Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Like Pebbles Into the Deep

I read this today in How to Survive a Shipwreck by Jonathan Martin:
“The conversion moment in us is when we see from a new perspective,” Sister Anne said.  “Sometimes all we can see is that this is not working for us anymore.  That is all you can see, until you are ready to see from that new perspective.”  Everything she asked me to do that week was about perspective.  To walk along the shore and pick up small rocks, allowing them to become stand-ins for all my troubles – and then fling them into the expanse of the ocean.  As I did, I grasped their smallness; I heard the small plunk against the backdrop of the roar of the waves. (p 81).
I really like this.  I love the imagery.  I love that Sister Anne’s instructions expand beyond sheer will power and positive thinking to include hands and feet.  This is not to minimize or demean the life of the mind.  It’s just to say that we aren't brains without bodies or bodies without brains.  I can't think my way out of my troubles.  I can, however, take a pebble and throw it into the sea.  And maybe the mind follows.

"But sins and troubles are not pebbles" says Mike's brain.  "They are not a thing that you simply discard like an old newspaper".  

True enough.  And yet...

Walk along the beach.  Feel the sand in between your toes.  Is it cool or hot?  Breathe deep and smell the salt of the ocean until you can almost taste it.  Hear the sound of the waves.  See a small stone and pick it up.  Roll it around in your fingers. Close your eyes and envision this small stone as a sacrament of your troubles.  Recognize that this little piece of trouble is not you.  It does not define you.  Look up and out into the ocean. Take that small stone and throw it into the watery abyss.  Feel it leave your hand.  Watch it sail into the deep expanse of the ocean.

Imagine this expanse as the love of God. Watch that tiny sacrament of your troubles drown in the depths of this love.  Do you believe?  Imagine all that fear and suffering, all my failures, my will to be less than that to which I'm called, all of it swallowed up.  Death where is your victory?!  Do you believe?  The worst sins of humanity, all things resurrected to the goodness from which they came, redeemed in the depths of this fierce and inexorable tranquility.  Oh my soul, do you believe?

In the words of St. Isaac the Syrian:

“As a handful of sand thrown into the ocean, so are the sins of all flesh as compared with the mind of God.”

Sunday, May 21, 2017

The "Confession" of Philippians 2: Salvation or "Forced Submission"?

"Every knee should bend.  In heaven and on earth and under the earth."
"Every tongue should confess."

What does this mean?

     Philippians 2:5-12 (NRSV)
5   Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
6   who, though he was in the form of God,
     did not regard equality with God
     as something to be exploited,
7   but emptied himself,
     taking the form of a slave,
     being born in human likeness.
     And being found in human form,
8   he humbled himself
     and became obedient to the point of death—
     even death on a cross.
9   Therefore God also highly exalted him
     and gave him the name
     that is above every name,
10 so that at the name of Jesus
     every knee should bend,
     in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
11 and every tongue should confess
     that Jesus Christ is Lord,
     to the glory of God the Father.

"Every knee should bend.  In heaven and on earth and under the earth."
"Every tongue should confess."

Every.  As in all people.  Each and every one.

Now nearly everyone recognizes that this has universal(ist) implications.  But for whatever reason, (usually because of a priori commitments to anything other than universal salvation) it is assumed that the surface meaning simply cannot be the real meaning and that there must be another way to read it. 

It is perfectly fair to assert that the "plain meaning" is not necessarily the right one.  I fully agree.  In and of itself, the assertion that we need to proceed with caution in how we determine the "plain meaning" is mostly uncontroversial.  But the thing is, neither does the mere assertion that "plain readings" aren't necessarily true prove that any one particular "plain reading" is false.  The specifics cannot be dismissed by an appeal to generalities.  

So let us look at some of these possible "deeper meanings" so that they can be accepted or rejected on the basis of their own merits apart from a priori commitments.  What are some of the ways that these "deeper meanings" avoid the universalist implications?

A few possibilities:
  1. This is hyperbolic rhetoric.  It isn't intended to factually relay a literal-future-event in newspaper-like objective detail.  Rather, it's royal language meant to communicate the authority and power of Jesus.  To him and him alone does the knee bow.  Christ is the focus here, not the literal quantity of knees that bow or the spiritual states of those doing the confessing.  It is going to far to assert otherwise.  Call this the hyperbolic explanation.
  2. It's theologically connecting the worship of Jesus with the worship of the God of Israel.  Similar to #1, the imagery of knees bowing and tongues confessing is intended to shine the spotlight on the person of Christ in ways that are usually reserved for God alone.  Again, it's not a numeric count of the worshipers.  Call this the trinitarian explanation.
  3. "Every" really means "every kind".  No different than the "all" really means "all kinds" argument.  Each and every individual is not the focus.  Call this the non-individualistic explanation.
  4. The confession and bowing of the knee will include each and every person who ever lived -whether in heaven, on earth, or under the earth - but it will not happen voluntarily in genuine love, gratitude, wonder, and worship.  What is called confession will actually be a "forced submission"... a compelled bowing of the knee done in hatred, terror, or both.   It's something similar to an earthly king who defeats his foes, glories in his power and victory & in the humiliation of his enemies, and then lops all of their heads off.  Call this the forced submission explanation.
  5. We don't know what it means exactly, but we have clear evidence elsewhere in the Bible and/or in the hermeneutical history of the church that it simply cannot mean that the confession and knee-bending is tied to salvation.  Therefore, we need not even really address the "plain reading".  Call this the presuppositional agnostic explanation.
Each of these has problems and (generally speaking) are considered viable mostly because of previous theological commitments to anything other than universal salvation.

