The Parable of the Golden Buddha

A discovery in Thailand opens a window on one fruit of a spiritual journey.

The golden Buddha in the Bangkok temple of Wat Traimit

In 1954, a Buddhist monastery in Bangkok, Thailand, was undertaking renovations. A stucco image of the Buddha had long sat in the courtyard under a tin roof. The monks decided to build a shrine to shelter it.

The following year the statue was lifted from its pedestal to be moved to its new location. The statue proved surprisingly heavy. The ropes lifting it broke. The image fell hard on the ground. As it did, some of the stucco coating chipped off.

The color of gold gleamed through the crack. When the workmen removed the rest of the plaster, they discovered a gold image underneath. Parts of the head were in fact pure gold. It weighed five and a half tons.

The image had been moved to Bangkok in 1801 from the ruined city of Ayutthaya. There it had sat for many years in a derelict temple. A Burmese army had destroyed the city in 1767. It is now believed that the temple’s monks had covered the statue with clay in hopes that the invaders would not discover what lay beneath.

They were so successful that not only did the invaders not suspect what lay beneath the plaster, but everyone else forgot also, until the golden Buddha was accidentally rediscovered. Today it is the prized image in its own temple.

This story offers a wonderful parable for one fruit of our spiritual journeys. As we move deeper into the spiritual life through the practice of spiritual disciplines, we can find ourselves discovering more and more of our true self versus the false self that we show as a façade to the world in our everyday life.

A Theme in Modern Spiritual Writing

The contrast between the true self and the false self is a common theme in the writings of many modern writers on the spiritual life. We encounter it often in the writings of Richard Rohr and Thomas Keating, two Catholic writers who have had a profound influence on my own understanding of the spiritual journey.

Rohr attributes the introduction of this theme into the vocabulary of modern spirituality to Thomas Merton, that monk-writer who helped launch the rediscovery of the contemplative prayer tradition in the modern world.

For example, in his book New Seeds of Contemplation, Merton says this:

For me to be a saint means to be myself. Therefore the problem of sanctity and salvation is in fact the problem of finding out who I am and of discovering my true self.*

He goes on to say later:

Our vocation is not simply to be, but to work together with God in the creation of our own life, our own identity, our own destiny…To put it even better, we are even called to share with God the work of creating the truth of our identity.**

 This work of becoming who I truly am is not, however, work we do by our own initiative. Rather, says Merton, the secret of my full identity is hidden in Him. He alone can make me who I am, or rather who I will be when at last I fully begin to be. ***

A Theme with Pauline Roots

Though Merton, Rohr, and Keating are using the language of modern psychology, they seem to draw their inspiration from a passage in the apostle Paul. In his Letter to the Colossians, Paul says:

So if you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth, for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life is revealed, then you also will be revealed with him in glory. (Colossians 3:1-4)

In this passage Paul speaks of our life that is hidden with Christ in God. It is a life that will be fully revealed and expressed when the Last Day comes and all creation enters into its destined glory, a glory in which each individual created being will shine in its unique identity.

The spiritual journey is the journey in this life when we begin to glimpse and experience aspects of that unique identity, which is our true self. We in partnership with God begin to chip away some of the spiritual clay that hides the golden image below. That is something of the excitement that the spiritual journey can bring us.

The Social Context of Paul’s Thought

This is an inspiring way of thinking for me. It means that we need to think of our spiritual journey as something wonderfully positive, not as something intensely negative. But it is easy to corrupt this way of thinking about the spiritual journey if we think of this discovery of our true self in solely individualistic terms. That is the bias of much of modern American culture and of modern self-help books and lectures.

The apostle Paul never sees our life hidden with Christ in God as a call to live our lives in splendid isolation from all others. We journey towards our unique life always in a social context. That is why the bulk of Paul’s writings are concerned with life in the church as a social body. It is in the challenge to live out the life of love in the rough and tumble interactions of a social network that we begin both to discover and build the unique self that God has created us to be.

Merton picks up this Pauline way of thinking when he writes:

I must look for my identity, somehow, not only in God but in other men. I will never be able to find myself if I isolate myself from the rest of mankind as if I were a different kind of being.****

So I hope that as you pick up and practice the spiritual disciplines, they will empower you to chip away at your false self and discover the golden Buddha that lies underneath. It is the unique self that God created you to be, just as my true self is the unique identity God created me to be. As we let that true self shine forth, we let God’s glory blaze out into the wider world.

