The End of the World As We Know It - Part 1: Growing Up

Saturday, July 30, 2016

 A reader asks,

“Both Jesus and his followers seemed to believe his return and the last days were imminent. Yet here we are 2,000 years later and no Jesus in the flesh or end of the world. Was Jesus wrong? Is our record of what he taught wrong? If I am honest I can see how people can dismiss Jesus as an end times prophet anticipating a soon-coming final judgment that has not come soon. Growing up shaped by Pentecostal emphasis on the second coming I have heard many explanations of this that just seem to ignore the simple conclusion that Jesus was wrong. And if so, was he in fact divine like no other? And if he was wrong should I treat his teachings as authoritative?”

This is a question I have struggled with too. At its heart is a desire to see suffering and injustice come to an end, to see things made right. Those are good desires. However, it’s pretty hard to deny that 2000 years is by no definition “soon.” So what do we do about that? What do we do about the seemingly unavoidable conclusion that Jesus and his early followers’ hopes and expectations were apparently wrong? This brings us to the broader question of what do we do when we find that any part of the Bible is wrong. Does this cause our entire belief to collapse? Does this invalidate everything else?

If we have a faith rooted in authoritarianism and the way of unquestioning obedience, then the answer is, yes, it does. Because of this, many fundamentalist Christians convert to being fundamentalist atheists. That’s one possibility. Another possibility is to double down and argue that we are misunderstanding things and that everything is fine, and the Bible and Jesus are never wrong. That’s another possibility that is widely taken. I’ve heard lots of attempts at doing this in relation to eschatology, and I have to say they all left my heart still longing for a better answer. What my heart wanted was to see the world made right, and so somehow all explanations of why I should accept things as they are just rang hollow.

The way I see it, on a deeper level, this is an issue of growing into adulthood, and that is a painful and difficult passage. As children we idealize our parents and teachers. We place child-like trust in them. When we become parents ourselves, we are faced with the staggering responsibility of taking care of our children. We take on that seemingly god-like role in their lives, all the time painfully aware how inadequate and unprepared we are to live up to that. We try the best we can to keep them safe, but we know we cannot shelter them from everything. We try to do our best, but we know we will fail, we will make mistakes. It’s hard to know that our kids will get hurt in this world, but it’s harder to face that we will hurt them, we will fail them.

The same is true of anyone who is a position of authority in our lives, teachers, managers, mentors, politicians, and pastors... no matter how much they try not to, will all fail us. That can be devastating. Many people, when faced with the moral failings of their pastor, walk away from their faith altogether – just like many people do when they find that the Bible is not a flawless book.

Note that "authority" and "authoritative" are not the same as authoritarian. Adults have people in authority over them, and exercise authority themselves within their lives as parents and professionals. Adults also regard things as authoritative when they deserve to be regarded as such.  But authoritarianism is synonymous with a child-like and developmentally immature approach to life. To the extent that we are nurtured in an authoritarian church, people are conditioned to remain developmentally immature. We need to have a faith that allows us to be morally responsible intelligent adults.

So the question becomes, how can we come to terms with our own imperfections and failings, with the imperfections and failings of those we look up to, and the imperfections and failings of scripture, and still hold on to what is good in ourselves, in our mentors, and in the Bible? That is the core question of what it means to move from childish faith to an adult faith. An adult faith is not one that has all the answers. It is not a faith that is rooted in certainty. That is what a child imagines it is like to be a grownup. Those of us who are adults and parents know full well that the reality of adulthood looks very different.

This new perspective of adulthood does not have the perspective that says if someone is wrong about one thing, therefore we must reject everything. After all, you are wrong sometimes, and that does not mean you are always wrong. The same goes for me, and the same goes for the human Jesus (it’s important that we hold that Jesus was not just divine, but both human and divine!). That means that you cannot blindly and without thinking accept everything I say, or accept everything anyone else says for that matter, including Jesus. We need to seek to understand so we can follow well, not blindly obeying without understanding – which means we will (because we do not understand) follow wrong, leading to hurt.

From what I can see, Jesus was wrong about the timing of the end. He was also wrong in his understanding of medicine, which he (like everyone else at the time) attributed to invisible demons rather than invisible germs. I put all of this to the limitations that Jesus experienced in being a human being, and to be fair, Jesus himself does say “But about that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father” (Mt 24:36). In the same way that Jesus is both fully divine and fully human, the Bible as a whole is also both divine and human, too. It is possible to encounter God in its pages, to encounter a love and goodness that puts us in direct contact with the divine, the eternal, and the holy. The challenge for us as adult believers is to learn how to find and embrace the good parts so we can get to the holy, so we can get to the heart of Jesus.

