Blog Banner

Archive for theology

Is Jesus a Get-Out-of-Hell-Free Card?

Based on what you see in a lot of churches today, it would be easy to assume that the ministry of Jesus had mostly to do with teaching people 1 weird trick to avoid damnation. The Jesus we are most often presented with is a walking, talking get out of hell free card. Popular Evangelical theology tells us that we will be justified – that is, freed from the consequences of our sin – if we choose to accept certain intellectual ideas about God, Jesus, and the Bible.

But that’s just a head trip. The old-time Quakers referred to the Devil as the Reasoner, because one of the main ways that foul, life-denying ideas take root is by appealing to logic built on unquestioned assumptions. As long as the assumptions are wrong, our reason can take us to all sorts of nasty places, all the while being quite logical!

The popular theology of Jesus-as-hell-avoidance is rooted in a whole host of assumptions that just don’t jive with the broad thrust of scripture. Yet, once we accept those assumptions, it’s easy to read the Bible through these hell-colored glasses. Jesus’ political theology becomes entirely spiritual. The words of the prophets take on an other-worldy hue, suddenly irrelevant to the reality of modern day empire, violence, and greed.

Why Ask Why?

It’s scary how effectively our unconscious assumptions can block knowledge of the truth. So often, we in the church fail to ask the most basic question that every child knows so well: Why, why, why? If we had faith like children – a faith that kept asking why, kept challenging assumptions – we’d be more likely to uncover the false logic that blinds us.

Fortunately, there are plenty of opportunities to have our worldview challenged. We live in a society that increasingly denies the fundamental doctrines of popular Christian faith. Most people that I know aren’t looking for a God who will save them from hell. The most urgent questions of my neighbors have to do with pressing issues of this life: Is there a power that can overcome my addiction? Where can I find hope in a civilization that seems intent on destroying itself? How can I find the strength to love other people when I’m so angry and afraid?

These questions unlock real conversations that don’t require shared faith in Jesus to begin. These are conversations that don’t rest so solidly on our own theological assumptions that the only discussion to be had is whether the other person is going to accept our worldview. These are authentic, nonviolent questions.

Do You Buy It?

We live in a world that is bombarded with marketing. Whether it’s for Jesus, a political candidate, or the new iPhone, there is no shortage of coercive, deceptive communication whose only objective is to convince us to buy. In such an environment, the simple act of asking a non-loaded question is almost revolutionary. It opens the door to the real possibility of change – not just in the other person, but in our own lives, as well.

To ask such revolutionary questions, we’ll have to break free of the many hidden agendas that have been bundled with the gospel for centuries. We must become like little children – ready to learn, open to examining our hidden assumptions when they are pointed out, and free of any objective beyond the transparent desire to embody Christ’s love.

Time To Lose Control

This won’t be easy. It’s going to mean giving up many ideas that we’ve invested a lot in. We humans get pretty attached to concepts of God that we can control. We want things to make sense, and we want to be right.

But Jesus isn’t interested in having disciples who are smarter and more pious than everybody else. Jesus loves us in our weakness. He rejoices when we acknowledge our brokenness and insufficiency. He asks subversive questions to overcome our ingrained answers. Jesus substitutes the mystery of the kingdom for the settled law of empire.

How would it feel to allow Jesus to call all our assumptions into question? What would it be like to embrace Christianity as an invitation into ongoing discovery, rather than a system of settled answers? How might our relationships with others change once we let go of the need to be right all the time?

See Related Posts:

Do You Take the Bible Literally?

Is Universalism Heresy?

Idols and the I AM

I am fascinated by the often dysfunctional relationship between God and Israel. In Exodus, God appears, seemingly out of nowhere, and provides the Hebrew people with a hope and a future. For reasons known only to God, the Lord chooses an insignificant group of Egyptian slaves and promises to guide them to freedom, peace and prosperity in their own land. Repeatedly, throughout their flight from Egypt, their journey through the desert and their new life in the Promised Land, God works miraculous deeds to protect and guide the Hebrew people. All they are asked in return is to put aside other gods and follow the Lord alone.

This should be a no-brainer, right? In exchange for justice, prosperity, love and stability, wouldn’t you think that a people could be convinced to give up other gods and follow I AM alone? This deal seems so good, that it can be difficult to understand why the Hebrews consistently broke their end of the bargain. Time and again, they worshiped other deities – fertility gods, power gods, national gods – subjecting themselves once again to the horrors of slavery that God had delivered them from. Why would the Hebrews give up such a beneficial relationship to go fiddle around with idols?

At first glance, it’s easy for me to miss the relevance of this spiritual history. After all, no one I know literally worships idols of carved wood, stone or metal. This type of polytheistic worship, while not unheard of, is relatively uncommon in my nation. It is certainly not a live option for me. I have never been tempted to set up an altar to the fertility goddess Astarte or the power god Ares.

