Beliefs and Actions

Over at this outstanding blog, a really interesting discussion is shaping up.  The issue is Orthodoxy versus orthopraxis.

Orthodoxy means “right beliefs”.  For example, somebody might believe that the orthodox position is that Jesus is connected to God in some unique way.

Orthopraxis means “right actions” or “right practice”.  It’s the actions undertaken by a person.  For example, somebody might believe that to follow Christ means that we should be giving food to those who are hungry.

There are several unsurprising things about this distinction.  These unsurprising things include:

#1) People debate about which is more important.

#2) This debate often comes down with old school traditionalists on one side and the post-modern emergent side on the other.

#3) It’s not really as complicated a debate as all these Latin (Or are they Greek?) terms make it appear.

It seems to me that this is just a dressed up version of the question “What’s more important to Jesus: that we have the right attitude about things or that we do the right things?”  All the Catholic Vs. Protestant “Works vs faith” debates are really about this issue.

I know that often people say that our hearts are much more important than whatever things it is we do.   I know that they’ve got lots to back this position up.  But there’s two things that are worth considering before we jump to this conclusion.

The first is that we have a very different understanding of what it is to know something than Jesus contemporaries did.  The modern era has made an idol of a certain type of understanding.  The staggering successes of science have lead to us treating rational, logic based, intellectualized knowledge as the king.  When scripture speaks about knowing or believing a thing, it’s not the same sort of knowledge that we think of when we think about, for example, knowing that 7 X 7 = 49.

The second is this quote from the Book of James. 

“12Speak and act as those who are going to be judged by the law that gives freedom, 13because judgment without mercy will be shown to anyone who has not been merciful. Mercy triumphs over judgment!

Faith and Deeds

 14What good is it, my brothers, if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save him? 15Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. 16If one of you says to him, “Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about his physical needs, what good is it? 17In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.

 18But someone will say, “You have faith; I have deeds.”
      Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by what I do.

 19You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that—and shudder.

 20You foolish man, do you want evidence that faith without deeds is useless[d]? 21Was not our ancestor Abraham considered righteous for what he did when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? 22You see that his faith and his actions were working together, and his faith was made complete by what he did.”

It seems to me that almost any time the emergents are on one side and the traditionalists are on the other, it’s wise to assume that the truth is probably somewhere between them.  There’s some debates where both sides are equally right.

But there are some cases that you can’t have one side without the other.  There are some times that one side taken to far becomes an extreme that is wrong.  One of my favorite things about Jesus is when he steps outside of an either/or and looks at the big picture.  James seems to be following this tradition.

There are some things that we could have orthodox beliefs about which would change our actions.  If it turns out that the “right belief” about the nature of the atom is that it’s composed of quarks, this might be interesting.  But really, whether it’s quarks or strings or whatever, this isn’t going to change the ways I live my life.

I submit that orthodox beliefs about the nature of Jesus aren’t this kind of beliefs, though.  They aren’t abstract.  We couldn’t possibly hold orthodox beliefs without engaging in orthopraxy.  On the other hand, it seems clear to me that we won’t be able to identify the right practices if we don’t have the right beliefs in the first place.

I love the way that James expresses this.  I wonder if he had a sarcastic smirk on his face as he challenged someone to show them their faith without deeds.  Because it’s pretty much impossible to do this.  We can’t show anybody our faith except by their deeds. 

And I love how he uses the story of Isaac.  Even thousands of years ago, it was a temptation to sit around and intellectualize these things.  (Probably, if they’d had the technology, the people that James was talking to would have had blogs that read distressingly like my blog.)  It seems to me the whole point is this: stating beliefs is easy.  Acting on them, that’s where we’ll seperate the adults from the children. 

“Set apart” and “by God”

I recently read an accusation which stuck with me.  I think the reason that it did is because there is truth to it.

The claim was that we emergent/post modern types tend to engage in questionable behavior and actions that are questionable, and that part of our motivation to do this is simply to show off how hip and free we are. 

I think that the context was around drinking, but really, there are dozens of examples that might apply: swearing; Pg-13/R/NC-17 films; listening to music that seems to glorify ungodly things; engaging in expressions of our sexuality outside of marriage… I’m sure we could all add on to this list.

Over the short term, all these things have their appeal.  Obviously, one reason we do them is simply that they are “fun.”  And there’s probably something to the claim that we need to understand the world’s ways, we need to be relevant, we need to be in the world but not of the world.  (Interesting, though, that we rarely seek out ways of emphasizing with others that are less enjoyable.)  

All this notwithstanding, I think that there is something to the claim that it’s also a way to establish ourselves as not legalistic, old-fashioned, pharisee-like. 

