Faithless Fears

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I’ve watched friends go down dark corridors of fear and suspicion. You likely know people like this as well. I don’t need to talk about the issues and have no interest in the arguments. I’ve seen them all. And weighed them, as likely you have. I wonder, though, why some go down these dark corridors.

I’ve been thinking about the fear and suspicion that seems to run through many narratives. Now, I don’t absolutely dismiss fear and suspicion. Every time I open email or hear the phone ring, I exercise a certain amount of suspicion. When someone asks me to “verify” my account I am suspicious. When someone calls demanding payment for a tax bill via a gift card, I’m suspicious. While I am not afraid to die, I have a healthy respect for COVID, having known friends who died or got very sick from the virus. Insofar as I can avoid it, I don’t want to find out which side of the probabilities I would end up on.

Andy Crouch, in a book called Culture-Making makes a distinction between gestures and postures. Gestures are situationally determined. Postures are hardened, fixed ways of carrying ourselves. In a fallen world, suspicion and fear are warranted gestures in particular situations. Being suspicious of a telemarketer makes sense. Being suspicious of friends and associates, people of a certain descent or political affiliation, just because of that origin or affiliation suggests a gesture becoming a posture.

Some signs of a fearful or suspicious outlook becoming a posture:

  • You spend significant amounts of your time online surfing websites providing information confirming your suspicions. Then you re-post them to your “friends.”
  • You have limited your news sources in the same way, dismissing any differing accounts, no matter the reputability of the news organization as “fake.”
  • Your conversations have increasingly focused on the things about which you are suspicious.
  • You notice that many of your friends, apart from those sharing the same suspicions, are avoiding you or try to get out of conversations with you as soon as they can.

Some of us by disposition or life experience may be more prone to hardening into postures of fear and suspicion. Perhaps the best thing we might do is suspect ourselves more and others less in these cases. And get help!

The truth is we were not made for this. We were made for love and trust, and fear and suspicion are a distortion, a twisting of the good intent of God. In the Genesis account God places the man and woman in a garden that provides for their every need. Amid all this abundance, God has forbidden eating from a single tree. Why would God do this? Most theologians think that this one prohibition made loving and trusting God a choice, and thus meaningful. If there were no other choice but to love and trust God, what would these words mean?

It is this trust that the serpent attacked (by the way, never trust a talking serpent!). The serpent asks, “Did God really say, ‘You must not eat from any tree in the garden’?” What’s going on here? In addition to distorting the truth (it was one tree, not any tree) the serpent’s question is designed to cast doubt on God, to undermine trust, and ultimately their relation of love. It insinuates the suspicion that God is not really good, and not to be trusted. Then the serpent says, “For God knows that when you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” This deepens the suspicion. God is holding them back. Even though they already are in the image of God, the serpent suggests God doesn’t want them to be like him.

What it comes down to is that God made us to love and trust and enjoy God forever–and each other. When the couple give in to their suspicions, it goes wrong all around. Suspicion is not of God. We were made to live in a posture of love and trust. The apostle Paul extends this to our relationships with each other: “Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth” (1 Corinthians 13:6). This does not mean in a fallen world that we close our eyes to evil. But our default is a focus on truth rather than one on evil. John the apostle speaks about how “perfect love drives out fear” (I John 4:18). For lovers of God and followers of Christ, our default posture is one of love and trust, not fear and suspicion.

This does not mean people will not betray our trust. Even Jesus was betrayed. But his last act with Judas was to offer him food, a mark of honor and affection. Far more often, I find that when we believe the best of others, many try to live up to that belief. Flowing from this, those whose narrative is one of fear and suspicion send up red flags for me, no matter what they are purporting. I’m not going to live that way. That’s not what we’re made for.

The title for this post comes from a phrase in a prayer in the Anglican Book of Common Prayer (2019):

FOR TRUSTFULNESS IN TIMES OF WORRY AND ANXIETY

Most loving Father, you will us to give thanks for all things, to dread nothing but the loss of you, and to cast all our care on the One who cares for us. Preserve us from faithless fears and worldly anxieties, and grant that no clouds of this mortal life may hide from us the light of that love which is immortal, and which you have manifested unto us in your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

This is where I want to live, as long as I live, in the place of “trustfulness,” “in the light of that love which is immortal.”


Review: Paul and the Language of Faith

Paul and the Language of faith

Paul and the Language of Faith, Nijay K, Gupta (Foreword by James D. G. Dunn). Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2020.

Summary: A study of the word pistis, often translated as “faith” as used in the writings of Paul, the rest of scripture, as well as in literature contemporary to the time, showing the rich nuances of meaning that must be determined by context.

