Conversion

I’ve been thinking about conversion and what does it really mean and recently a friend of mine (Michael Hardin) suggested that Saul was not actually converted on the road to Damascus but instead it was when he heard Ananias call him “brother”.

The point cannot be missed that his journey into Damascus must have been less than optimal, not knowing exactly where he would end up, his entire theological world in shatters from the encounter with the light and voice that others heard but no one saw…think it through with me…you have journeyed probably with a group of “like-minded” enforcers with legal jurisdiction to incarcerate and apprehend ANY who were part of the struggling New Community that in a collective understanding were an abomination to your way of life and faith.

He is not on the fence about this Jesus guy…he is not indecisive regarding what must be done, he is a man of action working with other men of action and he has just been confronted by the one whom he is decidedly against.

Three days he lives in darkness, led by the hand to…I dunno, where do you stay when you’ve come like a cop to arrest people but now your plans of “legally enforced entry and seizure”  have been derailed? Do you stay with the Jewish authorities in Damascus? Do you stay at some Roman citizens residence? Obviously you are not staying with a disciple, no one trusts you now…

Even Ananias as far away as Damascus has heard about the havoc and HARM Saul has done to the saints in Jerusalem, this was not Saul’s first rodeo he actually had a reputation that went out of the city into the surrounding region…

And then a man from the group you have come to violently destroy approaches you and calls you “brother”…

Let that sink in…imagine greeting a leader of Jihad with the phrase “brother” while offering to pray for complete healing for him…

This is where the real conversion takes place and not to diminish the “every head bowed every eye closed I see that hand” evangelical approach, but real conversion must take place between enemies or the gospel has not completed it’s work…

Until we have embraced our enemy with healing and the inclusion that “brother” brings we have not really done much more than shift the lines of who is in and who is out by a minus-plus equation…

 

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Preaching to whom?

In a few weeks time we will be part of a small group of people coming together for a couple of days to share our journeys in Spain with the backdrop of ‘what is the Gospel?’ to give some shape to our sharing. Thinking through what the gospel is presents quite a challenge – or maybe coming to terms with what was the ‘Pauline gospel’ is where the challenge lies. We know what a version of the ‘evangelical’ gospel looks like and that shapes our lives to one degree or another.

This year I have set out a Bible reading pattern that is a new one for me, and this morning it sets me Romans to begin with. Of course, Romans is where we find the clearest (?) presentation of the Pauline gospel. It is the clearest but not all parts of it is clear to us! It is great where Paul begins and he is pretty much straight into it with his ‘I am not ashamed…’ statement. The section before that is what struck me this morning with his expression of desire to get to Rome where he anticipated there would be the impartation of a spiritual gift and a mutually beneficial interchange. Then he seems to sum up his desire with this phrase:

So I really want to preach the good news also to you who live in Rome (Rom. 1: 15)

Taken at face value he is not saying I want to preach the good news to those who are outside the Christian community (an evangelistic crusade?), nor that he wants to train the church so that they together can evangelise the city. He wants to preach the gospel to the Roman believers. (We could translate the whole phrase as ‘evangelise’ the church as he simply uses one verb.)

This is not a normal evangelical approach. Train in evangelism, take an evangelistic meeting – those we can relate to, but preach the gospel with no-one there who is needing to raise their hand? Food for thought… what does Paul have in mind when he wants to evangelise the Roman church?

I suspect there are depths yet that have to be dug out with respect to the apostolic gospel that will mean that our evangelical interpretation is only the tip of the iceberg. Maybe the Alpha course is aptly named… just a few more letters in the alphabet I think?

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What do we know about omniscience?

God is traditionally: omnipresent, omnipotent and omniscient.

Omnipresent: a definite

As far as I can work out I can affirm omnipresent in that s/he is present in the now everywhere. Hence when we try and appeal to Einstein and relativity as a means of suggesting God has to be outside of time I think it fails for omnipresence reasons. There is no ‘delay’ in time for God such as for us with light reaching us now being actually from the past. We experience an event now that happened then. There is no such experience for God. It is also interesting that there is no suggestion that the (chronological) future is experienced now. The miracle of the resurrection is though that the (eschatological) future is experienced in the now. And events ‘reserved’ for the future could take place now – for example the resurrection of ‘many saints’ in Jerusalem along with Jesus, the firstfruits, on the resurrection morning. An event took place that elsewhere seems unequivocally to be reserved to take place at the parousia.

