The Grammar of Grace

Is the Gospel a depressing burden or exhilarating good news? It all depends upon how we understand the dynamic of grace. 

Augustine of Hippo, the great theologian of grace, as depicted by Sandro Botticelli, 15th century.

Several years ago, when I was seeking my first position as a pastor, I was asked what I thought was the top theological issue in our world today. After some thought, I answered that for me it was how we relate Christian behavior to the life of grace.

I felt then (and I still do) that most American churches get it wrong, not in the words they use, but in their actions. They preach salvation by God’s grace, but practice a life that the Protestant Reformers called salvation by works. That creates huge amounts of anxiety in people’s lives. It also drives many away from organized religion.

It’s an irony, of course, because some of the most heated debates in the Reformation were over this very question: How are we saved? Or more crudely, how do we get on the good side of God? By works of righteousness that we perform or by God’s free gift (grace) that we appropriate by faith? The Reformers answered with the latter option. That conviction is supposed to be one of the distinctions of Protestantism.

Yet for many American Christians today, the Reformation debate feels hollow. It sounds like just another of the Reformers’ interminable doctrinal food fights. That’s because we can no longer connect the theological language in which the debate is worded with our lived experience.

A Need for Relearning

To use a metaphor, we no longer understand the correct grammar for talking about grace. Grace still tends to be a warm and fuzzy word in our religious vocabulary. It resonates with good vibrations. We’re just not sure what it means. So it is easy to misuse it. And when we do, we can mess up our lives badly. We need to relearn how to use it correctly.

It helps to begin with the origin of the word. The English word grace comes from the Latin word gratia, which means literally favor, kindness, or esteem. Ultimately behind the Latin lies the root meaning of pleasing. Gratia is the favor or kindness we feel when something or someone gives us pleasure.

When we apply the word grace to God, we are talking about the favor, the kindness, or good esteem that God shows to us. We are his good creation. He declares us very good, at the end of the Genesis creation story (Genesis 1:31). And so, I believe, we give him pleasure.

Not everyone agrees. Several years ago, my sister told me a story about an incident in her church. A young couple came to church one day with their newborn baby. Church members crowded around to ooh and ah over the child. They kept saying what a beautiful baby it was.

After several minutes of that, the father suddenly burst out: “This child is a God-damned sinner, and he will go to Hell someday unless he gets saved.” My sister, to her credit, was shocked just as I am by his outburst. Yet it is a common theological belief in many religious circles.

I contend its understanding of God and God’s attitude to humanity is simply wrong. We may stray from God’s way of life and despoil his good creation. But that does not transform God’s attitude from one of love to one of hate. We remain objects of God’s love, because we are God’s good creation, no matter how badly we screw up. He continues to love us and seeks to restore us to wholeness.

Challenging a Twisted Belief

Most of us, however, develop the twisted belief that we must do something to make this hating God love us, to make God look with favor and good esteem on us. We hear this belief often expressed by people in church when they say they try to live good lives so they will make it into heaven when they die.

So we struggle hard to achieve that acceptance with God. Such a belief makes perfect sense to most of us, because it is the way a lot of the world works — the world in which most of us live and do business. Advertising, for example, would have us believe that if we don’t wash our hair in the latest and greatest shampoo, we will not be attractive and will therefore not be loved.

I see this twisted belief at work all the time in the corporate world, where I spent 30 years of my working life. There it is standard operating procedure.

People get promoted to a higher status in their companies allegedly on the basis of their achievements–or in corporate language, on the basis of their performance. If I reach executive status in the company, it is because I have performed exceptionally well in lower positions.

This is the dynamic of un-grace. It can be stated very simply: I am what I am because of what I do.

Have you ever noticed that at social occasions when we are introduced for the first time to a stranger, the first question we usually ask is: What do you do? That’s because in a lot of American life our identity is tied up with what work we do. In some other circles our identity is linked to the family or tribe we belong to.

