Archives For Theology

On December 5th, The Diversity Chronicle posted a blog with the clever title ‘Pope Francis Condemns Racism and declares that “All Religions Are True” At Historic Third Vatican Council’ . People quickly spread the piece via social media, and many—especially Evangelical Christians—attacked the Pope.

The fact that the article was a spoof and not true should serve as a reminder to always research and verify sources, but even more alarming was that so many Christians were seemingly waiting for a reason to blast Pope Francis.

It was as if people wanted an opportunity to turn on the Pope, and this article was the perfect fodder for their distrust. Thus, the story spread and became a viral message of how the Catholic Church was once again spreading a “false Gospel” and that the Pope was probably  working in collusion with the AntiChrist.

SOURCE: Do ‘Evangelicals’ Still Distrust Catholicism? | Stephen Mattson.

I must admit that Stephen Mattson is becoming one of my favorite bloggers over at Red Letter Christians.  He has an innate ability to stand back and report on things without the usual assumptions and prejudgements. Thinking for yourself in the religious sphere is a task that comes with a lot of criticism. Stephen Mattson certainly does not shy away from saying what he believes and that I very much admire in him.

The quote above struck right at home with me.  To understand where I am coming from you should know that I spent the early third of my life as a Catholic. I was an altar boy and went the first seven years of school in a Catholic institution. Like many I dropped away during college and then left entirely after that.  I won’t go into the reason for leaving the Catholic church here but looking back it probably had more to do with pitiful management of the local church I was attending than anything else.

After my first and only marriage at the age of forty I joined a Lutheran church and stayed there until I was stripped of membership because of theological differences.  I would not refute my belief that he earth is greater than 5,000 year old or believe that the Bible is 100% literal and true.

Having spent a good deal of time in both Catholic and Evangelical churches I can say without a doubt that the antipathy between the two organization runs predominately on the Evangelical side.  Yes, I heard growing up as a Catholic that it was the only true religion but that dwarfed when compared what I heard on the Evangelical side.  I found that there are indeed many who thoroughly despise the Pope and believe him to be the antiChrist.

I think part of this antipathy comes from the Reformation but I think the bigger part due to a basic theological difference between the two. The Catholic church has always put an emphasis on “works” where as most Evangelical shy very much away from that very concept.  Evangelicals for the most part have put being a Christian as “fire insurance”. Say the right words and then go on living your life as you please.  Many of my Protestant friends seem too fearful of putting “works”/action at any level into their religious ideology.

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Jesus Avoided Theological Certainty

Within the New Testament, the people Jesus seemingly condemns the strongest — and most frequently — are the ones who have the greatest amount of theological certainty — the Pharisees.

The spiritual leaders, the most prestigious religious institutions of the their day, the ones who were the most confident, the most sure and vocal about theology, were flat our wrong — and Jesus called them out on it. This should be a warning to us all.

Much of Jesus\’ teaching was confusing, complex, and often created more questions than answers, and that\’s OK. Even His own disciples were constantly misinterpreting his words, and they were continually asking Jesus for clarification and understanding. Knowledge and wisdom were not the disciples’ strong suit, but they followed Jesus despite their fears, doubts, defeats and failures — and so should we.

SOURCE:  4 Ways Jesus Was Like a Millennial – Stephen Mattson | God\’s Politics Blog | Sojourners.

In my experiences with the church theological certainty is indeed one of it core mistakes. Every denomination is absolutely certain that their version of theology is 100% while all the rest contain errors in one degree or another. It is helpful to remember that this is nothing new when studying and trying to follow the words of Jesus.

It always amazed me just how out of tune Jesus’ disciple were about so many things. They just didn’t seem to get it until much after the fact. So, why should we all of a sudden understand it all? Yes, we have had thousands of well-meaning people give us their understanding. Yes, we can pick and choose among them to come up with a unique story.

The Pharisees were absolutely certain that they were right about everything. That is the major flaw of Judaism  and they continue to stubbornly refuse to acknowledge that even today. But then again, are they really any worse than most of us Christians who stubbornly cling to one or another founders words.

Yes, many of Jesus’ words are confusing and complex and create more questions than answers and as the quote above says that is OK as long as we recognize the fact that we are all wrong about it in one manner or another.

Before I start on my study of the history of the church I want to do an “aside” post here on another topic.

