Faith Meets World

Reflections on faith in a messed-up but beautiful world

Category: Theology (Page 1 of 24)

Book review: God Can’t by Thomas Jay Oord

A few years ago, I started to become passionately interested in theology. One of the main reasons for this interest had to do with my own evolving journey of faith. Specifically, I came to a point in my journey where I realised I had long held onto beliefs that, in the cold light of day, simply didn’t stack up. By that I don’t just mean I believed things that were unlikely, such as, for example, the resurrection of Jesus; the Christian faith has always, at its core, been about things that seem unlikely from the lowly perspective of homo sapiens. Rather, I mean I had believed things that were internally contradictory; specifically, I had believed ideas that were in conflict with some of the core tenets of the faith. The most obvious example is the idea that a God who is love and light, and in whom there is no darkness at all (see 1 John 1:5), had insisted on the cruel execution of his spotlessly innocent Son as the only acceptable price that must be paid to enable the rest of us sinners to escape eternal torture. Put like that, it sounds perfectly barmy; yet I’d glibly and unthinkingly accepted and believed it for years, as countless other Christians continue to do.

The key word in that last sentence is unthinkingly: as adherents to a religious faith, it’s all too easy for us to accept without question whatever doctrine happens to be handed to us, when even the most basic critical assessment would easily reveal glaring contradictions and inconsistencies. That’s why I’m convinced two of the key characteristics of good theological thinking are clarity and consistency: good theology should compel us to think clearly about what we believe and why we believe it; and good theology should be internally consistent, not requiring us to believe things that are glaringly at odds with each other. From this perspective, Thomas Jay Oord’s new book God Can’t is an example of excellent theological thinking, encouraging us to wrestle with questions that are often left on the “too difficult” pile, and urging us not to settle for pat and ultimately unsatisfying answers.

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Full of grace and truth

“And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of the Father’s only son, full of grace and truth. From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace.

The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.”

(John 1: 14-18, abridged)

When you try to envision God, what do you see?

Many Christians – perhaps even most – see God primarily as a God of justice. In a world rife with injustice, we need God to make sure justice is done. Trouble is, the kind of justice we mostly tend to want God to uphold is the same kind we humans have been using and abusing for centuries: the kind where no misdemeanour goes unpunished and everyone gets their just deserts. In this view, God is essentially the ultimate lawmaker and law enforcer. This, we might say, is the God of Moses.

But here’s the thing: grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. If there was something we humans still needed to understand about God, it wasn’t his predilection for all things legal and judicial: Moses already laid that out pretty clearly. The late Robert Farrar Capon, episcopal priest and theologian, put it this way: “For if the world could have been saved by providing good examples to which we could respond with appropriately good works, it would have been saved an hour and twenty minutes after Moses came down from Mt. Sinai with the the commandments.” [1]

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The glory we seek

This morning’s Old Testament lectionary reading included the following verse:

“I will display my glory among the nations, and all the nations will see the punishment I inflict and the hand I lay on them.” (Ezekiel 39:21)

The context: twenty-five years into an exile that would eventually last seventy years, Israel is still trying to make sense of the disaster that has come upon it. The Prophet explains that it is God’s punishment for disobedience, and thus a display of His glory.

What struck me is how glory – even God’s glory – is directly equated with the ability to inflict punishment. The greater the punishment that can be inflicted, the greater the glory.

How little things have changed. Shock and awe, fire and fury… As nations, we obsess over our ability to deliver punishment, and the more devastating, the better. And, of course, we are the righteous agents of God as we do so!

Here is a clue as to how Jesus understood glory:

“The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.” (John 12:23–25)

Those who have ears to hear, let them hear.

[Image: Stephen Oung]

The pinnacle of theology

Over the past few years, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking, reading and writing about theology. The nature of God, the person and work of Jesus, the cross, the atonement, salvation, scripture, prayer, suffering… all these and more are topics I’ve pondered and wrestled with. And no doubt I’ll continue to do so.

But…

All my reflecting, wrestling and theologising has led me to also wonder what’s the point of it all. What’s at the top of this theological mountain I’m trying to climb?

