Friday, December 21, 2007

What's Jesus got to do with it?

As I was walking back to my office during lunch yesterday, I was looking around at all the buildings and people and a question popped into my head: "What does Jesus have to do with that building over there?" As I continued walking, I asked that same question about other things that I saw: "What does Jesus have to do with that security guard in front of the child development center? Or with the dead vine on that wall? Or with the homeless man asleep by the warehouse? Or with the small business owner standing outside of her shop?" I kept asking those questions without really knowing what I meant by them. I didn't mean to be offensive or secular--I just didn't see how Jesus related to those things at that moment.

Just before I got back to my office, I was finally able to vocalize the big question I was trying to ask: "What does it mean to be truly Christocentric?" Sure, I can put on my pious hat and relate everything I see back to Jesus, mumbling something about redemption and saving grace each time. But I'm not sure that that is any different than a game I used to play when I was little. I'd pick out two very different objects--say, a clock and my toothpaste cap--and try to connect them in as few steps as possible (the clock helps me keep track of time, and it is only at certain times of day that I remove the toothpaste cap so that I can brush my teeth). So perhaps I need to rephrase my question: "In what substantial way does Jesus relate to the woman selling bacon-wrapped hot dogs on the corner?"

I think what I'm getting at is that I'm not sure exactly how Jesus relates metaphysically to the common occurrences of everyday life. Yes, Jesus came to release humanity from our bondage to sin and to reconcile us to God. But I'm not sure that I can identify exactly how Jesus, dead and raised, actively relates to the drunk man on the corner. It's not that there is no relation--I just I don't know how it all works.

Because of the limits of my knowledge in that area, I am compelled to focus on ethics. Perhaps the way Jesus relates to everyday people and everyday events is through the lives and examples of Christians. Since I don't know for sure how Jesus is connected to the rest of the world, I feel drawn to be the connection. I don't know to what extent Jesus works actively in the world and I don't know to what extent he has left that up to us. But it would certainly be a shame to sit around lazily, only to find out later that Jesus expected us to make the connection.

So, what's Jesus got to do with it? Perhaps the answer to that question is up to us....

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Starting with Skid Row

I'm currently in the process of applying to graduate school, so I've been thinking a lot about my future. I'm trying to decide what I want to do with me life, what avenues I'd like to pursue. While theology is definitely what I want to study, I don't like the idea of being cooped up in a stuffy office at some university for the rest of my life. I am convinced that theology cannot be divorced from ethics, and ethics has to grapple with the problems in our world hands on. I relish the prospect of entering academia, but I know that in order for my studies to be worthwhile I must be actively involved in social issues.

Maybe that is part of why I wanted to do social work. Working on Skid Row is not my dream job and it doesn't lead naturally to a career in theology, but somehow it is really important to me. I love the people I work with and the personal connections I get to make with them. I like that I am in the business of providing hope. But I can't pretend that it isn't sad, too.

More than a hundred people come in our doors each day, and all of them are homeless. There are lots of reasons that people end up down here, but the most common reason is bad luck. One thing went wrong that sent them sliding down a slippery slope and they crash-landed on Skid Row. These people have reached a point where they can't pull themselves up by their bootstraps--they need compassion and they need help.

Even though I've only worked here a short time, I know that I will never be able to formulate any sort of theology or Christian ethic that leaves these people out. A gospel of prosperity based on good words and happy thoughts won't do. A message of middle-class individualistic pietism won't cut it. If we are bold enough to call ourselves Christians, we cannot allow the homeless, the drug addicted, the HIV infected, the mentally ill, and the lonely to be neglected. I know that it is something that I cannot ignore, and I'm sure it will influence the direction my life takes. From here on out, my thought and theology will probably start with Skid Row.

Saturday, December 1, 2007

A Relative Confession

I was thinking earlier today about a conversation I had with a friend in high school. I described to him what I thought was the ultimate goal of intellectual pursuit: to align one's personal conception of reality as closely as possible with cosmic Truth. I understood that we, as humans, are inevitably bound to our limited perspectives, so we are forever faced with the challenge of pinning down that elusive Truth.

I find that I have been endorsing relativism a lot lately, and I feel like I need to make clear why that is. The reasons are simple. First, that is how I understand the world. When I consider difficult problems--moral, theological, and otherwise--I find that I think that way. Secondly, that is the direction that our culture is heading, so it is something that the church has come to terms with. If Christianity wants to be vital well into the 21st century, it has to learn to speak the same vocabulary as the people it wants to reach. It's not that I consider relativism to be superior to or more valuable than other frameworks for theology--it's that we need to learn how to situate ourselves within relativism in order to speak coherently to our culture.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Wrestling with a Latent God

The idea of a latent God is unsettling to me. What does it mean for my faith if I am forced to recognize that--as far as I can tell--God exists as potential? Does it mean that I don't really believe in God? Or is all of this just part of faith? Is there such thing as faithful agnosticism? Does the latency of God change everything? Or does it change nothing? What are the consequences of acknowledging that God is latent?

