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What Extreme Theologies?

January 23, 2009 2 comments

I’ll attempt to highlight some strands of theology that might be seen as extreme or have extreme implications. But first, let me suggest that the word extreme is completely perspectival. If I am standing the New Jersey side of the the George Washington Bridge, I might squint my eyes to see over on the Manhattan side and point to the other extreme. But either the New York side of the bridge or the New Jersey side still crosses the Hudson River. So both sides cross the same river even while resting in different states.

Two ideas that may seem extreme opposites when they make explanations from different times and places but they may be more similar than two ideas that never traverse the same river of thought. I sometimes struggle with the joy of sitting in the center of many different bridges, because something in me wants to connect everything. And some people don’t think everything should be connected. Does that sound overly mystical? Hopefully not. Oddly enough I think the world needs connectors and dis-connectors. Somehow we all help each other out.

As I think about 20th century theology or better yet, nineteenth century theology (that found popular expressions in the 20th century), I see some theologies moving toward a “fundamentalist position.” The word fundamentalist is not from a group of terrorists but a group of theologians in the early 20th century who feared the direction some theological ideas were headed, so they drew up what they called the “Fundamentals.”

These fundamentals defined what they considered to be essential Christian theology. As the term has popularized, it has been attached to everything from a way of dressing to a way of thinking that appears to reject the modern world (which is not wholly accurate). There are two doorways of insight that might be helpful here. In the 19th century, Enlightenment thinking continued its progression into multiple fields of thought including theology in ways that seemed to threaten the foundations of Christianity.

Particularly in German schools of thought a method of applying critical sciences to Scriptural study began to grow in popularity. Applying historical tools and language tools to the text, scholars began approaching Scripture in new ways, some of which questioned the historicity of the stories. This movement accompanied by the growing popularity of Darwinism in the natural sciences (and emerging social sciences) disturbed some Christian theologians because it seemed to lead down a road that would call into question some essentials of Christian faith.

The Fundamentalists circled around fundamentals of Christian faith that could not be rejected. Liberal theologies were not afraid to question some of those fundamentals like the virgin birth of Christ, the historicity of Scripture, the divinity of Christ and so on. From what I’ve read, I tend to think the liberal theologies weren’t necessarily an organized front. They represented a variety of ideas and approaches. Some focused on social service, others focused on critical study of text, some focused on history and so on. Oddly enough, thinkers sometimes moved between the groups.

Karl Barth was trained in the liberal German school of thought. But then he watched his liberal German professors wholeheartedly support the Great War. In disgust, he responded to their tendency to make God too closely aligned with this world (too immanent) by articulating a renewed theology of transcendence (God as Wholly Other). The marks of Kirkegaard are strong in his thought, but he also made room for some liberals and non-fundamentalist to embrace doctrines like the Trinity. Interestingly, he was not embraced by many fundamentalists even though he seemed to be defending many of their ideas. While all these early 20th century strains cannot be simplified this easily on a broad level their were groups that leaned more toward believing in Biblical revelation and those who believed more in human invention.

Now this may sound strange but I think both groups were like two sides of a coin. They were both essentialist rationalist in that they tried to reduce their theologies into a containable set of ideas. One applied their “rationality” to the text as it is received. The other applied their “rationality” to the origin of the text and/or doctrines surrounding texts.

Then suddenly the post-modernist ideas begin emerging that suggest every rationalist is still subject to some kind of narrative. So pure objectivity is a myth. Alongside this kind of questions, a whole sphere of writers begin thinking about rhetoric in terms of narratives, symbol systems and so on. By mid-twentieth century there are all kinds of voices coming to the table. Marxist readings of the gospel that suggest the story about Jesus is the overthrow of powerful rulers. Feminist readings that highlight Jesus’ interaction with women and the church’s crushing abuse of women.

As the floodgates began opening, universities were and still are trying to find ways to hear the minority voices that modernism silenced, thus the emergence of African American studies, Gender studies, Native American Studies and so on.

