A Bumbling, Stumbling Attempt at a Theology of Gender.

Lots of smart people have said lots of smart things about the ways in which our views of ourselves mirror our views on God.  I am thinking, today, about gender.

My own developing views about God’s gender are not that different from my view of gender in people.  I think I am not alone in this.  And also, I am still figuring it all out.  As I try to explain where I am at, and where I am headed, I am sure I am going to say things in a way that might be offensive or incorrect.  I hope that you, reader, can chalk this up to ignorance on my part, and not malice.  I would very much appreciate corrections, suggestions, and counterpoints in the comments below.

The most literalistic readings of scripture within Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, are that God is male.  So is the first person he makes.  Femaleness comes next.  It is the single alternative to maleness, a revision on that basic theme.

This parallels the world view I grew up in about gender in general.  Maleness is better.  Femaleness is the alternative.  I am trying to stay away from using the words ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ because it seems like part of the whole idea was that our physical bodies always mirrored how we identified within.

And this was one of the first ironies I noticed in this whole affair, as I tried to work it out for myself.  The Christian world normally wanted to proclaim the existence of a soul, and the idea that there is more than just materialistic existence.  The non-Christian/secular world was generally more reductionistic-materialistic.  Yet suddenly, the Christians were saying, “No, the physical aspects of the body is all that there is.  If you have a penis you are fully and totally male.  If you have a vagina you are female.  All the way through.”  Meanwhile, the secular world was proclaiming that their is this non-material part of us, that might identify in a way that is not consistent with our biology.

This irony was only the first thing for me.  I think what happened next was the recognition that I and so many others had, as we began to recognize that literalistic understandings fall apart pretty quickly.  God, is of course, not physically male.  God is not embodied.

People can try and suggest that it is not about the physical.  They can try and suggest that there are differences in personality between men and women.  But here we return to the irony listed above.  Because now, the question to be answered becomes, “Well, what happens when that personality doesn’t match up with the biology of a person?”

Just as the first thoughts might seem pretty simple, “God is male.”  The first pages of the bible seem pretty straight forward to.  Because at first, as suggested above, God seems to make Adam first, in his image, and then Eve from Adam’s rib.  But a couple pages in, there is a director’s cut on the creation account.  And it seems that both Adam and Eve are made in God’s image.   God, it seems, has a feminine side.

Countless images in the bible build this case, comparing the creator to all manner of feminine images.  And this only stands to reason.  He is able to be everything good, all at once.   It seems like most people, most of the time, want to find themselves somewhere along the spectrum between 100% masculine and 100% feminine.  Some people move to different places over time.   But maybe this is the fundamental difference between God and humans.  God is everywhere on that spectrum at once.  Us little people, we, at any given time, are only occupying one little spot.

 

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Materialism the Tyrant

Outposts of tyranny
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There’s a lot of implications to the idea that we Christians, working at bringing about a new kingdom, have some things in common with revolutionairies everywhere working at bringing about freedom from tyranny.

There are places where this metaphor falls apart.   I don’t want to leave the implication that I’m arguing for a president who identifies himself as a Christian, or a political party which claims to represent Jesus.   The tyranny I’m thinking about is broader; it has it’s clutches on us internally, rather than externally.  This is a tyranny of materilism, fear, greed, and doubt.

This kingdom will not be fully manifest in this life.  Ironically, it will be ushered in it’s fullness by a benign dictator (who happens to be perfect and uncorruptible.)    I believe that we are called to work for this kingdom in this life, even though we won’t see it’s fruition yet.  This process appears to be a sanctifying one: it’s not that God needs us to make the world a certain way, in order to return.  Rather, engaging in the fight will prepare us for his return by growing us in patience, strength, and faith.

Last post I shared my growing affinity for a thinker named Gene Sharp.   I expressed the idea that it is critical that we not fight violently.   A different (probably better) way I could have expressed this comes from his book:

“Whatever the merits of the violent option, however, one point is clear.

By placing confidence in violent means, one has chosen the very type of struggle with which the oppressors nearly always have superiority. The dictators are equipped to apply violence overwhelmingly. However long or briefly these democrats can continue, eventually the harsh military realities usually become inescapable. The dictators almost always have superiority in military hardware, ammunition, transportation, and the size of military forces.”

We have the further incentive that  engaging in violence renders us instant hypocrites.   When we engage in conflict as Jesus did, we model, even amidst conflict, even to our “enemies”, what the kingdom is all about.

