Sunday, January 28, 2007

Assuming we're "in"

It's amazing how many people who call themselves "Christian" assume that they are following Jesus in the same way as the apostolic church and that they can be included in that group. People can read Paul's letter, for example, where he refers to the apostolic church with words like "you" (plural), "we" and "us" and assume that they are automatically included in those groups where it suits.

Let me explain using two brief and arbitrary examples:
Rom 5:1: Then being justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.

Rom 8:16-17 The Spirit Himself witnesses with our spirit that we are children of God. And if children, also heirs; truly heirs of God, and joint-heirs of Christ, if indeed we suffer together, that we may also be glorified together.

I have heard Christians simply assume that they are part of the "us" group being discussed in verses like these, and I think I've worked out why. Whatever they think it is that makes them "Christians" (often something like believing, trusting and accepting Jesus and his atoning death for our sins), they assume the apostolic church had the same view. They assume that the group of Jesus-followers Paul means by "we" and "us" and "our" was also defined by similar beliefs or behaviors - even if it wasn't. So they think they really are part of the same "us" group - even if they aren't. And so they think statements that applied to the early Jesus-groups also apply to them - even if they don't.

As a result, I have observed Christians often experience a kind of dissonance, a tension in their minds. They read and earnestly feel certain things apply to them, and yet they don't always seem to experience these things in their real lives. Their beliefs and observations don't line up. Yet often, Christians seem to deal with this by saying "well it must be true because it's in the bible, so I'll just believe it" rather than considering whether or not they are included in the group referred to. They muster up "faith" to believe what doesn't seem to be true rather than face the frightening thought that they might not be in the "us" group. "Faith" becomes the rug under which reality is swept.

I think a large number of Christians are blinded by such "faith". Instead of realising that they really aren't authentically experiencing the sort of life Jesus was on about, they remain stagnant and unaware that they're missing out. They think they're experiencing authentic Christianity and so they don't search to discover it and truly experience it. This, I think, is sad.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Did Jesus NEED to die on the cross?

There is a tacit assumption made by many Christians that Jesus had to die on the cross. This kind of death was needed - no one even questions the idea even though the gospels never say that.

The need for Christ's death on the cross is not questioned because it is indeed necessary if penal substitution and the surrounding doctrines are true. I do not believe this theory is taught by the New Testament. Once we look beyond this theory, though, we can notice the obvious - Jesus died as a martyr. He was put to death by authorities who did not like his teachings and actions. Jesus taught a message of social and cultural revolution. He gathered a following to further this revolution so that people could enjoy the benefits of experiencing this new kind of life that he called being in the "Kingdom of Heaven". Jesus brought people into the Kingdom of Heaven, and that is why he was killed.

The cross, then, is naturally a symbol of Jesus' life and message. A powerful symbol, but a symbol nonetheless. The apostle Paul referred to the cross in this way to encapsulate Jesus and his message. For early followers of Jesus it would have been obvious to Christians that his death was not significant because of some atonement theory only voiced centuries after Jesus. Rather, the cross is significant because of his life and teachings. Likewise, his resurrection is important because of both his life and his crucification.

Christians don't like this idea because it means that the cross was not needed to fulfill the Great Spiritual act of Atonement through penal substitution. They might think that this makes the cross meaningless. But they would be missing the message encapsulated and symbolized by the cross.

Jesus used the cross as a symbol of what it meant to follow him:
If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and let him bear his cross, and let him follow Me. (Mat 16:24)

Go, sell what things you have, and give to the poor. And you will have treasure in Heaven. And come, follow Me, taking up the cross. (Mar 10:21b)

Whoever does not bear his cross and come after Me, he cannot be My disciple. (Luk 14:27)

St. Paul used a mixture of analogies and symbolism to discuss Jesus and his message. He too used the cross to symbolise the Way of life Jesus lived and encouraged:
Be fellow-imitators of me, brothers, and consider those walking this way, even as you have us for a pattern. For many walk as hostile to the cross of Christ... (Php 3:17-18a)

Jesus often opposed the Torah as it was being practiced, and Paul appears to have followed Jesus' teachings. Those faithful to Jesus' teachings were thus often persecuted by Jews who wanted to enforce Torah (such as the Pharisees) because they saw the "offense of the Cross" (Gal 5:11). Paul refers to their persecution by saying they are "persecuted for the cross of Christ" (Gal 6:12). Then he says that he does not boast in the Torah, but in the "cross of our Lord Jesus Christ" (Gal 6:14) in which circumcision makes no difference (verse 15).

