Tuesday, November 8, 2011

With Glorious Clouds Emcompassed 'Round

I found this hymn, #22 in the Methodist Pocket Hymn-Book (1791), to be quite beautiful and moving:
With glorious clouds encompassed 'round,
Whom angels dimly see,
Will the unsearchable be found,
Or God appear to me?

Will he forsake his throne above,
Himself to worms impart?
Answer thou man of grief and love,
And speak it to my heart.

In manifested love explain
Thy wonderful design:
What meant the suffering son of man?
The streaming blood divine?

Didst thou not in our flesh appear,
And live and die below,
That I may now perceive thee near,
And my Redeemer know?

Come then, and to my soul reveal
The heights and depths of grace,
The wounds which all my sorrows heal,
That dear disfigured face.

Before my eyes of faith confessed,
Stand forth a slaughtered Lamb:
And wrap me in thy crimson vest,
And tell me all thy name.

Jehovah in thy person show,
Jehovah crucified!
And then the pardoning God I know,
And feel the blood applied.

I view the Lamb in his own light,
Whom angels dimly see:
And gaze transported at the sight,
To all eternity.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Revisiting Heaven's Gates and Hell's Flames

Last night, my best friend and I attended a performance of a traveling evangelistic drama called Heaven's Gates and Hell's Flames, presented by Reality Outreach Ministries. As I expected, I was somewhat troubled by what I saw and heard there. The general premise is simple. The show opens with a dramatic portrayal of the crucifixion and resurrection. An actor portraying Jesus stumbles up the aisle toward the stage, lugging a cross. As crowds gather at the foot of the stage, jeering the Messiah, Romans whip and crucify Jesus while an actor portraying a maniacally cackling Satan (complete with three demonic minions) eggs them on, handing them various implements. The effect is enhanced by strobe lights and music, of course. After all but Jesus (crumpled on the ground) and Satan have departed, Satan prods the body of Jesus with glee and then exits stage right. (I should mention that stage left is decked out in purple and gold to signify the gates of heaven, whereas stage right is decorated in glittering red to represent hell.) A short time after Satan leaves, Jesus rises slowly to his feet and likewise exits stage right, implicitly for a Harrowing of Hell sequence. (Not exactly a customary feature of evangelical thought.) As triumphant music plays, Jesus shoves Satan down a flight of stairs, tramples him at center stage, snatches a set of keys from him, and then sends Satan running back to hell as Jesus triumphantly displays the keys to the audience. It was a somewhat debased Christus Victor atonement model, I realized as I watched.

The bulk of the rest of the show consists in a series of skits in which assorted groups of characters (both Christians and non-Christians) die sudden deaths and find themselves in a sort of antechamber, faced with a cohort of angels, one of whom stands stoically on a dais behind a pedestal holding the Book of Life. All characters plead with that angel to find their names written in the Book of Life; the non-Christian characters, of course, are considerably more perturbed and panicked than their Christian counterparts. When the names of Christian characters are located, the angel points toward stage left, the lights get very bright, and Jesus appears at the gate of heaven to welcome the exuberant Christians in. On the other hand, when the names of non-Christian characters are not located, the angel points toward stage right, the lights grow very dim, other angels cross swords to block the path to heaven, and Satan and his minions emerge from stage right to taunt, mock, and drag the victim off to the fiery blazes of hell.

This occupies the bulk of the experience. After the final skit, in which a middle-aged mother is dragged off to hell in front of her crying daughter's eyes but the very young daughter is welcomed (rather somberly, I might add) into heaven, the drama itself concludes. At that point last night, a representative from Reality Outreach Ministries appeared on stage to summon people to come forth for an altar call. After continual refrains of "one more, just one more", the crowd was led in a "sinner's prayer" to "accept Jesus as their personal Lord and Savior". These apparent new converts were told that this would free them from their problems - most notably, a destiny of hellfire, but also of, say, the need to take medication - and, as an almost offhand comment, it was mentioned that they ought to seek out a "Bible-believing Christian church", begin reading the Bible, and find a Bible study to join. (Not, of course, that the apparent new converts were given any counsel on, say, identifying a "Bible-believing Christian church"...) And that was it.

I scarcely know where to begin in listing my objections to the evangelistic methods here portrayed. First, I deem it noteworthy that all characters were apparently either white American suburban evangelical Protestants or white American suburban non-Christians, with no middle ground or additional categories. In particular, I don't think it unfair to say that all Christian characters portrayed could justly be classified as Fundamentalist Christians, though the characterization typically underdetermined that. There were no clear examples of Roman Catholic Christians, Orthodox Christians, devout mainline Protestant Christians, or even non-Fundamentalist Evangelical Christians. Furthermore, all characters - including ardent non-Christians, once they arrived before the angels - spoke the same idiosyncratic dialect of Christianese. I have seldom encountered a group of Christians whose dominant imagery is that of the Book of Life, but here it was portrayed as the universal Christian language, since even 'informed' non-Christians had to explain to fellow non-Christians about the Book of Life, and several Christian characters mentioned having heard recent sermons devoted to the Book of Life.