Notes:

* Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation. New York: New Directions Books, 1961. Page 31.

** Merton, New Seeds. Page 32.

*** Merton, New Seeds, Page 33.

**** Merton, New Seeds. Page 51.

I Believe in Purgatory

Purgatorial experiences can form a fundamental part of our spiritual journey.

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When the Protestant Reformers threw out the doctrine of purgatory, they had good cause for doing so. They found no scriptural warrant for the highly developed, late medieval doctrine. The doctrine was also a pastoral disaster. It intensified people’s fear of death. And it opened the door for all kinds of ecclesiastical exploitation of that fear.

But in throwing out the abusive bath water that clung to medieval notions, the Reformers may also have discarded an insight important to wise pastoral counsel and spiritual direction.

The Spiritual Insight Behind the Doctrine

The insight behind the doctrine of purgatory grows out of the belief, shared by Catholics and Protestants, that the ultimate goal for human beings is to live forever in the glorious presence of God. Catholic theology calls this the beatific vision of God. Protestants do not usually use that language, but they do talk about the life of glory in the presence of God that lies ahead in the next life.

The insight is that human beings cannot endure the glorious presence of God as long as they remain entangled with the sins and corruptions of this life. There must be a process of purification that happens before any human being can enter into that glory. Protestants confess that basic conviction every time we sing these words “…though the eye of sinfulness thy glory may not see…” in the beloved Trinitarian hymn “Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God Almighty.”

But how does that necessary purification take place? Catholic and Protestants do not have a common vision on the how. Catholics have traditionally seen the how as a process that goes on after death, sometimes for a long time. As a result medieval Catholicism spun out a whole vision of purgatory as lasting years, if not centuries or millennia, after death.

Purgatory was conceived a kind of mini-hell with assorted torments and demons. It differed from hell in one important feature. Anyone in purgatory would ultimately make it into heaven. Anyone in hell would not.

 This view of purification allowed a lot of abuses to arise. The church taught that the living could lessen the suffering of the dead in purgatory through indulgences and private masses. The church sold them as a way of raising funds. This turned a pastoral concern into a mercantile concern. It is one of the abuses that so disgusted Martin Luther. It helped spark the Protestant Reformation.

As a result Protestants have generally seen the purification process as instantaneous upon death. Death itself is the purification. So Protestants generally hold to no view of purgatory in the medieval Catholic sense.

My view is that we simply do not know how the purification process works after death. Is it a process (Catholic purgatory) or an instantaneous act (Protestant purgatory)? Who knows? But I take it as a given that some purification process/act must take place. In that sense I believe in purgatory, but not in the medieval vision.

The Essence of a Purgatorial Experience

For me the essence of purgatory is the cleansing of all that blocks us from being the kind of human beings that God has always intended us to be. Those blocks are sometimes habits, attitudes, and behaviors that cut us off from God, from other people, and from our own inner selves. They are blocks we create for ourselves.

In other cases the blocks are wounds that have been inflicted upon us by other people or by tragic circumstances in life. We may not be responsible for those wounds, but they block us nonetheless from freely loving God, others, and ourselves.

In essence then, I think of purgatory as healing and liberation. We are being set free to become our authentic selves, the unique, beautiful, and loving selves that God has always called us to be. In the process we also find our authentic voices.

What fascinates me is how that process can begin even before our physical deaths. There are times in the process of spiritual and psychological growth when we find our lives shattering and crumbling away. Old orders and structures that we have relied upon to give meaning and stability to our lives undergo a massive emotional earthquake. Old stabilities crash. (This can also be true for cultures.)

At such times we can sink into despair and give up. At the same time such experiences can also issue in a call to be patient and let God reconstitute our lives in a healthier, more wholesome way, a way that leads us through fire and water into a more spacious place (see Psalm 66:12).

The sufferings we experience as those old stabilities collapse and new, more wholesome orders emerge can feel like we are in hell. No one can promise that liberation will be painless or instantaneous. Israel, after all, was forced to wander in the wilderness for 40 years after leaving the slavery of Egypt. Those 40 years were not simply a punishment for faithlessness. They were also a long and necessary part of the process by which God was forming a new people.

And so it is in our spiritual journeys, too. We can also go through times of intense pain as we grow up spiritually. Maybe those times of suffering are the required spiritual surgery that transforms our hearts of stone into warm, loving hearts.

