Wednesday, 29 January 2014

Has God failed to provide?

Ever heard this before?
Enlarge your tents! God is Jehovah Jireh, my provider! He owns the cattle on a thousand hills and has more than enough for you. All you need to do is receive it!
Maybe not those exact words, but words just like it. Some of them are direct quotes from scripture, so they must be true. Right?

When we look at the world around us today and see the lives of people all across the planet, it's clear that something's not true. Even if we just look at the faithful Christian we don't see everyone building larger tents. We see extreme poverty, extreme wealth, and everything in between.

I think that the problem is not that God won't provide. Instead, I think that God has already provided more than enough for us. A quick google for "is there enough food for everyone" shows loads of statistics about how much food is produced as compared to the population. With advances in farming techniques over the centuries we are even more productive than ever before.

Maybe the problem is greed. When Jesus taught his disciples to pray he said:
Give us today our daily bread.
Daily bread. It's modest. It's a staple food that gives plenty of energy. Are we content with our daily bread? Even in the story of manna in the wilderness the people were told not to collect more than their daily bread. Jesus told a parable about a man who built a huge barn to store the accumulation of his wealth, only to die that night.

Perhaps God has already provided, but the problem is us.
Enlarge your tents (by taking space from someone else's tent)! God is Jehovah Jireh, my provider (not yours)! He owns the cattle on a thousand hills and has more than enough for you (but I'll keep a bit extra, just in case). All you need to do is receive it (and not share it)!
Will we be content with our daily bread? Or will the deadly sin of greed stop God's provision for those people in need?

Tuesday, 21 January 2014

Dealing with persecution and judgement

Sometimes, being a Christian means being tarred with the same brush as some of our argumentative fellow believers. Just take a look here or here if you'd like some examples. I don't really have a problem with Christians keeping each other accountable, and I encourage Christians to debate theologically. On our bad days, though, we look like we're just fighting with each other over nothing.

And this is the best part: both sides of arguments like this like to claim the moral high ground. One side is persecuted for their faith and the other is judged for their sins. Persecution looks a lot like old timey judgement, depending on where you stand. In fact, if you're going through tough times and you can't figure out if it's persecution or judgement coming your way, then I have an answer for you.

Love your way out of it.

If you're being persecuted, that's great! Jesus said that you're blessed if you get persecuted on account of his name. So love your neighbour as yourself and stay faithful to Jesus.

If you're being judged, that's not so great. Jesus said repent and follow him. Following him means to love God and love your neighbour. So love and you'll become faithful to Jesus.

It might sound like I'm being flippant, but I'm not. I'm being indifferent. Who cares if you're right or wrong? You can get knotted up in finding explanations for why things happen, and ultimately you might never know. Jesus' answer to breaking cycles like that is to start loving. Find someone who needs care and care for them. Find someone who needs provision and provide for them. Find someone who needs comfort and comfort them.

When we love this way we break whatever it is that's bound us up. If we wonder too long about whether it's judgement or persecution we'll end up actually doing nothing, and that's far from where we ought to be1. Love your way out of that cycle and into Christian faithfulness.

1. If you want to get existential, I'm going to say that love is the act that makes us exist. Love is an existential act that defies the non-existential question of whether hard times are persecution, judgement, or contingent.

Friday, 10 January 2014

Good Commentary on Ecclesiastes?

I'm crowdsourcing with this one. Ecclesiastes has long been a favourite book for me but I've never really dug into it. If you can recommend a good commentary in the comments, that would make my day.

Thursday, 9 January 2014

Salvation is not all about you

You might be thinking that the point of salvation is to save you. Strangely enough, it's not about you. And it's not about the family next door. And it's not about your boss. So what's it for?

It's for everyone, and it's for here, and it's for now.

When Jesus preached salvation, he talked about the kingdom of God. It's a vision for how the world should be. We know this because Jesus used a political term (basilea) to describe it. It's a word used to describe governments, but since the primary governmental form of the era was monarchy we can safely translate it as kingdom. Of course, Jesus redefined lots of things and perhaps this is one of them. After all, he said that his kingdom is not of this world.

Sure, it's not of this world, but it is in this world and it is for this world. When Jesus preached about the kingdom of God he told us how to live here and now. He made it clear that we can't relax and feel comfortable. Jesus didn't tell us to just put up with today's crap while we wait for things to change, he told us to start changing the world by changing how we relate with our neighbour.

The way we live with our neighbours is the way we form society. It's the way we sculpt the kind of world that we live in today. Jesus is not just a get-out-of-jail-free card, he is an ethical teacher as well. He wants each of us to individually be changed so that we change the world around us.

Our first experience of salvation may well be the moment that we begin to change as individuals, but it's not our last experience of salvation. That experience continues in each and every moment that we act as disciples of Christ. Every time we obey the command to love our neighbour is yet another experience of salvation for us and for the world around us.

I think that salvation is about us as individuals, but this is just the beginning of salvation in our lives. Salvation doesn't stop there. It goes on through us to the world around us. God's salvation is in us is so that the world can experience God's salvation through us.

Saturday, 4 January 2014

Responses to Your Top Comments

My recent blog post generated some great comments (here and on Facebook) and I want to give them space for a response. I'll do my best to accurately represent a couple of comments without repeating them verbatim.