One of the big questions this raises for me is this: What/who do I believe in if God is only potential? Does that mean that I believe in nothing? Does that mean that all I am holding on to is a thin strand of hope? Or does it actually have no effect on faith? Perhaps all I am doing is placing emphasis on the uncertainty that makes faith possible. When I acknowledge that God exists as potential, does that undermine or undergird my faith? I'm not sure that I have an answer to that yet.

Even if that question remains unanswered, I am faced with another: What does the latency of God mean for the way I live my life? I'm not sure what it means in a broad way, but I know that it affects many small things. It means that whenever I pray for help I am faced with the possibility that there is no one who will help me. In a way, it makes everything conditional. My prayer becomes, "God, if you are there, please help me." (But please note that the conditional clause is not an expression of doubt; rather, it is a recognition of the reality of my situation.) On the other hand, because God is uncertain, any ordinary faithful act is transformed into an act of faith. It means that going to church on Sunday or reading the Bible are more than just activities that Christians commonly do; instead, they are active expressions of faith in spite of uncertainty. Even though the latency of God transforms these simple acts into demonstrations of faith, it also means that life is lived with the knowledge that these Christian acts could be for naught. The hopeful possibility of faith can never be separated from the morose possibility that faith is in vain.

Does it make any sense to place my faith in a God whom I recognize to be latent? Is it really faith or is it merely hoping in some faint possibility? Is this faith just something I do to console myself in the face of a tragic world and an uncomfortable life?

Is there a difference between believing in God while ignoring all the uncertainty and purposely believing in that uncertain God? Is it crazier to have faith while denying the obvious morose possibilities or to have faith despite those possibilities?

Read my first two posts on this subject: "Acknowledging a Latent God" and "Confronting a Latent God."

Monday, November 19, 2007

Giving the Benefit of the Doubt

My job on Skid Row is to work with homeless people who are applying for housing (specifically those with severe mental illness and/or substance abuse problems). What this means is that I get to work with crazy, drug-addicted people who are living on the streets and in emergency shelters. For the most part, they are upbeat and motivated. They come in telling me about all of the programs they're involved in, that they're going to tons of 12-step meetings each week, and that they're seeing a psychiatrist and taking their meds. They insist that they are trying to turn their lives around and that ever since they hit rock bottom they've been gung-ho about making real changes.

However, after talking with other case managers in the organization, I've found out that the majority of the people in our housing are still drinking heavily, smoking crack, and hanging around the streets like before. The only thing that is different is that now they have a bed of their own. All of those people came into our housing wanting to change their lives, but all they've managed to change is their sleeping situation.

Don't get me wrong--it's not that I think those people don't deserve housing. It's just sad to me that they come in with such high hopes only to fall flat. I have to say, though, it is a big achievement for many of these people to get permanent housing in the first place. Many of them have been homeless for so long that they don't remember anything else. They've developed survival techniques--functional dysfunctions--that help them survive on the streets but that work against them in regular life.

When I'm meeting with my clients, I can't help but think that it won't be long before they're smoking crack and drinking again and that nothing will really change. However, I need to be hopeful for them and help them get into housing so that they can have a chance. I have to give them the benefit of the doubt.

I have to wonder what God thinks of my job. If Jesus were a young twentysomething in Los Angeles, would he consider sitting at my desk? If he were like me (no supernatural powers, socially awkward, and financially limited) would he be a case manager or would he consider my work a waste of time? I don't save anyone's souls. I don't help them beat their addictions. I don't feed them or clothe them. All I do is help them get housing. I give them the benefit of the doubt so they can have a chance.

I'm sure there are plenty of important questions I could ask about the intersection of social work with the kingdom of God, holistic soteriology and Christian living, but there is one question I have to ask first:

Is my work worthwhile?

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Active Compassion

I work for a non-profit organization that provides permanent housing to homeless people on Skid Row. A woman who is waiting for housing said something to me yesterday that took me by surprise: "You all have beds at night so you're in no rush to find me a place to stay! You know, it's a lot more important to me than it is to you!" My first inclination was to defend our organization and the work we do--we try to house people as fast as possible any time there is a vacancy, but there are just more applicants than rooms. But as soon as I opened my mouth I realized that, regardless of how hard we try to provide housing, she was right.

Even though all of us in the organization really care about the homeless, at the end of the day we get to leave Skid Row and go home to our own beds. As I drive home each day, she's waiting in line trying to get into one of the shelters. While I'm eating my salmon and asparagus in lemon butter for dinner, she's eating the shelter's cafeteria food. Every night while I sleep in my own room, she's grateful to be sleeping in the shelter again. After I leave work, her problems don't even cross my mind.

I'm not saying that I should constantly be worried about everyone's problems. There is nothing I can do to magically transform Skid Row. There is nothing we can do to house everyone instantly. But that woman was right--it means a lot more to her than it does to me. And that's shameful. I should care just as much as she does.

