Qoheleth and the Trinity

If love is real, what does that say about the meaning of the universe?

If you are prone to depression, then you might be wise not to tackle the book of Ecclesiastes in the Old Testament. The author is billed as the Preacher (Qoheleth in Hebrew.) As a revered sage, he reflects upon his life obsession with discovering the meaning of life.

Sandro_botticelli,_sant'agostino_nello_studio,_1480_circa,_dall'ex-coro_dei_frati_umiliati,_01

The Great Sage: Augustine of Hippo in his study by Sandro Botticelli, 1480.

His conclusion is disappointing. Vanities of vanities!, he concludes, all is vanity (Ecclesiastes 1:2). The Hebrew might be more accurately translated as “mere breath” or “a puff of wind.” Nothing lasts. What is here today is gone tomorrow. And in example after example he drives that point home.

So what’s his advice for wise living?

This is what I have seen to be good: it is fitting to eat and drink and find enjoyment in all the toil with which one toils under the sun the few days of the life God gives us; for this is our lot. (Ecclesiastes 5:18)

 This conclusion is the fruit of his lifelong pursuit of wisdom. He has read deeply. He has observed the world of both nature and human beings. He has applied all his rational powers to trying to understand it. His approach parallels that of most philosophers and scientists today.

The Dead End Search for Meaning

He comes to the same conclusion as many of them do as well. Years ago I read a book titled Why Does the World Exist? byJim Holt.* The author seeks to penetrate the mystery of existence by interviewing a number of distinguished philosophers and scientists, including Nobel laureates.

His interviewees offer a number of answers, some of which mirror those of various philosophers down through the ages. But what I found most curious was the number of cosmologists and physicists who said the end result of all of their scientific explorations was the conclusion that the world was meaningless. There is no discernable reason why the world exists.

It reminded me of something that the philosopher Bertrand Russell once wrote.

Even more purposeless, more void of meaning, is the world which science presents for our belief. Amid such a world, if anywhere, our ideals henceforward must find a home… that all the labours of the ages, all the devotion, all the inspiration, all the noonday brightness of human genius, are destined to extinction in the vast death of the solar system, and the whole temper of Man’s achievement must inevitably be buried beneath the debris of a universe in ruins – all these things, if not quite beyond dispute, are yet so nearly certain that no philosophy which rejects them can hope to stand. Only within the scaffolding of these truths, only on the firm foundation of unyielding despair, can the soul’s habitation henceforth be safely built.**

 One gets the idea that Qoheleth would fit right in in the halls and classrooms of modern academia and scientific labs.

In an intellectual world in which only rational conclusions are accepted as valid, it seems to me that Qoheleth and his companions present a perfectly persuasive argument. The law of entropy suggests that a form of death is the irreversible fate of all that exists in the universe. And if you take up the task of trying to answer why evil exists, then you are probably hammering the nails into the coffin of meaningfulness.

But What About Love?

I was reading Ecclesiastes recently, as I have many times before. I noticed something peculiar this time. The author is convinced that God is real. But the author’s favorite image of God seems to be that of the judge. This leads to the book’s final note of advice:

The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God, and keep his commandments; for that is the whole duty of everyone. For God will bring every deed into judgment, including every secret thing, whether good or evil. (Ecclesiastes 12:13-14)

What is strikingly missing from the author’s reflections is any perception of God as a God of love. The theme of love is missing throughout the book. And I find myself wondering if that lack accounts for the author’s such dismal conclusions.

If love is real–and human experience says it is, even if in all the partial and broken ways we experience it­–then there is a force at work in the universe that cannot ultimately be captured by human reason or scientific instruments. And may the meaningfulness of the universe be ultimately grounded in that reality? I would like to suggest that is not a phantom assumption.

Love Grounded in the Triune Character of God

I suggest that on the basis of the orthodox Christian assertion that God is triune–a Godhead that is not a singular, motionless monad, but a Godhead who is a unified, yet complex network of presences, presences that Christians have labeled Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

When we confess that God is love, we are saying more than that God relates to creation–and to us–in love. We are saying that God is love within God’s own very being. The doctrine of the Trinity makes that very clear when it asserts that what constitutes the very being or life of the Godhead is the eternal dance of giving and receiving that goes on among the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. That dance is itself love.

Meaning is to be found and experienced within all our networks of love, but most especially in the network of love that constitutes the divinity. If God is love, then the universe that comes from him and is sustained always by him is grounded in love. And that will give the universe and human experience its ultimate meaning.

