Saturday, 28 September 2013

What is faith?

Faith is treated like a plastic word. It gets used however the speaker wants it to be used. I've heard dozens of sermons about faith and hundreds of references to it. I can't help but cringe at some of them, or feel guilty at others.

At the risk if setting up straw men, here are some notable versions of faith:
- Faith is blind belief, usually in contradiction to scientific fact (as though faith requires the individual to be ignorant or willfully stupid.) 
- Faith is believing that God will reward obedience with the trinkets of Rome (as though we only believe in order to receive). 
- Faith is waiting for God to do something extraordinary to break the hardship or monotony of our lives (as though we are incapable of changing the circumstances of our lives). 

When I read the gospels, however, I see a different kind of faith at work. This faith is the faith that believes in the Son of Man, that believes Jesus is the Christ. It's faith in the identity of Jesus, faith that Jesus is more than a rabbi or a healer or a rebel. It declares that God is wholly revealed in Jesus and that the believer follows Jesus by example and by teaching. 

The question of faith is what we answer with our belief. Jesus asked it. His followers asked it of him. "Who do you say that I am?" "Do you believe in the Son of Man?" The disciples answered, "You are the Christ, the holy one of God."

Christian faith is not the belief in what Jesus can do for us, but faith in who Jesus is. When we exist inside this faith we are less concerned with what we gain from it and more concerned about how we ought to respond to Christ. We are faced with Christ and all the consequences of it. Christ has the message from God about how we should live. Christ has the message from God about how blessed the world would be if we would follow Christ's commands to love. 

If we believe with Christian faith, we believe in who Jesus is. Whatever else Jesus does for us us derived from this initial statement of faith. What we call faith is always an answer to Jesus' question, "Who do you say that I am?"

Friday, 27 September 2013

Trinitarian Ambivalence

I'm not convinced that the doctrine of the trinity is accurate.

That's a bold claim to make, I realise. Hundreds of years of development resulted in the familiar formulation that most in the western church have been taught. Augustine did a great job of putting it into words, to be sure, but here are my doubts. When I read Paul I see a distinction between the Father, the Son and the Spirit (and the spirit) more than I see a unity. He likes to write, "the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ" as a kind of distinctive title. It's at the start of most of his letters. The Holy Spirit appears as power which enacts God's will in the world. Lastly, "the spirit" is something different again, seen in the repeated use of "kata pneuma" (according to the spirit) in contrast with "kata sarka" (according to the flesh). By reading Paul alone I get the impression that he emphasises the distinctions and barely deals with the unity. That's not to say that the early believers didn't have ideas of divine unity; Paul also didn't pay a lot of attention to Jesus' miracles, signs, or sayings either. 

On the other hand, the Johannine literature is significantly more interested in the unity of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Jesus is one with the Father. Jesus wants the disciples to be one, just as the Father and the Son are one. The Holy Spirit prominantly gets a personal pronoun in the Johannine literature. The concept of the pre-existent Christ who is one with the Father is loud and proud. It's clear that there is a kind of relationship going on between the three, but it feels as though Augustine's doctrine of the trinity is always going to fall short of being able to explain it. The doctrine can't even be explained without first explaining Greek concepts of ousia, hypostasis, and prosopopeia. Such dependence on a single language gives me pause to doubt the accuracy.

The social trinity has a bit more appeal to me. Unity in the relationship gives us the opportunity to live out Jesus' prayer that his disciples may be one even as Jesus and God are one. It holds out the potential for the divine community to be more than a collection of individuals who have a common interest. The social trinity invites the participation of all people and allows us to transcend the self. Where I think it falls short a little is beyond the Johannine framework, or outside the Johannine texts. I think there might be the possibility of bridging the gap through Bonhoeffer's work in Act and Being and Sanctorum Communio, particularly that the being of the Christian is found in the being of Christ both as the self and as the other.

