Faith Meets World

Reflections on faith in a messed-up but beautiful world

Category: Religion (Page 1 of 3)

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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Time to evolve

10161720723_34754dee50_kIt is time for the human species to evolve.

According to the theory of evolution, when a species encounters a crisis that threatens its very existence (for example, some kind of significant change in its physical environment), it must either adapt or risk extinction.

I believe the human species is facing a crisis that threatens its very existence. I’m not talking about a crisis arising from a change in the physical environment (though, of course, manmade climate change may well present such a crisis). I’m talking about the crisis that arises from a lethal combination of two factors: first, our ongoing inability or unwillingness to tolerate difference, and second, the increasingly easy availability of deadly technology.

Simply put, if we as a species do not learn to get along, sooner or later some group or nation is going to unleash destruction on an unprecedented scale. It’s a question of when, not if. If that happens, the best case scenario is that we will move (or rather regress) into an era of harsh authoritarianism in which the freedoms we cherish will be removed from us in an effort to enforce some kind of artificial “peace”. The worst case scenario is that it will be game over for the human race. Perhaps small pockets of humanity will survive here and there, but as a civilisation we will be back to the drawing board. Maybe that’s what it’s going to take for us to finally learn to live together.

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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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Did God change?

14148407957_cdfea81f82_oIn this short post, I’d like us to consider two passages of scripture.

Our first passage comes from the Old Testament book of Ezekiel. In this chapter, God is giving the prophet Ezekiel instructions on how to restore his glory to the temple. I just want to pick out three verses:

For seven days you shall provide daily a goat for a sin-offering; also a bull and a ram from the flock, without blemish, shall be provided. For seven days shall they make atonement for the altar and cleanse it, and so consecrate it. When these days are over, then from the eighth day onwards the priests shall offer upon the altar your burnt-offerings and your offerings of well-being; and I will accept you, says the Lord God. (Ezekiel 43:25-27, NRSV; italics mine)

Of course, there’s plenty more ritual to be performed before we even arrive at this passage, but these three verses alone are enough to give an idea of the hoops you apparently had to jump through if you wanted to be accepted by God.

Now, consider this well-known passage from the fourth Gospel:

But to all who did accept him and believe in him he gave the right to become children of God. They did not become his children in any human way—by any human parents or human desire. They were born of God. (John 1:12-13, NCV; italics mine)

Do you see the contrast? In the first passage above, we have just one example of the myriad hurdles over which priests and ordinary people had to jump if they were to be accepted by God. But in the second passage, the only hurdle that has to be jumped is that of accepting and believing. So what changed? Why did God suddenly decide he no longer needed sacrifices and purification rituals and burnt offerings?

Did God change his mind or his mood? Did Jesus’ death appease him so he could now accept us without blood? Or is something else going on here?

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Going deep

Coelho woundsA few days ago, I saw a video shared on Facebook about the way in which God pursues relationship with us. On one level, it was just another faintly cheesy God-thinks-you’re-worth-it video that could easily be dismissed as yet more Christian schmaltz. But the voiceover included one phrase that resonated deeply with something embedded deep in my understanding and experience.

In seeking to account for our fallen human state, as demonstrated by our endless capacity for misunderstanding, rivalry and one-upmanship, this video spoke of our sense of lack and incompleteness.

This is something I find to be true not because it says so in the Bible, but because I know it in my own life.

We can all think of extreme manifestations of this lack and our attempts to fill it: the alcoholic who tries to quell the unbearable awfulness of reality through drink; the drug addict who seeks to numb her existential pain by injecting mind-altering toxins into her blood stream; the compulsive porn user who retreats from the complexity and pain of real-world relationships into the comforting virtual arms of a non-existent lover.

These are arguably all cases of our prevailing sense of lack and incompleteness driving us to seek comfort in some easily attainable temporal refuge.