In keeping with this particularly Fundamentalist vision of Christianity, the portrayal of the 'world' tended to be one that plays specifically to American Fundamentalist perceptions of culture. The first skit portraying non-Christians was one that depicted a raucous party filled with debauchery, frenzied dancing, heavy drinking, and ultimately use of powerful illegal drugs obtained by two naive and apparently promiscuous girls from a sleazy drug dealer offering "salvation" in "little white packages". Because, as we all know, most non-Christians are quite prepared to snort unidentified powder given to them by a complete stranger... right? Other non-Christians were portrayed as power-hungry, status-obsessed, materialistic, and complacent. And for many non-Christians, that may well be the case. (Painful to admit, the same is equally true for a great many Christians.) I noted with interest that not a single non-Christian was portrayed as having any intellectual reasons to disbelieve - say, a disbelief in the resurrection. No Christian ever had to defend their faith, nor did it seem likely that any of the characters actually could have, even within the context of the skits. That was somewhat disheartening. All the Christian characters ever had to do was reiterate that Jesus is the way and that he heals all wounds. For that matter, quite a few of the Christian characters came off as, well, jerks. And I'm saying that as a fellow Christian! Some of the Christians practically taunted non-believers with hell and judgment, and after death, they were so caught up in the excitement of their personal salvation and the beautiful place waiting for them that they just plain stopped caring about the plight of their non-Christian friends, sometimes even treating it somewhat flippantly. Not cool, guys. Not cool at all.

In a later skit, one woman put off a co-worker's evangelistic efforts by saying that Christians are hypocrites because she had seen some professing Christians in a bar doing a bit of "social drinking". Not to be outdone in judgmentalism, her Christian co-worker promptly retorted that not all professing Christians are really Christians, with the implication that any true Christian would never be seen in a bar with friends. The same message was reinforced in other skits later by Christians who had visited bars before their conversion but never after conversion. In short: any alcohol use at all is an evil, evil sin that shows that you aren't truly a Christian. Ye shall know them by their complete and utter abstinence from the stuff Jesus provided at Cana, after all. This, of course, is just plainly wrong. The Bible urges sobriety and responsibility to be guiding principles. The Bible warns against the very real dangers of abusing alcohol and allowing ourselves to become impaired. It says nothing against genuinely responsible use of alcohol... which even the perfect Son of God drank. But, of course, surely the characters in this drama have Jesus beat when it comes to holiness.

Another observation: the understanding of the Christian narrative itself here was radically askew, though (alas!) not in a way totally out of keeping with lowest-common-denominator American evangelicalism. The destination of each character was to be either in a seemingly self-absorbed heaven or an everlasting burning hell. Everything in this life was reduced to just an opportunity to decide between one of those two entirely unearthly destinations. Resurrection of the dead? Absent. New heavens and new earth? No. God's kingdom? Gone. Any task for the church other than offering cosmic fire insurance policies? None whatsoever. This is not the teaching of Jesus. This is not the teaching of the apostles. This is not the faith delivered once for all to the saints. This is not the Christianity for which martyrs gave their lives. This is a borderline-Gnostic concoction of our own devising, and it is a massively truncated version of the Christian story. And that's even apart from the massively crude visions of both heaven and hell! (Seriously, people, Satan does not rule over hell, and he does not get the opportunity to personally micromanage every single person's case. He is not God's opposite-but-equal force, nor is he - or any particular view of hell itself, for that matter - a core component of the gospel, as a perusal of the ancient creeds will bear out.)

Indeed, not only was the Christian narrative misrepresented, so was the Christian life. Every Christian character was effectively portrayed as fully sanctified. No Christian character struggled with faith. No Christian character doubted. No Christian character sinned. Nor did the evangelist afterwards give the impression that things would ever be difficult. The message was one of "accepting Jesus into your heart" and thereby being set immediately and miraculously free from every struggle and every hardship. Including, as I indicated earlier, the need to use any prescription drugs. I would love to believe that the evangelist was talking about prescription drug abuse. But how can I believe that, when the consistent portrayal of Christians throughout the entire performance was people who live blessed lives without any struggle? What, for Christ's sake (literally!), of the cross? Did the evangelist have any idea just what damage he could be doing, by (hopefully inadvertently) encouraging people to needlessly reject a God-given provision for healing?