I just read a very thoughtful post over at Rachel Held Evan’s blog about mysticism and evangelicalism. In it she was commenting on a book by Tim Challis about how mysticism, which he defined at any experiences with God outside of the Bible, as not being valid. I am not going to get into his arguments to back up this belief nor Rachel’s counter to it. Click on the link above to see all that.  Instead I am going to talk about how Mr. Challis and many evangelicals I have encountered to have thoroughly dismiss the pope as a mediator between man and God but then turn around and put the Bible in that position.

I personally have been on both sides of the Catholic/Protestant divide so I think I have an understanding of some of the differences. I spent the first 20 years in the Catholic church in one degree or another. I went to the first seven years of schooling being taught by nuns and priests. During that time I learned that man can’t interact directly with God as he is just too holy for our sinfulness.  Instead we had to count on the parish priest for our daily interactions with God and for the Pope for the really deep understandings.

Even during those years I felt uncomfortable with this idea. We received communion  on a regular basis but at that moment when the bread wafer turned into Jesus it was over the hunched shoulders of the priest ruling over the mass.  We just weren’t allow to be part of that transformation.  When I was an altar boy I occasionally tried to sneak a look at just what was going on but never saw anything I thought was miraculous about it. I just couldn’t understand why I needed someone else to talk to God for me.

As was typical I turned away from all things religious during my college years. I occasionally dabbled in the RCC but only very tepidly. When I was about to get married I had my first encounters with those people outside the “real” church. THose who call themselves Protestants in one form or another. The flavor I was involved with were Lutherans. I must admit that many of the things with Lutherans and Catholics are very similar. They have basically the same liturgy and beliefs with most things but definitely not when it come to the Pope. I can’t number how many times I heard very harsh words about the pope in my Lutheran circles. I was embarrassed by this almost hatred because I couldn’t understand it coming from  Christians.

In reality I have come to realize that Lutherans and I expect many other Protestants have simply moved from one mediator to another. They take all authority away from the pope and put it on the document created under the tutelage of King Constantine in the fourth century. Of course that document is the Bible. While the Bible contains very inspiring writings passed down from generation to generation before being penned it is not the sole presence of God in the world today. To say that God quit instructing us how to live and love more than 1600 years ago is to take power away from him.  And I am just not one to do that…..

Anyone who has read much of this blog knows how I feel about the slippery slope. I believe that the very concept has damaged us theologically, politically and personally beyond anything good that could come out of it. The very concept that everything we believe about a subject becomes worthless if we come to believe that any small part of it is questionable.

Here is what Tony Jones says about the slippery slope in his book The New Christians: Dispatches from the Emergent Frontier:

That theology is local, conversational, and temporary does not mean that we must hold our beliefs without conviction. This is a charge often thrown at emergent Christians, but it’s false. As a society, we’ve been wrong about all sorts of things in the past, like slavery. And not letting women vote. And not letting nonwhites drink from the same water fountains as whites. I could go on and on. Our forebears held positions on these issues with deep conviction, but they were wrong. And I can say that unequivocally. At least, I can say that from my vantage point-as one who came after them-they were wrong. What I cannot say is which side of those issues I would have been on a century or two ago. Nor can I say which issues I’m mistaken on today….

Unlike Mr. Jones I “did” live through many of the issues he discussed here. I have to admit that I was wrong to have such a non-committal  attitude toward many of them when they were happening. Since I was a white kid growing up in rural America I, at least initially, didn’t think they had anything to do with me. In college in the 1960s I finally had some direct encounters and conversations with my first African-Americans. From conversations with them I came to understand that I too had a stake in these matters.  It was not until my local circumstance changed that I knew how critical the civil rights demonstrations of the time actually were.

Dispatch 11: Emergents believe that awareness of our relative position-to God, to one another, and to history – breeds biblical humility, not relativistic apathy

Our understanding that throughout history the theologians in particular and the church in general has both evolved and devolved. To deny that fact is to deny history itself. We can’t just ignore the fact that during the period quoted above many Christian denomination claimed that segregation and denying people of color their God given rights  was biblical. Among other things they pointed out the various reference to slaves in the Bible.  We are all relativists to one degree or another. When we recognize that fact it frees us to look for further understanding of God’s infinitely complicated words to us. When we lock onto one version of our choosing we lock out further revelations from God or Scripture.

The concept of the slippery slope is a dangerous one but not from the fact that we look at things differently but from the fact that we refuse to do so…..

Theology is Temporary…

February 4, 2013 — 2 Comments

Continuing with my study of theology as discussed in the book by Tony Jones entitled The New Christians: Dispatches from the Emergent Frontier, here is the quote for this post:

theology is temporary. Since our conceptions of God are shaped locally and in conversation, we must hold them humbly. We must carry our theologies with an open hand, as it were. To assume that our convictions about God are somehow timeless is the deepest arrogance, and it establishes an imperialistic attitude that has a chilling effect on the honest conversation that’s needed for theology to progress…..

