Monday, June 26, 2006

(A Short) Christian Appreciation of Buddhism

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While I am thoroughly a Christian (perhaps not always orthodox, but I'm always a dox of some sort), I do enjoy studying other religions, including Buddhism. It is perhaps my favorite of other religious movements because it reminds me of my own beloved Protestantism. Like Luther and Calvin, the Buddha sought a middle way in Hinduism. He rejected certain aspects of Hinduism and affirmed others. Granted, there are many differences in these reformers, but there are some striking similarities. I'll save that for another post. Today I want to focus on a short appreciation of Buddhism.

Buddhism and Christianity share many similarities. Granted, I cannot speak authoritatively for both, but I can appreciate Buddhism as a Christian. The Buddha, like Jesus, taught self control. The body is something to be mastered, not something that the world would have master control over. Both religions, that is assuming Buddhism as religious thinking, not simply philosophical thinking, taught (after their founders) that there is more to this world than the simple, empirical, and often painful existence. In other words, there is a metaphysic of sorts. For the Christian, that metaphysic is the narrative of the Creator God who redeems the creation through Jesus. For the Buddhist, that metaphysic is the knowledge of one's place in the universe - and how to set oneself free from this ever-changing world. While it may be argued that both teachings support escapism (i.e. don't worry about this life because there's something better waiting for you after death), I think the real understanding is appreciating the metaphysic as grounded in earthly life. What do I mean? While the hereafter is important, and deserving of consideration, the here-and-now demands our attention.

The devout Buddhist learns how to train his / her mind in ways that Westerners often completely miss. I'm one of them. I wish I could train my brain to enter a zen-like state after only a few minutes. I wish I could learn the "empty" brain exercises. I wish I could harness my thoughts and feelings in the same way that the Buddhist monk is often able to. Jesus' own teaching isn't that far from this. Jesus often spent much time alone, in the desert, contemplating, praying, and fasting. As an aesthetic, Jesus trained his mind to be alone with God. There is much to learn from this, and much to be appreciated in the Buddhist.

What I find the most intreguing of Buddhist teaching is the release from samsara, or the eternal cycle of life. This cycle encapsulates the dharma and karma that a being accumulates in multiple lives. This is no simple doctrine of reincarnation; rather it is a cycle of pain - a cycle of death, if you will. This cycle is broken only with buddha (or, literally, "enlightenment"). The knowledge of past lives and future lives, coupled with supreme knowledge, allows the individual to die into nirvana, or eternal nothingness. This nothingness is peace, it is eternal bliss in the void. It is the supreme version of unconsciousness. While I don't pretend to understand samsara, I am interested in studying it. I think it can lead to a better, even deeper, understanding of what I affirm as a Christian - that the life hereafter doesn't repeat - that this is it, this is our time to shine as the children of God - that we need to make the best of this life - and that we can hope for eternal presence with God. How can understanding the Buddhist help me in my Christian walk? There is always a place for understanding, for contemplation, for entertaining new ideas, for teasing out radical new thoughts. And, maybe, in that moment of enlightenment, I'll figure out what this life really means.


Friday, June 23, 2006

N.T. Wright and the Historical Jesus

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"...rigorous history (i.e. open-ended investigation of actual events in first-century Palestine) and rigorous theology (i.e. open-ended investigation of what the word "god," and hence the adjective "divine," might actually refer to) belong together, and never more so than in discussion of Jesus. If this means that we end up needing a new metaphysic, so be it. It would be pleasant if, for once, the historians and the theologians could set the agenda for the philosophers, instead of vice versa."

-- N.T. Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God.

N.T. Wright is, arguably, one of the great living New Testament / theology scholars. His breadth of knowledge is absolutely amazing. And, in my humble opinion, he is one of the few who gracefully move between the fields of New Testment scholarship and academic theology. In other words, he does what we all should do - use both fields to the betterment of the Church. Unlike Francis Watson, who struggles to hold the two together, N.T. Wright writes lucidly in both spheres.

