Where the Conflict Really Lies

Perhaps no where is there more controversy than in the United States over the alleged conflicts between science and religion. Most of that controversy is conducted by folks who are woefully uneducated when it comes to either subject.

Alvin Plantinga, noted philosopher, attempts to bring some systematic thinking to the dispute. His basic premise is that apparent differences between science and theism are largely superficial and the two are actually deeply in agreement. His second basic premise is that the true disagreement lies between science and naturalism.

First let me say, that this is all quite heavy reading for the average person. If you are untrained in logic, statistical analysis, and philosophy, you will probably, as I did, struggle to follow the train of argument. However with patience, you will certainly tease out the main arguments.

It is most important that one understand what evolution is. It is not as is popularly thought, how life arose on planet earth. It is how existing life became increasingly complex over time moving from the more simplistic to the more complicated. In other words, from amoeba to human. The basic scientific explanation for this is commonly known as “Darwinism” or the random genetic mutation which drive evolutionary change.

Plantinga, as I understand him, doesn’t say that this process is inaccurate, but he does say that there is nothing to stop God from using his own laws to “cause” this or that mutation, thus “directing” the movement of otherwise benign processes.

He addresses the issue of miracles by claiming that those who think there is a conflict claim that miracles are antithetical to a universe operating under “laws” which ours seems to be. Indeed, some theologians would agree,  and claim that the biblical references to miracles are nothing but fairy tales used to make more consequential arguments, but not reflecting reality. Dr. Plantinga points out that this no-miracle scenario is only compatible with a “closed system”, and whether it be Newtonian physics or quantum physics, modern science no where posits the idea of a closed system. Therefore when God effects a miracle (if indeed God does) it cannot by definition violate any “law”.

He goes on to explain that certain scientific truths are not “defeaters” to theistic belief, such as the interpretation that the earth is flat from a reading of Genesis, and our scientific understanding that the earth is round. Plantinga would argue that this doesn’t defeat belief in God, but merely informs us that our interpretation of some parts of the bible may be faulty.

Generally speaking his finds Bebe’s intelligent design to be flawed in its thinking which I think is basically in accord with most of the mainstream scientific community.

As Plantinga moves into this arguments involving why science and naturalism are really at odds, the going gets quite a bit more tough and only someone with some basic background can make solid sense of the arguments. He finds that we as humans can be assured that our senses are reliable because God, he claims helps us to see truth. This is our compass in discerning the value of our senses and memories and reason. Naturalism only works for survival and reproduction and truth is not part of that equation, though one could argue I would think that a properly functioning memory, sensory apparatus and reasonable faculty do aid in survival in the end.

I’m ill-equipped to make a judgment here as to whether Plantinga has made a compelling case or not. I find his arguments persuasive in large measure, but then I am a believer and carry that foremost into my reading. I hope that I am open-minded enough to see obvious flaws, and were I trained in philosophy, perhaps I could.

However, I will say that I too, like Dr. Plantinga, feel ill-served by the so-called New Atheists who tend to substitute more insult than actual substance to their arguments. It is impossible I find to hold a decent conversation with their followers, well-versed or not, when all you get is snide “santa claus in the sky” retorts when you try to make cogent arguments.

I think this is an important contribution to the discussion, and one that all believers and non-believers need to read and discuss seriously. In the end, if properly understood, I don’t think we have all that much to argue about. Thinking believers are not anti-science and never were.

I am grateful to Oxford University Press and their publicity department for providing this book to me free of charge for review. There are no agreements with them as to the contents of this review, and all the remarks made are mine.

What God are We Talking About?

How do we define God? Humankind has been asking that question since the first human entertained the thought that there was some entity beyond himself.

No doubt Christians are directed to an answer in the first creation story, where the writer announces that God has made  man in “our” image.

We took from that, simplistically, that God must look like us, and certainly if one looks to Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel, one would agree. God indeed is just a “super” man.

And one thing generally leads to another and in this case, we naturally found it easy to conclude that God thinks as we do, and well, wants what we want.

Given that as humans, we all want a lot of things, I suppose that once in a while some of us hit the mark.

Isaiah reminds us that when we try to make God think as we do, we are surely in trouble.

For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
nor are your ways my ways, says the LORD.
As high as the heavens are above the earth,
so high are my ways above your ways
and my thoughts above your thoughts.

