To Explain God as Unexplainable

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.

Pub Theology Live-Tweet


TONIGHT at our regular Pub Theology DC gathering, we’ll be LIVE TWEETING – you can join us in person, at the Bier Baron at 1523 22nd St NW – just a few blocks west of the Dupont Circle Metro stop, or you can jump in on the conversation via Twitter using #pubtheology. Be sure to follow me (@bryberg) and (@pubtheology). Here are the topics we’ll be discussing:

  1. If you could name the street you live on what would you call it?

  1. If you received an extra burrito when ordering at your local shop would you say something?

  1. True or false: We should be wary of any efforts to improve human nature.

  2. Did you march on Saturday? Are you marching tomorrow? Does marching lead to justice?

  1. Did Jesus pay for our sins? In what way?

  1. Is hell a just punishment for sinful people?

WE’D LOVE TO HEAR FROM YOU!  Come on down and join us for a pint, or grab your smart phone, a craft-brewed pint, and hit the Twitters! Starting at 7pm.

The Pistol-Packing Pastor


The LA Times had a story recently about a pastor who carries heat: “He shows others how to put their trust in God and take their security into their own hands.”

From the story:

BEAUMONT, Texas — Two years ago on Super Bowl Sunday, Pentecostal preacher James McAbee was getting into his car after services when he heard a commotion. He saw two men break a window and enter a church hall that was being renovated.

McAbee called 911. The dispatcher said it would take officers at least 11 minutes to respond.

He lingered outside for a moment, frustrated.

“I could hear them snapping the lumber and carrying the sheet rock,” McAbee said.

The pastor drew a .380 pistol he wore in an ankle holster and burst into the hall — only to find two adolescents.

McAbee, who’d had a troubled youth, saw himself in the pair. He lowered his gun to offer some fatherly advice, but the older one, a 17-year-old with two outstanding drug warrants, rushed the pastor with the pointy end of a broken 2-by-4.

“I got my gun back out in time,” McAbee said. “He froze in his tracks. I said, ‘Son, you better not move or I’ll put one right in your watermelon!'”

The pastor held them until police arrived.

Some laud this pastor as exemplary, and he’s become known as Triple-P: “Pistol-Packing Pastor.” He began teaching gun classes shortly after he earned his nickname, and cites Scripture that he says justifies the classes: Psalm 144:1, “The Lord has trained me for battle”; and Luke 22:36, in which Jesus instructs the disciples to arm themselves.

I actually posted Luke 22:38 earlier today on Facebook:

So they said, “Lord, look! Here are two swords.”
He answered them, “Enough of that!”

Typical translations will have Jesus reply: “That is enough,” but I like this version. It’s as if Jesus is dismissing such talk. Yet in either case, Jesus is noting that his disciples are not to be about aggression and violence. Two swords would be laughed at in the face of even the smallest contingent of Roman or Herodian soldiers. He would face their worst, and was not about to respond in kind.

RELATED: Christianity, Gun Violence, and the Nihilism of Mike Huckabee

But back to our pistol-packing pastor:
He was expecting more than 100 people to attend his latest class, mandated by the state for concealed handgun licenses. The class costs $50, and in recent months, McAbee’s business has tripled and he’s trained more than 1,000 people.

What do you think? Is he doing a good thing? Is it possible to teach someone to trust in God and take security matters into their own hands? My own sense is that the need to carry the gun points to the opposite of trust in God. “Sure, I’ll trust you, God, up until the point I actually need to trust you. At that point, I’ll take care of things myself, thank you.”

There’s more to the story:

Guns were a normal part of McAbee’s life. He was raised in the small town of Clover, S.C., where his grandfather took him hunting. His mother worked in law enforcement and carried a gun.

One day at the range, his mother accidentally shot and partially paralyzed herself. McAbee was 9.

He grew up caring for his mother, and the stress took a toll. As a teenager he started using drugs and stealing to feed his habit.

When he was 18, McAbee was caught breaking into an elderly neighbor’s house. He was convicted of burglary, aggravated assault and battery, and served 2 1/2 years in a maximum-security prison.

There, McAbee felt called to preach.

This is a fascinating story. This guy spends time in prison because his mother shot herself with her own gun, yet he’s still enamored with them. Amazing. In prison he finds God. You’d think perhaps he would turn over a new leaf in regard to guns. The story continues (you’re not even going to believe this part):

In 2008, his mother again wounded herself with her own gun. Weakened by the shooting, she died later that year.

Seriously? She does this twice?! And she worked in law enforcement. You’d think this would be it for McAbee and guns. There’s no way he can look at one and say, “Hey, this is a good thing, more people ought to have these…” Except he does.

