God Among the Sages

Note: I received this book for free from Baker Book Bloggers in exchange for writing a review.

In the strand of the Christian tradition in which I am a part, our main focus is on Jesus as Savior. All humans are sinners, desperately in need of salvation from the separation from God that comes as a consequence of our sin. Jesus took upon himself our sin and its consequences, enabling us to be restored in our relationship with God. He is our Savior.

When we read the Bible and consider the Christian tradition as a whole, there is more 9780801016905(not less!) to Jesus than his role as Savior. Kenneth Richard Samples’ book, God Among the Sages, broadens the picture in its very title. Jesus is not just Savior – he is also sage – a wise man who through his life and teaching shows us how to live the good, truly human life God created us for.

The book is organized in three sections. This first examines Jesus. Samples draws on the New Testament picture of Jesus, showing him to be God incarnate who took upon himself the sins of the world. The idea that Jesus is more than just a good man – even superlatively good – or a great teacher is shown to go back to Jesus himself, and is not just a fabrication of the disciples or later church.

The second section examines four other “sages” and compares them with Jesus: Krishna, Gautama, Confucius, and Mohammad. Through these comparisons samples delves into the basics of the religious traditions each represents: Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism, and Islam. He considers the commonalities each of these shares with Christianity as well as the differences. The major focus is on the individuals – on how Jesus contrasts with each. Not surprisingly, Samples finds that Jesus is clearly superior to each, if for no other reason that his claims are substantiated in history and he alone defeated death. Jesus alone lives up to what we would expect of God.

The final section of the book deals with the issue of religious pluralism. He examines the various general stances commonly taken toward the presence of multiple religions. Between pluralism, inclusivism, and exclusivism, Samples defends a version of the latter. His exclusivism allows him to see truth in other religions, but ultimate truth is found in Christ alone.

This book would be best for beginners in the study of comparative religion who want to pursue their study for apologetic purposes. Jesus gets all the strongest arguments, the richest evidence. The more advanced student might even find the deck stacked against the other religions. If we begin with Jesus – an appropriate place for Christians – and assume that he is the paradigm for representing God, we’re easily led to assume that Christianity offers the best criteria for judging religions. By those criteria, every non-Christian religion is likely to fail.

There would be value to this book if Samples had hewed more closely to considering Jesus as a sage. If he had examined Jesus on the criteria of the not-necessarily religious criteria of being a sage, the book might be more useful. (Well, yes, the title isn’t Jesus “among the sages,” but “God” among the sages, pointing the reader to the conclusion.) Sure, the Christian might not have walked away so easily with the conviction of Jesus’ superiority. But one of the hardest challenges facing the apologist is shying away from thinking one has to offer the total case for Christ in every work.

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The Downside of Church Success

There is a long-standing tendency to reduce the Christian faith to ethics. In Christology this shows up when we see Jesus primarily as teacher. As a teacher – in fact The Great Teacher – Jesus gives us the information we need (through his words) and the model we need (through his actions) to do what is good and right. The fact that he died (was crucified as a criminal, a rebel against the instituted order) is illustrative of how the world has unethical tendencies and doesn’t want to hear how to live rightly.

This is not the version of the Christian faith that I teach and preach. As an ethical teacher, there is little or nothing about Jesus that stands out. His teaching on the good life – no the expectations God has for humans – is in line with what we read in the Old Testament. Jesus was thoroughly Jewish in this regard (recognizing, of course, that then as now, there are multiple ways of being Jewish).

Instead of seeing Jesus primarily as teacher (that word primarily is important, since Jesus is undeniably – and importantly! – a teacher), the Christian tradition proclaims Jesus as God become human, one of us. As one of us he entered our life fully, took on our sin and brokenness, defeating both in his crucifixion and resurrection. In his resurrection Jesus is declared to be LORD. Jesus, not abstract moral principles (or categorical imperatives) are the highest authority in our lives.

But I want to address a peripheral issue here.

In the run up to the late 20th century Christians in the west have had success after success. We’ve not only pushed for expansions of education, health care, and human rights (to name some of the big areas), we’ve convinced the government to see these as goods – and as the job of government to bring about. We’ve succeeded!