Wright is at his best in historical Jesus investigations. The above quote gives an idea of how he tries to mediate the position between the Jesus of history and the Jesus of faith. His critique of some of the great historical Jesus experts, A. Schweitzer and R. Bultmann, is sharp and insightful. Wright understands that reason tends to side on either the faith or the historical side of the argument. But, like the good Anglican, Wright seeks the via media, or the middle way.

Now, let me be honest: I'm no N.T. Wright expert. But, if I understand his argument correctly, I believe his point is that we Christians can maintain our integrity and intellectual authenticity in affirming the Jesus of faith and the Jesus of history. This is appealing for obvious reasons. The Jesus of faith without the Jesus of history is not only ungrounded, but irresponsible. Wright is right (pun intended) - the historical Jesus makes the Jesus of faith alive, fresh in our minds. And, this is a lot more radical of a thought, the Jesus of history cannot be separated from the Jesus of faith. In some sense, we must have "faith" that any figure existed in history - simply because we haven't met him/her. But that aside, the Jesus of history was a man who inspired his disciples and followers to have faith in him. What was it about the Jesus of history that caused his followers to continue a movement that has lasted for two-thousand years? I think you get my point...

I recommend Wright's analysis of Christian origins. He has the amazing ability to grapple with many differing arguments, all the while offering an insightful way to walk the via media. Though I'm no Wright expert, you can bet that I'll be at my alma mater next year when he is on lecture tour. I can't wait.

Thursday, June 22, 2006

Nietzsche and Eternal Return

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"The alternatives of creating or dying off remind one of Nietzsche's remarks about life and the Will to Power. Nothing can remain stable. If a living thing does not increase, it must decrease. There is no such thing as the Will to Live. What is alive does not need to strive for life. What is not alive cannot strive at all.

In order to create, man must be willing to face near destruction, to let go of everything he has. Only by doing this is it possible for something new to come into being, for somthing to be created. Without destruction or near destruction there can be no creation."

--Joan Stambaugh, Nietzsche's Thought of Eternal Return, 53.

Where to begin with Nietzsche's concept of time? Of what use is Nietzsche's concept of eternal return? I'm reminded of a t-shirt that has this picture of Nietzsche in one corner with the quote, "God is dead." In the bottom right corner is an image of God with the quote, "Nietzsche is dead." Ah, the irony. Anyway, in Nietzsche's diluted universe, there was no such thing as death. That's right, Nietzsche is still alive, somewhere, forever. This moment is here, forever. There is no "past" per se and no "future" per se, but only the now in existence. We have lived such a world forever, and will continue to live in this world forever. In other words, you have read this posting for all time, and you will continue to read it forever (now, that's a scary thought...).

Now, besides this unempirical, flamboyant, and downright arrogant view of "reality," maybe Nietzsche was on to something. What do I mean? Well, reading Nietzsche, if it doesn't totally depress you, will open your mind to limitless things. We take for granted this thing called "time." We think on a horizontal plane. Nietzsche takes this horizontal plane, spits in its face, and throws it in the trash. Nietzsche is looking for no mere metaphysical conception of reality, but rather the reality behind reality. He throws out the normal understanding of time for the metareality of nothingness. The abyss is time - it is nothing and it amounts to nothing.

That's where the Will to Power comes in. The only thing we can do in this life, now and forever, is to assert our will over the universe. The ubermensch is he who understands this sad fact - that the only coping mechanism in the universe is to assert one's own will. Pretty depressing stuff, I'd say. I can't even make it outside to exercise, muchless assert my will over the universe.

Now, what does this have to do with Christian theology? Or, more importantly, what does theology have to learn from Nietzsche? While the rantings of Nietzsche are often too vague to comprehend, I think there is something to be learned in his method. A classically trained philologist, Nietzsche sought to perfect his method of getting at the root of things. He tried to take nothing for granted. A "rugged individualist," Nietzsche tried to be as intellectually honest as possible. He firmly believed that he was able to experience reality without dillution (whether he did or not is open to debate!). He was willing to take whatever steps necessary to arrive at the "truth."