McAbee’s attitude about guns was unchanged: “Don’t blame the tool.”

Don’t blame the tool. Indeed.

MacAbee was hired three years ago at his present church, which is in a low-income neighborhood where gun crimes and celebratory gunfire is not uncommon. The day after Obama was re-elected, he bought an AR-15 assault rifle for nearly $1,000. He noted: “If the thugs are going to have one, I’m going to have one too.” If he insists on referring to people in his neighborhood as thugs, people who need the kind of help and life his church can offer, he might as well be armed. And apparently he is.

On occasion, the article notes, McAbee wears two guns to church — the .40 on his hip and the .380 in the ankle holster. His wife also carries a concealed gun. Neither has a safety on the guns they carry, and they like to keep a bullet chambered.

People think I’m a gun nut and gun crazy, but I’m not. I don’t want to hurt anybody. I believe the Bible teaches peace. But that doesn’t mean I should let them hurt me.

That’s like saying: “I believe the Bible teaches peace. But I don’t actually believe in trying it for myself.”

Imagine if Jesus had said, “My way is peace, and how dare you lay a finger on me, Pilate! I’m locked and loaded, baby!”

I invite you to read the rest of the story and draw your own conclusions.There’s been obviously tons of talk about guns of late, beginning with the Newtown tragedy and recent attempts at gun legislation. There are differing perspectives as to what the second amendment should mean today (or even meant originally).

Personally, I am amazed that someone who spent part of his adult life in prison and lost his own mother due to guns would have such a perspective. My own sense is that a ‘pistol-packing pastor’ is an oxymoron, and such an example doesn’t teach people anything about trusting in God, or about the way of Christ.

But I could be wrong about that.

In Session: Pub Theology 101

In Session: Pub Theology 101

A Guide to Cultivating Meaningful Conversations at the Pub

You’ve heard about people gathering at the pub to talk about God and faith, and wondered, why aren’t I doing this? Now you can, thanks to this new guide by Bryan Berghoef, author of Pub Theology: Beer, Conversation, and God. Here Bryan walks through all the steps to beginning your own Pub Theology group, from choosing a location to deciding what to talk about. (You’ll have to make your own decision as to whether you prefer an IPA or a stout). And the best part of this new book: hundreds of discussion topics and questions, sorted by category–such as art, belief, death, morality, philosophy, politics, science, and world religions, to name a few–that Bryan has compiled from over five years’ worth of pub discussions.

So what are you waiting for? This is the inspiration you’ve needed, and the resources to boot, all for less than the price of a pint!
—Book description at Amazon.com

Pub Theology 101
Hot off the press!

My new book, Pub Theology 101: A Guide to Cultivating Meaningful Conversations at the Pub, is out TODAY for Kindle for only $2.99! (Go to Amazon page)

After my first book, Pub Theology, came out, I began to hear from people all over the country—some leading similar groups, others wanting to get one going. The constant request was: what do we talk about? Do you have some topics for us to get started?

I have compiled all of my topics, questions, and quotes from facilitating Pub Theology sessions for the last five years into one handy ebook, all sorted by category, as well as some tips and suggestions for best practices. And I’m making it all available for—have I said this—less than the price of a pint (or a tip to the bartender.) This is a must-have resource for anyone leading discussions at the pub!

You can carry this handy guide with you on your Kindle or smartphone and pull it out whenever you’re looking for something interesting to talk about with friends, or when prepping for facilitating a Pub Theology session (or Theology Pub, or Theology on Tap, or even Scripture and Scotch, as I heard the other day).

Quotes from Bob Dylan, Søren Kierkegaard, Mother Theresa, Mark Driscoll, Thomas Aquinas, Rob Bell, Kester Brewin, John Piper, Peter Rollins, John Calvin, the Talmud, the Buddha, Plato, Demosthenes, Immanuel Kant, Martin Buber, Abraham Joshua Heschel, Tim Keller, Richard Rohr, Jesus, the Shepherd of Hermas, Marcus Borg, Karen Armstrong, Walter Wink, John Frame, Elizabeth Gilbert, Oprah, C.S. Lewis, Doug Pagitt, Blaise Pascal, Ludwig Feuerbach, Leo Tolstoy, Paul Tillich, and. . . many many more questions that I’ve written or others have shared with me —all gathered here, for your pub theologizing pleasure.

So what are you waiting for? Get your copy now!

