Sunday, April 24 2016
What does police oversight mean? When will we become satisfied that they've done the right thing rather than gotten better at hiding the wrong thing?
Sunday, January 31 2016
Saturday, December 19 2015
I’ve been intrigued by the tenured Wheaton College professor, Larycia Hawkins, who was suspended for saying on her Facebook page that Christians and Muslims worship the same God. She was quoting, with attribution, Pope Francis. While the administration suspended her for theological syncretism with Islam, (that is the mixing of theological understandings deemed incompatible,) I would suggest their action was also a denunciation of the Pope – Roman Catholics should take umbrage.
The dispute took me to the scholarship of Yale professor Miroslav Volf, son of a Pentecostal minister who said in the dedication of his book that his father had taught him that Christians and Muslims worshiped the same God. His book Allah: A Christian Response is a careful scholarly work that traces the history of monotheistic theological interpretation. Volf reviews several passages in the Quran and their parallels in Hebrew and Christian scriptures as they describe and attributes of God (Allah). The similarities are striking, but the differences between the three are equally significant. Judaism’s rejection of the incarnation of Jesus and the accompanying renunciation of anything smacking of Trinitarian, could imply that the Christian God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the God of Abraham and Moses, are also different Gods - a statement that would be considered Christian heresy, but many rabbis would concur.
The question first came to me many years ago from a confirmation student. Joey Childs, a bright African American who had encountered many Nation of Islam followers in his neighborhood, asked, “Pastor Jon, if Christianity believes in only one God, and Islam believes in only one God, is it the same God?”
My first reaction was to receive it as another confirmation trick question, (e.g. “If God can do anything, could God make a rock so big He can’t lift it? Or a rope so long he can’t climb it?”) But I realized quickly Joey’s question was sincere. He was grappling with the monotheism of two radically different cultures. Two cultures which held not only religious but racial divisions (something which is a curious backdrop to the suspension of the Wheaton College professor). Joey wanted to know if the Christian Venn diagram of a single circle would logically overlap with Islam’s same diagram. A “yes” might be an easier answer, but smack of fuzzy Unitarianism, a “no” far more complicated but would appear to better defend the faith for young confirmands.
I wondered if Arabic Christian pastors faced the same question from their confirmation Students. The Arabic translations of Hebrew and Christian scriptures use the only word in Arabic for God which is “Allah.” In that context the question would be if the Christian Allah was the Muslim Allah; something which may suggest a more affirmative answer than determining if the Jewish YHWH was the same as the Christian God. This is equally akin to asking if the Mormon Jesus is the same as the Christian Jesus. It may all boil down to trademark infringement.
With earnest Joey I did as most pastors do in that situation, I attempted to reframe the question into one I could actually answer. The issue, and this is handled much more competently in Volf’s book, is not one regarding theological formulation of the divine identity, but a question of how the faithful respond to The Divine through their worship.
When Jesus encounters the woman at the well in John 4, she points out a significant theological discrepancy, we’ll pick up the conversation in verse 19:
“Sir,” the woman said, “I can see that you are a prophet. Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you Jews claim that the place where we must worship is in Jerusalem.”
“Woman,” Jesus replied, “believe me, a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You Samaritans worship what you do not know; we worship what we do know, for salvation is from the Jews. Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks. God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in the Spirit and in truth.” (John 4:19-24 NIV).
Jesus calls for a worship that sees beyond ethnicity or location, a worship in “Spirit and truth” that transcend theological debate. Jesus commends a worship that points to relationships rooted in ethics and integrity, regardless of philosophical verbiage or postal address of the holy place. (See also Jeremiah 31:33)
I am absolutely convinced no one is going to hell for bad theology or inaccurate vocabulary. If that were the case, Arabic Christians would be in serious trouble every time they pray to Allah. Jesus does not correct the theology of the Samaritan woman, he steps back and suggests there is a worship that transcends vocabulary and seeks truth in Spirit not formula.
The Samaritan woman is convinced not by Jesus theology, but by his acceptance of her knowing not only her theology, but her failures and weaknesses. Her convincing witness to the members of her village was not theological, but relational, “He told me everything I ever did.” (V39).
Speaking as a Christian, I do not feel it is important to cleave off the identity of our One God, from use by any other group that wishes to suggest they too are monotheistic. My question is not about God’s identity - I’m pretty sure God isn’t suffering an identity crisis because people use different names. My question is about the shape of the worship undertaken by that God’s followers. Do they worship in Spirit and truth?
When a scribe asked Jesus regarding the most important commandment in Mark 12, Jesus responded that meaningful monotheism is not a question of vocabulary, but of neighborly treatment. We’ll pick up the story in Verse 28.
One of the teachers of the law came and heard them debating. Noticing that Jesus had given them a good answer, he asked him, “Of all the commandments, which is the most important?”