Or have we? Surely it is a success when we have convinced the government, with its power of coercion, monopoly on the legitimate us of violence, and the ability to create money out of thin air, to do what we think is good. Where the church was weak, through being limited to convincing people & institutions to do The Right Thing, the State has the power to make these things happen.

Because we’ve had this great victory, the church in the west is stronger than ever, right?

Well, not so much. In our push to center on ethics, we’ve tended to reduce the faith to ethics, to doing The Right Thing, to Transforming the World. We’ve let the so-called religious aspects of the faith fall by the wayside as divisive or inconsequential. All we have is ethics, doing The Right Thing and Transforming the World. But the omnicompetent state has taken over those jobs. Sure, we can cheer the State on, maybe nudge them a bit from time to time (if anyone is listening), but in our reduction of the faith to ethics, AND our success in passing the big social ethical duties on to the State, the church is left with nothing to do, nothing to define it. Who needs church – with its archaic texts, ancient bigoted and repressive moral remnants, and its demand that we forsake sleep and fun to go to boring “worship services?” This so-called success is the story of the church abetting in its own marginalization through secularization.

At some point, we need to get back to Jesus – not just the ethical teaching we (selectively) love, but the Jesus who inaugurated the kingdom of God and lives and reigns as Lord. This doesn’t mean forsaking ethics, or turning from doing The Right Thing. It means putting those good things in their place, under Jesus’ feet.

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(not) Enlisting Jesus as Our Political Trump Card

If you’re a Christian, you know Jesus is really important. We who claim to be his disciples think we ought to listen to him, follow him, and obey him. We ought to do what he did.

Image-1One of our current cultural debates is about what we call “health care.” I saw this picture (“Jesus Practiced Universal Healthcare”) on Twitter today (provided by Paul Goldberger). If by this we mean “Jesus had a serious, important, and extensive ministry of healing,” the claim – at least for those who take the Bible as an accurate picture of who Jesus was and what he did – is uncontroversial. Most places he went, he healed people. He healed lame people so they could walk. He healed deaf people so they could hear. He healed blind people so they could see. He cast demons out of those who were demonized. He cured leprosy. He raised the dead.

The problem is, this is not what is meant by “universal healthcare.” “Universal healthcare” in our current debate is about what kind of system the government should set up for our country.

Jesus did not set up a system of “healthcare,” unless by that we mean that he sent his disciples out to proclaim the gospel, part of which was the ministry of healing.

Jesus did not push the government, whether in the guise of one of the Herods, Pilate, or Caesar, to set up a “healthcare” system. In this sense, talk of “healthcare” at the time of Jesus is completely anachronistic.

Jesus also did not travel throughout the world and “practice universal healthcare.” Almost all of his healing ministry was done within the bounds of Galilee, Samaria, and Judea. This is a very small territory. If we consider passages like John 5, it also looks like Jesus didn’t even heal everyone around. In the story that opens that chapter Jesus is at a pool where the sick gathered. They sought supernatural healing. Jesus, according to John, goes up to one person and practically inflicts healing on him. What about all the others who were gathered there? Why didn’t Jesus, who “practiced universal healthcare” heal all them too? If Jesus’ practice of “healthcare” included raisings from the dead, why did he do this so rarely? If he truly aims the practice to be universal, why not prevent all death in the first place, and can’t prevent it, why not just raise everyone? That sounds more universal.

So given these anomalies, Jesus’ words and examples are useless to our current debate, right? I don’t think so.

In the first place, the impetus to provide for “healthcare” for all flows naturally from Jesus’ story of the judgment of the sheep and the goats. Yes, what we call “healthcare” is a very modern innovation, inconceivable in Jesus’ culture. Nonetheless, as the concept does exist now, it is natural for followers of Jesus to hear him say, “Inasmuch as you have done it to the least of these, you have done it unto me.” We also hear Jesus say things like, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” The deep involvement of Christian churches in the development of hospitals and healthcare networks has been inspired by Jesus.