Just because Jesus was misinformed about medicine does not mean that there is nothing for us to learn about how Jesus treated the sick. In fact, there is immense, profound, life-changing moral insight that we can learn from how Jesus sees and treats the sick. Similarly, just because Jesus (and Matthew) were wrong about the imminence of the end, if we dig a bit deeper to look at what the Gospels, and in particular the Gospel of Matthew, has to say about the end time, what we find is a life-changing message that we desperately need to hear in our time, right now. I’ll discuss that in detail next time.

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Beyond Justifying: How To Read the Bible For All It's Worth

Sunday, July 17, 2016

There are two basic ways we can approach living out the teachings of Jesus and our own spiritual and moral growth and development. One is by seeking to justify the morals we have now, and the other is by seeking to grow deeper. While you can probably guess that I’m going to advocate for the second, the first approach of “justifying” is far more common among evangelicals – and that’s true for both conservatives and progressives.

A common example of this “justifying” approach can be seen in how many Christians seek to deal with parts of Scripture that they find problematic. Let’s say for example you read somewhere in Paul’s writings something like “women should shut up because men are better” (or something that sounds like that to you anyway), and you think “what the hey!?” The justifying approach will look for a way to justify your not following this. For example you might say “many scholars believe that Paul did not actually write this book, so therefore I can ignore it.”

Or to take another example you might read Jesus saying something that sounds to you like “Do not protect or defend yourself or your loved ones when they are hurt by someone. Blessed are those who passively tolerate injustice” (again, I’m expressing more how the verse feels, rather than what it actually says). Again, the approach of justifying might seek to say something like “When Jesus spoke of turning the other cheek he was not referring to personal self-defense” or if seeking to defend the military one might say the opposite “When Jesus spoke of turning the other cheek he was only referring to personal self-defense, not to the state.”

This is not to say that the justifying approach is incorrect. It may very well be that Paul did not write such-and-such book, and it may be quite true that Jesus was not specifically referring to the particular situation we have in mind today – indeed literally everything you read in the Bible was said to a different people in a different situation in a different time in a different language. However, the goal we have with the Bible is to ask “How can I apply this to my life?” and more specifically “How can I apply the way and teachings of Jesus to my life?” That’s kind of the whole point of following Jesus. That’s pretty much the main reason we bother to read the Bible at all. The approach of justifying, however, instead seeks to do the opposite of that. It seeks to find ways to justify not applying it. That’s why as a general approach I think it not a good one, or at least I think there is another approach that is much better.

I also want to stress that I am not saying that the justifying approach is illegitimate. If you as a woman don’t want to be quiet and submit, I can totally relate. I also relate to wanting to defend myself and those I love. To take it even further, I can certainly understand why a person who is attacked could respond with violence. I feel the moral drive as a parent to defend your family. I think one can legitimately claim that it is justifiable, in certain circumstances, to use violence in order to protect. We can make similar arguments with many things – for example we can say it is justifiable to get a divorce in certain circumstances.

The point is not to deny that it is legitimate to see this as justifiable. But what I want to do is ask if we can go beyond this, if we can do something better. I’d like to sketch out what that might look like.

First of all I begin with a simple rule of thumb: If the way I am interpreting the Bible seems wrong and bad and hurtful to you, then I stop right there. Don’t do something that you feel is hurtful. That means that in the above examples where you hesitate because it seems wrong to not to defend yourself, that’s a good instinct. Pay attention to that. Your life matters. Injustice is not okay. That is perhaps not where we will end, but it is certainly where we need to start.

The next step is to entertain the possibility that if it seems to me that Jesus is saying something that seems foolish, naive or even bad, that just maybe it is not the case that Jesus is naive and dumb and wrong, and quite possible that actually he is saying something that is morally over my head. So I need to seek to get to the place of actually understanding how I could take what Jesus is saying and apply it to my situation in a way that leads to moral transformation. That is, in a way that takes me out of the typical loop I get stuck in, and brings me out of that, above it. In other words, I need to appreciate how Jesus is showing me a better way, and really get how that could work in my life. If we can begin to ask this question as we immerse ourselves in the teachings of Jesus and the New Testament, if we can have this question on our lips as we open our hearts to listen to the leadings of the indwelling Holy Spirit, then we open up a whole world of possibilities to walk in the way of reconciliation and peacemaking that Jesus embodied and calls us to as his followers.