A Parable about the Purgatorial Experience

This reminds me of a story that a friend sent me years ago. A women’s Bible study group were studying the prophet Malachi in the Old Testament. In Malachi, chapter three, they encountered these verses:

But who can endure the day of his [God’s] coming, and who can stand when he appears? For he is like a refiner’s fire and like fuller’s soap; he will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the sons of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, till they present right offerings to the Lord. (Malachi 3:2-3)*

These verses are describing a kind of purgatory experience, not however in the afterlife but within history.

The women wondered what these verses were saying about the character and nature of God. What might the purification of silver say about spiritual purification? One woman offered to find out more about the process of refining silver and report back at their next meeting.

She called up a silver smith and asked if she could come and watch him work. She said she was curious about the process of refining.

As she watched the smith at work, she saw how he held a piece of silver over the fire and let it heat up. He explained that in order to refine silver, one needed to hold the silver in the middle of the fire where the flames were hottest. The flames would burn away the impurities.

She asked the smith if he had to sit there the whole time in front of the silver as it was being refined. He answered yes. He not only had to sit there holding the silver, but he also had to keep his eyes on the silver the entire time it was in the fire. If the silver was left even a moment too long in the flames, he said, it would be destroyed.

She was silent for a few minutes, then asked, “How do you know when the silver is fully refined?” He responded, “Oh, that’s easy–when I see my image in it.”**

I like this story because I think it gets at the essence of what a true purgatory experience is all about. It places us in an experience of suffering so that the image of God which we each are–and paradoxically that image of God within us is also our true self–can begin to shine forth.

What Is Purifying about Suffering?

What is it that is so purifying about suffering? I don’t think there is anything inherently purifying about suffering per se. What purifies is how we respond to it. Suffering can trap us in the dark side of life, so that we respond with despair, anger, and bitterness. If these attitudes get an iron grip on us, we will experience suffering as a present-day experience of hell.

But there is an alternative way to respond to suffering. We can allow our suffering to nurture within us a sense of compassion, compassion for our own suffering selves as well as compassion for other suffering people. As we suffer, we can develop the empathy to understand and be with others in their suffering. And that compassion begins to build the bonds of love.

If our own suffering issues forth into compassion for ourselves and for others’ suffering, then indeed we are beginning to reflect back the image of God. For the whole message of the gospel is how God expresses his true character in the compassionate living and suffering of Jesus.

God is one who humbles himself to enter into the suffering bodies, minds, and history of humanity, to walk with us through the suffering (absorbing it into his own being), so that in union with him God can lead us through our suffering into the glorious kingdom of love that is coming.

When suffering does that, it becomes a purgatory experience. For we are then each coming to fully reflect the face of our compassionate God in our own lives. And in my book that is a primary feature of salvation and sainthood.


* If this passage sounds familiar, you may be hearing how it was set to music in George Frederic Handel’s oratorio Messiah, where it is given a Christological understanding.

** I do not know the ultimate source of this story. A friend sent it to me as a e-mail. But the story has always appealed to me as a parable of the spiritual life. If you would like to watch an example of silver refining, you may want to watch this YouTube video.

You Can’t Celebrate the Party with One Guest Missing

God’s plan aims for inclusion, not exclusion.

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Jesus as the good shepherd. A mosaic in the mausoleum of Galla Placidia, Ravenna, Italy, 5th century A.D. Photo credit: Peter Milošević. Used under Creative Commons license.

Luke 15 recounts three of Jesus’ most famous parables: the stories of the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost son. In each story, one member of a group goes missing. It/he is the lost one.

In the story of the lost sheep, a single sheep wanders off from the flock. The shepherd leaves his flock to search for the lost sheep and return it to the flock. In the second story, one coin in a collection of ten coins is lost. A housewife thoroughly scours her house until she finds it and restores it to the collection.

The third story of the lost son has a bit of a twist. A man’s young son demands his portion of his father’s inheritance. He then travels to a far country where he squanders that inheritance in undisciplined living. When he sinks into destitution, he comes to his senses. He returns home to ask forgiveness and encounters his father running down the road to joyfully embrace and welcome him home.

What is striking about all three stories is that the shepherd, the housewife, and the father all celebrate the recovery of the lost one by throwing a party. “Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep which is lost,” says the shepherd to his neighbors. Merrymaking is a repeated note in all three stories.