In the second place, the life of following Jesus is a life of putting others before ourselves. The one who said “take up your cross and follow me” didn’t lead people to believe his way would be easy, comfortable, or cheap – the path of least resistance. It might be that America “can’t afford” “universal healthcare.” That the cost would be large, is undeniable. That we’ve come very close to trying it, that too seems undeniable.

Of course there are problems along the way. First, do we want our government – a self-declared secular entity – to operate on explicitly Christian terms? Or is listening to Jesus in this case merely picking what we want from what he says so we can advance our goals? Both sides in the debate pick parts of the Christian tradition that they like and reject parts they don’t. Do we want our nation to adhere to the Christian tradition in other areas as well? If we do, I’m not seeing it.

Second, even if we agree that “universal healthcare” is the Truly Christian Thing To Do and something we ought to instate, does that mean that any particular model is THE way to do it? Are there other important values to consider? Are freedom and self-determination good things (to at least some degree)? Which segments of the population should be allowed to have them? Only those who can pay out of their own resources (this is clearly a belief of many when it comes to education, another contentious current debate)?

Jesus commands us to love people and to do good to them. This is clearly a command for those who follow him. As a Christian, I will even go so far as to say that I believe it is God’s universal will for all people to love people and to do good to them. I’ll also add a couple of caveats. First, God knows more clearly than I do how to love people and do good to them. Some things my culture says are loving and good will run contrary to God’s views of loving and good. Second, I observe in scripture that God seems to give people at least minimal choice as to whether they receive love and good. We might prefer a coercive God who makes people do the right thing – just as some will prefer a coercive government that makes people do the right thing.

We – as individuals, as families, as churches, as a nation – have much to learn from Jesus. I’d like to see us take time to engage with the totality of what he said and did, and the tradition of engagement with what he said and did, in all areas, including healthcare. Sure, it’ll cost us, but if we trust God & want to obey God, that shouldn’t be such a big deal.

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Taking Time for the Bible

freely-39239.jpgOne of the key moves made during the Enlightenment that paved the way for modern historical critical study of the Bible was the decision to treat it as if it were just an ordinary book. If it is only an ordinary human book – and therefore like every other human book – it is susceptible to the same forms of analysis and treatment as any other book.

Only a few scholars can get past engagement with historical critical study these days. Discoveries of historical, cultural, and linguistic context have proved a great blessing in understanding the Bible. There has been and remains, however, a division in the western church about the quality of this modern commitment. That the Bible is a human book seems beyond doubt. It’s written in human languages. Its history is human history. It depicts humans acting like humans. Authorship of the texts that make up the Bible is straightforwardly attributed to humans. The point of division is the little word “only.” If the Bible is only a human book, a human book about what a select group of humans believes about God, that’s one thing. If the Bible is a human book for which God played a role in its creation and transmission, that’s entirely different. This contrast points at the why of reading the Bible.

If the Bible is only an ancient human book – it is ancient and it is human – than we might find it interesting; interesting in the same way we might find the works of Homer or the Wisdom of Amenemope interesting. Our interpretive activity allows us to appropriate these (and other) texts, to cull them for wisdom and insights into human ways of being.

But what if, as the mainstream Christian tradition claims, the Bible is not only a human book? What if the Bible can in at least some way be described as “the word of God” – an instance of God’s communication with humans? If this is so, then it’s worth our while to take to the time to engage with the text. This engagement takes time, something we’re often loath to give:

“God in his infinite wisdom decided to give us a book, a very long book, and not a portrait or an aphorism. God reveals himself in his image, Jesus, but we come to know that image by reading, and that takes time. God wants to transform us into the image of his image, and one of the key ways he does that is by leading us through the text. If we short-circuit that process by getting to the practical application, we are not going to be transformed in the ways God wants us to be transformed. ‘Get to the point’ will not do because part of the point is to lead us through the labyrinth of the text itself. There is treasure at the center of the labyrinth, but with texts, the journey really is as important as the destination.” Peter Leithart

Leithart would have us slow down. God’s communication with us through the Bible is not merely a list of bullet points. The purpose of engaging with the text is to engage with God and to live with God. This takes time.