I should also mention—there’s no marketing plan and no major publisher behind this, it is totally word of mouth and grassroots, so share on your Facebook page, Tweet it, pass it along to friends. If you know anyone who might benefit from this resource—let them know!

*Also, if this resource proves helpful to you, please leave a review at Amazon!

Don’t have a Kindle? You can get a free Kindle reading app for your Mac, your PC, your tablet, iPad, phone… Or, you can convert it to Nook or other another eReader format at Calibre.

From Chad Schuitema, facilitator of Pub Theology Lafayette:

“Everything you need to start your own Pub Gatherings – except the courage! The enormous amount of questions and discussion starters have helped me not only with each week’s gathering, but have helped me come up with my own as well. A much needed resource!”
God Doesn’t Need our Help, But He Asks for It

God Doesn’t Need our Help, But He Asks for It

James K. A. Smith wrote a new blog post this morning: God Doesn’t Need Our Help. And since, per usual, no comments are allowed, I thought I’d respond with a post of my own.  And, per usual, your comments are welcome!

He begins with this notion that there is now a “new apologetics” afoot in Christianity to make the faith more palatable in an age of intellectualism and postmodernity:

In our age of post-Christian anxiety, where so many worry about young people leaving the faith and the implausibility of Christianity in a secular age, we get a new apologetics.  The goal of the new apologetics is not to prove or defend the puzzling and scandalous aspects of orthodox Christianity.  Instead, the goal is to show that “authentic” Christianity, or the “true” Gospel, is not offensive–that the “God of love” worshiped by Christians is pretty much the God you would want.

I’m guessing that the efforts he has in mind are generally emergent-style approaches, such as Brian McLaren’s “Naked Spirituality” or Rob Bell’s “Love Wins.”  These folks make God so warm and fuzzy as to remove all objectionable content, Smith is arguing.  One wishes he would provide specific examples, and then counter with a better approach.  He does gloss over a few such theological touchstones like hell and the atonement, but fails to articulate what he feels is an insufficient understanding, or how he would like it framed.

He goes on to note the dubious path of this ‘new apologetics’:

That presents a challenge, of course, but the challenge is not located where you might think.  Instead of spending its energy on articulating, explaining, and defending the coherence of biblical, historic Christianity (including all the “hard truths” that attend it), the new apologetics expends its energy convincing the skeptic that all sorts of aspects of “Christianity” are, in fact, non-essential accretions or downright deformative perversions of “true” or “authentic” Christianity.  This is undertaken in the name of removing “intellectual hurdles” to the Christian faith.  If you look again at how many new apologists frame their “reconsiderations” of hell, or the doctrine of the atonement, or the doctrine of original sin in light of evolutionary evidence, or traditional Christian sexual ethics, I suggest you’ll often find they “frame” their project something like this: “These are aspects of Christianity that are just not believable today.  But that’s OK, because it turns out that they’re also aspects that are not really biblical and not really Christian.  So don’t let those things stop you from believing.” [Then cue your favorite tale about “Hellenization” or “Constantinianism” or “fundamentalism” here.]

Where to begin?  First of all, most efforts I am tuned in to that are rearticulating the faith have nothing to do with making Christianity more palatable, but with honest attempts to engage the biblical and historical material, and go where the evidence leads.  He intentionally twists this around, noting that many begin with deciding something is not believable, then attempt to justify it biblically and historically.  Is there any evidence that this is the actual motivation of these “new apologists”?  It is quite a charge to make, and we might wish to have this in hand before agreeing to the point.

Smith wishes that this new approach would spend its energy “articulating, explaining and defending the coherence of biblical, historic Christianity (including all the “hard truths” that attend it).”  Yet the hard truth here is that a single, unified “historic Christianity” simply doesn’t exist.  It’s a convenient fiction by which we tell ourselves we are simply walking the path that began with the first disciples undistorted down to our day.

As Harvey Cox notes in The Future of Faith: “When I attended seminary, most historians conveyed the impression that once upon a time there was a single entity called “early Christianity,” but that gradually certain heresies and schisms arose on the margins and disrupted the initial harmony.  In the last few decades, however, all these assumptions have proven erroneous.  There never was a single “early Christianity”; there were many, and the idea of “heresy” was unknown.”

Speaking Of…

Are some folks interested in changing theology to make it more ‘believable’?  Probably.  That may well be true in certain cases.  But many, many folks I study and read are simply interested in studying the biblical and historical record to know what a text or doctrine actually meant when it was written, and the context in which it arose. The consequences for theology only come later, if at all.  It strains credulity to imagine this hard work of studying, gathering and analyzing all the evidence from linguistic, archaeological, cultural, literary and historical sources is done simply for the sake of inventing a more believable Christianity!