In recent Pauline scholarship, perhaps no matter has been discussed more than how pistis, the word most often translated as “faith” might be understood. Underlying this are concerns of faith versus works, our understand of the continuity and distinction between Old Covenant and New, the place of human agency, and divine providence in our salvation, and epitomizing all of this, how one translates the Pauline phrase pistis Christou. Traditionally this has been translated “faith in Christ” but equally, it could be translated “the faithfulness of Christ,” depending on one’s interpretation of the genitive form of Christou.

Nijay K. Gupta takes a different slant on this discussion. He focuses in closely on the usages of the word pistis in both biblical texts and literature roughly contemporary to it. In so doing, he helps us to see that it is a word rich in meaning, variously reflecting ideas of trust, faithfulness, doctrinal beliefs, loyalty, and more, and that its meaning must be understood contextually, keeping all these valences of meaning in mind.

After laying out the issues he will deal with and his approach, Gupta surveys the scholarly understanding of “faith” in Paul from early and medieval times, through the Reformation, and into the modern era. Then he looks back to Jewish and non-Jewish writings, and shows that these also used the word, and that Paul did not write in a vacuum. He considers the gospels, which were still in oral tradition or beginning to be written and not likely accessible to Paul. In these he finds usages that reflect seeking, believing, trusting, and obeying. While faith looks to the efficacy of Jesus’ acts, it is not passive, but often acts on what is believed to be true.

The remainder of the book (chapter 5 onward) is devoted primarily to the Pauline corpus. Here, likewise, Gupta shows that pistis manifests in a variety of closely related nuances. In 1 Thessalonians and Philippians, the emphasis is on a faith(fulness) in adversity, in persecution and in imprisonment. Gupta also parallels Paul’s teaching to that of the letters to the churches in Revelation. In 1 Corinthians, Gupta shows that “Faith is recognition of and a living into a poverty of self-generated, self-reliant knowledge and wisdom. It is a clinging to the ‘strange wisdom’ of God in Christ Jesus.” In 2 Corinthians, faith looks not at material forms or idols but believes and lives into unseen realities, in this case a believing faith.

In his treatment of Galatians, Gupta explores the question of agency. In dealing with the question of faith and works, Gupta moves beyond the New Perspective’s Covenantal Nomism, which involves faith and the obligations of faith under the covenant, to what he calls Covenantal Pistism, where the focus is on the covenantal relationship with Christ, and the centrality of his mediatorial work, where faith is living “in Christ.” He then turns to the faith language of Romans 1:16-17, and argues for this reflecting the idea of trusting faithfulness that commits one’s life and existence to God.

Gupta engages, rather briefly, in a discussion of pistis Christou in light of his prior development of the idea of pistis. So often, this discussion runs along either-or categories of human faith, almost as a work, or the initiative of the faithfulness of Christ. He opts for a third way of understanding pistis Christou as participation in the faithfulness of Christ by a relationship of utter trust in Christ’s saving work. The translation shorthand for this, somewhat awkward, is “Christ-relation(ship).”

His final chapter then is one of synthesis, weaving together his ideas of faith as trust, belief, and faithfulness and his ideas of Christ-relation. This statement about human agency near the end seemed to me to capture the various strands of this study:

   I don’t want to belabor the point, but this retrospective discussion of the divine-human agency question, with special interest in faith language, can help to reconceive of the matter as more than a formula (what amount of divine or human contribution equals salvation?) This is a non-starter for Paul. Christ is all in all!, he would say. But we cannot discount the way πιστις functions for Paul anthropologically, epistemologically, and socially as the way believers relate to God through the Christ-relation, which is necessarily thoughtful and participatory (socially, volitionally, existentially, etc).

Gupta offers us a valuable work that moves us beyond the either-or discussions of faith and faithfulness, of sovereign grace and human agency in Paul to one that both magnifies the faithfulness of Christ and the all-embracing life of faith in relation to Christ who has acted efficaciously on our behalf on the cross. He points the way to the richness of faith in Christ, not merely affirming doctrines, or praying prayers but a life of devoted loyalty and trust in all things, because of the surpassing great work of the Faithful One.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Live the Questions

Live the Questions

Live the Questions, Jeffrey F. Keuss. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2019.

Summary: Proposes that a deep and satisfying life is closely related to the questions we ask, how we pursue them, and to whom they lead us.