I also think of Iain McGilchrist’s, The Master and His Emissary. One of McGilchrist’s claims about the corpus colossum that connects right and left hemispheres of the brain is that it not only allows the hemispheres to communicate with each other, but also inhibits communication. Slowing down the automatic processes of the brain gives us time to think things through. If the communication flow is too fast, too extensive, we will be led astray.

I suggest that if we listen to McGilchrist, we find part of the rationale for learning to read the Bible slowly. Whatever experience we have, whether that experience be of the natural world, the people around us, or a text, we always interpret that text in light of our previous experience. There is no way around this. Our initial interpretation happens automatically.

If we listen to Leithart and McGilchrist, we can hear the summons to slow down. As we recognize the automatic practices of interpretation for what they are, we can learn to question them. As Christians, we can practice intentionally bringing God into the interpretive process through prayer. Reading slowly will help us read the Bible better – and more humbly, especially as we read with others in community.

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Heaven’s Flames & Hell’s Gates

For several years now, I’ve seen churches hosting a dramatic presentation called Heaven’s Gates and Hell’s Flames. The one I went to focused on the horrors of hell, the uncertainty of life – we could die any moment, and the necessity to get right with God RIGHT NOW!

One of the difficulties contemporary United Methodists face is a propensity toward soteriological universalism. Our obsession with the love of God – surely a good thing to be obsessed about – leads us to believe that everyone will be saved because a loving God would never send anyone to hell. Of course, when we make this move we have to throw out the biblical imagery about a negative end-state (whether that be called “hell” or not) for humans. On the other side, we could argue that a loving God (that God is love is a root conviction of Christianity, after all) would not compel people to spend eternity with God.

Either way, we UMs are usually not very comfortable talking about hell. But what if it’s a real possibility for some people? What if eternal separation from God, however visualized, is a possible outcome? If we love God and love our neighbors, what would we do in light of such a possibility? It’s in this context that I can understand why some churches put on plays like this. They love God and love people and desperately want people to choose eternity with God rather than eternal separation from God.

My hold up is that the main motivation appears to be fear. Hell is gruesome and horrible; we should fear going there. Heaven is the obvious better alternative. I don’t like motivating people with fear – even when I think the context justifies fear (one’s eternal destiny, wearing a seat belt, avoiding smoking, etc.). Fear is a much better motivator in the short term than the long term.

When we use fear in the context of eternal life, the act of becoming a Christian too easily reduces to getting an eternal fire insurance policy. “I’ve walked the aisle, I’ve prayed the prayer, I’ve joined the church.” I have my eternal destiny settled, so now I can get on with life. I just don’t see that perspective in the Bible.

Consider for a moment the possibility of Heaven’s flames. Such an odd idea, isn’t it, since we usually associate flames with hell – the abode of God’s enemy, the devil. We’ve seen the cartoons of the guy with horns, tail, and pitchfork, torturing people among the flames. That’s hell. Hell has flames. Surely heaven doesn’t have flames.

But what do we make of Hebrews 12:29 – “Our God is a consuming fire.” Is God starting to sound dangerous? What about Isaiah’s vision in Isa. 6? He sees God high and lifted up. How’s he respond? “Hey God, good buddy! Good to see you?” No. He falls down like he’s dead. Knowing the depth of his sin, he knows he’s in serious trouble.

Or what about Paul’s discussion in 1 Corinthians 3:9-15?

9 For we are God’s fellow workers; you are God’s field, God’s building. 10 By the grace God has given me, I laid a foundation as an expert builder, and someone else is building on it. But each one should be careful how he builds. 11 For no one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ. 12 If any man builds on this foundation using gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay or straw, 13 his work will be shown for what it is, because the Day will bring it to light. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each man’s work. 14 If what he has built survives, he will receive his reward. 15 If it is burned up, he will suffer loss; he himself will be saved, but only as one escaping through the flames.