In this way, I think it's imperative for Christian thinkers to take risks, to take whatever steps are necessary to arrive at the "truth." Nietzsche can teach us to be honest with ourselves and others. While he's certainly not the model for Christian understanding, there is definately something to learn from his method. I think Christian thinkers should study Nietzsche, even at the risk of becoming severely depressed!

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Myth and the Garden of Eden

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"...If we still had to believe that Adam and Eve were the first man and woman on earth, the whole story would be hopelessly discredited...And for the ordinary person to call something a myth is simply to say that it is not true...[Adam and Eve] are real, not because they were actual people, but because they tell us something profoundly true about ourselves. After all, Adam is just the Hebrew for Man with a capital M. He's all of us. The Genesis story simply holds up a mirror to life, so that we can see ourselves in it."

--Bishop of Woolwich, John A.T. Robinson, But That I Can't Believe!, 38-39.

To non-specialists, the term "myth" carries a negative meaning: something that is told (and re-told), but did not "actually" occur. The word "myth" is thrown around in common language to mean "falsity." However, in the study of religion, "myth" can be quite useful if we really try to flesh out the meaning. In this sense, what J.A.T. Robinson is trying to convey, "myth" conveys a certain metaphysical truth about reality and the human experience. Myth is not concerned with what "really" happened or didn't happen. How do we ever know something happened? We don't, unless we experiened it ourselves (and even then it's open to speculation and perspective). Rather, myths get a deeper meaning in a narrative, a deeper truth than the story at hand. Let us suppose, for a moment, that the creation story is a functional myth, a story told with a greater truth underneath. What would it look like?

The Garden of Eden, presented as myth, would mean that we used to have communion with God. At one time, we were not estranged from God. And yet, something went awry. That something was in us - and we call that "sin." Adam (or males) and Eve (or females) walked in the presence of God. But now, because of human frailty, we no longer walk with God. The creation story takes on a new narrative: a narrative of God's interaction with humanity - and the beginning of the plan of salvation. God is presented as Creator - the Creator. This shows us a metaphysical truth of God - that God is active in human history, creating and willing things into existence. But there is more: God allows humanity to struggle. Why? Adam and Eve gain strength in this struggle, though it is not readily apparent in the text. What J.A.T. Robinson is showing in his use of the "myth" to explain the creation story is that we all embody this particular story. The narrative of creation is embodied in us; we have all fallen short of the glory of God. But, God is re-creating us in God's own image. We are all Adam; we are all Eve. That is point of creation as myth: the story's functional method, myth-as-narrative, enjoins us into the story. We are apart of the whole of creation.

Now, that's an appreciation of J.A.T. Robinson's theology, but not a critique. I'm no strict literalist, but I can't help but feel that something is lost in this story. There's no nitty-gritty - the Genesis narrative talks about Adam struggling with the earth to grow food and Eve struggling in child-birth. Creation as myth doesn't always embody the humanity of the narrative. The focus is so much on the metanarrative that the human side is lost. That said, is it possible to regain the humanity in myth? Perhaps, but I'll return to that in a future post.

The strength of looking at a narrative as a myth is twofold: first, as aforementioned, there are higher truths that are best explained with simple truths. A story engages our imagination in a way that encourages to find the metaphysical truth. And second, a myth doesn't discount the possibility of literal, factual, "historical," truth. More clearly, a myth says that a story could have happened that way, but it didn't necessarily happen that way. So, there is value to expressing such a story as myth - so long as we define what we mean by "myth."

What do you think?

Elie Wiesel's Night: A Short Response

Having just finished Elie Wiesel's Night, I thought I'd offer a few reflections. It is impossible to convey the absolute horror of this book. To those who deny the Holocaust - read this book, there is no way someone could make this stuff up. It is a testament to the human struggle to survive no matter the obstacles, a testament to the importance of having something to live for, and having the fortitude to say "never again."

