Friday, February 13, 2015

America First

For a long time I’ve suspected that many American Christians are decidedly Americans first, Christians second.  For these individuals, in the hierarchy of personal identification, being an American comes before being a Christian.  A recent poll by the Washington Post/ABC seems to support this suspicion.  In this poll, taken after the CIA documents relating to prisoner torture were released, a substantial majority of respondents identifying as Catholics and an overwhelming majority of those identifying as Protestants answered that CIA torture tactics to obtain information from prisoners were justified.

 As Americans, I can understand why a majority believe that torture is justified.  If torturing a few terrorists can prevent a future attack that could potentially kill hundreds or thousands of fellow citizens, the utility of these tactics can readily be justified.  The invocation that “the end justifies the means” may be considered ethically appropriate where terrorist activities are concerned.

But the teachings of Christ don’t follow a utilitarian ethic.  

Even if one discounts Jesus’ entire teaching on how to treat one’s enemies……”turn the other cheek”,  “do not recompense evil for evil”, “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you”, “do good to those who hate you”…. it can hardly be disputed that at the very least – the lowest possible bar for a Christian to set as  treatment of enemies – is not to demean their essential humanity. It is a Christian concept that we are made in the image of God, that we are a reflection of deity in some essential way.  Torture, by its very nature, is designed to degrade and devalue what is human in the one being tortured and by extension profanes the image of God itself.

Given that government policy supports torture and Christian principles prohibit it, polls should indicate a decidedly negative response from Christians when asked if torture tactics are justified.  The fact that just the opposite occurs is indicative that between two ideological identifiers – American citizen and Christian believer – American citizen overwhelmingly wins out.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Station Eleven

During the record-breaking 2005 tropical storm season, our corner of the world was devastated by Hurricane Rita.  The area was cordoned off for weeks and when we were finally allowed home we faced a massive cleanup with no utilities and very limited infrastructure.  Long lines were the norm for obtaining potable water and pre-packaged rations at designated drop sites.  A two-to-three- hour roundtrip was common to find a gas station with both fuel and available electricity to pump it. Waiting patiently to be granted entrance into the few businesses that opened their doors for limited hours (ten persons at a time, cash-only please) was a daily ritual.   Much of what we take for granted in modernity was either non-existent or required great effort and patience.  
Although nature had given us a terrible blow, the disaster brought our community together in ways that were truly inspiring.  During the weeks that our home (like everyone else’s) was left unattended and police patrols/neighborhood watches were virtually non-existent, nothing was vandalized or stolen. The first Saturday that we were allowed to return, I pulled into our driveway and saw a neighbor in my backyard with his chainsaw, cleaning up a large oak tree that had fallen onto my property.  Multiple churches and community groups set up temporary kitchens in their parking lots where everyone was welcomed to a hot meal.  A community network quickly sprang up on the local radio news channel, with regular programming replaced by information on the location of the next water drop and where the weeks of backlogged mail could be picked up.  Few complained about the long lines and limited resources.  Instead, there was a camaraderie that understood our predicament as a shared experience that demanded the best in us, not the worst.

This is why I absolutely loved Station Eleven, a different kind of dystopian novel by Emily St. John Mandel.  Like my own community after a ravaging storm, St. John Mandel imagines a post-apocalyptic world inhabited more or less by people who are unwilling to merely survive, but choose instead to live with purpose (albeit in a far more horrific setting than a storm-ravaged town).  Set in post-pandemic North America where ninety-nine percent of the world’s population has been erased by a flu virus, the novel centers on a caravan of traveling artists called The Traveling Symphony.  Musicians and actors, they move from settlement to settlement performing classical concerts and Shakespeare’s plays.  

Don’t let the idea of a traveling band of Beethoven-playing musicians and classical actors spouting “to be or not to be” mislead you.  The Traveling Symphony is armed and ready to use deadly force when attacked.  After all, the world can be a very dangerous place, before or after an apocalypse.  In Station Eleven, the need to maim or kill to protect one’s life is commensurate with the world in which one lives, but it is only a small feature of that world, not an all-consuming component.  Of much more importance is the need to be human, which means community, which further implies culture.  Although the obvious dangers, suffering, loss and violence of a post-pandemic world are acknowledged within the narrative, St. John Mandel is more concerned with exploring the before-and-after of the event and the ways in which these two disparate worlds press on their inhabitants. 