The besetting vice that accompanies this dynamic of un-grace is pride. If my performance achieves me my status, then I can rightly feel proud of what I have achieved. Maybe that’s why we Americans are so afraid of being called a loser. We are obsessed with winning, because our status and respect in society depends upon it.

The Gospel Reversal

The Gospel turns this dynamic on its head. I do not attain my status in God’s sight because of anything I do. Instead, I am chosen by God and adopted into God’s family by his redemptive work in Christ. For the Christian, the sign and seal of that adoption is the sacrament of baptism, which unites us to Christ through trusting faith.

The fact there is nothing I do to achieve this status is particularly striking when baptism is performed in infancy. When our parents present us for baptism, God adopts us as his own. We become children of God because God acknowledges us as such, not because of anything an infant does. All the infant may do is squeal when the water is poured on its head.

Once we are members of God’s family, there are behaviors that grow out of our status.   We are called to live in a particular way–a way that is described in our ethics, our spiritual disciplines, and in our worship practices– but these ways do not achieve us our status before God. They are responses to the status conferred on us at baptism.

In the realm of grace, behavior grows out of who we are. Here the logic in its simplest is: We do what we do because of who we are.

Let me repeat this contrast.

The way of the world is expressed in the formula: I am what I am because of what I do. I achieve my status of acceptance with God by how I live my life. This way of living is what our ancestors in the Reformation meant when they denounced salvation by works.

The way of the Gospel is expressed in the formula: I do what I do because of who I am. I am a child of God by God’s initiative. All I have to do is gratefully accept that gift of status that God confers. Once I do and begin to realize the depth of this truth, my behavior is going to change, but as a response to the gift God has given.

This is how I understand what the Reformers meant when they upheld salvation by grace through faith. God adopts us into his family by his gracious, free initiative. When the prodigal son returns to his father, he is received joyfully as a son, not as a slave, because he is in fact already a son. The father throws a party. All the son can feel is humility and immense gratitude before his father’s amazing graciousness.

When we understand the correct dynamic, then what the apostle Paul writes in Ephesians 2:8-10 explodes with new meaning for us:

For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God—not the result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.

The Importance of Knowing the Correct Grammar

 Getting the grammar right in how we talk about grace is so important because it makes all the difference in how we experience the Gospel. Is the Gospel a depressing burden or exhilarating Good News? Something we dread or something we welcome with joy? A way to death or a way to overflowing life?

When the Gospel sinks deeply into our consciousness, we act the way we do not out of a sense of deadening obligation, but out of thankfulness and gratitude for what God has done for us. To be honest, however, as we start out our Christian lives, that sense of thankfulness and gratitude that lies behind our behavior may feel somewhat forced. That’s because we still carry within our psyches lingering feelings of obligation.

But as we grow more mature in our spiritual lives, the Spirit begins to dissolve those feelings of obligation and transform themselves into traits of character. We do what we do naturally and hopefully joyfully because it is what we have become. Our honest desire is to be who we are.

And that is what freedom becomes for us. We realize that God has all along been inviting us to enter into the freedom of being fully who we are. We are truly amazed by God’s grace. Our behavior becomes one part of our sacrifice of thanksgiving to God.

A Prayer that Exemplifies the Grammar of Grace

This is so beautifully caught in one of my favorite liturgical prayers, the Prayer of General Thanksgiving, a prayer written by a Church of England bishop in the 17th century.

The prayer goes like this:

Almighty God, Father of all mercies, we thy unworthy servants do give thee most humble and hearty thanks for all thy goodness and loving kindness to us and to all. We bless thee for our creation, preservation, and all the blessings of this life. But above all for thy inestimable love in the redemption of the world through our Lord Jesus Christ, for the means of grace, and for the hope of glory.

 At this point the prayer makes a significant shift.

 And, we beseech thee, give us that due sense of all thy mercies that our hearts may be unfeignedly thankful and that we show forth thy praise by giving up ourselves to thy service and by walking before thee in holiness and righteousness all our days, through Jesus Christ our Lord to whom with thee and the Holy Spirit be all honor and glory, world without end. Amen.