Sadly, we seldom remember that warning. We all too often assume that God is understandable in the same way that we understand our spouse, our children, or our boss at work. We think that God not only thinks in the same manner that we do, but we ascribe the same emotions and psychological motivations to the Godhead.

We may not always do this consciously, for we do remember Isaiah, but subconsciously, we almost always forget. We think God is rooting for us to win the tennis match, and that God is pulling for us to get this job. We tend for forget, that at the other end is our tennis opponent, and someone else in need of a job, and that they are operating under the same assumption.

So is God choosing between us? Hardly.

God has no favorites, according to Jesus. God only uplifts and calls us to become the greatness that has been present within us from all time.

According to Jesus, God is about love and justice. He is for raising all of his children to their perfect potential. In infinite wisdom, if we each perform to our best ability in all things, then naturally all will work out for the best. The more physically capable on a given day will win the match, the most qualified, the job.

There is nothing unfair in this. If we lose, we can practice more, or we can seek more training. Or we can find a more suitable recreation or job, one that we are most qualified for.

God is about global, or intergalactic things, not our silly preference for this team or that to win a contest this Sunday. Of course it’s just not a matter of “the just thing will win out.” There are plenty of other variables that sometimes must also align. That is part of life. Bad things happen to good people.

Still, by not expecting God to grant our “righteous” request, we don’t place upon God that which is not his burden. We don’t declare ourselves still “too sinful” to succeed and redouble our prayers and spiritual regimen. We seek the true reasons for our failure and do what we can, if we can, to correct them.

Are you seeking the superman God or some other? ” What God are you talking about?
**Isaiah 55:8-9

 

What Do We Expect?

I’ve said this a few times (to say the least) before. Fundamentalists create more atheists than other atheists ever will. I was never quite sure why, but the answer is really pretty darn obvious.

Fundamentalists deal in absolutes. The Bible IS the word of God. It is absolutely true in every single respect. There can be no contradictions and no errors. Of course when proven not to be the case, the shattered believer applies the same demands on non-fundamentalist faith–proof.  And none is forthcoming, so they throw up their hands.

If there is no proof, then there is no basis for faith.

But really, fundamentalists are much akin to atheists in their thinking. Atheists always point to reality as that which can be proven. A science experiment either works or it doesn’t. It’s true or false. Something, someday, might be more true, but it seldom turns out utterly false.

The same is true of liberals and conservatives. Conservatives know what has worked, and what hasn’t. They KNOW and they don’t want to venture into not-knowing. They don’t like to take chances. They don’t like not knowing anything, so they often structure a world that contains only known things and they declare unknown things unworthy of thinking about.

Liberals don’t mind not knowing. They actually know that some things they may never know, other things will become known in time. They aren’t afraid of taking chances, especially when what is known produces outcomes that don’t work so well.

Liberals make fine progressive believers. They aren’t afraid of the fact that they may never know God in any significant way. It’s okay. It’s okay even if God isn’t real in the end. Believing and living a life based on belief is not a bad thing. As they see it.

Conservatives think that silly, and so do fundamentalists. So they set out to create a God that they CLAIM is knowable, fully. And they know God, or so they claim. They feel relaxed, confident, and somewhat puffed up by the fact that they KNOW.

The person who has had the fundamentalist theology explode into a thousand pieces asks what is not possible. They want answers that will fully satisfy them as their bible-thumpin’ ministers used to. And when they don’t find that, since living in the unknowing, is part of being a believer, they mope, and get angry, they argue, and they pout, and in the end they throw up their hands in disgust. The atheists are right–believers have no answers.

I don’t mean to make fun of or deride these folks. I feel deeply saddened that their personal, shall we say, brain pattern demands certainty. It is perhaps they way they are structured. Some seem to make the change, but most don’t. Not that I can see.

Buddhists are, in my opinion, rather expert in living in the moment, and not wasting much time worrying about knowing. If you can’t know you will be alive in five minutes, there isn’t must you can be sure about. There is much wisdom in that.

I’m in a place and time where I’m not giving nearly the attention to faith that I should. But maybe the point is that I shouldn’t be at all concerned. God offers me relationship, gracious and freely. Since I believe that, I expect God understands quite perfectly when my life becomes chaotic to the point that I only seek him for peace and sanity, and little more.