[we can’t as some ask to] “sum it up,” and “boil it down” when speaking of God and God’s Kingdom, for it simply can’t be done. The Kingdom of God is expansive, explosive, and un-pin-downable (to coin a phrase). Consequently, our characterizations of God and God’s Kingdom are necessarily fleeting.

For a number of years I read seemingly countless books by today’s theologians and each one seemed convinced that his version of theology came from God and was therefore the only correct one and the only one for the ages. But as Mr. Jones pointed out above this declaration is perhaps the deepest form of arrogance on their part.  When we try to lock down the meaning and lessons of God we are actually declaring that He has nothing more to say about whatever we are discussing.

I can just imagine that many of the big thinkers of Christianity had the same mentality, even the ones who arrogantly claim that the Bible is totally literal and without the possibility of error. Of course one of those theologians was Martin Luther. When he declared “Sola Scriptura”, that is the bible alone is the total and complete word of God he then went on to say except for the Epistles of James (he called that one an epistle of straw) and a few others that he chose to personally exclude. By that very declaration he invalidated the very idea of sola scriptura.  I can’t understand why others have not come out and declared that simple fact about his teachings.  Maybe Luther being the leader of the “reformation” was the “too big to fail” of his times.

The bible and all the subsequent theologians’ views make up a very complex story of God but really hardly touch on the expansiveness of the Kingdom of God. Just when we think we have it nailed down something else pops up in the biblical text, in scientific discoveries, in archeological digs, or maybe from personal revelations that shows us a clearer path.

As Tony Jones say we can’t hermetically seal God’s ever-expanding Kingdom or our experiences and articulations of that Kingdom. They are changing as we mature both in self and in the corporate body of Christ. What we think we know now just maybe discounted by something we learn or finally understand tomorrow. In other words  whether we want to recognize it or not, theology is temporary.

Today I will continue my discussions of a book by Tony Jones entitled The New Christians; Dispatches from the Emergent Frontier.  I’m sure if there are any pastors or theologians who accidentally come across the blog post their first reaction is to adamantly disagree with the title that all theology is local. Here is what Tony Jones says about that:

Theologytheology is not universal, nor is it transcendent. The God about whom we theologize is transcendent, but our human musings about God are not. To think that our theology is not local and specific is a falsity that has been foisted on the church. Professional theologians, those men and women who sit on seminary faculties, are sometimes tempted to write and speak with the confidence that their theology is somehow clean or sterile or untainted-that they come to their task without any presuppositions, prejudices, or context. But of course, they’re just as local as the rest of us. They live in a certain place, speak a certain language, talk with certain people, read a certain newspaper, and are held accountable for what they write and say by other theologians in their guild. This localness of theology is a hallmark of emergent thinking and sensibility.

When we recognize that what we think about God is mostly a matter of our life’s circumstances then we understand how to approach the theology of the church both past , present and future.  Theology is nothing more than how we humans perceive the nature of God.  As mentioned further in the book when we understand that Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s theology was shaped by Nazi Germany, that Augustine’s was formed by his neo-Platonic area of Northern Africa, and Martin Luther’s was fashioned by the Roman Catholic monastery we come to realize that all theology is local. That is not necessarily a bad thing but something we must realize in order to understand it.

Being a human endeavor theology is naturally local. It is shaped by our circumstances. God is indeed transcendent, but our human understanding of him is not. Christian theology has a two thousand-year record that contains some very inspiring writings that all Christians should study and learn from but we must always understand the circumstance around those writings in order to put them in the proper context.

Understanding that all theology is local helps to even explain some of the writing of Paul. We must understand that Paul had no personal exposure to Jesus other than that fateful afternoon on the road to Damascus. So, you could also call his writing theology. When we understand this then we understand why there is almost no cross reference between the teachings of Jesus and the words of Paul. When Paul told women to be quiet in church he was relating his local circumstances. When he said it was better to be a bachelor than to be married he was relaying his condition.

All theology is local and that includes theology throughout church history. When we study the words of the great theologians we must understand the conditions which surrounded the words. Many say the Bible is a very simple document to understand, all we have to do is to read it.  Tony Jones says, and I believe, that it is really the opposite. It is a very complicated document and for that very reason it has remained pertinent throughout the ages.