“The most important one,” answered Jesus, “is this: ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. 30Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.”
“Well said, teacher,” the man replied. “You are right in saying that God is one and there is no other but him. 33To love him with all your heart, with all your understanding and with all your strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself is more important than all burnt offerings and sacrifices.”
When Jesus saw that he had answered wisely, he said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” And from then on no one dared ask him any more questions. (Mark 12:28-34 NIV)
With the Samaritan and the Scribe, Jesus focus was not on theological identity, but on love of neighbor. I would suggest the most Christian conversation regarding interfaith definitions must begin, not with the location of God, but with our loving relationships with one another. And at the core of every truly Christian conversation must be the even more radical Christian command, “Love your enemies” (Matthew 5:44).
We may or may not be discussing the same divine singularity; but worship of the One True God is only Christian when the enemy is embraced by the Spirit and truth of our love.
If the monotheism of another individual drives that person to love his or her enemies, my response must be, “You may be a long way from retaining tenure at Wheaton College, but ‘you are not far from the Kingdom of God.’
Jonathan B. Krogh
December 19, 2015
Tuesday, September 22 2015
A few months ago I had the opportunity to attend worship at a second tier mega-church. (I’m not sure if that’s the right term, but think somewhere in the neighborhood of 5,000 people reached through multiple Sunday morning worship services.) My thoughts have been a bit distracted and I even exchanged some emails with the lead pastor of the congregation regarding my misgivings. I must say I was impressed at both the promptness and attentiveness to my concerns, but the exchange in the end, was unsatisfying. I felt we were having two different conversations about the same worship experience.
After much consideration of his words and mine, I think our difference was not theological, but ecclesiological – that is we differ not in what we say about God but over what we say is the church.
A little background: the Sunday I attended the congregation was celebrating the conclusion of a massive mission fundraising event for a hospital/mission in West Africa. The numbers were astounding as they successfully raised over 1/3 of a million dollars. I am sometimes taken aback by the economy of scale; that amount of money would run the full operating budget for both of my congregations for 2 years – but I digress into a breach of the 10th commandment. On the other hand, breaking the 10th commandment isn’t a digression, it was the ultimate conclusion of the worship event.
The faithful of the congregation were challenged to do even more for missions because it would enhance their eternal blessing. Financial generosity was sold as an investment in the quality of eternal life, in effect cosmic long-term care insurance. Thus transforming self-less giving in this life, into the accomplishment of the most selfish after life. This is, of course, difficult to empirically disprove; but I found it to be a creative twist on prosperity-gospel preaching.
What distracted me in the “worship experience” (an odd term because if worship is God focused why the self-referential focus on “experience”?) was the collective celebration of individual generosity which would bring private benefit. Little was said about the actual need(s) being met for the West African recipients, they were, I guess, collaterally blessed. Most of the energy was on the “blessing” promised to the givers, not the hope proclaimed to the downtrodden. The core purpose of generosity wasn’t “Good News to the poor” but great anticipation for the generous rich. In the end, pep-rally marketing (the whole event felt like a segment of the Price is Right, including big turning placards to reveal the final number) drove me to feel a certain covetousness towards those who were going to out-class me in heaven. Fortunately there’s time, I can still make a bunch of money so I won’t have to live on the shabby side of glory.
Again, I have to check the “sour grapes” in my own heart – am I upset because they’re wrong, or because they’re successful?
In the end I have to confess my preference for understanding how I see mission, and how I see my own congregations. We are modest in size and would certainly not reject the opportunity for numeric growth, but our care for one another and for our community isn’t motivated by OUR hope for blessing, but by other’s need to be blessed. As I understand Matthew 6:1-2 generosity that is performed to benefit the donor is, in the end, selfishness. The generous who perceive not only the need but also the dignity, character, and giftedness of others, has no time or interest in being celebrated.
Sitting in the mega-church worship-experience, I couldn’t help but wonder about the member who is upside-down in her mortgage and working as a temp for near minimum wage and her husband’s company just closed. Or the father of a special needs daughter whose prosthetics are so expensive they’ve had to borrow money from the in-laws who will now postpone retirement to assist with the surgical co-pays. Or the guy who just recently started attending AA meetings because he lost his job for intoxication. Given the sermon I was hearing, I couldn’t help feeling bad for them because they were told their eternity was going to be a cardboard box under a heavenly overpass. On the other hand, I’ll bet they’ll have a great time with the West Africans who will be there with them.
