Monthly Archives: August 2013

Is Your Church a “Teaching” or an “Experiencing” Church? (Part 2)

The most effective natural ways of stirring people’s emotions directly are stories, images and music. (We could also add other sensuous experiences, such as smells and movements of the body like dancing. Some religions even use drugs to induce the experience.) A story paints a mental picture that doesn’t need explaining. Hearing a good story affects the emotions directly, and different stories move us in different ways. Images can also move us directly and almost instantaneously. Images can excite humor, horror, sadness, wonder and other feelings. But music is the primary way “experience churches” do this today. Perhaps more than any other means used in churches music can bypass the mind and will and affect the emotions directly. I don’t know how it works, but we all know it does.

By music I mean a system of sounds of different qualities, frequencies, durations and order that can be represented by musical notation exclusive of words. Music without words is often called “absolute” music. Music can be joined to words to make a song or it can be played without words. When music and words are combined each affects the other. Words are cognitive, directed to the understanding, so in a song words can guide the emotions stirred by the music toward a particular end, good or ill, secular or religious.

However, if in the “performance” of the song the words are overpowered by the music, the words lose their cognitive and directive power and simply become another aspect of the music; that is, they convey no more conceptual content than la, la, la. On paper or spoken in a common voice, a well-phrased series of words directs the mind to think in a certain way about something, but in a song designed and performed primarily to create a certain feeling in the participants these words can no longer do this. When this happens, a song (music and words) functionally becomes absolute music, music without words.

There is something very appealing about absolute music. Stirring or tender music without words moves our emotions but leaves our minds free to attach those emotions to whatever object or activity we wish. But words exercise a directive force that we may resent or resist. A musical composition that evokes in me memories of my beloved father may remind you of your dog or someone else of a recent romantic moment. Absolute music makes fewer demands of its listeners and allows each member of a large audience to enjoy a private experience. The unity we feel with the audience—which is undeniable—is not created by believing or thinking or willing the same thing but by feeling in general and endures only as long as the performance endures. We enjoy absolute music’s power to get us in touch with our emotions “on demand” in a way that allows us freedom to channel those emotions in any direction we choose.

Here is my concern with experience-oriented churches: if we employ means—stories, images but especially music—to move people’s emotions directly, it is very tempting, even intuitive and natural, to allow the music to dominate the words. This can be done by making the music louder or more elaborate than the words. Or it can be done by limiting the range of ideas expressed in the words. If every song the church sings expresses the greatness of God simply by saying over and over again “God is great,” it won’t take very long for us to forget who and what God is and what it means to praise God.

Unless we continually explain who God and repeat the full story of God’s work in Christ we will begin to hear “la, la, la” instead of “praise God, praise God, praise God.” Hence “experience churches” may unintentionally neglect the church’s mission to direct its members’ emotions and actions to the right ends and their minds to full truth. Such churches run the risk of making emotional experiences ends in themselves, unrelated to the truth of faith or an authentic vision of the Christian life. Unless the church teaches the whole range of the faith even in its music (music and words), each person will be left to substitute their own content—their own version of God, Christ, Spirit, moral life—into the experience of religious emotion. Such an approach to church life may also undermine genuine community. Authentic Christian community is created and held together by the “one Spirit…one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God…” (Eph 4:4); and these principles of unity must be taught. The church cannot be held in unity by a common feeling of transcendence or awe or celebration alone. It also requires common belief, commitment and practice.

Is your church a “teaching” or an “experiencing” church? Think about it. I hope your church will resist the current trend toward making experience the prime goal of its assemblies. Instead, I hope it will renew its teaching mission and trust the power of the Word and the working of the Holy Spirit to move people to faith, love, hope and good works…and, yes, to vibrant experience of the power and presence of the Father through Jesus Christ in the Holy Spirit.

Is Your Church a “Teaching” or an “Experiencing” Church? (Part 1)

Does the Christian church gather to be taught and reminded of its faith or to experience the presence and power of God? Perhaps most Christians would reject the dichotomy posed in this question. And I agree that we don’t have to choose one or the other. Most churches combine the two in some way. Nevertheless, I think it worthwhile to consider the alternatives just to clarify the concepts. Out of this exercise may arise deeper insight into the relationship between the two goals and the best means of keeping them in proper balance.

I might as well place my cards on the table. I admit that there are churches that are so focused on teaching (or doctrine) that they are cold, rigid, intolerant of deviation and exclusive of emotions other than jealousy for doctrinal conformity and righteous indignation against error and sin. I know these churches exist. But I don’t see the majority of contemporary believers rushing to adopt this extreme model. I see the dominant movement in the opposite direction, away from the “teaching church” to the “experiencing church” model. What concerns me is that I don’t see this movement headed toward a proper balance between the two but to a near exclusive focus on experience.