The parties don’t come until the lost one has been restored. What strikes me about this fact is the thought that the parties cannot begin until their one missing guest is present. The merrymaking cannot be full until that missing guest has been ushered in.

That is what makes the ending of the third story so poignant. Even though the lost younger son has been restored to the family–and to the party–there is still one guest missing. That guest is the elder son who has been working in his father’s fields.

He resents his father’s extravagance on behalf of his errant younger brother. He will have nothing to do with the party celebrating his brother’s return. When the story ends, we are left with the question: Will the elder son spoil the party by becoming the next missing guest?

Jesus tells the three stories in response to grumbling by Pharisees and scribes that Jesus has been socializing with tax collectors and sinners. In their view, God’s party must shut out those missing guests. The party is all about exclusivity, not inclusion.

But Jesus responds by telling these three stories. In throwing his party, God is all about inclusivity, not exclusivity. In fact, the hint is that the party cannot begin until every one of the missing guests has been found and brought in on the celebration.

Now the point of these stories, I think, goes beyond just concerns about the pastoral approach of churches in their dealings with social, economic, ethnic, or moral outsiders. I find myself wondering if it does not point as well to universal salvation when the kingdom of God is ushered in at the end of history.

This is not to deny the theme of judgment that we find in Scripture. Mercy can never sweep sin and evil under the spiritual rug. We must take with great seriousness the notes of warning that are scattered throughout Scripture.

But I also contend we must always balance out that theme of judgment with the equally strong theme of the overflowing mercy and love of God for all his creation. And these three parables suggest that there are no limits on how far God will go to restore those missing ones to his party. He will scour the universe until each lost one has been brought in.

That also raises a question I have to take personally. Will I be the elder son who, by my insistence on the exclusivity of God’s intentions, become the next missing guest at the party?

Note to Reader:

I want to acknowledge that my thoughts in this posting were triggered by an insight into these three parables written by Amy-Jill Levine. A friend recently sent her piece to me. Levine is a Jewish professor of New Testament at Vanderbilt Divinity School. Just as Christians have long commented on the Hebrew Bible, so Levine is an example of how this process is going the other way as well. I welcome that for the new insights that Jewish interaction with the New Testament can bring me.

Where Begins the Gospel?

An ambiguous word comes loaded with meaning.

An image of the evangelist Mark in the Anglo-Saxon Lindisfarne Gospels, 7th-8th centuries.

Sometimes, when reading the Bible, we encounter a word, a phrase, or a sentence that seems so ridiculously simple. We read it and move on, giving it no further thought. But if we stop to pinpoint its meaning, what had seemed so simple becomes ambiguous. It possesses layers of meaning.

One classic example is the sentence fragment that opens the Gospel of Mark: The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God (Mark 1:1). It sounds simple and straightforward. That is, until we try to understand what the author means by the word beginning. Just what does constitute the beginning of his gospel?

I contend that there are at least four possible ways of understanding that simple word.

1) The sentence fragment may serve as a book title. Ancient books did not have titles like published books today. When people made reference to a particular book, instead of naming its title they would quote its opening word or words.

For example, in English Bibles, we give each of the five books of Moses a title: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. In the Hebrew Bible, however, their titles are the opening words of each book. Genesis is not called Genesis but Bereshit (In the beginning), which is the opening word of Genesis in Hebrew.

Mark may intend the opening fragment of his gospel to serve this purpose. He is telling his reader that he is herewith beginning to  tell  the gospel of Jesus Christ.

2.  When we notice, however, what immediately follows this opening fragment (Mark 1:2-8), we find Mark quoting a passage out of the Old Testament prophet Isaiah. Maybe Mark wants us to see this quotation as the beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

This may be a way Mark signals to us that the gospel of Jesus Christ really begins in the Old Testament. The Old Testament story of Israel is the necessary preparation for the coming of the gospel.

This interpretation does not sound so far-fetched when we notice how it is impossible to understand the fullness of the New Testament message unless we soak ourselves deeply in the Old Testament. The New Testament writers are constantly quoting the Old Testament. They use theological terms and images that have their origins in the Old Testament. And the Old Testament provides the fundamental theological premises on which the New Testament writers build their own theologies.

The New Testament becomes wobbly in its proclamations without the background of the Old Testament. So the Old Testament itself may be the beginning of the gospel which Mark is proclaiming.