Perhaps the most awe-inspiring model of the trinity is the death of God model (for shorthand I like to call it the dialectic trinity). The pure kenosis of God, the complete and utter self-giving in the movement from transcendence to immanence astounds me. This is not the action of a God who wants to be in relationship with humans, but the action of a God who wants to be united with humans. The transformation of God and the transformation of humanity at one and the same time speaks volumes about the character of God. I find it counter-intuitive to pray to God in that way, but that could be simply a product of my formative years. I also find it to be an awkward fit with the teaching to pray to "Our Father in heaven" unless we are thoroughly committed to the notion that heaven is where God is, and since God is in the Church we therefore have heaven with us here and now. This is certainly not your patristic or classical understanding of God.

Just like the Augustinian model, both the social trinity and the dialectic trinity bump up against the limits of language. They're informative up to a point. They're deficient beyond that. I don't find it especially helpful to insist that it can only be understood through revelation either. Do we need a doctrine of the trinity? Well, yes and no. As informative as they are, they just aren't solid enough or necessary enough for Christian discipleship. I like them and I don't, hence my trinitarian ambivalence. 

Sunday, 22 September 2013

Three Ways to Have More of Christ's Presence

It's a standard Christian doctrine that Christ is present with the believer through the Holy Spirit. You might experience this emotionally or intellectually, but if there's one thing that's certain, as a believer you probably want more. Let's look at a few.

Remember and accept that your flesh is redeemed
This might seem odd at first so bear with me. We know that Jesus is the word made flesh (John 1:14). This word "flesh" is the same as the word "flesh" in Galatians 5:19, in which Paul warns his readers that the way of the flesh is full of sin.
Now the works of the flesh are obvious: fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these. I am warning you, as I warned you before: those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.
Jesus was born into this flesh, struggled with that flesh, was crucified in that flesh, and then resurrected in a new kind of flesh. In the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus we see that flesh has been redeemed and transformed. The flesh that is prone to all kinds of wrong is the same flesh that Christ has redeemed. To recognise that Jesus lived in the flesh and redeemed the flesh is to recognise that Jesus has redeemed our flesh by his transforming power. When we accept that, we accept Christ into our flesh and experience his presence through that redemption.

Rejoice and suffer with your fellow believers
In one of Paul's letter to the Corinthian church he writes,
If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honoured, all rejoice together with it. Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it. 1 Cor 12:26-27
To be a believer in Jesus Christ is to be a fellow believer along with others. You aren't alone in your belief, you are part of the body of Christ here and now. Paul writes that as part of the body, we will consequently rejoice and suffer with other believers.

He's not saying that we should manufacture rejoicing and suffering, but that when we are close with others and united in the spirit with others, then we will empathise and sympathise with them. When they rejoice, we will rejoice with them because we are in close relationship with them. When they suffer, we suffer with them because of our close relationship with them. This is evidence of the body of Christ manifest in the Church. It's evidence of the presence of the risen Christ with us. When we allow God to unite us as the body of Christ, we get closer to others in the Church and are open to experiencing their lives, with all the joys and sorrows that come with them. God is present in that relationship and in that unity. In other words: get to know the people in the pew next to you and love them.

Serve the needy
In the famous passage about the sheep and the goats, Jesus tells his audience how he will judge the world when he returns.
Then the king will say to those at his right hand, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.”
Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?”
And the king will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” - Matt 25:34-40
In setting this standard for behaviour, Jesus more than identifies with the needy, he says that he shares the experiences of the needy. Jesus is present in their suffering and is the co-recipient of any kindness or neglect that we show. Think about that for a moment: Jesus is present in the needy. Jesus is in the malnourished child, in the enslaved prostitute, in the wrongfully imprisoned, in the oppressed, in the poor, in the marginalised. When we encounter people with these needs, we encounter Jesus. When we are in their presence, we are in Jesus' presence.

This one has an extra opportunity for us as well. When we serve the needy in meeting their needs, we have the opportunity to act on behalf of Christ. In a way, we act in the place of Christ as the embodiment of Christ. We become the hands and feet of Christ, the flesh of Christ, for the needy. In that moment we are one with Christ as the one who meets their needs. In that moment of service, Christ is present in us as well as in the needy. When we serve the need we have a double experience.

