A Bit About “The Event of Golgotha”

I was reminded this morning of what Jürgen Moltmann said in The Crucified God (sorry, no pg #, the book’s at home). He identified God as “the event of Golgotha.” The wags wondered if it is possible to pray to an event. In response, Moltmann said that we don’t pray to the event, but rather pray in the event of Golgotha.

Let’s be clear. Moltmann’s original observation is a bit of Existentialist clap-trap. God is the event? …

But then again, there may be a nugget hidden beneath the shell. First, the idea that we pray in the crucifixion is a marvelous insight into our proper response and posture to suffering. God made us priests of creation so we respond from the inside out rather than as mere observers from the outside in.

A second observation (and this is where my mind was today): While God as “the event of Golgotha” is an expression of Moltmann’s Existentialism, it can also be reframed in sacramental terms. One can properly say in an Orthodox context that Christ is the only sacrament. The Table and Font are sacraments in that through them the Christian truly and really participates in Christ and Christ in his Body.

There is therefore a sense that “the event of Golgotha” is indeed God in this sacramental sense (in Roman Catholic terms, a “sacramental” rather than a “sacrament”), insofar as the person of Jesus Christ infuses the event and makes it real. So it is that praying in the event of Golgotha is praying in Christ himself who suffers alongside us. And we can expand this out to include the Spirit. According to Paul, the Spirit groans on our behalf with groans that are beyond our comprehension.

If we allow it, suffering can isolate us from others, from God, and even from ourselves. But if we allow it, suffering can also allow God, and specifically the fullness of the Trinity, to participate in us and in our deepest need, bringing us into fellowship with Christ and His Body.

A Word About Intelligent Design

My sister and brother-in-law are visiting the grand kids for a month while we hold down the fort at their place. Fortunately we had a couple of days at the house together to catch up.

He teaches junior high English in a private school so all things education have been covered the last couple of days. Along the way the subject of Intelligent Design (ID) came up. In my evolution series I didn’t address the issue of ID because I didn’t want to muddy the water. In fact, I don’t like ID for a variety of reasons, primarily because I think it’s a cop-out when it comes to addressing the theological issues that evolution raises.

Rejecting Intelligent Design as a theory of origins does not preclude an intelligent designer of creation. In fact I happily and whole-heartedly affirm that God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ is indeed that intelligent designer. My point is that you’ll never be able to prove it from the created order. It’s not only an intelligent design, it’s a stealthy design and God’s handiwork will always be deniable for those who insist on denying God.

Jerry doesn’t buy into the whole evolution thing, but he isn’t a big fan of ID either. He added a twist I had never thought about before. He observed that ID is actually just a sophisticated form of Deism. Assuming that ID is true, creation reveals an intelligent designer, but tells us nothing of that designer. It is the anonymous clockmaker revisited. It therefore encourages a vague religion without a commitment to the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, who was revealed as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit and all the ethical and transformational responsibilities that particular understanding of God implies.

Intelligent Design is Science Lite that encourages (or at the very least, allows) a sort of Religion Lite. It’s very American and oh, so contemporary. But neither one of us (two people who are on very different wave lengths when it comes to origins) think it’s very good theology.

A Wonder, A Grandeur, and A Woe

I ran into the following in Moby Dick, ch. 107. I finished the book last month or so, I just haven’t gotten around to posting it:

Seat thyself sultanically among the moons of Saturn, and take high abstracted man alone; and he seems a wonder, a grandeur, and a woe. But from the same point, take mankind in mass, and for the most part, they seem a mob of unnecessary duplicates, both contemporary and hereditary.

It reminds me of Linus’ famous quip, “I love humanity; it’s people I can’t stand.”

Humidity (the other 98%)

Yesterday Steve Robinson mentioned that the humidity in Phoenix got down to 2%, which is record low humidity for Phoenix. We just arrived in Port Gibson, MS (in the area called the Delta region) for the month. I haven’t heard the official weather forecast, but I think the humidity is a bit higher than 2% here in western Mississippi. The car told us we had triple digit temps for much of the afternoon.

On another subject, on our way down we saw that all the fireworks stands are getting set up for American Independence Day, so I decided to post my fireworks header picture. That picture was taken in May (it’s a Kentucky Derby picture), but fireworks are fireworks.

Long Haul

We’re driving down with Mississippi to stay at my sister’s and her husband’s place for a month. From Omaha south we played cat and mouse with a truck that revealed its story as we passed it.

Behind it all one could see was the orange metal box on the flatbed that said “US Coast Guard.”

