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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.

Years ago, a friend and I were discussing classic theology at the Tattered Cover in downtown Denver when I happened to mention that I really appreciate Yancy. He replied, “Oh, I don’t read any of the newer stuff – it’s all crap”. It is as easy now as it was then to dismiss this dismissal as irrational snobbery, but I have to admit that, deep down, I have a tendency to approach anything modern and popular with some weariness because there is always the risk that it is a product of something commercially tainted.

This is not entirely irrational either, since any amount of time spent perusing the best-seller lists of cd stores or bookshops with your brain fully functional will teach you that what’s great and what sells are seldom the same thing. On the subject of the insidious dangers of trusting commercial Christian products, check out this link – it’s worth the read! In terms of what we read and listen to, the Church’s devotional and/or theological diet often consists of a four-course meal at Burger King – more and more of the same thing, and not much of it any good for you.

And yet…

This knee-jerk reaction must be kept in check if we are not to miss some fantastic truth. Recently, the ‘Nooma’ teaching series from Rob Bell has been the victim of my own snobbery. A few days ago I found myself staring at the shiny CUM-books display shelf dedicated to the series, and arranged in eye-catching colour-coded rows, with a mixture of guilt and disgust. I felt guilty for judging the man. But I felt disgusted that theology could be packaged and displayed like sugary breakfast cereals. I abandoned the shelf before hypocritically succumbing to a disconcertingly glossy-looking book by Mr Bell and Mr Golden (great commercial names!), with the worryingly sexy title: “Jesus wants to save Christians – a manifesto for the Church in exile”. With an air of skepticism I settled down to begin working through the 200-odd pages yesterday morning. I finished it this morning.

It was absolutely brilliant.

Basically, it’s really accessible New Exodus Theology ala Tom Holland (to whom the authors give a shout-out in the introduction). It spells out the message of the Gospel more clearly than anything I have read in recent memory. So… let down your anti-commercial guard for a couple of hours and read this fantastic book if you get the chance.

There is a natural human drive to define things and describe everything in complete working systems. All systematic theologies are the result of this drive. We can’t help ourselves… we want things to make sense.

The way most of the Church reads scripture is a case-in-point. The traditional evangelical rendition of the doctrine of the inspiration has as its key convenient ‘truth’ the idea of innerancy. For example, consider this statement by J. Adams (War Psalms of the Prince of Peace 1991:2)

“Some people have found it so difficult to understand these prayers [the imprecatory (curse my enemy) Psalms] that they have concluded that these segments were mistakenly included in the Word of God. But our doctrine of inspiration must lead us to expand our knowledge of God and his ways as we seek solutions to these deep questions”.

He then goes on to do just that by insisting that the imprecations are actually the prayers of Christ against his enemies and the psalmists were speaking (albeit unwittingly) prophetically.

The author wishes us to adjust the natural reading of the imprecatory psalms to fit with his inerrant view of scripture… which he supposedly derives from scripture. Hmm…. ? You see the problem with this sort of circular reasoning, and I bet if we could question him face to face, Mr. Adams would have to admit that he sees it too. The fear of letting go of the convenience of inerrancy is, however, too much for most of us to bear. It provides eas(ier) answers to many contemporary doozies: homosexuality, war ethics, the death penalty, the nature of salvation, the purpose of the Church… nice, easy systematic answers.

But convenience and truth are not always the same thing.

God is not simple.
Life is not simple.
Why should the Bible be anything other than a mystery wrapped in a paradox and seasoned with contradictions and misrepresentations (for extra flavour)?

Allender and Longman (The Cry of the Soul 1994:32,34) provide a different solution to the problem of the imprecations:

“All dread is related to the question, ‘Is life predictable?’ All anger is related to the question, ‘Is life fair?’ Change the word ‘life’ to ‘God’, and the questions become personal. ‘Is God predictable?’ ‘Is God just?’ The psalmist’s jealousy surfaced in the horizontal context of human circumstances, but it was rooted in his underlying question, ‘Is God fair?’ The psalms help us understand that every emotion is a theological statement… [When we doubt] we shudder with dread that we will suffer terrible consequences for our inner rebellion. Precisely at this point, the psalms surprise us. They not only help us articulate and understand what we feel, but they dare us to struggle. Even more, they give us words to vocalize our desperate struggles with God”

You decide which approach is more honest about the human condition, more in keeping with what we know about the character of God as expressed in Christ, and more useful to the reader? Forget which makes for a neater system of interpretation.

Because the inconvenient truth is that perhaps it’s time for us to abandon the convenience of inerrant scripture.

The Kingdom of God…
What is it?
Where is it?
When is it?

