Archive for August, 2011

“The opposite of a correct statement is a false statement.  But the opposite of a profound truth may well be another profound truth.” — Niels Bohr

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Been thinking a little about how people respond to truth lately. Not that I know what truth is, but what follows is three ways an individual can respond to something that another holds true.

Assimilation or accommodation: We used these terms at uni to describe two opposite processes people go through when responding to cultures different from their own. Interestingly enough, the power relationship you have in relating to something that is at odds with you in some way will often have an effect on your response to it. The example used in my course was the culture shock experienced when you move into a country that differs from yours in many ways. If an individual is embarrassed by the customs and way of life they have come from and therefore feels the need to rid themselves of these, then it is called assimilation when they allow themselves to be swallowed up by the new dominant culture and take it on as their own. Alternatively, an individual may retain a lot of what they grew up and also take on board what they feel they need to from their new context to operate in that. This, then, is accommodation because they accommodate new values, practices, etc into their existing ones rather than vice versa.

Bored yet? This dynamic can be seen in churches also, when Christians are either shaped by or shape the world around them. We’re warned against the former, and, ironically, the measures we often take to avoid it also may prevent us fulfilling the latter.

Tension and balance: A beautiful way to make peace when discussing theological differences is to proffer the possibility of a ‘tension’. It’s bound to make an appearance in any conversation that (a) different Christians will have differing opinions of and (b) has practical implications. Look at the assimilation/accommodation example I just used: One concerned friend notes how, in an attempt to reach a certain people group, someone in their community is starting to backslide because they’ve been spending too much time among those of the world. Another contradicts the concern by noting that those of the world would never be reached without interaction. I’m oversimplifying here because I don’t want to write for ages. Finally, the peacemaker speaks. Their first move is to identify it: “Oh, it’s a tension.” There are audible ahhs of understanding, and the peacemaker expands, “It’s really important to balance the two. Find a mid-point.” Likewise, you can see this is in more abstract matters like inspiration of scripture (human vs divine input), morality (grace vs grace abuse), and God’s sovereignty (omnipotence vs the unfulfilled kingdom).

Paradox: At the risk of regressing in my own understanding of this and simultaneously confusing you, let’s give paradox a go. Really, I dislike it when people look at a word’s etymology to make an appeal to the real meaning of the word. Unless you’re doing Koine Greek or something to help readers understand the original context, why tell your acrobats that circus comes from the same root as circle so that you can maintain a circular performance area? No, language changes over time. However, I think the etymology or paradox is important. In the Greek, para- means beyond and dox, belief: Beyond belief. Ambrose Bierce’s ironic and delightfully cynical, The Devil’s Dictionary, provides a good example of paradox under the definition of Trinity:

In the multiplex theism of certain Christian churches, three entirely distinct deities consistent with only one. Subordinate deities of the polytheistic faith, such as devils and angels, are not dowered with the power of combination, and must urge individually their claims to adoration and propitiation. The Trinity is one of the most sublime mysteries of our holy religion. In rejecting it because it is incomprehensible, Unitarians betray their inadequate sense of theological fundamentals. In religion we believe only what we do not understand, except in the instance of an intelligible doctrine that contradicts an incomprehensible one. In that case we believe the former as a part of the latter.

Paradox transcends language because it is logically impossible. Instead of watering down two truths to find a mid-point, or saying that one end of the spectrum is true in some cases and the other in other cases, paradox defiantly holds both at the same time. Paradox pulls a moonie at truth. Paradox is the parody of truth. In some ways it can be seen as the option for those who are too intellectually weak to decide if one statement is more logical, empirically testable, or true than another statement, which Bierce takes a jab at in the above definition. And this is probably the greatest temptation, but au contraire, paradox shows not only the limits of truth as expressed in language, not only our own understanding, but our humanity.

It’s all in God’s hands, but we need to proclaim the Good News. You need to love others, but you also need to speak out against their injustices. Grace is completely free, but it will cost you everything. Accept this intellectually, at a glance. Look at that. Yes. Done already. But now try to live this. There is no mid-point. You cannot say that it’s a little bit of you and a little bit of the Holy Spirit. You cannot say that God does all the work, and you definitely cannot say you do all of it. Your only option is to continue the hard task of living it, to the limits of your humanity.

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“Amazing race, how sweet the taste, that saved a wrench for me. I once was in the lost and found, was blind but found my keys.” — Reese, Malcolm in the Middle

Understanding grace has been one of the most difficult endeavors undergone in my last 4 years of following Jesus. For me, it is indistinguishable from the free will/predestination (Arminian/Calvinist) debate: If I do not need to do anything to gain salvation, then my salvation depends completely on God. If my salvation depends completely on God and God wants all to be saved, then all are saved. If all are not saved then my salvation does not depend completely on God. Comprende?

The only viable conclusions of Arminianism are either works-based salvation or antinomianism. The only viable conclusions of Calvinism are either universalism or tyranny. I’m sure those terms will make understanding this for you infinitely easier. Actually, ignore them, unless you’re one of those who love jargon.