We have lots to learn from the people rebelling against earthly tyrants.  People like Sharp, who are providing an intellectual blue print for what the revolutions are doing, have some relevance for us.

Most obviously and notably, of course, we can learn from thier dedication, determination, and single-mindedness.  

But another thing I was struck by is various aspects of their tactics.  Sharp speaks about how tyrants can’t rule by themselves, in a vacuum.   They rely on things like the military, popular consent, foreign aid, etc.

Sharp says succesful nonviolent revolutions identify these elements which prop up dictators and determine ways to knock these pillars down, often by bringing the institution over to their own side.

There’s a level on which it seems so obvious it’s silly.  But I’d never looked at it this way.

This all leads me to the question: What if we Christians did the same thing?  What if we looked at the hold of materialism in our lives.  What if we asked ourselves what are the elements propping up materialism?  What if we set about planning in this way?

I don’t know how to answer those questions.  I don’t know precisely which things in addition to materialism we ought to target, either.  But I think these are important questions to begin to ask.

The Prophetic Voice of South Park on the Meaning of Christmas

 
The Spirit of Christmas (short film)
Image via Wikipedia

Sometimes, I think we get paralyzed because there are so many good reasons to change that we’re paralyzed and overwhelmed by them.  We just cruise along on auto-pilot, heading straight into the side of a mountain.

Every year around this time I come to terms with the idea that there must be something we can do differently.  The holidays, for so many of us, is such a mockery of what it should be… or, at best, there are so many good things about Christmas, so much emotional black mail around bucking the system, that we’re worried about throwing the baby out with the bathwater, and missing out.

The interesting thing is that it’s not like I come back to the same reasons to change every year.  As I think about these things for longer, I actually continue to find more and more reasons to change the way I do things.  And yet… I don’t actually do much to change.

This year, I’m working on being explicit about what the problems and solutions are.  I hope I’m not coming across as a grouch.  The dilemna with things like this is that if I wait until after Christmas, while it’s true that I won’t look like a grump, I also will be lacking in urgency.  This urgency will be lacking #1) because I won’t at that point be feeling it, I won’t be writing from the middle of Holiday Crazy Town and #2) I will be further away from the memories of just how backwards things have become.

My goal, for reasons I still am going to defer explaining, is to list 12 issues, problems, and solutions.  In this post, I mentioned the first four.

With no further ado, here is one I would like to add today:

#5) Christmas has become an act of idolatry. 

I’m not complaining about how the Christmas Tree tradition started with the Druids, or about how the December 25th day comes from the Pagans.  I believe that there is an issue that runs much deeper than these things.

The Jesus that I follow and worship is a God of reversals, a God of change, a God of redemption at the deepest level of things.  He is a judo-master, in some metaphysical way.  He reverses things and turns them on their head.  He tears our preconceptions inside out.  He infiltrates the systems of the world and defeats them in a much more thorough way than anybody ever could have envisioned. 

The Christmas-Jesus has become a hood ornament for the world he lives in.  He’s been tamed, simplified, and stripped down.  I have this imag of robber-barons, like the monopoly guy, placing a bit in his mouth and a yoke across their shoulders, saddling him to a cart of material goods.  The robber-barons, metaphorically speaking, are not necesarily those with a lot of money.  They are those who do not recognize that they are poor in spirit because their love of money has blinded them.  (Contrary to the nearly omni-present misquoting, the bible doesn’t say that money is the root of all evil; it is the love of money that is the root of all evil.  And the robber-barons going after Jesus in my little image, some of them have lots of money, some of them have no money. What they have in common is their love of money.)

I know that Santa Claus has become the most obvious symbol of Christmas materialism.  But I don’t think the dualistic thing we’ve created helps much.

What we now have is really 2 Christmases to choose from.  Their is a secular Christmas featuring Santa Claus.  And a spiritual Christmas featuring Jesus.  With it’s characteristic insight, South Park has caputred this well with it’s frequent pitting of Santa Claus against Jesus in Christmas episodes.  I hope you won’t be too annoyed with me if I go so far as to call the sometimes-obscene show prophetic.

One of the more recent Christmas episodes features Santa Claus getting shot down over Iraq and Jesus going in to rescue him.  The two figures here are shown to be allies after all.  I won’t go so far as to suggest it was intentional.  But I do believe that this picture is instructive.