It got me thinking that we (Americans, Christians, humans) need to have a greater sense of urgency--truly active compassion--for the problems we see around us. It is so easy to give 47¢ to the homeless guy on the corner and then walk into Gap and drop $100 on a sweet pair of jeans and a sweater. We feel good that we made a contribution to someone who needed it, but it isn't good enough to care about someone for thirty seconds only to revert back to our self-centered consumerism. Compassion and action need to consume us to the same extent that poverty and problems consume the lives of those who are less fortunate.

"You know, it's a lot more important to me than it is to you." Of course that's going to be the case--the person who needs help is going to value it more than the helper--but it shouldn't be so lopsided. We shouldn't give so apathetically to someone who's crying out in need. It should be embarrassing to us that our cities can't provide enough beds for the homeless, let alone the psychiatric and counseling services they need. It should be embarrassing that we get distracted so easily and we forget about the poverty in our backyards. It should be embarrassing that sometimes we don't even notice. We need to exhibit active compassion toward others--we should care about others' problems enough to do something about them.

Thursday, November 1, 2007

Confronting a Latent God

The latency of God should come as no great surprise. The fact that we believe in God suggests that we do not conclusively know that God is there. We cannot see God. We cannot hold a conversation with God. We have no proof that God exists. Sure, some people have visions, hear God speak, and believe that the natural world is proof enough, but all of that is debatable. What this reveals is something that should be obvious--that to some degree God is hidden. Because we do not fully know who God is, where God is, and what God is doing, we are left to guess (and read and pray and theologize) about it.

We believe God can work miracles, can move mountains, can change hearts, and can save the world, but we have no way of knowing whether God is really doing those things. Thus, to us as limited humans, God exists as potential. God potentially exists, potentially does supernatural works, and potentially loves us. We choose to believe those things--it's just that we have no proof.

Describing God as latent neither denies God's existence nor undermines God's attributes--it just recognizes that God is not readily evident. It is honest. We can makes claims about God until theology runs out of our ears, but those claims are no more valid than the claims made by atheism. We've all met people who count their lucky stars rather than thank God, people who see emptiness where we see presence. God is not evident, not obviously manifest. Atheists have just as much evidence as we have; they have just as many compelling stories about injustice and chaos as we have stories of providence. God remains a question, a possibility. That is what latency describes.

What does latency mean for faith? It has no new ramifications. If we are to see God it must by faith. If we are to know God it must be by faith. It forces us to look into the depths of uncertainty and acknowledge faith for what it is--a risk. Latency requires honesty and humility. It causes us to respect people with different ideas than our own--there is no way for us to determine (at least in the short term) who is right. It means that we must embrace faith as a personal decision, not as an inevitability. It means that we must strive and struggle with it. Faith is not simple because knowing God is not simple. We are left to work out our faith with fear and trembling in the face of our latent God.

Read my first post on this subject: "Acknowledging a Latent God."

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Origami Theology

I feel like I often have a hard time explaining myself to others who do not share my presuppositions. My thoughts about subjectivity or relativism are quickly written off as liberal and unorthodox. That may be the case, but I am not convinced that I am wrong about them. We live in a society that views the world differently than peoples of the past, so God must be described in a way that makes sense in our current thought framework. Theology is dependent on the people who create it, and because people create it, theology is not absolute.

I was browsing through blogs today and I ran across an entry that really captured (at least in part) the way I understand theology, people, and our relationship to God. The author likens humans to origami created by someone much greater. Here is an excerpt from the entry "Describing God" from

We are that origami-race of men and women who lack ears to hear or brains to understand our Maker. “Oh!” we exclaim. “I have ears!”

Yes, but not the same ears of our Maker. We do not have the mind of our Maker. Everything we hear is with blue-ink ears. Everything we think with our brain was folded and weaved into our being when we were created.

Any conclusion we come up with would be an origami-conclusion; a paper thing readily torn.

And origami-conclusions cannot ever compare to flesh and blood truths.

Origami-conclusions are not the real thing.
They are an effigy. They are symbols of it. They remind us of it.

But they do not describe God. They simply compare Him to us.

I think that analogy is a beautiful way to understand who we are in relation to God, and it puts our attempts at theology in perspective. We will never get it right because our descriptions are confined by our vocabulary and experience. That should not be discouraging; rather, it means that there is infinite room for growth.

From My Theological Journal IX

This is an excerpt from my final entry in a journal I kept last school year. If my posts seem scattered and my thoughts seem incohesive, perhaps this will explain why:

February 18, 2007

... While listening to the sermon, I had an interesting thought: “What would it look like to examine Jesus’ death and resurrection (and the implications for our lives) from numerous perspectives—forgiveness, mercy, justice, reconciliation, etc.?” I don’t like that theologians tend to create whole, thoroughly cohesive theologies, forgetting that the Bible doesn’t always present a thoroughly cohesive message. Perhaps the Bible can speak to us in contrasting, but equally valid and powerful ways about a single subject. Maybe the issue of God’s forgiveness can be drawn out into a very beautiful whole that is different from the beautiful whole theology of mercy. Obviously these ideas will have a great deal of overlap, but they each have different emphases because each of them holds something different as vitally important. Can I find a passage (or few passages) to draw on to develop a theology for each? Will the messages for each subject speak a different word? I believe so. It is something I am very interested in pursuing. We shall see.

