Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Progressive Dialogue

Six years, over a hundred hours of confusion, and the hit TV show Lost finally came to an end this year. The Internet has been replete with prognosticators attempting to decipher how the show, which confounded many, would end. The show ended with a scene that emphasized the spiritual overtones implicit throughout the shows six year run.

The cast members assemble in a church for the shows climax, and while most fans were busy trying to decipher the meaning of the show which had lead them down so many rabbit trails that all sense of direction had been lost some time ago, my focus was captured by a different theme: pluralism.

For Lost, faith is about simply believing in something. That faith may be in any number of gods, but as long as faith is present, you are on the right track to finding redemption. The church clearly symbolized this pluralistic view of faith, as it was conspicuously a Unitarian church, decked out in the d├ęcor of every available religion. The stain glass windows presented to us the enduring symbols of a myriad of religious traditions, from the Christian cross, to the Star of David, to the crescent moon of Islam, this final scene clearly represented the overarching viewpoint of our world that pluralism is now the dominating viewpoint of society.

In today’s pluralistic and fragmented society, tolerance is at an all time high. The public outcry for toleration, and equality among religious preference has constructed a world in which dialogue between individuals of different persuasions is at times non-existent. What we are left with is a bifurcated world where the choice before us is to either ignore differences, hold hands and sing we are the world, or take the dogmatic approach and refuse any sort of dialogue that doesn’t involve a condemnation of the opposing viewpoint and expectation of repentance, and acceptance of our precise system of belief.

Many Christians today suffer from a unique inability to dialogue with those of either differing faith, or no faith at all. Our world is increasingly becoming a place where constructive dialogue is replaced with shouting across lines of division. Christians are convinced of their superior position on matters of faith, because after all, they worship the one true God, and have not been deceived like those pagans who have yet to find the true way to God.

But how can we move to a place where we are able to not only dialogue with those we disagree with, but learn from them? Is it possible to interact with those of differing viewpoints and come away with a greater understanding of truth? Should we for a time being lay aside our suppositions, and consider the viewpoint of the other? How can we engage in dialogue that is productive, listening to the viewpoints of others, while at the same time retaining our unique understanding of what it means to be the people of God, and while continuing to hold on to the convictions that make our faith worthwhile?

Attempts at dialogue across faith lines too often have resulted in an ecumenical movement, which appeals to the lowest common denominator of belief. Participants search high and low to find common ground on which they can claim unity. These practices only succeed in a producing a reductionist portrait of faith, and often times strip Christianity from some of its core convictions. Christians must retain the orthodox faith, while at the same time engaging with those of other faiths.

So how can we dialogue with people of other faiths, or no faith without reducing our claims, and at the same time coming away from the discussion having grown in our own faith?

First, we must rid ourselves of the hubris, which so often soils any attempt to engage with those who disagree with us. Dialogue can only take place when two or more individuals are willing to interact in a constructive manner that includes listening to the viewpoint of the other. Communication involves both speaking and listening, and for too often Christians have all but forgotten about the latter instead preferring to furnish a laundry list of reasons for our opponents ignorance and make attempts to guide them in the right direction. Instead we must learn to hold our convictions with a sense of humility. We know in part. This does not require giving up our convictions, but rather it means that we hold those convictions with humility. If we are able to humble ourselves, and allow ourselves to listen we may just discover new insights from people of other faiths, and those insights may lead us to a greater conviction in our own faith.

Second, we must recognize that all truth belongs to God. Whether that truth comes from the mouth of a Christian, Jew, Muslim, Hindu, or any other religious affiliation for that matter, as Christians we can take that truth and claim it. God is the creator of all things, and as such has claim over all truth. While we recognize the inherent deficiencies in opposing religions, we can still learn from them, while maintaining our clear distinctive convictions.

Third, a general love for others must be the foundation of all dialogues with those outside of our particular faith affiliation. The temptation to view people of other faiths as potential targets for proselytes, instead of individuals we are called to love is a strong enticement. All dialogue should be founded on the love for others Christians are called to exemplify.

We live in a pluralistic society. The ability to dialogue with people of other faiths is now a requisite for the Christian. If we are able to enter into dialogue with humility, understanding that all truth is God’s truth regardless of the source, and communicate with love we may just be able to navigate our way through the world we find ourselves in. And if we are really honest with ourselves, this world is a lot less confusing than the one we encounter in Lost.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Religion or Science?

Do you believe in science or religion?

Much ink has been spilled, and many controversial lines have been drawn over the first few chapters of Genesis. The result is that we are left with the bifurcated options of claiming faith in the trustworthiness of the Scriptures and denying all forms of science which seemingly contradict that message, or submitting our rational minds to scientific dogma which declares that the creation of the world is in no way dependent on a divine source.

Left with these dichotomous choices many Christians avoid the story of Genesis altogether. As a result theology suffers. No longer are we able to articulate a theology that adheres to monotheistic creation, while at the same time engaging with the scientific world in explicating the origins of our world.

The science vs. religion debate will continue to wage on as long as there are adherents on both sides who are unwilling to consider the other’s propositions because of the inherent assumptions of their own mode of thinking. But as Christians can we offer a third way forward, one that side steps the pitfalls of the previous positions, and at the same time advances our understanding of the nature of God, and His relationship with the world in which we inhabit?

This third way of reading Scripture emphasizes the theological nature of the creation story in Genesis. Instead of reading the narrative with glasses that seek to comprehend the exact nature of how our world came to be, we begin to read the passage theologically, asking the question: what does this teach us about God? Certainly the age old debate on the origins of our world are important, but when we myopically view the Genesis story through only one lens we miss out on some important aspects of the narrative.