Wiesel's book is short, just over 100 pages. It is a quick read, perhaps possible in one sitting. The prose is primarily short sentences, with quick jabs of action and past/future flashes. The narrative is written autobiographically, with great detail in some of the most painful and gut-wrenching episodes. Perhaps what is most disturbing is that these events really happened. Though there has been some discussion as to how the narrative has changed from the first edition (published over 40 years ago) and the most recent edition, the harsh reality is this: Wiesel was a victim, and as such, he has the right to tell his story. Yes, it is a perspective, but it is a far closer perspective than any of us can offer. For that reason, it is historically valuable and credible, despite certain narrative changes that may have occured (with translations, it's anybody's guess).

Theologically, I think this book is necessary for anyone who takes the discussion of God seriously. Wiesel poses the question: how is belief in a God of compassion and mercy possible after the Holocaust? It is a real and tangible question. It is laced with many implications. Should we reconsider classical theism? Should we re-think how God acts in human history? What is to be learned from the Holocaust?

I recommend this book - but only to those who have a strong stomach. Though the novel isn't all graphic, it is an emotional circus. It's one of those books that will expand your mind; it will help you question what is real and what is valuble. And, as to be assumed, it will remind you that your life isn't really that bad.

If you haven't read Night, you should. I'm going to put it on my long list of "musts" for theology students.

Friday, June 16, 2006


I've been doing some surfing recently (not real surfing, I'm not that talented) and I've come across some pretty good resources. You might want to check them out.

Killing the Buddha is an interesting website for those of us who are (painfully) transcending ideological labels. This site isn't particularly scholarly, but it will definately make you think. The articles are engaging, for example "Jesus and I Broke Up," "The Temptation of Belief," and "My Holy Ghost People." This is not recommended for the easily offended. Thanks to John for bringing this site to my attention.

CNN reports that the Vatican has approved a new translation of the Mass in English. This is one of most drastic changes in the Roman Catholic Church since the Council 40 years ago.

Have a great weekend - and enjoy reading these sites!


Thursday, June 15, 2006

Thoughts on Death

Yes, it's a bright, warm, late spring day, and I'm here thinking about death. Sick? No. Morbid? Ok, maybe a little. But it's an intellectual thing that really grips me. If you think about it, death is really the question of human existence. I'm talking in plain, simple, human terms - all people have understood that they, too, will one day die. It is the only certainty in life (besides taxes, but that's a different rant). Death is the existential question - why am I here? and where am I going? Is death the final scene in the play of life?

Some, including myself, may argue that death allows us to live more fully. If this was forever, would you really feel the need to seize the day? Rather, death offers us perspective, even if it is a rather morbid perspective. Death allows us to cherish this life and what it has to offer. Rather than the ultimate enemy, death is simply a natural stage of development. That is our connection to nature - that like the birds, the ants, and the plants, we too will expire. There is something oddly beautiful in this cycle - the cycle of life presents us with a paradox. Our time is limited, so what are we going to do with it?

Anthropologically, one can argue that "religion," or even a belief in "God," is a natural, existential reaction to the horror of death. But, I don't think it is. Rather, a yearning for "God" is similar to death in that it allows us to live more deeply and more fully. Now, maybe I'm biased because I do think there's a God out there, but I also think that it is this God, a personal agent, who takes care of us in death. We think that because of freedom, we are independent creatures. We take for granted that this heart keeps thumping and these lungs keep inhaling. We aren't quite that independent - we still need the Creator as Sustainer. In the same way, it is a loving God who takes us in the arms of love as we pass from this life to the next. And for that, we can gain a little comfort - that the sting of death isn't the end, rather it is the beginning of something greater.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Elie Wiesel: 20th Century Mystic?

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"...every question possessed a power that [is] lost in the answer. Man comes closer to God through the questions he asks Him...Therein lies true dialogue. Man asks and God replies. But we don't understand His replies. We cannot understand them. Because they dwell in the depths of our souls and remain there until we die. The real will find only within yourself."

--Elie Wiesel, Night, pg 5. (emphasis mine)

Out of the rubble that was the Holocaust arose a contemporary prophet that deserves our attention. Though Wiesel is a Nobel Peace Prize receipient, he deserves a new hearing with every generation, lest we forget the attrocity he lived. If you haven't read Night, you need to. This is a piece of contemporary literature that will stand the test of time, unlike the scores of junk currently for sale at the book store.