In Ephesians he describes how the message of Jesus overcomes cultural and social barriers, thus uniting people in a new way within the culture of the "Kingdom of God". Specifically he refers to it breaking down the division between Jews and Gentiles that comes from the radical new values Jesus taught. Paul uses powerful, emotive symbols of both the cross and Jesus' blood (which also carries connotations of kinship) to encapsulate the message of Jesus. Perhaps he is referring also or instead to the fact that without Christ's martyrdom and subsequent resurrection Christianity probably wouldn't have got started. Listen to what (I think) Paul writes:
But now, in Christ Jesus you [Gentiles] who then were afar off, came to be near [to us Jews] by the blood of Christ. For He is our peace, He making us both one, and breaking down the middle wall of partition, in His flesh causing to cease the enmity [created by the commandments of the Torah], that He might make these two groups united into one new man - his "body", making peace, and that He might reconcile both in one body to God through the cross, slaying the enmity [within His body]. (Eph 2:13-16*, see also Col 1:20)

But Paul doesn't refer to the cross in only this way. He uses it's significance in many ways to make many different points. For example, like the Gospel and other New Testament writers, notes the shame of his death on a cross (Php 2:8). In another passage, Paul uses the imagery of a list of things against us being nailed to the cross (Col 2:14). Paul's point when referring to the cross is not always the same. Combined with penal substitution, Paul's use of many different images and metaphors can make it hard to recognize that the cross found its significance because of Jesus' life and teachings.

In summary, the question "Why did Jesus need to die on the cross?" is based in a number of presupposed theological ideas that don't help us understand why he did die on the cross, and what his death came to symbolize for his followers. His death is significant because of his life. And while there was no "need" for him to die on the cross, without his crucifixion and resurrection, his following would have probably died instead. Without the cross, we might not even know who Jesus was. But that doesn't mean the cross was needed for some Great Spiritual Act of Atonement, nor is it what the cross means. The cross represents what Jesus lived, taught, and was ultimately killed for.


* In quoting Eph 2:13-16 I have intentionally changed the phrases "in Himself" to reflect that I think this phrase refers to people who are "in Christ" - and thereby in his group, his disciples, his "body".

"Christian" vs "Christ follower" Mac/PC ad parady video

I think this short video parodying the Mac/PC ad series captures some truth. Check it out.

Friday, January 12, 2007


I've decided to try to be more optimistic, because I think it's actually a lot more enjoyable than being pessimistic.

Some people think life is mostly bad. Others, mostly good. I think, philosophically, life is neutral. It's not good or bad, it just happens and it is what it is. The events of our lives have no ethical, moral, or emotional significance in and of themselves - we give them significance through our beliefs about them. It is our beliefs about situations that make them "good" or "bad" (and this is a good thing, otherwise life would be pointless).

So then by being careful what we think about situations, we can actually see them as being more "good" and less "bad". Let me explain more, borrowing a useful insight about our reactions to the events of life that I found on, an interesting site:

Dr Albert Ellis, prominent psychology researcher developed the ABC model to explain our reaction to adversity.

A is the adversity.
B is our belief about the adversity and
C is the consequence of our belief.

Our reaction to adversity is not so much a result of the adversity but a result of our belief about the adversity.

Interesting. There are a series of articles on the site discussing this and what makes us optimistic or pessimistic here, here, and here.

So perhaps our overall philosophy isn't what makes us optimistic or pessimistic, but rather it is the sum of each thought we have in response to each situation. Our habits of thought become "bedded in", and become quite hard to change. The trick, I think, is understanding what our habits of thought are and finding other ways to think about situations.

It's not a magical "3 steps to a happy life". Life doesn't work that way. But I think it's possible to see more good in life so that we can deal better with the bad, and I intend to try.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Carpe diem

Quintus Horatius Flaccus, the great Roman poet at the turn of the first century, wrote:

Even as we speak, envious time is running away from us. Seize the day, and trust as little as possible in the future. (Odes 1.11)

"Carpe diem", he wrote in latin. "Seize the day". I never used to understand, but now I realise that life does indeed pass us by if we let it. It's the default option. We have at least some power to make life fulfilling, enjoyable, and rich both for us and for others, and I have resolved to not just let life go by. I want to grab it by the horns, and not just wish my life would look a different way. There are still things I can't control, but I think I will feel much happier if I am at least doing what I can.

The idea is not to manage to increase the quantity of my life, but increase the quality of it. By paying attention, I hope it's possible to refine what I'm doing with my time. Weed out the things that are not really worth spending time on, and instead intentially planting things that are worthwhile. It's like making the most with the garden you have, rather than getting a bigger one to make a mess of.

The concept extends to my hopes and dreams for what I want to do with my life. I need to get a few goals and figure out what I want to put my energy into. Then, I need to actually start doing something toward those goals. It's a bit like chores that don't really need to be done. It's so easy to think, someday soon I'll do this or that. But "someday" never comes unless we make it come.

Too often, I think we seem to rely on life just "happening" to us, hoping that it will happen well as if by chance. I don't think it does. Living life to the fullest doesn't happen by chance. I need to recognise my life is my own, and start owning my life. Little things first. Walk before running. Master managing a few minutes of my day before trying to master the remaining years of my life. It's a simple concept really. I'm surprised it's taken me so many years to grasp it.

I would challenge you to not just sit there as consumers of life, hoping that other people will make you feel fulfilled, make you happy, make you feel like someone you'd look up to. Life isn't a product we can buy, it's an art that we do. Life is not a spectator sport. So get some vision. See some worthwhile, challenging but great things to do - not for yourself but for other people. Take initiative. Involve yourself and other people. Work out what you're going to do differently. Show people you do care, because a fulfilling life doesn't come from only caring about ourselves. Love beyond yourself.

These are the thoughts that have been challenging and changing me, all bundled up into two words:

Carpe diem.

Live now.