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Posts Tagged ‘jesus’

One thing I’d really like to look at more is theology and sexuality. More evangelicals are becoming gay and lesbian affirming, at least in the sense that everything is all good within the bounds of a mutual, monogamous relationship, i.e., marriage. Now I’ve only read what’s come across my path here, not having done a lot of research on this specifically, but I am aware of the position(s) that “marriage equality” doesn’t mean a whole lot for equality or justice really at all. It’s gradualist in the sense that it allows those previously excluded from certain privileges to attain them in some sense, but it’s not radical because it doesn’t go past the basic framework that is already offered. It wants into marriage rather than reimagining relationships, sex, love, etc from the ground up, creating new alternatives. Moreover, same sex marriage focuses on including lesbians and gays into a historically heteronormative system, but it becomes more problematic when considering bisexuals, pansexuals, transgender persons… If that’s ambiguous it’s because I’m trying to generalise a whole lot of vaguely recollected reads which also each probably frame the issues differently.

Anyway, this is just one factor that has got me thinking about some questions to pursue around theology and sexuality, specifically marriage. Some other factors include the high numbers of evangelicals especially who have had pre-marital sex (yes this includes oral and manual), in relation to this evangelical purity culture, pornography, people getting married later, increased divorce rates, and an increasing amount of people (mostly outside the church as far as I know) exploring alternatives to monogamous relationships, such as various approaches to polyamory. I want to pose the question, what does this mean for our theology of marriage? I can think of three main approaches:

(A) A “traditionalist” approach which seeks to maintain traditional evangelical/Christian understandings of marriage (whatever they are!) while acknowledging the difficulties people have maintaining this as a reality, like in pre-marital sex and getting divorced, and supporting them accordingly, another kind of love-the-sinner-hate-the-sin-approach. With any approach there will be ongoing failures and exceptions which cannot be accounted for. However, these need to be addressed through understanding tradition as dynamic, creating new tradition, and remembering as good Protestants that our source is not first tradition but the person of Christ.

(B) This leads into a “retrieval” approach which would seek to draw on the sources of Scripture and tradition, engaging with both critiques of marriage from within and outside of the church, to attempt to restate what marriage has been and what it might be today. For example, I’ve been thinking a bit about Paul’s frequent use of porneia, usually translated as “sexual immorality” in the New Testament. While I’m sure that because Paul didn’t understand sexuality, gender, etc in the same way that we do he would have provided some very different answers to ours, it also needs to be asked what connection early Christians such as Paul saw between life in Christ and the Spirit and their sexual decisions and how this should relate to contemporary Christian practice. Nonetheless, this approach has not yet heeded what it might look like to imagine and affirm new relationships and sexualities outside of the concept of marriage altogether.

(C) The final would be a “liberation” approach which understands Christ as coming to liberate creation for a completely new order which is new creation. So, Jesus, “For in the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven” (Matt 22:30; cf. 1 Cor 7:25-31). This also concerns undertaking theology not from the perspective of those who benefit from marriage (or benefit from promoting and defending it) but from those who are in different senses excluded from marriage, so LGBTQI persons, and in a different again yet still important sense the never-married-but-lived-as-in-a-relationship-which-in-many-ways-was-marital, the widowed, the divorced, the forever alone/never-got-married-but-wanted-to. Obviously such an approach would both need to engage critically with the married (though I’d like to think many who are happily married would provide some kind of support for this approach) but also acknowledge in what senses marriage has and continues to be a source of love, growth, support, healing, strength, etc, for so many people.

I began writing this post as I had until recently thought only in terms of B, though suddenly I found my self considering the value of C. This is all provisional and a sketch. Others will have given this more time and thus more thought and probably considered a lot more things than I have in this post.

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William Blake's Job

William Blake’s Job

As the oft-repeated verse goes, “So, brothers and sisters, because of God’s mercies, I encourage you to present your bodies as a living sacrifice that is holy and pleasing to God. This is your appropriate priestly service” (Romans 12:1). So also the oft-repeated accompanying comment: Worship is holistic. Singing in church has little value if it something less than an expression of the individual and church’s wider commitment to God. When the whole life is directed towards him, even the mundaneness of taking a shower is taken into this position of worship. Nothing is excluded from this living sacrifice, except sin, that which is opposed to God and his plan of redemption. This is not to say that sin prevents it, however. As the Spirit worked in Jesus so the Spirit works in us. We can offer our lives as worship while we await for sin and death to be finally overcome.