Monday, October 29, 2007

From My Theological Journal VIII

The following is an excerpt from a journal I kept during my senior year of college. This entry arose from some of my readings in Brueggemann's The Prophetic Imagination:

Early Morning February 5, 2007

... We are too numb to shiver. Although this is true of American society at large, this is most shameful for Christians. We are too numb to the pain and trouble around us to take any notice, much less to lend a helping hand. But what is this trouble that we continuously overlook? There are the most obvious—social injustices like poverty, racism, inadequate community support, and even things like gay rights—but there are others that are just as important that are not so obvious. These less obvious ones include the misuse of the gospel, the inadequacy of the current church structure, the apathy and severe lack of love in the church, the hatred and fear that are fostered by the church, and unilateralism and intolerance that are rooted in the church. We are so used to these things that we do not even recognize them as problems. In some cases, we actually have appropriated them into the “gospel” and see them as part of “true Christianity.” Our numbness has grown so deep that we fail to react to the troubles on even the most basic of levels. We do not recognize the cold enough even to shiver, much less to build a fire.

I need to take time to explore these issues—both social and religious—so that I can more effectively campaign against them. Brueggemann urges me to imagine how things could be different, how things should look in the future. He calls me to be poetry in the midst of prose, to stand up to the status quo and call it out on its misbehavior—not as an enemy, but as a dear friend. The church is going down in flames and it is my job to talk about the elephant in the room, to help people come to grips with reality, and to move forward to an “alternative consciousness.”

Acknowledging a Latent God

At some point in their lives most Christians must face up to the tension between their faith and experience. No matter how much they believe that God is good and healing and gracious, no matter how vehemently they acknowledge that God is watching over them, their houses still burn down, their wallets get stolen, they lose their jobs and their loved ones die. No amount of piety will improve their luck.

There is a very notable tension between the ever-present God we learn about in church and a God who can be so painfully absent. For many people--even the most devout Christians--God's presence is hardly an active one. Since most of us don't have supernatural experiences on a regular basis, we are left to guess when and how God is involved in our lives. There is no way to say definitively whether God is involved in an experience. We can go ahead and assume (based on our theology) that God's hand is in everything, but then we are forced to deal with a God who creates disasters in addition to miracles. In my experience, even those who assume that God is actively involved in everything often end up having moments of doubt. The truth is that much of the time God can be hard to see. We are forced to deal with a latent God.

latent [leyt-nt] adj.
1. present or potential but not evident or active; existing as potential

As I was studying for the GRE, I ran across the word latent. It was one of those words that I had read many times before, but I had never looked it up in the dictionary. As soon as I read the definition, I thought, "Wow, that's a great description of God." I think it really captures the way many of us experience God. With our hearts we admit that there is a wonderful God, but our experiences suggest differently. When we utter the words "God is love" and "God is in control" we intend to praise God, but it often turns out that we are actually trying to convince ourselves of those facts. Pesky memories of times that God has failed us creep into our heads--thoughts we wish to forget--and suddenly our worship becomes equal parts rejoicing and repression.

Throughout my life I have struggled with the latency of God in a number of different ways. There has always been something in the back of my mind that made me uncomfortable with the confessions I made in church. It wasn't that I didn't believe that Jesus was the Son of God or that God graciously sent Jesus to die for me. It was that I wasn't 100% sure. What made me uncomfortable was that I felt like the confessions weren't completely honest. The words were so definitive and certain, but they didn't completely reflect my thoughts. I believed as much as I could, but I had trouble reconciling the active God of church with the silent God of life.

For a long time I felt like a heretic, but I've come to realize that the latency of God is something everyone must come to terms with. No matter what we say about God, most of the time we are left to live our lives without dramatic interference or intervention. God may show up powerfully on occasion, but most of the time God hangs in the background. The difficulty of living by faith is that much of the time our faith is blind, whether we like it or not.

The beginning of a realistic, humble theology is the acknowledgment of the latency of God. We all live in a world where we need God but where God is not immediately evident. If we are to be taken seriously by the outside world, we must admit that our experience is like theirs--God is not obvious.

Friday, October 26, 2007

From My Theological Journal VII

The following is another entry from an old journal I kept on my computer. This one is a little harsh, but there's no sense in watering it down now:

December 30, 2006

Sometimes I feel like this is the message that Christians give out to the world:

“For Christians so hated the world that they took God’s only Son so that only they might believe in him, and so that the world would perish and that only they would have eternal life.”