A theological reading of the creation story must begin by understanding the very creative act of God to be one of divine forgiveness. If God reflects perfect justice, where wrongs are accounted for, and given their proper punishment, creation itself must be seen as an act of forgiveness.

We do not have to traverse far into the story of creation to find the failings of man. Indeed the story of Adam and Eve is indicative of every human being. We all lose our way, rebel against God, and with great hubris assume that we are better off on our own.

What was described as “good” quickly becomes tainted by the presence of sin. This sin is not a one-time event, but rather soon becomes the modus operandi of human beings in general. We are not just prone to rebel against God, but we often rebel volitionally. That God does not destroy His creation as a result of this willful consistent disobedience must be seen as an act of forgiveness.

And where does this forgiveness find its genesis? We find the impetus for this forgiveness in the nature of the Triune God, a nature overflowing with love. It is out of the exuberant love of God that creation is not only spared, but the very plan of God is to restore, reclaim, and renew all of His good creation.

The creation story in Genesis should immediately inspire praise and adoration to God not only because of the grandiose nature of his creation, but also because of His plan to redeem everything within that creation. The creative act is borne out of the overflowing love of God, and God’s desire to generate a world and people to reflect His image. Our continued existence is a powerful testimony to the forgiving and loving nature of God.

The Scriptural narrative begins with the good act of creation by God, and ends with the consummation of all things when God returns to restore His good creation. If we are able to read Genesis theologically, we soon find the expansive love of God flowing into the created world through the act of creation. God’s love is not exhausted with sin, but rather sin exposes the full extent of that love. That we are not destroyed because of our sin is a testimony to the forgiving nature of God. That God sends his Son to bear upon His shoulders the disastrous affects of sin on both human beings and the creative order is a testimony to the loving nature of God.

God’s forgiveness and love are brilliantly demonstrated to us in the act of creation.

Thursday, April 15, 2010


“Those who follow Christ should grieve more over the sin of their offenders than over the loss or offense to themselves. And they do this that they may recall those offenders from their sin rather than avenge the wrongs they themselves have suffered. Therefore they put off the form of their own righteousness and put on the form of those others, praying for their persecutors, blessing those who curse, doing good to the evil-doers, preparing to pay the penalty and make satisfaction for their very enemies that they may be saved. This is the gospel and the example of Christ.”

--Martin Luther
From Miroslav Volf, Free of Charge, 162

Monday, April 12, 2010

Free of Charge

“If Christians in the United States alone gave 10 percent of their income, the problem of world hunger could be solved. But those of us who have tend to squander and hoard, and what we do pass on is often misappropriated by middlemen. We want God to multiply the loaves and fish to feed the multitudes, as Jesus did in the Gospels. But the Apostle suggested that we’ll be able to feed the multitudes if we’d let God change how we think about the loaves and fish we already have.”

--Miroslav Volf, Free of Charge, page 106.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Book Review -- The Call To Conversion

In The Call To Conversion Jim Wallis invites his readers to a greater understanding of the meaning, and scope of repentance and faith in Jesus Christ. According to Wallis, the Kingdom of God has arrived, and that arrival calls all true Christian believers into a radical change of lifestyle.

Wallis rightly understands repentance as a turning away from an old way of life, priorities, and goals and reorienting ones compass so that the goal becomes a life characterized by the Sermon on the Mount. Wallis contends that America’s individualistic culture has brought us to the point where Christians have relinquished their proper responsibility to share with those in need, and to provide for the needy.

Wallis wrote The Call To Conversion in 1981, but any reader of his more recent and popular work can find the genesis of his thoughts in this book. In this edition, Wallis calls out Christians to re-examine their views on global poverty, war, and community.

Wallis appeals to the early church fathers in his chapter on poverty, and generosity, with quotations that will challenge modern day Christians. In the first few centuries of the church, Christians were known for being a people who shared their belongings with others. They understood the poor to be their responsibility, regardless of their affiliation or proximity to them. A stark contrast is drawn between believers of times gone past, and today’s new batch of Christians. America’s individualism and greed are confronted in this text, and a challenge goes forth to all believers to consider why their faith should never be confined to their private quarters, but must instead reach out and extend to those around them.

This book reads much like Wallis’ later works. Fans of his writing will find this book a helpful basis for his future work. I found The Call To Conversion to be an interesting read, although it clearly does not stack up to Wallis’ later works. The book is well written, but at times simplistic, and it lacks the anecdotal character of some of Wallis’ later work. Overall, it is a worthwhile read, especially for the first time reader of Jim Wallis.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

The Early Christians

“They love one another. They never fail to help widows; they save orphans from those who would hurt them. If they have something they give freely to the man who has nothing; if they see a stranger, they take him home, and are happy, as though he were a real brother. They don’t consider themselves brothers in the usual sense, but brothers instead through the Spirit, in God.”

--Aristides describing Christians to the Roman Emperor Hadrian

Thursday, April 8, 2010

John Chrysotom

“But I’ve never made an idol … nor set up an altar nor sacrificed sheep nor poured libations of wine; no, I come to church, I lift up my hands in prayer to the only-begotten Son of God; I partake of the mysteries, I communicate in prayer and in all other duties of a Christian. How then … can I be a worshiper of idols”?

--John Chrysostom, 4th Century Patriarch of Constantinople