St. John Mandel envisions the kind of world that I suspect might actually materialize after the initial chaos and implosion caused by an apocalyptic event.  Unlike many dystopian works, where the question of mere survival seems to overwhelm all else, St .John Mandel’s characters are committed to a broader vision of life.  They are not surviving as much as they are living.  As evidence of this mindset, painted on the side of one of the Traveling Symphony’s caravan wagons is the troupe’s motto “Survival Is Insufficient”.   

I’m reminded of a theme in another book I’m reading by Charles and Gregory Fried (concerning the use of torture and “enhanced interrogation techniques” to secure information from terrorists) which resonates in St. John Mandel’s novel:  in matters of survival, the important question may not be that we survive, but what we survive as.
I highly recommend this thoughtful and entertaining novel.

Friday, January 23, 2015

Two Out Of Three - Christians And The Atonement

Blogger and pub theologian Bryan Berghoef recently had a series of posts on his site Musings Of A Pub Theologian about atonement, the foundational Christian belief that Jesus’ death and resurrection secured the reconciliation of humanity to God.  This got me thinking again about the larger picture of Christian soteriology and how the various theories of salvation within the protestant Christian ethos reveal the nature of God and reflect on his character. 
New Testament scripture has a lot to say about the relationship between God and man, God’s plans and purposes, and the ultimate destiny of humanity.  But since the Bible isn’t a textbook with clear and precise information but rather a collection of writings gathered over a very long period of time, Christian denominations across the world (approximately 30,000 denominations and sects) emphasize different concepts and prioritize various ideas as seen from a number of perspectives.  Yet, when the whole of the New Testament narrative concerning God’s salvific purpose is distilled to its essence, three propositions emerge:

Proposition #1:  It is God’s will – his plan and purpose - to reconcile all of humanity to himself through Jesus.
Proposition #2:  It is within God’s power to fulfill his will, his plans and his purposes.

Proposition #3:  Not all of humanity will be reconciled to God.  Some will be consigned to eternal punishment without the possibility of release or redemption.
Each of these propositions appears to have support in scripture.  In support of proposition #1 – that it is God’s will to reconcile all of humanity to himself through Jesus -  the following scriptures might be noted:

“The Lord is not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance.” – 2 Peter 3:9

 "This is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth." - 1 Tim 2:4-6

"For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ all shall be made alive”.  - 1 Cor. 15:22

Colossians 1:20. 19 “For in him [Christ] all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell,  and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross. – Colossians 1: 19-20

"But I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself." John 12:32

In support of proposition #2 – that it is within God’s power to fulfill his will, his desires and purposes -   the following scriptures might be noted:

"He doeth according to his will in the army of heaven, and among the inhabitants of the earth; and none can stay his hand, or say unto him, What doest thou?" (Dan. 4:35)

"The Lord of hosts hath sworn, saying, surely as I have thought, so shall it come to pass; and as I have purposed, so shall it stand".   Isaiah 14:24

"Declaring the end from the beginning and from ancient times things which have not been done, saying, ‘My purpose will be established, and I will accomplish all My good pleasure’;" Isaiah 46:10

"I have sworn by myself, the word is gone out of my mouth in righteousness, and shall not return, that unto me every knee shall bow, every tongue shall swear, surely shall say, in the Lord have I righteousness and strength."  - Isaiah 45:23-24

In support of proposition #3 – that some will be consigned to eternal  punishment  -  the following scripture might be noted:

"These will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life." – Matt 25:46

The curious thing about these three propositions is that although each appears to have support in scripture, they aren’t consistent.  Only two of the three statements can be true.  It isn’t logically consistent to say that God desires and wills to reconcile all of humanity (as proposition #1 asserts), that he has the power to fulfill his will and purpose (as proposition #2 asserts) , and yet some among humanity will be consigned to eternal punishment (as asserted in proposition #3).   It is transparently obvious then that all three propositions cannot be true.  One of these three ideas must be rejected in order for the other two propositions to be valid. 
And in fact, that is precisely what different Christian groups have done. The tension between these three propositions can be seen in competing doctrines among the various protestant denominations.

 Let us suppose that proposition #1 and #3 are true and proposition #2 is false.    This is what denominations like Methodists, Churches of Christ, Assemblies of God, most Holiness denominations and others do.  Their reasoning, called Arminianism, goes something like this:

“It is God’s will to reconcile all humanity to himself.  He doesn’t want anyone to spend eternity in hell and it is his sincere desire that everyone should be saved.  The offer of salvation is available to everyone equally.”  So, proposition #1 is true.