So, I’m okay with the limits on my prayer, meditation and reading of spiritual things. It will return when life is less hectic, of that I am sure. I don’t know if my notions are accurate or not, but there is nothing I can do to find out anyway.

God is there when I need it. At least that is what I feel, and what I believe. And in the end, what else is necessary?

Amen.

Is That Hubris or What?

A few nights ago we watched a movie called “Creation” which focused on the life of Charles Darwin in the years leading up to his epic book. If the portrayal was accurate, Darwin agonized over writing the book, in part because he knew it would be seen by some as a direct challenge to God’s existence.

Darwin himself was unsure of what his findings meant. He was tortured by the possibility that it did indeed mean, as some of his more “enlightened” friends suggested, the “death of God.” This played heavily on his mind since his wife was a firm believer whose sensibilities he had no desire to harm.

Obviously we know that he did write “Origins of Life” and it did set off the firestorm he expected.

What is ironic to me is that as I watched, I once again realized that the atheist and the fundamentalist are but two sides of the same coin.

The atheist says, my senses and mind cannot betray me. The bible is untrue, God is dead. The fundamentalist says, my bible is true, God is true, my senses and mind betray me.

I find both positions utter hubris. Both claim man’s stellar reasoning to be the apex of existence. The atheist does this quite openly, proclaiming that the universe is utterly knowable by the human mind, and indeed all things are knowable. There is thus no need for a supreme being who guides and orchestrates life. We came to be quite naturally, and the “sky is the limit” in so far as the future is concerned.

The fundamentalist hides her hubris. Although giving lip service to a superior being, it is one that is defined by the fundamentalist. It is infamously contained within the pages of a book, and is self-defined by that fundamentalist.

Both agree, that both evolution and God cannot be true. Both, in utter arrogance chose one side or the other because they, in their superior believing minds, believe that their constructs of God are unquestionably right.

Yet there is another way, and a way that I would argue is the way of the true believer. Confronted with Darwin’s findings, this person recognizes that we must be willing to trust in our senses and the abilities of our minds, otherwise life is simply chaos. There is no meaning at all if life is reduced to haphazard occurences that follow no “rules.”

Yet, learning is an ongoing proposition. We learn and adapt. We learn and we change. We learn and we discard, replace, and revise. That is the way of human history.

So no learning is sacrosanct. And the true believer quickly realizes that this must apply to both the bible and her conceptions regarding God. Confronted with the apparent paradox of Darwin and the Bible, she recognizes that she must delve more deeply into the mystery of sacred text. She must learn of its human origin and the circumstances. She must place the book against the ongoing discoveries of history and find the points of mesh and tension.

Most assuredly, the true believer realizes that if God is God, then we are in a process of learning to understand that God, and that perhaps it is not possible to do so fully in life. The Bible becomes then a text of others efforts to understand God and the reflections of their meditations. Those are our guides as we pursue God in our own ways.

The true believer thus concludes that whenever there is an apparent confrontation between God and science, that it is only appearances. It only goes to show us that we still have not uncovered the glory of God in its fullness. For there is nothing in human experience that can be in conflict with God.

Recognizing our own fallible powers of reasoning is the first step in truly beginning to see our Creator. For only by being totally open to all the possibilities, are we available to be guided by God’s grace. The atheist and fundamentalist are never open, they have already tied God up in a nice box with appropriate ribbons and bowsturning the Godhead into either a child’s toy or an individual caricature of their own making.

I always find it so ironic. Those two groups, whose greatest vitriol is reserved for each other, have more in common that all the rest.

Amen.

Who is Christian?

Following the horrific events in Oslo, Norway, and the ensuing rhetoric about it, this question came to me. Who indeed is Christian?

As you will recall, long before much in the way of facts were uncovered, a shocking number of pundits and “journalists” speculated freely that Al Qaeda had struck innocents once again. Once the alleged perpetrator began to talk, all this changed, and we learned that the actor was a self-proclaimed Christian and fundamentalist. His written screed backed this up, with illusions to the Crusades.

As we have now come to expect, the Right was furious. How dare this madman do his evil deeds in the name of Christianity? In fact, some of these misguided folks claimed that they were the “true victims” since the Left now would use this crime to attack the far-right cause. Indeed the terrorist named several anti-Muslim activists in this country as being an inspiration to him. So the extreme right had reason to be concerned.