The Setting up of this dualistic Christmas might have been well intentioned.    But it isn’t good. Much in the same way that we save one day a week for acting holy, we save all of our Chrismas holiness for Jesus Christmas, and then go act on all our greedy desires through the secular Christmas.

I’m not saying that we should stop all the Santa Claus imagery.  I’m not saying that the Christians who run around and expect everone to start celebrating the holiday like them are right.

I am saying that we ought to turn our critical eyes inward.  Are we celebrating our Christmas in a manner consistent with God’s ways?  It’s not enough to put a “Happy Birthday, Jesus” sign in the window.  The question we really need to explore is the question: are we trying to have our cake and eat it too; are we trying to steal the best part of the secular holiday and just cover it all up with a gloss of Jesus?

Running around in all this, there is actually a sort-of perversion of the trinity.  The part of God The Father playbed by Santa; the part of the Holy Spirit played by the reindeer and the elves and the other magic that gets Santa all around the world, everywhere he wants to be.

If I hit my goal of 12 principles, I’ve got 7 more to go.  What do you think ought to guide our reclamation of Christmas?

Personal Relationship? Unity with God? All of the Above.

Basilica of Sant'Apollinare Nuovo in Ravenna, ...
Image via Wikipedia

Last post, I grappled with the reality that the idea of a personal relationship with Christ is a very modern formulation.  Yet it is considered fundamentally important to we evangelical Christians.  These 2 facts create a dilemna.  Why did it take us so long to get this idea?  What happened to the millions of Christians who never heard the phrase “a personal relationship with Christ.”

I think there is a solution to the dilemna.  It is this:

Christians before 1900 or so did not need the idea of a personal relationship with Christ.  Modern, western Christians, however, do.

We often talk about how individualistic our society is.  Our culture has (for better or worse) valued the idea of a personality to the point that we have built whole sciences around understanding personality.  Today, it almost goes with out saying: every person is unique, special, and worthy.   Our uniquenesses, (i.e. our personalities) are fundamentally tied into our special-ness.

Five hundred years ago, (heck, to some extent, fifty years ago) the individual was not the fundamental social unit.  Differences were sometimes tolerated and other times obliterated.  The collection of things that made a person unique was not nearly as important as how they fit into the larger society.

My point is not that one of these views is right and the other is wrong.  These are such fundamental concepts I think it would be next to impossible to divorce ourselves from our context enough to rationally argue either one.  I don’t actually think even the bible itself gets us very far in settling these disputes.  For every verse about how loved each individual person is, there is another verse which stresses the importance of our unity in Christ.

Whatever else it would mean about the way we view the world, these differences would certainly impact how we saw the true purpose of worship, spiritual discipline, and the Christian life.  Those of us who see personality as fundamentally important would proclaim that personality itself is the place where meet Jesus.

The midevil tradition is much more steeped in the idea that our final goal is to be (in some sense) absorded by God; our personality diminished or even obliterated.  This sounds terrifying and hellacious to us, in 2011.  And I think this terror goes a long way to demonstrating my point.

I don’t think it’s accurate to say that we’ve made an idol of personality.  That’s an overstatement.  We certainly do, however, value personality in a way that our forefathers did not.  As a result, our visions of what we’re headed for seek to keep our personality in tact.

There are of course, probably, much more than 2 views on this issue.  I’m not setting out to list all these.  Rather, I’m suggesting that ideas are always crude approximations of the full reality of God.  As time goes by, and our way of seeing the world changes, and therefore the way we approximate God’s nature changes to.

In the end, the truth we experience will transcend all of our silly little ways of looking at this.  We will be right, and we will be wrong, just as the thinkers of past ages, were both right and wrong.

19 centuries of Christians who didn’t get it?

IMG_8832
Image by UK Pictures via Flickr

A personal relationship with Jesus

Coming to know Christ

There’s a few different ways we evangelicals express an important idea.  It might turn out to be our most important idea.

There’s something often pointed out about this.  In truth, it’s a criticism that has some validity.  The thing is, it’s an idea that just doesn’t have any history.

Though our faith is two thousand years old, this “most” important part is less than a hundred years old.  This implies the question, “What about the staggering majority of Christians, who lived for the first 1,900 years?”  Either they were o.k. with out thinking in terms of a personal relationship, in which case, we are left wondering why a personal relationship is so important to us… Or they were terribly lost with out this way of looking at things.  And if they were lost with out this idea, then the gospel was incomplete in Jesus until we came around to unpack it.  The inherent arrogance of such a position is hardly worth spelling out.