It is sometimes thought that Christians are those who have found answers, perhaps the answer and that strong faith is characterized by a sense of certainty. To have questions, or even worse, doubts, is thought to reflect a lack of faith, or to be on the road to leaving one’s faith behind. We often err in one of two ways: we either anesthetize ourselves to the questions, or we take shortcuts, accepting textbook answers without facing what the questions expose about us, and about the ultimate we seek beyond the questions.

Jeffrey F. Keuss believes that the questions we ask may be more important than the answers we think we have found. He writes, “I hope you find that to be human is to ask more and more questions, and that deep meaning is found in the journey and pursuit of where and to whom those questions will bring us.” He proposes that we live the questions rather than just ask for the answers.

Keuss takes us a step further. He proposes not only that we live our questions but to consider the questions that fill the pages of scripture and that shape and form the lives of those who people its pages. He explores eight such questions:

  1. Where are you? (with Adam and Eve)
  2. Am I my brother’s keeper? (Cain)
  3. How will I know ? (Abraham)
  4. Who am I? (with Moses at the burning bush)
  5. Why this burden? (Moses, under the burdens of leadership)
  6. How can I just vanish in darkness? (Job)
  7. How can I be born after growing old? (Nicodemus)
  8. Where can I get that living water? (the Samaritan woman)

We are faced with how we will respond to the God who pursues those who are estranged from Him. We encounter the irony of a God whose mark on Cain makes God the keeper of a brother who murdered. We discover a God whose answer to Abraham is to take him out of his tent to the stars in the heavens, a God who delights in Abraham’s probing honesty, and whose answer is far more than Abraham could dream asleep in his tent.

In each chapter, Keuss probes the question asked, whether by God or people and how these questions brought these people into deeper contact both with their own humanity and the living God. Along the ways he references everything from Kierkegaard to Steve Martin.

Perhaps one of the most moving stories he relates is from his time as a young minister in Glasgow, visiting a comatose, unresponsive patient with whom he read scripture, prayed and spent thirty minutes just being there, doing all he was supposed to do, and feeling utterly futile. Later he receives a small bequest from the family that he is ashamed to use, until a colleague counsels, “This check isn’t about you, Jeff….This is about paying it forward beyond you. For some reason what you did was more than you or your intentions, so you need to honor that somehow in his name.” And he did by buying a pair of black Dr. Martens boots that he wore wherever he ministered “reminding [him] to have faith, to show up, and be ready for the unexpected.”

Keuss invites us in this book to listen to our questions, and the questions of the scriptures. He urges us that a healthy process takes us into relationships, and not isolation, and that questions and a life of faith and worship in community need not be at odds. He invites us not merely to discuss questions but to live in them, to walk in them, and rather than simply looking for answers, to allow the questions to take us deeper into the mystery and wonder of God.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Faith in the Shadows

Faith in the Shadows

Faith in the ShadowsAustin Fischer (Foreword by Brian Zahnd). Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2018.

Summary: Explores how one may live a life of faith in Christ in the midst of doubts and questions.

Austin Fischer was a pastor who struggled with doubts and feared they might lead him to abandon his faith. Then he came to this pivotal realization:

“People don’t abandon faith because they have doubts. People abandon faith because they think they’re not allowed to have doubts.”

In this book, Fischer explores how it is possible to be a Christian for whom doubt is the path to a deeper and more honest faith. He begins with the mistaken notion that faith requires certainty, and the misbegotten quests for the proof that answers every question and defenses of hyper-literal readings of the Bible. So many who go down that road leave the faith when certainty fails them. Instead, Fischer invites us to be “ants on a rollercoaster” who throw up their hands “in equal portions of terror, bliss, and surrender.”

He observes how Job teaches us to doubt by telling God the truth about our doubts. In the end, he was commended by God as speaking rightly of him. Fischer writes of evil, not as a problem, but as a crisis, and of a God who is there on the gallows who fights back against evil. He writes of Jesus who forgives sin, heals disease, casts out evil, and conquers death. Rather than starting from sovereignty and the glory of God that makes evil a problem, he begins from the freedom God gives and the love of God, that bids us resist evil. He explores the times when God is silent, and offers no easy answers but simply waiting, with the hope that Christ waits with us.

He then turns to a trenchant critique of fundamentalism, drawing heavily on Mark Noll’s work in The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind about the intellectual retrenchment and rigid ways of reading scripture that developed. He argues this simply gave people more ways to lose their faith. He explores the challenges science has posed, particularly when it dismisses the idea of God, moving from a method to a metaphysic. He argues that the real place where people often have the most problem is with stuff–affluence that gives us the luxury to consider God superfluous, in a way rare among the poor.