Here is my view of the appropriate relationship between teaching and experience: In working toward a balance between these two factors, the church should give priority to teaching and reminding itself of its faith; that is, its main goal should be to speak, live and enact the Word of faith. It should also expect the Word and the Holy Spirit to work together to drive the message home to the heart so that hearers of the message believe, feel and act consistently with the truth of faith. Christianly understood, religious experience should arise from hearing the Word and the work of the Spirit. But this means that Christian religious experience, as vital and necessary as it is, is secondary to teaching and the accompanying action of the Spirit.

Here is what I see happening among churches today: when experience becomes the primary goal of a church it becomes possible to think of religious experience as relatively independent of the knowledge of faith and the work of the Holy Spirit. The gathering of the church will be designed to evoke experience, and the means of evoking experience will include elements other than the truth of faith and the working of Spirit. Simply put, “experience churches” choose means that can provoke the desired feelings directly, completely bypassing, or spending very little time addressing, the mind and will. In effect, this model of church replaces the mysterious and free working of the Spirit and the inherent power of the Word with natural methods of moving the emotions. Continued in Part 2.

Note: I posted part 2 of this essay simultaneously with part 1. It’s ready to read.

 

Think with Me About “Unconditional Love”

In my description of the purpose of this blog I spoke of things I like and things I don’t like. I really don’t like confused talk, humbug and obfuscation. Since the term “unconditional love” entered popular speech its intellectual content has eroded to such an extent that it is now little more than an expression of emotion. So, think with me about the concept of “unconditional love.”

There is something immediately appealing about the idea of unconditional love, especially for Christians. Central to the Christian gospel is the belief that the love and grace of God has been bestowed in Christ on those who do not deserve it. The idea of conditional love sounds like a contradiction. How could genuine love be conditioned on the appealing qualities of the beloved? After all, we are taught to love even our enemies. Loving your enemy is clearly an example of unconditional love. Hence the term “unconditional love” can be used to describe the attitude Jesus instructs us to have toward all human beings. So far, so good.

But the popular demand that we relate to people with “unconditional love” reads into the concept something that Jesus did not instruct us to have. Let’s assume that the word “unconditional” means the same thing for thoughtful Christian speech as it does for popular parlance. Nevertheless we must not ignore the second word in the expression, “love.” What does it mean to love someone? For Christianity, love, conceived as an attitude, means to will the true and highest good for the beloved and, thought of as an action, it means to act for the true and highest good of the beloved out of a sincere will. And the Christian idea of what is truly good for people is condition by the entire Christian understanding of the nature and destiny of humanity, the moral law and the religious relation to God revealed in Jesus Christ. Clearly, Jesus’ demand that we love all people is not conditioned on their loveable qualities but it is also—and here is the difference with popular culture—not based on the preferences, wishes or desires of the beloved.

In popular speech the “love” part of the term “unconditional love” seems to be cut loose from its Christian moorings. It seems to mean that we should will for the beloved whatever the beloved wills for themselves as their true and highest good. Note that the meaning of “love” has been transformed from being defined by an objective view of the good developed in the Christian tradition into a subjective view of the good determined by the individual preferences, emotions and wishes of the beloved. In popular thought “good” means whatever feels good in the moment, whatever gives one a momentary sense of well-being or whatever one thinks is good. Given this definition of the good, the highest priority of a loving person in the popular mind is not to disturb this sense of well-being in the beloved. And one does this by affirming as the good whatever gives the beloved this feeling.

Most certainly Christians should “love their neighbors as themselves” (or in modern parlance “unconditionally”) but only by willing the true and highest good for them as defined by a thoughtful grasp of the Christian religious and moral vision. And their acts of love should follow the same pattern: To the best of one’s ability work for the true and highest good of someone from a pure will. The highest priority of a loving person in the Christian sense cannot be to avoid disturbing the beloved’s sense of well-being; it must be to seek their true good.

For a beautiful and profound study of “unconditional love” Christianly understood, read Kierkegaard’s Works of Love. Here is one of my favorite quotes from that book:

“Christianity teaches that love is a relationship between: man-God-man,  that is, that God is the middle term…For to love God is to love oneself in truth; to help another human being to love God is to love another man; to be helped by another to love God is to be loved” (Kierkegaard, Works of Love, pp. 112-113).