We may not be able to fully express what that meaning is in words, but we can be confident that when we experience love, we are experiencing in a deeply existential sort of way the meaning of our own lives as well as the meaning of the whole universe.

If all this is true, then Qoheleth’s search for the meaning of life takes on a whole different complexion. Let us indeed eat, drink, and be merry, but in the sobriety as well as the intoxication of love in all its many dimensions.

Writer’s Note: I recognize that I am likely to be vastly misunderstood in what I say if my reader limits his or her understanding of love to erotic love alone. When I talk of love, I have in mind the full spectrum of love as the Christian tradition has understood it. That includes erotic love, but even more importantly compassionate love, service love, and sacrificial love. For the Christian tradition, the highest expression of love was the love of Christ who  accepted the suffering of the cross for the sake of the salvation of the world.

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* Jim Holt, Why Does the World Exist?, New York: Liveright Publishing Company, 2012.

** Bertrand Russell, Why I Am Not A Christian,  Simon And Schuster, New York, 1957, p. 106.

 

God the Connoisseur

Did God create the universe because God loves beauty?

I have been preparing a set of talks on the two creation stories we find in Genesis 1-3. A recurring note in the first story (Genesis 1:1-2:3) is that after each day’s work in the creation process, God pauses to survey what he has done. He finds it good.

When the whole work of creation is complete at the end of the sixth day, God not only finds his creative work good, but declares it “very good”. This places a superlative judgment on all of God’s work.

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Like a precious pearl: The earth seen from outer space. Photo credit: NASA.

The Hebrew word we translate as good in this text is the word tov. It is helpful to understand the specific associations of this word. Tov does not carry a primary association of moral goodness. Rather it seems to mean more precisely good as something that pleases us, something that delights us, or something that gives us pleasure because it works the way it is supposed to. It has an aesthetic connotation rather than a moral connotation.

So when we read in Genesis that God looks upon his creative work and declares it tov, the text is signaling that God looks upon his creation like an art connoisseur. God sees it working as it is supposed to. He appreciates its beauty. That fills him with pleasure.

When we attend church, we don’t often hear ministers talk about God as one who delights in beauty. But I think we should. For the one who creates us as sensuous creatures is one who appreciates the power of beauty to move us deep within.

What Evokes Our Feeling of Awe

I know there are many ways people think of the power of beauty. I think of it, however, as the power to evoke in us a spontaneous response of pleasurable awe. When we stand in the presence of something beautiful, we catch our breath. Why? Because it seems so right as it is. For whatever reason it exists, it fulfills that reason perfectly. It is what it is meant to be.

That’s why, for example, a mathematician may describe a particular mathematical formula beautiful. It is what it is meant to be, often with the greatest of simplicity. When we look at a painting or a sculpture and proclaim it beautiful, we are in awe of what it is, precisely because every aspect of it–whether color, line, shape, or texture– contributes to that right being.

That is apparently the response of God in the Genesis text when God surveys the world he has created. In God’s vision, every aspect of this world is as it is meant to be. Therefore it is exceedingly tov or beautiful.

I think humans get in touch with that same feeling when we see some of the images of heavenly phenomena that have been captured by the Hubble telescope. Some of the images of galaxies or astral clouds just shimmer with color. They dazzle us.

Is that why on the seventh day God rests? God takes time to enjoy the beauty of the work he has just completed. Maybe that is also one reason why God created in the first place. God enjoys beauty and cannot help but be an artist.

Certainly the beauty of creation is cause for praise, according to the psalmist. One of the great praise psalms is Psalm 148. It soars as a song praising God for all the beautiful diversity of the universe. The psalmist moves from the glories of heaven, with its sun, moon, and stars, through the sea monsters and other creatures of the deep, through natural phenomena like fire, snow, and stormy winds, through the majesty of mountains, to the abundance of animals and wild beasts, to the diversity of human beings.

When we seek to create things of beauty, we humans show ourselves to be images of God, as the Genesis creation text says we are. We too take delight in creating things that shine out a glory because they are what they are meant to be.

The Third Authority

Israel’s wisdom tradition offers a third source of revelation.

Whenever I have read the Old Testament, I have sailed hastily through the Book of Proverbs. It didn’t seem to offer much beyond strange musings about Lady Wisdom and then a chaotic collection of proverbs. Nothing tied together for me. I decided it was not worth much of my study time.

Pemberton

Then I read the newly published book, A Life that Is Good: The Message of Proverbs in a World Wanting Wisdom by Biblical scholar Glenn Pemberton (William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2018). He turned my attitude about Proverbs around 180 degrees. For one, he illuminates some of the repeated themes that weave through the book, themes that deal with living the good life as understood by ancient Israel’s sages.