Though Wiesel is Jewish, I'm going to elaborate on this quote to expand some ideas in Christian theology. Some thoughts: this quote summarizes an early Christian dictum: faith seeking understanding. We have faith that God is active in our time and space, though it is hard to see at times. God interacts with us, though we do not understand God's message to us. It is a demanding love, a love that was bought with the cross, a love that is full of grace. Our Jewish brothers and sisters are in solidarity with this point: faith is seeking understanding. We desire God to speak to us today.

The final sentence in this quote, "The real will find in yourself," is very important. Though it may sound like a gnostic pitfall, I argue that it is not. Rather, God has given us all a conscience, an ability to reason, an ability to live for and with God. We must, in this time of fragmentation and worldly non-sense, come to our own answers. We are guided by the love of God into presence with the divine, but we must live amongst one another here on earth. We must learn how to love our brothers and sisters. We must never let the Holocaust happen again. And yet, it has, many times. Some of the well known: Bosnia, Rawanda, and now Sudan. We let people systematically kill one another with the fear that we'll step on some toes (talk about political crap). I'm all about non-violence and diplomacy, but Wiesel is a voice who cannot be ignored - we mustn't allow this to continue. Instead, how do we reverse this terrible equation? How do we systematically encourage peace?

The answers do remain buried in our souls until we die. It is our duty to search deeply and search for these answers. This is done, as Wiesel comments, with dialogue with God. We must ask God questions - and, in return, await God's answer. Wiesel is right, the real dialogue occurs when we ask questions. That is authentic existence. Have the honesty to ask the hard questions. Jesus did - "Father, why have your forsaken me??"

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Feminist Theology: Why I Am a Feminist

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[NOTE - This is a highly opinionated post. There is much to be debated with what I am going to say. I welcome constructive feedback - if this post is going to infuriate you, my opinion is probably not worth your blood pressure. However, if you're open to a different opinion, then by all means, read on.]

As a man, I readily confess that I am a feminist. I do not endorse all of the things that feminists do, believe, and profess; but, then again, I do not endorse everything that Christianity does, believes, and professses either. Rather, I see myself as a working feminist, someone who firmly believes in the egalitarian movement, in the abolishment of gender roles, and in the fair treatment of all people. And to that end, I am willing to take a public stand, to profess that these are ideals that I hold to. I claim Jesus, another man, as my example of how to be a male feminist.

Do not misunderstand me: I am not labelling Jesus a feminist; I'm not saying that he would endorse such a term. But if feminism, minus all of the political baggage, means that women are equal to men, then I think Jesus would endorse this. Here's what I mean:

Jesus had a lot of contact with women. He ate with them, he spoke openly with them, and he shared his vision of the Kingdom with them. Jesus risked his public image often (just think of Jesus approaching the woman at the well - his society interpreted this as soliciting a prostitute, yet Jesus treated her as an equal). And, finally, perhaps the most striking of Jesus' relationship with women: ALL four NT gospels openly state that women were the first witnesses to the resurrection. Let the point sink in: the first to experience the new Kingdom, the resurrection of Jesus, were not his twelve male disciples, but rather women who were close to him. Coincidence? Hardly - in my opinion, all of these things culminate in early Christian teaching. What does this mean? It means that Jesus' vision was radical for many reasons - and one of those was that women and men are equal. Not just equal in the eyes of God, but equals on earth as well. Jesus' radical vision, watered down in orthodox Christian teaching, now points to the underpinnings of the gospels. Women were a vital part of the early Church - it's time to reclaim that vision.

Now, I don't exclusively label myself a feminist. I am many things: I am a Christian, I am a married man, I am a student, I am a progressive, and I am a feminist, amongst other things. To me, living the Christian life means more than going to Church, confessing sins, and partaking in the sacraments (though all of these things are vitally important). It means embracing the radical vision of Jesus, a vision that transforms society. It is partyl an earthly vision, one that is nitty-gritty, one that teaches that we should love our enemy (!), and one that calls us to reform. It is our job to speak (LOUDLY) for those who have no voice. That MAY include women, children, the oppressed, the poor, the mentally ill, etc. etc.