Other’s unbelievably, still wanting to put a Muslim face on this tragedy, said that the actor “had a point” in suggesting that multiculturalism was a disaster for Europe, and by inference for America as well. This tactic was rather soundly condemned: how can you uphold anything that comes from a crazed killer?

But perhaps the most profound result was people like Bill O’Reilly, pundit for Fox “News” who proclaimed that the Norwegian killer was “no Christian”. He claimed that one was not entitled to that title merely by saying it, especially when one’s actions belied any real understanding of the teachings of Jesus.

Of course, Mr. O’Reilly has never had any problem with calling Middle Eastern terrorists, “Islamic Terrorists” simply because they were of the Muslim faith or claimed to be. One begins to smell a lack a rat here.

But the question remains. What constitutes a Christian? The question of course can equally be asked of Muslims, Buddhists, Jews, and any other faith tradition.

Who gets to decide when one is acting or talking or thinking within the acceptable parameters of one’s tradition?

I, for instance, would argue that The Westboro “Christians” aren’t Christians at all, or one’s whose understanding of Christianity is deeply flawed.  I and many others sometimes refer to fundamentalist Christians as Christianists, to signify that they use and distort biblical passages in order to serve their personal views of the way the world “ought to be.”

Other’s argue that Mormons are not “true” Christians. And the list goes on and on.

The point is, that the majority of Muslims throughout the world might well argue that those who engage in terrorism are misguided and self-serving in their interpretation of the Qur’an, and are not “true” Muslims. Perhaps that is said by some portions of the Jewish community. There are Buddhists who engage or have engaged in violence. Are there Buddhists who would argue that they are not “true” Buddhists?

So the question remains, who decides?

There is no human answer here of course. The ultimately satisfying answer can only be, that God will and does determine this issue, if it is of any importance at all. We, individually or in community cannot know the mind and spirit of any other person. We cannot judge what faith means to them, or how they interpret it.

Is the man who killed Dr. Tiller a Christian? He would certainly, and does claim that he acted to defend God’s word. Were the Inquisitionists Christians? Were the Crusaders? The KKK?  White Militias?  All have killed in the name of God.

Again, we mere mortals do best to leave that alone. Nothing is served by trying to “protect” one’s sect of Christianity by claiming that this or that one “doesn’t belong to us.” The truth is that fundamentalism is not a Christian thing, nor a Muslim thing, nor even necessarily a religious thing. It is a state of being, in which the believer thinks that he/she has the answers to whatever issues matter to them. They have interpreted correctly and those that disagree must be defeated. The manner of their defeat can be many things, but for a fringe it can and will include violence.

It is this that is opposed, and not the thinking itself. I am well able to accept your self-serving interpretations as long as they remain yours and not ones you seek to impose upon me by force.

If the Norway shooter believes he is Christian, then he is entitled to do so. He’s not my vision of one, but I am not the decider. And neither is anybody else.

Amen.

At What Price?

Yesterday Jesus said that if his works were works of God, then everyone should believe that God was in him and that he was in God.  Yet this was not the case for many.

Today John tells us that many did not believe and continued to inform the High Council  of the  “signs” Jesus was performing.

Caiaphas and the priests sat about discussing the “problem.” I find it most interesting that the problem was that all these signs would “cause people to believe in him.” And if this happened, Rome would move in and take over, crushing the nation.

A couple of things seem at work here. First it is unlikely that Rome would have had any interest in Jesus at all but for the fact that the Council was framing him as the claimed Messiah–a military threat to Rome for sure.  Of course we know that Jesus was no such thing, his Messiahship was something entirely new and beyond the narrow thinking of the Pharisees and Sanhedrin.

Second, the High Council saw the end of their control, their positions of power if you will, as the direct result of Jesus’ ascendency, and this they were not prepared to tolerate. Sure, they couched it in terms of blasphemy and other such charges, but reading between the lines, we recognize the desire to preserve their positions within the community and with Rome.

This makes it easy for Caiaphas to declare that it is better for one man to die for the nation than for the nation to be destroyed. [Jn 11:50] Of course Caiaphas had no idea just how prophetic he was. Jesus indeed would die for a nation–the nation of humanity!

So we see two evils at work here, a closed mindedness coupled with self-preservation in it’s most evil manifestation. 