Omnipotent: but what does that even mean?

Omnipotence, if we want to keep that category, it needs to be qualified. I touched on this in an earlier post, and also referred to a post by Boyd that suggested that God could have made a creation that did not allow choice, and he even seemed to suggest that s/he could also have programmed us to believe we were making choices. That is based on a ‘God can do / God is free to do whatever s/he chooses’ – an omnipotent God without boundaries.

There is a tricky element for those of us who wish to centre God somewhere different to ‘he (and I think we can drop the s/ this time) is bigger than all others and subject to no-one so whatever he decides is what is right. Might is right.’ We who want to make the centre outpoured love face the issue of, if God could do no other than love in what sense is that freedom? Does s/he love because of choice? And if there is no choice in what sense is that truly ‘love’? As much as it might confuse me I think I have to go with God is love, maybe with the proviso that love was an eternal choice. His nature is love… hence s/he loves. I see this as no different to our future. The choice to sin in the sense of being able to make that choice will have gone, not because we have lost the ability to choose, but because we have become like him (Jesus). All bugs will have been removed, the hardware will not crash, we will become what we were intended to be. (Please remove the machine type language, but I think you get what I mean. Healing of humanity brings us to the place of true holiness, true love.)

If therefore we centre God on love, we have to be careful what we then insist about omnipotence. The rules are not made up simply because of power, the limitations within which we have to live (do not consume, but eat of everything except) are not arbitrary rules but a pathway to be able to eat of the tree of life. Similarly there are limitations on God because God is God and there is none other.

I suggest then that the term omnipotent is not too helpful a term. It can lead to a gross immaturity of ‘My God can do…’ with no analysis of what we mean by that; or disappointment when God does not act for us; or we act in the image of the God we serve and power rather than a servant response that is content in the place of anonymity.

Omniscience: what does ‘omni’ mean this time round?

Full omniscience in the sense of God knowing all past, present and future events has been based (often though not always) on God being outside of time. But the bedrock of this view of omniscience is founded either on what has been predestined is known (foreknowledge based on predestination: a common Calvinist approach) or on something termed ‘middle knowledge’. I have memory – knowledge of the past but my knowledge does not dictate the past; God has knowledge of the past and also of the future but in a way that is analogous to my experience of memory. That knowledge of the future does not dictate the future. This leads to the common Arminian approach where the predestination of God is based on foreknowledge.

Now laying on one side that I do not see ‘predestination’ or ‘election’ as being about individual salvation as they both relate to Christ as the predestined or elect one, so all who are in Christ are predestined (their destiny is set) and are elect in him, what do I make of omniscience or in particular absolute foreknowledge?

Let me start with God knows all things that are knowable. But are all things knowable? Many things are easy to predict. If this, then that. Should one have infinite insight then of course the level of the accuracy of the ‘prediction’ would be, at least, very high. The real issue comes with absolute foreknowledge concerning the predictability of future events that involve creatures who are endowed with the ability to make choices. The response of ‘the choices of a free-will creature cannot be absolutely predicted’ has to be offset by, ‘but sadly we are not totally free in our choices’. Even if we react to the implications of ‘the total depravity of humanity’ we can clearly acknowledge that we are all damaged and thus not totally free in our choices – there is the bondage and dominion of sin the reality of which all humans have to acknowledge.

We could also (strangely) say that we can foreknow what God will do – or at least we could if we had a grid to understand what the truly loving choice would be. So perhaps it can be said that God can make a contrasting but equally accurate knowledge of all future human acts? Maybe the one difference in this though is the word ‘truly’. God makes the truly loving choice – always. Humanity is not evil, they are fallen. The adverb ‘truly’ cannot be applied to us – we are mixed, one day good choices, other days bad ones.