Note: future posts will distinguish between the concepts of good, right, wrong, evil and bad. These terms are often confused in popular discourse.

Who is God? (Part 3)

 

In the first two parts of this series I argued that a person’s identity is determined by whatever founds their existence, what they do and say, what is done to them and the relationships they have. We’ve seen that Christianity points to the story of ancient Israel, Jesus Christ and the apostolic church to answer the question “Who is God?” The story is the answer. But this story is much too long and complicated to rehearse or even summarize in this essay. And some of it overlaps with Judaism and to a lesser extend Islam. Hence I want to focus on the heart of the distinctively Christian part of the story: Jesus Christ.  Jesus taught that we can relate to God as our “Father in heaven”(Matt 6:9) and that we ought to love not only our friends but also our enemies (Matt 5:44). I think that Jesus’ teaching about God, religion and ethics, taken as a whole, is quite unprecedented in the history of religion. Nevertheless, it is not in Jesus’ teaching but in his “fate” that we find the most revolutionary reorientation in divine identity.

For most of the New Testament, but especially for Paul, the cross and resurrection of Christ is the heart of the Christian gospel. The claim that God raises the dead did not surprise or offend Paul’s Jewish audience, though his Greek hearers found it strange and even repugnant. But Paul’s contemporaries found the timing of Jesus’ resurrection very surprising. The resurrection was not supposed to happen until the end. But what they found most surprising and troubling about the resurrection of Jesus was the claim that God raised a man who had been crucified for blasphemy and rebellion. For Paul’s contemporaries the cross was an offense completely opposed to God’s dignity and power. But for him the cross embodied the wisdom and power of God (1 Cor 1:24). How could Paul have come to such a conclusion? Apparently Paul and the original disciples of Jesus were forced to look for divine wisdom in the cross because the empty tomb and Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances convinced them that God had raised Jesus from the dead. In the resurrection, God vindicated Jesus and overturned the verdict that led to his execution. The bold things Jesus said about God and his intimate relationship to God were declared true and reverent. Since God raised Jesus from the dead, the cross could not have been an accident but makes sense only a divinely intended act. If in the resurrection of Jesus God overcame death’s power over humanity, it stands to reason that in the cross God overcame the power of sin; for sin was the “sting” that brought death into the world (Genesis 3; 1 Cor 15:56).

The New Testament does not explain the cross as something God did to Jesus or merely allowed to happen to Jesus but something God did in and through Jesus (2 Cor  5:18-19). Jesus’ acts were also God’s acts, his words God’s words, and his love God’s love (2 Cor 5:14). Jesus is the visible image of the invisible God (Col 1:15). We come to know the glory of God in Jesus’ face (2 Cor 4:6). We know that God is love because God in Christ gave himself for us sinners (1 John 4:9-10). Hence, according to the New Testament, the gracious, self-giving act of Christ on behalf of those who did not deserve it, reveals the heart of God’s character; it defines God’s identity. God is not world-dominating power or arbitrary willfulness or blind justice or indulgent neglect. God is self-giving, unselfish, gracious and redeeming Love. How, then, does Christianity answer the question, “Who is God?” It says, God is Father, Son and Holy Spirit. And God’s life is God’s eternal act of giving, receiving, returning and sharing among the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. This divine identity was first made known to human beings in the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ and everyone is invited through the grace of Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit to participate in God’s eternal love story.

Why, then, is it important to get the right answer about God’s identity? What difference does it make? As I said in part 1 of this series, unless we know who God is we won’t know how to relate to God or what to expect from God. Most people living in the western world do not have a clear idea of how many conceptions of divine identity there are, how much they differ or what different visions of human life and behavior they generate. People seem to think that everyone who acknowledges the existence of a divine reality holds the same nebulous view of God’s nature and identity: God is benevolent toward all and wants us to be happy in this world. But it is not as simple and self-evident as this. As Paul said in the text quoted in part 2, there are many so-called gods and lords (1 Cor 8:5), and the character of some of those gods looks more like character of demons than that of Jesus (1 Cor 10:20-21). Some gods are identified with fertility, some with wine, some with war, some with nations and some with death. Their powers are revealed by the activities of these natural forces. The gods’ identities are constructed by the stories told about their deeds and sufferings, by the heroes they inspire and commands they give. And worshipers naturally live as much as possible like their gods. Devotees aspire to their gods’ power and wealth and find excuses for their sins in the moral defects of their gods.