He deals with hell, in which he agrees with a congregant that he believes in hell, but is not happy with it. He explores the idea that the love of God is wrath to those who hate God and heaven is hell to them. Paraphrasing Barth, he claims that “anyone who does not hope for universal restoration is an ox, but anyone who teaches it is an ass.” Ultimately, Fischer argues for the priority of the way of love in dealing with our doubts, that our love for the beauty of Jesus means “we would rather be wrong about him than right about anything else” and living in curious wonder rather than certainty.

There is so much that seems right about this book (perhaps because Fischer agrees with my own way of thinking in so many ways!). Working among graduate students and faculty, I’m surprised how many that are resistant to Christian faith came from very fundamentalist backgrounds and concluded that because they could not attain the certainty required, that they could not be Christians. I’ve witnessed the incredible relief of students when it was affirmed to them that they could doubt and still be Christians and that doubt didn’t preclude faith, especially when one believed enough to voice one’s doubts to God. I also prefer the approaches of resisting evil to debating it as a problem, and proclaiming the gospel rather than speculating whether all will be saved in the end.

Most of all, I loved the insight that faith is not the absence of doubt but the presence of love. It tracks with my own experience of watching doubting folks remain in community, continuing to care for each other, continuing to learn with each other from scripture, praying with and for each other, and moving to a deeper place of faith.

This book is classified as an apologetics book. It is, but not the sort you would expect. It doesn’t give answers that “demand a verdict” even though it explores some of the toughest questions Christians face. It offers instead reasons for hope in Christ in the midst of a messy world, and ways to live one’s faith when God is silent and doubts impose. For most of us, this may be the most necessary apologetic of all.

Review: Travel

Travel

Travel: In Tandem with God’s HeartPeter Grier. London: Inter-Varsity Press (UK), 2018.

Summary: A travelogue with a difference, exploring travel from a Christian perspective and how God may work in and through our lives as we travel.

Never has travel to anywhere in the globe been so readily available. In conversations with graduate students, it is not uncommon to hear of people traveling to southeast Asia, central Africa, central or South America, the South Pacific, you name it. Nor is it at all unusual to encounter travelers from all these countries in one’s own. Students and young adults, often unencumbered with jobs and families and able to travel cheaply without concerns for amenities often make the most of these years. What nearly all will tell you is that travel changes you–exposes you to incredible beauties, diverse cultures, and underneath, our common humanity.

What Peter Grier has done in this book is share something of his own travelogue, and how he has reflected as a Christian on his travels, and indeed the role of travel in the Christian narrative. He explores the goodness of travel and the goodness of God’s world while recounting travels to the Arctic Circle.  Alongside travels to China, he reflects on life “east of Eden”–our finite and broken humanity, how we also are “beautiful ruins.” Negotiations in a Middle East market lead to discussions of the difference between honor/shame and innocence/guilt cultures and help us see how the biblical story speaks to people from both. A pair of chapters look at travels in the Old Testament, where people experienced the faithfulness of God, and the New Testament, where travel was connected to the mission of God. A risky journey to Columbia prompts reflections on dying into the Jesus life. The final chapter thinks about the better destination for which we are destined, the identity as one of God’s beloved that this implies, and the freedom to enjoy travel, or not, without wanderlust or a drivenness for experience.

The mix of travel stories, reflections, and biblical reflections help the reader connect to their own travel experiences and musings about life. Each chapter ends with some reflection questions and a prayer that is worth the price of admission. The book lives well in a tension between the goodness of travel and our desire for home and community and nurtures a contentment whether we may travel or not. It helps us listen for God’s invitations in our travel.

The book includes two helpful appendices with travel tips. The first deals with ethical questions like money, photography, environmental sustainability and culture. The second is simply a list of top ten travel tips with everything from a packing list to the encouragements to find out and join in on what God is doing locally at your destination. He also provides a helpful bibliography of recommended reading.

Are you a travel lover? Thinking of some summer or gap year travel? Get this along with whatever travel guides you are buying. Sometimes we leave our faith journey behind when we travel. Peter’s book suggests how both our faith and our travel may be immeasurably enriched when one puts the two together. 

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: The Search for God and Guinness

god and guinness

The Search for God and GuinnessStephen Mansfield. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2014.

Summary: A history of beer, of the Guinness family and the history of Guinness from its beginnings, and the faith that that motivated the social goods pursued by many of the family members who led the company, and others in the family line.

Unlike the author, who came from a family of teetotalers, I came from a family that enjoyed a good beer in moderation. Most of the beers I grew up with were American beers and often my response to them was “meh.” It wasn’t until recent years that I discovered Guinness, and concluded, that this is what I’ve always thought beer should taste like.