In fact, Smith himself would prefer us to begin with the answers, pay attention only to evidence that supports his version of orthodoxy, and ignore everything else.  Which does the very thing he claims the “new apologetics” does: it makes Christianity more palatable for his particular audience.  Smith teaches at Calvin College, a private, Reformed institution.  [Cue your favorite tale about “John Calvin” or “Heidelberg” or “ham on buns.”]

This version of the faith is meant to be more amenable to his audience, precisely because it is the same version that his students’ parents hold and the same version his administrators hold, not to mention the donors who fund the whole enterprise.  In seeking to display honest attempts at understanding the Bible and church history as dishonest marketing efforts for Christianity, Smith succumbs to his own charge: he defends the status quo under the guise of honest theological discussion.

Instead of having a response to those who may look at early church doctrine and the influence of Hellenization (i.e., being shaped by Greek thought and philosophy), he wants us to ignore it.  Instead of acknowledging the troubling political realities surrounding the church councils at which some of the core doctrines of “historic Christianity” were founded, Smith would prefer us to just ‘take their word for it’ and carry on, because ‘there’s nothing to see here.’  Who cares if Nicea was presided over by a corrupt Roman emperor who had power and national unity in mind rather than any real interest in theological accuracy?  That’s no business of ours!  Our charge is to assume they got it exactly right, and continue to uphold the “hard doctrines” upon which our forebears spent so much personal capital.  Speaking of ignoring intellectual challenges.

Listen to Calvin College’s own statement of its calling, as articulated by Neal Plantinga:  “We [Christians] learn to distrust simple accounts of complex events and to be prepared for the place human irrationality has in the course of human history. All this equips us to understand the world in which we are to be peace agents. Just as no CIA agent would be sent to an area of which she was ignorant, so it’s folly for us to expect to serve and transform a world we do not know.”


Smith argues that such a “new apologetics” (which, by the way, is a convenient title for something that doesn’t exist) avoids intellectual rigor, but it is clear enough that he is the one advocating for ignoring historical realities that might challenge one’s doctrinal heritage.  Yet to articulate that would ruffle some institutional feathers (something a few of his colleagues learned is not to be done).

I hate to break it to Jamie, but there is no “new apologetics.”  However, there is renewed interest in discovering more closely what was going on in the first century in Galilee and the Ancient Near East, what was behind early church councils that codified doctrines for all time, and what it might look like to live out a meaningful Christian faith today.

Old Faithful

Smith then goes for the bread and butter of his audience:

But it seems to me that this sort of project is predicated on a particular account of faith that is often left implicit.  In particular, it seems to assume that if someone is going to come to believe the Gospel they must be convinced since their belief is a matter of their choice.  Or at the very least, the intellectual hurdles that stand in the way of their believing must be removed.  If we do that, then the way is clear for them to choose to believe. The new apologetic, in other words, is fundamentally Arminian, perhaps even Pelagian (and yes, I know the difference*).  The drive to eliminate intellectual and “moral” hurdles to belief is a fundamentally Arminian project insofar as it seems to assume that “believability” is a condition for the skeptic or nonbeliever to then be able to “make that step” toward belief. While this might confirm a lot of prejudices, it should be said that this is an odd strategy if one is an Augustinian or a Calvinist–since in an Augustinian account, any belief is a gift, a grace that is given by God himself.  So if God is going to grant the gift of belief, it seems that God would able to grant and empower a faith that can also believe the scandalous.  In other words, God doesn’t need our help.

Here Smith attempts to resuscitate a long-dead theological squabble because he knows mere mention of the word “Arminian” still might rankle a few folks in West Michigan.  To get non-Reformed folks up to speed: Arminianism is based on the theological ideas of the Dutch Reformed theologian Jacobus Arminius (1560–1609) and his historic supporters known as the Remonstrants. It is known as a soteriological sect of Protestant Christianity. The crux of this  Arminianism lay in the assertion that human dignity requires an unimpaired freedom of the will.  In other words, one can choose faith or resist it.  One can choose to follow Jesus, or not. (Seems fairly obvious on the face of it).

Ah… but how do we pair this common sense, seemingly obvious reality with the doctrine that God has elected people before they were born for either heaven or hell?  Forget common sense: nobody chooses Jesus.  Jesus chooses you.  In a word, Arminianism attempted to give people dignity, to show that faith is not a farce, and that God, in essence, hasn’t rigged the game.