3) I always believe that it is essential to pay attention to context when trying to interpret an isolated phrase or sentence in a Bible passage. The opening of Mark is no exception.

If we pay attention to what follows the opening fragment (again Mark 1:2-8), we find it is not only a quotation from the Old Testament, but also the story of the coming of John the Baptist and his ministry of baptism in the desert. In fact, the quotation from Isaiah serves to leads us into this ministry.

So a third option for understanding the beginning of the gospel is the ministry of John the Baptist. In fact, all four gospels in the New Testament acknowledge that the ministry of John the Baptist as the trigger that launches Jesus on his own ministry. Jesus does not begin his preaching, teaching, and healing until he has been baptized by John.

Christians have ever since acknowledged the crucial role of John in launching the Christian movement by giving him the title the Forerunner. In Orthodox iconography, like the mosaic of the deësis in Istanbul’s church of Hagia Sophia, John always stands to the immediate left of the central icon of Jesus.

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4) The final possible meaning requires looking upon the whole of Mark’s gospel as the context for its opening sentence fragment.

Scholars have longed noticed that in the manuscript tradition the gospel of Mark has ended oddly. In the earliest manuscripts it ends with chapter 16, verse 8. Scribes added verses 16:9-20 to the gospel only centuries later.

So Mark’s original text appears to have ended with the resurrection of Jesus proclaimed by a young man (an angel?) to the women at the tomb. But oddly Mark’s gospel contains no appearance of the risen Jesus to the disciples as do the other three gospels. Instead the young man tells the women that the risen Jesus will go before his disciples into Galilee. There they will see him (Mark 16:6-7).

But Mark never records that appearance in Galilee. Why? That’s one big puzzle in studying Mark.

It is important, however, to recognize what Galilee represents in Mark’s gospel. It is not the Jewish heartland. Judea and Jerusalem are that. Galilee is more of a borderland. Its populace mingles Jews with Gentiles. To a Jewish purist, it is therefore a place where one might risk religious contamination.

Yet the young man tells the women at the tomb that Jesus’ disciples will meet the risen Jesus in Galilee. Is this coded language by which Mark is suggesting that Christians will meet the risen Jesus when they continue his ministry in the borderlands, in those lands where races, ethnic identities, social classes, and religions intermingle.

This leads me to wonder if Mark sees the movement of Christians out of Palestine and into the Gentile world as the continuation of the gospel ministry of Jesus. That gospel ministry began in Galilee. There was the beginning of the gospel, but not the end. The full story is to be found in the spread of the gospel out into the whole world. The ministry of Jesus–his life, his death, his resurrection–is only the beginning.

Now which of these possible interpretations does Mark have in mind when he writes The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, Son of God? Is it possible that he does not have just one of these meanings in mind? Is it not possible that that simple, but ambiguous sentence fragment embraces all four?

Dancing Freedom

How we understand God has a lot to do with how we understand freedom. 

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Galaxy NGC 4414 in its circular rotation.

In working on my recently published book Charter of Christian Freedom, I had to struggle a lot with what the apostle Paul was saying in his Letter to the Galatians. For freedom is a major theme throughout the letter.

Two verses in Galatians capsulize that theme for me:

For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery. (Galatians 5:1)

For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another. (Galatians 5:13)

They express the heart of Paul’s teaching. But they pose one big problem for me. How can you advocate freedom and then turn around in the same breath and advocate becoming a slave? It just doesn’t make sense to me.

My Very American View of Freedom

Part of the problem, I think, is that I hold a different understanding of what freedom is than does Paul. As an American, I’ve been raised on the idea that freedom means individual autonomy, self-reliance, independence. If I am free, I make choices purely on my own personal desires, insight, or judgment of what is right. I have no one compelling me to choose in a specific way.

This concept of freedom fueled the American Revolution. Americans wanted to shake off what they perceived as British oppression (taxation without representation among other things). They wanted to determine their own destiny rather than a Parliament and king across the ocean doing that. That understanding of freedom has underlain most American attitudes since.

We glorify the self-made man. We believe every family should be master of its own castle. Government should be limited to the barest essential duties. And we should be able to follow any dream we come to hold, without restraint. We see this concept of freedom in a pure form in libertarian thought.

If that is our concept of freedom, then slavery is its polar opposite. Slavery represents a condition where an individual has no choice to make. The individual is not master of his or her life. He/she must submit to an authority above himself or herself.

