Faith Meets World

Reflections on faith in a messed-up but beautiful world

Category: Jesus (Page 2 of 10)

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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On fearing God

FearToday I’d like to talk a little bit about God and fear. Specifically, about how the two are often deeply intertwined in our thinking.

It seems to me that fear is closely associated with our default understanding of God. Indeed, we might even say that for many people, fear is the instinctive emotional response to thoughts of God. Long-established expressions like “to put the fear of God into someone” illustrate just how intimately the emotion of fear is connected with the idea of God.

And, of course, those wishing to draw on the Bible to support the notion that fear is an appropriate response to God can do so with ease. “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom”, we are told in Proverbs 9:10. And there’s no shortage of accounts throughout the text of scripture where God or his angels appear to strike fear into people’s hearts.

So, fear is typically quite ingrained in our psyche as a response to God, and many assume that the Bible validates its appropriateness.

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Everything has changed: an Easter Sunday meditation

This post was first published on Easter Sunday 2013. It follows on from my Holy Saturday meditation here.

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So much has happened in the past week. It seems like only yesterday that we walked triumphantly into Jerusalem on a carpet of palm leaves, our emotions high as the crowd chanted “Hosanna!” None of us could have predicted what would unfold only a few hours later. And yet, looking back, it all seems so clear, and I wonder how I could have failed to see everything he so carefully explained and warned us about. I suppose there are some things you have to experience before you can really understand them. I tried so hard to understand – I wanted to be the one who understood better than anyone – but, as so often, it was in my head that I tried to work it all out and put it all together; it took the furnace of experience to shatter my delusions and finally allow my stubborn, wavering heart to see what had been in front of me all along.

*  *  *  *  *

Never has a sabbath night been so long and so bleak. After he finally let go of life – from the set of his jaw and the look in his eyes, it was almost as though he and he alone decided exactly when it should end – I could not bring myself to stay and watch the morbid proceedings that would inevitably follow. I left that hill in a daze, not knowing who or where I was any more, and not even thinking about where I was going. I stumbled in the darkness of my thoughts even as the sky blackened and the heavens opened; it was as if heaven itself was appalled at the events of that day, and the great drops that fell to the baked earth were the very tears of God.

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Sacrificing God

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“From noon on, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon. And about three o’clock Jesus cried with a loud voice, ‘Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?’ that is, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ […] Then Jesus cried again with a loud voice and breathed his last.” (Matt 27:45-50)

At the cross, humanity demonstrated its supreme reliance on violent power as the ultimate solution to every problem. The world’s most sophisticated religion combined with its most highly developed civilisation, and together they conspired to do the unthinkable: murder God incarnate.

The event of the cross proved two things beyond the slightest doubt. First, it proved that even the most enlightened and pious human societies are quite willing to soak themselves in innocent blood in order to preserve social cohesion. And second, it proved that God is not like us, and is not as we thought he was. Jesus’ submission to the cross demonstrated once and for all that God will go to any lengths – including his own death – to avoid exercising violent power. German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer put it this way: “God allowed himself to be edged out of the world and onto the cross.”

Make no mistake: before it was anything else, the cross event was a catastrophe, a calamity, a cataclysm. And yet, beneath its appalling ugliness, it was also a thing of great and resplendent beauty. This is the paradox of the cross: as humanity displayed the depths of its depravity by sacrificing God himself, God submitted to humanity’s bloody demands and, in so doing, revealed with utmost clarity the blazing white heart of love that beats at the centre of all that is.

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Just another victim

10703329555_5d6256a382_hTomorrow is Good Friday, the day when Christians the world over commemorate the unique, saving death of Jesus. But I think it’s worth taking a moment to pause and ask just what is unique about this death.

If we consider Jesus’ death unusual – and if we believe that its salvific benefits are linked to this unusualness – we would do well to stop and ask what, precisely, was unusual about it.

Death by crucifixion may have been a particularly excruciating and shameful demise, but it was certainly nothing unusual in first century Palestine. Famed Romano-Jewish historian Flavius Josephus made several references to the widespread occurrence of this gruesome practice in his Antiquities. Indeed, according to Josephus, the Romans routinely crucified hundreds and even thousands of victims at the first sign of revolt. We cannot say, then, that there was anything particularly unique about the physical nature of Jesus’ death, however grisly it may appear to our modern sensibilities.

You might advance that Jesus’ death was unique by virtue of his absolute innocence. But again, I would say history is against you. If the Roman occupiers crucified two thousand people in one day on charges of insurrection, it’s a racing certainty that a good number of those strung up were either absolutely innocent or, at the very least, completely justified in their revolt against a wholly unjust oppressor.

We can thus conclude that whatever may have been unique about Jesus’ death, it was neither the appalling mechanics of it nor the fact of Jesus’ innocence.

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