Tag Archives: Pluralism

“Jesus is Lord” or “Caesar is Lord” – A Decision for All Times

In the previous post, I addressed the subject of truth and power and lamented the ascendency of the post-modern philosophy that asserts “politics is everything.” Today I want to address the subject of politics and religious truth. We should not be surprised that for states, with their kings, emperors, senators, and governors, “politics is everything.” States view religion and every other aspect of social life as subordinate to their ends of survival, wealth, unity, power, and stability. There has never been and their never will be a state that is wholly subordinate to a religion and its end. But there have been many religions whose purpose is to serve the ends of the state. All warrior, ethnic, and state religions either deify the state or make the king the voice of god on earth. Worship of the state gods looks to one end, the welfare of the state as understood by the state. From the state’s perspective, religious truth must be subordinated to political power.

Jesus Christ demanded that people direct their highest loyalty to God and subordinate all other ends to that end. He proclaimed God’s judgment on the powers and authorities that claimed divine status or in any way refused to submit themselves to God. And the “powers” and “rulers of this world” killed him for preaching such political heresy. Some theologians have argued that Jesus was a political revolutionary. This thesis is largely false because Jesus was not attempting to establish a worldly rival to Rome, but it contains an element of truth, that is, that Jesus challenged the religious foundation of any state’s claim to possess divine authority. Hence Christianity was born not as a warrior, ethnic, or state religion, and it is ill suited to serve these purposes. It refuses to serve the interests of any power other than God. It proclaims the same “truth” to any and all, no matter where or under what conditions. A “Christianity” that on principle or merely in fact serves the ends of state is a heresy.

Modern western states differ in many respects from ancient tribal and ethnic states and empires. Because of 2000 years of Christian influence they allow more individual freedom and are more humane in punishment for crimes than ancient nations were. But modern western states, the United States of American included, pursue ends that states have always pursued: survival, wealth, unity, power, and stability. And Christianity can no more allow itself to be subservient to the ends of modern western states that it could to the ends of the Roman Empire. And modern western states are no more at peace with a defiant Christianity than ancient Rome was. Today I see two areas where the interests of the modern western state and the interests of true Christianity are at odds: (1) Christianity’s moral teachings, and (2) Christianity’s claims that Jesus Christ is the only Savior (Acts 4:12) and that he is the “true God and eternal life” (1 John 5:20).

I have addressed many times on this blog society’s (and increasingly the state’s) demand that the church tone down and compromise its strict moral teachings. The state has concluded that it must tolerate—and even celebrate—behaviors that it once suppressed. Society, so the reasoning goes, has come to a consensus that attempting to suppress these behaviors would cause more social unrest than allowing them to be practiced. Hence when Christians continue to preach against these now accepted behaviors, they are viewed by society and the state as disturbers of the peace and sowers of division. The state wants a compliant religion to cooperate with its goals of unity, peace, and stability. And some denominations have changed their moral teachings so that they fall into line with the state’s ends. But we must ask them a hard question: Are you not as faithless as a church in the Roman Empire would have been had it replaced the Christian confession “Jesus is Lord” with political creed “Caesar is Lord”?

A second way the state wants Christianity to conform to its ends concerns the need to maintain peace among different religious communities. States have always viewed religion as a powerful force that is potentially subversive, and that force has to be dealt with by cooptation, suppression, or neutralization.  Modern western societies find themselves in an increasingly global community in which nation states have become highly interdependent. In relating to states with majority Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, Jewish, and other religious populations, the historically majority Christian states of the west wish to play down religious differences. Hence they have developed a diplomatic language designed to highlight only common interests and values. Sometimes western diplomatic talk implies or explicitly states that all religions have at their core the same truth, that is, such humanistic values as peace, respect for human dignity, reverence for life, and freedom. By whatever name(s) they call God(s) and however they understand God(s) otherwise, God’s only relevant function is to support politically useful humanistic values. States don’t seek the truth about God or God’s will. They never have. They never will. All rhetoric about the wholly positive nature of the religions of other nations is crafted solely to serve the national interests of the state as it relates to those nations.

But pluralism is not merely a global phenomenon. Modern western states, mainly through immigration policies designed to promote their economic interests or foreign policy goals, have allowed themselves to become religiously diverse within their nations. These nations want these different religious communities within their borders to get along, not for religious reasons but for political ones. And they employ the same rhetoric at home that they use in international relations, that is, that all religions worship the same God and share the same humanistic values. Proselyting and debating adherents of other religions is discouraged and often condemned as hateful. The underlying assumption of calls to conversion and debate is that one religion might be true and others false, one good and the others bad, one a way to salvation and the others not. This assumption is criticized not so much for being false as for its “arrogance.” Christianity, as the traditional and majority religion in the United States and other western countries, has been for many decades under great pressure to withdraw, or at least suppress, its exclusivist claims. And the same denominations that changed their moral teachings to fall in line with the state’s goals also changed their confessional statements so that they renounce proselytism and the exclusive claims about Jesus Christ found in Scripture. In doing this, have they not allowed themselves to be coopted to serve the state rather than Jesus Christ? The church has always been and always will be faced with a choice between two confessions: “Jesus is Lord” or “Caesar is Lord.”

Ron Highfield

Amazon Author Page:

https://www.amazon.com/author/ron.highfield

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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 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…