Month: August 2011

how does God speak to us through Jesus? (part 2)

I’m still reading Hebrews and pondering how God speaks to us through Jesus.

What’s come home to me with some force — especially as I’ve reflected on Hebrews 8-10 — is the way the atonement functions as the premise for revelation in the book.

By this I mean that the question, “How does God reveal himself to us such that we’re brought to know him?” is answered first and foremost in Hebrews by an account of God’s achievement in the cross of Jesus:

For if the blood of goats and bulls, with the sprinkling of the ashes of a heifer, sanctifies those who have been defiled so that their flesh is purified, how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify our consciences from dead works to worship the living God. (Hebrews 9.13-14)

I find I have so much to say about this that the thoughts are jostling with each other to come tumbling out.

The trinitarian shape of the description of Christ’s atoning work is so beautiful — hinting at the integration of Jesus’ entire incarnate career with his priestly self-offering (assuming it’s not only the moment of crucifixion that’s carried out ‘through the eternal Spirit’).

As is the carefully nuanced rendering of the relationship between the old and new covenants captured in the ‘how much more’ — upholding the decisiveness of the cross without denying at least some reality to the relationship with God sustained through the sacrificial system.

But best of all is the broad charter given to the outcome of atonement: a full-orbed relationship with God, in which we know him in the way Israel always longed to. This means not only thorough cleansing such that we’re now confident to stand before the living God. But it opens out to worship and service!

get the syncretistic log out of your own eye…

I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve heard missionaries from various parts of the world talk about syncretism.

Syncretism involves a melding of Christianity often with traditional belief systems, such that what looks good and Christian turns out to be something quite different once you peel back the veneer.

It’s pretty much always a disaster — whether it’s folk Catholicism in Latin America, in which the pantheon of Roman Catholic saints simply gets laid over the traditional pantheon, or the kind of ‘Strategic Level Spiritual Warfare’ popular in some Pentecostal circles, that missionaries tell me closely parallels African spiritism.

The funny thing though is that it’s very easy to spot syncretism elsewhere. As even the two examples I’ve given show, it’s the kind of thing Westerners are accustomed to seeing outside the West.

It’s a cultural blindspot. One I’m fairly sure I share in.

Can you help me? Do you have any ideas about where a shallow Christian overlay is being wheeled out to ‘baptise’ cherished, non-Christian Western beliefs and values?

I have a few hunches. But would love to get a sense of what others reckon.

when atheism doesn’t go far enough

I’ve been reflecting on the way some of my atheist friends respond to key aspects of the Christian message. In particular, I’ve been struck by how they often don’t go far enough — stopping short at a response of gob-smacked disbelief.

Take the miracles in the Gospel narratives, for example. Recently, an atheist with whom I was reading Luke 8.22-28 (where Jesus astonishingly calms a storm) responded with something to the tune of ‘I have a hard time believing that stuff like this happened — or that it’s even possible!’

By contrast, contemporary Christians — not to mention the original witnesses and composers of the Gospel accounts — can seem credulous and faintly ridiculous for believing in such things so easily.

Likewise, many atheists object to what they see as an unjustifiable ‘human exceptionalism’ when the Bible says things like this about human beings (Psalm 8.5-8):

You have made them a little lower than God,
and crowned them with glory and honour.
You have given them dominion over the works of your hands;
you have put all things under their feet,
all sheep and oxen,
and also the beasts of the field,
the birds of the air, and the fish of the sea,
whatever passes along the paths of the seas.

Atheism sees in this a naive and over-inflated sense of human significance at best and immoral bigotry at worst.

But what’s fascinating about these apparent contrasts is that things aren’t quite that simple.

The atheist’s response, you see, is actually shared by Jesus’ followers in the first instance and the writer of the Psalm in the second.

They too are gob-smacked — at least initially.

Jesus’ followers ask, ‘Who then is this, that he commands even the winds and the water, and they obey him?’

And the Psalmist wonders out loud, ‘When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established; what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?’

The only difference is that an atheistic response stops short.

Where Jesus’ followers are drawn forward — edging beyond their initial shocked disbelief towards something more — atheism stops short.

The question is, What convinces Jesus’ followers take this tentative step? What moves them forward?

Or to put it around the other way, Why does the atheist only go this far? What stops them going further?

are you a victim of the Rush Effect?

As a rule, I reckon Australian police and crime dramas have a way to go to fully mature (making an exception for East West 101 of course).

Maybe it’s just me. But we seem to struggle to produce anything with the kind of grit and reality of Law and Order — and its various franchises — even as we shy away from the ridiculous-but-uber-cool stylishness of something like Life.

So, last week, when I caught the promo for the imminent season return of Rush, I couldn’t help but chuckle.

Rush always strikes me as overwrought.

Every episode I’ve seen features fairly pedestrian, run-of-the-mill urban Aussie crimes hyped up beyond all recognition.

My impression is that it’d be fairly typical to see something like a bag snatcher at Docklands being chased down by officers on foot — set to a dramatic, tension-filled soundtrack more appropriate if the fate of the entire world hung in the balance.

But it doesn’t.

So it’s just stupid.