Being a Christian feminist means accepting responsibility for the mistreatment of women in history (and even today). It doesn't mean taking the fall for others' actions against women, but rather it means asserting the agency of women who have been run over by the powers-that-be. It means elevating women to the equality of men (in social status, in pay, in rights, etc.).

Don't get me wrong. Our world is perhaps one of the widest-reaching equality movements ever in human history. Women have more rights than perhaps ever before. But we still have a long way to go. There will always be inequality - it's a sad fact of human existence. But as Christians it is our duty to embrace the vision of Jesus and fight for others.

I welcome constructive criticism, comments, and affirmations.


Monday, June 12, 2006

I Broke Down and Saw the Movie

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What can I say? I broke down and saw the Da Vinci Code over the weekend. Besides being a very long movie (2.5 hours), it was decent. Great? No. Decent? Yes. Worth seeing at some point? Yes. To me it seemed like a boring Indiana Jones flick. The plot was average, and it had some overly-corny aspects, especially the end.

Now, for some theology. Would someone please contact Dan Brown and give him a lesson on Constantine, and more importantly, the Council of Nicea? I mean, come on, there's a difference between theological musing and downright ignorance. What the movie had to say about the Council of Nicea was just downright ignorant. Sadly enough, I'm not sure the general audience would've realize how ridiculous this part was.

My wife, a trained historian, laughed her way through the movie. Needless to say, I joined her on many occasions - people were looking at us, but hey, if would have enjoyed it much more if they were thinking critically.

Now, for the affirmation. While I don't subscribe to Dan Brown's final claim (I won't give it away for all of you who plan to see it at some point), I think the overall-message deserves some critical acclaim. I think he's right in that Christianity has, for too long, been a power-hungry, controlling, and manipulative institution. We Christians deserve liberation from the oppression of "religious" powers. For example, women have been severely oppressed in the Christian tradition. It's time to get over it. Why are we still debating female ordination? Are we really that childish? All children of God deserve to be God's ministers. So, Dan Brown points the way to a liberating Christianity, which I agree with, though I think his method is, in the final analysis, severely flawed.

So, the overall critique: see the movie, if not for anything else, then a good laugh!

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Religion and the Media - Part IV

This week, in US News and World Report, several editorials weigh in on the recent coverage of the Da Vinci Code. Ignacio L. Gotz, Stessin Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Hofstra University, gives a very interesting editorial with the claim, "It would be very unusual for Jesus to have been unmarried." This I take a little issue with; agreed, it might have been strange. But, there were many traveling aesthetics / prophets / teachers who took a vow of celibacy. Sure, if Jesus was a craftsman, then it would've been a little strange for him to not have had a family; but there was no "condition" that they be married. It doesn't matter to me if Jesus was married or not, but I think it's unfair to say that Jesus would've been very "unusual" to not have been married.

Gotz is right to point out that "references to Jesus's close relationship with Mary Magdalene are numerous and consistent and should not be ignored." This I wholeheartedly agree with. It's in the text: Jesus was close to Mary M. In fact, I'm almost convinced that she (and perhaps other women) were just as much disciples as the 12 men. Let's face it: Christianity has a long history of marginalization - so it would make sense that Mary M. could have been a disciple of Jesus.

And finally, Gotz states that Jesus's Jewish disciples did not and would not have "attributed divinity to another Jew." Now, I think culturally (and religiously) Gotz is right. However, the followers of Jesus knew there was something special. Sure, there were plenty of healers running around the Roman backwater, but the disciples knew there was something different about this Jesus of Nazareth. However, what is most telling is that, according to the NT, the disciples don't "figure it out" until after the death and resurrection of Jesus. The gospels are riddled with clues that point to exactly this: only in hindsight did they "get it." So, while I think Gotz might be right, I'm not sure he stated the entire story in context.

Granted these are short editorials, but I think there's room for clarification.