What Paul says about not abusing our freedom in Christ is incredibly important.  But it’s not the direction I want to go in today.

There is of course the opposite extreme.  Our little Christian ghettos.  Ruled by laws that are not in the Bible.  They are rigid places.  The word “Gosh” is a no-no, because it sounds so much like saying the word “God” and this would be taking the lord’s name in vain.  A restaurant that served alchohol would never even be entered.  Again, you probably know the drill that these well-intentioned folks live by.

The word “Holy” means “Set apart by God.”  Only four words.  But both extremes only get about half of it right, I think.

The emergent crowd gets focused on the latter half of the definition, and more specifically on aspects of God that are often forgotten.  When we engage in questionable activities we say that God is endlessly loving, radically inclusive, present everywhere.

The ghetto crowd set themselves apart.  Sometimes they aren’t very consistent with who it is that is setting themselves apart.  But they are quite good at setting themselves apart.

The ghetto crowd looks silly.  The emergent crowd looks… identical to the world they inhabit. It’s true that we gain credibility by being understanding and culturally relevant.  But we lose it just as quickly.  On the whole, people aren’t stupid.  When somebody claims that Jesus has revolutionized there life, but they are doing all the same stuff that others without Jesus are doing, there is a disconnect.  People wonder– as they should– just where is this radical change?

The aspect I have been wrestling with is this: how can I transcend this whole question.  Jesus often operated this way: the world makes assumptions that somehow you are on a spectrum in all sorts of areas.  Choosing a place anywhere on that spectrum has limitations, problems, challenges.  Jesus, through out the scriptures, made himself bigger than the obvious options.

I believe that there must be such an option.  There are problems and advantages to being part of the emergent crowd.  There are problems and advantages to being part of the ghetto crowd.  Finding a spot exactly half way between the emergent and the ghetto crowd, will carry half as many advantages and half as many problems. 

I know that Jesus wants more for me.  What do you think?  Can we step beyond the ghetto and the emergent paradigms?

Just for The Hell of it

The idea that some of us are destined for eternal damnation is tough to swallow. The possibility that people might suffer eternal torment simply based on an accident of birth such as geography or history (the place and time that they were born) or experiences (only encountering hypocritical or even abusive Christians instead of reliable witnesses of God’s glory) makes this very hard to swallow.
Denying the reality of Hell, on the other hand, means failing to take the Bible seriously. It means down playing the seriousness of evil. It means wandering into a New Age-ish territority where faiths are formulated like a lunch at a buffet: (“I’d like an entree of karma with a side order of Jesus’ wisdom, please.”)
After spending some time wrestling with the issue I’ve found some measure of peace. There are a few different ways I’ve learned to think about Hell. I’m going to share them below. I can’t take credit for any of these, really. I’ll quote the sources as I list these ways of thinking about Hell. I’ll admit at the outset that the originators of these views are often identified as post-modern, emergent, liberal, etc.
I am not suggesting that any of these views are literally true. I am not advocating that we abondon what scripture says. The fullness of reality is always well beyond our puny little brains. These are images that have helped me to wrap my brain around the issue, ways to envision why Hell has to be the case.
One of the reasons that I’m sharing these is because Jenn of the blog Jenn with 2 n’s (see the link in the blog role… could somebody, please, remind me, by the way, how to do a link inside a post… I’ve forgotten what to do after I highlight a word to get the little window with the chain links to pop up… anyway, Jenn with 2 n’s…) posted a summary of a communication she’s involved with. She’s trying to help make Hell make sense to a non-Christian. I was about to share these thoughts over there, in a comment. But it occurs to me that I’ve actually done this already on a number of others’ blogs. I thought if I had this post over here, as I need to reference these ideas I could simply post a link rather than re-writing these ideas over and over. Anyway…
View of Hell #1: Nothing left of us.
Close to the end of the New Kind of Christian trilogy, Brian McLaren has his (mostly) fictional characters debate a view of Hell that goes roughly like this:
In Heaven, we will be the best we can ever be. God builds us up from our whole lives. Perhaps we were at our most courageous at the age of 18. Perhaps we were at wisest at the age of 30. Perhaps we were at our most optimistic at the age of 40. The person we will be in heaven is sort of like a greatest hits C.D. The courage of being 18 combined with the wisdom of being 30 and the optimism of being 40.
The deal is this: every decision we make either diminishes us or makes us greater. Whoever, whatever we are at the time of our death is sort of like the root, the base, of the person we will be in the afterlife. Courage, optimism, all the rest, these are added on, hopefully.
Sometimes, though, we are so diminished by the decisions that we have made that God has nothing to work with. We have reduced ourselves to the point of virtual nothingness. God might make a sort-of clone of the person we would have been if we’d done right, but this being doesn’t really have continuity with who we are. It’d be quite irrelevant to the fact that if God built us back up, he’s had to do so much repair work that there is really nothing left of who and what we began as. God weeps when we have left Him nothing of ourselves to work with, when we are in this state we are seperate from God; we are damned.