US Coast Guard in Nebraska? Did you take a wrong turn somewhere?

As I pulled up beside it, I saw that the orange Coast Guard box contained “Oil Booms with Extra Absorbent Sponge.”

Okay, that makes sense, at least the truck’s going in the right direction. But it’s not exactly like they put drilling rigs in the middle of Missouri or Yellowstone rivers up in Montana, so what are oil absorbent oil booms doing in the Midwest?

When I got up beside the cab, I realized it was a Lyndon Transport truck. Lyndon is an Anchorage, Alaska based trucking company.

Ah, that makes sense. … I wonder if he’ll haul a load of oranges back up to Anchorage or Fairbanks. I suppose fresh caught shrimp are out of the question.

I suspect we’re following the same route. I wonder if I’ll see him today.

The Circles of God and Evolution (5 of 5)

In this final formal essay on the evolution series, I want to compare the uproar over evolution by natural selection with a previous uproar over cosmology. Harold Nebelsick, in his marvelous book, The Circles of God: Theology and Science from the Greeks to Copernicus (Scottish Academic Press, 1985), traces the development of the driving theological force that got Copernicus and the Copernican theory in such trouble with the church.

The ancient Greeks came to believe that a circle, because of its utterly simple structure, was an expression of perfection. Among these ancient Greeks, and then in turn, within the medieval western church that came to rely heavily on Greek philosophy, it was assumed that the orbits of the heavenly bodies had to be circular. They were heavenly bodies, after all and it was a theological given that heavenly bodies weren’t affected by the fall. (The fallen angels fell out of heaven, after all, according to standard interpretation of Isaiah, leaving heaven, and the heavenly bodies, pristine.) Since these heavenly bodies reflected divine perfection, it was a theological necessity that they orbit in circular patterns, because the circle is the essence of perfection in geometry.

Of course, this idea seems silly to us today. It’s why Prof. Nebelsick spent 250 pages (of small print!) in demonstrating that this was indeed the theological assumption of the medieval western church. To them this teaching was obvious to anyone who just read the Bible! If you doubt it, I encourage you to read the book.

Copernicus used science to demonstrate that the orbits of the heavenly bodies were actually elliptical rather than circular. If you’re a bit rusty on your geometry, an ellipse is an elongated circle. Geometrically speaking it has two focus points rather than the single focus point of the circle. (Still confused? The Wikipedia article will tell you all about it.)

This created a crisis for the church. For the first few hundred years the science was declared wrong, scientists who persisted in these demonic beliefs were declared heretics, and the church stubbornly held on to its core theological principle (unwittingly borrowed from the godless ancient Greeks) that the circle expressed divine perfection and anything with the imperfect two foci rather than the perfect single focus (ie, an elliptical orbit) was imperfect. To say that heavenly objects were imperfect was the equivalent of saying God was imperfect and the Bible was untrue.

Eventually the church came to terms with the science by recognizing that there was nothing biblical about this idea of the circle. A more reasonable understanding of perfection was eventually developed and the church finally embraced as truth what the scientists had known for generations.

Nebelsick tells this story because he believes (and has given evidence elsewhere in various journal monographs – it was one of his favorite subjects) this is a standard pattern for the church. Christians embrace an idea to such an extent that the idea becomes equated with biblical truth and, in turn, becomes foundational to theology. But on occasion the source of the idea isn’t the Bible at all, but something else that sounds completely reasonable and obvious.

I believe that Biblical Creationism is one such idea. It is based on an erroneous understanding of Genesis 1 that fails to distinguish between scientific and metaphorical uses of language. The idea has both become a bedrock principle of theology and a “Maginot Line” against the seemingly godless scientists who are clearly heretics. (Where have we heard that before?)

Both science and theology need to be immersed in humility if they are to ever discover the truth. Most evolutionary biologists that I’ve run into (and I make a habit of talking to them when I have a chance) are quite humble about the possibility that the theory of evolution by natural selection could be set aside by a better theory of origins. There are just enough holes in the evolutionary chain to create doubts, after all.

(Of course the arrogant and very loud ultra-orthodox defenders of evolution, such as Richard Dawkins and the late Douglas Adams – who no doubt knows better now – give humble scientists a very bad name.)

In turn Evangelical theology needs to be humble about its understanding of scripture, allowing all sources of divine truth (both from the book of scripture and the book of God’s creation) to inform its theology.

(Of course the arrogant and very loud ultra-orthodox defenders of Biblical creationism, such as the various school boards in the state of Kansas give humble creationists a very bad name.)