So my curiosity was piqued when I came across this book in a second-hand store. I happen to love God and like Guinness and so I wanted to see how these two went together. Along the way, Stephen Mansfield took me on a delightful journey on the history of beer, including the long line of saints who enjoyed a good brew including the Pilgrims, Saints Patrick, Bartholomew, Brigid, and Columbanus, Charlemagne, Martin Luther, John Calvin and John Wesley. He traces the origins of beer, the science of brewing, and the different types of beer. A fascinating side note of this history is how beer provided a much more temperate alternative to the gin palaces and other forms of hard liquor that spelled the ruin of many.

Mansfield traces the beginning of the Guinness brewery with Arthur Guinness’s purchase in 1759 of a derelict brewery at St. James Gate, Dublin, including his bold move to increase the size of pipes carrying water from the River Liffey to his brewery and “defend it by force of arms.” Guinness had learned the art of brewing from his father, brewing small amounts for an inn, and starting a small brewing operation before taking over the derelict brewery in Dublin. Influenced by George Whitfield, he used profits from his growing brewery to fund the growing Sunday School movement.

From these promising beginnings, Mansfield traces the growth of the Guinness brewery through the generations, and the good family leadership it enjoyed in each generation. There was the key decision to focus on stout and improvements in the scientific brewing of that stout, the transport and storage of the product that provided consistent high quality wherever it was served in the world, and in the twentieth century, the advertising campaigns that made the brand ever-more popular. Among those working on these campaigns was Dorothy L. Sayers.

Most striking in this narrative is the care the company showed toward its workers, providing medical care for employees, families and even widows, housing, and superior wages (as well as a couple free pints a day of stout). During wars they guaranteed the jobs of servicemen, and paid families half salaries while their men were in service. In many respects, including employee education programs, their policies exceeded today’s most progressive companies.

The other intriguing aspect of this book is that while many of the leaders of the brewery were Christians who employed their wealth and position not only to benefit their workers but wider Dublin society, there was also a branch of the family, the Grattan Guinnesses marked for their pursuit of ministry and world missions activity. Mansfield gives us a thumbnail biography of Henry Grattan Guinness, an evangelist who was easily the equal of D. L. Moody. Mansfield notes that the definitive biography of this man remains to be written.

In more recent years, the company diversified and passed from Guinness family leadership and experienced some scandals. Mansfield doesn’t focus much attention on this and handles lightly any problems in the history of the family. He does imply that the long focus on brewing stout was a strength of the company that was lost as they diversified. The emphasis throughout is on the growth of the company, and the positive contributions made by this family, and the influence their faith played in the good works accomplished through their wealth and influence. So I would treat this account as entertaining and informative but not definitive history.

The book concludes with an epilogue that summarizes “the Guinness Way” in five principles:

  1. Discern the ways of God for life and business.
  2. Think in terms of generations yet to come.
  3. Whatever else you do, do at least one thing very well.
  4. Master the facts before you act.
  5. Invest in those you would have invest in you.

This suggests another value of this book, as an example of a business that does well by doing good along several key dimensions from its spiritual compass, to thinking beyond the next quarter, to having a laser focus, quality strategic planning, and respecting the dignity of workers, investors, and customers. While technologies and markets change, it might well be argued that these basics do not, but may be more crucial than ever.

Thinking and Believing

Caravaggio_-_The_Incredulity_of_Saint_Thomas

The Incredulity of St. Thomas by Caravaggio. Public Domain

I help people discover how it is possible to both think and believe.

This is often what I say when people ask me what I do. I work in a Christian collegiate ministry with graduate students and university faculty. I say this because it is not obvious either inside the church or inside the university that one person may do both.

In the university world, it is often thought that if one is serious about thinking, that this rules out believing. One study, by sociologist Elaine Ecklund, found that only 36 percent of university professors still claim some form of belief in God whereas 90 percent of the American public does. Sometimes this has to do with the perceived conflict between science and faith, most often due to the evolution wars in this country. Yet there are leading biologists like Francis Collins, who led the effort to map the human genome, for whom this has never been a problem. Sometimes this is a consequence of what I call, “stupid things done in Jesus name.” For some, the wounds they have experienced at the hands of Christians are serious. And sometimes, I’ve met people who simply do not want there to be a God.