For the Calvinist the future is fixed – fixed by decree. Foreknowledge then is absolute. For many of those who are Arminian-biased the future is also certain and knowable, but not so by absolute divine decree. For the Open Theologians the normal response is the future is partly open, with certain things being not open – so some future events are totally knowable, whereas others are not (and this would include the choices made by individuals). The analogy of the game of chess is suggested, the end-game is fixed, the tactics along the way are adjusted, but adjusted perfectly. Thomas Oord (Uncontrolling Love) has gone one step further and taken away the ‘parts are not open’ option. Brave man!!

Unless we dismiss the texts as purely anthropomorphic there are numerous Scriptures where God makes a response to how the people behave. A classic would be in Exod. 33:5

Say to the people of Israel, ‘You are a vstiff-necked people; if for a single moment I should go up among you, I would consume you. So now take off your ornaments, that I may know what to do with you.

So absolute definite conclusions on the matter of absolute foreknowledge? The only real conclusion is ‘what do we know..?’ But my tentative conclusions would be that given the nature of the world God has created not all future events and choices are knowable. God has perfect knowledge of all things that are knowable. The future is open:

either partly as per Boyd, Pinnock, Sanders et al.
or even totally as per Oord.

Whatever our conclusions, from fixed, partly open to totally open practically we live as though the future is open. We are called to participate with heaven in the shape of the future. I do not read the NT any way differently. I do not read it as a set of predictions about an antiChrist, a one world government etc., but I do read it as inviting us to contribute to the future knowing there will be a future judgement (assessment?) when our contribution will make it through or simply be burned up. I think that is the practical response because I think it is the theological reality. The future is essentially open, with the characteristics (‘no more crying’, ‘no temple’, etc.) fixed, but the pathway is not.

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She, he, him or her

Pronouns for God. Problematic… I have tried for some years to avoid simply falling into the easy and traditional use of the masculine pronouns for God. In the former posts on ‘God’ I have tried to be consistent and use the s/he kind of writing to push beyond the stereotypical language. This is for deeper reasons than being PC or trendy, but to underline that our views of God – and therefore our views of humanity need to be challenged.

The, not too recent, joke of the shock when a white anglo-saxon church leader died and returned to declare that ‘I died, met God, and was shocked to discover she was black’ makes the point that we create God in our own image. The culture of the Bible is patriarchal and so ‘he’ is inevitably the pronoun used. To say that God is ‘Father’ not ‘Mother’ only takes us so far. The transformation of the term ‘Father’ by Jesus is enormous and if our insistence on using the term ‘Father’ is tied to the gender of God we have missed the level of transformation, likewise to insist on ‘Mother’ is also to miss the point.

We can use ‘he’ if we do mean ‘male’; likewise we can use ‘she’ if we do not mean ‘female’. God is neither male nor female but carries in fullness the feminine and masculine. To use s/he seems a reasonable way forward. To use the reflexive ‘Godself’ (as opposed to herself, himself) is perhaps also a good use; her / him is somewhat more difficult to write. Using ‘them’ does rather suggest something beyond a traditional trinitiarian concept. Maybe that will become easier to use as it is creeping into common language, where ‘they’ and ‘them’ can be used of the singular third person when seeking to avoid gender-specific language. (For the purists who object to this, the English language does have a precedence for this ‘you’ has obliterated the original singular ‘thou’).

So I am sure I make the mistake(?) of using the him / he language at times, but wish also to try to be disciplined so as my own view of God is not too guilty of projectionism.

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We can do?

‘Without me you can do nothing’ (John 15:5) pretty much puts us in our place!! Of course that has a context so I am going to press some other directions as to our ‘place’.

The original Genesis pictures are of some measure of delegation of authority to humanity with respect to the earth, which is re-iterated in, for example, Psalm 115:16

The highest heavens belong to the Lord.
But he has given the earth to human beings.