Paul’s talking to Christians here. Christians, according to this passage, go through the judgment. Flames are involved! Are we preparing for God’s judgment, or are we resting on a decision (a GOOD decision!) we made at some point in the past to follow Jesus? Will we be ready for heaven’s flames?

Or what about hell’s gates? Consider what Jesus says in Matthew 16. He’s asked the disciples, “Who do people say I am?” They give a variety of answers. He then asks them who THEY think he is:

16 Simon Peter answered, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” 17 Jesus replied, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by man, but by my Father in heaven. 18 And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell will not overcome it.

Jesus is assuming that our warfare will take us to the very gates of hell – and they will not stand against us. Why on earth would we want to even approach the gates of hell? Surely we want to be safe and secure from the devil and his minions, separated from all the unholy and godless people flocking there through the wide gate?

But, no, that is not the Jesus way. In his incarnation, in becoming one of us, Jesus himself charged the gates of hell. He did so to rescue those running headlong trying to enter. He calls us to do the same. Instead of separating ourselves from the world, so that we will be unsullied by its sin, we take up our crosses – as Jesus commanded – and follow him into the fray. His love for (us) sinners was so great, he gave his very life for us. He calls us to embody that same kind of love and to go after sinners as well. There’s no superiority involved here: our motivation is love, our attitude, “there, but for the grace of God, go I.” We’ve been there – we’ve done that – we know the pain and don’t want anyone, even our enemies to go that way.

C.T Studd, a British missionary of a hundred years ago, put it this way:

Some want to live within the sound of a church or chapel bell;

I want to run a rescue shop within a yard of hell.

When we recognize the reality of Heaven’s Flames, when we charge Hell’s Gates to deter or rescue those trying to go in, our lives will be anything but escapist. Sure the world is sinful, broken, hurting. But our allegiance to Jesus means that we follow him wherever he goes, loving him, loving the people he died to save.

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What Are They Supposed to Think?

What are my black friends supposed to think, with yesterday’s acquittal of Officer Yanez in the shooting of Philando Castile?

  • Blacks may (in theory) have second amendment rights, but if they exercise them they’re more likely to receive an instant death penalty?
  • They’ll have to find ways to become paler – and make everyone they care about paler – lest armed people in authority be afraid of them?
  • Armed people in authority have a presumptive right to act violently toward them when afraid?
  • If I don’t do exactly what the armed people in authority tell me to do, even if I don’t understand what they’re telling me to do the exact way they understand what they’re telling me to do, they are justified in killing me (or my son, or my friend, etc.)?

It would be nice to be able to relax and point to statistics. The vast majority of armed people in authority never kill anyone. The vast majority of encounters between armed people in authority and black people do not result in deadly violence. If your experience is that people like you are more likely to be shot in encounters with armed people in authority and that those armed people in authority who do the shooting are universally not held to account for the shooting, it is rational to conclude that you and people like you could be next.

But the statistics show this conclusion is irrational! If we were the kind of being that lived purely in terms of statistics, that might be true. We’re not that kind of being. The microscope of the 24 hour news cycle combined with social media makes sure that these events, even if statistically rare, are ever before us.

Ah – so let’s blame the news cycle and social media! Surely there would be no problem if these incidents weren’t magnified!

But consider what I said. The 24 hour news cycle put these events under a microscope. These incidents are being magnified. The incidents are real. They actually happened. The details may not be report wie es eigentlich gewesen (as things actually happened), but historians since von Ranke know that’s an impossible standard. The incidents, however described, happen often enough, and are vividly reported enough, that my friends perceive themselves (and the people they care about) to be in mortal danger, even if at any given moment they are safe. Philando Castile was safe. Driving down the road, enjoying the day, perfectly safe. Until he wasn’t; until he was dead. (But he was a criminal! He was smoking pot! – And this infraction of the law warrants the death penalty? If I thought the smallest infraction of the law – or even perceived infraction of the law, given the theory that people are innocent until proven guilty – I’d be living a life of anxiety.)

When my friends suffer, my heart is broken. How long, Lord?