Friday, July 03 2015
Supreme Court & Extreme Reactions
Here’s one of the many ways the Bible “speaks” about marriage:
The Apostle Paul makes it most clear that his preference for us all would be celibacy when he wrote to the Corinthian Church in I Corinthians 7 beginning with verse 1:
Now for the matters you wrote about: “It is good for a man not to have sexual relations with a woman.” 2 But since sexual immorality is occurring, each man should have sexual relations with his own wife, and each woman with her own husband. 3 The husband should fulfill his marital duty to his wife, and likewise the wife to her husband. 4 The wife does not have authority over her own body but yields it to her husband. In the same way, the husband does not have authority over his own body but yields it to his wife. 5 Do not deprive each other except perhaps by mutual consent and for a time, so that you may devote yourselves to prayer. Then come together again so that Satan will not tempt you because of your lack of self-control. 6 I say this as a concession, not as a command. 7 I wish that all of you were as I am. But each of you has your own gift from God; one has this gift, another has that.
8 Now to the unmarried and the widows I say: It is good for them to stay unmarried, as I do. 9 But if they cannot control themselves, they should marry, for it is better to marry than to burn with passion.
Paul’s preference is celibacy for the whole community, “I wish that all of you were as I am,” but as a concession to libido, Paul begrudges that sex within marriage is acceptable. For Paul, marriage itself is a compromise, it steps away from the higher celibate calling that provides a witness unencumbered by active sexuality. Those who have a burning passion should marry and not torment themselves.
It has been rightfully pointed out that the Supreme Court does not define marriage. It defines who is eligible to gain the benefits and the responsibilities of a civil contract called marriage. In interpreting the law Justice wears a blindfold and cannot be a respecter of persons. If one believes in gender equality before the law, the Court’s decision makes sense; for civil purposes the excess or absence of Y chromosomes in the room makes no difference as to the right of two individuals to enter a marital contract.
The recent Supreme Court decision regarding marriage has nothing to do with the religious ceremony of a wedding, even though a religious officiants file paperwork certifying the time and location of the contract’s consummation. Conservative Christian hand-wringing over the possibility that ministers and congregations will be forced to perform same-sex ceremonies completely misrepresents the fundamental difference between the civil contract of marriage and the religious recognition of covenant.
For well over a millennia, the Roman Catholic Church has denounced divorce and re-marriage, requiring an annulment of prior relationship in order to proceed with a second wedding. Annulment is a statement that the prior marriage was not performed or executed in good faith, thereby in the eyes of the Church, it never happened. This document frees the parties to pursue their “first” marriage.
This, of course, has no bearing on the civil contract of marriage. A divorced individual is not exempted from alimony if the relationship has been annulled by the church. The line between civil expectation and ecclesiastical definition is unambiguous; the church defines its sacrament, the state defines its contract. As a consequence, Roman Catholic priests do not live in fear of civil (or criminal) litigation forcing them to perform “second” marriages without the benefit of annulment. Civil courts have no interest in meddling in the business of a religious institution’s definitions, the constitution simply forbids it. As the First Amendment states, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…” The right to freely exercise a religious definition of marriage will remain intact.
Cynically I believe some groups are using the threat of litigation as a means to raise money, playing off a well-oiled paranoia among their constituents. Unfortunately, I’ve heard the same anxiety expressed among colleagues who I thought better understood the Constitution. The place where Christians, or any other individual for that matter, is not protected is in the civic realm of commerce and association that now requires the recognition of same-sex nuptials. (I’ve sometimes wondered if not recognizing same-sex marriage means continuing to introduce nice young girls to married gay men.)
I have heard cries for civil disobedience against gay or lesbian weddings, and I would assume similar discrimination for married couples, in the name of “Biblical values.” The most obvious context would be for those in the wedding industry refusing service to same-sex couples. I honestly feel some sadness for individuals who, as a matter of conscience now find their business base radically re-defined; and for all the bakers, florists, deejays, bridal shops, and tux rental vendors who are unwilling to expand their market, I hope they will find good employment in different industries. But they are no more “victimized” than the teetotaler waitress needing to quit because the restaurant owner just secured a liquor license; or the motel clerk who resigns his position because unmarried couples are renting rooms for sex. There are difficult moral calculations faced by a myriad of individuals in multiple industries – fortunately, the State does not have the power to force us into our vocation.
But to suggest individuals in these industries are doing so in order to be consistent with Biblical teaching is to draw a strange line, a line over which most have already vaulted. Those proposing civil disobedience regarding same-sex wedding commerce have not suggested the same stand on divorce and remarriage commerce, something about which the Bible is even more clear than homosexuality. The issue of same-sex marriage is not one pitting those who “believe the Bible” against those who “reject the Bible” it is between groups who draw their lines of Biblical compromise in different places.