The freaky part would be if in this aspect of delegation there was an inevitable limitation that God embraced. For me this makes sense at every level. The ensuing conflict and hostility is not between God and the serpent but between the seed of the serpent and the seed of woman. This is followed through with the Incarnation (born of a woman) who comes at a time of fullness to ‘destroy the works of the devil’. This overcoming is seen in the wilderness time of trial, and in particular at the cross. There seems a good basis to suggest the wilderness was with regard to the effective kingdom expression in the context of the remnant of Israel (the 12 + wider community of disciples), so that through the cross there can be a declaration of the kingdom throughout the inhabited earth.

Can God do nothing without us? This does not seem to be the case as from the beginning s/he enters the world of Eden, later we read of the protection of Cain, so s/he is not totally on the outside looking in. In Isaiah 59:16 we read

He sees that there is no one who helps his people.
He is shocked that no one stands up for them.
So he will use his own powerful arm to save them.
He has the strength to do it because he is holy.

It is probably hard to go to the extreme that there is no intervention from heaven, but it is probably possible to hold that there are certain interventions that do not take place without invitation, and that the norm is for divine intervention to follow human invitation.

It would seem to me that the issue Jesus came to settle was the restoration of humanity to their appointed place. His claim to having received all authority has the (implied) consequence that this authority has been released also for those who ‘go’.

In these posts that are exploring the conceptual elements of time, timelessness etc., the real issues are ‘so what…’ If there is traction in what I am suggesting then I think there are at least two key implications.

1) how the body of Christ positions herself with regard to the world is very key. If it is ‘rule over’ I cannot see that as embracing the cruciform path. It needs to be one of servant to the world so that the outworkings of the cross (the ‘it is finished’ part) can be seen in evidence in the world. Where the body of Christ does not follow this path, perhaps the resulting problems could be greater as a result.

2) the invitation to God to intervene becomes one of the key roles for the body of Christ. Prayer, but intercession at the deepest level of positioning then would be very key. Standing between what is and what is to come would be the requirement.

If we place this again in an eschatological setting we can hold that the age to come breaking in fullness is not dependent on a future calendar date but to a fullness of contribution that the body of Christ has made.

All in all, for me makes sense of the apparent lack of interventions from heaven; presents a challenge to discover ‘what do you want me to do?’ and ‘how do you want me to live?’. Then getting the balance of we are not created as workers but as companions to the God of heaven is important, because it is certainly not down to us in the sense of performance. Work without relationship is not going to be the way forward.

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God can do

It always sounds right to say that God is omnipotent and there is therefore nothing s/he cannot do. This becomes more problematic (morally) when it is suggested that God can do whatever s/he chooses simply because s/he is God: a might is right approach. Maybe less of an issue when that viewpoint is hidden behind such things being a mystery as to why God makes the choices s/he makes (predestination). While accepting that there are mysteries an over-appeal to that element does not sit well with me as in Jesus God becomes knowable. When the suggestion is that God can do something simply because s/he is God it might seem to elevate the otherness of God but makes this God unknowable. In Jesus this God who created and sustains all things is strangely more like one of us than not. So let’s get into this.

Omnipotence is a necessary affirmation that there is no ‘god’ greater than God, and that there are no limitations of power, however it cannot be taken to mean God can do whatever. There are the well known logical fallacies (can God make a four sided triangle, can s/he make a rock larger than s/he can lift) that are kind of fun to play with, but the more critical issues, though, surround questions of morality, with the very real question of ‘If God has all power why does s/he not stop suffering’. To suggest that s/he cannot stop suffering can sound as if that is a denial of omnipotence, but even Scripture is clear that the first line of defence of God is not one of omnipotence for we read: ‘God cannot deny himself’.

God is love, which is a stronger statement than God loves, and if we need to affirm that love is a choice maybe we have to go to a ‘love is an eternal choice’ by God. That kind of God-love is defined as a pouring out of life for others, even love that embraces the other, and that s/he cannot do anything that is not love. That love is not sentimental nor weak, but we can be totally assured that all s/he does is consistent with love. We have every reason therefore to trust totally in God.

