Tuesday, July 08, 2008

The forest

Under the rustling ferns and bushes
Lies green moss, dripping with winter dew.
Woody roots dig silently below, concealing their strength
With seasons of autumn leaves that keep their secret.
Happy earthworms devour the mulch of browns and greys
In which the mushrooms grow.
If you listen carefully, you might hear the earthworms eating.
Beneath them lies the soil of ages past,
Dark and still, visited only by the roots of tallest trees.
The soil knows nothing of the chirping forest above,
That leaf by leaf it fed.
Down there, amid the rocks and clay, forgotten,
      lies who I used to be.

Sunday, July 06, 2008

Fundamental differences between early Christianity and modern Christianity

As I've been trying to write an introduction for a nearly completed book on early Christianity, I've been trying to figure out the best way to break to people the news that there are fundamental differences between early Christianity and modern Christianity. These differences are surprising, even shocking, but are not easily recognized by many Christians today.

Of course, whatever people think about the idea that such differences exist, it won't change what the early Christians believed. So if they happened to believe a set of doctrines that were indeed different, then not even the strongest of opinions or the loudest of objections will change that fact. Now nearing the completion of a book outlining early Christianity, I think there is so much evidence that their doctrines were substantially different that it is very difficult to see how this could not be the case. The problem is that the news that early Christian doctrines were very different is an uncomfortable one for many Christians today.

I can't think of any way I can make this news more comfortable for Christians. This is especially true for older Christians, who have invested decades of their lives and identities in doctrines that the early Christians simply didn't believe. The idea that the doctrines they had built so many years of their lives on arose not with Jesus but many centuries after him would surely be a hard pill to swallow.

One thing that may make the news more tolerable is that it fits better with current trends that emphasize social action and responsibility. I was thinking about this last Sunday, when the sermon so passionately related Jesus' concern for the poor and underprivileged. It was followed by some songs about theology that struck me as completely disconnected from such a message. At least the early Christian doctrines were, in this sense, quite modern.

Perhaps I don't need to worry about making the news less uncomfortable for modern Christians. It's hardly a new thing to be saying. Countless people who have pointed it out in the past have been largely ignored by the general Christian population. This news won't make people uncomfortable if they ignore it. Even if they take heed, it is not my job in life to make other people feel comfortable.

Yet in the case of the book I'm co-authoring, it is important, since I hope that some people will take the time to read it. How they react to such news might affect how they read the book, and how they feel about their own faith once they have. So does anyone have any ideas on how I could best let people know that there are major differences between early and modern Christianity?

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Paul's view of grace

Apparently, there are still some people reading my blog out there. So here's my theological thought of the day.

I was doing some writing on the topic of justification today, and I noticed something about the times Paul says we're justified by grace through faith. Here are the passages I have in mind, which I'll abridge to highlight what I noticed:

Rom 3:21-30:
But now, irrespective of law, the righteousness of God has been disclosed... the righteousness of God through faithfulness to Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction... they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus... Then what becomes of boasting [of being Jewish]? It is excluded. By what law? By that of works? No, but by the law of faithfulness. For we hold that a person is justified by faithfulness apart from works prescribed by the Torah. Or is God the God of Jews only? Is he not the God of Gentiles also? Yes, of Gentiles also, since God is one; and he will justify the circumcised on the ground of faithfulness and the uncircumcised through that same faithfulness.

Rom 4:13-16:

For the promise that he would inherit the world did not come to Abraham or to his descendants through the Torah but through the righteousness of faith. If it is [only] the adherents of the Torah who are to be the heirs, faithfulness is null and the promise is void... For this reason it depends on faithfulness, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all his descendants, not only to the adherents of the Torah but also to those who share the faithfulness of Abraham...