But from what I've seen, #4 is the most frequently used.

Besides a royal and omnipotent "forced confession" not making much sense to me in the context of the verses prior, there are other reasons to reject this.

Gregory MacDonald (pseudonym of Dr. Robin Parry) addresses this "forced submission" explanation in The Evangelical Universalist (2nd edition):
Second, the terminology Paul uses is suggestive of salvation rather than forced submission.  All creatures confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.  Elsewhere in Paul's letters when he speaks of confessing Jesus as Lord it is always in a context of salvation.  No one can say that "Jesus is Lord" except by the Holy Spirit (1 Cor 12:3).  If someone confesses with their mouth and believes in the heart that Jesus is Lord, then they will be saved (Rom 10:9).  There are no examples in Paul of an involuntary confession of Christ's Lordship. (p 99-100)
Confession is always grounded in a context of salvation, not punishment or damnation.

Saturday, May 20, 2017

What is it to "belong" to Christ? (1 Cor 15:22-24)

During the Q&A portion of the 3rd session of the Universal Salvation and Christian Theology class that I'm taking online at The School of Peace Theology (this was several Saturdays ago - 4/21), I had the opportunity to ask Dr. Parry a question about 1 Corinthians 15:23.  I'd like to spend a few minutes tossing around a few ideas that didn't have a chance to fully develop in the immediate context of the Q&A.

Here are the verses:
For just as in Adam all die, so also in Christ all will be made alive.  But each in his own order: Christ, the firstfruits; then when Christ comes, those who belong to him.  Then comes the end, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father, when he has brought to an end all rule and all authority and power.  (1 Corinthians 15:22-24 NET)
That whole “then when Christ comes, those who belong to him” part.  That's the part that I was curious about.

Specifically, what is "belonging"?  What does it mean to "belong" to Christ?

Dr. Parry's starting point (though not his settled ending point) was that those who “belong” to Christ are the church - those who have “accepted Jesus in faith”.  Belonging as such is an act of volition, a conscious choice that an individual makes herself.  She knows that she's making it, and if she doesn't know that she has made it then she hasn't made it.  Nobody can make this decision for her, and she cannot ultimately make it for anyone else.  There can be no exceptions with a strict exclusivism, not for children who perish too young to “accept Jesus”, the mentally disabled, or those who "never heard".  The inherent nature of "belonging" forbids it.  And that brings to attention the general idea that this exclusivist criteria must be met before the moment of physical death.  Within the context of universal salvation however (the topic of the class), the implication is that there are subsequent opportunities to "accept Jesus" after that moment in time "when Christ comes" - those who don't "belong" at this point may still yet "belong".  After all, a major theme of 1 Cor 15 is that Jesus has defeated death, so a soul's disposition towards God at an arbitrary moment in time is not given the final word over human history.  Nevertheless, belonging in the relevant sense is limited to those who have "accepted Jesus".  I'll call this the "exclusivist" definition of "belonging".

But what about those who, due to the time and place that they lived and died, never even heard of Jesus?  Those faithful Jews who, though "faithful", didn't "believe in Jesus"?  What of those whose hearts are inclined towards God and who love others yet don't possess the "proper vocabulary" or whose circumstances didn't permit a "proper" Christian faith (the majority of the human race)?  C.S. Lewis elucidates this well in Chapter 15 of The Last Battle in the character of Emeth:

But the Glorious One bent down his golden head and touched my forehead with his tongue and said, Son, thou art welcome. But I said, Alas Lord, I am no son of thine but the servant of Tash. He answered, Child, all the service thou hast done to Tash, I account as service done to me. Then by reasons of my great desire for wisdom and understanding, I overcame my fear and questioned the Glorious One and said, Lord, is it then true, as the Ape said, that thou and Tash are one? The Lion growled so that the earth shook (but his wrath was not against me) and said, It is false. Not because he and I are one, but because we are opposites, I take to me the services which thou hast done to him. For I and he are of such different kinds that no service which is vile can be done to me, and none which is not vile can be done to him. Therefore if any man swear by Tash and keep his oath for the oath’s sake, it is by me that he has truly sworn, though he know it not, and it is I who reward him.
By this criteria, we would say that Emeth belonged to Aslan prior to his awareness.  I'll call this the "inclusivist" definition of "belonging".