So far I think no level of controversy there. It is when we push this into the realms beyond that it gets interesting. So:

Are there areas where God cannot intervene without our invitation (prayer being one way)? If I understood Oord (Uncontrolling Love) correctly he would be suggesting this. We could read that as ‘God is powerless to stop…’ which would be very insulting to those from a certain theological background, or we could understand this as ‘we can co-operate with God to change situations’. Certainly if we are not willing to travel any distance on that road we will find that defending God with regard to the problem of evil becomes more difficult. The free-will argument is surely necessary, what Oord has done is to push it further with God does not and will not control.

This, in simple terms, challenges us to determine whether love is the primary determining characteristic through which God is expressed and is known, or whether we resort to God is bigger than all other beings and it is power that is the primary expression of God’s own being.

I suggest then that there is only limited value in claiming ‘omnipotence’ for God, rather to claim love as being the core of God’s being is what we must focus on, which will put limitations on how we express the omnipotence of God. Indeed omnipotent language might prove to have limited usefulness, and unless we were to qualify what we meant with the word ‘omnipotent’ we could find that the word actually distorts the image of God.

Now if God has given freedom to humanity the issue of absolute foreknowledge is also raised – another post, another day. However, a post before that I think needs to explore the necessity of our invitation or co-operation for God to intervene.

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When was the beginning?

God, time, timelessness, God created time, time is in God, God made room for creation… theo-philosophical questions which we probably cannot give a final answer to. I suggested in an earlier post that the idea of God living in an ‘eternal now’ presents so many more difficulties than the simple view we have in Scripture that s/he lives with creation, that past events (e.g. the Exodus) are past events for God and future events (e.g. the parousia) are future events also for God. The Scriptures also affirm that God is not to be identified with creation. S/he is separate from creation. It does though beg the question of when was ‘the beginning of creation?’

There is nothing intrinsic within Scripture to suggest that creation as we have it was ex-nihilo. ‘In the beginning’ can indicate a ‘when God began creating’ and that he worked on stuff that was already there: ‘surface of the deep’, ‘without form and empty’. We also have a major issue as to what sense we can make of ‘God as creator’ if there was (a time verb) when there was no creation. It is almost as bizarre as claiming to be an artist but to have never picked up a brush, canvas and sought to produce something.

The Scriptural stories are to teach truth, not a set of facts. Truth transcends facts. So I do not find myself bound to believe there was a time when God created or that there was necessarily a historic day when humanity fell. Yes, I could be persuaded to believe that creation is eternal, or that what we term the universe is not the ‘first’ creation. We believe in an infinite God so there is no necessity to believe that this is the only universe that exists. However, it is the only universe that exists for us, and until we can master space travel, the planet we find ourselves on is the only planet for us, and the street where I live is the only street where I can live out a life of discipled integrity.

An eternal fall? Why not. Unless one feels obliged to take Gen. 1-3 as essentially literal we could take it as a comment on the history of humanity, falling short of the glory of God, choosing to believe a lie about God, refusing to live as s/he lives (within love boundaries) and seeking to consume whatever takes our fancy has produced the universal sickness called the bondage of sin. If we took it that way we would be thinking more about the sick needing healing, rather than the guilty needing forgiveness, though once healing was experienced at any level I think the automatic response would be ‘I have been guilty all these years of mis-representing God’.

So philosophically I am probably pretty much in the camp of creation is eternal, the fall is a statement of humanity’s bondage. Theologically I am very happy to affirm a beginning, the start of the project which has an end (in the sense of eschaton not telos). I am happy to say ‘we fell’ and without the second Adam are doomed.

I am also very happy to affirm that when we talk theology (God-talk) we don’t always know what we are talking about!

More to come – omnipotence and omniscience.

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Slavery, consumerism and…

A few days ago Chris Bourne posted a comment on the blog Gates of Society and it provoked me a lot. There was so many elements in his comment and I am just looking to pick up on one aspect here. So a quick reminder from that post. The rulership (commodification) by politics that is so visible over such areas in society as education and health exposes a root myth about the inter-dependence of the ‘spheres’ (not sure what word to use here!!), yet how politics has become, or always has been, subject to economics. OK so much for the recap.