In the end we’ll get past the impasse just as the church got passed its damnable ideas about circles and heavenly perfection. Someday we’ll be able to look back and see the error on both sides.

But of course, by that time a new battle ground between science and theology will have developed.

Evolution and Salvation (4 of 5)

In the three previous essays I explained why I find so-called Biblical Creationism unconvincing from a biblical point of view (here and here) and why I believe there is a logic, in terms of the ways of God, to prefer evolution by natural selection over creation by fiat as the assumed method of divine activity (here). In this essay, I want to turn to a fundamentally important Orthodox theological principle that pushed me over the edge firmly into the evolutionist camp.

One of St. Gregory’s (Nazianzus) most famous aphorisms is, “That which was not assumed is not healed; but that which is united to God is saved.” It expresses the fundamental Orthodox sense of salvation. Three things need to be said about the Orthodox understanding of salvation:

  1. Sin is not viewed primarily as a moral problem but rather as death or disease (in the broadest sense of the word). Sin is a profound sickness caused by the draining away of life from creation. In turn, salvation is understood primarily as the gift of life or the healing of this brokenness and sickness rather than delivery from judgment.
  2. This problem of sin and death is universal and not only a human problem. So salvation is conceived as affecting all of creation, not just we humans.
  3. Salvation is accomplished through participation in God’s life given to us in Jesus Christ. And (specifically to the point of this series) this gift of divine life and healing is offered not only to humans, but to all creation.

There is a corollary to this broad understanding of salvation. While both sin and salvation are universal (that is, affecting all creation), it is humans that mediate the process. Just as through Adam sin came into the world, so through Jesus Christ life is offered to all creation. As earthly creatures given God’s breath, as humans created in the image of God, and now, as members of the Body of the life-giving Christ we are the priests who mediate this healing life to the rest of creation.

St. Gregory took these principles and expressed them with a breathtaking simplicity: that which was not assumed is not healed. He said this while he was making the case for the two natures of Christ. Christianity teaches that Jesus Christ is fully God and fully human. Before the importance of this point was fully understood and the point settled, some theologians believed that Jesus had a human body but a divine nature; in other words, that he was human on the outside but God on the inside.

St. Gregory’s insight was that, if salvation is accomplished through participation, then only a human could bring about the salvation of other humans. If Jesus wasn’t fully human, salvation would be a sham.

Of course, the church quickly realized the truth of Gregory’s insight, and the doctrine that Jesus is fully human and fully God is believed by the whole church everywhere.

But since salvation is universal, affecting all creation, this insight into the nature of Christ must be extended to all creation. Christ has two natures in his one person: a human and divine nature. That is clear enough. But something more must be said about human nature (not only Christ’s human nature, but our human nature) if salvation is going to be truly universal. Human nature must be the same stuff as the nature of all creation. There must be a continuum between humans and the rest of creation. If this continuum doesn’t exist, then Christ’s gift of divine life could not extend to all creation. Salvation would become an escape from a foreign creation rather than the renewal of all creation, of which humans are a part.

So, just as it is incorrect to think that Jesus is God on the inside and human on the outside, so it is incorrect to think that humans are created from the earth on the outside and created from the breath of God on the inside. When God breathed the gift of life into Adam, God was not creating a bifurcated creature, but rather animating an utterly creaturely being.

Early Darwin detractors raged against the implications of evolution by natural selection. We are not cousins of the monkeys, so the argument went at the Scopes trial. The implication was that we were somehow transcendent and quite distinct from the rest of creation. The danger was that with such creationist thinking, the profound connection between humans and the rest of creation would be lost and, in turn, the breadth of salvation as a universal gift (and not just something given to us special humans) would be lost.

Evolutionary theory, on the other hand adds a great deal of significance to St. Gregory’s insights. “That which was not assumed is not healed; but that which is united to God is saved.” Humanity assumed all creation because we arose out of creation. The whole creation is recapitulated in our being. So when the gift of divine life was given to the sin-sick creation in the God-man Jesus Christ, it seeped, not only through humanity, but into all creation itself, from whence humanity came.

Let me be clear. This connection between St. Gregory, Orthodox soteriology, and evolution doesn’t prove anything. It is possible to maintain this connection within a creationist framework. But the elegance of the connection was the thing that pushed me from having no strong opinion about evolution solidly into the evolutionary camp. Once the profound implications of Gregory’s insights began to sink in to my thinking process, evolution by natural selection seemed the most obvious thing while so-called “biblical creationism” smacked of the same weaknesses as the early theologies that rejected the two natures of Christ.