This prayer gets the grammar right. We thank God for his many gifts, especially for the gift of redemption in Jesus. And we pray that the way we live our lives – in what the prayer calls holiness and service — may be an expression of genuine, felt-deep-in-the heart praise and thanksgiving to the God who graciously redeems us and makes us whole.

We can return to this prayer again and again when, enticed by the delusion of salvation by works, we find ourselves losing our bearings within the Christian life. It will remind us of the correct grammar.

 

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I Believe in Purgatory

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

Large_bonfire

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.

Dancing Freedom

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

swirling galaxy

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.

What Constitutes Human Nature?

The view of the Hebrew Bible can surprise us.

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Michelangelo’s depiction of the creation of Adam on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.

What constitutes human nature? It’s time, I think, we paid more attention to the ancient Hebrew answer.

We can begin by noting what is said in the two creation stories that we find in Genesis 1 and 2. They don’t give the full Hebrew answer, but they do provide an important starting point.

Humans Embedded in Nature

First, Genesis 2:4-23. This account is not as stately as Genesis 1, which has the feel of a liturgical procession. Genesis 2 reads more like a colorful folk tale. It starts out its account of God’s creative activity with the creation of a human being. But note how it expresses this wonderful creative moment:

…then the LORD God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being. (Genesis 2:7)

God, like a potter, creates a kind of figurine out of the elements of the ground. Then God breathes upon it, and the lifeless figurine becomes a living being.*

Though the author has used mythological language (I do not take Genesis 2 as an actual historical account), the statement firmly situates a human being in the order of nature. Humans are made out of the same chemical elements as the rest of the earth and its living beings. We arise out of the physical world and remain embedded in it.

In this respect the Genesis account agrees with modern scientific thought. Both the evolutionary theory and the Genesis account see human beings emerging out of the physical world. We are one with the rest of nature.

That has an important consequence for the Hebrew view of humanity. The natural drives and hungers that motivate men and women are good, not evil, as is clear by God’s blessing upon the physical creation (see Genesis 1:31). Those drives can be corrupted and need to be controlled, but they are not to be denied and despised. Here some forms of Christian asceticism have departed from their Hebrew roots.

Likewise our physical bodies contribute an essential dimension to our individual identities. We recognize each other by those bodily features that are unique to each of us–our body shape, our face, our voices, our gait, our fingerprints.

So important are bodies to our unique identities that the ultimate hope of the Biblical tradition is the hope for resurrection. How can each of us be said to survive with a unique identity in the kingdom of God without our bodies? Hebrew and Christian thought cannot imagine that.

The Contrasting Greek Mindset

This contrasts dramatically with the conception of human beings that prevailed to a large degree in the ancient Greek mindset. That mindset assumes that a radical duality constitutes human nature, a duality that pits body against soul.

The essence of an individual human being is to be found in his or her soul. That identity defines who he or she is. And it is immortal. It will survive physical death as the immortal soul returns to the divine realm from which it comes. During this earthly life the body provide a physical dwelling for that soul, but it will be shed at death. And good riddance, the Greeks thought, for the soul will escape its confining prison. **

Human nature, therefore, is not a unity (as in the Hebrew conception), but a division. And that is the fundamental cause of human misery. The human soul longs to return to its divine realm, a realm of order, rationality, and static perfection. The body, on the other hand, accounts for all the afflictions of life–disease, instability, disordered longings, and ultimately death.

This Greek conception of human nature had some stark practical consequences. The duality in human nature that Greek philosophy assumed meant that the Greek tradition placed a high premium on the things it associated with the soul: order, hierarchy, rationality, and stability. It also assumed that men gravitated towards these things, so that men were naturally superior to women.

The Greeks in turn placed a low value on those things that they associated with the body: appetites, emotions, and manual labor. And since women gave birth to and nursed infants, they gravitated to this physical realm. For the good of an ordered society, they had to be placed under the governance of men.

For the Hebrew Bible, on the other hand, the source of the miseries of life is not our physical nature, but our disordered wills, wills that betray our call to loving relationship. Instead we seek autonomy and other-denying independence. This idea is the contribution of Genesis 3, the story of the temptation and fall of Adam and Eve.

