Tag Archives: Christ

A New Series Begins: God and the Modern Self

With this week’s entry I begin a series of posts dealing with issues I addressed in my recent book, God, Freedom & Human Dignity: Embracing God-Centered Identity in a Me-Centered Culture (InterVarsity Press, 2013). I will not write the series as a book review but as a study guide. The complete series, at least 16 entries, can serve as a study guide to the book for individuals, Sunday school classes, sermon series, college or seminary teachers or students, campus ministers, and youth workers to use their respective settings. But I also intend the posts to make sense even apart from the book; so, you can be stimulated and edified even if you are not reading the book.

The series will follow the book’s outline. The first half will deal with “The Me-Centered Self” and the second half with “The God-Centered Self.” The first part contains seven chapters and the second nine. Each week I will deal with a different chapter.

Introduction: Life in Two Worlds

Christians live in two worlds, the world of Scripture and the world of contemporary culture. Scripture embodies divine wisdom and revelation and a history of the prophets and saints and apostles. It preserves the words and deeds, suffering and triumph of Jesus Christ. The church has preserved Scripture, reflected continuously on its meaning and attempted to embody its truth for nearly 2000 years. Christian identity is shaped by 3500 years of history and tradition. Unlike many of our contemporaries we have (or should have) long memories.

From the world of Scripture and tradition we learn to see ourselves as God’s creatures, dependent on God for all good things, as sinners in need of forgiveness and renewal, as God’s beloved children, chosen for greatness, as mortals eagerly anticipating the advent of eternal life. We learn to value such moral and religious attitudes as trust, obedience, self-control, humility, love, reverence and hope. We see our lives as directed to accomplishing the will of God, to bringing glory to him and sharing in that glory. This shared, long-term and God-centered memory gives us stability of identity and clarity of character as individuals and as a community; and it protects us from the ever-changing winds of fad and fashion.

But we also live in the world of contemporary culture. And, just as we need to practice remembering that long story to keep alive our Christian identity, we need to observe, analyze and evaluate contemporary culture as a part of our own faithful self-examination. We face the double danger of forgetting the past and becoming enchanted by surrounding culture. That double danger can be overcome only by forming habits of remembering and by thoughtful engagement with culture. Attempting to preserve memory without thoughtful examination of culture will render us unable to communicate the Christian message to our contemporaries and, paradoxically, it may make us even more vulnerable to adapting to secular culture in substance while maintaining orthodoxy in words. But attempting to stay in tune with contemporary culture without constantly remembering our story in Scripture and tradition will lead to loss of God-centered identity.

My book and this series address this double danger by analyzing and evaluating contemporary culture and bringing to remembrance the Christian message of divine and human identity as revealed in Jesus Christ.

The first installment, “God and The Modern Self: The Me-Centered Self (Part 1)”, will be posted immediately.

 

 

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Think With Me About “The Happy Life” (Part Three)

You now have—and always have had— everything you need for happiness. Christian faith is belief that God is, was and always will be alive, that God is, was and always will be the source of life for all living things. Faith is conviction that God is the giver of every good thing we now have or can hope to have. Faith clings to God as the ever-present, always-attentive sustainer of our lives, as the unchanging beginning of temporal movement, as the end toward which all things strive. Faith understands God as the eternal unity that embraces all creation and every moment, every feeling and thought, every act and all our sufferings into a meaningful whole. It looks to God as that transcendent still point that imparts peace to our fragmented and chaotic lives.

You now have—and always have had— everything you need for happiness. Christian faith does not view God as an anonymous, purely transcendent Good; it sees the character and plan of this transcendent Good in the face of Jesus Christ. In Jesus Christ, the transcendent source, the centering still point, the eternal unity has united creation to himself in the most intimate way possible. The human being, Jesus of Nazareth—and in him human nature and all creation—has been so united to God that human nature partakes in divine qualities without ceasing to be human; indeed, it becomes truly and fully human for the first time. In Jesus Christ, creation has reached its glorious fulfillment and God has achieved his eternal purpose. In faith, Christians look to Jesus Christ as the trustworthy basis of hope that we too will share in the glory of God.

You now have—and always have had— everything you need for happiness. Augustine said truly, “The happy life is joy based on truth.” But everyone knows the difference between holding a statement to be true and experiencing the reality that makes the statement true. Only in living by faith, that is, by acting on faith, facing suffering in faith and even suffering for faith, may we experience the truth on which joy is based. When all other supports have failed, all other helpers have fled and the last human hope has faded into darkness, we find that God is there. God is there, has been there and will always be there. When God is all you’ve got you realize that God is all you’ve ever had.

You now have—and always have had— everything you need for happiness. But how can we keep this realization alive? We are forgetful creatures, creatures of habit; and most of our habits pull us into the mesmerizing flow of ordinary life. The sights and sounds, the worries and responsibilities, and the desires and ambitions of life in the world distract us from our true joy. Because we are forgetful, habit-forming, and distractible beings our strategy for maintaining awareness must counteract these tendencies. We need to form habits and practices that remind us that we now have—and always have had— everything we need for happiness.

I would like to suggest some ways we can keep vividly aware that we now have—and always have had— everything we need for happiness. These are suggestions only, designed to provoke thought; you may find other ways: (1) Since you will not always be consciously focused on God, surround yourself with reminders, with symbols and words. You might place the words I have been repeating in this essay (You now have—and always have had— everything you need for happiness.) where you are sure to see them every day. Make connections between everyday activities and the memory of God. Gregory of Nazianzus (4th century) said, “It is more important that we should remember God than that we should breathe; indeed, if one may say so, we should do nothing besides” (Or. 27.4). What if every time we noticed our breathing we remembered that God alone breathes into us the breath of life? (2) Make the unbreakable habit of meeting frequently with fellow believers to remind each other of who we are, on whom we depend and in whom we find our joy. Remember in the Lord’s Supper the body and blood of the Lord. Remember your baptism.

(3) In your solitude, practice stripping away every finite good and every temporal joy. Be alone, be still and let it wash over you that you exist and are alive through no effort of your own. We are so busy in our striving to get ahead, make a living, make the grade or gain approval, that we become anxious and unhappy. We begin mistakenly to think that our existence and meaning and value depend on us; and, despairing of our strength to carry such a burden, we add unhappiness to our load, making it even heavier. Stop. Ask yourself this: what if I were dying alone in a ditch in a thunderstorm? In what could I find comfort and hope and joy?  In God alone. Even there you would have what you have always had: You now have—and always have had— everything you need for happiness.

If we know this and can keep constantly aware of it, we can return to ordinary life with a new freedom and joy. We can enjoy and use the good things of this beautiful world as they were meant to be enjoyed and used. We can take joy in them as divine gifts that evoke gratitude and remind us of the goodness and joy of God. In these gifts we enjoy the Giver. If we know that God alone is our joy, we will be freed to use the good things of creation properly, that is, to sustain our lives and to share with others the bounty of creation so that they too may rejoice in God and that we may enjoy their joy in God. The circle of joy begun by the Creator spirals upward forever!

Remember! Burn it into your memory. Never forget it:

You now have—and always have had— everything you need for happiness.

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.

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.