Or does belonging transcend any sort of moral assent or our “acceptance” of it all together?  Might we belong to Christ regardless of our awareness or even the "good intentions" of Emeth?   It isn't so much about whether a conscious faith in Jesus is “necessary” or not - "necessity" being characterized by the idea that God is looking for a minimum level of “faith” in order to grant "belonging".  It's that our belonging might entirely transcend any conscious awareness of it as such.  That we might all find ourselves caught up in "belonging to Christ" when that day comes, finding ourselves home in such a way that some of us might have known and anticipated while others of us might not.  Either way human knowledge and consent is simply not the point (though it's not to say that a belonging can be forever separated from the experience of it as such).  This idea of belonging ultimately rests on the premise that the original goodness of God, the goodness from which all things have come and to which all things are called, is irrevocable and fundamentally true regardless of our "acceptance" of it.  This is not to say that a "conscious faith", the type envisioned in the "exclusivist" category above, is excluded or minimized or is anything other than our telos.  It's just to say that while "faith" might be the means by which we perceive and participate in our belonging, "faith" is not what first originates that belonging.  It gets tricky I guess, but the idea is that belonging in the sense here is prior to "faith" - that belonging actually creates and sustains faith.  It recognizes that God works deep and mysteriously within the human person, well below the surface of awareness, conscious choice, and the time/place in which we were born.  In other words, we do and will "belong" and ultimately our experience will catch up to this fundamental fact.  Call this the "absolute" definition of "belonging".

Or we might look at it as Henri Nouwen does in The Return Of The Prodigal Son:
At issue here is the question: "To whom do I belong?  To God or to the world?"  Many of the daily preoccupations suggest that I belong more to the world than to God.  A little criticism makes me angry, and a little rejection makes me depressed.  A little praise raises my spirits, and a little success excites me.  It takes me very little to raise me up or thrust me down.  Often I am like a small boat on the ocean, completely at the mercy of its waves.  All the time and energy I spend in keeping some kind of balance and preventing myself from being tipped over and drowning shows that my life is mostly a struggle for survival: not a holy struggle, but an anxious struggle resulting from the mistaken idea that it is the world that defines me. (p 42)
So in this case, my “belonging” is understood in terms of that which existentially defines me.  What religion a person belongs to, what she professes to believe, what sacraments one has partaken of, or what "sinner's prayers" one has prayed are largely irrelevant.  Belonging, in this case, is a matter of the soul's home and the reality in which a person participates.  It isn't all together opposed to the exclusivist/inclusivist characterizations above (though it has inclusivist overtones), but it is distinct in some ways.  It is primarily about our makeup, our state of being, our "ontology" and isn't concerned with exclusivism/inclusivism according to the way that the terms are generally used.  Call this the "ontological" definition of "belonging".

Each of these has it's own set of questions and complexities, but a universalist can be fine with any of these definitions in a way that is thoroughly Christian.  They aren't necessarily opposed to one another and may even represent a sort of progression - with a consciously understood and ontologically mature "faith" being the end toward which God mysteriously calls and forms us.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Reflecting on ‘The Love That Matters’ by Charles Featherstone (8) Mystical Moments

This is the 8th in a series of posts reflecting on The Love That Matters by Charles Featherstone.  1st post here.


Some Christians (or adherents to any religion, really) may think that mystical experiences (to the degree that we believe in them at all) are necessarily confined to their faith.  A mystical experience within another faith must necessarily be coming from the devil.  To believe otherwise would be to discredit the exclusivity and rightness of their own faith. 

Admittedly, I struggle with a “disenchanted” faith.  But, I’m not one of those people. 

Charles had three (what I would call) mystical experiences.  All while practicing Islam. 