Matt Baunach commented that Christianity is more than a system of ethics but a new world.

I should say that generally speaking I take a materialist or physicalist view of the world. Because of that I presume that the kingdom of God is entirely about this world and about how we ought live in this world. Tack my existentialist view onto that and we come to the position that the new world comes about through the subjectivation of humanity as individuals. That's great, Andrew, but how does that answer Matt's question?

Ethical living is epiphenomenal to the Christian transformation. In short, the single individual becomes a Christian and ethical living flows from that. This transformation of the single individual is the starting point for the transformation of the world because it is the transformation of the world of that single individual. To put it another way, the kingdom of God is what the world looks like when there is a community of people who have begun to be transformed by God as individuals. It's not an ethical checklist, it's evidence of a subjective change.

(How was that, Matt?)

Ben Eames commented that I was a little reductionist.

I'm going to assume that I came across as though Christian maturity is the teleological point of Christianity. If so, I didn't mean that. What I should have said was that the movement to surpass torah, the prophets, and the poets, was within the general movement of Christianity to surpass legislated morality in favour of outworking of an internalised truth. The letter to the Hebrews is marked by things being better now (better high priest, better sacrifice, etc.). The reader (in particular, the Hebrew reader) is encouraged to leave behind former ways.

But where does that stand in the grand scheme of being Christian? It's within the scope of grace and outside the scope of law. Within that context we can point to this definition of Christian maturity as part of the larger shift from law to grace, from death to life. This element in Hebrews is another aspect of that general shift.

(How was that, Ben?)

Thursday, 2 January 2014

OMG! The serpent was right?

"You need milk, not solid food; for everyone who lives on milk, being still an infant, is unskilled in the word of righteousness. But solid food is for the mature, for those whose faculties have been trained by practice to distinguish good from evil. Therefore let us go on toward maturity..." - Hebrews 5:12b-6:1a
Solid food is what the mature Christian meditates on. It's beyond the basics, and our author kind enough to tell us what they are in 6:1-2.
   - repentance from dead works
   - faith toward God
   - baptisms
   - laying on of hands
   - resurrection of the dead
   - eternal judgement

If the sermons in your church are about these then your preachers are preaching milk to infant Christians. That's not so bad because it probably means you have people in your congregation who have only recently seen the light1.

Anything beyond that is solid food, the kind of food that the mature need. But what is maturity? It is the ability to distinguish good from evil. It's an ability to make moral judgements for oneself, not simply to repeat what was written in the New Testament. It's a position of moral strength, a position of subjectivation in which the subject is not only free to choose but is able to choose good from evil. A phrase like that, particularly to an Hebrew audience, would draw their attention back earlier than Jesus, earlier than the prophets, earlier than the Mosaic law. It goes back to Genesis 3.
"And the serpent said to the woman, 'You are not going to die, but God knows that as soon as you eat of it your eyes will be opened and you will be like God, who knows good and bad.'" - Genesis 3:4-5
The woman sees that the fruit is tasty, looks good, and is a source of wisdom. Of course she's going to eat it. She wants what so many of us want: wisdom to know what is the right thing to do. That's why this story isn't a literal story but an allegory about the human condition2. We all want to know how we should best live, and we'll grasp at any option to get it.

In a way, this is a thread through the Bible. The commandment of Genesis 2 relates to the drive to know good from evil. Torah is an elaborate effort to legislate good from evil. The Israelite histories are stories of people who did or didn't know good from evil. The prophets are re-iterating good from evil. The wisdom books are trying to teach good from evil. Jesus' commandments to love are dividing good from evil. The epistles are dealing with specific instances of judgements about good and evil.

When it comes down to it, the thing that Adam and Eve got wrong is the very same thing that the author of Hebrews is encouraging us to do: learn to distinguish good from evil. It's the very same goal but through different means. One is through a magic fruit. The other is through practice. There is no short cut to learning good from evil, there is only practice.

The serpent was not only partly right3 but it was pointing them in the same direction towards the knowledge of good and evil. The difference is our human ambition for the quick fix, for the easy path, for the life without struggle or growth.

Maturity based on this is the maturity that guides you on a daily basis. It's the maturity that tells you if the preacher is talking rubbish. It's the maturity that tells you what the right thing to do is because it's the right thing, not because of the consequences of being caught doing the wrong thing. It surpasses Torah, the prophets, the poets, and the proverbs. It can't be written, it can only be developed through faithful practice.

1. It might also be that your preachers are infantilising the congregation in the same way that we infantilise cats and dogs. Throughout their whole adult lives we feed them, rather than letting them do what comes naturally and let them get their own food. But I'm going to give the benefit of the doubt.
2. This story isn't really the story of The Fall, it's the revelation of the nature of humanity. Our condition didn't change, it was revealed for what it truly is. The story shows what we do when we think no one (especially God) is watching. Honestly, I don't think there was a Fall, just the exposure of human nature for what it is.
3. For a longer discussion, read "Did The Serpent Get It Right?" by R. Moberly in the Journal of Theological Studies 39.

Wednesday, 1 January 2014

You won't believe last year's most popular post!

The last couple of years I've started the new year with some stats about this blog. I'm sparing you this year, gentle reader. 

But I'm also thinking about titling every post with clickbait techniques.