Christianity was reduced to a simple formula and a panacea, where all one has to do is pray a simple prayer and then just... wait to die? There was no portrayal of baptism, for one. Or of the eucharist, for another matter. And that is just plain wrong. Not a single character ever mentioned either, nor did the evangelist. What's more troubling, there was no hint whatsoever that "accepting Jesus into your heart" is merely the beginning of a journey of discipleship. This right here is what terrifies me, for the sake of all those who came forward for the altar call last night. Are these people being prepared to be disciples, or merely statistical marks in a heavenly ledger? Are they being equipped? Do they even know that there's more? How can they grow in grace if they don't? How are they being prepared to stand firm, if they don't know that there will be storms? How can they not fall away easily? And how can those who do this sort of evangelism stand with a clear conscience before the judgment seat of God when their failures lead to the stumbling of so many babes in Christ? While they all prayed the simple (simplistic) "sinner's prayer", I prayed that God might in his grace direct these people to local churches that can supply the dire, dire lack in this drama's presentation of the gospel.

A number of times in the performance and in the evangelistic message afterwards, one encounters a very annoying yet obscenely popular Christian maxim: Christianity isn't a religion, it's a personal relationship with Jesus! This always gets on my nerves. A great deal. Christianity is a religion. Period. The only way to escape that conclusion is to define religion in a highly self-serving way that characterizes it as, for instance, an exclusively human, ritual-laden, impotent striving to reach out to God in unauthorized ways. But that simply is not the definition of religion! "Religion" and "relationship" are not utterly separate categories. In the first-century Mediterranean world, religions were all about the relationship between divine benefactors and human clients. The same was true of Zeus-worship, of the imperial cult, of Second Temple Judaism, and, yes, of early Christianity. And so it remains today. This may not be a "personal relationship", whatever is meant by that. (I suspect that the phrase had its origination for a good purpose - to insist that one cannot delegate one's need to serve the Lord to someone else - but twenty-first century models of 'personal relationships' carry a lot of baggage that's quite foreign to anything that the apostles would have experienced.) But it is a relationship - and it is religion. It's time to get over our allergies to the word.

Another concern: the evangelist and some of the Christian characters mentioned "God's love" quite a few times. But from the warped presentation of the Christian story that they offered, I had a hard time seeing where it fit in. The depiction of God was hardly a very loving one - or, at least, that was not made clear to the audience. See, no explanation was ever offered of why anyone would go to hell. All that was said is that it's for everyone who doesn't "accept Jesus as their personal Lord and Savior". Vague mentions were made by a few Christian characters of having been forgiven of their sins. But what is sin? Why does it need to be forgiven? Why does it merit hell - particularly the grotesque notion of hell depicted on stage - when unforgiven? And how is Jesus and his death on the cross relevant to dealing with it? The drama didn't say. Neither did the evangelist, to my recollection. And without that crucial context, God hardly seemed loving at all. He seemed capricious, harsh, and perhaps insane. That may be why I inadvertently found myself silently cheering for the Satan character by about the middle of the performance. Tip: If your evangelistic drama makes it even possible to root for Satan, then you might be doing something wrong.

Think I'm blowing the portrayal of God's character a bit out of proportion? In one of the earlier skits, a non-Christian woman falls at the feet of Jesus, repents of her sins, and begs him to be her Lord and Savior. And Jesus turns and promptly walks away without so much as a clear look of compassion on his face. This is a caricature of even much conservative evangelical thought on the afterlife. Many conservative evangelicals would be more inclined to say that repentance simply isn't a possibility after death. That wasn't what was portrayed here. Rather, a person's apparently sincere repentance and faith were outright rejected by Jesus. The idea represented is one that exists in conservative evangelical Christian thought, but even there, it seems quite hard-line. (Also, the depiction of young children being sent screaming and crying into hell did not exactly help.) While the words "God's love" showed up quite a bit, the dominant atmosphere of the whole performance was fear and terror, designed specifically to coerce conversion as a 'get-out-of-hell free' card.

The evangelist's methods after the drama also rubbed me the wrong way. While I saw no reason to believe that he wasn't quite sincere, his tactics for badgering people into making a 'decision for Christ' reminded me of two things: Elmer Gantry, and Charles G. Finney's Lectures on Revival of Religion. Right on the heels of a tearful separation of mother and daughter in the afterlife, he specifically addressed his message - numerous times - chiefly to "moms" and "dads", and also "teenagers". In addition, I lost track of how many times he urged that there would surely be just "one more person" needed to come down before they could proceed. I also noticed quite a number of Mennonite girls in bonnets going down for the altar call. I couldn't help but wonder how many of the people going down front were really doing this for the first time, and really were not Christians before, or really were making a decision to become Christians on this occasion - and, furthermore, would really stick with it and become disciples. Plausibly, only a fraction of the crowd.