Furthermore, in the name of intellectual honesty, we have to be careful.  We have this tendency to want to have our cake and eat it to.  We tend to try and pick and choose what aspects of our faith-history we want to claim ownership for.  On the one hand, we talk about the cloud of saints that came before us.  We think that they were divinely inspired when they reads the bible and inferred doctrine like the trinity (which, strictly speaking, doesn’t appear in the bible itself) and on the other hand, we think that the holy spirit took much longer to lead us to ideas about a personal relationship with Jesus.

If, in fact, the ideas of the trinity and the idea of a personal relationship with Christ were equally important, we had have some explaining to do.  We would owe an account of why one idea figures so prominently in the entire history of Christianity while the other one is a late addition.

And yet, if the idea of a personal relationship with Christ isn’t particularly important, then we could fairly be accused of fixation on a fairly unimportant doctrine.

There is a solution to this dilemna, though.  But this post has gone on long enough.  I think I’ll get to what I see as the answer in the next one.

 

Putting Ourselves Away

Jerry Mathers and Paul Sullivan
Image via Wikipedia

 On the day that God was telling me some things I did not really want to hear, I could have said  to God: No thank you. I won’t hear what you’re saying to me today. I am going to take your words, and I am going to twist them into what I want them to say, instead.  I could have probably talked myself into just feeling good and loved by God as I sat there, by the river.

If I had done that, I could have easily clung to the delusion that I was listening to God.  I could have bragged about how I’d meditated over that scripture and I took it as a promise that God was going to give me a new job.  In doing all this, all though my words would have claimed I was doing this on the bible’s authority, it really would have been a denial of biblical authority.

After denying biblical authority over our own selves, we often go on to try and use it to wield authority over others. We try to use scripture like a club. We see the bible as instrument of force. We wield it in a way that forces others to do our bidding, that beats them into submission.

We judge people and categorize people inside our churches and outside of them.   We elevate our human interpretations to the status of God’s pronouncements.  In short, we  pervert the bible.  We can use it to wield the sort-of authority that we see the world using.

But the thing about the world’s way of authority is that all it ever does is calls us to compliance.   It calls us to avoid punishment, it calls us to create endless lists of ‘do’s and ‘do-nots’.  The world’s kind-of authority does not challenge us to excel, to seek deeply after things. 

I don’t think our only motivation is in an unhealthy desire to  control people.  I can see how reassuring it would be, to look at things in such a black-and-white manner, to act as though the bible gave us rules instead of stories, to speak as though we have attained a final, complete, and unassailable understanding.  If we’re not using Christianity as a way to control people, sometimes, at the bare minimum we treat complexity and challenges as if they were Christianity’s dirty little secret, the elephant in the room.

CS Lewis says this about the complexity of understanding The Bible, “We may think we should have preferred an unrefracted light giving us ultimate truth in systematic form – something we could have tabulated and memorised and relied on like the multiplication table.”

But scripture is not always systematic  and tabulated. It is so much more than a simple set of rules.  There are instructions in the bible that seem to contradict each other. The core of Jesus teaching is in parable, stories whose meaning was even struggled with by the apostles themselves. And almost every day, I find in the bible instructions that just don’t connect to what I experience in the world.

These frustrations and challenges are great things. They pull all of us into the grand story of scripture. They cause us to experience these stories with all of ourselves. It is an example of the way God wields authority: not just over us, not just at us, or to us. God uses authority in a way that pulls us into the equation. It becomes an experience that happens with us, when we are challenged to wrestle with meaning, to apply principles for ourselves.

God doesn’t want to speak at us.  He wants to dance with us.  He wants to interact and engage us.  The idea of a God who wants to interact with us seems like a great segue as we  move back into a time or worship with him.

 _________________________

Don’t mishear me. I’m not denying objective truth.   I’m not saying that we should compromise everything.  I’m not suggesting that we ought to fixate on only the difficult parts. 

For all it’s frustration, I love the bible.  But I think it’s really important to be honest and clear about why we love the bible, what is so compelling about it.

Part of the greatness, the authority of scripture, is not in spite of the challenging things, the apparently inconsistent things, the things that are so unlike the world. The authority of scripture is because of those things.

Before I knew Jesus there were all these Christians with there pat answers and simplified explanations. I thought maybe their lives were a permanent episode of “Leave it to Beaver.” The faith they were trying to convince me of did not speak to the world I was living in.