And yet as full of scorn as I am for television like this, I have to admit that I often fall victim to the Rush Effect myself. I have a pronounced tendency to inflate everything that happens in my personal life to cosmic proportions.

So my weekly peak-hour commute across Melbourne (against the flow of traffic no less) becomes a titanic struggle, where everyone’s out to get me.

Or I get so wrapped up in my frustration with myself that I’m still pretty crap at soccer — even after a lifetime of playing it — that I often give in to the temptation to whinge and blame others (since it can’t possibly be my fault I’m not fitter than I am).

Sure, Paul tells us Christians are in a pitched battle against the devil and the spiritual forces of darkness in the heavenly places.

But come on. A bit of proportion wouldn’t go astray, would it?

I think I need to go and re-read Alexander Pope’s melodramatic mock-epic poem, The Rape of the Lock, for a dose of reality…

the Sermon on the Mount – anything but simply great advice

Great advice from one of history’s greatest moral teachers. The kind of thing that wins Jesus kudos and recognition from all around. Putting him up there with the Buddha and maybe one or two others.

That’s the essence of the Sermon on the Mount. Right?

Wrong.

I’m become increasingly convinced that there’s something much much more radical going on when Jesus gathers his rag-tag band of followers and sits down on the side of a hill to give them their marching orders.

More, it’s something that’s far from likely to win Jesus kudos and recognition. In fact, it’s more likely to stir up hostility and opposition. Leading people to question Jesus’ credentials (if not his sanity).

As I keep reading the Sermon on the Mount, it’s only confirming my initial impression that Jesus’ sense of his own utter decisiveness is the key to his message.

On the one hand, he presents himself as uniquely positioned to cut through the distortions and red tape that had grown up around God’s good law. His constant refrain — “You have heard it said… But truly I say to you…” — lays claim to an unprecedented authority: Jesus is claiming to give us privileged access to our truest and best humanity.

On the other hand, and as he does this, Jesus implicitly places himself in the kind of position a first century Jew would reserve for God alone.

Theologian Wolfhart Panneberg puts this into context in the story all four Gospels tell — climaxing in the resurrection (Jesus – God and Man, page 191):

“God’s divinity is revealed in Jesus of Nazareth insofar as the relationship to Jesus determines men’s ultimate destiny. It had been Jesus’ claim that survival or failure of the men who confronted him was decided on the basis of their relation to him … Through the resurrection this claim of Jesus was confirmed by God. Thus his relationship to Jesus reveals what a man is in God’s eyes. The ultimate unveiling in the coming judgment is decided in advance by the relationship of Jesus to men and their relationship to him.”

when the answer you give doesn’t answer the question!

No. I’m not talking about essays I wrote at College (although there may have been a couple that fitted in this category).

I’m talking about what Christians do when we invoke particular doctrines as the All Purpose Answer — the sovereignty of God and the Holy Spirit spring to mind (but they’re only the most common).

They function as conversation-closers. Problem is, they often don’t answer the question. They just relocate it.

Last week I asked some people: “How does Jesus transform and liberate us so that we can now please God?”

After not too many attempts, they hit on the ‘answer’ — he gives us the Holy Spirit!

Of course, this can’t possibly be wrong.

And it’s not. It just doesn’t get us quite as far as we imagine it does.

This became obvious when I pressed them: “How does having the Holy Spirit transform and liberate us so that we can now please God?”

Uhhhh…

That question is much harder to answer! But it’s only when we can answer it that we’ll be on our way to helping people experience lasting change and genuine freedom.

so … you still want to change the world, huh?

No doubt you’ve noticed that I’ve been slowly winding my way through a sort of sprawling review for James Davison Hunter’s fascinating book, To Change The World.

At times, it may have felt like I was cheerleading rather than reviewing the book.

And why not?

There’s so much to like about it:

For all that, though, some may have reservations. The call to give up on the project of world-changing by worldview formation and political action may sound a bit hasty. (Even if Hunter’s alternative isn’t so much inaction as seeking smaller-scale strategic cultural influence in pursuit of the common good.)

After reading the book, you may still want to change the world.

And, truth be told, so do I.

At least, I have my hesitations about Hunter’s positive proposal — although I continue to be impressed by his arguments for moving beyond mere politics and breaking down simplistic all-or-nothing and Win Hearts And Minds And You’ll Win The Culture approaches to effecting change.

In particular, I’m uncomfortable with the way he extrapolates from the incarnation of Christ to set the entire pattern for Christian cultural engagement.

On the one hand, I want to ask about where the incarnation takes Christ — ie. to the cross — and whether Hunter’s vision for winsome, affirming then critiquing cultural engagement is sufficiently cross-shaped. (Can we ever be sufficiently cross-shaped?)

On the other hand, I wonder whether he rushes too quickly from the utter singularity Jesus and his redemptive work to our task.

In other words, I want more affirmation and antithesis with the Christian longing to change the world. I want Hunter to show me how that longing is dead right. But how we manage to mangle it (and ourselves) by striving to realise it on our own terms rather than by looking to Jesus to fulfil it.

an alternative vision for engaging with culture as Christians

It’s almost time to wrap up my reflections on James Davison Hunter’s To Change The World.