If that is our concept of freedom, then Paul seems to be engaging in double-talk. He is telling us Christ has made us free, but only to subject us to a new un-freedom. (Does that sound familiar with many voices we have heard in Christian history?) We begin to feel we are in the world of 1984 or Animal Farm.

Now this understanding of freedom as sovereign independence can sound persuasive if we hold an understanding of God as the cosmic autocrat. This is a common view in many Christian circles. Notice how many prayers begin with the phrase Almighty God. In this view of God, God’s will becomes something arbitrary. We have no say in it; God decides everything. All we can do is submit or else, and the else is often pictured in direst terms.

The Calvinist doctrine of double predestination is a good example of this theology. God decides gratuitously whom God will save and whom he will damn. We humans have no say in the matter.

If this is who God is, then we are not really sure, deep in our souls, that we can really trust this God to be for us. We then try to cage in this arbitrary ruler so he cannot hurt us. Or we view freedom as rebellion. Freedom is becoming totally independent of this dangerous divine being. That lies, I suspect, behind a lot of contemporary atheism. It is a reaction to the view of God that traditional Christianity has often presented and then implemented in its actions.

A Challenge from the View of God as Triune

But what happens if we view God within the framework of God as triune? In the doctrine of the Trinity, God is one God, but not a isolated monad. God is a fellowship of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

The life of God is a constant flow of love among the three persons of the Godhead. The Father eternally pours his love into the Son, who eternally receives the love of the Father. The Son eternally pours his love into the Holy Spirit, and the Spirit eternally receives the love of the Son. The Spirit pours his love into the Father, and the Father eternally receives the love of the Spirit. And so on throughout all the relationships of the Godhead.

The life of God is this eternal flowing of love among the three persons. Trinitarian theologians use a technical word perichoresis to describe this flow. The word is Greek and comes from the world of the theatre. It is the word for the circle dance that was often performed as a part of a theatrical production.

It is for this reason that I think of God engaging in an eternal circle dance of love, with love flowing in, among, and then out of all three persons. In that process the distinct identity of each person is maintained but within a fluidity of relationships.

It is important that we see perichoresis not moving in only one direction. It involves giving but also receiving. The life of God is a constant pouring out of one’s life into the other and a constant receiving of one’s life from the other. Mutuality defines divine life.

An Alternate View of Freedom

Now if this is the vision of God we hold, then the concept of freedom starts to take on a different cast. Freedom is being released for this life of mutuality. It is being released from all that blocks us from giving ourselves to God and others.

Those blocks can include oppressive demands, personal or social, placed on us by others. They can include anxieties within us, especially fears about self-survival. They can include emotional and spiritual wounds that have been inflicted upon us in childhood. They can include our own behaviors that seek to establish our dominance over others. In all these ways alienation is the result.

The blocks are not just blocks in giving ourselves to others. They can include, too, blocks in receiving from others, for receiving love can be as frightening as giving it. I find it is sometimes harder for me to receive love from others than to give it.

Receiving love can feel very humbling. We are not in a position of superiority as we are when we are donors. Receiving involves acknowledging our need. It calls forth a response of gratitude. And that can be a blow to our desire to be invulnerable.

If our view of God is this view of mutual giving and receiving (that lies at the heart of the doctrine of the Trinity), Paul’s view of freedom begins to make sense. For then freedom is this experience of being released for the circle dance of love, a life of fully giving ourselves to others and fully receiving from others. We can confidently give ourselves in service to others because we can be confident that we will not be diminished, but constantly renewed and built up by the experience.

If this is how Paul sees freedom, then Christ is releasing us for the privilege and opportunity to enter into the Trinity’s own life. We are invited into the dance of love that is divine life. *

Of course, for most of us, this invitation is not realized instantaneously. It involves some agonizing struggle with our deep-seated fears for self-survival, fears that feel perfectly appropriate because of experiences of abusive mutuality that all of us have experienced in the journey of life. We have been hurt by people who claim to love us: we are therefore fearful and cautious when genuine love comes our way.

This struggle is a real part of growing up spiritually. And it never ends this short of the coming of the Kingdom of God in its fullness at the End. But the gospel also promises we can enter into this circle dance of love in stages here and now. We are given the gift of the Spirit who can progressively heal us from our fears if we are open.


* I do not want to claim that Paul had a full-blown view of God as triune when he wrote Galatians. The doctrine of the Trinity emerged in its full dimensions about 300 years later. But the seeds of the doctrine are there in Paul and the other New Testament writers.