Now, please do not misunderstand me. It's easy to read everything I've just written and think that I've completely written off this ministry and its efforts. It's easy to take all my criticism and think that I'm dismissing the possibility that some people will really begin their journey of authentic discipleship and true love for God at an event like this. But that's not true. I know that that can happen. I know it because I am one of those people. I became a Christian at a local performance of Heaven's Gates and Hell's Flames in or around the year 1998. That is where my Christian journey began, and had I not attended it, I can't really say for sure when or even if I would have come to Christ. I remember that it was the final skit that got to me. I didn't want to go to hell. The fear of hell, moreso than the fear of God, gripped my heart. And I resolved in that moment that if turning to Jesus was what it would take to get some heavenly fire insurance, then it would just have to be worth it. So that is precisely what I did. If God hadn't led me to a nurturing church, it would have been so easy for me to simply fall away and never grow. Or, if my fear of hell hadn't been transformed through gratitude into a real love for God, it would have been easy for me to be spiritually infantilized at best or to simply apostatize at worst. Or, if I hadn't eventually attained a greater (though of course imperfect) theological maturity to see beyond the immensely crude half-gospel portrayed in the drama, much the same could have been the result. Nevertheless, God can work through ignoble means and base motives - if that's all we're willing to offer him. I'm grateful to have heard the Christian message, even in a distorted and garbled form, and to have been spurred to act on it, even through shoddy and shameful motives. So yes, real good can be done by Heaven's Gates and Hell's Flames, and if even one of those conversions was authentic, then I truly believe that the angels in heaven rejoiced over it. But I still can't help but wonder, given how rightfully offputting a crude threatening with hellfire is when stripped of context, whether the net effect is positive or negative for the goals of God's kingdom.

I am no advocate of a Christianity that pretends that there is no hell, no devil, no sin, no judgment, or anything of that sort. Far from it. I do advocate a Christianity that hews closely to what the Bible says about those topics without proclaiming as gospel truth more than we really know. And I do advocate a Christianity that keeps a sense of balance while presenting the real gist of the Christian story, the story of God's love and justice and his righteous kingdom and the need for discipleship that doesn't kowtow to popular ideologies of power but that shows forth a Christian life that's really shaped by the cross and by the resurrection. I advocate a Christianity that would hopefully be recognized by Jesus, by Peter, by Paul, and by the blessed men and women who came after them and strove valiantly for the faith. I advocate an evangelism that can actually prepare new Christians for discipleship, not mislead them and strand them and leave them as though stillborn. And in that, I fear that I'm an advocate for something that Heaven's Gates and Hell's Flames just doesn't deliver, to its detriment.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Christ is Our Worthiness

[Originally posted at Study and Faith.]

What I wanted to share for thought today consists of a few stanzas from a wonderful classic hymn, "Come Ye Sinners, Poor and Needy" by Joseph Hart (1712-1768):

View Him prostrate in the garden,
On the ground your Maker lies.
On the bloody tree behold Him;
Sinner, will this not suffice?

Lo! th' incarnate God ascended,
Pleads the merit of His blood:
Venture on Him, venture wholly,
Let no other trust intrude.

Let not conscience make you linger,
Nor of fitness fondly dream;
All the fitness He requireth
Is to feel your need of Him.

I find this to be a powerful, moving hymn with a view-enlarging message. Christ has suffered, Christ has died - what more could we possibly require to free us from our guilt and shame and sin? The one who suffered for us was and is God indeed, and he presents his blood in the heavenly tabernacle as an atonement; what ground is there for dividing our trust between Him and any other cause? Let us place our faith firmly in him. And although it's so tempting to shrink back in fear, believing our sins to be too great or supposing that we need some worthiness of our own before we can approach, we have this promise: All we need to enter into this forgiveness, to be set free, is to know that we need Christ and to surrender ourselves to him. And in turn, God accounts our faith - our feeble, barren, trembling trust - as righteousness in his sight, a righteousness that obscures and replaces our sins and works in us to bear good fruit. We need no other worthiness than to turn to Christ and follow.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Prudentius on Sin's Stains and God's Power to Cleanse

Lately I've been doing a bit of reading from Aurelius Prudentius Clemens, an early-fifth-century Latin Christian poet. He's got some really good stuff. I've found some inspiring, striking, and moving portions in his Liber Cathemerinon, a book of lengthy hymns for various occasions throughout the day and throughout the year. And I wanted to share a bit of it.

Into our thoughts now turn Thy gaze;
Examine every word and deed;
Behold the many stains of sin,
Which Thy pure light alone can cleanse.

Oh grant that we may ever keep
Our souls as bright and free from soil,
As when the waters on us flowed
From holy Jordan's cleansing stream.

If by the clouds of earth's black night
Our souls since then have been obscured,
Do Thou, O King of the morning star,
Disperse the gloom with Thy bright glance.

O Lord divine, as Thou canst change
Foul pitch to milky white, and make
Of ebony a crystal clear,
So wash away our dark misdeeds.

