Month: November 2012

doubting Jesus?

Was Jesus ever troubled by doubts

This is the question that’s been nagging at me for a little while now.

Don’t get me wrong. It’s not like I’ve been gripped by it.

It’s more of an on and off thing. You know, just when my mind wanders around the possibility of marrying two of my passions: (i) helping Christians be honest about doubt (so they can deal well with it), and (ii) thinking everything through with Jesus as my starting point — particularly, the concrete stories about him from the Gospels.

But it’s not exactly a straightforward question. And I’d be keen to hear if you have ideas about where to turn in the New Testament.

Because, on the one hand, the writer of the Letter to the Hebrews tells us that Jesus was tempted in every way as we are (only without tripping up into sin). And we see this explicitly in Jesus’ confrontation with Satan in the wilderness.

So it seems fair to imagine that Jesus did wrestle with doubt — at least occasionally.

And yet, on the other hand, the whole question of Jesus’ self-consciousness — and therefore of what it is that he could have had doubts about — is notoriously controversial.

For example, some scholars have pointed out that many of the categories we would usually use to frame our understanding of Jesus’ person and work weren’t available to him (or in all likelihood to his first followers). Or at least they weren’t available in the — usually creedal — form that came fully equipped with the sort of metaphysical baggage that often invites doubt for modern minds.

What I mean is, if Jesus didn’t — and possibly even couldn’t — think of himself as ‘fully God’, ‘possessing a divine nature’, or whatever, then how could he doubt that about himself?

But even though those kind of doubts (on par with some of the doubts we may harbour) weren’t really available to Jesus, perhaps others were.

In particular, I wonder what kind of thoroughly human path his developing sense of mission and vocation (and thus of identity) took throughout his life? What questions did Jesus have to wrestle with as he studied and reflected on the Scriptures, as he met with opposition and misunderstanding, even as he laboured in Joseph’s family business (as he no doubt did) while being nurtured on his mother’s stories about his supernatural origin?

If we do decide to walk down this path, then I wonder what light it might shed on moments like the temptation in the wilderness. Or Gethsemane.

On the face of it, Gethsemane isn’t easy to view in terms of doubt.

Hesitation? Definitely.

Fear? Almost certainly?

Desperation? Highly likely.

But doubt? I don’t know… Maybe?

And yet — here’s an extremely half-baked thought — as Jesus pleads with his Father, giving us a glimpse of the enormous cost of willingly walking the path of obedient sonship, maybe we’re in the presence of deep doubt. Something more existential than intellectual.

This is doubt, moreover, being confronted with honesty. Agonised and agonising honesty.

And ultimately it’s faith. For here, as often, doubt is not so much faith’s enemy as the very thing that stirs it up. As it stirred up the Lord to struggle in prayer — surrendering to his Father’s good, pleasing and perfect will and entrusting himself to him who judges justly…

And another even less well-baked thought follows hot on the heels of this one:

Could Jesus even at that moment have been wrestling titanically with the nameless doubts that also assail us? Being overwhelmed and dislocated — physically and spiritually — by them? So as to secure a blessing for us?

consumerism and idolatry (ii)

The link between consumerism and idolatry is topical. Earlier this week, James K. A. Smith posted some evidence confirming his ‘reading’ of shopping malls as cathedrals of consumerism.

So let me continue to share my collection of half-baked hunches about consumerism (I posted the first two HERE):

3. If we’re treating consumerism as idolatry because we’ve decided ahead of time that this is what it is, then I wonder whether we’re in danger of stretching the language of idolatry totally out of shape.

Sure, it may mean we can drape it over every sin. And doing so may even bring some of sin’s psycho-spiritual dynamics into focus — helping us zoom in on how we’re treating good things as God-things, as they say. But the cost is that we risk losing any contour-hugging specificity when we identify as idolatry things that never get spoken of that way in the Bible (like King David’s sinful dalliance with Bathsheba or the Jewish people’s hypocritical failure to obey the Law that Paul exposes in Romans 2).