The Triumph of Ignominy (3 of 5)

What if “high and lifted up” means precisely the same thing as “ignominious”?

I think this is what Don Kraybill is saying in his book, The Upside-Down Kingdom (once again available in a 25th anniversary edition – woo hoo!). The idea isn’t original with Kraybill. I first ran into it reading Willard Swartley in an Anabaptist study of the trajectory of Biblical authority. But the idea is not original with either of them. The belief that, when it comes to the Kingdom of God, pretty much everything is the opposite of what it seems, lies at the root of Anabaptist sensibilities.

From the Anabaptists I began to understand what it means that Protestantism is triumphalistic. Even the Baptists (I was attending Central Baptist Theological Seminary at the time, so I believe I can say this with some authority) had shifted away from the servant theology of their forebears in the last couple of centuries towards a winner-takes-all mentality.

Triumphalism is a word that gets thrown around willy-nilly, and generally as an insult, so what precisely is it? Triumphalism is the belief that God is going to win, but more precisely, it’s the belief that when God (or the church, or individual Christians) get defeated along the way, it’s merely a minor set-back. It’s a worldview that sees conflict in terms of winning and losing, with no other options. It’s a theology that revels in Christ’s final victory, whether that’s expressed in the rapture (Dispensationalist theology), great wealth and perfect health (various Charismatic theologies), or even in the choice of lections and liturgies leading up to and celebrating the Feast of Christ the King in mainline Protestant and Roman Catholic Churches.

But what if God’s triumph was precisely when Jesus got nailed to the cross and cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (In other words, the resurrection is not the triumph, but rather the revelation of the triumph that occurred in death and the Divine Announcement in Hades while Jesus was dead – and notice that, for the most part, nobody believed in the resurrection. It was an ignominious announcement that was glorious only in retrospect.)

What if the distinction between winning and losing is a false dichotomy?

What if the idea that Jesus Christ is going to return to earth to do some serious smiting is simply false? What if he’s not even angry about it? (Here I’m referring to the bumper sticker that was quite popular a decade or two ago: “Jesus is coming again … but this time he’s really mad!”)

What if the final judgment of God is not fire and brimstone at all, but rather God merely showering the unrighteous continually and eternally with the rays of his love? (… which they hate, because they reject the love of God. This last one is an Orthodox bit, not an Anabaptist bit, by the way, but I suspect the Mennonites and Brethren would swoon with delight if they heard it.)

This non-triumphalistic way of thinking grows out of a particular reading of scripture. It assumes the Gospels are the normative story and both the Old Testament and the epistles (and especially the Revelation) have to be read through the lens of the Gospels. Most Protestant theology begins with Paul and interprets the Gospels through that framework; so this is a reversal of classic Protestant biblical priorities (while right in line with Orthodox priorities).

My purpose in this essay is not to defend this framework – that would require a book-length treatment – but rather to explain what it is along with a few of its implications. The two “Stirred, not Shaken” essays (here and here) assume this framework. But more to the point of this and the previous essay, this framework has implications for one’s cosmology.

There are a handful of big problems many Christians have with evolution and Darwinian evolution in particular. Among the biggest is Darwin’s insistence that there is a natural mechanism for evolution. It would seem that Darwin didn’t need God at all in his view of the universe; it leaves room for an agnostic or even atheistic view of the matter.

And I think this is the way God would want it.

Belief in God is not the same thing as belief in gravity. (Doc Habermas, my college Apologetics teacher tried to equate the two; I now profoundly disagree.) Belief in gravity has no moral component. Belief in God requires not only intellectual commitments, but commitments of the will. Michael Polanyi calls this sort of belief “conviviality.” It is not only acknowledgement of a reality; it is a happy (ie, “convivial”) relationship with that reality. This sort of belief implies that the believer thinks God is good company in contrast to a mere necessary acknowledgement.

Belief in God is also fundamentally synergistic while belief in gravity is monergistic. In other words, my belief – or not – in gravity has no effect whatsoever on gravity. On the other hand, my belief in – or not – and relation to Christ, and to Christ’s Body, does have an effect on Christ and his Body. Christian belief flows both ways while belief in gravity just is.

Christian belief, because of these interactions and inter-relationships, cannot be coerced. Being presented with irrefutable evidence that there is an almighty and moral God does not make a person want to become morally pure and submit to the Almighty. As James famously said, “Even the demons believe – and shudder” (Jas 2:19). There’s nothing convivial between Christ and the demons. This is not faith, it’s hopeless resignation.

