on the roof. Topol argues back and forth with himself between numerous ‘on the other hands’, allowing his religion and tradition to be eroded as far as his conscience will allow him to because of his love for his daughters and his very personal relationship with God. Finally though, when his third daughter announces that she is running away with a Russian peasant, he has to admit ‘there is no other hand’. We all have our limits. To have any kind of authenticity, the Church must have limits too… but where are they?

What are the essentials of your faith? Can you write them down in five simple statements? Better yet, can you write down five things that Church practice or policy portrays as an essential, but that you don’t believe is an essential at all? (Comments anyone 🙂 )

My favourite moment in the movie is when, at his eldest daughter’s wedding, Tevye is accused of allowing scandal to enter his house because a young Communist from Kiev whom he is housing crosses the barrier and dances with a girl. Tevye asks the Rabbi if it is a sin, and the Rabbi has to admit that ‘it’s not exactly a sin, but…’ before he is cut off. Tevye dances with his wife! Soon everyone is dancing. The freedom is beautiful.

“O Daughter of Babylon, doomed to destruction,
happy is he who repays you
for what you have done to us-
he who seizes your infants
and dashes them against the rocks.”
– Psalm 137:8,9

The author of this poetic verse didn’t hold anything back. There are many imprecations in Scripture. The ancient Israelites held a sense of entitlement when they prayed. The Abrahamic covenant’s, “I will curse those who curse you” was always in view in “us-them” relationships. Combine this “God is my big brother” mentality with the lex talionis (“an eye for an eye”) as the backbone for Hebrew law and you get a background which makes this desire for baby-bashing of the people who had sacked Jerusalem completely authentic emotion. The fact that it was included in the Hebrew canon supports this picture. Most scholars agree that the book of Psalms was used in the second temple cult (worship). Which I suppose means that the people we encouraged to sing these words… as worship. I wonder if this authentic expression of emotion was authentic worship from God’s viewpoint?

But that’s old testament. Read the last few chapters of Judges and you will find yourself shaking your head in wonder that “In those days Israel had no king”:

” 1 Now a man named Micah from the hill country of Ephraim
2 said to his mother, “The eleven hundred shekels of silver that were taken from you and about which I heard you utter a curse—I have that silver with me; I took it.”
Then his mother said, “The LORD bless you, my son!”
3 When he returned the eleven hundred shekels of silver to his mother, she said, “I solemnly consecrate my silver to the LORD for my son to make a carved image and a cast idol. I will give it back to you.”
4 So he returned the silver to his mother, and she took two hundred shekels of silver and gave them to a silversmith, who made them into the image and the idol. And they were put in Micah’s house.
5 Now this man Micah had a shrine, and he made an ephod and some idols and installed one of his sons as his priest.
6 In those days Israel had no king; everyone did as he saw fit.”
– Judges 17:1-6

People of the Old Covenant often made a complete mess in trying to discern God’s will. I wonder if we aren’t arrogant in assuming in our post-modern mentality that we are immune to misrepresenting God’s will ourselves.

We want to be authentic in our worship, but how will we protect ourselves from just doing (and singing) as we see fit? There is a strong drive in emerging worship trends towards ‘recovering authentic emotion’ (this is a desire that I hold dear myself). Earlier this year, I heard Brian Doerkson speak on this subject. He said that worship leaders “need to make room for people’s pain in worship”. Many people equate authentic emotion with authentic worship, but authentic worship is more than honest. Authentic worship fears God. Authentic worship doesn’t laugh when it’s asked “Isn’t this ‘strange fire’?” (Leviticus 10:1).

No matter how real and honest it feels.

Have you ever had one of those annoying conversations where someone asks you to try to define yourself without mentioning your job, your relationships, your abilities, your interests, or your appearance? It’s hard. We tend to always identify ourselves in terms of the other – “I am a husband” (in relation to my wife), or “I am a musician” (in relation to tone-deaf people, but not so much in relation to real musicians), or “I am a Child of God” (in relation more often to those who are ‘not a child of God’ than in relation to God Himself). This desire to distinguish ourselves is virtually unavoidable, but I believe it’s damaging on many levels.

For one thing, defining identity as in relation to the other almost always leads to some form of pride and/or persecution. We need not even go into the history of slavery, colonialism, apartheid or any such tragic realities. The insidious draw of nasty national pride is something every internet-using Springbok rugby supporter understands first hand. Who has not gone into a chat room or an online poker game and said, “Hey all you wallabies, kiss my green and gold butt! Tri-nations champions 2009, woohoo!!!”?…. Well maybe that’s just me. It’s worth noting though that virtually every nation has at some stage publicly voiced that secret “truth” that ‘we’ are just better than ‘them’. Consider:

    Cecil Rhodes on the British: “The British race is sound to the core and… dry rot and dust are strangers to it”

    Thomas Babington Macaulay on the English: “[we are] the greatest and most highly civilized people that ever the world saw”

    The United States Journal 1845 on the US: “We, the American people, are the most independent, intellegent, moral, and happy people on the face of the Earth”

    Strabo on Europeans: “I must begin with Europe because it is both varied in form and admirably adapted by nature for the development of excellence in men and governments”

    South Africans at any large sporting event: “Ole, ole, ole, ole, We are the Champions, We are the Champions!”

Of course, as an English-speaking South African, I can laugh at this national sentiment a bit easier than most, feeling always a pilgrim, lost somewhere between the Isle of Wight and the Johannesburg Zoo. I can agree more easily than most with Dean W.R. Inge that “A nation is a society united by delusions about its ancestry and by common hatred of its neighbours”.

Who are we really?

Christians are citizens of another Kingdom too. And the lure of national (religious) pride there is as strong as in any other ‘nation’. We feel the same sort of ridiculous pride at Angus Buchan open-airs as we do at the Springbok rugby games. As if we had had something to do with being born South African… or being born again by His grace. In truth we have about as much right to be proud of being tall or having blue eyes. I reject this kind of identity in terms of the other. I will not sing with the Smalltown Poets: “Call me Christian”. I will not nod my head stupidly at the speakers at youth camps when they tell me “Your identity is that you are a child of God – nothing else matters”.

It’s not that I don’t value that adoption. It’s just that it can be a substitute. I spent years in the church nodding stupidly at altruisms that I didn’t understand and at the same time desperately trying to suppress the sinking feeling that I didn’t have a clue who I was. Identity is not an objective expression of relations between individuals. Identity is a subjective experience. I had just such an experience one day as I lay sobbing my eyes out and shaking my fist at God for abondoning me to my depression. I can hardly describe it in words, but I want you to understand that in one moment I was very aware of God’s nearness and love and in the next moment I was thoroughly aware of how mistaken I had been about everything in my life. I had a peace and a clarity that has never left me. I knew who I was.

And that is why I say that identity is an experience.

About Me

Ecstatically married to Leane. Studying Theology and Teaching. Working as a worship leader, teacher, coach, guitar teacher. Living in the Mighty City of Mkondo in the sunny province of Mpumalanga, in the blessed country of South Africa.

Favourite Thoughts – Outbox

Religion is to be defended - not by putting to death - but by dying. Not by cruelty, but by patient endurance. - Lactantius (c.304-313).
What is essential Christianity? From first to last it is scandal, the divine scandal. Every time someone risks scandal of high order there is joy in heaven. - Soren Keirkegaard.
Where there are two Christians, there are three opinions... [Actually a Jewish saying, but at least as true for Christians]

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