(Liber Cathemerinon 2.57-72)

I find this such a true, honest, and striking plea. Sin has stained us. A lot. And it's stained all of us; not a single one of us is unblemished. Those of us who have been baptized as Christians are rendered clean by Christ's atoning sacrifice, and we must continually pray that God will grant us the grace so that we can resist the pull to wallow in sin again. But Prudentius recognizes that, well, our souls do still get obscured. We do fall. And so we can always pray to God to penetrate our darkness with a single luminous glance; before God's eyes, all things are laid bare. And God is a God who changes things; God can take the dirty and make it clean. He's a God of purification. Nothing is ever too filthy or murky for him to cleanse. And that's the God upon whom we can always rely to "wash away our dark misdeeds" when we see the error of our ways and come back to him. Know this: you are never, never, never too far gone for God's grace to reach you.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Finding God in All Religions?

I've been thinking lately about a comment that a friend of mine made fairly recently, essentially to this effect: "Why do we have to choose just one religious tradition to be in? I find God in all of them! God isn't different in any of the religions, just the way in which we relate to God. I find beautiful ways of really relating to God in all of them. But I don't accept any religious tenets that claim an exclusive place for any one religious tradition." I was indeed surprised by some of my other professing Christian friends who wholeheartedly supported her sentiment.

Now, the first question I had about her initial statement was.... which god? Are we talking about Thor, the hammer-wielding Norse god of thunder? Are we perhaps talking about Poseidon, the Greek god of the seas? Or the Sumerian deity Enki, lord of mischief, waters, and creation? And what then of the Assyrian patron god Ashur, and the Aztec sun god Huitzilopochtli, and the Moabite god Chemosh, and the lion-headed Meroitic god Apedemak, and the Canaanite orchard goddess Nikkal-wa-Ib, and the Nabatean god Al-Qaum? Is it any of these gods that my friend finds at the heart of Islam and Confucianism and Kemetic Revivalism (Egyptian Reconstructionist Paganism) and Christianity? That doesn't seem especially likely. I rather doubt that, for instance, the "God" she finds in "all religions" is any of those; I doubt she has any of them specifically in mind. Unfortunately, my friend simply ignored my question.

But seriously, which god? Which god is the one my friend can find in all religions? Now, perhaps someone would charge me with being a bit tendentious here. After all, perhaps my friend really meant "all major religions". But isn't that rather provincialist? After all, there may be just a handful of prominent world religions today, but it's a matter of pure chronological contingency that she happens to live in a world in which a significant portion of the population adheres to Abrahamic monotheism, and none of those ancient polytheistic faiths are still around as statistically influential options. But surely my friend doesn't mean to discriminate against Reconstructionist Pagans, does she? That certainly doesn't sound like her. She prides herself on being a beacon of tolerance and love, not one of those bigoted exclusivist dullards like, well, virtually everyone who's ever lived.

So perhaps the god she has in mind is the God of Abraham. Let's explore that option for a moment. Is the God of Abraham - the one who created heaven and earth from nothing with a simple divine edict, and who has an exclusive and absolute claim on the ultimate loyalty of all humanity, who acts in history, and who is a just judge of the sins of the nations - the deity that she finds in, say, Asatru (Norse Reconstructionist Paganism)? It's hard to see where. Which of those gods is he? Which of them created heaven and earth from nothing with just a command? Which of them claims the right of exclusive worship? Which of them is a judge of the actions of people in distant lands? Well... none of them. So how, exactly, does my friend find the God of Abraham in Norse Reconstructionist Paganism, or in its ancient Norse precursor? But perhaps we should try another religion - say, Confucianism. Is the God of Abraham the deity she finds in Confucianism? Where exactly does she find a deity in Confucianism anyway? The same goes for, say, Theraveda Buddhism, which also doesn't focus on any god. Does my friend find the God of Abraham in Theraveda Buddhism? If she does, where does she find him? How does Theraveda Buddhism offer a means of relating to the God of Abraham when Theraveda Buddhism doesn't put the focus on any gods at all? Or how does Asatru offer a means of relating to the God of Abraham when it explicitly offers you many gods, but one of the defining characteristics of the God of Abraham is that he refuses to share his servants with other putative deities? And even supposing that you could find the God of Abraham hidden somewhere in Theraveda Buddhism and in Confucianism and in Asatru; what on earth would make anyone think that those religious traditions offer means of relating to the God of Abraham that are every bit as good and valid and useful as those offered by religious traditions that are explicitly devoted to the God of Abraham?