Images of the Triune God

Which leads to the other Genesis creation story (Genesis 1:1-2:4). This account adds another crucial dimension to the Hebrew Bible’s view of human beings. In this account the creation of human beings climaxes God’s creative work, not initiates it.

The contribution that this account makes to the Hebrew conception of human beings comes in Genesis 1:27:

So God created humankind in his image,

in the image of God he created them,

male and female he created them.

Although human beings are one with the rest of the physical creation, there is nonetheless something godlike about them, even though they are not divine. We cannot think of human beings solely in physical terms. That is a misleading form of reductionism.

Biblical scholars have debated for centuries just what constitutes this image of God in human beings. Some have identified it with our rationality, others with our dominance over nature. The Biblical text never fully identifies it.

But if this image mirrors God, then maybe what we are created to mirror is the character of God as relationship. That is the surprising contribution that the Christian doctrine of God as Trinity can make to the discussion.

By that doctrine, the character of God is fundamentally one that consists of relationship, the movement of giving and receiving in love. It is that movement that creates the unique identities of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. We are, therefore, most godlike in our capability for relationship, especially relationships of love. We image this God when we grow in our ability to give and receive with others in love. Yet in all this we remain mortal.

This conception of human beings also has practical consequences. The exalted virtues in Biblical thought are moral ones, fundamentally the virtues of trust and loving commitment. This was expressed in the central role and value the Bible gives to covenant, relationships grounded in mutual commitment between God and human beings, and between human beings with one another.

When human beings live out this commitment to covenant in the conditions of their physical, mortal existence, they most fulfill their unique calling within the wide world of nature.


* I discovered another statement of this Hebrew conception in 2 Esdras, one of the books of the Apocrypha. Its author describes the creation of Adam in these words:

O sovereign Lord, did you not speak at the beginning when you planted the earth—and that without help—and commanded the dust and it gave you Adam, a lifeless body? Yet he was the creation of your hands, and you breathed into him the breath of life, and he was made alive in your presence. (2 Esdras 3:4-5)

Clearly the author of 2 Esdras knew the Genesis account and took it as authoritative.

** The classic expression of this Greek view of death is found in Plato’s dialogue Phaedo. It recounts a discussion on the meaning of death between Socrates and his disciples just before his execution.

 

Betrayed by Theological Confusion

We distort our theology by false presumptions about God.

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The prophet Jeremiah with the ruins of Jerusalem by the French artist Horace Vermet, 1844

A sobering passage to read in the Bible is found in the prophet Jeremiah. It is known as the temple sermon (Jeremiah 7:1-8:3). It reports a message that the prophet gave in the gateway to Solomon’s glorious temple complex.

Jeremiah delivered it in a time of national crisis. Jehoiakim, king of Judah, had taken advantage of some setbacks the Babylonian armies under Nebuchadnezzar had sustained. He decided to throw off vassalage to Babylon. Nebuchadnezzar responded by invading Judah and besieging the city of Jerusalem.

The military situation was dire. Jehoiakim and his advisors, however, believed they would prevail. Why? Because of the promises that God had made to King David that the Davidic dynasty would reign forever (see 2 Samuel 7:1-17). Furthermore, the city possessed the temple of God. The city of Jerusalem was surely inviolate.

History seemed to confirm this confidence. During the reign of one of Jehoiakim’s predecessors, King Hezekiah, the Assyrian armies under Sennacherib had besieged the city. The wise course of action seemed to surrender the city. But the prophet Isaiah counseled Hezekiah to place his trust in God. And God had intervened miraculously. The Assyrian had had to retreat in utter defeat. (See the account in 2 Kings 18:13-19:37).

The lesson seemed clear. God lives up to his promises. He had done so in the past; he would do so again. And so it seems that it became a mantra in Jerusalem circles to assert, “This is the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord” (Jeremiah 7:4). No matter how dire the circumstances, God would never allow the city to fall.