Israel’s wisdom traditions were not primarily speculations about God, but reflections on what it means to live the good life. The good life is understood as more than a moral life. It is also a life that is healthy, stable, and successful. It is much more concerned with what we today would say are secular matters than religious, although the sages always see the good life grounded in a fundamental fear or reverence for God (see Proverbs 1:7and 9:10).

The source of their reflections is not the revealed word of God in Israel’s scriptures, but insights gained from observations of daily life and experience. Israel’s sages are also highly sensitive to wisdom coming from cultures and peoples outside of Israel. For example, scholars have noted that one section of the Book of Proverbs (22:17-24:22 ) draws extensively from the Instruction of Amenemope, a literary work of wisdom sayings from ancient 13thcentury B.C. Egypt.*

Three Sources of Authority

Pemberton offers one insight that was particularly striking to me. He says that in ancient Israel three sources of authority were recognized when talking about God and life with God. They held equal positions in Israel’s theological discussions.

The first source was what we might label the written word of God, contained in the Torah, the Five Books of Moses. The Torah told the origin stories that constituted Israel’s identity. They also held the laws and regulations that governed Israelite behavior and worship.

The authorized interpreters of Torah in ancient Israel were the priests. They had responsibility for teaching Torah to Israelites. By the time of Jesus the scribes had largely supplanted the priests in this role, while the priests concentrated on ritual.

The important matter is to note that when an ancient Israelite asked how he or she should behave, the priest would point to the revealed Torah for answers.

The second source was what we might label the oral word of God. It was the word of God that came through dreams, visions, inspirations, or even the direct voice of God. It was the special province of Israel’s prophets.

Pemberton describes the prophets as resembling prosecuting attorneys. They were primarily concerned with challenging Israel for its failures in keeping God’s covenant, especially in fulfilling the two great commandments to love God with all our being and to love our neighbor as ourselves. Their favored way of delivering their word was through oral sermons, oracles, and enacted parables.

The third source was what we might label the observed word of God. This was received through a careful study of God’s creation and especially the ways human beings lived in that creation. It was the special province of Israel’s sages.

Pemberton says that this wisdom coming from the sages was also regarded as part of God’s revealed word. “They accept these insights [coming from their observation] as normative and God-given, just as the prophet regards a vision and a priest regards Torah to be God’s message.” [Pemberton, page 9]

What this means is that theological discussion in Israel appeals to three and equal sources of authority: the written word of God, the oral word of God, and the observed word of God. The three supported, counter-balanced, and supplemented each other.

Attestation of the Three Authorities in Scripture

As evidence for this, Pemberton appeals to three passages in the Old and New Testaments. The first comes from Jeremiah. The prophet has offended the public with his largely negative message that Jerusalem will indeed fall to the Babylonians. In reaction some of the populace plots to silence him. He will not be missed, they say:

“Come, let us make plots against Jeremiah—for instruction shall not perish from the priest, nor counsel from the wise, nor the word from the prophet. Come, let us bring charges against him, and let us not heed any of his words.” [Jeremiah 18:18]

What Pemberton notes in this passage is the combination of priests, wise men, and prophets as sources of God’s word. None is given priority over the other.

This same linkage comes in a passage in the prophet Ezekiel. It likewise denounces the complacency of the Judahites as they face disaster before the Babylonians. Says Ezekiel:

Disaster comes upon disaster,

                        rumor follows rumor;

they shall keep seeking a vision from the prophet;

instruction shall perish from the priest,

                        and counsel from the elders. [Ezekiel 7:26]

Here again we see priest, prophet, and sage as equal sources for guidance from God.

Lest we think this is a purely Old Testament perspective, Pemberton then quotes Jesus in his denunciation of the hypocrisy of Pharisees, saying:

Therefore I send you prophets, sages, and scribes, some of whom you will kill and crucify, and some you will flog in your synagogues and pursue from town to town, so that upon you may come all the righteous blood shed on earth….[Matthew 23:34-35]**

Commenting on this tri-fold division in Israel’s mindset, Pemberton concludes: “The prophets, priests, and sages of Israel all served the same God. The Lord simply used them to provide a more robust theology, a fuller picture of the life of faith, and a sharper image of the God who is larger than any one portrait.” [Pemberton, page 14]

A Christian Application?

Pemberton goes on, however, to suggest that this three-fold source of authority may also provide a fruitful pattern for theological thinking among Christians. Who among persons or groups today most resemble each of the three ancient interpreters? For successors to the priests, he suggests pastors and preachers who look to Scripture for God’s word and guidance.