What I know now is that God engaged in this great act of love and respect for humanity’s mind and imagination. He wrote something that would challenge and even frustrate us.  He wrote something that asks if we would like to submit to it.

And God gives us a roadmap for responding to this. Scripture itself provides a really important blue print in the second chapter of Philipians. In this portion of the letter, Paul shares with us some important insights into how God uses authority and what his expectations are for us around seeking out the truth.

5 In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:

6 Who, being in very nature[a] God,
did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
7 rather, he made himself nothing
by taking the very nature
[b] of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
8 And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
by becoming obedient to death—
even death on a cross!

9 Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
and gave him the name that is above every name,
10 that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
11 and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.

Do Everything Without Grumbling

12 Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed—not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence—continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, 13 for it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose.

 

There is a metaphor in here for the true authority of the scriptures.

Just as Jesus did not use his equality with God, his authority, as something to be used to his own advantage, so to, the scriptures do not use authority to their own advantage.

By any reasonable way of thinking about it, God has the right to order us around, to compell us to do things, to wield his authority the same way that the world does.  We might expect the bible to be nothing but orders and expectations.   Orders and expectations are in there, but it’s not what the bible primarily is.   The bible is God’s love letter to us.

 

In calling us rather than compelling us, the bible makes itself a servant to us.  Are we prepared to make ourselves like a servant to it?    It’s so easy and natural for us to come with our ideas, to carry our interpretations as though they are in the bible itself.  The middle portion of these verses challenges us to follow the example of Jesus and  make ourselves nothing.  When we put all of our own selves away, that’s where and when we’ll find the truth that dwells within scripture.

Making a Joyful Noise

Drum Circle Dancer
Image by milesizz via Flickr

There are these two sides to me.  Most people who know me casually, I think, would describe me as fairly serious, restrained, even inhibited.  But beneath there is this part of me that is wild, spontaneous and goofy.  There have been numerous times that acquiantances have caught me in a certain mood, and they have said, “Wow, Jeff.  I’ve never seen this side of you.”

There was a time in my life when this came more natural to me.  It was easier.  I was left filled with self-doubt and insecurity about being random and silly.  I’m not sure what happened.  But often I long for that ease back.

I have very fond memories of this time in my life.  It was during high school and college.   One of the things we would do some times, was gather together with drums and other percussion.  And we would beat out rythms, or we would dance to the rythms, and we would drink wine, and be so free.

Most of this crowd were neopagans.  I had no religious home at this point.  But I felt so close to that crowd, and I also felt so close to my creator, even though I didn’t know anything about him.  This experience is part of what convinces me that the Holy Spirit is alive and working outside of Christianity… even if it is only so that the Holy Spirit can more fully point us to the truth.

Sometimes, taking the Lord’s Supper puts me in a similiar frame of mind.  Sometimes, I long for this closeness with God.  These were the things I thought of, tonight, when I read this:

Could it be that the conceptualized and formalized worship of the “devoloped world” is actually designed to inhibit and control rather than foment joy?  … Empires and dictatorships mantain social control … by converting (or subverting) the energy of jubilant dancing into regimented marching.  Pews in churches… are a rather late architectural innovation added in the Middle Ages to inhibit the dancing that apparently spontaneously broke out from time to time… Straight lines, orderly rows, military conformity- these suit the civilized state better than spontaneous outbreaks of collective joy.” (Brian McLaren, referring to the works of Barbara Ehrenreich, in his book Naked Spirituality)

The implications of this are quite profound.  We Christians are known for being uptight, anal retentive, rigid, and incapeable of spontaneous joy.  These adjectives are accurate, more often than not.  And yet they are strangely at odds with our beliefs.  Which leads to a question: where did these tendencies come from?

I find it quite compelling, the thought that our socio-political systems have attempted to co-opt Jesus message for their own purposes.  It’s crystal clear that this has happened in the past in other areas.  (I’m thinking of the Religious gloss put on imperialism in the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries)  It seems quite plausible that this is occuring here.

The idea that a Jesus-centered faith might embody those practices which I (frankly) miss from youth is really a fascinating possibility.  I’m not blind to the idea that I’m treading dangerous ground here.  It’d be easy to take all sorts of things that I used to enjoy and try and force them into a Christian context to rationalize still doing them.

Clearly this is an area where much prayer, reflection and study is needed.  I’d love to hear the counsel of those around me.  What do you think: Did our dominant systems try to stifle Christianity and use it to pacify and force conformity in it’s systems?