What about, say, Brahman, the impersonal sole reality that constitutes all things in many of the philosophical traditions of Hinduism? Is that the 'god' that my friend finds in all religions? The first thing I should add in response to that notion is that I have to wholeheartedly agree with contemporary philosopher Peter Van Inwagen when he argues that words like brahman that refer to impersonal abstractions like this are just plain wrongly translated if they're rendered as 'God'. As he remarks about those who hold that, in Eastern religious traditions, God is an 'impersonal first principle': "I think it would be plausible to maintain that the person who said this was translating some Hindi or Pali or Sanskrit word into English as 'God' when he ought to be translating it in some other way. (And why not say this, if the history of the word he is translating as 'God' has no connection with the history of the English word or with the history of Deus or theos or elohim?)" (Peter Van Inwagen, The Problem of Evil, p. 156 n. 1). Even setting that problem aside, does my friend find Brahman in Islam and in Aztec religion alike? Where? I mean, I suppose that if you believe in Brahman, you could believe that Allah is a manifestation of Brahman, and that so is Huitzilopochtli. But that wouldn't be bridging different religions at all. It would be standing quite firmly within a Hindu tradition. And it would involve saying, for instance, that neither Muslims nor Aztecs really understand what they worship, and that they have most of their religion all wrong (though it works anyway)... but we, the knowers of Brahman, understand Allah better than Muslims do and Huitzilopochtli better than the Mexica did. And while that may not be a soteriologically exclusivist claim, it's certainly exclusivist in some sense that might make my friend a bit queasy.

Here's the thing. If you're finding 'God' in all religious traditions, then it isn't any of the gods they worship. There is no god worshipped in common in all religious traditions, especially since some of those traditions don't worship gods at all. There's not much overlap in the world's numerous pantheons. Furthermore, if you're finding 'God' in all of these traditions, then you're not standing in all of them at once; you're standing in something novel of your own making. You don't get to call yourself a Christian or a Muslim if you believe that you can please the God of heaven and earth by cutting out a victim's heart and lofting it up to Huitzilopochtli. That's just not what Christianity is, and that's just not what Islam is. For all its breadth, Christianity is a specific religious tradition; it has boundaries. The same goes for Islam. One cannot be a Christian and a Buddhist, for instance, without using at least one (and probably both) of those words in a way that is, quite frankly, dishonest. To be a Christian, a real Christian who stands in solidarity with the broad Christian tradition in all of its historic richness, involves believing that the created world is good and that we really do have selves and that our final state will be one of living in resurrected and glorified bodies in a community that worships one (and only one) personal God. To be a Buddhist, a real Buddhist who stands in solidarity with that tradition, involves believing that our existence in this world is suffering caused by desire, and that we have no permanent selves, and that our final state is to break the cycle of birth and death and new birth by achieving nirvana, which is likely not a state in which we can worship a single personal God. Those are two radically incompatible pictures of the world and humanity and God and our destiny. One cannot truly be a Christian and at the same time truly be a Buddhist. And that's simply one example.

So there's a very good reason why a person can't be part of all religious traditions, or even many of them. Most of them are, as defined by their essential beliefs, non-overlapping. (That isn't, of course, to say that some minor beliefs from other traditions can't be accepted, so long as the coherence of the whole system is kept in tact without violence done to the major essential beliefs and practices.) To attempt to be part of all of them is to be part of none of them - which, in many cases, is simply to create a new one, the religion of Kyle-ism or Lucinda-ism or some other novel -ism, tailor-made by its founder as a private religion exalted above all the many historic religious traditions. For my part, I may be an arrogant man, but I'm not arrogant enough to class myself as a peer to Jesus and Siddhartha Gautama and Muhammad and Moses and Baha'u'llah and Confucius and Lao Tzu and all the other principal religious figures in human history! But that is precisely what is done by those who try to break free from being part of just one religious tradition; they create their own novelty to put alongside the rest. And furthermore, even if their newly created religion is very soteriologically inclusive ("Oh it doesn't matter who you are or what you've done or what you believe or what you do, you can relate to God just fine. Please, Mr. Stalin, take your place next to Mr. Gandhi. I'm not yet sure what exactly it is that you'll both be doing when it's all said and done - do I believe in heaven and hell, or just heaven, or nirvana, or Valhalla, or...? - but I'm quite sure that you're both perfectly fine as you are. Now Mr. Stalin, I'd like to ask you not to order any more ethnic purges. But if you do, just remember that God and/or Brahman and/or Chemosh will love, accept, or tolerate you anyway. You just relate to God/Brahman/Chemosh/Whatever in a different, more ethnic-purging-type way than I do, and that's fine because what matters is that we all love each other. Oh, I'm sorry, Mr. LaVey, I didn't mean to offend you! It's fine if you relate to God/Brahman/Chemosh/Whatever by seeking vengeance on those who wrong you. Just so long as you aren't against gay marriage or a grown woman's rights to decide whether or not to kill her children before they exit the confines of her body, of course."), it still has to be 'exclusive' in some way by saying that someone (actually, a lot of someones) is just plain wrong.