One thing the theology of grace I have been exposed to does not deal with very well is responsibility. What I mean is that although there are those rare climactic moments when you know completely that there is nothing you can do to gain salvation and that it is completely free, these moments are often all to quickly swamped by what is required of us. Grace: It’s a beautiful, beautiful thing. The difficulty comes mid-week when you face yourself to find that the world requires something of you. You need to finish your degree. You need to turn up to work. You need to pay your rent on time. You need to maintain a healthy diet. You need to spend time with those who love you.

Why so worried? These are seriously non-issues. Try: You need to provide food for your family. You need to find a safe place to live. You need to speak out against the injustices your government system perpetuates. You need to stay warm. You need to help those who can’t help themselves.

Consider Paul “If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing” (1Co 13:3 NIV). Sometimes we limit even beauty and power of verses like this by turning them into law: You must do everything out of love. Yet in saying ‘you must’, you automatically create law to prevent the law which Paul speaks of, and therefore you again bind grace with law.

Two Christians found themselves each in isolation after being verbally abused and beaten by their persecutors. The first prayed out to God, “O Lord! Thank you delivering me from my enemies. I cannot rid myself of the hate I have inside for them. Please change my heart. I know that you desire for me to pray blessing over them. Please grant me the grace so that I can do this out of love for them, rather than doing this because I know I should.” Somewhere nearby, the second began her prayers, “Father, I praise you for saving my life again today. I wish for you to come soon and wipe evil off the face of the earth. ‘Do I not hate those who hate you, Lord, and abhor those who are in rebellion against you? I have nothing but hatred for them; I count them my enemies’ (Ps 139:21-22 NIV). Yet I know I am required to pray for them. Despite my complete desire for their destruction, I will ask you to bless them because I know this is your will.”

There are two laws at work here: The second person prays according to the law that you must pray for your enemies. The first person prays according to the law that you must act out of love rather than law. Ideally, we act out of love, yet we don’t always have love with which to act.

Sometimes it is more loving to do something out of obligation than to not do it at all.

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Simply because Puritans are often given a bad rap, here are ten things that you can appreciate that have been either directly or indirectly influenced by Puritans over the centuries. In case you didn’t know, the Puritans were a group of Protestants arising during and just after the Reformation. They are known for their strict moral code and influence on the formation of America as a country.

The word ‘Puritan’. Not to be confused with purist, someone who prefers something to be done without contamination from outside sources, if that makes sense. A puritan in the modern sense can be applied to overly moralistic people. It arose as a derogatory term for this new group of Protestants. Good start? Nice legacy bro.

Memento Mori. Latin for ‘Remember that you will die’, memento mori is a genre of art, literature, etc that stresses the shortness of life. Whereas carpe diem suggests that people make the most of life (this can be quite positive in a modern sense but was seen as surfeiting sensual pleasures back in the day), memento mori directs people’s attention to the condition of their soul in light of the immanence of death. Shakespeare may have even tried his hand at it.

Sexuality. You know that nice Christian apology for sex that tells people sex isn’t bad but is rather meant to be celebrated as a gift from God? After a little Wikipedia-funded research, I have found that Puritans held the same celebratory views of sex, within marriage of course!

Mission. Despite some utterly despicable relations with Native Americans, some Puritans had a positive missionary focus to reach the people around them. Not only Native Americans, but also different people groups in the Pacific.

Thanksgiving. Being a New Zealander, Thanksgiving is something I know little about. How awesome, however, would it be to have one day a year just to focus on giving thanks for that which is good? There’s something in there about affirmative relationships with Native Americans too. Also, the original Thanksgiving was not just celebration but thanks that acknowledged God’s providence!

Virtue Names. I’m a sucker for these. And if procreation is something that comes about in my seventy years then one or six of these will follow (don’t worry; that includes middle names). Some are still popular today: Joy, Hope, Faith (girl AND boy). Consider also Charity (Chastity?), Truth, Justice, Felicity, Freedom, Prudence, Self-control… Actually, Sophie is a virtue name. Let’s stick with that one.

Pilgrim’s Progress. There’s comes a point in your Christian walk when you say to yourself: I can’t actually move further in my faith until I have read John Bunyan’s classic. I myself have been there. It was a bit of a kick up the bum, but not one that was unneeded. Bunyan wrote in a time of persecution, and a lot of it from jail, with all zeal and fervor. My Penguin edition notes that in countries where the Bible was translated as first work of literature, this was usually next. Again, this emphasises the awesomeness (and perhaps death) of virtue names.

Anne Bradstreet. Apparently America’s first published poet was a woman. Feminism win. Anne was a prolific writer who didn’t shy away from putting God at the center of her writings. Not only that, but she is a prime example of the fruit of the education of women, which a lot Puritans endorsed. She probably influenced Emily Dickinson too, who is an existential babe.

Abolition of Slavery. One of the most important, albeit incomplete, happenings in recent history was somewhat sourced in New England, a collection of states that were settled predominantly by Puritans. Quakers probably got it right earlier, but hey, the Puritans caught on in the end and contributed to the greater good.

John Milton. Probably my favourite Puritan, this guy has had an immeasurable effect on the English language and literature. You may have heard of Paradise Lost, the last great epic poem to be written, which centres on the Fall. He also wrote some amazing sonnets, like the mighty On the late massacre in Piedmont and the profound On his blindness. Interestingly, he was politically active and non-Trinitarian.

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