Theology

The Sweet Kingdom of Jesus

The Sweet Kingdom of Jesus

“Listen to what your heart is telling you.”

I had the delightful experience of attending a middle school play recently: Cinderella and the Candy Kingdom. It’s the usual Cinderella story, but set in a world of chocolate, sugar and sweets. Plenty of puns made it a very fun show: the wicked stepsisters of Cinderella were named Kit and Kat. The prince of the kingdom was named Reese, who rarely appeared without his squire, Hershey.

While Hershey won the audience with his consistent jokes and eager banter, it was Prince Reese who brought home the underlying meaning of the play. In the world of the Candy Kingdom, everyone loves sweets: first dessert, second dessert, third dessert. Whip cream and chocolate syrup on everything. You get the idea. Yet the young prince has a secret: he doesn’t like sweets. In other words, he’s not like everyone else. He doesn’t belong. Not only that, he’s in line for the throne, but isn’t the “right kind of prince.” Continue Reading..

Why Does the Church Insist That People Stop Learning?

Why Does the Church Insist That People Stop Learning?

AS A PARENT, it is a particular delight when I see one of my kids reading. I love to see when they become immersed into a story, or discover something they didn’t know before as they pore over a book. It is a thrill to watch their imaginations and worlds expand. Which makes it hard to imagine a parent saying to a child: “Stop reading! You’ve learned enough already. You’ve learned all you need to know.” Yet in my experience in the church, I’ve been told exactly that. And I know my experience isn’t an isolated one. Continue Reading..

The Bible as Many, the Bible as One

The Bible as Many, the Bible as One

In a recent conversation about the Bible, I referred to it as “a collection of texts known as the Bible.” Someone responded:

In the collection known as the Bible?? I’m sorry, my friend, but you have gone off the deep end…

This response was a bit of a surprise. The fact that the Bible is comprised of various books by various authors is common knowledge to anyone who has taken a single religion class in high school or college, or to anyone who has actually opened a Bible. As a young child, I was required to memorize “the books of the Bible.” Continue Reading..

The Last Week Tonight: What Will It Take?

The Last Week Tonight: What Will It Take?

Holy Week reflections by Chris Lubbers

Have you ever repeatedly uttered a word until it just became a meaningless sound? Try it for one minute. Love, love, love, love, love, love, … At most, you’re left with a familiar, comforting noise. We often fail to notice what is familiar. The fish don’t see the water or understand its significance–if that expression isn’t itself too familiar to make the point.

Continue Reading..

Unacceptable: What it’s like to be a Liberal Christian in a Sea of Conservativism

Unacceptable: What it’s like to be a Liberal Christian in a Sea of Conservativism

Guest post by David Schell.

NO_LEFT_TURN_signPeople think I moved left because I wanted to compromise with the world, because I wanted to fit in better.

People think I moved left because I was deceived by the devil.

People think I moved left because I’ve been reading the Bible without the help of the Holy Spirit.

People think I moved left because I just stopped reading the Bible.

Continue Reading..

A Palm Sunday Prayer for Peace

Palm-Sunday-2013

Holy Week begins this Sunday. It is a familiar week, beginning with Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem. But maybe so familiar that we still aren’t quite hearing the full story.

Marcus Borg reminds us that there was not one, but two processions entering Jerusalem that year. Two very different processions. “They proclaimed two very different and contrasting visions of how this world can and should be: the kingdom of God versus the kingdoms, the powers, of this world. The former is about justice and the end of violence. The latter are about domination and exploitation. On Friday, the rulers of this world kill Jesus. On Easter, God says “yes” to Jesus and “no” to the powers that executed him.

Thus Palm Sunday announces the central conflict of Holy Week. The conflict persists. That conflict continues wherever injustice and violence abound. Holy Week is not about less than that.”

In the spirit of the One who came in peace, and in the wake of this week’s continued violence in our world, a prayer for peace. May it bless you this week.