What place does doubt play in this very short sketch of the Christian life? Is it sin that will be done away with when the world is brought into new creation? Or is it, somehow, an expression of the life directed towards God? A surface reading of the New Testament suggests the former:

But anyone who needs wisdom should ask God, whose very nature is to give to everyone without a second thought, without keeping score. Wisdom will certainly be given to those who ask. Whoever asks shouldn’t hesitate. They should ask in faith, without doubting. Whoever doubts is like the surf of the sea, tossed and turned by the wind. People like that should never imagine that they will receive anything from the Lord. They are double-minded, unstable in all their ways.

(James 1:5-8).

Doubt could be understood as hesitating to approach God and ask him for something or, having asked God, hesitating to believe that the prayer will be answered. For James, doubt in this sense would probably not be a form of worship! This makes sense when seen in the context of new creation: “Now we see a reflection in a mirror; then we will see face-to-face. Now I know partially, but then I will know completely in the same way that I have been completely known” (1 Corinthians 13:12). Why would the Spirit bring us to doubt if we will one day be free from all doubt?

However, the question becomes more complicated when understood in the context of the wider biblical picture. At the end of 12 chapters in Ecclesiastes surveying the absurdities and evils of life the Teacher can conclude, “Perfectly pointless… everything is pointless” (12:8). Add to that the second voice in the postscript. Not only, “Worship God and keep God’s commandments because this is what everyone must do” (v.13) but, surprisingly, “The Teacher searched for pleasing words, and he wrote truthful words honestly” (v.10). Apparently the Teacher who decried the absurdities and evils was not misguided! The narrator who opens and closes Ecclesiastes reassures us that Teacher’s doubts are not only compatible with the life of worship but actually worth reflecting on.

This is true also of the Psalms:

But now you’ve rejected and humiliated us.
You no longer accompany our armies.
You make us retreat from the enemy;
our adversaries plunder us.
You’ve handed us over like sheep for butchering;
you’ve scattered us among the nations.
You’ve sold your people for nothing,
not even bothering to set a decent price.

(Psalm 44:9-12).

This is not the one-off, sinful musings of a person who has set their self against God. It is holy writ, taken up by the people of God and sanctified as the language of prayer and worship. Would you kiss your mother with that mouth, let alone your God?

An interesting case is Job, whom, as the story goes, God allows Satan to afflict by killing off his children and livestock, and striking him with sores all over his body. Job’s initial responses to the horror include praising God despite the situation — “The Lord has given; the Lord has taken; bless the Lord’s name” (1:21) — and even defending God — “Will we receive good from God but not also receive bad?” (2:10). However, in the main body of text we encounter a seemingly different Job: “Does it seem good to you that you oppress me, that you reject the work of your hands and cause the purpose of sinners to shine?” (10:3). God does not just seem distant but positively evil: “You know that I’m not guilty, yet no one delivers me from your power” (10:7). Which of these set of statements is spoken in faith or worship? It is hard to imagine any liturgical context where such language is directed in faith to God above, that is, whatever faith in that context would mean! It should also be remembered that, after much dialogue with the friends who apparently came to comfort him, Job is answered by God himself with the longest uninterrupted divine speech in the Bible. At the conclusion of this speech Job affirms again his faith in God’s power. He is declared righteous in contrast to his friends who “didn’t speak correctly, as my servant Job” (42:8).

In what sense can these examples be considered doubt? Maybe not in James’ sense. At least in the case of the Psalms and Job, such utterances are directed towards God rather than in a place apart from him. They arise from the mouths of those who have faith because, despite the content of their complaints, they do not direct it at a subject other than God. They are not uttered “behind his back,” so to speak. And it may be too simplistic to consider them as wavering. There is an urgency in the examples given which seeks answers from heaven. The supplicants are persistent in seeking God to respond to their situations. Thus by doubt I mean that which arises from either having seen God at work in history or more generally from an expectation that God’s being means that life should prevail over death and yet does not see this at work at present: Biblical doubt concerns the cries directed towards the One who could and should be present but is yet absent.