Yeah, I know this is pretty pessimistic, but too often I feel that it’s the attitude Christians are perceived to have. There is certainly a lofty sense of exclusivity that many Christians have and they couple that with a super-pious condemnation of everything they see as unclean, creating a deadly combination. And that combination is deadly for Christianity. We are killing the relevance of our faith, our ability to speak faithfully about our God, and our ability to bring him to the world that he so loves. Our piety and judgment, though usually well intended, are out of control—they have become virtuous in and of themselves and are in danger of being divorced from any connection with God. If we were truly connected with God, we would not be so standoffish and condemning—instead, we would exhibit the radically forgiving and accepting love of Jesus Christ. And that is in no way wishy-washy. It is acting as God would have us do. Our mark as believers is our love. But who on the outside would ever construe our hateful, self-righteous behavior as love?

Agnostic Theology

I’m currently in the process of applying to grad school, so I’ve been trying to figure out what I should write about in my statements of purpose. What is it that I want to pursue? What area of study am I passionate about? Where might I make a significant contribution? I’m interested doing some sort of constructive theology with great weight given to theological and social ethics. For me, theology has to be honest and relevant. That means that I’m not really interested in discussing lofty issues like the trinity or soteriology unless those discussions are intimately linked with daily life. Questions about God aren’t that important unless they mean something to us on an intimate level.

As I try to define what it is that I want to pursue, I keep coming back to one phrase: agnostic theology. What I mean by that is working out a humble theology that recognizes our inability to know God completely, where even the surest of statements is never more than a “possibility.” I always have to be willing to admit, no matter how strongly I feel about an issue, that there is a decent chance that I am wrong. There are so many competing ideas about God that it is asinine to claim to be the sole bearer of truth. Every pious person is as sure as the next that he or she has the truth, but there is no way to evaluate the competing claims. Can anyone tell who is more certain? Who can judge whose experience is most legitimate? Maybe there’s some crazy stuff that can be ruled out on the fringes, but by and large it is one claim against another.

So I am forced to pursue agnostic theology—speaking about God with honesty. The word “agnostic” may immediately raise red flags for some, but even the Bible admits that faith is based on incomplete knowledge—faith is being “certain of what we do not see.” My brand of agnostic theology is not meant to be a threat to faith—it is choosing to speak faithfully about God while fully recognizing the uncertainties that are inherent to faith. Because our knowledge of God is doomed to be incomplete, we don’t have to worry about getting everything 100% correct. There is freedom in that. Agnostic theology allows us to move beyond endless debates over the minutiae of metaphysical truth and to step toward discussions about what it means to live as Christians in a world where God is both revealed and disguised.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

From My Theological Journal VI

Once again, here is an entry from the journal that has been trapped in the confines of my hard drive for the last year. This one is probably heretical--maybe I should have kept it on my computer:

November 9, 2006

One thing that troubles me about my own theological thoughts is the way I think about Jesus. As long as I can remember, “Jesus” has bothered me. Not his life or atonement or anything like that—it has just bothered me that people talk about him and to him so much. I’ve always been more comfortable praying to “God” and not Jesus. It makes me uncomfortable when people make reference to Jesus in their everyday speech. I understand that in Christian theology, Jesus plays an important role—he is God. He is the way and the truth and the life, but why just him? More recently, this has been what has troubled me. There are so many people who do not know Jesus and will never know Jesus, but who earnestly seek God through their own cultures and religions. Is their sincerity and piety worthless? Perhaps what is important is recognizing our need for God (which is where Jesus comes in), and regardless of culture it is this recognition (and the resulting lifestyle change) that God is interested in. I am just uncomfortable with Jesus.

Another thing that has been troubling to me is the idea that Jesus is God. I essentially reject the trinity as a definition for God. Why must only those three be “God”—why not the other manifestations of God throughout the Bible? Also, the definition of God is too neatly defined. How do we know who begot whom and what substance each has? The Bible is not that explicit about any of it. And what good does the idea of the trinity do, anyway? Historically, it was used to fend off heresy, but I’m not sure that coming up with a human definition of God is a very good idea…. This was verified to me when my theology professor admitted that the idea of the trinity is essentially a hedge around the truth about God, and it is not the truth itself. To bring this back to Jesus, my professor in Johannine Writings has reaffirmed my thinking by showing us that Jesus is not necessarily understood as God anywhere in Johannine literature (or anywhere else in the New Testament). Yes, Jesus was divine, but his exact metaphysical relation to the Father is not laid out. What is his nature? How is he human and divine? The Bible doesn’t say, and early Christians didn’t know. Exactly how it works is not clear, so it should be okay if it is unclear for me….

But I am still left with the difficulty I have with Jesus. I don’t know what I think, but I know that I tend to avoid him, except when it comes to atonement. And that is unfair—I can’t pick and choose when I want Jesus and when I don’t. I just don’t know what to think. I am interested to see what Bonhoeffer does with Jesus (especially in the LLP). It makes me uncomfortable that Barth and Bonhoeffer are so Christologically focused, but maybe they can show me how to reconcile Jesus, God, and the real world I live in.