In his sermon Jeremiah calls this presumption into serious question. The royal court is deceived, he says, if they place their confidence in the belief that God will always come to their rescue, because the city possesses the temple of God.

A Theological Crisis

Why is it a false presumption? Jeremiah says that it ignores that God’s defense of the city is always contingent on Judah’s faithfulness to God’s purposes and God’s ways. And the city’s populace and its leaders have not been faithful. They have tolerated injustice. Hear the words of Jeremiah:

Here you are, trusting in deceptive words to no avail. Will you steal, murder, commit adultery, swear falsely, make offerings to Baal, and go after other gods that you have not known, and then come and stand before me in this house, which is called by my name, and say, “We are safe!”—only to go on doing all these abominations? Has this house, which is called by my name, become a den of robbers in your sight? You know, I too am watching, says the LORD. (Jeremiah 7:8-11)

Jeremiah also appeals to history. He reminds the people of the fate of Shiloh, the site of an earlier sanctuary dedicated to God during the time of the judges. That sanctuary was destroyed because of Israel’s unfaithfulness and sins. The Jerusalem temple is in danger of suffering the same fate, unless Judah changes its ways. The Judeans cannot count on God’s protection and blessing if they continue to live in ways contrary to God’s beneficent purposes and will.

The temple sermon is sobering reading because it reminds us to be careful in how we live out our faith in God. We can confess absolutely orthodox beliefs about God and yet turn them into theological mush by the conclusions we draw from those assertions. That is what the Judeans were doing in Jeremiah’s time. It is just as easy for us to do as well.

Does Jeremiah’s sermon mean that God ceases to love Judah because of its sins? If we read the Old Testament prophets carefully, we cannot say that. There are passionate passages in the prophets where God expresses his love for his people in spite of their sins (one of the most passionate is Hosea 11). So if we say that God loves his people always, that is true.

But we cannot draw from that true statement the false conclusion that God therefore endorses everything his people do or desire. God is not there to bless their–or ours– agenda when that agenda works against God’s good intentions for ourselves, others, and all God’s creation.

The people of Judah learned this lesson when the city of Jerusalem indeed fell to the Babylonian armies in the year 586 B.C. despite the presence of the temple of the Lord. Following the surrender, the temple of the Lord was burned and razed to the ground.

A Sermon for Today

I hear Jeremiah’s sermon speaking to me personally. A basic principle of my theology is that God is for us, always. I do not believe God hates humanity and stands ready to damn every one of us to hell unless we repent and place our faith in him.

That is not what I hear in reading the Bible. I hear that God loves the world so much that God becomes a human being and suffers with this world so that this world can be lifted to become what God has always intended it to be. God is motivated by love, not hate.

For this reason, I assert that God is for us, always. That is a fundamental dimension of my idea of divine grace.

But like all theological concepts, this idea of grace can be easily perverted in practice. We can presume that since God loves us, God will endorse whatever actions, desires, and agendas we have. We can presume that God will come to our rescue in all situations of danger. After all, isn’t that his job description?

If this is the conclusion I draw from my assertion that God is always for us, then I am guilty of fostering a false theology. The expression of God’s love for us may at times require an experience of passing through intense suffering. That suffering can act as a purgation from all that withholds us from the fullness of life and glory that God intends for each one of us as well as for all creation.

As we pass through those times of re-orientation, we can discover the truth in what the psalmist says in Psalm 66:

…we went through fire and through water;

yet you [God] have brought us out to a spacious place. (Psalm 66:12)

As we read more deeply into the Old Testament, especially in the writings of the prophet scholars call the second Isaiah (Isaiah 40-55), we find how for some of the Judean exiles the collapse of the false presumption led into a fuller and more spacious understanding of God.

What Is Unity?

Unity can elude us if we mistake it for its counterfeits.

supermacro_ropeWhen I read Psalm 133, I can feel my heart skip.

How very good and pleasant it is

            when kindred live together in unity!

It is like the precious oil on the head,

            running down upon the beard,

on the beard of Aaron,

            running down over the collar of his robe.