Last time I posted on this, I outlined Hunter’s three defective ways of engaging with culture. But what alternative vision does Hunter propose?

In a nutshell: it’s “faithful presence within” the world.

Huh?

For Hunter the incarnation of Christ provides the template for Christian cultural engagement.

God stepped into our shoes, becoming one of us. And so Hunter suggests Christians should throw themselves into the cultures (and sub-cultures) we find ourselves in — yet without compromising the distinctive lifestyle we’re called to in faithfulness to Christ.

Unifying the many ways Hunter sees this being enacted is what he calls “a dialectic of affirmation and antithesis” (page 231).

It works like this:

First, because we begin with a basic conviction about the goodness of God’s creation, we are free seek whatever scattered traces of that can be found in any human institutions and practices.

Take the family for example. The many goods of family life — in all its inter- and intra-cultural variety — can be affirmed (and enjoyed) by Christians.

Then we can work towards exposing the idolatry of totalising these traces — ie. the idolatry of making them everything, looking to them above all else to satisfy and provide right order and peace.

This happens with the family when it is regarded as the prime good, something worth protecting even if it means exclusion and oppression for others. (The distance between this and the kind of situation that gives rise to inter-familial blood feuds is small to vanishing.)

As Hunter puts it, since “all human achievement is measured by the standards of the coming kingdom … Christians recognize that all social organizations exist as parodies of eschatological hope” (page 234).

But there’s a final step we must take:

Exposing the idolatry of our cultural practices and institutions isn’t about merely wagging our fingers or pumping our fists in triumph.

No. Hunter insists that faithful Christian presence within a culture must be creative. We’re to be constructive. Hopeful. Pointing others to the way the Lord Jesus actually delivers on the longings of every heart and culture…

how does God speak to us through Jesus?

I’ve been pondering this question since I read the majestic opening of the Epistle to the Hebrews today*:

“Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom he also created the worlds. He is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being, and he sustains all things by his powerful word. When he had made purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high, having become as much superior to angels as the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs.”

It’s not so much the contrast between how God spoke by the prophets and how he speaks through a Son that’s been occupying me. Although, that is important.

Rather, it’s the question of how it is even possible for a human being to be one through whom God speaks definitively.

I’m not just talking about how he might give us a broad hint about the nature of ultimate reality — e.g., that, at its heart, reality is about relationships of love and giving. Or how he can communicate some propositional truths about what God is like (as necessary as these are).

I’m talking about how it’s possible for Jesus to make God known with a depth, reality and clarity never before attained (and not since transcended). How it’s possible for him to draw us into a certain kind of relationship with this God.

However these questions must finally be answered, I’m sure it has something to do with the fact that Jesus is the singular and representative human being — and so God’s image-bearer par excellence: the heir-appointee of the universe (of whom Psalm 8 spoke) and “the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being”.

At the same time, it must also have something to do with his inclusion in the divine identity. For, according to this letter, Jesus somehow shares in God’s distinctive activities of creating and sustaining or ‘bearing’ — ie. upholding and governing — all things.

And all of this is tangled up with what Jesus has done — both making purification for sin as the ultimate priest and sitting at God’s right hand as the ever-living risen and ascended king…

(The reason I’m reading Hebrews and thinking about how God speaks has a lot to do with the fact that Dan just launched a series on this. But it also has something to do with the fact that my preparation for teaching the Sermon on the Mount keeps bringing me up against how significant Jesus seems to find the story God narrates in the Old Testament.)

the Sermon on the Mount – anything but moral common sense

We’ve begun working our way through Jesus’ famous Sermon on the Mount on campus at La Trobe. And I’m having a ball!

This week we tuned in to Matthew 5.13-20, exploring what Jesus might say to the university’s Secular Society club — in conversation with some of its members.

One of the guys made a comment that’s been rattling around my head the last couple of days.

He suggested that the ethic Jesus commends in the Sermon — the lifestyle of faithful witness and positive influence captured by the comparisons with salt and light — was little more than moral common sense.

For him, Jesus simply seems to be on about the kind of thing both religious and non-religious people strive after when they’re at their best.

There are lots of things that could be said about this. But what intrigues me most about this suggestion is that Jesus keeps doing something in the Sermon on the Mount that’s anything but common sense — and that I’m sure many would find morally objectionable.

What does Jesus keep doing?

He keeps presenting himself — and thus how people respond to him — as decisive.

The portrait of the members of God’s kingdom painted in the beatitudes is crowned with Jesus’ insistence that “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you on my account“.

And the reason he gives is even more outrageous — explicitly equating Jesus’ disciples with the prophets who spoke for Israel’s God, and thus implicitly equating himself with Israel’s God:

“Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”

Something similar could be said of his programmatic claim to fulfil the law and the prophets — not abolishing the Old Testament’s moral code, or the hopes and promises stitched into it, but perfectly and representatively embodying its deepest and widest intention.

That one man, and thus what you and I make of this one man, could be so important strikes me as anything but moral common sense. Unless Jesus is who he claims to be, this is not only arrogant but borderline psychotic!