I also find that some really do not think authentic faith has room for authentic questions. And yet questions are at the heart of what a university does. Jesus loved questions. He loved it when his disciples asked him questions. And he probably asked more questions than anyone in the New Testament. He even asked questions in response to questions! This runs so contrary to the idea that a person who believes has lots of answers and lots of certainty. For me, it is much more the case of finding someone who I can really trust with my questions, and who often uses questions to transform me and my outlook on the world, if I am patient and persistent enough with them.

Sadly, I’ve often found the church to equally be a place where, if one is serious about belief, it means that one must rule out much of what some people think. Often it comes in the form of some conflict with what we understand the Bible to be saying. Most often, I’ve found the conflict to be apparent rather than real, more often the result of trying to make the Bible answer questions its’ writers didn’t intend to answer. Sometimes there are real conflicts, but then there are also real anomalies in the data of any field, and the worst thing you can do is force a solution, as much as you’d like to “neaten” things up. And sometimes, the conflict is really one between cultural ways of life in society and the counter-cultural life of God’s people. Here, it seems, the answer is to not simply ask what but why–to understand the reasons behind a different way of living.

I think it is equally the case here that people struggle with the idea that an authentic life of faith does not have room for questions. Yet in the gospels, I see that faith is acting on what one does know about God or Christ, even while asking about what one does not know. After all, none of us gets to one hundred percent certainty about anything. We live and act on knowledge about which we have far less than 100 percent certainty all the time.

To the contrary of what some think, I am convinced that the life of faith may actually open up the life of thought and research. First of all, at the heart of the formative practices of Christian faith is the practice of attentiveness, first of all to God, but also to one’s own life, one’s neighbor, and one’s world. Often, attentiveness is the seedbed in which the curiosity that leads to good questions grows. And good questions are at the heart of good research. Don’t get me wrong. I know lots of people who are not believers who are attentive and ask good questions. I’m simply saying that the attentive life that flows from faith prepares us to be attentive, whether in the lab or the art studio, or when we are studying a musical score or a balance sheet or statistical table.

I could go on. The conviction that we worship and follow the one who is Truth ought make us dogged in the pursuit of truth, because we really believe it is out there, and isn’t just a masquerade for who has power. The paradoxes of the faith–the incarnation, the Trinity, humans as the imago dei and yet as finite and fallen–leads, I believe to a flexibility or suppleness in thinking that is open to the answer being “both this and this” rather than an oppositional binary. Certainly, the belief in a Creator who thinks (the ultimate, it seems to me, reconciliation of believing and thinking), gives a powerful rationale for hypothesizing theories, and searching for lawful order in the cosmos, and even for the power of mathematics to map onto the physical world.

At the end of the day, however, what I am about is not an argument about whether it is possible to think and believe. Rather, what I am about is deeply desiring that my friends engaged in the “heavy lifting” of academic or professional life are able to live with this deep sense that the joy they experience in the joining of prayerful pursuit of knowledge and attentive inquiry, the wonder of those “aha” moments, is the pleasure of the Creator upon them, for which they were made.

St Irenaeus wrote:

The glory of God is man fully alive; moreover man’s life is the vision of god: if God’s revelation through creation has already obtained life for all the beings that dwell on earth, how much more will the Word’s manifestation of the Father obtain life for those who see God.”

My longing? Human beings fully alive discovering in the creation of God the glory of God, bringing thought and belief together. That is joy indeed.

Review: Salvation by Allegiance Alone

Salvation by Allegiance Alone

Salvation by Allegiance AloneMatthew W. Bates. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2017.

Summary: Argues that the words we translate as “belief” or “faith” are better translated as “allegiance” and that the focal point of the gospel is not simply being forgiven for sins or obtaining eternal life, but allegiance to King Jesus.

Matthew Bates thinks the understanding of salvation by faith is rooted in a poor choice of words to translate the idea of pistis in the Greek. A better understanding of this word might be “allegiance” or “faithfulness.” Part of the problem that he sees is a lack of focus on how the resurrection of Jesus and his ascension vindicate him as the King who has come and that the only appropriate response to this King is our full allegiance, both initially and through life, and that this restoration to our true allegiance is what constitutes our salvation which certainly includes pardon for our rebellious sin but encompasses so much more. Bates summarizes his case as follows:

So, in the final analysis, salvation is by allegiance alone. That is, God requires nothing more or nothing less than allegiance to Jesus as king for initial, current, and final salvation. As such, while continuing to affirm the absolute centrality of the cross, the atonement, and the resurrection, the church must move away from a salvation culture that spins around the axis of ‘faith alone’ in the sufficiency of Jesus’s sacrifice. It must move toward a gospel culture that centers upon “allegiance alone” to Jesus as the enthroned king. With the Apostles Creed as a pledge of allegiance, the rallying cry of the victorious church can become ‘We give allegiance to Jesus the king.’ For as the creed reminds us, Jesus the Christ is ‘our Lord’ and he ‘is seated at the right hand of God’ and as such he both merits and demands our undeserved loyalty.”