As for successors to the prophets, it becomes a bit trickier. Most Christians today do not generally trust persons who claim to see God or hear God speak directly to them. Rather he suggests we see the prophets’ successors as those who speak out on the prophets’ chief concerns which center on faithfulness to God and justice issues in society.

Lastly as successors to the sages, he suggests we might turn to counselors, therapists, and scientists who rely primarily upon personal experience, careful observation, and accumulated knowledge for their insights.

This last suggestion raises an important question for most Protestants. With our fundamentally Protestant conviction that all authority for theology rests in the Bible and in the Bible alone, Pemberton asks, how will we respond when modern-day sages show up at our doors? “Would we toss them aside as secular and irrelevant advocates of situational ethics? Or would we welcome them to the table? I regret to inform you that Proverbs will not let this question go unanswered.” [Pemberton, pages 13-14, italics his]

I will admit this is a question that I have seldom thought about before. Yet I can see that how we respond will indeed have a deep impact on how we do our theological thinking and preaching.

_________

* It is also worth noting that another piece of Old Testament wisdom literature is the Book of Job. It tells the story of a righteous man living in Uz. He is not an Israelite. Yet the issue under discussion in the book–why do the righteous suffer?–is one of the most troubling and profound not only in Jewish thought, but also in all human experience.

** As I read these passages I was reminded of the canonical structure of the Hebrew Bible. It is divided into three portions:

  • The Torah: The five books of Moses
  • The Nevi’im: The prophets (consisting of the historical books and the classic prophets),
  • The Ketubim: The writings where we find Israel’s literary works of wisdom (Job, Proverbs, and Ecclesiastes) along with the Psalms and other assorted writings of the Hebrew Bible.

 

A God Who Questions

More than giving answers, the God of the Bible asks questions.

A striking feature of the way the Bible presents God is God’s proclivity for engaging in dialogue with individual human beings. We might expect that in this dialogue human beings are the ones asking questions of God and God giving answers.

But in fact the reverse is more often the case. God asks the questions. Human beings are expected to give the answers.

First Example: God with Adam and Eve

A good example is found in the dialogue God holds with Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden right after the two have eaten the forbidden fruit and discovered they are naked (Genesis 3). The two humans hide. God comes seeking them out. And the first words he speaks are a question: Where are you?

That question can be understood on several different levels. It is much more than a question about the physical location of the two humans in the garden. It is ultimately a question about the humans’ spiritual condition. Where are they existentially? The dialogue continues as God asks more questions, peeling off more layers of the spiritual onion.

Second Example: God with Cain

We also meet this God asking questions in the very next chapter of Genesis (Genesis 4:1-16). Here we hear the story of the first murder. Cain kills his brother Abel out of jealousy. When God confronts Cain about the murder, the first words he speaks are again a question: Where is your brother Abel?

After countering with a denial that he knows anything, Cain challenges God with a question: Am I my brother’s keeper? This triggers more questioning from God that ultimately leads to exile for Cain.

Third Example: God with Jonah

There are many examples of God asking questions throughout the Old Testament. Let me offer up just two more. When the people of Nineveh repent and God does not destroy their city, the prophet Jonah is incensed. He sits outside the city and pouts (Jonah 3-4).

God comes to him. He challenges Jonah’s petulance by asking him questions. The story finishes on an unanswered question: Was God right to be merciful to the residents of Nineveh or not? Jonah is placed in the position of being judge over God.

Fourth Example: God with Job

Probably the weightiest dialogue of divine questioning comes in the conclusion of the book of Job (Job 38-42). Job has suffered a series of tragedies and can find no answer why. His three comforting friends suggest that they have been brought on by his sin. But Job responds that he is not conscious of any such sin that would have brought these tragedies in consequence. He looks to God for answers.

He receives no answers from God. Instead God comes to him in a whirlwind. God launches into a stream of questions directed at Job. This stream begins with these potent words:

Who is this that darkens counsel by

                        words without knowledge?

            Gird up your loins like a man,

                        I will question you, and you shall declare to me.

And then the questions flow out like a gush of flood waters for the next four chapters. Job is reduced basically to speechlessness, but also to a consciousness of the human condition before the mystery of God.

Fifth Example: Jesus with the Lawyer

This divine pattern of asking questions gets repeated in the ministry of Jesus. Again one notable example. When Jesus counsels a lawyer to love his neighbor as himself, the lawyer asks Jesus the question: Who is my neighbor? Jesus responds by telling the parable of the good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37).