Marcus Reichert's Crucifixion VII

Marcus Reichert’s Crucifixion VII

This brings us to a New Testament example. Matthew and Mark record Jesus’ last words on the cross as “My God, my God, why have you forsaken/abandoned me?” (Mark 15:33). By abandonment here I do not see some split in the Trinity (which is probably impossible and with which the world and God would cease to exist), but the simple continuation of the Old Testament tradition of the suffering righteous, as Psalm 22, the psalm Jesus quotes here, shows. Jesus has been abandoned by his Father insofar as his Father did not deliver him from those who crucified him. His abandonment is in the unanswered prayers offered in Gethsemane: “Abba, Father, for you all things are possible. Take this cup of suffering away from me. However—not what I want but what you want” (Mark 14:36). It is Jesus’ abandonment which brings this form of doubt into the Christian life of worship.

This also allows for doubt to be seen in the context of new creation. Both the passion narrative and Psalm 22 point to Jesus’ deliverance: “Don’t be alarmed! You are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised. He isn’t here” (Mark 16:6). God did not leave his servant to die but “he didn’t despise or detest the suffering of the one who suffered—he didn’t hide his face from me. No, he listened when I cried out to him for help” (Psalm 22:24). Doubt will be done away with. Yet, as long as creation remains the world of sin and death, doubt remains an important part of the Christian life. The end of Jesus and the psalmist’s story does not mean that there was never a middle. We are in the middle, the redemption of which will one day be brought to completion, and as such we cannot be detached from this middle but stand with it and share in its fears, worries, and doubts. In the same chapter we find the call to holistic worship we also find: “Be happy with those who are happy, and cry with those who are crying” (Romans 12:15). We need to creatively incorporate doubt and protest into our personal and communal worship.

I end with three of my own doubts that I direct towards the only One who could possibly one day answer them:

  • How can I celebrate the victories and glimpses of redemption that you bring in my life and the lives of others when so many people are left seemingly untouched by grace and love?
  • I can see how you can redeem Jesus’ suffering, who took the cross upon himself willingly and was rewarded with resurrection life. But how can you redeem those who suffer unwillingly?
  • Through the work of the Spirit in the present it is possible to begin to imagine a world without sin and death. In this sense I can see the future of the world being redeemed. But how can this redemption touch every ugly and unspeakable corner of history? You can offer us a better future but how can you offer those who have suffered a better past?

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I said to the oceans,
“I will swallow you.”

I said to the mountains,
“I will crumble you.”

I said to the sky,
“I will suck you up.”

I said to the sun,
“I will put you out.”

I looked to every place
and defied it.

I exceeded all existence and spat,
“You sourced me but now I source you.

“I am my kingmaker.
In me you are no more.”

The oceans revolted
and scorned their beginning.

The mountains lunged
and seized their origin.

The sky swelled
and smothered all reality.

The sun blazed
and consumed all being.

And though I looked to every place
I did not see God.

He surrendered to the ocean
and did not move for mountains.

He yielded to the sky
and allowed the sun to take him.

And when I one day sought to end him
he did not fight, nor even speak,
but walked on, silently.

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As of 2009, Romans 8:28 was the third most read verse on Biblegateway. Try to guess the others before peeking! Anyway, you probably know it:

We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.

Jesus Culture subtly restates it in Your Love Never Fails: “You make all things work together for my good.” I wonder if this has become the dominant direction in which this verse has been taken for middle-class Christians? The community of “those who love God” has become the individual, and God’s eschatological, cosmological, redemptive good has become middle class comforts. But it isn’t all for bad. I won’t deny the consolation that this verse can be for anyone who suffers. Regardless, what’s Paul’s context? The following verse reads, “For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn within a large family.” What is conforming to Jesus’ image? Can it be anything other than following in his footsteps to the cross, “sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead” (Phil 3:10-11)?

As much of the early church experienced persecution, it was likely the church at Rome had undergone or were anticipating some future persecution. In the same way that God works all things together for the good of the church, Paul cites Psalm 44 a few verses on, “For your sake we are being killed all day long; we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered” (Rom 8:36). Yet as Jesus died for the ungodly, not the righteous (5:6-8), the church is to “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them” (12:14), giving themselves as living sacrifices to God (12:1; cf. Phil 2:17). I would love Romans 8:28 to be my favourite verse, but I’m not sure I’ve yet accepted all that it entails!