It is like the dew of Hermon,

            which falls on the mountains of Zion.

For there the Lord ordained his blessing

            life forevermore.

Here is a noble vision of living. Men and women, brothers and sisters, all nations and tribes living in harmony.

But if we try to put flesh on the vision, we run up against a serious obstacle. Common ways of understanding what constitutes unity work against its realization, because there are a number of counterfeits.

One Common Counterfeit

One such counterfeit, in my opinion, is the common tendency to equate unity with uniformity. Let us become one by all of us conforming to a common standard, whether that be in practices, values, or beliefs. Sameness then becomes the key to harmony. Where there are no differences, there will be no conflict.

One tactic for achieving this sameness is a policy of elimination. We achieve uniformity by eliminating any non-conformists, the different others. Soft ways of doing that can involve shaming non-conformists into conformity with the majority. I saw this practiced often in the high schools I attended.

But there are much more pernicious ways of eliminating the differing others. We call them ethnic, religious, or social cleansing, or genocide. We have many frightening examples from the 20th century. I cite the Turkish genocide of Armenians, the Nazi genocide of Jews, the Soviet elimination of the “bourgeoisie,” the various forms of ethnic cleansing practiced in the Balkan wars in Yugoslavia in the 1990s, the Hutu genocide of Tutsis in Rwanda, and finally in our day, the policies of terror practiced by ISIS against what they regard as unbelievers. All of these examples seek to unite their societies by eliminating the undesirable other.

Such policies establish no lasting unity. Rather they trigger war and civil strife, the opposite of the peace unity is expected to deliver.

Another way of achieving uniformity is to assimilate minorities into the culture of the dominant group in society. If you want to live in peace, you adopt and live by the standards and practices approved by that dominant group. One of my favorite examples is how Celtic Christianity in early medieval Europe was assimilated into the world of Roman Catholicism by unrelenting pressure on Celtic Christians to adopt Roman practices and attitudes.

Achieving unity by uniformity always involves some form of an imperialist spirit. The dominant social group sets the standards; all others are expected to conform to them. This was sometimes the complaint heard among some blacks during the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s. They complained that whites assumed integration meant blacks would assimilate to the standards of white society. That assumption involved an unconscious expectation that integration would erase a distinctly black culture and identity.

Such an imperialist approach to achieving unity always evokes resentment, bitterness, and defiance. Distinct identities are denied.

A Second Counterfeit

Another counterfeit way to achieve unity is by fusion. All the distinct identities within a society are brought together into some kind of social or psychological melting pot. From that pot emerges a new, common identity that includes all the distinct identities that existed before, but they have now each lost their distinctness as they have come to be absorbed into the one common identity.

Here the image that comes to mind is the process of making steel. The various ingredients that make up steel–iron ore, magnesium, nickel, chromium, carbon, or other elements–are melted down in the smelting furnace and fused together to make the new metal. The steel is strong as a result, but it no longer preserves the elements as distinct entities that make it up.

Fusion can achieve a strong unity but at the high price of erasing all individuality. The common myth in the early 20th century was that America was a melting pot in which all national identities would be fused into one, new American identity. To some degree that has been true. But Americans have still stubbornly retained their dual identities as Irish-Americans, German-Americans, African-Americans, Polish-Americans, Hispanic-Americans, Chinese-Americans, etc. Individuality refuses to be erased.

A More Promising Image of Unity

If these ways of understanding unity are counterfeit, then how are we to understand unity? That question has long troubled my thinking.

What has emerged for me is that I think of a braided rope as the image that best helps me understand what constitutes true, or least truer, unity. A good strong rope can be made up of several strands of individual fiber that are braided together. Together they create one rope and a stronger rope than any individual strand can be by itself. Yet in the braiding each individual strand remains distinct. No strand loses its individual identity by erasure or fusion. One can say the rope is one, but it is also many.

In this kind of unity, individual identities-–whether of individual persons or social groups-–are preserved and respected. Yet through the interweaving interactions between persons and groups, a oneness is created that exceeds in strength anything one single person or group can achieve alone. This is the kind of unity that stands the best chance of creating an enduring peace. Individuality is preserved, but all individualities work together for the benefit and welfare of all.