From My Theological Journal V

Here's another entry from the journal that I kept last year:

November 6, 2006

Earlier today I picked up a Bible and flipped open to 1 Corinthians 7:11 (a passage that Kierkegaard mistakenly refers to in his notes on Problema II in Fear and Trembling). It is in the section discussing divorce—that couples shouldn’t divorce, but if they do they should remain unmarried or else be reconciled to one another. And it got me thinking about how the church handles situations like divorce. Many times I’ve heard of pastors not being allowed to minister at certain churches because they were divorced or remarried, and I always find that ridiculous. Just because the pastor has gotten a divorce and has remarried (which Paul says not to do), that doesn’t mean that he is unfit for service. Perhaps it is fair to call that act wrong, but once it is done it is done. What does the church expect him to do? Divorce his new wife, too? Of course not. Perhaps he made a mistake in getting divorce or in getting remarried, but that does not disqualify him from service any more than the fact that at some point in his life he has lied.

Here’s the point that I’m getting at—too often we (the church) dwell on past sins and talk all about what we should have done, instead of dealing with the situation at hand and moving forward. We need to deal with the present reality, not past possibilities. Even Paul acknowledges this in the section on divorce. He gives the command that a wife should not separate from her husband, but in the next verse he deals with the reality of divorce saying, “But if she does, she must remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband.” I believe Paul would also have taken the next step—the woman should not remarry, but if she does she should strengthen that marriage and make it holy and pleasing to God.

The truth is there are a lot of things that we shouldn’t do but that we, in our infinite wisdom, go ahead and do anyway. Why? Because we’re stupid and sinful. But once we have made the mistake, there often is no going back, so we should move on and work with the situation at hand. It does no one any good to sit around and point out each others’ past errors at length (of course some accountability is both humbling and needed)—we need to work with the present reality. Sure, perhaps the pastor should not have been divorced and remarried, but if he is called by God to minister, let him minister. I have lied and cheated and stolen and hated and lusted—and that makes me a sinner—but that does not disqualify me from the service of God. Sin is a reality that we must deal with. We can’t engage the world if all we can do is talk about how people should have made better choices, letting them know what a tragedy their life is. Neither we nor they can change what they’ve done, so let’s talk about the future! Sure, we must understand the past, but dwelling on it does not promote growth or healing. Let’s move on, let bygones be bygones because that is exactly what God has done for us (see Psalm 103).

From My Theological Journal IV

This is an entry in a journal I kept during the fall of my senior year in college. However incomplete and deficient it may be, hopefully it is at least interesting:

Early morning November 4, 2006

I was just reading an article on about a pastor who invited his neighbors to church on Easter. Many of them came and as he stood to preach he realized what an odd feeling it was to preach to the people with whom he hung out with on a regular basis in a normal, egalitarian way. He made a few comments about how the time he spends with them in the neighborhood is just as important as having them come to church. This made me start thinking about my experiences bringing my friends to church. And I was shocked by the first thing that popped into my head—I was always embarrassed to have them come.

It’s not that I was embarrassed of my faith or of the fact that I went to church, but the experience was so awkward. Because it was always new to them I was always explaining things to them and letting them know what they should expect and what to do in different circumstances. That is to be expected, but there was more than that…. The problem was that I was always embarrassed about something. Inevitably someone would say something or do something that I would feel the need to apologize for or explain away. The preacher would always make some off-color comment or the worship team would play bad songs or the one person that I did not want my friend to have meet would be waiting for me in the parking lot. And it’s not just that one thing went wrong—it was always a disaster of a Sunday. Sure, you say, it was Murphy’s Law in action. The problem is that I don’t think that it was a fluke. It wasn’t just that one Sunday that was terrible—most Sundays were terrible and would have been embarrassing if I had had a friend with me.

I guess what I’m saying is that for most of my life I’ve found church irrelevant and old fashioned. And it’s not like I went to a conservative, backwater church either—no, the churches I’ve attended have always been decently progressive. They always utilized technology, were up on recent trends, and did their best to be relevant and seeker-sensitive. My next thought is obviously influenced heavily by Bonhoeffer, but I’m starting to be afraid that it’s the truth. The reason church seemed irrelevant is because it was. The way that we conduct church (whether we realize it or not) is based on the assumption that most people are religious or would be religious given the chance. The liturgical church service that brings people together in a building where they are led in singing and are preached at first came into existence once Christianity became the status quo. It wasn’t until Christianity was common and even assumed that we had “church” as we now describe it. And it was a decent model for hundreds and hundreds of years—until sometime around the twentieth century.

As society became increasingly secular during the twentieth century, it became more acceptable not to attend church or be religious. It was in the 1970s with the seeker-sensitive movement that the church first began to realize that it was being detached from society. All of the sudden, the church had to pull itself together and pay attention to what the culture was saying and doing—all of the sudden, the church was forced to compete with the culture. Unfortunately, as society has been becoming more and more secular, the church has been straining to make the old model fit something it wasn’t made to fit. It is not the church’s fault that the current model isn’t working—it wasn’t designed for this.