In evangelical seminary they taught us to think of the Kingdom as “here now” and “still coming” at the same time. This paradox is said to be evident in the teachings of Jesus in the gospels, and has been the source of much confusion and frustration for generations of Christians. In fact the idea of establishing the Kingdom of God on earth is not a uniquely Christian concept, but a religious concept. It is a well documented fact that wherever faith in God is strong, our human disposition for using violence to enforce what we believe will increase. This is as true today in the Church as it was for the Medieval crusaders or the zealous reformers. The forms of violence are not always as obvious, but the result is the same: a strong sense of self-righteousness in ‘believers’ and a strong sense of distrust in those outside the bounds of the Church.

All of this stems from a misunderstanding of the nature of the Kingdom of God.

“The Kingdom of God is advancing violently and the violent take it by force”. To Richard the Lionhearted this meant that the Islamic hold on Jerusalem was an assult on the Kingdom Jesus came to establish. To many charismatic worship leaders this means that aggressive ‘spiritual warfare’ through prophetic song and marching around our cities seven times is the key to ‘taking back our neighborhoods for God’. To many evangelicals who flirt with emergent ideas (a little knowledge is a dangerous thing), it means that aggressive political lobbying for social justice is the key to ‘bringing in’ the rule of God in our nations. But is this really faithful to the teachings of Jesus?

There can be no denying that in most of the Church over the last one hundred years there has been an overemphasis on the “Still to Come” aspect of the Kingdom. Bruxy Cavey writes,

“The religious fixation on salvation as an otherworldly destination allows for frustrating disconnects between this life and the next. For instance, Hindus can ignore the basic needs of the hurting lower castes while they look forward to eventually entering a state in which everyone’s needs and desires are met. Muslims teach marital fidelity and abstinence from alcohol in this life while they anticipate the heavenly rewards of multiple virginal sex partners and rivers flowing with wine in the next life. Christians fight wars in order to spread peace and may ignore the environmental issues of our planet because heaven is all that matters. But Jesus invites us to live one coherent life, starting now… Jesus raises the question: Are you living now the way you want to live forever?”

The Kingdom of God is not like earthly Kingdoms, where at least the threat of force (police) is necessary to maintain the Kingdom. The Kingdom is established in the hearts of those who follow Christ. The Kingdom has no boundaries. And violence and religious “effort” destroys the Kingdom rather than building it up. There is thus no possiblility for the seperation of means and ends in the Kingdom. In the words of Martin Luther King Jr, “Peace is not merely a distant goal we seek [or await], but a means by which we arrive at that goal”.

Thus, Jesus doesn’t require us to lobby for, or wage war for, or sing-in the Kingdom. On the contrary, it is simply by our BEING the expression of God’s rule through the way we live that we express the “now” aspect of the Kingdom, and it is simply in the way we trust God to establish His Kingdom in us ‘with ever-increasing glory’ that we express the “still coming” aspect of the Kingdom.

Let’s consider a contemporary application of this thesis: homosexual marriage rights.

A “Kingdom coming” mindset has people frantically trying to barricade their congregations and homes and televisions against this question. They are waiting for an escape, as they watch the world slowly but surely transform into Sodom and Gomorrah part 2.

As already mentioned, this isolation and escape theology is in stark contrast to the teachings of Jesus.

A “Kingdom now” ala charismatic Church sees people singing songs about God’s eternal law and prophesying God’s judgement of the Church and the nation’s sin in this regard and praying in tongues for the deliverance of those who wish to renounce their homosexuality.

A “Kingdom now” ala confused social gospel sees the Church lobbying for equal rights for homosexual couples and shaking their fists at conservative theology that values laws more than love.

None of these approaches is adequate because they see the Kingdom of God as something that we can establish in our cultures and nations and constitutions instead of something that God is establishing in the hearts of His people continuously. When we see the Kingdom this way, we focus, not on external issues of policy towards gay marriage, but on internal issues of the way that Jesus requires us to treat all people, regardless of their sexual orientation, religious affiliation, or sin inclination.

Another illustration:

Years ago, my father was conscripted into the army during the Rhodesian border wars. As was the case with many Christian men in South Africa at the time, Dad had to deal with the moral questions surrounding war. Aren’t we supposed to love our enemies, not shoot them? While there are no easy answers about “What Would Jesus Do” in the situation, and many better men than me who lived through wars disagree with my pacifist views (including C.S. Lewis), I can’t help but admire my father’s choice: he sat on the border doing guard duty… with no gun. He did not escape the war. He simply fought it according to the rules of a Higher Kingdom, in which Jesus challenges us to be the salt of the earth and a city on a hill.

This is the kind of Kingdom that Christ came to establish on earth. One in which we enter a whole new way of living where we submit to and partner with God’s loving ways at work in this fallen world, no matter what earthly Kingdom we might also belong to.

Are you a fundamentalist? You’re probably some kind of fundamentalist. Religious, Hyper-literal fundamentalist; athiest, materialist fundamentalist; even people who are cynics are fundamentally cynical. We all want to believe we know. Anyone with a relatively fully developed world-view will be fundamentalist to a degree, because the one thought that scares us more than anything is that we don’t actually have a clue.