Most of us of course know the end of this story. While many in Jerusalem talked and wondered about whether Jesus would enter Jerusalem, the High Council prepared for that eventuality. And Jesus, always sure of what would happen, prepared to enter the City in a way that would leave little doubt as to claims of Messiahship that swirled about the city and countryside.

Although Caiaphas and the Sanhedrin thought they were in control of events opening before them, of course they were not. All would be as Jesus had said long before.  All would be done to offer humanity a new way of seeing, a new way of hearing, a new way of being.

Amen.

(Repost) Divine Transcendence and the Culture of Change

Let me first thank Eerdmans Publishing Company for sending along a copy of David H. Hopper’s Divine Transcendence and the Culture of Change, for review.

David Hopper has set out an interesting premise in his latest book: Namely have we gone too far in tolerance? He essentially argues that statements such as “It doesn’t matter what a person believes just so long as he/she is sincere,” are the product of ill-educated minds who know very little of theological matters. In other words, it’s one thing to be tolerant in a prudent sort of way, but it is wrong to have no standards at all.

He argues that the divine transcendence of God has been lost in this thoughtless attempt to not step on toes.

Many have perhaps come to the same conclusion, but they have done so by laying the blame on the “scientific revolution,” and its concommitant inference that nothing is beyond the mind of mankind.

Hopper argues that the Reformation, in the guise of Luther, Calvin and others of the same persuasion also played a part, perhaps unknowingly, in fostering this climate.

He starts with the model set out by H. Richard Niebuhr in his Christ and Culture. In it Niebuhr posited five expressions of Jesus and culture:

  1. Christ against culture
  2. Christ of culture
  3. Christ above culture
  4. Christ of culture
  5. Christ the transformer of culture.

He places various movements, the monastic, Calvin, Mainstream Protestant, Catholic, Feminist, and so forth within this model at their most agreeing points.

Hopper sees in the Reformation movement and the following Enlightenment, a movement away from a “religious church-dominated culture” to one predominately secular, and one that has largely discarded its timeless orientation to the changeless and divine.

Luther addressed a church largely caught in the medieval concepts of Christ both above and against culture. The Church controlled the life of people by its claim to control their entrance into heaven. Luther of course had no intent to found a new sect, but rather intended to reform from within. And he of course failed, as the Church, seemingly receptive at first, recoiled at his more “heretical” thinking.

Heretical only in the sense that Rome rejected it, and so labeled it. Martin Luther’s “justification by faith” eliminated the idea that salvation was controlled by the Church. Indeed, Luther shockingly argued that it was faith in and adherence to the Scriptures, available to all of God’s people that was above the Church, and where mankind’s salvation was found. Free gift of grace.

Along with Calvin, others joined in and began to see Christ and the scriptures as calling for a salvation that was deeply imbedded within culture. In fact Calvin claimed that each person’s vocation was his opportunity to live out the Gospel message in service to neighbor.

While Luther did not extend his “Christ in Culture” to include much in the way of serious revamping of political institutions, Calvin did.

What is really new in Hopper’s analysis is that he brings Francis Bacon and the English reformation also into the mix. Bacon, in his “idols of the mind” laid the groundwork for a new way of looking at nature. In fact Bacon saw this as God’s will, that man was untruthful to God in leaving all things as mystery in God.

Bacon freed the mind of all the preconceived notions and “worldviews” and brought forth inductive thinking, pursuing a method of critical thinking. He claimed there were “attainable” truths “hidden by God” in nature, and these were open to being discovered.

Whereas Luther’s holy grail was 1Corinthians 1:18-23. The folly of the cross was God’s foolishness, wiser than that of men, Bacon believes that God has created man to discover the secrets of nature and to use them for the betterment of mankind.

Once married to American pragmatism and work ethic, scientific exploration exploded, and as our grip on a transcendent God seems to have slipped away.

In the end, Hopper argues for a return to a solid foundation in that transcendence. We are mired in our “consumerism” spirituality. We are driven by change for its own sake, and no longer see the limits of our own abilities. Only with a return to this foundation in the transcendent he argues, can we realistically address the common problems in our global world.

This is an interesting book, one for the more serious reader of theology and culture. But one that will seriously re-orient your thinking about progress and the price we are paying for it.

Love, It’s Just About Love

I’ve been mulling over something I read on a blog all week long. I knew I wanted to write a reply of sorts, but wasn’t sure exactly what I should say.