Ultimately, I just don't think that my friend's pluralistic proposal can work. Not because it's impractical, but because it runs into far too many intellectual difficulties, to say nothing of the moral ramifications or the spiritual implications. For these and other reasons, I don't think any faithful Christian should accept this kind of pluralism; it is not only clearly wrong, but also incompatible with the historic Christian faith delivered once and for all to the holy church of God (Jude 3).

Sunday, February 6, 2011

A Eucharistic Meditation

What is the staple of life? As I contemplate it, it seems that it must be the meal. For the meal, in its highest form, is an occasion of fellowship and sharing with others while, together, we rejoicingly co-partake in that which sustains us in being. A meal is sustenance - that is, life - in community - that is, love. The meal, in its highest form, is life renewed and shared in love. And the eucharist is the highest of meals. For in the eucharist, the fellowship and sharing is the communion of the baptized, the togetherness of those who have tasted the heavenly gift, the mutual sharing of the sons and daughters of God destined for unfathomably glory. And in the eucharist, the sustenance of abundant life given/received, renewed, and shared in divine love is none other than the very substance of Life and Love made flesh and blood and revealed to us in the most basic of food and drink - bread and wine. That in which we partake through the eucharist is not merely a means of sustaining physical life; it is that means subsumed into the very reality - it is Life itself in whom we as the Living Community, living together, share. It is the 'medicine of immortality' shared in common by the inheritors of immortality, who in this meal have the sacred opportunity to partake in the Wellspring of Immortality - the Crucified and Risen Messiah, whose atoning passion we proclaim before the world every time we faithfully celebrate this act through this meal. This meal is our redeemed sharing in the death whereby Christ trampled down death and thereby ushered us into the freedom of the children of God. This meal is the Divine Life made flesh and blood and given as flesh and blood through bread and wine so that we might in the meal be made participants by grace in that Divine Life, that our table-fellowship might be a communal participation in the Eternal Community that is God in Trinity.

This eucharist, our meal of thanksgiving, looks to the past and to the future. It looks to the rescue of the Israelites from their bondage of Egypt and to the meal that celebrated God's mighty liberating act - which itself looked forward to our rescue from the bondage of sin and this eucharistic meal that celebrates God's mighty liberating act for us in Christ. It looks back to the manna, the bread of angels, that sustained the Israelites in their wanderings through the wilderness, just as this eucharistic meal - which is Christ, the "bread of heaven", given for us, broken for us, poured out for us - sustains the church of God in our wanderings through what remains of "the present evil age" as we yearn and plead for God's kingdom to come on earth as it is in heaven. It looks back to the Last Supper, when Christ in anticipation of his death took the Passover and made it new, made it fresh, made it signify yet again a new deliverance of God. It looks also forward to the marriage supper of the Lamb, that banquet on God's holy mountain when ultimate victory over sin and death and all the powers of darkness and pain will be celebrated and announced, and when the union of Christ and his holy church will be made full, fuller than our wildest imagination. It looks forward as an anticipation, a participating shadow, of every meal in the glory of the kingdom of God, of dining in the unmediated presence of Love, of Life.

Thank you, O Lord, for this meal! When I partake of this most holy sacrament... why do not my knees give way when I approach the table of the Lord? Can I not see that this is the body and blood of God's Messiah, broken and poured forth as a sacrifice and libation to remedy my sin, our sin? Are my senses so dulled that I fail to perceive that what I take in my hand and place in my mouth is the source of life? How can I bear it? How can I survive taking it into me, sinner that I am - save that you, O Lord, have cleansed me and prepared me by your Spirit? Little wonder that your apostle warned of partaking lightly, and so eating and drinking judgment to ourselves! But Lord, how I feel such delight when I behold a banquet of mere food, and yet so often fail to rejoice all the more greatly when I see that your own body and blood are set before me - the food of the kingdom! And Lord, how I dare to approach without the gravest trepidation when I contemplate that this food signifies the very death of the Son of God! Forgive me, Lord, for not perceiving the sacred mystery as fully as I ought! If I did, I should walk to the table trembling in awe-filled jubilation.

Can even the cherubim or the seraphim grasp what transpires at the Lord's Table? (For note: it is not we who have invited him to our table; it is he who has invited us to his.) Can even they perceive the full depth and breadth of this meal and what is represents? How much less can we! And yet, while we do not understand its mystery, still we are called to consume its mystery - and thus to be consumed by it, by the joy and redemption found only in Life, in Love. O Lord, you who go so far as to give your own divine self to us as a meal, consume us in living love to be vessels of life and love who spread love and restore life wherever we go - not on our mission, but on yours!