Yet, even in 21st-century America, we still worship many things that are not God. It takes a bit of imagination to make the connection between ancient idol-worship and modern-day substitutes for reality, but when I finally do see it, the Old Testament stories are transformed. No longer are they quaint, mostly irrelevant tales from the distant past. Now, they ripple with brilliant color and life. I can see that not only is this same story playing out today, but that I myself often participate in the faithless idolatry that so often got the Hebrews into trouble.

There are many ways that my loyalty to God can get divided. Worries about money or career success are a big one. It’s one thing to say that I trust God to provide for me; it’s another thing entirely to act as if it were true! How often do I pay homage to the god of Success, rather than the I AM who provided for the Hebrews in the wilderness?

In reality, the dynamics of human faith (and faithlessness) are not so different now than they were 3000 years ago. The gods of wealth, fertility, hedonism, and power are all alive and well – and actively sought after. Their names have changed, of course, and most of their devotees would not conceive of their veneration as religious. But worship does not have to take an explicitly religious form to be real. Whatever we give ultimate meaning and priority to, we worship.

We are often lured into believing that we serve God alone, when in fact we have many other priorities – sex, money, power, security, recognition – that are in active competition. Once we see this, it’s no longer so easy to look down on the ancient Hebrews who worshiped their various gods in addition to God. All of a sudden, the story is a little too close for comfort!

More than ever, it’s a story that we need to hear. Though our idols today are rarely made of gold, silver and bronze, they are effective as ever in pulling us away from our primary allegiance to Christ. How can we wake up to the multitude of false gods that populate our culture, and choose to follow Jesus alone? What would it look like to reengage with the I AM of the Old Testament experience, who stands as an alternative to the addictions and delusions of Empire?

How Much Unity Do We Need?

In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity.Marco Antonio de Dominis

Despite being followers of the Prince of Peace, Christians have a long track record of fighting with one another. We Quakers, despite our history as a peace church, have always found plenty of ways to rip each other a new… theological perspective. The history of the Quaker church is one of seemingly endless schisms, and while I’ve heard it said that other groups “multiply by division,” Friends have mostly lost strength, numbers and spiritual wholeness with each split.

In light of our contentious past, and present, I was very pleased to read a recent article by Steve Angell of Earlham School of Religion, in which he makes a plea for openness to the variety of scripturally-based views of the atonement. He points out that there are actually several, scripturally authentic views of how Jesus’ death on the cross brings about reconciliation between humanity and God, and between human beings themselves.

Different groups within the Christian community emphasize one view or another. For example, Evangelicals strongly embrace the satisfaction and penal substitution theories of the atonement – commonly summed up with, “Jesus died for our sins.” Liberal Christians generally focus on the moral influence theory, which holds that Jesus’ selfless martyrdom on the cross is meant to serve as an example for his followers to emulate. There’s also the ransom/Christus Victor theories, which date back to the early Church but which lately have been overshadowed by other, more popular atonement theories.

I really appreciate Angell’s exposition of these issues, because he understands that these theories are not simply some esoteric mumbo jumbo, but are in fact central to how we understand our faith as followers of Jesus. He is quite clear that Jesus’ atoning work on the cross is essential to how we become citizens of God’s new world (the Kingdom). The atonement is no throw-away doctrine that we can take or leave. Jesus’ execution on the cross and his resurrection from the dead are fundamental to our Christian faith. It is through Christ’s death that we are reconciled to God and brought out of darkness and death. We participate in his resurrection insofar as we embrace his willingness to suffer for love.

Understanding the deep importance of the atonement, Angell pleas for a generous orthodoxy that allows these varying biblical perspectives to co-exist within the same community. For so long, Quakers – and Christians in general – have been screaming at one another over just exactly how Jesus’ sacrifice “works,” when Jesus himself calls us to the profoundly practical work of healing the sick, casting out demons and announcing good news (not just theories, but real, practical good news!) to the poor.

There are certainly times when God calls us to stand firm on theological questions. I was glad to see that Angell did not suggest that orthodoxy is unimportant. Yet, he draws our attention to the fact that the truth is complex, multifaceted, rich with meaning and nuance. While we all seek to follow Jesus and become baptized into his Spirit, there are many ways of understanding how that relationship works!

The work of distinguishing between what is merely metaphor and what is bedrock truth is very difficult. There are members of the Quaker community, for example, who think that Jesus himself is essentially a metaphor – that when I as a Christian say “Jesus,” it is essentially the same thing as when a non-Christian says “God” or “Truth” or “Spirit.” How can we embrace different perspectives without going this far? Where is the distinction between our human metaphors and the real, tangible relationship that we are called to have with the person of Jesus Christ?

How can we make room for differences in metaphor while staying faithful to the basic truths that we have received – in Scripture, through tradition and in our own personal experience of God’s action? How much liberty is healthy, and how much unity is essential? And in all of these questions, how can we maintain a fundamental compassion and charity for one another that reflects the face of our Savior?