Faith Meets World

Reflections on faith in a messed-up but beautiful world

Category: Jesus (Page 1 of 10)

Metaphysical Jesus

The farther I proceed on my theological and experiential journey, the more convinced I am that one of the most fundamental mistakes many churches and believers have made is to turn the Jesus of the Gospels into a kind of abstract spiritual persona.

Let me explain.

For many evangelicals in particular, the important thing is to have a “relationship with Jesus”. That might sound very earthy and real, but in practice what it usually amounts to is believing that Jesus somehow lives inside you, having conversations with him, either out loud or in your head, singing to and/or about him with other believers at church and, most importantly of all, believing that he is the Son of God who died to free you from the curse of sin, death and hell. Do all this and you can be assured of your ticket to heaven.

I realise that one might easily conclude from the above paragraph that I am deriding huge and important aspects of Christian practice, namely faith, prayer and worship. However, that’s not my purpose. I’d simply like to ask one question about this approach to Christianity: just who or what is this Jesus with whom one has a relationship?

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The cross: religious self-projection or radical discontinuity?

3832056730_e1775658e2_oMost Christians agree that the central, defining feature of Christianity is the cross. I think it’s fair to say that no other religion has such a universally recognised identifying symbol.

However, when it comes to what we understand the cross to mean, things get more complicated. And what we understand the cross to mean is of huge importance, because it shapes our entire understanding of God and what it means to be a Christian.

If I were to put it to a roomful of Christians that God is most perfectly revealed in the crucified Christ, I’m pretty sure I’d get a lot of hearty amens. But the fact that we could all agree that God is most perfectly revealed in Christ upon the cross emphatically does not mean that we have a shared understanding of the cross or what it tells us about God and our relationship to him.

Let’s try to unpack this a bit by exploring two alternative understandings of the cross.

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What matters at Christmas

8301267396_149c9fbf99_kJesus quite possibly wasn’t born in Bethlehem.

I realise that’s a shocking opener. And when I first came across the idea a few months ago, I was initially quite shocked at the mere suggestion that such a long- and firmly-held tradition might not be true.

Yet you’ll find plenty of credible scholars willing to assert that they do not believe Jesus was born in Bethlehem. The main argument is that the writers of the gospels of Matthew and Luke needed to put Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem to cement his royal lineage (Bethlehem is known as the city of David), but that the idea of a census in which people had to travel to their birthplace in order to be registered was completely far-fetched, even in the ancient world. If you want to register people for tax purposes, you register them where they live and work, not where they were born.

It seems entirely plausible, if not likely, then, that Luke dreamed up the idea of a census-required journey simply as a narrative device for getting Joseph and Mary to Bethlehem.

In fact, when you think about it, the nativity story is full of elements that are impossible to verify and might legitimately be considered fantastic, from Jesus being born in a stable or cave, to an angelic host appearing to shepherds, to magi journeying from the East, to Herod ordering the massacre of every baby boy in Bethlehem under two years of age…

However, the point of this post is not to try to convince you that various elements of the nativity story may not have unfolded as reported in the gospels. It honestly matters little to me whether or not you hold firm to the traditional version of events. For myself, I’m undecided on various aspects of the nativity story.

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What is God like?

5546445579_fce4e05671_oI am generally in agreement with those who say that the most important theological question we can ask ourselves is, “What is God like?”

I think this is a question we humans have been asking ourselves for many thousands of years. And I also think how we answer this question is very much determinative of our general worldview and how we conduct our lives. In other words, it is not simply an abstract, philosophical question: it has a direct bearing on the here and now.

You may have heard the expression, “You are like the God you worship”. I think there’s a lot of truth in this saying. In other words, if you believe in an aggressive, warlike God, you are quite likely to exhibit aggressive, warlike behaviour; conversely, if you believe in a compassionate, peace-loving God, you are quite likely to direct your efforts towards achieving peaceful and non-violent coexistence with your neighbours in this world.

The Old Testament is, in many ways, an argument or debate between those with different answers to the question, “What is God like?” Through the Torah and the historical books, the wisdom writings and the prophets, we find competing images of God: some depict him as a punctilious law-keeper determined to mete out punishment at the slightest offence; some paint him as a warrior God who protects his servants but is merciless to his enemies; yet others portray him as a God of endless compassion and mercy whose patience never runs out.

The question is, which of these depictions of God is right? What is God really like?

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Cognitive dissonance

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The image above was shared by a friend on Facebook yesterday. I thought it was too good not to comment on, at least briefly.

Which of you if, while listening to the news, hears of an episode of large-scale ethnic cleansing, will not rush to condemn it as utterly barbaric and ungodly? (And let’s face it, there’s been no shortage of examples in the last decade or two, from the former Yugoslavia to West Africa, not forgetting ISIS’s atrocious actions in Iraq and Syria.)

And yet, when Christians read of Israel’s slaughter of indigenous Canaanite populations in the Old Testament, any remotely similar response often seems to be lacking.

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The imperfect Jesus

midimanYeah, I know, some of you might think I’m a heretic just for that title. Or maybe you think I’m just being provocative or going for clickbait. Bear with me.

Many of us Christians have been conditioned to believe that Jesus must have been perfect. But where does this belief come from? Well, it originates from the confession that Jesus was both fully God and fully man. This confession goes back at least as far as the Chalcedonian Creed of 451 CE, of which it was a central component. While I have no wish to argue with the conclusions of that creed, I do want to challenge the resulting widespread notion that Jesus must therefore have been perfect. Or rather, I want to challenge quite what we mean when we say Jesus was perfect.

The logic is as simple as can be: Jesus was both fully God and fully man; if Jesus was fully God, that must mean he was perfect, right?

The first and biggest problem with this idea is that perfection is an entirely subjective quality. I could play you one of my favourite songs and tell you, “This song is just perfect”. But you might, for whatever reason, find the song awful, in which case you’d be hard pressed to acknowledge its supposed perfection. Since there’s no universally acknowledged standard of perfection on which we can all agree, we’re generally forced to accept that perfection is in the eye of the beholder. And everyone is mostly fine with this.

Except when it comes to Jesus. When it comes to Jesus, we all have to agree that he was perfect. No ifs, no buts.

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Believer or follower?

Follow JesusI’m painfully aware that I haven’t blogged much lately. Sometimes you go through a patch where inspiration is harder to find; something I’m learning is that it’s best at such times to simply take the pressure off yourself and wait for your mojo to return. So think of this as a seasonal slump, and fear not: I’m sure I’ll soon be back in full swing.

In the meantime, today I’d like to share a simple thought that I’ve been pondering recently.

It seems to me that in many cases, the Christian faith has been reduced to a set of propositional truths. Faced with the question, “What does it mean to be a Christian?”, I suspect many people would give an answer along the lines that being a Christian means believing in various doctrines. Further, the required doctrines are often nicely summed up in a church statement of beliefs or, failing that, we can easily fall back on one of the historic creeds.

The point is that for many people, being a Christian is purely about what you believe.

In light of how Jesus lived and what he taught, I find this curious.

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