A Pang for Eternity

Does life have meaning? It depends upon where you look for an answer.

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Gustave Doré’s rendition (19th century) of Dante’s vision of Paola and Francesca in Hell.

I was reading Ecclesiastes when I stumbled upon this sentence: He [God] has made everything beautiful in its times; also he has put eternity into man’s mind, yet he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end (Ecclesiastes 3:11 RSV).

The sentence is evocative like good poetry. I had to pause and take in what the author was saying. It struck me as something very perceptive.

Odd Book in the Canon

Ecclesiastes is an odd book in the Hebrew canon. The author is called the Preacher and linked to Solomon, proverbially the wisest of the Hebrew sages. But he does not speak like a Hebrew sage. More like a Greek philosopher or moralist.

He is decidedly rationalistic in approaching the meaning of life. He travels widely, observing carefully all around him. Though he believes in God, he does not rely much on the precepts of Hebrew religion for his analysis. Rather he is skeptical of much of what the Hebrew faith teaches.

What does he concludes from his observations? Everywhere he looks, he sees impermanence. Seasons come and go, so do human beings. All–king or peasant, rich or poor, wise or foolish, noble lady or maid–all face the same fate: the grave.

So his final conclusion is: all is vanity. All is but a puff of wind. What is here today is gone tomorrow. Human beings therefore should just enjoy the pleasures of today nor work too obsessively, for they do not know what tomorrow brings. It’s a distinctly morose view of life.

The Longing for Meaning

That’s why the sentence I quoted at the beginning so struck me. The author seems to believe that a longing for something permanent, something forever meaningful, lies within the mind and heart of human beings, but we can never find it.

The longing lies deep in the human psyche. The question is: Is there any way to satisfy it? The Preacher is skeptical. Human beings, despite all their longing, cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end.

This would suggest that human life is always restless, never able to find contentment. This brings to mind the image in Dante’s Divine Comedy of the lovers Paolo and Francesca whirling around their circle of Hell passionately pursuing each other but never able to find a moment to rest and connect.

Rationalism’s Dead End

I wonder if the Preacher’s dismal vision may not represent where a totally rationalistic approach to life ultimately ends. Can reason alone, whether inductive or empirical, finally penetrate into the inner secrets of life and the universe? Can we ever really understand to our full contentment? I think the Preacher would say No.

I find this a provocative question because a couple of years ago I read Jim Holt’s book Why Does the World Exist: An Existential Detective Story. In it he traces the way modern human beings try to answer the vexing question: What is the mystery of existence? Why should there be a universe at all, and why are we a part of it?

He seeks answers by interviewing some of today’s top philosophers, physicists, and cosmologists. Many of them are working on the far reaches of current scientific exploration. It is amazing how much modern science has uncovered secret after secret about the universe.

And yet, despite their amazing knowledge, Holt quotes a number of scientists who have concluded at the end of all their study that the universe is meaningless. It has no purpose. It just is, period. Now, I think the Preacher would be right at home within their circle. All is but a breath of wind.

Moving Beyond Reason

If this is the ultimate end point for a purely rationalistic approach to understanding life and the world, then human beings have to turn elsewhere for an answer. Some, I think, turn to the world of imagination. Others to the world of religion. Human beings have eternity in their minds. If science cannot satisfy their longing, then they will search in alternative fields.

In the world of imagination, they can explore a world which has meaning. That’s one reason, I suspect, we are constantly attracted to stories–whether in print or cinema–where good ultimately triumphs over evil. We encounter them in fairy tales, TV police dramas, compelling novels, and cinema (the Star Wars series is a great example).

Imagination may not be able to prove its case by rational argument, but imagination may intuitively perceive a truth that is not available to reason. Or alternatively there is always the possibility that imagination may be dead wrong. Yet we are drawn back over and over again to stories that posit some kind of meaning to the lives we live. Our fascination with these stories bears witness to the depth of our longings.

The other alternative is religion, especially if the religion is based upon some belief in divine revelation as do Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Historically religion has been probably the most prevalent way for most of humanity to find the contentment to the longing for eternity that the Preacher detects in the human mind.

One Christian Answer

Certainly the Christian faith does that for me. And no one provides it better for me than something out of my spiritual heritage as a Presbyterian. In the 17th century English Presbyterians adopted what are known as the Westminster Standards. They include a catechism for instruction in the faith.