With all this opening up, a strange thing happened to fundamentalist Christians and liberal Christians. They both were influenced by these changes in philosophy and suddenly the lines were less clear. Some liberals started sounding like conservatives. Harvey Cox, a liberal Harvard theologian, wrote a glowing tribute and exploration of the highly emotional form of fundamentalism: Pentecostalism. Some conservatives started championing social causes.

I would suggest that’s where we are now. There’s a great big mixture. Some theologies that emerged out of fundamentalist evangelical worlds are questioning things like God’s knowledge of the future. If we really read the Bible at face level, the future appears open-ended. Maybe we really can change God’s mind? Some liberals have begun to embrace liturgy so seriously that they are returning to high appreciation of the Trinity and a liturgical worldview.

It seems there is a new springtime of exploration in Christian Evangelical theology accompanied by a renewed commitment to social causes on everything from poverty to AIDS to the environment. The leading popular Evangelical magazine, Christianity Today was formed in the 1950s as a response to the liberal magazine “The Christian Century.” Today, both magazine are routinely running articles by the same authors. And recently, the Christian Century recently ran an issue by liberal theologians about the doctrine of hell and why it’s important.

All the traditional categories of modernism have broken down in theology. Some ministers are terrified that this implications of this open-ended shifting is dangerous. And in some ways, it does mirror that chaos of the Medieval Europe when Reformation thought would sweep through an area. When King Charles was executed in England and the Puritans first came to power, there was a springtime of theological thought there. All kinds of wild and strange theologies were appearing. Some sects thought the end of the world was at hand and they were the specially appointed prophets. Men like George Fox appeared and began prophesying by the Spirit. Many movements died away or went into hiding (but the George Fox’s Quakers are still here).

The results seems to have been both chaos and renewal, social upheaval and a traditional resistance. Today some of the conservative theologies are questioning traditional as too Greek and not Hebrew enough. All the categories seem messed up. Writers and movements are questioning church buildings, musical style, doctrines such as predestination and God’s Sovereignty and even traditional readings of the Jews. There is one large group of theologians that suggest our understanding of Paul is skewed because we fail to understand the second Temple Judaisms that were prevalent during Jesus’ life were not inconsistent with justification by faith. Their objection to Jesus may really have been that He (and later Paul) kept suggesting that the fulfillment of the Messianic prophecies opens God’s salvation to the Gentiles.

Okay, thus far I’ve done a desipicable job of summarizing and have even managed to confuse myself. So let me cut this short by highighlting the implications of emerging theologies without listing because there are so many divergencies. In spite of some folks suggesting that post-modernism is dead. Actually modernism continues to be challenged and redefined. What is really altered is the dominance of a Western European understanding of rationality and empiricism. It still plays a role, but we might speak of a humbled epistemology (or way of knowing). In this humbled way of knowing, theologies and philosophies that have been built upon distinctly Western forms of logic/reason and experience/empiricism/observation must recognize that not all people used the same categories of thought, rely on the same forms of knowing (epistemology), or make the same either/or distinctions, and even ask the same questions.

As communication opens the way between east and west and north and south, we will be challenged on every level. The West seems to have been caught off guard by the response in the Islamic world. There are more conversations and questions and challenges to our whole notions of reality coming from all directions, including the native peoples who lived in this land before us.

As an Evangelical Christian who believes that the Gospel is God’s revelation to man, this does not terrify but excites me. Because they will open doors of revelation and thoughts that we have yet to consider. And as we learn to talk and listen to each other, the possibilities are exciting. Right now the Gospel is experiencing revival and growth in Latin America, India, Africa, and China. All these peoples are raising new questions that will join in the conversation with the Western form of Christianity to open a new door.

While I can’t begin to summarize all of the variations, I’ve included links to a few that are provocative: the changing center of Christianity, open theology, African theology, Hispanic theology, Asian theology, emergent theology, Radical Orthodoxy, New Paul Perspective, and so much more! As I wrote in my other post, at times it will seem like there is little in common with these varieties of Christian theology, but I see a conversation taking place that will always have fringes in all directions. And yet, there may be some exciting possibilities for common ground as well.