One might note several emphases in this summary that Bates develops in different chapters of the book. One is an understanding of the gospel as reflected in the Apostles Creed, which he thinks ought regularly be recited in our churches as a king of “pledge of allegiance.” He identifies eight elements in the gospel of Jesus the king:

  1. He pre-existed with the Father.
  2. He took on human flesh, fulfilling God’s promises to David.
  3. He died for sins in accordance with scripture.
  4. He was buried.
  5. He was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures.
  6. He appeared to many.
  7. He is seated at the right hand of God as Lord.
  8. He will come again as judge.

Bates contends that these last statements as well as the pre-existence of Jesus rarely are part of our gospel messages and that we thus fail to properly set forth Jesus as God’s anointed Messiah King.

This also informs his understanding of justification. Bates understands justification as tied up with God’s vindication of the son, crucified for sin in his resurrection and ascension to God’s right hand. Through our union with Christ, we share in that vindication, that justification, both instantaneously through our allegiance to Christ, and increasingly through life as we stay with Christ, which he calls “restoring the idol of God” reflecting all and more than we were made to be through Christ. He, along with Wright and others, also observes that the future hope of Christians is resurrection life with Christ in the new creation, not some vague hope of heaven.

He deals with objections, foremost of which is the idea of allegiance as a “work.” So much of his case hinges on the thinness of how we often discuss belief, which seems mere intellectual assent or some kind of trust in Jesus without any further obligation. He contends that faith is in fact a human response to the grace of God, no matter how defined, and that allegiance fills this out as the form of loyal trust appropriate to servants of the Risen King.

I do think the title may de-center the proper focus of allegiance. The focus seems to be on “allegiance alone” but this is dangerous and de-centered if we do not focus on “allegiance to whom?” It is Christ who saves and restores. Just as it has been observed that faith is not “faith in faith” so here we need to avoid “allegiance to allegiance.” While the title makes a polemical point, we might more accurately say “by allegiance alone through grace alone in Christ the King alone.”

I find several things helpful in this work. One is that it addresses the question of “cheap faith” that does not seem to eventuate in any kind of transformed life, often because the person does not think or expect that this follows. Another is that it does reflect the full gospel that the church has confessed through history, the gospel of the king and his kingdom and sets our pardon for sin in the context of being restored subjects, indeed vice-regents, in his kingdom. Finally, and Bates alludes to this, the idea of allegiance may address the sharp divides around grace, faith, justification and works that have separated Protestant and Catholic for five hundred years. The focus on scripture and creed to understand these things may point the way forward. We can hope.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher through Netgalley. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

 

 

Review: Reclaiming Hope

Reclaiming Hope

Reclaiming HopeMichael Wear. Nashville: Nelson Books, 2017.

Summary: Written by an Obama staffer in his Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, and faith outreach director in his 2012 campaign, this is not only a narrative of that work, but also an exploration of controversial decisions made by this administration, and how Christians might think of the possibilities and practice of political involvement.

Michael Wear got involved in Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign after following his rise in politics following the 2004 Democratic convention speech that brought Obama to national attention. After the election, he was appointed as a staff member in the Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships under Joshua DuBois. He worked in this office, contributing to efforts to provide tax breaks for adoptions and commitment of the administration to actively fighting human trafficking. He completed his service in the Obama administration heading up the 2012 faith outreach efforts during the presidential campaign. This book discusses that work, which ended with the second inauguration, after which he launched a consulting firm.

It begins with the idealism that surrounded the election of Obama, and the early hopes of an inclusive politics. He highlights Obama’s defense of the inclusion of Rick Warren against people who opposed him for his support of California’s Proposition Eight. An administration that started with a concern to include differing views at the table changed as the Affordable Care Act legislation worked its way through Congress. Concerns about abortion, and the unbending resistance on the contraceptive mandate aroused a sense that the administration was engaged in a war on religion.

Likewise, Wear wrestles with seemingly sincere statements about religious faith and support of traditional marriage by candidate Obama, only for him to “evolve” to a different position, eventually supporting gay marriage, with evidence that this had been the end goal all along. It causes him to wrestle with some of his own work, including speech-writing research that drew on his knowledge of religious audiences.