Suppose someone thinks of the divine nature as exalted high above human nature, as possessing supernatural powers and immortality and even as being one (monotheism). No doubt believing in the existence of a God with these qualities would affect a person’s behavior in certain general ways. But this description does not tell us who God is and what we are permitted to do and ought to do in relation to God. It is our understanding of the identity of God that determines decisively our behavior in relation to God. If you identify the divine nature as an omnipotent, world dominating force who works by coercion, if the stories of your God’s acts are all tales of conquest, if the heroes of your religion are blood-soaked warriors and politicians, and if you think your enemies are fit only to be destroyed, it is to be expected that you will aspire to be like your God and his heroes. But one who identifies the divine nature with the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ will seek God only in the face of Jesus and will aspire to live as Jesus lived; and this dramatic difference is an important reason to get the identity of God right.

Who is God (Part 2)

Who is God? (Part 2)

Christianity teaches about God and humanity, sin and salvation, religion and ethics.  Each aspect of the message presupposes (or creates) a question to which the teaching is an answer.  And the answer Christianity gives to each question takes form as a story of people’s experience of God and culminates in an invitation to participate in that story.  The story Christianity tells is narrated in the Bible; it is the story of ancient Israel, Jesus Christ and the apostolic church. The church, which is the voice of Christianity in the world, presents this story not as a myth or the product of rational speculation or mystical insight, but as a narration of historical events and experiences. Some will ask whether the story is true. Of course this is a critical question, and I will address it at some point. However in this post I want to focus on how the story identifies God.

The story told in the Old Testament rarely addresses the question “Does God exist?” For this was not a pressing issue in its environment. The existence and activity of the divine dimension of the world was self-evident for nearly everyone. The urgent question was “Which god is God?” or “Who is God?” The story of the Old Testament can be read as a prolonged struggle to answer this question. Throughout the Old Testament books of Genesis and Exodus God is identified as “the God of Abraham” or “the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob” or by what God did for past generations. As the story of ancient Israel unfolds the identity of God is deepened and enriched, sometimes in surprising ways, by encompassing more and more history, acts and relationships.

Christianity sees the long story of Israel’s ever-deepening understanding of God’s identity as culminating in the story of Jesus Christ. It does not reject the Old Testament’s identification of God anymore than Moses rejected Abraham’s identification of God or Isaiah or Jeremiah rejected Moses’ identification. But the life, teaching, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, taken together, proved such a surprising turn of events that the entire story had to be reoriented to focus on Jesus. Now God is identified by his relationship to Jesus Christ. When Paul speaks of God he almost always speaks of “God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Cor 1:3) or even of “the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Col 1:3). As Paul warns the Corinthians about eating meat sacrificed to idols, he finds it necessary to distinguish the Father of the Lord Jesus Christ from other divine identities: “For even if there are so-called gods, whether in heaven or on earth (as indeed there are many “gods” and many “lords”), yet for us there is but one God, the Father, from whom all things came and for whom we live; and there is but one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom all things came and through whom we live” (1 Cor 8:5-6).

And we should not leave out the Holy Spirit whom Jesus sent, who filled the apostles at Pentecost, guided the early church and continues to sanctify and guide believers today. Hence when Christianity answers the question, “Who is God?” its short reply is “God is Father, Son and Holy Spirit.” This is the Christian name for God. It stands for the entire narrative of God’s actions through Jesus Christ and the Spirit. In the words of the late 4th century church father Gregory Nazianzus, “When I say God, I mean Father, Son and Holy Spirit.”  Or, to generalize Gregory’s assertion, “When the church talks about God, it means Father, Son and Holy Spirit.” No other religion identifies God in this way; for to identify God in this way is to become a Christian.

What kind of character are we attributing to God by identifying God as “the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ” or as “Father, Son and Holy Spirit”? And what difference does it make in the way we live and how we relate to God? To be continued…

Note: no contemporary theologian I have read focuses so intently and with more profound insight on the question of divine identity than Robert W. Jenson. See his Systematic Theology, 2 vols (Oxford University Press, 1997). Warning: it’s difficult reading.

Who is God? (Part 1)

Who is God? (Part 1)

This post is the first in a series entitled “Infrequently Asked Questions in Theology.” Professional theologians, of course, ask “infrequently asked” questions. That is their job. But I am not writing for them. I am writing for non theologians who are interested in theology and in reflecting on faith at a deeper level than they ordinarily do.