The 1st:
Sometime during my second prostration – when I bent down to touch my head to the ground, to “grovel before God,” as a future employer would put it – something like a massive spark of electricity hit me right smack in the middle of my head.  Everything was suddenly bright, and blue, and I was breathless.  And exhausted. 
And the words appeared, fully formed in my head: You do not need to be so angry.
They weren’t my words.  I hadn’t thought them.  They came from outside of me.  I had to stop praying and catch my breath.  I rolled over on my back.  What had just happened?  Had God just spoken to me?
 There was no question in my mind.  And no doubt whatsoever.  God had spoken to me.  God had reached inside, put his thought in my head, this thought that wasn’t mine and that I needed so much to hear, to feel, to become a part of me.  It was a tiny moment – it happened in an instant – and yet it was utterly overwhelming.  It engulfed me from the inside, left me gasping and in shock.  It was as if I’d ceased to be an individual human being, ceased to be anything other than an appendage of the infinite. (p 97-98, bold mine)
The 2nd:
Unbidden, and unasked for, God was in my head and body.  Again.  For a moment so brief I’m not sure it could be measured.  And yet so overwhelming it seemed as if the world had, in the moment, stopped.  Words formed: Everything is going exactly as it should be.  Even though they were inside my head, they were not my words.  Not my thoughts. (p 135, bold mine)
And the 3rd:
And then, as had happened twice before in my life, there were words in my head.  Words I knew were not mine.  My love is all that matters.
 But this time there was no electric shock.  Nothing turned blue.  No breathlessness, no halted prayers.  Just these words, gently inhabiting me, words given to me – spoken but not spoken – in the midst of death, terror, and destruction.  In the midst of the worst thing that I and everyone else standing there beneath the fire and smoke had ever experienced.  My love is all that matters. (p 178, bold mine)

You do not need to be so angry.

Everything is going exactly as it should be.

My love is all that matters.

There is nothing particularly special about the words themselves.  They are not complicated or inaccessibly poetic.  They do not reveal some profound wisdom hidden from the foundation of the world, words that had never before been uttered.  Anyone could have spoken these same words.  But for Charles they were charged with life.  They were words for him in that moment, and for him alone.

My thoughts drift to the gifted white stone of Revelation 2, a stone inscribed with a name known only to the one who receives it.  Just a stone with a name?  I imagine it being a name that cuts deep in its healing and profundity, accounting for all things in my existence.  I can’t even imagine what this name would be.  God can speak this name.  That I believe. 

So it’s about the words, sure.  But it’s also more.  It’s the immanence of the divine, the temporary withdrawing of the veil of separation.  A different kind of knowing that is pure gift.

There’s a big part of me that reads these accounts and responds just like his (at the time) girlfriend, Jennifer.
She looked at me with a mixture of awe and disbelief.  “I’m jealous,” she said. (p 98)
But there’s also a part of me that isn’t so sure about that at all.  Do I really want my life interrupted?

Back to 1st post

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Reflecting on ‘The Love That Matters’ by Charles Featherstone (7) A Muslim’s Take on "Faith vs. Works"

This is the 7th in a series of posts reflecting on The Love That Matters by Charles Featherstone.  1st post here.

Islam is a religion of deeds and actions, and there is no great argument among Muslims about the distinction between faith and practice, at least not among the Sunnis I worshiped with.  I had always found the Protestant arguments about faith and works to be both smug and pointless, especially since the formulation most Protestants used – saved by faith in grace apart from works – always seemed to make the faith that saves the believer’s faith.  If I’m saved by my faith in God, then I’m saved by something I do, and not by God’s action.  Isn’t that faith a work in and of itself?  It certainly seemed that way to me.  (p 103)
There is no need to be overly sophisticated in his observations.  No need to obscure things through fancy theological words & concepts.  Despite Christian assertions that “faith” and “works” are opposed to one another, Charles sees Christian “faith” functioning as a type of “work”.

Another way to put it might be to say that it's all just wordplay.  That is, the debate identifies (or perhaps it's more accurate to say "creates"?) a fundamental problem that can best articulated in the form of a dichotomy between "faith" and "works", and then purports to resolve the problem.  From Charles' standpoint as a Muslim, this is just nonsense.  It doesn't really do either.  Later Lutheran Charles might approach these questions in a different way.  Perhaps radically different.

But that doesn't distract from the fact that his questions here are very basic and very important?

Hidden here, perhaps, is the fundamental question of "what is faith"?  Is it a kind of "earning"?  A kind of "mental work"?  Is it "trust"?  Is the object of faith only trustworthy if I believe that they are trustworthy?  Believe what, exactly?  And if that's the case, are they really even trustworthy?  After all, am I finally worthy of trust or "faithful" to my daughter if she believes me to be so?  Am I finally bound by her conscious thoughts and level of certainty about my trustworthiness?  Whose "faith" are we talking about anyways?  

There is a degree of overfamiliarity with these concepts, particularly within Protestantism.  Speaking of faith in these ways makes it all seem like a "work".  A sort of game.  Or a math equation.  Things seem too formulaic.  Or like an economic transaction where "faith" is a sort of currency.  Faith becomes a means of earning some end rather than a means of participating and manifesting that end.  Some abstract sort of thing (primarily a set of beliefs or sacramental participation) that a person has to have to get on God's good side.  It's hard for me to articulate.

So good observations, Charles.  The semantic content of "faith" within the Christian narrative has the potential to really get things off track depending on the context that it's placed within and the problem that it purports to solve.

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