As I’ve thought about this question, I’ve realised I already know the answer. And, despite the many theological rabbit trails down which one may wander, it’s really very simple.

Ready?

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Book review: Sinners in the Hands of a Loving God by Brian Zahnd

Today I have the privilege of posting some brief thoughts on the latest new book from Brian Zahnd, titled Sinners in the Hands of a Loving God, published by WaterBrook and released on 15 August.

Those who have followed my blog or my Facebook posts for any length of time will be no stranger to Zahnd. A veteran pastor of 35 years’ standing, in recent years he has become a prolific and increasingly important voice for those who tire of dogmatic fundamentalism and its ugly implications, but who are unwilling to simply throw in the towel and walk away from the faith altogether. As a result, Zahnd is at the forefront of a rising tide of prophetic voices whose mission is to help Christians and non-Christians alike rediscover – in the words of the book’s subtitle – “The Scandalous Truth of the Very Good News”. (I have previously reviewed two other books by Zahnd: A Farewell To Mars and Water to Wine).

In a way, Sinners bears some similarity with Zahnd’s previous book Water to Wine: Some of my Story, in that it starts with what he once believed as a zealous young Jesus freak and tracks his theological trajectory from there towards a much broader, deeper and more beautiful faith. The key difference, though, is that where Water to Wine was essentially a biographical narrative that served as a framework for Zahnd’s theological growth, Sinners is unashamedly a work of theology – by which I mean that its focus is theological, not biographical, and it is structured into broad theological topics, including some “hot potatoes”.

A quick word about the book’s title, whose resonance may escape those less familiar with the history of American evangelicalism. In 1741, revivalist preacher Jonathan Edwards preached what would become his most famous sermon, titled Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God, in which he expounded, often in lurid terms,  on fallen man’s utter depravity and God’s deserved utter contempt for humankind. The sermon went on to become a Puritan classic, and was without doubt foundational and extremely influential in later American revivalism and evangelicalism more broadly. (For a flavour of Edwards’s sermon, read Zahnd’s book: he quotes a sample of excerpts from it in the first chapter.)

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Book review: The Uncontrolling Love of God by Thomas Jay Oord

If God is good and loving, why do evil and suffering exist in the world? This question, often referred to as the problem of theodicy, is one of the thorniest issues theologians have had to wrestle with through the ages. And in our twenty-first century world, where stark visual images of all manner of suffering and strife are streamed into our living rooms daily, it is no less important – and no less challenging – a question than it ever has been.

Far from being the preserve of specialists, theodicy is – or at least should be – of genuine concern to the ordinary Christian. Self-described theologian, philosopher and multidisciplinary scholar Thomas Jay Oord introduces the problem thus:

“To a greater or lesser degree, we all want to make sense of life. Yet doing so proves difficult, even for those of us who believe in God. Although we witness beauty, purpose and goodness all around, we also witness random accidents, pain and evil. Simplistic answers to life’s difficult questions […] leave many of us unsatisfied. We need better answers. Believers want to reconcile randomness and evil with the idea that God acts providentially.” (15)

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The Crucifixion of the Warrior God: responding to Greg Boyd’s responses

I recently posted a three-part review of Greg Boyd’s colossal new book The Crucifixion of the Warrior God (hereafter CWG). (Links here to part 1, part 2 and part 3.) My twin aims in writing this review were (i) to provide a concise and accurate overview of the structure and content of CWG and (ii) to briefly set out the top three things I liked about CWG and my top three concerns with it.

I’ve been thrilled with the amount of comment and conversation my review has generated; if nothing else, Greg is to be heartily applauded for throwing open the debate on a number of crucial theological issues.

This past week, Greg began a series of posts at his ReKnew website titled Reviewing the Reviews. Imagine my surprise when the first review of CWG he chose to respond to was mine! Given that the ideas put forward in CWG will doubtless be discussed by the great and the good of the theological world, I’m over the moon that Greg chose to seriously engage with a review written by an amateur and a relative nobody like little old me. What’s more, he had some really nice things to say about my review, describing it as “excellent”, “detailed and probing” and “an accurate, clear and insightful overview”.

Thanks, Greg!

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