What is Christianity?

May 26, 2008

I just started working my way through Brian McClaren’s Finding Our Way Again, a book which serves as an introduction to a series of volumes on spiritual practices (sometimes also called “spiritual disciplines”).

In the first chapter, McClaren recounts a remark that was once made by Dr. Peter Senge, author of The Fifth Discipline, and one of the fathers of systems analysis. In short, Senge remarked that writings on Buddhism were becoming increasingly popular because Buddhists present their religion as a way of life, rather than a system of beliefs. Christianity presents a system of belief, he said, but people are seeking a way of life.

McClaren observes that this is not an “either/or” proposition. Religion in any form can – and probably should be – BOTH a system of belief AND a way of life. However, insofar as Christianity is concerned, the tension between the two has proven difficult to manage.

At the end of the first chapter, McClaren invites us to think of this tension on a grid that looks like this:


From left to right is an axis that represents an increasing conviction that Christianity is a way of life. From bottom to top is an axis that represents an increasing conviction that Christianity is a system of beliefs. Thus, those whose convictions lie in quadrant II are will tell you that Christianity is what you believe. One cannot be “Christian,” they say, unless one is in agreement with certain central teachings of the Church.

Those in quadrant IV, by contrast, see Christianity as a way of life. Their Christianity, so to speak, is about living in the way of Jesus. If you are committed to living as Jesus lived, they will say, it isn’t particularly important that you conceive of God, or Jesus, or God’s “plan” in a particular way.

Quadrant I is inhabited by people who don’t care to define Christianity in either sense. Some of them,for example, might conceive of themselves as Christians because they were born into a culture and/or family that is primarily Christian, but they don’t have strong convictions about what Christians ought to hold as true, nor about how Christians should conduct themselves.

Quadrant III represents an approach to Christianity that holds belief AND practice in high regard.  In this quadrant, one cannot be “Christian” unless both a commitment to certain core teachings AND a commitment to living as Jesus lived.

Some people will find themselves hovering on the borders between II and III.  “Both ARE important,” they will say, “but in the end your system of belief is more critical.” Similarly, others might dwell on the border between III and IV, thinking of Christianity as primarily a way of life, but a way of life that must be held together – in a rough sense at least – by a particular set of beliefs.

My life can be traced along a trajectory which transitions from II to III, and I now find myself in quadrant III, but with a definite leaning toward quadrant IV.

How about you? Where would you plot yourself on this grid? Where would you have been 5 years ago? 10 years ago?


Weirdness in the 2008 Election: No End in Sight

May 22, 2008

..at least that’s what I’m thinking after reading this story.

The candidates seem to be running like crazy from fringe Christian leaders on all sides. Is there any room for a balanced dialog about faith and politics in this year’s presidential election?

[Note: the original post erroneously linked to this ASBO Jesus cartoon, which, as Zach points out, is worth reading as well.]

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If You Can’t Trust Your Shadow Overlords…

May 20, 2008

who can you trust?

Universalism in the Revelation?

May 19, 2008

One of the most intriguing arguments in The Evangelical Universalist – one which, though it has been around for some time, I have never encountered before – is the argument that the final book of the Bible advances a vision of ultimate, universal salvation.

The author, who writes under a pseudonym, beings his analysis by pointing out that the Revelation consistently pairs visions of divine judgment with subsequent visions of salvation. This happens a total of five times within the book, and, in at least two of those pairings, a universalist reading seems quite plausible.

To understand the author’s reading, it is important to grasp the concept of “the nations” as it is developed throughout the book. “The nations” are consistently described as a collection of people which find themselves in rebellion to God and which consequently face the same fate as “the beast,” a symbol for a political power that oppresses believers. As a result, they become the object of God’s wrath (see, for example 19:15).

[I don’t want to get distracted into a full exegesis of The Revelation here, but – for the curious – I generally view the beast to be representative of Roman oppression of Christians at the time the book was written. This is in contrast to the typical Left Behind-type interpretation, in which The Beast represents a future political power.]