I know you expect this post to be about how the church is very much against the idea of evolution. But really it is going to be quite the opposite. Yes, many denominations within the church, like so many other areas of science, deny evolution of the species as originated by Darwin. The Scopes Monkey trial was evidence of that. William Jennings Bryan put up quite an argument about that and the church has for the most part has stiffly followed it up since then.

But, this post is actually about how the church has practiced evolution over its two millennia.  That is, the church as evolved, some might say devolved,  from its earliest followers strict attention to the teaching of Jesus until today where those very teaching for the most part take a back burner to what we are told we must believe. There were a couple of discrete step in the evolution but for the most part it has been gradually happening throughout its history.

Theology is defined as the Study of religion. From the first people to give us their opinions of what the church means to the present day theologians there have been a myriad of different views of what it means to be a follower of Jesus. Like every other realm theology is not all good or all bad. It is just man’s beliefs of the nature of God.

Here are some words about theology from some famous people in our history. I pasted these words here sometime ago and have to apologize that I lost the source.

Thomas Paine the American revolutionary, wrote in his two part work The Age of Reason, “The study of theology, as it stands in Christian churches, is the study of nothing; it is founded on nothing; it rests on no principles; it proceeds by no authorities; it has no data; it can demonstrate nothing; and it admits of no conclusion. Not anything can be studied as a science, without our being in possession of the principles upon which it is founded; and as this is the case with Christian theology, it is therefore the study of nothing.

Walter Kaufmann the philosopher, in his essay “Against Theology”, sought to differentiate theology from religion in general. “Theology, of course, is not religion; and a great deal of religion is emphatically anti-theological… An attack on theology, therefore, should not be taken as necessarily involving an attack on religion. Religion can be, and often has been, untheological or even anti-theological.” However, Kaufmann found that “Christianity is inescapably a theological religion

Thomas Paine, who is the founder of much of what this country was founded on said some pretty cynical  things about those who have opinions of what is religion.  As he pointed out above we have very little scientific evidence of what we call Christianity. It seems to have been based on man’s opinions.

Walter Kaufmann had a different take on it. Theology is not religion and in fact much of it is very anti-theological. I will have to study this aspect of religion some more to intelligently speak of these matters….

I am going into the attack mode this morning. I don’t do this often but sometimes one of those 39,000 versions of Jesus Christ  around today severely strike my ire. That is the case with the “Prosperity Gospel”. When I came across these calendars in a stand recently their position next to each other got my immediate attention. Here are some words from Christianity Today that speak to the issue of the prosperity gospel:

Source: Joel Osteen vs. Rick Warren on Prosperity Gospel | Christianity Today.

Fact or Crap17 percent of Christians surveyed said they considered themselves part of such a movement, while a full 61 percent believed that God wants people to be prosperous. And 31 percent—a far higher percentage than there are Pentecostals in America—agreed that if you give your money to God, God will bless you with more money. … Of the four biggest megachurches in the country, three—Joel Osteen’s Lakewood in Houston; T.D. Jakes’ Potter’s House in south Dallas; and Creflo Dollar’s World Changers near Atlanta—are Prosperity or Prosperity Lite pulpits.

Lets make no mistake about this, the primary purpose of the “prosperity gospel” is for the prosperity of their leaders. They say that the more money you give to them the more money God will give to you.  Plain and simple that is a greed motivated theology and has nothing to do with the teachings of Jesus Christ! To put money and God on the same level is to make money the ultimate idol! In a country where 7 out of every 10 jobs will soon be at minimum wage levels it is not surprising that the dream of wealth is so subversive. Shame on these supposedly “Christian leaders” for  taking advantage of this condition in the name of God! To pervert the Bible is such a way is vulgar to me! (a lot of exclamation points here and all are necessary)

Here is what Rick Warren said about “theology prosperity” in the same reference article:

“This idea that God wants everybody to be wealthy?”, [Rick] Warren snorts. “There is a word for that baloney. It’s creating a false idol. You don’t measure your self-worth by your net worth. I can show you millions of faithful followers of Christ who live in poverty. Why isn’t everyone in the church a millionaire?”

Or I could even say in the face of so much poverty why is there anyone in the church who are millionaires. Jesus had some words to a rich man about that.  Fact or Crap, I know where I put Mr. Osteen and those like him in those categories…

I am a regular reader of a Quaker blog called Quaker Quaker. On a recent posting  by Mac Lemann I learned a little about Mary Dyer. Here are some of his words from that post:

I had recently re-learned, at Pendle Hill from Marcelle Martin, the story of Mary Dyer and the other Quaker martyrs hung on Boston Common. Mary was a follower of Anne Hutchinson (see the Antinomian Controversy) who preached that every Christian believer could read, interpret, and preach the word of God and that the Grace of God is freely given. Mary was later convinced by George Fox in England of the Truth and power of Friends. Because of her conviction that God’s law is love and tolerance and despite the fact that the Massachusetts government, essentially the Puritan church, had passed a law banning Quakers from their colony, she returned to Massachusetts again and again in defiance of the worldly law and was martyred for her beliefs.