In asking the “who” question we are inquiring about personal identity. It makes no sense to ask, “Who is that tree?” or “Who is that boulder?” Hence even asking the question “Who is God?” presupposes that we believe God possesses personal characteristics analogous to those of human persons. At minimum, to think of an existing thing as a person is to consider it rational and free by nature. Boethius (c. 480-c. 524) defined a person as a “rational, individual substance” and Richard of St Victor (d. 1173) added “incommunicability”  (i.e. ineffability and uniqueness) to this definition. Others add the phrase “in relation to other persons.” Much more could be said about the concept of person, but the point I want to emphasize is that the question “Who is God?” asks about the particular personal characteristics that distinguish God from other persons, divine and human, and help us to enter understandingly and empathetically God’s personal dimension. We need to know “who” God is so we know how to relate to God: What should we say and do in relation to God and what may we expect God to say and do in relation to us?

What sort of information could satisfy our need for an answer to the “Who” question concerning a particular human being? It will not help to hear about their generic human characteristics; these they share with other individual human beings. We want to know things that distinguish them from others. First we want to know their name, which stands for their whole personal identity. Next, we want to know what forces and events shaped their characters. We also want to hear about their significant actions, choices and aims. What they’ve suffered and to whom they are related and in what ways. In sum, we learn something about who a person is by listening to their story, the story of what made them who they are. A person’s story is unique to that individual; it distinguishes and identifies them, gives us a sense of knowing them and makes their actions meaningful and to some extent predictable. In the end, however, only by entering into a relationship with someone and by becoming a character in their story and they in ours can we really know another person. I’d like to state a principle here: it is in their personal characteristics, best understood by hearing a story and by mutual participation in a common story, that one person is distinguished from another and that a person can be known in their unique personhood.

Many religions and philosophies speak about “God.” But what do they mean, and of whom are they speaking? There are two questions here: “What is God?” and “Who is God?” I will post another essay on the “what” question later, but think about this: even if two human beings possess in common every quality that makes human beings human, they are not the same person. In a similar way, even if two people speak about God as possessing the same divine attributes they are not necessarily talking about the same person. If the stories they tell are different and the personal characteristics those stories portray are different, we may not be speaking of the same one. It is as if two people were talking about “Kimberly,” whom they think may be a common friend, but tell such different stories and relate such dissimilar personal experiences that they begin to think they are speaking of different persons with the same name.

But why is having the right answer important? And what is Christianity’s answer to the question “Who is God?”

To be continued…

Creation–Can You Hear it Sing?

Lately, I have been thinking about the idea of divine creation. For centuries Christians—and most Jews and Muslims too—have asserted “creation from nothing” (creatio ex nihilo). The central point of this idea is that God required no building material out of which to make the universe. For, if God had needed anything other than God’s own power and will to create, we could not think of God as the absolute Lord of creation—a really scary thought! To accomplish this task God would require help from something else. The Greek philosophers Plato and Aristotle understood that beings in the world are ever changing, coming into existence and going out of existence. But they also knew that something had to be eternal or nothing would exist, which would be inconceivable…because if nothing existed there would be no mind to conceive and no concepts to think. For them it was axiomatic that the eternal and unchanging world of intelligible forms and ideas exists necessarily. It deserves to be called divine precisely because it is self-sufficient and necessary. Aristotle was so clear that true being is eternal and unchanging that he declared that “from nothing, nothing comes into existence” (ex nihilio, nihil fit). Hence even matter is eternal and does not come into existence or go out of existence. It is always there to be shaped like the potter’s clay into different beings.

The Christian teaching of “creation from nothing” does not directly contradict Aristotle because it does not say that creation sprang into existence from nothing; existing things come from God and God is eternal. So Christian teaching agrees with Aristotle that “from nothing, nothing comes into existence.” Since God is eternal, there never was a time when there was absolutely nothing. But matter is not divine or eternal or necessary. Christianity asserts only one eternal being, God.

The idea of “creation from nothing” has profound implications in many areas of thought and life. I will mention only one. Everything, everyone, and every event that was, is and will be depends totally on God, and God alone, for its fundamental existence. Taking this truth seriously could change your life. Learn this skill: when you feel yourself relying on, serving, worshiping, working for, overvaluing, fearing or desiring anything in creation let it immediately trigger the realization that that creature also depends absolutely on God. Now let that thing direct you to its God and yours. God is the source of every good thing and the answer to every threat found in creatures, no matter how beautiful, powerful or good. If you learn this practice you might find yourself becoming a more thoughtful person, more aware of God than before. And in a world as beautiful and dangerous as ours that’s got to be a good thing.

I have found the works David Burrell, Robert Sokolowski, Michael Dodds, and Thomas Weinandy very helpful on the topic of creation.

rch