The Apostle Paul suggested the best expression of a Christian sexual ethic, was universal sexual abstinence – something the United Society of Believers in Christ's Second Appearing (aka the Shakers) believed and practiced. They chose not to compromise with Paul’s absolute best. Behind them are others who preach and teach an absolutist position regarding divorce… that is NEVER. Curiously, Christian Colleges who terminate divorcing faculty are not worried about litigation regarding their right to require permanent marriage.
Years ago a dear friend of mine “came out” to me, he could no longer closet his sexuality and feel authentic in our friendship. His wife, however, was a faculty at an institution that terminates contracts with divorced instructors. My friend’s solution was suicide – his wife could maintain her employment and his inconsistency was resolved.
I wonder who gets to set the price of “Biblically consistency” and who is left to truly pay that price.
Tuesday, April 07 2015
Now that the state of Indiana has successfully amended the impact of their religious freedom restoration act, just in time to avoid additional national embarrassment during the final four NCAA Basketball championships (see: http://indianapublicmedia.org/news/indy-officials-final-weekend-success-80324/), and Governor Pence-bashing seems to have fallen out of the category of national pastime, I wanted to share a few reflections regarding the debate; especially now that it seems to no longer be relevant.
I grew up religiously conservative. We didn’t drink, smoke, go to movies, dance, play pinball machines, go to bingo halls, or participate in a significant number of “worldly” activities. We took seriously the admonition to be a separate people who saw secularizing influences as compromises with holy living. I was surrounded by thoughtful people who attempted to negotiate the world around them with a Biblical eye. What mattered was our own sanctification and our witness to the world around us.
It would be easy for me to look back on those days as silly and misguided, but I have to confess that the people who set the hedge of behavior around me and those of our ilk, were truly motivated out of love. They also gave me an understanding of the Biblical text, something I wouldn’t trade for all of the permissive “fun” I missed as a teenager. From them I learned my faith; and, while I interpret some things differently now, my core understandings of Christianity came from their hearts.
Curiously enough, what bothered me most about their approach was not their exegetical technique or unreflective social interpretations, but our implicit smugness. We were heaven bound, and most of the rest of the world was not. Too bad for them; but you could see the dividing line between the redeemed and the damned as clearly as a cigarette butt on a clean ashtray, next to a shot of whiskey. Ironically, the greatest temptation in my more liberal incarnation these days is to become just as snobbish against them as I once was with them. I don’t think becoming critical from another viewpoint is evidence of a maturing faith, it’s just the result of a different set of influences; equally corrosive of community, fellowship, civility, and I believe, The Gospel.
This brings me to the Religious Freedom Restoration Act debate.
What seemed to frame the debate among Christians is the need for civil intervention to protect religious behavior – in particular the power of the State to require individuals or corporations to engage in commerce that supports the immoral behavior of others. Legal scholars disagree regarding the particular application of the Indiana law, but the follow-up legislation affirms that the previous legislation could not be used to defend outright discrimination. I’ll leave it to other scholars to determine what that practically means for the Hoosiers, what interests me is what Christian thought they needed a law in the first place.
I grew up with some seriously conservative people. My parents, who ran the church youth group, often negotiated with parents who didn’t want bowling parties - because there was a bar in the bowling alley, they didn’t want swimming parties - because that was mixed bathing, roller-skating was banned by some - because it was dancing on wheels; but at no time did anyone suggest there should be a law.
Discipleship came with a cost. True disciples would pay that cost without expecting legislative authority to take the sting out of faithfulness. Willing to face the cost of that faithfulness whatever the consequence. One would no more seek legislative protection from the erosion of commerce than the Apostle Paul would have suggested the pagan Roman Empire grant him special dispensation to preach the Gospel. Faithfulness was about conversion, not coercion.
That’s where I suggest we revisit our understanding of what it means to be evangelical. An evangelical faith is a chosen identity, it is unleashed from inheritance, land, ethnicity, or blood. Evangelicals suggest by their faith is only adopted through the preponderance of the evidence, the persuasiveness of the arguments, the irresistibility of the joy. Any reliance on legislative strength to enforce or defend witness or behavior would undercut the authenticity of the confession. The ideal evangelical society would be the freest possible society, because in that freedom the True Gospel would most confidently and certainly thrive. If bakers, caterers, banquet hall owners, or florists wanted their witness to be unfettered then they should jump at the chance to provide services to the most “lost”. In their commercial engagement they could provide a powerful witnessing presence that could “win-over” their adversaries.
Unfortunately, it seems those seeking civil protection to avoid engagement lack the evangelical spine necessary to defend their interpretation of faith and life, seeking instead to be protected from encounters they might find uncomfortable, challenging, or at least, awkward.
I would suggest the evangelical approach to civil engagement should be the lowest bar possible to permit free encounter and engagement with the most diverse community possible. Truth should not need protection in the marketplace if it is indeed truth, and hiding behind the shield of legislative protection would have shamed my conservative forbearers.