Chapter 14 details the defeat of the beast and its worshippers. Their ultimate fate is to be tormented with burning sulfur in the presence of the holy angels and a “lamb,” which is representative of Jesus. A subsequent image depicts an angel harvesting grapes from the earth and throwing them into “the great winepress of God’s wrath.”

In contrast to “the nations” is another collection of people, often referred to as “the saints.” This collection is representative of believers who refuse to succumb to pressures to worship the beast, and who face persecution as a result. They are roughly the equivalent of the church – or, at least, the persecuted church during the period in which the beast exercises its power.

Following the description of judgment in Chapter 14 is a song that is sung by the saints. It begins in 15:3. The song describes God as “King of the nations” and asks the rhetorical question: “Who will not fear you?” It then states that “all nations will come and worship before you.”

Critically, the text does not say that people “from” all nations will come and worship God (an apt description for the Church, and one that is used in other parts of the book). Instead, it says that “all nations” will come and worship.

What could this possibly mean? The best answer, the author argues, is that, although “the nations” are subject to God’s wrath, they will ultimately come and worship before God.

Similarly, in Chapter 20 we find a fiery judgment for those who do not find themselves in God’s favor. Thereafter, a New Jerusalem appears on the scene. We are told that outside of the New Jerusalem are all unbelieving and immoral people. However…

– the city contains a tree, the leaves of which “are for the healing of the nations” (22:2)
– the gates of the city are never shut (21:25)
– “the nations” will walk by its light (21:24)
– the kings of the earth (those who, clearly, were co-conspirators with the beast in earlier chapters) will bring their splendor into it (21:24)
– the glory and honor of “the nations” is brought into it (21:26)

Not only, argues the author, do the open gates offer opportunity for an exit from the lake of fire, but in this vision of God’s new world the lost actually avail themselves of that opportunity.

This view of ultimate, universal salvation is also supported by 5:13, in which “every creature” is depicted as singing a song of worship to God and to the lamb. [The sequence of songs in this chapter is particularly important to me. Though it begins with a song of praise for God’ rescuing people FROM every nation, it climaxes with a song which is sung by EVERY creature. Seemingly, BOTH a form of “salvation” that is limited AND a form of salvation that is universal are in view.]

So, what about the language which describes the smoke of the torment of the beast and its followers as rising up “forever and ever”? The original language, argues the author, is consistent with a very long, but not eternal period. Further, it seems plausible that the duration of the smoke may not correspond to the time in which the “fuel” was present within the fire. In other words, the smoke could continue to exist as a memorial to the justness of God long after the torment that caused the smoke has ended.

So there you have it: a persuasive argument for an interpretation of the Revelation that is consistent with, and even supportive of, the evangelical universalist viewpoint.

Am I sufficiently convinced to be converted to a full-blown evangelical universalist? Not quite. However, as a result of this reading, I do find myself even more firmly encamped within the longstanding and widely-accepted tradition of the hopeful universalist. I continue to anticipate and pray for the seemingly real possibility that all people will ultimately find their way into God’s new creation.

Battlestar Galactica and the Quest for Authentic Spirituality

May 6, 2008

As regular readers know, I’m a huge fan of the re-vamped Battlestar Galactica, which is currently airing on Sci-Fi.

At its heart, the new BSG is about faith and politics and – to some extent – the relationship between the two. Since the show is about a small remnant of humans on the run from an enemy that seeks to annihilate them, it provides the perfect backdrop for questions about what it means to be human, and how civilization and government serve (or even interfere with) our ability to function and survive. The stark survival scenario also forces the characters to confront their beliefs about spirituality and the nature of the universe.

Fans of the series know that it is in its last season, and we are now presumably less than 17 episodes away from the end, when the Galactica will inevitably find the reported home of its long lost brothers and sisters on Earth.