The underlying assumption of the current church model is something similar to what Bonhoeffer calls the “religious a priori” of humanity—I’ll call it the Christian a priori. The current model functions best when it is built-in as a part of society. It works best when it doesn’t have to fight for people’s attention, when people attend because they are already Christians. The current model was not made for evangelism—why would a non-Christian show up at a gathering that is meant for and directed at Christians? It is intended to edify and to grow up Christians, and it functions best in this way.

The current church model is based on the Christian a priori because that is how Western society has been for hundreds of years. Everyone was Christian in the Christian society, but that no longer holds true. For many years now, society has been loosening its grip on the Christian a priori and is in the process of letting go altogether. Meanwhile the church is still functioning under the Christian a priori model where people come to church and meet with God there. Eventually, this model will fail completely. What is difficult, though, is that the church feels that abandoning the current model is a form of compromise—as if altering the model is giving in to the culture.

The truth is, however, that church has not always looked the way it does now. It did not always function under the Christian a priori. There was a day when individual churches were just small gatherings in homes. Church was personal. It didn’t compete with the culture to try to be relevant—it was relevant because it was an intimate part of people’s lives. It didn’t consist of a building and a worship team and senior pastor. Church was not a building or a time of gathering—church was the group of people itself. Church did not occur only at a specific time and place. The people themselves were the church—when they went to work, when they went shopping, when they were sleeping, when they were eating. The underlying assumption for the structure of the church was that the people of the church needed God and they needed each other—and church was how both needs were met. Church was relationships. The web of believers who shared their lives together were the church. It was all about sharing—sharing Christ, food, trials, excitement, pity, drinks, time. In this model, bringing someone to church is easy—it is just introducing someone to your friends and family. This model of church assumes nothing about anyone’s beliefs—it just acknowledges everyone’s needs.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

From My Theological Journal III

Here is another entry from a journal I kept on my computer last year:

November 2, 2006

Right now I should be writing my paper for Johannine Writings, but I need a break. While I was in the bathroom, I had a thought (who knows how many great ideas throughout history have occurred in the bathroom?). I see a problem with the way contemporary Christian thought is proceeding. We are right in doing theology in the context of the church and for the sake of the church, but I’m not sure we are completely on target. We tend to focus on ecclesiology (which is good considering the contemporary church is in a state of crisis), but what I see an over-abundance of is ecclesiology supported by theology. Instead, it seems like we should be doing theology that results in ecclesiology. I know that the difference between the two is minute (and that perhaps there may be no difference at all), but I feel like we should be doing things differently.

After all, the contemporary church is great at defining itself in terms of being traditional, restorational, purpose-driven, missional, seeker-sensitive, organic, emerging, and countless other things, but we severely lack an understanding of who God is and especially of how God relates to our contemporary, post-modern, secular world. I have to wonder if we could come to a deep understanding of who God is and how he relates to us and then use that understanding as the basis for our ecclesiology. Instead of worrying so much about how to make the church relevant to society, I feel like we should come to a better understanding of how God relates to us (Christian and non-Christian alike). In the current emerging church movement, we seem to be trying to understand God in terms of our society (“What does a post-modern God look like?”). Doesn’t it make just as much (if not more) sense to try to understand our society in terms of God? To be honest, I have no idea what this looks like or how it could be done, but I have an inclination that focusing on God more than the methodology or circumstance is important….
* * * *

I just ran across a scrap of paper that I jotted two things down on a couple of weeks ago. They pertain to Bonhoeffer’s Letters and Papers from Prison, with which I am still becoming acquainted:

“Risk making faith/theology subject to no authority/guidelines: all within oneself”

“[His writings are] Encouraging because I realize that my uncertainty is not only acceptable, but perhaps good. I’ve been swamped down by the feeling of needing to heed to evangelical orthodoxy. Things are figured out for me … but what if I don’t agree?”

From My Theological Journal II

The following is the next entry from a journal I kept on my computer last year. Please keep in mind that these entries are questions and possibilities not conclusions:

Early morning October 30, 2006

Last Monday night I was up late completing a take-home test for Existentialism. Before I answered the final question on the test, I went into the chapel to think. I had to sort through Kierkegaard’s ideas in Fear and Trembling and try to apply them to real life Christianity. I was pacing around the chapel, talking out loud, frustrated because of my spastic thoughts. As I walked down the center aisle and neared the front, I was distracted by the altar. It was just a simple, blond table placed at the back of the small stage—and it was empty. I started thinking about the symbolism of that table, how in the days of the temple it was on the altar that animals were sacrificed to atone for our sins. It seemed funny to me that the altar had been transformed from a large, bloody stone structure to a simple table inside a chapel. But it makes sense theologically. The altar (like the cross) is there to remind us that our sins have been paid for already and are constantly being paid for. Jesus’ sacrifice was for all time. The altar and the cross are to remind us of Jesus’ enduring sacrifice, but they are free from a bloody victim (in the case of the protestant church) because he has been resurrected and is no longer dead. But then I had a horrible thought—what if it were just like the Emperor’s New Clothes? It is totally possible that some kid will stand up in the back row of the church and start laughing at us and point, saying, “The altar is empty! Don’t be silly! And there’s nothing on that cross at all!” What if everything we have been told by our preachers and teachers is a lie? What if they are just as deceived as the rest of us and there is nothing there? Perhaps we are all wrong. Perhaps we are seeing something where there is nothing. Perhaps, to our embarrassment, the emperor is naked.