 “Unfortunately, it is not within God’s power to fulfill this desire because of man’s freewill.  Even though God has chosen to save everyone, some people decide to reject God’s saving grace and thereby go to hell.  It is their freewill choice. God cannot prevent this.” So, proposition #2 is false.

“Therefore not all of humanity will be reconciled to God. This means that some people will spend eternity in hell.” So, proposition #3 is true.
This approach places the emphasis on an all-loving God who is unable to fulfill his desires, in order that proposition #3 can remain true.

Or, we can suppose that proposition #2 and proposition #3 are true and proposition #1 is false.  This is what denominations like Southern Baptists, Presbyterian and other Reformed churches do.  Their reasoning, Calvinism, goes something like this: 

“It is not God’s plan to reconcile all humanity. Sinful man is spiritually blind and incapable of approaching God.  In order for at least some people to be saved, God must choose to save them himself.   These people are chosen – or elected – to salvation freely by God’s  grace and not because of anything they have done.  It is his will to reconcile those that he has chosen but he has not chosen everyone.” So, proposition #1 is false.

“It is within God’s power to fulfill his will.  In fact, God’s will is irresistible and cannot be defeated.  Whatever he decides to do will come to pass.  All of those he has willed and chosen to be reconciled, without exception, will be reconciled.” So, proposition #2 is true.

“This means that some people (those who are not chosen by God) will spend eternity in hell.” So, proposition #3 is true.
This approach emphasizes the all-powerful will of a God whose love is limited in scope, in order that proposition #3 can remain true..

Lastly, we could suppose that proposition #1 and #2 are true and proposition #3 is false.   This is what Christian Universalists believe.  Their reasoning goes something like this:

“It is God’s plan and purpose to reconcile all humanity to himself.  He doesn’t will that anyone should spend eternity in hell and it is his choice that everyone should be saved.  Therefore, the offer of salvation is available to everyone equally.”  So, proposition #1 is true

“It is within God’s power to fulfill his will.  In fact, God’s will is irresistible and cannot be defeated.  Whatever he decides to do will come to pass.  God’s plans and purposes cannot fail. All of those he has willed and chosen to be reconciled, without exception, will be reconciled.” So, proposition #2 is true.

“Since proposition #1 is true (God has chosen to reconcile everyone) and proposition #2 is true (God’s plans cannot fail and everyone that he has chosen to reconcile, without exception, will be reconciled)  it is inconsistent and illogical for proposition #3 to be true. Therefore no one will spend eternity in hell.  Eventually, at some point in the future ages, all people will ultimately be reconciled to God.”  So, proposition #3 is false.
This approach places equal emphasis on God's all-loving nature and all-powerful will.  Because God is all-loving and all-powerful, proposition #3 cannot remain unchallenged.

(Notice something interesting?  Christian Universalists agree with the millions of Methodists, Church of Christ and others that proposition #1 is true.  Christian Universalists also agree with the millions of Baptists, Presbyterians and other Reformed churches that proposition #2 is true.)

Every Christian believer is faced with these three propositions, only two of which can be true.  The implication of this is that scriptures which support the proposition you reject will need to be “fudged” or de-emphasized or interpreted in a way that doesn't interfere with your doctrine.  This is what all Christian denominations do.  

The question I pose is this:  Since only two of these three propositions can be true, which two of the three propositions more clearly permeate scripture through-and-through?  Which two of these three more accurately reflect the nature and character of an infinitely wise, infinitely just and infinitely good God?  Proposition #1 implies that God is unlimited in his love, sincerely desiring the salvation of all mankind. This is an overwhelming theme of scripture.  Proposition #2 implies that God is unlimited in power, able to accomplish whatever he desires.  This is also an exceedingly strong biblical theme.  Proposition #3, however, seems weak in relation to the other two, and open to various interpretations, and is found in texts that often contain parable, hyperbole, metaphor and symbolism.  

In order for proposition #3 to be true at the expense of either propositions #1 or #2, the biblical warrant for everlasting punishment would need to be much stronger than the biblical theme of God’s unlimited love and God’s omnipotence.  And that, I think, is a case that is not easy to make.

(There is no word in the New Testament that actually means "timeless" or "forever". The concept of a  timeless eternity is a philosophical idea that intrigued Augustine and especially Thomas Aquinas and found its way into their writings, which in turn became the standard interpretation of orthodoxy.  The words that are translated "eternal" in these New Testament scriptures are the Greek words aion and aionios, which mean "age" or "lasting an indeterminate time" - from which we get the English word "eon", which has a beginning and an end.   There is no word in the New Testament that means a timeless eternity).