Chris’ comment provoked this line of thinking:

  • when we are enslaved – we will seek to enslave.
  • western society (it is more visible there) and society is ultimately enslaved to Mammon. Hence the ‘you cannot serve…’ statement of Jesus or the mark of the beast that forbids the buying and selling.
  • the necessary partner to Empire has to be Mammon, that which is the driver behind consumerism.
  • the only antidote to Empire is that of contented boundaries. This is how I understand Genesis and the Garden. There is a boundary required to counter Empire, and God gives the least possible restriction: only do not eat of this one tree. The fruit of that tree is of course very critical, and ties to independent self-determination.
  • consumerism, the original sin, is how the enslavement to Mammon is evidenced.
    There then is a flow, from accumulating commodity, to luxury, to expansion through war, to the ultimate of ‘bio-power’

So back to the book written well-before-its-time, Revelation:

The merchants of the world will weep and mourn for her, for there is no one left to buy their goods. She bought great quantities of gold, silver, jewels, and pearls; fine linen, purple, silk, and scarlet cloth; things made of fragrant thyine wood, ivory goods, and objects made of expensive wood; and bronze, iron, and marble. She also bought cinnamon, spice, incense, myrrh, frankincense, wine, olive oil, fine flour, wheat, cattle, sheep, horses, wagons, and bodies—that is, human slaves. (18: 11-13, New Living Translation).

Notes:
1. The last two elements read as: ‘bodies, human souls’.

2. I suggest there is a progression in the list from the seeking to possess the ‘valuable’ commodities, to the enjoyment of luxuries, to gathering the war materials (horses and chariots – wagons in the above translation)… to the ultimate consuming of lives, the very ‘soul’.

What was set as original direction:
contented, creative, growing stewardship in the context of partnership, all flowing from an understanding of the generosity of heaven in order to release a reflected, yet real, generosity. That is truly counter-empire. Something of that was recovered in the early Christian community (my daily reading included Acts 3 & 4 today, ‘they had all things in common’) touched by the generosity of heaven they then lived that out as reflected in the generosity towards one another.

The original direction was rejected:
‘I saw… I desired… I took… I consumed’ being the Genesis 3 pattern.
Then unfolds the pattern that can reach a fullness with the total consumption even of the ‘human soul’. It is into this that Jesus came ‘at the fullness of times’, and perhaps there is another ‘fullness of times’ that we are approaching yet again. The slavery of the first Century has given way to the ‘matrix’ that is our slavery.

And yet I think the good news is that there never is a fullness (the beast ‘was, is not, and is to come’ Rev. 17:8). The ‘is to come’ is the constant threat, but not the necessary consequence. The threat of ultimate consumption hovers between the past and the foreboding future. It hovers there held in check, for it is the kingdom of God that is to come is the constant promise (the kingdom of ‘the One who is and who was and who is to come’).

So how is it all brought down? We have to be consumed (we are being consumed anyway) but consumed as prophets and saints (18:24). To be consumed in that way we have to be those who have been set free from slavery, thus becoming those whose lives are poured out.

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Time and the economy of trust

First a quick apology for posting mostly other media of late and not anything scribbled by my tinkering mind, but I am in a season of cultivation and drawing from many sources, hence the “Hey try the Merlot it has a smoky aftertaste” approach to where I am (in real life I am currently in a season in Oklahoma immersed in caregiving for my own mother and it is a brutal confrontation with the reality of the limits of this mortal coil)…

Back to our scheduled programming…I notice Martin is posting a bit about time and I have tried to follow his discussions about economics with very little coherent references of my own to draw from economics is a subject I avoided like the plague until I discovered its potential to cure said plague…so this little video gave me a lot of hope of something emerging from the grass-roots of humanity…its mostly about a movement to develop an alternative currency based on time and I found it incredibly encouraging…its about 6 minutes so well worth your time to invest in (pun intended).

 

By the way the site “Nationswell” this comes from should be a good antidote for those of you across the pond(s) who think America is becoming all Trumped and Cruzing for Apocalypse…I have pretty well given up any real sense that the political machine running things here will do much more than run them to the edges of the abyss and peer over before running the other direction to do the same on the opposite side…it’s exhausting so I need to remind myself that God is much more at work in the dirt of humanity than He is in the mascara…(which is made of dirt)

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