If this is the game we want to play, then I feel like we’ve got to ask ourselves some hard questions about how much of a service it really does us.

4. If, however, there is something distinctive about consumerism that makes it fitting to identify it with idolatry — as Smith’s post suggests — then surely our starting point needs to be the conceptually and verbally related biblical equation: “greed … is idolatry” (Colossians 3.5).

The benefit of this is not simply that it’s biblical but also that it suggests that this is in fact a fruitful direction to (metaphorically?) stretch the language.

It may still leave me a little puzzled about which particular demonic power lurks behind the ‘idols’ of greed and consumerism — where more familiar forms of idolatry maybe don’t leave me guessing quite so much (see 1 Corinthians 10.18-22). But at least I’m reasonably confident this way of applying the language of idolatry does less violence to the biblical weave of the concept. Because it’s meant to stretch this way.

on making do as we’re passing through

Natalie and I have been road-tripping with our thirteen month old son for the last couple of weeks. We’ve been thoroughly blessed to have caught up with a remarkable number of dear friends and family.

But we’ve noticed more than ever before how our pattern of road-tripping is characterised by indulgence (of ourselves, and now our son) to compensate for the very real discomforts of the journey.

It seems like hard work trying to make sure we stay awake — and our child sleeps (or at least stays quiet) — at all the right times.

We’re forced to ‘make do’ with whatever goods and services are available wherever we find ourselves — no matter how average the coffee or how apparently unlikely the food is to appeal to a one year old.

But we get to be surprisingly indulged at the same time.

We’ve eaten far too many burgers. Our son has enjoyed his first single-serving sachets of sweetened yoghurt. And somehow we’ve managed to find some very decent coffee outside the major cities. All of us, including our son, seem to have put on weight!

And we get to experience some gratuitous freedoms too. For one thing, not only are we not doing any of the things we probably should be doing (cleaning the house, answering emails, etc) but we’re also not able to do any of that stuff.

As a result of this gift of time, we inevitably have our best conversations.

The whole experience has made us reflect on what it might be like for people who are always passing through by necessity — asylum seekers, migrants, temporary residents. Which is the experience the New Testament tells us should be the pattern for Christians too: we are aliens and exiles, according to the Apostle Peter.

People on such journeys are forced to ‘make do’ in much more extreme situations and discomfort all the time.

And yet perhaps that doesn’t have to mean that life is therefore reduced to a matter of mere survival and desperation (although even our road trip had moments of those!).

Here’s hoping our road trip has helped us appreciate a little better the complexities and compensations of passing through.

consumerism and idolatry (i)

It’s definitely beginning to feel a lot like Christmas. And that means not only is present-buying on the agenda. So too is the obligatory Christmas critique of consumerism.

While Christians aren’t alone in mounting the Christmas consumerist critique, it is something many of us like to indulge in. And given the way Wikipedia defines consumerism, it’s not hard to see why:

Consumerism is a social and economic order that encourages the purchase of goods and services in ever-greater amounts.

Certainly, a set of social and economic dynamics that make acquisitiveness part of the air we breathe — either by pandering to our existing anxieties or by eroding whatever sense of contentment we’ve managed to scrape together — seems ripe for critique.

But I’m not sure I want to go there. At least not just yet.

So I’d like your help thinking it through. In that spirit, let me share 10 thoughts about consumerism and idolatry — taken one or two at a time…

1. That consumerism is (a form of) idolatry is an equation so often made that it’s could be axiomatic. At least, that’s true in the Christian circles I’m familiar with. So I guess it’s either axiomatic or an unsubstantiated rumour that we’re hoping will be rendered more certain by constant repetition.

2. It’s worth pausing to ask why — or in what sense — we consider consumerism to be idolatry. Is it simply because we think that everything that can co-opt or, as James K.A. Smith would have it, ‘enlist’ us apart from the gospel is idolatry (whether it’s the nation or materialism or whatever)? Or is there something distinctive about the phenomenon of consumerism that merits our identification of it with idolatry?