View #2: Are we ready for Heaven
In a recent series of sermons, Rob Bell explored the idea of Heaven crashing into Earth. He asked us how we would fair if such a thing happened.
He said imagine a heavenly table where people of all races sit and eat together. What would the experience of being at this table be like for someone who is a racist.
He challenged us to imagine a person consumed with violence. How would it be, he wondered, to be so violence-filled and to be confronted, utterly with the Prince of Peace?
There are all sorts of other qualities of Jesus we can imagine… These are self-sufficient, complete, perfect. In our cowardice, how would we feel before His bravery? In our ignorance, what would it be like to stand before His wisdom? In our hatred, how would it be to stand beneath His Love?
I want to be clear, Bell never, ever, ever, ever said that any of the above circumstances would in fact be Hell. I wonder if he meant to imply it. Regardless of what he was thinking, I certainly think a case can be made that it’s a powerful view of Hell.

Are there problems with these views of Hell if taken in isolation? Of course there are. But there’s problems with taking any metaphor to seriously. I’m not advocating that these images replace the idea of Hell. I’m thinking, though, that they are good images to start the process of wrapping our brains around the reality of Hell. They are much more palatable to someone outside a Christian world view, in particular.
As I’ve grown in my faith (and God quite literally knows that I’ve got so very to go!) I’ve increased my trust in Him; I know whatever the truth and reality are, that God is love and reality is fair. The specifics matter a lot less to me now. Earlier in my faith walk, particularly, it was helpful for me to lean a little more on conceptions of Hell that didn’t seem so hate-filled because back then I needed a little more assurance that God can be trusted.

Testimony

“For there is one God and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all men—the testimony given in its proper time.”- 1 Timothy 2:5-6

I began to contemplate and pray over that verse. The thing that jumped out at me was how differently Paul uses the word “testimony” than we do.
Today, we’d use the word “testimony” to describe a series of words, a monologue where we describe what Jesus has done for us. Our reason for offering up a testimony is usually to convert others. Often times we recognize that we need to do more than offer up words, but the thing is this: we still use “testimony” to describe the words we use. We say things like “We need to act Christ-like and then offer our testimony once we’ve built trust.” Testimony and action are seperate things.
The thing I notice is that the ransom is the testimony. This means, at the bare minimum, testimony and action are one and the same. If Jesus ransom of me is part of his testimony, then the things I do (and not just the words I say) are part of mine. On this understanding, the statement above is quite redundant. I wouldn’t act Christ-like first and then offer my testimony. I’d act Christ-like (partially) because it’s part of my testimony.
Perhaps there’s an even wider observation to be made. Sometimes I feel like we obsess on the cross. It’s as if the teachings before, they were a nice little appetizer. And the reseruction after was a tasty desert. But the crucifixion itself: that’s the meat and potatoes, that’s the entree itself.
In short, We identify those few hours as the atonement itself, usually.
But if we take this verse seriously it seems like there is an implication. If the testimony of Jesus is the same thing as his ransom of us, then the atonement took much longer than those few hours that Jesus hung on the cross. It was begun before his birth and it continued after his death. The atonement is ongoing, today, and Jesus teachings, both pre-Easter and post-Easter, these are intregal parts of the atonement itself.
There’s probably all sorts of implications for us in this. If we take this holistic view of what testimony is, then the very act of conversion becomes a wider drama, not a thing we can locate at only one place and time.
Choosing to follow Christ is just as important as the crucifixion itself. But these are both singular actions which exist in a wider drama.

What I believe

I believe that we live in a world that is not what it was meant to be.

I believe that the central problem with the world is a broken relationship with God.

I believe that God is a God of love, justice, and peace. 

I believe that the closer our hearts are to God, the more we will experience love and peace and the harder we will work for justice.

I believe that the life, death, and resseruction of Jesus were the pivotal points in history.  I believe that everything that happened before Jesus’ coming to Earth was preparing this situation.  I believe that everything that has happened since that time has been a result of this occasion.

I believe that God will someday return everything to what it would have been if we had never fallen… We will live in a place like what the Garden of Eden would have become.

I believe that we are eternal.

I believe that God wants us to wrestle with his truths.