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

The Jesus of History and the Jesus of Faith

"...could there be faith in the risen Jesus without research on the historical Jesus?...With those canonical gospels as inaugural models and primordial examples, each Christian generation must write its gospels anew, must first reconstruct its historical Jesus with the fullest integrity, and then say and live what that reconstruction means for the present life in this world. History and faith are always dialectic for incarnational Christianity..."

--John Dominic Crossan, "Historical Jesus as Risen Lord," in The Jesus Controversy: Perpectives in Conflict

As I understand him, Crossan wants to make a clear differentiation between the Jesus of history and the Jesus of faith. This paradoxical duality is meant to serve historical method in a way that almost splits the humanity of Jesus. Understood in an orthodox way, the humanity of Jesus is just as important as the divinity of Jesus. But Crossan wants to take the argument elsewhere. While I admire his historical integrity (I'm married to a historian, so I have to), I do question whether this split is appropriate 1) to the text and 2) to the body of believers. While one need not "believe" if Jesus lived or not (we have plenty of Roman records that state that a Jesus of Nazareth was put to death around 30 CE), the real question is of Jesus' position in 'religious' matters. If we split the historical Jesus and the Jesus of faith, do we depreciate both? While I think there is plenty to be learned by drawing this distinction, I'm not sure that in the final analysis this is entirely helpful to either history or faith.

What do you think?

Monday, June 05, 2006

Socrates and the Power of Doubt

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“With apologies to Socrates, it might be phrased thus: the uncommitted life is not worth living. Worse, it has been said that the only sin is indifference – a chain that indicates a staggering innocence of the imagination.” -- Walter Kaufmann, The Faith of a Heretic <>

It seems to me that Christianity has two “outside” perceptions that, though not new, are nevertheless fueled by the media. First, there is the perception that Christians are hard-line, conservative, and narrow-minded. Second, in a similar vein, there is the perception that Christians are anti-intellectual. What bothers me, among other things, is that these perceptions are mostly wrong. I say “mostly” because Christians have differing political, societal, and intellectual views. In a broader sense, there isn’t much that really defines a Christian in a societal or intellectual way. There are those closed-off fundamentalists who can’t see past their own pitiful ignorance; additionally, there are those Christians who are so far to the other side that their beliefs hardly resemble anything in a historical-Christian sense. <>

Where is the middle ground? Where are those that abide by the Socratic dictum and question the very root of their “belief.” Where are the Christians that are like Jesus in that they put others first, they not only preach, but live a radical life of grace, and they don’t have a hard time questioning authority, even Church authority? <>

I think labels are meaningless, but I want to point to the direction of those who take Socrates seriously. Why Socrates? Well, besides the obvious credit that he normally gets in philosophical circles, I think that his line of questioning is not only healthy, but is necessary. I’m not comparing Jesus to Socrates in any spiritual sense, but I do think both taught their disciples to question everything. This is healthy – why? Questioning leads to better understanding, which leads to a deeper faith, which leads to a more productive, fulfilling life. <>

There isn’t enough questioning in today’s Church. It’s time to open the doors to the world, embrace what we know and what we don’t, and have open dialogue with those brothers and sisters who disagree with us. As Kaufmann points out, indifference is a sin. We need to care more about the gospel – and that is done through healthy questioning.

Saturday, June 03, 2006

The Aesthetic of Music: A Theological Musing

"Without music, life would be a mistake." --Friedrich Nietzsche

"What's our mission, do we know, but never listen, for too long, they held me under, but I hear...Down in the heat and the summer rain of, the automatic gauze of your memories, down in the sleep at the airplane races, try to hold on...Down in the heat with the broken numbers, down in the gaze of solemnity, down in the way you've held together...We tried to hold onto the pulse of the feedback current, into the flow of encrypted movement, slapback kills the ancient remnants..." -- Billy Corgan, The Smashing Pumpkins

Okay, I'm going to step out on a ledge and put the question on the table: is it possible to "experience" God through the beauty of music?