In reading this, one has a sense of missed opportunities, by both the Obama administration and the political opposition, that led to a hardening of attitudes and deepening of divides. Yet for all this, Wear is neither bitter nor disillusioned. His last two chapters concern the theme of hope. The first of these concerns the error of placing hope in politics. Here he recounts a fascinating interchange between writer Ta-Nehisi Coates, and Washington pastor Thabiti Anyabwile over this subject. In the final chapter he talks about the important role Christians, who do not put their ultimate hope in politics, can play in reclaiming hope for engagement in the process–hope that is committed, seeks justice, and is humble. He contends there is important work to be done and for Christians to come together around in both racial justice issues and religious freedom.

This last was particularly striking. It seems like these often are treated in a mutually exclusive fashion–you can only be for one or the other. Yet we are in fact in a country where there are both deep racial inequities, and where religious freedom faces real threats. Rather than accepting partisan binaries, why not stand together in a both-and fashion on this and other issues? Similarly, he contends that since marriage has been extended to same sex partners, why not strengthen the incentives for others to marry as well and revisit the ease with which we grant divorce?

Against a temptation in the current toxic climate to withdraw, he writes:

    “In the face of hopelessness, Christians cannot withdraw from their neighbors, under the impression that they are unwanted and so grant what they think the world wants. We do not love our neighbor for affirmation, but because we have been loved first. Now is not the time to withdraw, but to refine our intentions and pursue public faithfulness that truly is good news.”

Wear has given us a thoughtful book about political engagement, one where we see his own growth, and yet one that does not end, like so many, in disillusion or bitterness. He models the deep resources Christian faith brings to sustain a resilience when one faces deep disappointment, opposition, or simply the realization that the road is a long one. While written out of the context of a Democratic administration, it is not a partisan version of faith in politics, but one that any thoughtful Christian, no matter their party affiliation, may read with profit.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Praying at Burger King

praying-at-burger-kingPraying at Burger KingRichard J. Mouw. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2007.

Summary: Short essays on the life of faith in the world, originally appearing on beliefnet.com, and several other publications.

Richard Mouw is the former president of Fuller Theological Seminary and one of the more thoughtful and irenic commentators in evangelicalism today. This little book, with its unusual title and book cover is a great way to get acquainted with Mouw. He has collected a number of short (most are three pages or so) essays from contributions to Christianity Today, Perspectives, and posts on his blog and on beliefnet.com.

The essays are grouped under three categories: living, believing, and church and world. They are written in a conversational style yet cast a fresh light on some familiar aspect of Christian faith. The title essay has to do with the practice of prayers before meals, and Mouw’s recognition that Burger King is one of those places where God is indeed present and so he will keep acknowledging that. The next essay gives equal time to competitor McDonald’s and an insight of how important it is to talk with youth that translates into caring for the indifferent youth who is serving his burger the next time he is at the airport McDonald’s. Subsequent essays in this first section include reflections on Halloween, Lent, Machiavelli, integrity, greed and a number of other everyday matters from housekeeping to the “ordinary” work of a researcher. He speaks simply about how we often subconsciously bracket off the “stuff” of scholarly work from the “spiritual” life when in fact “every square inch” (as Kuyper would put it) belongs to the Lord.

In the second section, three essays caught my attention. In “Entrenched” he observes how this label is often applied to conservatives when in fact everyone is interested in “conserving something” and may be liable to trench digging. He proposes that we might consider a better, more biblical metaphor of “the way” in which we’ve chosen to walk through life, something we are all doing, whether or not we are all walking in the same way. In “He Did Weep,” he writes about Jesus not simply at Lazarus tomb, but in the manger at Christmas. True incarnation involved a crying baby, experiencing the discomforts of all human babies, contrary to “Away in a Manger.”  His sensitive response to a student’s troubled questions in “What about Hell?” and the distinction he made between those who think they are too good to be condemned by God, and those who consider God too good to punish are responses I will remember for similar conversations.

In the third section, his essay on “Eating Alone,” inspired by Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone notes the great dangers that come to us in our increasing isolation from social organizations, the mediating institutions, that once were a significant part of the fabric of belonging. I’m surprised how many writers are sounding this theme, which may truly be one of the great perils of our age. He also includes some beautiful essays about his encounters with Catholicism and some thoughts about “Patriotism” that are balanced and measured and worthy of consideration wherever you are on the political spectrum.

Mouw’s irenic voice is one we need in our time of ambivalent triumphalism on one side and anguished resistance on another. He explores the everyday acts of faithful Christian presence in the real world we inhabit. These essays feel to me to be “dispatches from another place” than where we usually live that call us to both our true selves, and the true north of our faith.