The opening question of the catechism with its answer is probably the best known statement in all of the Westminster Standards. It reads:

Q. What is the chief end of man? 

A. Man’s chief end is to glorify God and enjoy him forever.

 There, at the very start of its exposition of the fundamental teachings of the Christian faith, the catechism tackles the question of meaning right on. Life has meaning, and it’s tied up with our relationship to God.

It is easy to write this off as pious frou-frou. But I find it strangely profound. The universe, human beings, find their purpose in being in relationship, a relationship with their Maker. That relationship has two dimensions. One is the glorification of God; the other, however, is the enjoyment of God. Ultimately we are to bring pleasure to God and to enjoy pleasure ourselves through our relationship to the same loving God.

God creates out of a loving delight. We find our meaning as we respond to this same God in loving delight. Maybe that is the answer to that glimmer of eternity that the Preacher finds in human minds. But it is not an answer that reason alone could deliver. Only divine grace does.

Q&A on My New Study Guide to Galatians

Why I wrote this book and what you can expect from it.

WS_5.5x8.5_templateAs I announced in my last posting, the publishing house Wipf and Stock has released my new book: Charter of Christian Freedom: A Layperson’s Study Guide to Paul’s Letter to the Galatians. I offer this short Q&A as a way of explaining why I have written this book and what you may expect to find in it:

Q. Why have you written this book on Galatians?

A. Because it is one of the most influential literary works written in Christian history. It redirected the course of apostolic Christianity. It has sparked many reform movements in the church, including the Protestant Reformation. It gave teeth to campaigns in the twentieth century to ordain women. And it has revolutionized my own spiritual life.

Q. There are many commentaries available on Galatians. Why another?

A.This book started out in response to a request from a minister friend who was teaching a men’s Bible study class. He was frustrated in finding suitable study materials for the class. His men shied away from academic volumes, but also found most Sunday school materials too simplistic. They loved William Barclay, but found him dated. Having read my blog, he challenged me to write something for his men that had substance but avoided academic jargon. This book is written to be just that kind of study resource for laypeople studying the Bible and for working pastors.

Q. How do you approach the Letter to the Galatians?

A. Too many people read the Bible in isolated snippets. I read books of the Bible as literary works, paying attention to the flow of the whole work and its historical, canonical, and literary contexts. The tools I use to read the Bible are ones I first learned in a college class on poetry writing. I discovered in the class that I was not a great poet, but I did learn how to read a literary work closely. I have transferred those tools to reading the Bible, including the Letter to the Galatians.

Q. In a nutshell summary, what is the basic message of Galatians?

A. Galatians is a kind of polemical pamphlet. Paul wrote it to address a controversy roiling the apostolic church. On what basis could Gentiles be accepted into a religious movement that was originally Jewish? Paul says they are to be accepted on the same basis as Jewish Christians: by faith in Jesus Christ. They are free from adopting Jewish identity markers. They can be Christians as Gentiles rather than as Jewish converts.

Q. That sounds as if Galatians is an obsolete tract dealing with an old, by-gone controversy? Why study it today?

A. The way Paul addresses that old controversy has spoken powerfully to Christians ever since. Paul does not see the Christian life as one of following iron rules of morality and religious practice. Instead we are called to sink deep roots into the Holy Spirit. In turn the Holy Spirit will bring about a transformation of our lives. It is a way of living freely. And I find that is a clarifying message we Christians need to hear once again today.

Q. If that’s the case, how has your study of Galatians changed your own life?

A.  I grew up in a legalistic version of Christianity focused on identifying and avoiding sins. It nurtured a joy-killing spirit. I hated it. But when I came to read Galatians and understand the import of what Paul was saying, I realized how wrong I was in the vision of Christianity I carried from my childhood. Galatians truly revolutionized my spiritual life. That’s one reason I wrote this book–to help others discover this same liberating message.

Q. Do you have a favorite passage in Galatians?

A. Yes, it is verse 5:13, which reads: “For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become servants to one another.” Paul expresses a fundamental paradox in Christianity. Freedom is experienced in service. Now that turns our normal expectations upside down.

If you would like to explore the Letter to Galatians, you can order the book from Amazon (including an e-book version) or order it directly (including an e-book version) from the publisher’s website below: http://wipfandstock.com/charter-of-christian-freedom.html.