There, I said it. Now I'm going to try to respond to my question. This is not collapse into natural theology, or new age stuff, or even wishful thinking. I mean it seriously - is there something "beyond" (in a Tillichian sense) in music that allows us to "experience" the beyond of life, and even perhaps God? The Barthian in me says "Nein!," but even I know that Barth probably would tread softly on that question (his high opinion of Mozart is well known, just look in the footnotes of the Church Dogmatics!). The Tillichian in me says that there is something "beyond" in the "beyond" of music.

I appeal to an aesthetic: just think of your favorite song. Now imagine those beautiful chords coming together in a way that is just heavenly. Surely there is more going on than our minds interpreting what our ears pick up.

Although I do think that God remains a mystery, save that of God's revelation in Jesus, but I'm not willing to deny that God can reveal God's own self in other mediums. Dreams, "callings," music, other phenomenon - we simply cannot limit God.

Now for the experiential part - we can neither confirm nor deny that God is revealing something in the beauty of the music. But, mustic (especially those perfect chords) enhances our life, eases pain, and brings incredible comfort and joy - so how could God not be involved in that? While I am not equating beautiful things with God, I am proposing that God can reveal the beautiful to us, i.e. as an aestheitc.

What do you think?

Friday, June 02, 2006

Post-Structuralism, Deconstruction, and the Resurrection

"The postmodern situation requires that we embody the gospel in a manner that is post-individualistic, post-rationalistic, post-dualistic, and post-noeticentic."

--Stanley J. Grenz, "A Primer on Postmodernism," 167.

If we are to take Grenz's statement seriously, what would the gospel look like after all of these "post-s"? That would take a considerable amount of time, and perhaps involve a monograph in a similar strain to Grenz's final chapter. However, I'd like to focus briefly on one major theme (if not the theme) of the gospel: the resurrection of Jesus. I think Grenz is correct to point out that many Christian assumptions are bogged down in a modernist worldview - and postmodernism, for all of its baggage, allows us to examine the gospel in a new, liberated light. Do not misread: this is not my endorsement of postmodernism, but rather a working-out of my theological ideas, a mental exercise of sorts.

What does a postmodern resurrection look like? Let's start with what's at stake: the four NT gospels all proclaim an empty grave (though Matt., Luke, and John go much further than this). Hence, with this simple textual clue, we can come to one of three "conclusions: 1) Jesus survived his death, got up out of the cave and walked away, or 2) the body of Jesus was stolen and buried elsewhere, or 3) Jesus was fully dead, and then made fully alive again, thereby being the first person resurrected. Now, it is clear to see that orthodox Christianity has read the gospel with the third proposition. So, for the purpose of working this out in a postmodern way, we'll also go with the text of Matt., Luke, and John and say that somehow Jesus was brought back to life from death and that he continued to live beyond the grave.

Why do I choose this proposition (besides the obvious following of the gospel texts)? Well, deconstruction teaches that the system of rational thought is overturned, thereby doing away with metaphysics. If Jesus did indeed radically change from dead to alive, then this would be a radical altering of a system (i.e. that all humans, and further, living creatures die) and all metaphysics of "God" are irrevocably changed? What does this mean? It means that the mysterious "God" of out-there (think of the God of the philosophers), suddenly enters human history and breathes life into this Jewish rabbi and mystic. The metaphysics of a God out-there come crashing down into a God who has penetrated human history with a reversal of what "life" and "death" mean.

A postmodern vision of the resurrection identifies the deconstruction of what "death" now means for humanity. It means that death isn't necessarily permanent: if Jesus was resurrected by God, a reversal of death means that the necessary cause of death-as-extermination no longer works. Though we may know as much about the mechanics of death as the ancients (i.e. we still know virtually nothing), the deconstruction of the resurrection means the chaotic void between life and death is somehow lessened. Though postmodernism supports the teaching of a devaluing a center, we can see how even this teaching comes crashing down. This isn't a crafty collapse back into modernism, but rather an extreme of post-modernism - the rejection of the center points to a whole new centeredness - the resurrection as the center of humanity means the reversal of the metaphysics of death.

What do you think?


Sorry for the hiatus, but I had a meeting with my editor at City Magazine (Roanoke). Blogging to re-start immediately!

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