Eph 2:1-16:

You [Gentiles] were dead through the trespasses and sins in which you once lived... But God, who is rich in mercy... made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved— and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the ages to come he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness towards us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faithfulness, and this [grace] is not your own doing; it is the gift of God— not the result of works [of the Torah], so that no one may boast [because of their Jewishness - see Rom 3:21-30]... So then, remember that at one time you Gentiles by birth... were at that time without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us. He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, so that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace, and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it.

What I noticed is this: Paul speaks of being justified by grace through faithfulness in the context of emphasizing that God accepts Gentiles as his people too. The common Jewish belief at the turn of the first century was that only Jews were God's people, and that Gentiles could not be - as least without fully following the Jewish way of life, their Torah. Following Jesus, though, Paul says that God will not judge people based on their Jewishness but based on whether they are faithful to live in a godly way like Jesus taught and exemplified. Paul saw the highly controversial implication - people who did not follow the Torah could be considered righteous by God. In other words, God did not limit his favour (aka. "grace") to the Jews, but also extended it to the Gentiles. This is why Paul talks of grace in the context of justification and the inclusion of the Gentiles as people whom God considers righteous.

For Paul, the boundless favour of both God and Jesus was evident in the activity of Jesus, who revealed a way for both Jews and Gentiles to be saved from sinfulness, and thus be considered righteous before God.
I do not have time here to explain why I have emphasised that this salvation was from sinfulness, as opposed to something else. (Perhaps that is the topic of another post.) It was truly gracious of God to commission Jesus to save sinful Jews from their unrighteousness, but this grace even extended to Gentiles also. The inclusiveness of God's grace was the point that Paul laboured, and the very issue that got him in so much trouble with the Jews who zealously protected their exclusive claim as God's people.

Sunday, June 01, 2008

Who's still reading my blog?

It just dawned on me that my blog is over 4 years old. That's a long time. It's captured many of my ponderings, and as I look back on it I think it captures many of the ways I've grown in the last 4 years. I've been pondering the idea of breathing some life into my blog once again, but there wouldn't be any point if no one reads it.

So, is there anyone out there who still reads my blog? Or, has it come time for my blog to be no more?

Monday, April 07, 2008


Oh curse this heart of a thousand stones
And find a home to grow alone
A heart of more than flesh and bones
And things I can’t imagine.

For every smile upon my face
Is laced with bitterness and hate
Of things I cannot change,
And things I cannot fathom.

I was a pawn in the hands of fate,
Picked and placed without a way
To break the chains of my skin.
Now I sit again stagnating
With pen and hand and heart still shaking
Upon the path my soul is taking
Or being taken from.

Yet I will find a way to grow
More hope along this narrow road,
Load my heart with brighter tones
And throw away the stones.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008


It seems to me that a Relationship with God™ has for many Christians come to serve as a convenient psychological panacea for all of the deep issues people struggle with, which promotes not a healthy maturity but an infantile dependence. Let me explain...

Without God, Christians say, you won't be able to live with any purpose, meaning, or significance. You'd be just a seething mass of proteins slithering toward oblivion. Without God, you'll feel empty inside in the God-Shaped Hole™ in your heart. Unless you've got an active relationship with him through prayer you'll never be able to find a car park when you need one, a great job that perfectly suits you, or a house that's just what you were hoping for. Nothing in your life will fall into place smoothly, since God reserves that sort of Blessing™ for Christians and gives non-Christians Wrath™. You'll feel unhappy and incomplete without God, and never be able to mature as a person without having him Work in You™ and knowing his Perfect Plan™. And in case you're looking for why, he is The Reason™.

The problem with selling God and the full God product line like this is that these claims are untrue. Just because God had an intention in creating us it doesn't give us purpose. He could have made you to be a paperweight, but that wouldn't mean you'd get a warm fuzzy feeling whenever you stood on loose paper. Significance and purpose is something that comes from the nature of what people do. Being a paperweight is not as significant as saving a child from the clutches of fearsome death. Whether or not you were created to save children from angry bears doesn't have any bearing on how meaningful that act is. A person's sense of significance, meaning and purpose is determined from their mental map of the world - and for many people that map doesn't include God. Anything can feel significant, meaningful and purposeful if people deem it to be so, based on their values and ethical compass. People don't need God to tell them their True Purpose™ to live purposefully in positive ways that are meaningful and significant even by Christian standards.