I believe that God uses the world to grow us.  I believe that he wishes we had not made the choices we did. 

I believe that God weeps with us. 

I believe that God’s church has done things which make God laugh with joy and things which make God shake his head in shame at us.

I believe that God’s holy spirit is in the places we least expect to find it.

I believe that the enemy of God and man often masquerades as holiness, piousness, normalacy, and conformity.

Sometimes, I think it’s easy for emergents like me to throw the baby out with the bath water.  We see how quiet mainstream Christianity has been about its doubts.  We see how tabboo being authentic has become.

And so we open up about our fears and the ambiguities we see.  And it’s a good thing to do this.  But my fear is that we end up looking like depressed, faithless, nit pickers.  

As I consider the stuff I’ve blogged about, it looks like I’ve got more questions than answers. 

The thing is, this isn’t really true.  There’s lots of stuff I’ve believe.  With all that I am.  This post is a sort-of state-of-my-faith adress. 

Most of the stuff on this list is actually pretty close to more moderate and even conservative folks.  It’s easy but dangerous to miss all the things which unite us… because really, the only important thing… Jesus Christ… does unite us.

Things I wrestle with: Politics

Among those issues that I don’t feel that I’ve got worked out is how to be political.  Part of the problem is that I’m quite passionate about this topic: I’m a raging left-winger.  Obama is my guy for president.  But I’d better stop myself from this track before I get started.

One of the reasons this is all a problem for me is that Jesus was staggeringly apolitical.  He didn’t shrink from the power structure… but he seems mostly to have gone about his business as if the political situation didn’t exist… though the political situation he was up against was quite extreme, and the expectations on him were quite political, he just did his thing.

This is also a problem that I can identify by looking at the other side.  The Christian right drives me up a wall.  They have a right to there beliefs… but they don’t have a right to subject me to beliefs that I don’t agree with. 

Some of the dilemna maybe comes from the fact that there are facets of faith that are personal, even mystic.  Some of my reasons for following Christ are so intensely personal that I can’t put words on them.

Yet the ramifications of faith calls us to political beliefs…  Democracy is based on debate in the public sphere, yet some of my politics aren’t reducible or understandable through debate in the public sphere.

Furthermore, if I admit my right to support politics based on private matters, it seems hypocritical to expect others not to… Discourse, seems to break down if we admit religion… and yet, society breaks down if we deny it.

topic #2 I’m wrestling with God over: literal vs symbolic interpretation

There are some things that I’m crystal clear on.

This is not one of them.

I’ve been reviewing the issues I don’t quite have worked out.  I’ve been doing this because I’m interested in seeking out others’ counsel, and also because I want to lower the tenor of debate in some miniscule little way.  It seems like we tend to get dug in to our perpsectives, and we pretend that our way of viewing things is perfect, and it doesn’t really accomplish much productive.  I think Jesus calls us to be open in our weakness and with our weakness… But I digress.

An area I don’t have worked out: when is the bible meant to be interpreted literally and when is it meant to be taken figuratively or symbolically.

This doesn’t bother me as much as it might because I’m confident I’m not alone.  I haven’t yet found a very thorough account of criteria for consistently determining how to apply scriptural truth.

There are people who have begun this.  They can point out guidelines which sometimes help.  But there’s nobody that I’ve found with anything close to an exhaustive account.

And most of us have fairly large lists of things we think are literal and things we think are symbolic.  But it seems to me that we can’t generally explain how we came to this list. 

It appears that we do a lot of question-begging.  It seems like maybe we start with a set of beliefs and pick and choose which ones to interpret symbolically and which ones to interpret literally.   The progressives generally take more flack for this, but it seems to me that this is undeserved.  I think the progressives and conservatives tend to have different verses that they focus on taking literally.  But I’m unconvinced that one camp is more conistent than the other.

Are there gray areas between literal and symbolic interpretation?  Madeline L’Engle wrote about icons.  Icons, for her, are symbols which participate in the thing they are symbolizing.  I can almost (but not quite) get my brain around her meaning.  It seems like it might be fruitful to pursue this line of reasoning.

Might God have intended different interpretations for different eras?  I most definitely think so.  Micah Tillman’s blog (see blogroll at right) had some interesting thoughts and links on this topic that helped me clarify this issue. 

When I first ran through the topics that I’m wrestling with God over (about 3 blogs back) I had focused more on the topic of divine inspiration.  As I explore where my beliefs are, it seems like I’m not to concerned with this issue.  I’m clear that the bible is God-breathed.  There’s a few abstractly interesting questions about it, but the real direct focus of my concern is interpretation.

Looking foreward to responses,

Jeff