G
reat God, who has told us
“Vengeance is mine,”
save us from ourselves,
save us from the vengeance in our hearts
and the acid in our souls.
Save us from our desire to hurt as we have been hurt,
to punish as we have been punished,
to terrorize as we have been terrorized.
Give us the strength it takes
to listen rather than to judge,
to trust rather than to fear,
to try again and again
to make peace even when peace eludes us.
We ask, O God, for the grace
to be our best selves.
We ask for the vision
to be builders of the human community
rather than its destroyers.
We ask for the humility as a people
to understand the fears and hopes of other peoples.
We ask for the love it takes
to bequeath to the children of the world to come
more than the failures of our own making.
We ask for the heart it takes
to care for all the peoples
of Afghanistan and Iraq, of Palestine and Israel
as well as for ourselves.
Give us the depth of soul, O God,
to constrain our might,
to resist the temptations of power
to refuse to attack the attackable,
to understand
that vengeance begets violence,
and to bring peace–not war–wherever we go.
For You, O God, have been merciful to us.
For You, O God, have been patient with us.
For You, O God, have been gracious to us.
And so may we be merciful
and patient
and gracious
and trusting
with these others whom you also love.
This we ask through Jesus,
the one without vengeance in his heart.
This we ask forever and ever. Amen
A Prayer for World Peace,
by Sister Joan Chittister, of the Benedictine Sisters of Erie
(source)

The Whole Truth and Nothing But the Truth*

truth_next_exit2

What is the more important: a) seeking and speaking the truth; or b) toeing the party line?

A revealing, but unsurprising post yesterday from Fred Clark at Slacktivist about the challenge of working in an evangelical institutional setting. He shares an excerpt from Jonathan Dudley’s  book Broken Words, where he’s describing his time at Calvin College:

In my freshman biology class, I sat riveted as the professor explained why scientists believe in evolution (I had never learned about the subject in high school). The summer after my first year, I pored over a summer-school psychology book by an evangelical professor, who argued (shockingly, to me) that gay people don’t choose their orientation and cannot readily change. Over the course of my second year in college, I learned why scientists think there is an environmental crisis. And during my last year of college, a bioethics professor argued against popular evangelical thought on abortion. I was surprised to find out during an office visit that many other evangelical scholars shared his view, though not surprised when he said they would rather not speak up about it due to the avalanche of protests it would generate from college donors. …

My bioethics professor reinforced a conclusion I had drawn from my undergraduate and seminary years: There is a significant gap between the opinions that dominate the popular evangelical culture (which is the only part of evangelicalism with political muscle) and the opinions that prevail among leading evangelical scholars.

Clark goes on to note: “Most evangelical college graduates have a story like the one Dudley tells.” I wonder if any of you can relate?

Clark notes the shock one receives as an underclassman hearing these new ideas, and then later, in a private setting, hearing a professor explain “what is and is not allowed to be said and how it differs from what is and is not true.” I’ve written before on how Calvin College has found itself in a quandary of this sort.

>>Related post: If science conflicts with theology, what should give way?

Unreal. And the truth. I know this from experience at Calvin Seminary as well. There’s the official party line. Then there are other truths that must be hidden, because it flies in the face of the institution’s self-imposed limit on truth. It always strikes me as ironic that Christians are all about “seeking truth,” but then when the truth turns out to be slightly different than what our historic theological heroes put down to paper 500 years ago, suddenly we have to be mum about it. It makes no sense, really, and it is a disservice to students, and in a seminary setting, a disservice to future pastors – and by extension – to their congregations.

I remember hearing a pastor at a Pub Theology gathering in Michigan note: “Why are we so afraid of sharing biblical and theological scholarship with our congregations that has been accepted for over fifty years already?” She lamented that too often clergy serves as filters for what congregants can or cannot “handle,” and that when she did share such research and knowledge, parishioners were hungry for it! I think sometimes the mentality is to treat our congregants as children who aren’t “ready to hear” that some of their cherished beliefs or understandings actually might not line up with how things really are. Kind of like we don’t tell our kids the reality about Santa until they’re old enough to handle it. Apparently some congregants are never meant to grow up.

I have heard several pastors note that they are encouraging their congregations not to read their denominational monthly magazine because the articles are stretching the “accepted notions” on homosexuality, the historicity of Genesis and other topics. I think the more we earnestly wrestle with these things the better, even if there are no simple solutions. Some colleagues have even argued that because they’ve signed a statement of belief they don’t have to engage with certain ideas that interpret the Bible through other lenses. They literally use a “statement of truth” to protect themselves from the truth. It’s incredulous, really. The worst thing is to stick our heads in the sand, especially as professors, pastors and other leaders, and to keep trumpeting perspectives that are either out of date, not informed, or perpetuate common misperceptions. I’m grateful there are some willing to do otherwise, despite the obstacles thrown their way.

In the same column, Fred Clark cites Peter Enns, who describes the desperation he’s heard from many, many academic colleagues in evangelical institutions:

I had the latest in my list of long conversations with a well-known, published, respected biblical scholar, who is under inhuman stress trying to negotiate the line between institutional expectations and academic integrity. His gifts are being squandered. He is questioning his vocation. His family is suffering. He does not know where to turn.