The God-Shaped Hole™ of unhappy incompleteness is a dangerously ambiguous name for the implacable but deeply felt shortcomings in people's lives. If people feel an emptiness in their life Christians all too quickly assume it's because they're disconnected from God rather than because they need to learn to build deeper friendships. If they're feeling depressed, they don't need to deal and resolve the underlying issues, they just need to rest in God's loving grace and allow Him to resolve it. In fact, you can adopt a very harmful mental map of the world, and think the problems in your life will all go away if you have a good Relationship with God™ without dealing with the actual reasons you are making your life into suffering.

What I'm saying is that many Christians have a paradigm that prevents them from maturing into healthy people. Rather than addressing and leaning to competently deal with some of the deep issues in life, some Christians look to their personal Relationship with God™. I have learned that many of the issues I've discussed above are caused by poor mental maps of the world and patterns of thinking about life, and that these can be corrected through very down-to-earth means. Christians, though, seem to dismiss such ideas and instead misdiagnose the cause and cure of these kinds of problems as revolving around their Relationship with God™. A common Christian mindset is that we should be dependent on God. We should not learn to stand on our own two psychological feet as mature and capable adults; instead we should learn to be as dependent on God as possible, because that's allegedly healthy. So it comes as no surprise to me that many Christians give away their own Relationship with God™ when after several years the reality dawns on them that it isn't a cure-all that will exempt them from having to deal with the issues of life like everyone else.

So where does this little foray into the psychology of religious belief leave me, as someone who chooses to think that God does somehow exist and that he is benevolent towards us? Well, I can't help but think about the courageous examples of Christians who chose to serve others rather than be served by God. It is this kind of faith that inspires me, not religious consumerism. I think that's the kind of faith God wants too. As an analogy, I think about my biological parents. They are wise and helpful in many ways. But while I'm away from them I recognize that they want me to be strong and mature enough to live without needing them to feed me, clothe me, attend my every need and shelter me from real life. Rather, they want me to mature in a way that I too can deal with life and enjoy living as well as they can as I build friendships with those around me.

That's how I think about God. I think he is able to help and sometimes does help me in ways that perhaps I don't have to understand, but I think he also wants me to be a mature human being who experiences the full depth of friendship with other human beings. He doesn't want to simply fill up the space in my God-Shaped Hole™; he wants my heart to grow big enough to fill it with the same kind of love and kindness that he has. He doesn't want me to think my life has purpose and meaning just because he says it does; he wants me to live purposefully as I learn to value the same things he values, and see significance and meaning in the same kind of things he sees as significant and meaningful. He doesn't want me to focus on what I get from a Relationship with Him™, but to serve others and be helped by them also in a loving community of people who recognize that love is precious not because God says so, but because it really is.

I freely confess that I may consider myself too independent from God, perhaps like an adolescent who foolishly thinks he's old enough to look after himself. Perhaps I should pray for more Blessing™. Perhaps I should worship him more in case that's my True Purpose™ in life. Perhaps I should just learn to better comprehend his complete iWork™ package that is somehow operating somewhere in the background of my mind. But I would rather risk being too independent from God than being so immaturely dependent on him that I don't develop into the kind of person he'd want me to be. I'll let him give me the benefits of as many of his spiritual products as he'd like to give me while focusing instead on living in the way he would want me to. I'll follow Jesus' teachings and example, and those who have exemplified how to follow in his footsteps. I'll use all the tools I can find to become a mature and joyful person, even if they don't have his official trademark. And if he wants me to give him more attention in this life before I die, then he couldn't be more welcome to get it. Otherwise, I'll trust he is patient enough to wait until then.