From My Theological Journal I

During the first semester of my senior year at Pepperdine (last fall) I began recording some of my thoughts about God, church, etc. on my computer. Over the next while I will be posting those entries here:

Early morning October 17, 2006

Relativism. Somehow this thing, relativism, has become the enemy of the modern church. Our leaders see it as an evil, as evidence of the moral decline of society. It is what is wrong with our world, it is what has ruined it. Relativism is the cause of the evil that we see today—if only we could return to the days when everyone knew God as king and Jesus as savior. Except that what our leaders forget is that there never was such a time. Before relativism it was modernity. Before modernity it was enlightenment. Before that it was humanism and mysticism and superstition and paganism. There never was a perfect time, a golden age of Christianity. Relativism is not the evil that is bound to eat up all of Christianity—it is the contemporary culture within which we must make Christianity understandable.

In our increasingly relativistic society the absolutes which the church holds to are being laughed at and rejected and beaten down. People find silly the notion that some antiquated institution might hold the wholeness of truth, even if science and reason suggest otherwise. Why would someone join this silly antiquated church and be forced to say certain prayers, kneel a certain way, have absolutes shoved down their throat in a take-it-or-leave-it fashion, when she can just as easily go to Starbucks, give a small tip to the hard-working barista, have a good conversation, all while enjoying her tall half-caf caramel macchiato with fresh whipped cream? After all, Starbucks lends her status, a chance to be benevolent, a place to socialize, an interesting thought or two and something that she can’t get at most churches—a cup of gourmet coffee made just how she likes it.

The church has lost its relevance to our culture. It talks about morality and family values that are set in stone and any differing idea is heresy. It gives warm, empty welcomes followed by a hailstorm of brimstone and a firm warning against all the liberals. And above all, the church is sure to remind you that it is the truth. The church sees itself as the cure for relativism, but I can pretty well guarantee that a relativistic, post-modern culture is not going to be won over by a clunky institution declaring that it is absolutely right and absolutely better.

The church is faced with a dilemma—it can either hold onto dogma and a false sense of control while it dies off along with its few remaining members, or it can embrace honesty, humbly reexamining its identity, at the risk of being vulnerably authentic.

The problem with the current state of the church is that it has sacrificed honesty for the sake of a sense of control. With dogma and firmly placed absolutes, the church retains a vestige of the power it once possessed because at least it can still definitively and haughtily point out where others stumble. Dogma lends the church a sense of stability and even of self-righteousness because it knows with absolute certainty that it is holding firmly to the truth. But, sadly, it has ceased to be honest with itself and with the world. It has forgotten the virtues of reflection and self-evaluation. It has forgotten that it is made up not of angels but of sinners—it has forgotten that it has the potential to be wrong.

To be relevant to the culture, we must live in the culture and engage its questions. We must be willing to admit that, as humans, we cannot be absolutely certain that we are right. We must acknowledge that Christians do not have a superior degree of understanding or perception, but that we all have the same starting point. We are no better, no smarter, no more holy than anyone else. If we are willing to admit that we are fallible, we can finally begin to converse with a culture that can’t stand philosophical arrogance. And if we can begin the conversation, we can find ourselves again and we can find a new relevance.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007


When I was in high school I had a friend who was an Egyptian Orthodox Christian. One day between classes I noticed that she had a fuzzy diamond shaped tattoo on the inside of her right wrist. When I asked her about it, she let me take a closer look. It was a small, symmetrical cross that she received at her confirmation. The tattoo marked her forever as a Christian, a symbol of faith and solidarity.

A few years later I met a man named Ina while I was traveling in Egypt. He was small shop owner who had been run out of town and out of business multiple times because he was Christian. He showed me his small cross tattoo with a mix of pride and fear. The mark on his wrist gave him his identity—one which he could not deny.

Because of these two individuals and our shared spiritual commitment, I went down to the tattoo parlor to receive a mark of my own. Although less ceremonious than a confirmation, sitting in that sterile room I made a physical commitment that represents the spiritual commitment I had made many years prior.

In recent years, my thoughts on faith and religion have become increasingly complex. I underwent a dark period of deconstruction, questioning and rejecting many ideas from my childhood. I prayed and cried and stopped praying and stopped crying. Things that had once been essential and beloved were no longer attractive. But all the while, I was marked by that little cross.

Now it is time for me to reconstruct what has been torn down. This will not be simple and it may not be pretty, but it is necessary. I am establishing this blog in order to chronicle my intellectual and spiritual journey in the years to come. Please understand that these musings will be grossly unrefined and perpetually unfinished. You may think me a sinner, you may think me a heretic, but please remember that I strive to be a Christian.