I’m still not sure.

But today’s readings and something else I’ve been working on, all, as God perhaps intends, come together to suggest answers, or at least a profitable way of looking at it.

I will give the quote in full:

…For most of us, our religious community seems far more important than our religious community’s theology.   That is, people attend church largely to socialize with their friends and acquaintances in the congregation; somewhat less to worship their  god; much less to learn about their god; and almost never to think critically about their god.  Yet, many proselytizing atheists focus on critical thinking.  That might be like trying to use a carpenter’s pencil to lever a house off its foundation.  On the other hand, if I ever want to convert people to atheism, I’ll first hold a social.

Painful statement, yet there is truth in it. Yet, I feel no need to defend against it. Much. I’m aware of polling that suggests that atheists know more about the contents of the bible than do believers. And I have no reason to quarrel with it. Yet, I know that that should  not be very comforting, to atheists,  because what most atheists “know” about the bible is seen through the lens of  fundamentalism. The point out all the errors, the contradictions, but they really don’t understand anything about how it was gathered together into the distinctive writings that eventually found their way into a canon. Much of their error finding is irrelevant to scholars, and explainable.

I’m a good deal less troubled by the idea that going to church is mostly a social event. You hear that a lot from atheists. But that’s not something to defend against, but rather something to embrace.

We do socialize in church, and that’s a good thing. For in that action, we enlarge our circle of “neighbor” if indeed it is not limitless to begin with. For practical reasons we only have time for so many neighbors, those to whom we are beholden to offer our help even when it is awfully inconvenient. Church socializing forms those new friendships and  ties. It brings into the circle those we care for and about. It helps us to love our neighbor as ourselves. That’s a good thing.

The rest? About critical thinking arguments being wasted on the believer. Well that’s just plain mean, untrue and not worth further comment.

Today’s readings are:

Lev 19:1-2, 17-18
1Cor 3:16-23
Mt 5:38-48

In Leviticus, Moses listens to God who tells him to tell the people to be holy as I am holy.  You must love your neighbor as yourself.

Similarly,  Paul reminds us that we are God’s temple, and that we must respect God’s temple, both ourselves and others.

Jesus speaks in Matthew and he tells us that we must not hate, we must love our neighbor, even when our neighbor is unkind, hurtful,  or worse to us. We must give to whomever asks (something extreme right-wing religious might make note of as they argue that universe health care is wrong since it gives to some who are not worthy to receive).

Jesus reminds us that God makes the rain fall on the righteous and the wicked equally. Again,  perhaps we might remember that before we are so quick to claim that hell awaits those whom we find evil.

But the over-riding point Jesus attempts to make is one of love. Love conquers all, hate never can. It but creates more hate, distrust, fear. All negative. All cutting against the neighbor concept.

I’m reading a wonderful book about Mary Magdalene. It draws heavily on the so-called gnostic gospels of Thomas, Mary, Peter, and the Gospel of John. It requires a lot of reading between the lines, a fair amount of reordering one’s thinking. It suggests that Jesus, along “his way” diverted from the Nazarite path, the aesthetic path he began, and ended in a more Eastern approach. More Buddhist, yet not.

His was the way of self-emptying. A concept well-known to anyone who is a believer. Paul talks of this in Philippians 2:9-16. He understood Jesus, perhaps better than did the writers of Mark, Matthew or Luke.

It’s all about kenosis, self giving. Similar to the Buddhist way, of letting be, giving up, but not, the denial of all as transitory. Rather it’s  the giving all, and in that very process, receiving all, being all, being totally, wholly human.

Having never been an inerrantist, I have difficulty understanding the former fundamentalist. They accept that the bible is not inerrant, but they now have trouble seeing it as having any value. It is no longer trustworthy as conveyor of God’s “WORD.”

The bible, remains to me, (as other sacred texts do as well) as repositors of man’s highest achievement in enlightenment. We are able, as we progress, to tease out sometimes those things that point to a greater truth, one they didn’t even realize they spoke of.

Everything I read and study, helps me to see Jesus, and God more clearly. It all, to me resolves itself into love. Love was the vehicle Jesus pointed to as the means to the Kingdom. As Cynthia Bourgeault suggests, it is the vertical axis connecting ourselves to the infinite. It is what, she theorizes forever connected Mary Magdalene to Jesus in a way far superior to any of the other apostles.