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Church as Ecology

In his Ethics in the Conflicts of Modernity, Alasdair MacIntyre draws from W. Edwards Deming and Wendell Berry:

“Individuals who farm need to regard themselves as contributing to a larger project, that of making their particular farm productive while sustaining its land through generations of care. Farmers have to understand the particularities of each of their fields and of their farm animals, acting in the light of standards that they have made their own rather than responding to pressures to maximize productivity and short-run profitability. Those individuals at work on a particular farm serve the good of the farm and through so acting achieve their own goods.”

As one whose family has been off the farm for a few generations, I can’t speak authoritatively on this claim. I can make a few comments relating this kind of thinking to a field I do know – church.

netherlands-82126_640Before I dive into what MacIntyre says, a comment about my use of the word “ecology” in the title. When I posted this quotation on Facebook earlier today, my brother – who as an agronomist knows farming – took this to be a comment about ecology. I think he’s right. We tend to talk more about the other eco- word – economics – these days. The Greek root is the same in both cases: oikos – or “household.” If etymology could be relied on to give us the meaning of a word (occasionally it can, though more often, at best, it vaguely points us in the right direction), “economics” is “the law of the household” and “ecology” is “the study of the household.” Obviously the notion of a “household” in each has expanded greatly.

We most commonly encounter “ecology” as a word associated with the “environment:” plants, trees, animals, bodies of water, etc. I take it as broadly referring to the study of systems conducive to life and flourishing. If I can get away with taking it this way, “ecology” is directly relevant to our life together in the church.

The first thing I notice in MacIntyre’s claim is a network of relationships. The farmer is related to the land, the things farmed (whether flora or fauna), and the practice of farming. Without this network of relationships, the farmer is not a farmer. (I think of a saying I first heard from John Maxwell: “He who thinks he is leading when no one is following is only taking a walk.”) Each of the elements that we associate with farming are defined in relationship to each other. None are independent of the others.

Likewise, church is also a network of relationships. While Jesus uses more examples drawn from agriculture, Paul, who speaks more about the church, uses the metaphor of the Body of Christ. Each member of the Body is a part of the Body. The Body is only healthy to the extent each part is contributing and doing its part. Each part is only what it is in relation to the other parts of the Body.

The second thing I notice is the place of productivity. For the farmer, productivity matters. Getting a crop in, raising animals for food, these are ways the farmer “makes a living,” or better, achieves the goods of farming. If there is no crop, if the animals neither grow nor reproduce, the farm fails.

In church life we are also concerned with productivity. We look for results as we pour in our time, labor, and resources.

In both farming and church life, however, productivity is not an end in itself. If we “maximize productivity” in either context, we run our enterprise into the ground. In church life, an unbalanced focus on productivity leads to burnout and alienation as people feel used. Seeking and achieving the good requires time and attention to the long haul. A metaphor I’ve heard is that the life of discipleship is more like a meal cooked in a Crockpot than one in a microwave.

I also notice that MacIntyre describes the need for detailed knowledge on the part of the farmer. The farmer must not just know about cattle in the abstract, but about the particular cattle on his/her farm. Likewise, in church life, we must pay attention to the particularities of each member of the Body. If we treat everyone the same, as some sort of generic Joe Blow ChurchMember, we fail to understand the uniqueness of each person and thus to partner with them in achieving their highest good and flourishing in the Kingdom of God.

Finally, MacIntyre sees that the good of the individual and the good of the group are inextricably connected. My good as a member of the Body is achieved in and through and with the other members achieving their own goods. Our individual goods find their measure in the good of the whole, with neither being entirely subsumed in the other.If this way of looking at things is at least close to accurate, then it is worth our while to pay more attention to what the good of the church as a whole is – what it means for the whole Body of Christ to flourish. If we do no more than ask of particular programs, “Will this program be productive?” we miss the point. First, by using the farming metaphor (or the Body metaphor, for that matter), we find ourselves in an organic process. Programs find their natural home in a mechanical or industrial process. Second, we will easily lapse into treating people as resources to use toward our ends. The ends we pursue might be good, positive, and agreed upon: but if they require us to treat people as things to be used, we are being led astray.

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