We see this kind of unity exemplified in healthy, happy marriages. Both partners retain their individuality, but blend their lives together into something that feels like oneness. The Bible refers to this unity in marriage as “becoming one flesh” (Genesis 2:24).

God as Triune–Paradigm of Unity

It may surprise many, but I find the great paradigm for this kind of unity in the Christian understanding of God as triune. The doctrine of the Trinity does not see God as a solitary monad living in sublime isolation. Rather the Godhead consists fundamentally of relationship, a God who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit always existing in dynamic relationship to one another.

The unity of the Godhead is not a unity grounded in either uniformity or fusion. The three persons-–Father, Son, and Holy Spirit–remain eternally distinct from one another. Yet they constitute one God, a God whose unity expresses itself in a constant, eternal giving and receiving of one’s self to the others. At its heart then, unity is grounded in love.

In the Trinitarian model of love, individuality is preserved and respected. Yet the three work with one purpose, one act, and one will. The process of eternal love results in a oneness in essence.

In an age of profound disunities and conflict, maybe it is fortuitous that we are also witnessing a deep re-appreciation of the Christian doctrine of the Trinity in many church circles. It is the model of unity that we have been desperately searching for.

A Note: One of the most profound re-appreciations of the doctrine of the Trinity in recent decades is Catherine Mowry LaCugna’s God for Us: The Trinity & Christian Life, first published in 1991. The book is heavy slogging for someone without a theological education, but it is superb in discussing some of the practical implications of the doctrine for Christian living. It has influenced my thinking deeply.

A Lament for the Ages

An ancient poem on the ruins of Jerusalem reads as if describing today’s Middle East.

Palmyra_03

The ruins of the Syrian city of Palmyra before its further devastation by ISIS.

The New York Times recently devoted the entire issue of its weekly magazine to the devastation unfolding in today’s Middle East. In a long story titled “Fractured Lands: How the Arab World Came Apart,” Scott Anderson tells that story through the lens of six Arabs and Kurds whose lives have been forever altered by the deadly forces unleashed by the American invasion of Iraq in 2003.

Their stories trigger powerful emotions. One reads and begins to grieve. For their tales illumine the anguish and terror that millions in these lands have come to experience as their homelands have descended into chaos. No one knows if we have even reached the nadir yet.

When I read their stories, I found myself turning back to the Old Testament book of Lamentations. This book of five chapters is an extended reflection on the destruction of the city of Jerusalem by the Babylonian armies in 587 B.C. After a long, two-year siege, those armies breached the city’s walls and poured into the city like tsunami wave.

In its wake all that constituted the kingdom and culture of ancient Judah was obliterated. The Davidic line of kings ceased. The city’s walls were demolished along with its houses and palaces. The glorious temple of Solomon was left a heap of ashes and scattered stone blocks. And any people who survived the massacre were carried into exile into Mesopotamia.

The poet surveys the scene afterwards and his opening words are:

How lonely sits the city

                        that once was full of people!

            How like a widow she has become,

                        she that was great among the nations!

            She that was a princess among the provinces

                        has become a vassal. (Lamentations 1:1)

 Everywhere the poet looks he sees ruin, devastation, and disappointed hope. It is scant comfort that he understands why all this has happened. It is a manifestation of God’s wrath upon the people’s failure to be faithful to their covenant with God. Still it all represents a wasteland, both literally as well as spiritually. And he pours out his heart in a searing lament.

If we were to substitute the words Middle East for the word city, I think we might be able to read the poet’s language as a description of today’s Middle East. How lonely indeed does its land sit that were once so full of people, people living in cultures comprised of diverse tribes, religions, languages, and ethnic identities. As the New York Times story details, all that is coming apart today.

This is an example of how the Biblical text, written so long, long ago, continues to provide us with the words for expressing our own experience today. Maybe this is why we continue to read and cherish this ancient book.

Photo credit: Bernard Gagnon