So if you want more of Christ's presence in your life:
1. Remember and accept that your flesh is redeemed;
2. Rejoice and suffer with your fellow believers; and
3. Serve the needy.

The experience of the presence of Christ during a church meeting can be powerful, and quite motivating for many Christians. The good news is that we don't leave it behind when we walk out of the service; it's out there waiting for us.

Thursday, 19 September 2013

Kindy Theology: Tsunamis

If you follow me on social media you'd know that I'm a dad. One of my children is in kindergarten and has a propensity for asking questions about God, morality, and science. I decided that I wouldn't sugar coat my answers to him, but I would answer as honestly as I could to the level of detail that he was interested in. Since some of his questions are exactly the same as questions I hear adults ask, I wanted to use them as inspirations for my blog. So I present to you the first in the series on Kindy Theology. You're going to get the question he asked and the answer I gave him. 

"Why did God make tsunamis?"

God made the universe to be full of energy. Because of all that energy we have planets and stars, the wind and the sunshine. And that energy also means we live on a planet that has earthquakes and big waves like tsunamis. And because of all that energy, it was possible for you and I to be here. That's the kind of universe God created; the kind that has you and I in it, and God is very interested in you, and very interested in me. Sometimes that universe is scary, and sometimes it's beautiful. 

Monday, 9 September 2013

The votes are in

We voted. We ate hot dogs (making "sausage" a trending topic on twitter). We walked through our neighbourhood schools and other polling places. Now that's all done and we have a new PM, I'm still keen to see my favourite part of the election: the senate results. Practically speaking, legislation doesn't go through the lower house until there's confidence that it will pass the senate, or unless the lower house majority wants to make a spectacle of things.

The senate is where Abbott could come unstuck. At the time of writing it looks as though the Coalition won't have a majority in the senate. He will have to rely on minor parties to get things through. It will require negotiation and compromise. Ideas will have to be watered down, or additional ideas incorporated. I'm looking forward to seeing how tense the situation will get and whether it will force a double dissolution.

But best of all, the nation's stand-up comedy will get better. There's nothing like a conservative government to give fodder for the comedians. Sure, this probably reveals a bias in that industry but nothing we didn't already know.

Saturday, 7 September 2013

When the election is over

The federal election is finally upon us. Whatever the result I like to remember a couple of key things that I think are essential to the Christian life under any government. 

We are united in Christ alone.

It's easy to let political opinions divide us. The policies of the day change the shape of our society. They change what's legal and they change how money flows. We don't all agree on those changes and we need to be aware of how disagreements can create an us-them situation, even in the church.

In Christ we cannot allow Christ to be divided. That doesn't mean a monolithic view on politics by any means. We aren't united by politics, we're united by Christ. We aren't united by tax breaks, road infrastructure, or immigration policy. If we believe that then we've created an idol out of those things. Our unity is in Christ alone.

The church doesn't have a political strategy, the church is a political strategy.

This comes from Stanley Hauerwas and is a master stroke of articulating something important about the church. God has been revealed in Jesus with a message for the world; the kingdom of God is here and we are invited to be part of that. 

The kingdom of God is the rule of God in this world and we have a portrait of it in the Sermon on the Mount. It's a vision of fairness and justice and love. This is the foundation of the kingdom and of the church. Living that way probably doesn't align perfectly with any political party in this election, so we can't place our hope in any government to deliver on that vision. Our reliance must be on Christ to give us strength to obey Jesus' teachings. By teaching us Jesus expects us to follow through with it as single individuals and as the church in community. Jesus relies on us to be the living embodiment of this solution; to be the divine and loving change that the world needs. 

So I hope you have fun voting today. Enjoy the sausage sizzles and cake stalls. Enjoy the banter between booth volunteers. Enjoy the spectacle for as long as you like but remember that as Christians we are united by Christ in order to be the community-as-solution to the brokenness of this world.