She got it, and many others have followed in her footsteps and His. It’s just about love.

Repost: Luke: A Theological Commentary

Originally posted at A Feather Adrift.

Today I review the second in the new Belief series published by Westminster John Knox Press. Luke: (Belief: A Theological Commentary) is written by Justo L. González.

Again, I give my deepest thanks to WJK for giving me the opportunity to participate in reviewing this extraordinary series.

If Plachter’s book on Mark was excellent, this second offering by González, meets that standard in every way. While Plachter perhaps placed more emphasis on the exegetical-historical aspects of the gospel, González focuses a bit more on the theological implications of Luke to our world today.

In the end, this seemed most right to me. Quoting Gustaf Wingren:

All good interpretation of the Bible is contemporary. If it were not so, it would not be good. . . .The Bible is not on a par with the subsequent interpretation; it is above it, as the text is antecedent to the commentary. And the interpretation is always an interpretation for the time in which it is written or spoken.

There is also a distinctive flavor of liberation theology which permeates the text. This also seems logical to me, since any fair reading of Luke renders the conclusion that Luke portraits a Christ who favored the poor and the marginalized as the true inheritors of the Kingdom of God.

Paramount in González’s theology of Luke is that the evangelist emphasized above all that Jesus’ teaching was one of the “great reversal.” His teachings were indeed revolutionary to his world. His was a world of power held by Rome, of patriarchy, of Temple priests and church hierarchy. His teachings again and again told of the coming Kingdom where none of this would be so.

The poor, the marginalized, the unclean, the unwanted, the unworthy, the sinners, the children, the women–all these would find a new world in God’s Kingdom, one in which those who were served would serve, those first would be last, those most religious and pious would often find themselves judged less than the most simple of the country folk of Galilee, that most marginal of lands.

In fact, Mr. González suggests that if one were to remove all the “reversal” stories from the text, there would be few pages left.

Perhaps the most stunning theological commentary comes with González’s explanation of the Paralytic. He shows how Luke weaves a story of how the teachers and scribes, the Pharisees sat around listening to the teachings of Jesus. The friends of the lame man could not get through the crowd of the listeners to reach the Healer. The end up opening the roof to lower the man to Jesus inside.

González reflects on these “circles” about Christ that we as church construct. We sit as pious listeners before the Word. We block the way for those who come in need of healing and comfort.

“Today, just like then, there are lame people who cannot reach Jesus, because access is blocked by the numerous and tight circles, circles of religious leaders and wise and profound theologians, circles of ecclesiastical, academic, and social structures. . .”

He points out that these people are not necessarily bad, but in their zeal to be at the forefront, they (we) block the way of others. We are cautioned to open the doors to those who are marginalized outside the circle. These are the people Jesus most came to help.

Of special importance to me, are the continued references to Jesus’ table hospitality. Too many of our churches set themselves up as arbiters of who is invited to the table of Christ. Any fair reading of Luke, suggests this is a grave error.

Time and time again, as González points out, Jesus welcomed the sinner to the table, and did not require any repentance as a condition to the invitation. He teaches that we should be inviting those who cannot repay our offer, instead of those who will extend a return invitation to ourselves.

González powerfully reminds us that:

“All too often Christians have claimed control of the Table as if it were ours, and not his. We decide whose belief is sufficiently orthodox to share Communion with us, who is sufficiently good and pure, who belongs to the right church. . . .Rather than inviting those who seem most unworthy and cannot repay us, we invite the worthy. . .”

There is example after example of gentle, and not so gentle reminders to us as readers, that the Gospel of Luke calls us to a discipleship that is not easy, and not comfortable either. Luke tells of a Jesus who comes not preaching so much an afterlife of bliss but a life offered that is truly life. A full life, filled with the Spirit, faithful to God, bearing the cross of discomfort with the joy of knowing that we are doing God’s will as did He who was his image.

At the end, Mr. González ponders the church of tomorrow. And as we see a decline in the Western Church and a rise in the church of the South, the African, and the East, we see new thinking, new interpretation. We see reflections through the eyes of the poor and the marginalized. He asks:

“. . .could it be that God’s great gift to the worldwide church today is the growing church of the poor, who are teaching us to read the Bible anew? Could it be that God is using the last, the least, the poor, and the excluded to speak once again to the church of the first and the greatest?”