After gazing at the statue for a few minutes I turned and strode to the center of Boston common where Mary was hung and buried in an unmarked grave. I stomped my foot and jumped up into the cool air and sunny sky. I felt myself slam down onto the land forbidden to Quakers in the 17th century and I thought, “Goddamn it! I am a Quaker on Boston Common!”

When we think of Christian martyrs we most often think of the Inquisition or as I do the post-Constantine era of Christianity. We don’t often relate it to what later became the USA.  Most of us remember hearing stories of the Salem witchcraft trials but not many know about the hangings on the Boston Common for heresy. We don’t often remember that even though we have a separation of Church and State in our constitution that wasn’t so of the thirteen colonies that initially formed our country. Many including Massachusetts, Road Island, and Pennsylvania were made up of primarily the same religious sect and not very tolerant of other beliefs.

Can you imagine one Christian colony putting to death a citizen because they believed that all Christians can have opinions of biblical text or that God will eventually grant salvation to everyone? Thank heavens for those like Thomas Jefferson who had a more tolerant view of religious sects.

For a little more information here is what Wikipedia says about the Boston Martyrs:

The Boston martyrs is the name given in Quaker tradition to the three English members of the Society of Friends, Marmaduke Stephenson, William Robinson and Mary Dyer, and to the Friend William Leddra of Barbados, who were condemned to death and executed by public hanging for their religious beliefs under the legislature of the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1659, 1660 and 1661. Several other Friends lay under sentence of death at Boston in the same period, but had their punishments commuted to that of being whipped out of the colony from town to town.

“The hanging of Mary Dyer on the Boston gallows in 1660 marked the beginning of the end of the Puritan theocracy and New England independence from English rule. In 1661 King Charles II explicitly forbade Massachusetts from executing anyone for professing Quakerism. In 1684 England revoked the Massachusetts charter, sent over a royal governor to enforce English laws in 1686, and in 1689 passed a broad Toleration act.”


Luke Chapter 6…

December 4, 2012 — Leave a comment

The gospel of Luke Chapter 6 is the most important chapter in the Bible for me. Of course it includes the Beatitudes which are primary in teaching us how to live our lives but they include much more than that.  I want to concentrate on the first beatitude for this post.

Luke 6:20 Looking at his disciples, he said:

“Blessed are you who are poor,  for yours is the kingdom of God..” 

I take these words more literally than some. I believe that those who are treated poorly in this world will have a special place in the next. Conversely those who have much will be judged by how they use their affluence to further God’s kingdom.  This thought also aligns with Jesus’ word about those who are first will be last and for those who much is given much will be expected.  I think Jesus was talking about the same thing in all these examples.

Like many places in the Bible where there are differing accounts for the same circumstances. Some differences are slight and some are rather dramatic. The writer of Luke deemed his account as the  Sermon on the Plan while there is another account in Matthew that author called the Sermon on the Mount.  I suspect that both of these accounts were from the same event and just recorded differently by the two authors.

Over the centuries even slight differences in biblical accounts have spurned some pretty significant differences in interpretation. The author of Matthew added two words after the word “poor”; he added “in spirit”. This opened the door to a completely different meaning than what Luke proclaimed.  With the words “in spirit” some now say that everyone is included in this and all the other beatitudes as all of us humans are “poor in spirit”.  By doing this they are taking away any special or specific meaning the beatitudes.

One thing to remember about all of this is that we don’t really know with any certainty who any of the four authors of the Gospels were. During those times many would write their accounts “in memory of” as we would say today. The accounts were often written from verbally passed down stories of the times but in memory of a particular founding Christian. An example of that this the Book of Judas.  Obviously this book, which was not included in the bible and was not rediscovered until recently, was not written by Judas himself but in his name. Realizing that the vast majority of the early Christians were illiterate this  understanding should not be surprising to any of us.

There have been literally thousands of theologians over the past twenty centuries that have dissected almost all  of Jesus’ words to support their version of Christianity.  We have to remember that everyone has an agenda in one form or another when it comes to the biblical interpretation.

Luke 6 covers a wide spectrum of Jesus’ message to us today. I will be interlacing those messages along with additional info about the emergent church movement in future posts.