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On Jesus’ death, communion and scapegoating

GoatIn church last Sunday we took communion. As I was sitting holding the bread and wine (well, okay, the bread and juice) and thinking about the meaning of the eucharist (literally “thanksgiving”), a thought came to me that I’d like to explore a little today.

If you’ve been reading along here for a while, you’ll know that my understanding of Christ’s death on the cross has evolved significantly in recent times (see this post in particular). Specifically, I no longer buy into the notion that Jesus died to endure God’s wrath in my place – a notion I’ve come to see as little more than a Christianised version of a pagan sacrificial cult to an angry deity. Rather, I believe that Jesus died at the hands not of an angry God but of an angry mob, and that in his death he decisively demonstrated the all-enduring, all-forgiving love of God. (There is much more that I believe about Christ’s death than this, but this brief account goes some way towards explaining the core of the shift that has taken place in my understanding.)

One of the things that has shaped my thinking in this area is the work of French Christian anthropologist René Girard. Girard has written many books in his ninety plus years of life, and one of his central themes is the foundational role of scapegoating in human culture. An essential thesis of his is that human societies typically form, cohere and sustain themselves by identifying an enemy “other” who is then blamed for various evils and sacrificed (whether literally or metaphorically). In sacrificing a victim (which may, in practice, be an individual or a group) in this way, cultures are able to unite against a perceived common enemy and purge themselves of evil. (There is much more to Girard’s understanding of the foundations of culture and religion, but this will do as a basic introduction.)

It seems clear to me that, in his death, Jesus functioned as a scapegoat. The High Priest Caiaphas understood that it was better for one man to die for the people than for the whole nation to perish, while Pilate and his Roman cohorts undoubtedly saw Jesus’ death, at least in part, as a way to assuage an angry mob and thus defuse a highly charged atmosphere that was dangerously close to veering into open revolt. When we stand back and take a dispassionate look at the events surrounding Jesus’ death, then, it’s not difficult to discern this scapegoating dynamic. And, in discerning it, it’s not difficult to name it and condemn it as evil.

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Religion as reality avoidance

AddictAmerican shame researcher Brené Brown describes the current generation of adults as “the most obese, in debt, medicated and addicted adults in human history”. I don’t think I know many people who would seriously disagree with that assessment.

What’s driving this trend? I would say it basically boils down to one thing: reality avoidance. The world is just too painful and difficult a place, so rather than deal with the distressing reality of it, we find all kinds of creative ways to distract and numb ourselves.

Some go shopping, even when they don’t really need anything and can’t afford it anyway (sometimes half-jokingly but tellingly referred to as “retail therapy”). Others begin to indulge in eating sweet or fatty foods; at first, they find comfort in it, but it soon morphs into something they need in order to survive. Many immerse themselves in social media, spending every spare moment presenting a curated version of themselves to the world, all the while carefully hiding their true selves. Some are addicted to work; for others, it might be porn or sex; still others find themselves enslaved to alcohol or drugs.

In one form or another, addiction is all around us.

(As a bit of an aside, you might think the world has surely always been just as painful as it is now, if not more painful. I would agree with you. In which case, why the recent massive increase in addictive and compulsive behaviours? I’d say the key difference is that we now live in an age that is driven more than ever before by image. From TV and magazine ads and celebrity idols to the carefully crafted perfect personas with which we are bombarded hour after hour on Facebook, we are surrounded by unrelenting pressure to look the best, be the best, know the most, earn the most, have the nicest house, raise the nicest kids. And, conveniently, the consumer model quickly steps in to constantly pepper us with an array of products and services that will help us achieve those very things. It’s a double whammy: we feel more pressured than ever before to live up to an idealised image, and we’re offered more promises than ever before to help us do it. The prevalence of addictive and compulsive behaviours is simply evidence that these promises never deliver.)

But there’s another form of addiction that I haven’t mentioned so far, yet which is very common and very subtle – and which serves exactly the same purpose as all the other addictions we’ve already talked about. I’m talking about being addicted to religion.

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