Is this the final reversal? Such questions as these do we ponder as we read this most excellent book. Do buy it. You will not regret the decision.

Repost: Mark: A Commentary

It is with pure delight that I thank Westminster John Knox Publishing for sending me the following selection for review. This is the opening book in a new series entitled: Belief: A Theological Commentary on the Bible.

The first book in the series is Mark, by William C. Placher. It was published along with Luke, which I have also received and will be reviewing shortly.

WJK also publishes the Interpretation series, of which I have long been a fan, but after reading Mark, I suspect this new series may far outstrip that wonderful series.

The idea behind the Belief series is to bring together the latest exegetical work, along with literary, historical, archaeological, and other pertinent advances as they impact how we interpret the bible from a theological point of view.

In Mark, they have certainly attained their goal. Professor Placher, unfortunately now deceased, has written a simply beautiful commentary. Not content to just tell us what the text means, or most likely means, Placher explores how Mark’s “good news” is still most relevant to the world we live in today.

For example, in the opening pages, he writes:

Americans today, therefore, read the Gospel of Mark–this story of a Middle Eastern man tortured to death by the most powerful empire of his time–when we are the most powerful nation of our time, and our forces are torturing people, sometimes to death. What does this imply about our values and the sort of people we have become?

Peppered throughout the chapters are “Further Reflections” on key phrases or words such as Kingdom of God, Miracles, and Ransom. Each of these probes into the historical record and juxtaposing that against our modern notions, finding common ground and points of comparison.

Quotes are boxed throughout the text as well, and are wide-ranging in their authorship, including Luther, Barth, Basil, Tertullian, Philo, Cicero and many others. These highlight themes introduced and explored by Professor Placher.

What is most compelling is the breath of sources. You will meet the likes of Karl Barth, and Luther of course, but also the likes of Calvin, John Dominic Crossan, and Gustavo Gutiérrez. Majority opinions are explained, but plenty of minority opinions are given with their rationales. Of course, Placher gives his choice and the reasons for it in the end.

We are a world more and more polarized along religious lines. Placher offers us, for example, a theological explanation of chapter 12:28-34. Here Jesus is questioned by a scribe as to which commandment is first. Jesus famously says “love God and love your neighbor.” This is all well and good, but in answering, Jesus shows us that even though many of his arguments are with scribes, not all scribes are bad, some come with honest questions. Barth points out that this the Hebrew Scriptures often engage “outsiders” to do the will of God, and thus Jesus shows us that good can often come from those who are not like us. How useful it is to remember that today.

The point always is, that when we read scripture, and Mark in particular, there is much that speaks to our condition today, both individually and as communities and nations. Every minister, priest, and preacher, every teacher seeks to make the scripture relevant to their listeners. This is no more than Mark did himself, in trying to tailor the stories he told to the issues present in his community.

How could Jesus help them? How can Jesus help us? As students of scripture, we have much to gain here in understanding, but if we are also preachers and teachers, we have even more, for here we can find new insights, new interpretations, new connections where we never realized them before. For every minister who has sat late into Saturday evening, still trying to find something “new” to say on tomorrow’s gospel, she or he will likely find help here.

We squabble, some of us in our respective traditions with rules about who can join us, and who cannot join us. We have our own brand of “unclean”. Yet, Jesus did not teach us that. He taught us the opposite. He regularly ate with sinners and those ritually unclean, and he never made it a condition for sitting at table with him that repentance was a pre-requisite. What does that say to us today?

Page by page, Placher explores, teases out, and conjoins text from not only Mark, but from other texts as well both in and out of the bible. The picture sharpens and Mark’s words take on added significance. We see in a new way, hopefully a better one.

I simply enjoyed this commentary more than I can say. I found it easy of explanation, yet profound in its theological depth. Placher has drawn from a broad spectrum of experts, and has intertwined them to make coherent and useful conclusions. He gives us a foundation from which to explore.

As I said, teachers and preachers will find this commentary invaluable as they search for new ways to marry scripture to today’s world. Individuals will see application in their own lives and spiritual journeys.

If the rest of this series can be predicted upon the basis of this opening publication, then we are in for a rich treat indeed. You may indeed want to consider the entire series, as it comes out. I have barely begun Luke, and I can already see that it carries on the fine standards established in the first offering. Do yourself a favor and pick this one up. You won’t be sorry.

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