People like to think that the image of man as a pathetic, helpless victim of forces beyond his understanding and power is just a painful memory in our collective mind, forever banished by the shining beacon of “Science and reason”. Science, that saving grace of mankind – the only force that keeps us safe from the horrors of the dark ages, when malevolent phantoms stalked our dreams. Now we live in an enlightened age. An age of objective truth. Now we can know.

Lies.

As wonderful as science has been for mankind, and as much as she has done to banish cruel witch-hunts and needless suffering at the hands of nations and nature, she can never give us objective truth. She has it in her hands. She is ever willing to share the secrets of the universe with us. Sadly, the problem lies not with science, but with men.

Biologist Rupert Sheldrake wrote:

“Scientists like to think of themselves as engaged in a bold and fearless search for truth… insofar as the scientific endevour is illuminated by this heroic spirit, there is much to commend it. Nevertheless, in reality, most scientists are now the servants of military and commercial interests. Almost all are persuing carreers within institutions… the fear of career setbacks, rejection of papers by learned journals, loss of funding, and the ultimate sanction of dismissal are powerful disincentives to venture too far from current orthodoxy, at least in public… Scientists are part of larger social, economic, and political systems; they constitute professional groups with their own initiation procedures, peer pressures, power structures and system of rewards. They generally work in the context of established… models of reality… finding what is looked for is an essential feature of everyday human life. We are not surprised by such biases in politicians, nor by the differences in the way that people see things within different cultures… but the ‘scientific method’ is generally supposed to rise above cultural and personal biases, dealing only in the currency of objective facts and universal principles.”

Dr Sheldrake (who is incidentally a former Research Fellow of the Royal Society) then goes on to write more than fifty pages illustrating how helpless science is to give us truly objective truth when wielded by fallible human beings. My favourite example is taken from Stephen Jay Gould’s “The Mismeasure of Man”, in which the author describes how “purportedly objective studies of human intelligence, show how persistently prejudice has been dressed in scientific garb”. 19th century anatomist, Paul Broca, managed to cook the books so effectively that he convinced the scientific community that “in general, the brain is larger in mature adults than in the elderly, in men than in women, in eminent men than in men of mediocre talent, in superior races than in inferior races”. This was then considered to be objective truth. Gould concludes, “Quantitative data are as subject to cultural constraint as any other aspect of science, then they have no special claim on final truth”.

Loud applause and a resounding “We told you so!” from all the “anti-science”, Bible-literalist, “no such thing as dinosaurs” fundamentalists! And they are as bankrupt as any of us.

Religious fundamentalism is at least as subjective as science. Last night I was talking to some teenagers about worship. I was tasked to answer the question “how should we worship?”. I began by assuring them that this is a pointless question. There is no objective truth regarding our customs. Every denomination insists that theirs is the only “true interpretation”, and all are based ultimately on the traditions of men. Tertullian, the respected Church Father admitted candidly that he implemented many man-made rules for worship in his fellowships. These included:
– No kneeling in worship or fasting on Sundays;
– Making “the sign” on your forehead before doing virtually anything (bathing, going outside, eating, sleeping); and
– giving “oblations for the dead ” during the sacramental meal on the anniversary of their passing.
When asked by a rival for clear scriptural support for these practices, the great Church leader simply shrugged his shoulders and said (effectively), “It’s a matter of tradition and faith”.

If only we could all be so honest.

I struggle with this sort of honesty. I believe with all my heart in Jesus. I know Him experientially. My faith in Him as my savior and my decision to follow Him in His way seem reasonable to me. I want to be able to say with a confident smile, “Mine is a reasonable faith”. Sadly, this is just not possible. There is nothing objectively true about my beliefs. It’s all a matter of faith. For me. For you. For everyone.

In 1843, the father of existentialism, Soren Kierkegaard, published “Fear and Trembling” under the pseudonym, “Johannes de silentio”. In it, he was anything but silent in his criticism of Hegel’s attractive idea of putting the irrational faith of scriptural Christianity (initially fine as a “provisional state of mind”) aside and converting to a truer, rational faith “appropriate to rational reality”. Kierkegaard rightly describes “rational faith” as an oxymoron. Pointing to Abraham’s act of obedience in (almost) sacrificing his beloved son at God’s request, he shows how the act can only be seen as one of two things: either it is an act of madness, or it is an irrational act, resting on “his belief… that he is going to get Isaac back after sacrificing him”. Either way there is nothing rational about this faith. And scripture knows no other kind.

So what then? Are we damned to subjective guessing and hoping? Are human beings ultimately “stumbling around in the dark” hoping that we might find something to believe in?

Yes.

God remains ultimately a mystery. Life remains ultimately an adventure. Faith remains our only option. And God smiles.

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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