Jesus finishes his tale by then turning to the lawyer and asking: Which of these three, do you think, was neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers? Jesus does not give the answer. He awaits the lawyer’s answer, an answer in which the lawyer will answer his own original question.

Why Does God Ask Questions?

When I confront these many examples in Scripture of God asking questions of human beings, I ask why is this God’s habit. One answer can be discarded quickly. God does not have a gap in his knowledge that he is trying to fill. He is not seeking information that he does not have. If God is omniscient, there is no information out there that he does not already know.

So there must another reason, or other reasons, why God asks questions. I think there are. And they profoundly affect how we understand God and ourselves.

Questions as the High Road to Self-Knowledge

One reason, I believe, is that God wants us to know ourselves. The great adage of Greek culture was the phrase inscribed above the door to Apollo’s temple at Delphi: Know yourself. It was a guiding star for Socrates as he strolled around Athens asking questions.

But how do we come to know ourselves? One way may be through self-reflection and meditation on ourselves. But we all have blind spots and inner defenses that keep us from being in touch with our full inner selves. We have to batter through those defenses. And one of the best ways is through others posing questions to us. It is a technique psychotherapists use all the time.

When we are asked questions, especially existentialist questions about our own lives, we must respond by drawing upon our own inner self. In the process we begin to learn what we really do think or believe or value.

I once read a literary author (I’ve forgotten his name) who wrote that he did not really know what he thought until he had to sit down and write out his thoughts. I think that is also true for all of us.

One of the most revealing questions that anyone can ask us is the question: What is it that you really desire in the deepest point of your heart? If we are truly honest in answering the question, we will learn a lot about what really motivates our behavior rather than what we delude ourselves that motivates us. I believe desires drive our action. And if we are to change our actions, that requires our getting to know our real desires.

Questions Nurture Personal Relationship

But there is a deeper spiritual reason why I believe God asks questions. It is that what God desires from us is a relationship of love, not a relationship of manipulation. This is what I think it means to have a personal relationship with God or with other people.

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Martin Buber, 1878-1965

One thinker who has helped me understand this is Martin Buber, the German Jewish philosopher of the early 20th century. He wrote an important book titled I and Thou. In it he contrasts the relationship of I with God or others seen as an It with the relationship of I with God or others seen as a You or Thou.

In an I-It relationship, I relate to God or others as an impersonal It. That allows me to try both to comprehend and to manipulate the other. It easily degenerates into a desire to dominate. That I believe drives a lot of science in the world today.

In an I-You relationship, however, the other never becomes truly impersonal. The relationship therefore retains a sense of mutuality. It also retains some sense of mystery and freedom. We never fully comprehend and therefore can never fully dominate the other, whether that be God or another human being. It involves a constant exchange and adaptation if the relationship is to thrive, as any married person knows who has remained married for a long time.

Becoming an I through Meeting

 At the heart of this relationship is a meeting. And in that meeting I come to know about myself in ways that I can never do by solo reflection. Which leads Buber to say that all real living is meeting.*

The God of the Bible is not one who is satisfied with a relationship with us in which we regard God as an It. God wants a relationship with us in which we relate to him in mutuality, in a shared initiative and response. He wants us to be persons in the fullest sense of that word. And one of the best ways to come to that goal is for God to ask us questions where we have to become real persons in giving a response. We are compelled to stand up for who we are, speak our insight or belief, and then accept accountability for who we are.

In that respect defiance can be a truly personal response just as much as compassion and love. And sometimes our journey in our relationship with God must involve defiance before it can move into trust and love.

The God of the Bible is not one who wants people to lose and dissolve their identity in union with him. That is the desired goal of a lot of Eastern mysticism. Rather God wants us to find our unique I in our relationship with him. Again to quote Buber, Through the Thou, a man becomes I.**

So if we would grow in our relationship with God, with others, and with ourselves, we can expect to encounter great questions in our lives, questions that challenge us to the core of our being. For it is in the questions and our attempts to answer them that we emerge from out of the mysterious clouds of unconsciousness into the conscious light of personhood and love.

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* Martin Buber, I and Thou, New York: Charles Scribner’s and Sons, 1958. Page 11. Although Buber does not mention it, I find it striking that in its Exodus wanderings, Israel’s tabernacle shrine bore the name the Tent of Meeting (see Exodus 33:7-11 and Exodus 40). It was given that name because it was the place where Moses (and through Moses all Israel) met with God. Whether it was through the word Moses received from God or through the sacrifices Israel raised up to God, it was the place of encounter between Israel and the divine, the encounter that gave Israel its very being.

** Buber, I and Thou, Page 28.

 

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.

 

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.