The Revelation of Jesus Christ (and the end of all things)

January 23, 2009 Leave a comment
Resurrection of Christ by Matthias Grunewald

Resurrection of Christ by Matthias Grunewald

In order to begin thinking about John’s Revelation of Jesus Christ and the end of all things, it might be helpful to think about the revelation of Jesus Christ throughout the whole Bible. Here are a few highlights just to get the mind (and heart) ruminating upon the revelation.

After Adam forfeits his rule by obeying the serpent, God promises his seed will arise to crush the serpent’s head. Paul teaches us that Jesus in the second Adam (who does in fact crush the serpent’s head).

Moses gives the Law to Israel, but realizes they will falter and disobey. He proclaims another Lawgiver will come. The people will hear and obey Him. Jesus comes as that Lawgiver and Law fulfiller. He gives His Spirit to the people and now the Law is written on the hearts of God’s people, so they will obey the law of love.

Joshua goes to battle on behalf of Israel. As he leads the armies of Israel, he meets the “Captain of the Lord’s Army” who will truly battle the enemies of God by harrowing hell and rescuing the captives. Jesus is the supreme warrior and commander of angel armies who defeats evil, so that the weak and oppressed may rest in the goodness of God’s love.

Israel lives through 400 years of judges. These judges can only offer a provisional peace and victory to Israel. But one day the true judge of Israel will come. When Jesus comes, the day of the Lord arrives. He is the judge who will separate the sheep and the goats. He is the judge who will exalt the humble and humiliate the exalted.

Israel lives through an age of kings. Some rule with wisdom and many rule foolishly. David is a king after God’s own heart and is promised that one day a king will come from the house of David who will defeat all Israel’s enemies, bring peace the the land and restore worship in the land. Jesus, the Messiah, is that king. He is born to the house of David and defeats the enemies of God, restores the land (the whole earth) and makes a way for the people of God to worship in spirit and in truth. He is the king before whom every knee will bow and every tongue will confess: Jesus is Lord.

The prophets call Israel back to the Law and the Covenant. They appears as voices in the wilderness (often literally), proclaiming judgment on the enemies of God, calling for repentance, and offering a vision of the kingdom of God that extends to all nations. The greatest prophet of all, John the Baptist says that he baptizes with water, but another prophet is coming after him who will baptize with fire. Jesus is the prophet of God who baptizes His people in the fire of the Holy Spirit and sets these blazing bushes loose to bring the good news of the kingdom to every tribe and nation.

These are highlights and there are many more rhythms that final consummation in Jesus Christ. Before we can tackle the John’s Revelation of Jesus Christ, we must come to realize the whole Bible has been a revelation of Jesus Christ, and John’s writings are written within this movement that is always finding fulfillment in the gracious, gentle and every loving ruler of time and space. All persons and all things find their consummation in Jesus. Thus, the end of all things is not the non-existence but the fulfillment of all things in Jesus.

Categories: Bible, faith, Jesus, meditation

Shiny Happy People

January 23, 2009 Leave a comment


Doug Smilin’

Originally uploaded by dulasfloyd

My day started with a mouthful of smile as I read a note posted by the JTV Friends on Facebook. These shiny happy people love jewelry, gemstones and people. They posted a note of appreciation for the time I spent helping start a JTV community online.

Their kind words made this bright day just a bit brighter. We rarely catch of glimpse of the impact our lives have on others, so it’s a nice surprise when we discover our lives have touched someone else.

While many spend their lives pursuing fancy job titles, power, or boatloads of cash, I’d rather make a few friends along the way. Thanks JTV Friends for surprising me with some smiles today.

Fishsticks?

January 23, 2009 Leave a comment

800px-fishfinger1

I was thinking about fishsticks tonight.

Categories: Society & Culture Tags: , ,
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