Friday, January 21, 2011

Deliverance Past and Present

During the course I'm taking this term (Church History I), each student signs up for a day to deliver a brief morning devotional before class gets underway. Recently I had my turn and chose to focus a bit on Habakkuk 3, so there are a variety of thoughts I've been having about it, which I'll have to spread over several posts. The opening verses of Habakkuk 3 make clear that the chapter is a prayer to God crossed with a song celebrating God's strength and power. And the basic point it makes is a very simple one: long ago God saved his people from their troubles by kicking some serious butt, but now the prophet and the people are once again in trouble and their only hope is for God to once again kick some serious butt and rescue them. Or in other words: "Yahweh, I have heard of your fame; I stand in awe of your deeds, Yahweh. Repeat them in our day, in our time make them known; in wrath remember mercy" (Habakkuk 3:2).

Most of the rest of the chapter (3:3-15) is a powerful, gripping, awe-inspiring roar of God's power to deliver - our God is mighty to save! Habakkuk 3:3-15 is a picture of a God you really, really, really don't want to mess with. His footsteps shake the earth with plague; he looks all the peoples of the world... and they flinch. He shoots his arrows everywhere, carving through the land with rivers. When the mountains see him on the warpath, they squirm and quake. When the heavenly bodies see his arrows and his spear, they hold still for fear. He makes the oceans churn, trampling them underfoot. That is the God of Habbakuk - and that is our God, too. No wonder Habakkuk says that when he heard about what God once did, his lips quivered and his legs trembled (3:16)!

And yet what does he then say? He says that he waits patiently for God to do it again. Habakkuk's prayer/psalm is an impassioned cry to God: "When we were in trouble before, you bailed us out! Please, please God - we need an encore now!" And yet... he waits patiently! He waits patiently for God to make good on that prayer. Habakkuk has faith that God will punish and drive off the invaders. And so no matter how dire things get until then - even if everything they rely on is gone and they're left with nothing - Habakkuk says that even then he "will rejoice in Yahweh, [he] will be joyful in God [his] Savior" (3:18). Even when all the nations of the earth are arrayed against him, Habakkuk trusts that Yahweh, the God of Israel, will be his strength and give him the power to "tread on the heights" (3:19).

Habakkuk can trust that he's praying to the very same God who once did all of those things - and who hasn't lost his touch. Habakkuk can trust that God will carry through. Habakkuk can cry out for the God of then to be the God of now, for the God of deliverance past to be the God of deliverance present.

And I have to ask myself, do I honestly have that faith? Do I have the faith to believe that when I pray, the God whose throne of grace I boldly approach (alright, so usually I approach it timidly) is a God who not only is the greatest of Deliverers, but who is still in the deliverance business? Do I have the faith to believe that maybe, just maybe, my prayers are being heard... and I might get a response more explosive and earth-shattering and breathtaking than I ever thought possible?

Honestly, I don't know that I do. I'd like to, though. I want to have Habakkuk's faith. I want to have the faith to look back on what God has done for his people when they needed him, and to cry out, "I need that now too!", and then to wait patiently in the assurance that I'm in good hands. I was not brought up to trust; I was trained to be anxious and paranoid and fearful. When it comes to developing Habakkuk's sort of faith, I have a long way to go and, honestly, very little clue where or how to practically begin. But imagine what the church could be like as a whole if we could read the Old Testament and the New Testament and the stories of God's powerful acts in the two thousand years since then... and confidently, joyfully, expectantly, rightly pray, "Today as well!"

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Happy New Year!

[Originally posted at Study and Faith]

Happy New Year, everyone! In celebration of the new year, I'd like to reprint here the words of a little-known New Year's hymn. (There really are such things, you know.) The title is simply 'Hymn I', and it's taken from John Wesley, A Collection of Hymns for the Nativity of Our Lord: and for New-Year's-Day (London, UK: Thomas Cordeux, 1810), 19-20. I hope you won't mind if I modernize the spelling and remove a few minor eccentricities in punctuation.

Wisdom ascribe, and might and praise,
To God who lengthens out our days,
Who spares us yet another year
And lets us see his goodness here;
Happy and wise the time redeem,
And live, my friends, and die to him.

How often when his arm was bared,
Has he our sinful Israel spared!
Let me alone, his mercy cried,
And turned the vengeful bolt aside,
Indulged another kind reprieve,
And strangely suffered us to live.

Laid to the root with conscious awe,
But now the threatening axe we saw,
We saw when Jesus stepped between,
To part the punishment and sin
He pleaded for the blood-bought race,
And God vouchsafed a longer space!

Still in the doubtful balance weighed,
We trembled while the remnant prayed;
The Father heard his Spirit groan
And answered mild, It is my Son!
He let the prayer of faith prevail,
And mercy turned the hovering scale.

Merciful God, how shall we raise
Our hearts to pay thee all thy praise!
Our hearts shall beat for thee alone,
Our lives shall make thy goodness known
Our souls and bodies shall be thine,
A living sacrifice divine.

I and my house will serve the Lord,
Led by the Spirit and the Word;
We plight our faith assembled here,
To serve our God the ensuing year;
And vow when time shall be no more,
Through all eternity to adore.