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Two of my questions for the upcoming ‘xam (two days!) deal with relating a theological concept in a postmodern, postfoundationalist context. For me the defining aspect of postmodernism is particularity. We have lost all confidence in universals and are thus deferred to a world of humble particulars. And that, too, may very well be the crossover point between postmodernism and Christian theology. I read recently, and from a pretty conservative scholar too, that Christianity cannot stand on its own as a set of doctrines, say like Buddhism; it is inextricably bound to the narrative of Yahweh’s work through Israel, the culmination of this in Jesus, and the ongoing work of the Church. There is no Christianity apart from this story.

In the history of theology, theologians have wrestled with what has come to be called “the scandal of particularity.” This is the problem of how such a particular narrative is supposed to have universal significance. Jesus was a man; he worked as a carpenter, to the exclusion of other forms of work; he was born to a particular family, not all families; he was born in Israel, not all nations. Not that these accidentals, among others, cannot be representative of all other particulars and thus have some universal significance, but the point is that God become human inevitably took on particulars in so doing.

Now as a large chunk of the history of theology and philosophy would have us assume, there is a God of the universal behind this particular. But what if the scandal of particularity requires the theological move that there is also a God of particularity who became Jesus? Luther’s logic went: “Jesus suffered and died on the cross; Jesus was God; God suffered and died on the cross.” Outside of Jesus and the narrative already mentioned, the most puzzling aspect of particularity in Christianity for me is God entering into time. If God is in a permanent state of isness, if he is the eternal, I am, how does this God operate within the finite terms of the wasis and will be? Maybe this is one of open theism’s strengths in pointing out the immanence of God in time..?

Here are a couple of questions to ponder:

Does the act of Creation (and creating time) depend on God’s prior particularity?

Is there a change in the universality of God through all interactions with Creation, especially the incarnation?

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http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/9/93/Gregor-Chora.jpg/217px-Gregor-Chora.jpg

Currently working on explaining how Jesus is fully God and fully human for ‘xam in a few days! Been getting excited about the Church fathers. So no doubt was I stoked to find this in one of Thomas Oden’s books:

He hungered — but He fed thousands…
He was wearied, but He is the Rest of them that are weary…
He was heavy with sleep, but He walked lightly over the sea…
He prays but He hears prayer.
He weeps, but He causes tears to cease.
He asks where Lazarus was laid, for He was Man; but He raises Lazarus, for He was God.
He is sold, and very cheap, for it is only thirty pieces of silver; but He redeems the world…
As a sheep He is led to the slaughter, but He is the Shepherd of Israel, and now of the whole world also.
As a Lamb He is silent, yet He is the Word…
He is … wounded, but He healeth every disease…
He dies, but He gives life…
If the one give you a starting point for your error, let the others put an end to it.¹

Gregory Nazianzen

¹Orat. XXIX. 20. Cited in Thomas Oden, The Word of Life: Systematic Theology: Volume Two (New York, NY: HarperCollins, 1989), 185.

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It’s been an awesome week studying for a single exam I have coming up, Christology and Revelation, with a question on how we know about God (revelation), one on the divine/human nature of Jesus (christology), and two on atonement, or “at-onement,” exploring the multiplicities of what Jesus’ life, death and resurrection mean for humanity’s reconciliation with God. Having never really delved into questions of atonement, I’ve drunk deeply of the wealth of material I’ve found this week! Recently though, as in about ten minutes ago, I revisited a nicety which I remember popping up not infrequently in the history of my exposure to all things atonement. It goes something like this:

“Even if you were the last person on earth, Jesus still would have died for you.”

A nicety, indeed. But maybe not the truth. Do we, in presenting the Gospel primarily as it concerns individuals the world over, empty the cross of its power? I wonder why Jesus doesn’t come instead to Adam and Eve and make reparation for their individual sins. And what broken relationships is this last person on earth going to be restored in? What about the cosmological extent of the fall: Even if you were the last moon in the universe, would Jesus still have died for you? What about all the fishes of the deep blue sea who go unmentioned in this metaphor?

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Jesus’ death is the high point of God’s reconciliation of Creation to him (Rom 8:20-21), entering into time at the “culmination of the ages” (Heb 9:26). Neither can Jesus say, “You are forgiven,” without, “Take up your cross daily and follow me” (Luke 9:23-24). What if forgiveness was not a mere cancelling of our own indebtedness to God but an invitation to take part work of reconciliation (2 Cor 5:18)? Even if you were the last person on earth, Jesus would still call with you to join in this work.

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