And if God’s role in the universe – whether in creating or smiting or loving or preventing natural disasters – were blatant and the truth of that divine role irrefutable, then humans would lose an utterly vital component of their creation in the divine image: their freedom and opportunity to exercise faith, then lovingly respond to and choose God-in-Christ in gratitude. Rather it would be resigned necessity.

And this is precisely the God – the secret God, the misunderstood God – who shows up in the Gospels. After his first miracle, at Cana, the wedding steward didn’t know where the created wine had come from (John 2:9), although, John tells us, the servants knew. It was a secret miracle, but for the servants it was a delicious secret. Over and over, after a miracle is performed, Jesus commands the witnesses to tell no one. Even after the disciples figure out he’s the Messiah he “strictly charged them” to keep it a secret (Mt 16:20).

And his public miracles repeatedly got him in trouble. After casting the demons out of “Legion,” the locals kicked him out of town (Mark 5). And his most public miracle of all – the resurrection – was denied and suppressed by the leadership.

And this Gospel trajectory brings me back to the manner of creation. It fits completely into the divine character depicted in the Gospels that God’s role in creation would be secret and completely deniable by those who choose to do it. God doesn’t desire service because it’s inevitable, God desires it because we are grateful, and secrecy serves that end far better than triumphalism.

Another New Header Picture

I have a picture of Cape Wolstenholme(the farthest north point of mainland Quebec) that lent itself to the header. The new header photo is taken from a Zodiac. There’s a second Zodiac in the foreground and a third (very tiny) at the far left. The ship (home base) is on the horizon.

Facts, Metaphor, and Truth (2 of 5)

In the previous essay I made the case that Genesis 1 uses metaphorical rather than factual language. That begs the question of why. The most obvious answer is that the facts (assuming that evolution is factual) do not lend themselves to a truthful answer. In our scientific age we have come to equate truths and facts, but that is part of the modern myth and has little to do with reality.

As a Christian I know that God created the universe and made humans in his image. But the facts, apart from divine revelation, could easily point us in a different direction. (The reason this is actually a vital reality will be addressed in the next essay.) Richard Dawkins (the scientist who is an atheist) and Douglas Adams (the deceased novelist who was also an atheist) babble on and on quite gleefully about how evolution by means of natural selection proves there is no god.

Here I will focus on Adams (who was raised Anglican) for moment. Adams had his facts right, but the Anglicanism of his youth was of an existentialist variety that didn’t deal well with reality. (That in itself is a long story. Both the British Rational Realist Theologians – Tom Torrance, Alister McGrath, etc. – and Pietist Evangelical Theologians – John Stott, etc. – do an excellent job of dissecting and offering a post mortem on that era and wing of Anglicanism.) The modern Western myth of self-directed humanity throwing off the shackles of superstition by relying on scientific facts interpreted in an utterly natural (ie, anti-supernatural) manner seemed the obvious choice when the only other option known to Adams was existentialist Anglicanism.

Besides, atheistic science avoided the whole sticky mess of morals that religion quite impolitely spends a lot of time harping on. Evolutionary biology, along with the naïve belief that it disproved Christianity was perfect for someone like Adams who wanted to be both intellectually rigorous and morally ambiguous.

And this illustrates the problem with facts qua facts. Instead of lending themselves to the truth, they lend themselves to whatever ideology is preferable this decade. As Disraeli observed about a particular species of facts, “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.”

And this brings us back to the metaphorical language of Genesis 1. The Hebrews were competing with some powerfully convincing stories about how and why everything got started. The Babylonians and the Egyptians had compelling stories about gods and demi-gods and sentient creation all battling for pre-eminence. Along with being exciting, these stories explained bad weather, good crops, and the divine right of kings – everything an ancient empire needed to thrive.

Of course, as the late Douglas Adams might have said, the whole thing was bullocks! Complete rubbish!

So the question is, how does one communicate the truth of the matter in this context? How does one convey that there is one God (in contrast to a pantheon), who is Almighty (in contrast to the rather tame, ableit mean-spirited gods of the ancient world) and created a creation that is in harmony with God (in contrast to the deadly fights between the gods and the earth itself in the ancient myths)?

The answer is Genesis 1. The story is simple and yet mind-boggling in its magnitude. It’s far more compelling than a science text , even a science text written by the inimitable Richard Dawkins. And most importantly, it’s true. And the reason it’s true has specifically to do with the fact that it is metaphorical. Because of the author chose poetry, he was able to mean far more than he ever said in these gloriously simple words. And that is the power of poetry and the essence of truth.