I wish this were an isolated incident, but it’s not.

I wish these stories could be told, but without the names attached, they are worthless. I wish I had kept a list, but even if I had, it wouldn’t have done anyone much good. I couldn’t have used it. Good people would lose their jobs.

Ugh. And Clark notes that it’s not limited to academia: “I’ve heard similar stories from clergy, journalists, musicians, missionaries and aid workers — all wrestling with the conflict between what they know to be right and “institutional expectations” shaped by the threat of an “avalanche of protests” from donors with political muscle. Not healthy. Not good.”

I concur. You?

>>Related Post: Toes, Lines and Bad Religion

To Explain God as Unexplainable

winding_path_to_nowhere
A winding, uncertain path

“Quia de deo scire non possumus quid sit, sed quid non sit, non possumus considerare de deo, quomodo sit sed quomodo non sit.”

This is St. Thomas Aquinas’ introduction to his whole Summa Theologica: “Since we cannot know what God is, but only what God is not, we cannot consider how God is but only how He is not.”

At different points in my life, I’ve been pretty sure that we can know exactly who and what God is. We could define him quite precisely. We could come up with a list of attributes. We could name a bunch of names written in an old dusty language: “Jehovah Jireh,” “Adonai,” or “Yahweh.” Of course, we had only a vague idea what those words meant, yet we felt quite confident using them. We pulled out the good book and felt we had not just a good handle, but a definite handle on who God was and what he was like.

Yet the further I travel on the road of faith, the more I learn about the divine mysteries, the more I realize it is just that: mystery.

Anthony de Mello recounts how the great Karl Rahner, in one of his last letters, wrote to a young German drug addict who had asked him for help. The addict had said, “You theologians talk about God, but how could this God be relevant in my life? How could this God get me off drugs?” Rahner said to him, “I must confess to you in all honesty that for me God is and has always been absolute mystery. I do not understand what God is; no one can. We have intimations, inklings; we make faltering, inadequate attempts to put mystery into words. But there is no word for it, no sentence for it.” And talking to a group of theologians in London, Rahner said, “The task of the theologian is to explain everything through God, and to explain God as unexplainable.”

De Mello concludes: “Unexplainable mystery. One does not know, one cannot say. One says, “Ah, ah…” That is what is ultimate in our human knowledge of God, to know that we do not know.”

It is a strange comfort, this unknowing. It is threatening, to be sure. But also comforting.

This is what the mystics are perpetually telling us, notes de Mello: “Words cannot give you reality. They only point, they only indicate. You use them as pointers to get to reality. But once you get there, your concepts are useless. A Hindu priest once had a dispute with a philosopher who claimed that the final barrier to God was the word “God,” the concept of God. The priest was quite shocked by this, but the philosopher said, “The ass that you mount and that you use to travel to a house is not the means by which you enter the house. You use the concept to get there; then you dismount, you go beyond it.” You don’t need to be a mystic to understand that reality is something that cannot be captured by words or concepts.”

To know reality, de Mello states, you have to know beyond knowing.

Perhaps Jesus was on to something when he stated in Mark 10:15: “Truly I tell you, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.” We must become as little children. Because children are in a place of wonder, and see things afresh. We see things and think we know. And sometimes, our knowing is what gets in the way.

Improbable Souls: A Poem

Today’s post is a poem written by Jack Ricchiuto, inspired by a recent conversation at Pub Theology DC.

A short poem. It came out of a question that emerged for me from last night, somehow: what if God was approached by people who want access to heaven and hell to bring love to those they loved in their lifetime here? Enjoy.

1heaven_hell

 

Improbable Souls
Angels dart glances on the rare occasion
   Where God sits in speechless reflection
On a new request, never uttered by the
   Billions before, the seemingly simple request
To have dual citizenship, bilateral passports
   Into heaven and hell, for the freedom
To visit friends across the chasms,
   As both are missed and loved, dearly
The impossible prayer sent to the Source:
   Why should eternal punishments and rewards
Deprive them of a friend’s love?
   After all, love asks nothing in return,
Love is kind, love graces without
   Requirement of worthiness,
This is the infinite love,
   Of which God’s brow in
Wrinkled ironies, acceded,
  Greeted with the gratitude of improbable souls
Who would delight in spending time
   With loved ones, faithful and fallen alike.

Jack Ricchiuto is best known across the US and globally for his experience as writer and engagement artisan. His work focuses on teaching people how to work together well and facilitate people working together well in education, organizations and communities. He lives in the Tremont community of urban Cleveland.
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