In episodes that are currently airing, the writers and producers are exploring a plotline relating to spirituality that I find incredibly fascinating, not only because it is intriguing in and of itself, but because of how accurately it reflects the tensions and struggles that are present in our own world.

At this point, there are three theologies at play in the story. To make this post readable for those who aren’t familiar with the minutiae of the BSG universe, I’ll keep things general.

The first theology is a classic polytheism. The followers of this religion believe that there are gods that are supposed to protect them. However, this religion seems very hollow, since the gods have (obviously) failed to provide much help at all in the face of annihilation. They seem empty and distant, and they are silent and powerless, if not non-existent.

The second theology is a form of monotheism that in some ways is similar to early Christian Gnosticism. It is a theology which says that God is love, and that a spark of the divine love is in all of us (Gnostics would probably say it only exists in a select few). We need only to accept ourselves as we really are (rather than live in guilt for what we are or what we’ve done) to embrace that love. This belief seems dangerous, because it is a denial of the dangers of human lust, violence, greed, etc.

The third theology really isn’t a theology at all. It is atheism. Those who embrace atheism either never believed in the gods or God, or they have come to a point of skepticism because of their experiences during the purging of humanity.

What is interesting to me is the way that the writers have carefully presented these options so that none of them are satisfying. They are all, so to speak “pseudo-spiritualities.” To the viewer, they feel inauthentic. Even atheism fails, because there is just enough of a “hint” of a transcendent spiritual force at work in the plot that it just doesn’t seem plausible.

Now, here is what fascinates me about the currently developing plot lines. I’m convinced that, at their heart, none of these theologies “work” because they aren’t ultimately redemptive in nature.

Polytheism relies on the gods for protection, but the gods are powerless to provide protection, particularly from things that humanity has brought on itself.

A monotheism that merely urges us to accept our flaws is dangerous because it leads to arrogance. We think we are perfect, but we are not. The results in the past have been just that ugly – humanity itself has nearly been destroyed because of an enemy that was convinced of their superiority.

Atheism, likewise, ultimately leads one to a point of despair. Can we hope in our own power to make things better? Retaliation and violence only result in more death and pain. Governments and judicial systems are weak and corrupt. Revolutionary subversion of the current order only leads to chaos, followed by a new “order” that is also weak and corrupt. Humanity, left to its own devices, seems powerless to avoid annihilation.

Whether the story will go this route or not, I don’t know, but what this story is begging for is the emergence of an authentic spirituality – one which, when embraced begins to move things along a redemptive path.

As is the case with most good writing (even on TV), I think the tension between the three theologies of BSG, and the portrayal of a need for a new, more authentic spirituality – mirrors our own world. People are disturbed, frightened even, by the seemingly certain and arrogant attitudes of fundamentalists (Christian, Islamic, or otherwise), yet they also find the more liberalized versions of the various faith to be hollow and irrelevant. Atheism, on the other hand, with its nihilistic view of the universe is equally uninviting. Like the characters in the universe of BSG, we long for the emergence of a spirituality that feels authentic within the context the universe that we inhabit; one which gives us hope that there is a redemptive path out of the mess that we’ve created for ourselves. Yet a spirituality of that nature seems elusive.

In the end, I am certain that one of two things will happen in BSG: either the characters will discover that there is no hope for humanity, or they will discover hope that things can be different – that we can be different. I’m waiting on the edge of my seat, because I want to to see whether a redemptive element, possibly even a redemptive spirituality, will find its way into the plot. And…most interestingly, if that discovery comes – we can expect it to happen at about the same time the world of BSG collides with our own.

Its going to be a great ride.


May 3, 2008

Just when you thought instant messaging was getting boring, along comes this.

Musical Bonding

May 3, 2008

My job as a parent isn’t complete until my kids know all about pop culture from my formative years. To that end, I gave Lexi a quick tour of some eighties music while we were driving around today.

Today’s songs:

We are far from done.

Children of the 80s: what else should be added to my playlist of essentials?