Conversely, when our only response to Jesus is to seek to justify our hurtful actions, to say “Yes, but what about...” (fill in the blank with whatever horror scenario gets you emotionally triggered, so your amygdala is flooded, and all rational conversation is completely shut down). When we do that, we close the door to finding any other possibility besides the one where we justify hurting someone else. That results in moral stagnation. It means we close the door to learning another way. We close the door to doing better, to growing morally, to making our world more into the kind of place that Jesus prayed for “your kingdom come, on earth as it is in heaven.”

So how can we move towards doing that? The first step is to get past seeking to justify not doing it. Rather than continually rehearsing all the emotionally upsetting scenarios where we think we are justified in being violent, rather than continually asking “but what about...?” what if we instead spent our energy trying to figure out how we could apply the way of Jesus in our own live contexts and situations? When groups like the Mennonites have attempted to do that, they have come up with really groundbreaking, society-transforming ideas like restorative justice. That’s exciting, and I want to be doing that. I want to be morally innovating and creating, rather than spending my time seeking to justify why I am not.

I think I get to say that. After all, I’m the guy who wrote a book on how it’s okay to “pick and choose” what parts of the Bible will shape and guide us morally, and which parts do not. So one could think that I would be all for the justifying approach. After all, I am, to an extent, providing a justification for not following certain teachings which we determine are hurtful (or at a minimum, certain interpretations of those teachings). Again, those justifications are legitimate. They are a good place to start, but a bad place to stop. So I maintain that we must go beyond this. In fact, the only reason I still read the Bible is in the hopes of going beyond this. I read in the hope that I can connect with the Spirit who will lead me into a deeper understanding of the way of Jesus that can transform me and my world.

That’s the attitude, and it’s a critical starting position. But let’s get to the practical. What does it look like? On a very simple level it begins by simply asking “How can we do better?” and “What are ways to reach the goal we have without harming anyone?” or at a minimum “How can we work to reduce harm?” Yes, we can justify divorce for instance. But is there a way to save the marriage, restore the relationship, and keep the family together? If there is, shouldn’t we seek to do the hard work to get there? Yes, we can justify violence used in self-defense, but if there is a way to resolve conflict peacefully, shouldn’t we seek to learn how to do that? If there was a way to reduce the amount of deaths due to guns in our country – whether from suicides, mass shootings, gang violence, or police shooting unarmed people of color – shouldn’t we seek to do everything we can to learn how to do that?

Yet so often, rather than working together to do that, what we find are people who feel the need to instead justify keeping things the way they are, and as a result actively block others from working to make it better. What I want to state is that this is not a good way to “defend” morality because it ends up in stagnation and status quo, and prevents growth and development and healing. We need to go beyond justifying things, and instead learn how to seek to make things better. That is where Jesus was trying to take us when he said all of his “I know it says... but I say to you” and “don’t even the unbelievers already do that?” statements. He wanted us to go beyond status quo religious morality, and “be perfect” which in Hebrew means to take something to completion.

Why is it that we gravitate towards seeking to justify, rather than seeking to improve and go deeper? A big factor is the feeling that we need to defend ourselves from blame. Every child does it. You could almost say it comes hardwired into us. “He started it!” we learn to say. Yes, I absolutely am implying that justifying is an immature response because it absolutely is. I’m guilty of it, too. We all are. But I don’t want to justify that (see what I did there?). I want to instead seek to follow Jesus, who calls us instead to the way of repentance and humility, rather than the way of justifying ourselves. That’s just Gospel 101, people. Moreover, Jesus calls us to be at the forefront of working to bring about peace in our world, to be ambassadors of reconciliation, to demonstrate the same kind of love Jesus did. That’s our calling, our mission.

I think that’s an exciting possibility, to be in the place of moral innovation, to be active in pushing ourselves and our world towards being more humane, more loving, more like Jesus. I also think it opens all sorts of doors into really encountering the divine in the Bible, allowing us to read in a way that deepens and challenges us. I hope you find that as exciting as I do, and will join me in going beyond justifying ourselves. Let’s stop asking if there is a way for us to justify not applying the way of Jesus to our lives, and instead seek to find how we can. Jesus tells us that way is life. Let’s not rest until we understand why that is true.

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