But let’s wake up to the fact that such arguments are about things that have little or nothing to do with a life of actually following the very earthy (and earthly) Jesus of Nazareth, whom one can scarcely imagine had time for such esoteric theological squabbling.  Smith is worried we might violate a theological construct from the Middle Ages that almost nobody cares about today.  Rather than constructively present a coherent theological impetus for engaging the world and society today, including concerns about peace and conflict, environment and ecology, and human sexuality, Smith would rather us look worriedly over our shoulder at a conflict from 600 years ago about something that no one can figure out conclusively anyway.

But Smith knows this much: in Calvinistic circles, accusing your opponent of being an Arminian ends the argument.  Case closed!  They’re heretics, so they’re obviously wrong.

In Closing

Jamie Smith’s conclusion: God doesn’t need our help.  He can choose us or not.  He can save our world from ecological or military disaster just fine without us.  He can grow his church without us (wait, I thought we were the body of Christ… but I digress).  Why worry about new constructive efforts for living out the faith today?  Why bother with things like Christian education?  Why even write blog posts on the topic?  Such human efforts are surely irrelevant in the face of this austere and omnipotent Calvinistic Zeus. God must be genuinely grateful for such an eloquent defense of his inscrutable ways (though God knows he doesn’t need it).

Much of this seems contrary to the picture one finds in the Scriptures: a God who willingly partners with humanity, and sets them as caretakers over his entire creation (The original Hebrew hides this line in chapter 2: “Just kidding, Adam!  Don’t need you at all.  Especially if you mess things up.”).

All through the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures God not only needs our help, he asks for it.

A Jewish perspective (which, by the way, precedes later “heretical” developments like Pelagianism or Arminianism by just a wee bit) is that God has chosen to partner with humanity.  That he does, in fact, need us, and has chosen to need us.  To say otherwise is to belittle the hard fought efforts of people such as Mother Theresa, Martin Luther King Jr., and many, many other unheralded people of faith who work hard every day to bring a bit of God’s healing into this broken creation.  And more specifically to Smith’s point on belief: God has used men and women to carry the message of the gospel to people far and wide so that they would believe, from the very beginning.

As Jesus said to Paul on the road to Damascus:
“Now get up and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do.”

God doesn’t need us?  Someone forgot to tell that to Jesus.

Is God a Person?

Post by Richard Rohr

To get a proper divine conversation started and going, we all have to think of God as a “person” somehow. Otherwise there is no reciprocity, mutuality, give and take, no ONE to love, no “I and Thou”. Humans only know how to relate to other persons initially. But if you stay there too long, you pay a big price, because God ends up being on the other end of YOUR conversation, which keeps God SEPARATE and somehow in need of daily “appeasement”. True intimacy is pretty hard to experience at this level, at least for long. The whole point of prayer is to lead you to experience and say what Jesus finally says “I and the Father are one!” (John 10:30). Then you do not pray to God as much as you pray THROUGH and WITH God. (Note how the official liturgical prayers end “THROUGH Christ our Lord. Amen.”)

Eventually you must stop looking AT reality, and you will learn to look OUT FROM reality! This a major and heart stopping change, and admittedly most people never go to this mystical level–because they were not taught very well, frankly. It is not because they are not worthy or incapable, but they usually feel unworthy and feel incapable. They are not.


When prayer naturally matures, God is not so much “A Person” out there, that I must cajole, adore, and obey, but God has become the VERY GROUND OF ALL BEING, which is in dialogue with you, loving you, receiving your praise, calling you forth, forgiving you, and revealing a gracious divine will in all things as they are. Prayer is now all the time and everywhere, as long as you are conscious and awake!


At this point it is still OK to think and talk of God as a person–as long as you know it is not really true–in the way you ordinarily use that phrase! God is no longer a mere person, but ALL of reality itself has become PERSONAL, relational, dialogical, giving and receiving, loving and lovable. God cannot be localized here or there any more (Luke 17:20), but as the old catechism said “God is everywhere”. This is a major and important maturing in one’s relationship with God, yet so few spiritual guides know how to lead us across when we think we are losing our initial faith. You indeed are! But you are finding a much deeper faith, and you must go through this necessary trial and darkness to grow up spiritually and experience true and full intimacy with God (Read St. John of the Cross, if you doubt me.)


For Christians, the paradox is resolved in the Trinity. They can continue to relate to Jesus PERSONALLY, but when their prayer becomes fully Trinitarian, as we see in the Christian mystics, God is not just A person that they have a relationship with, but God is RELATIONSHIP ITSELF (internally in God) and draws everything into that ONE DIVINE DANCE (externally in the universe). More and more people, I am finding, are ready for such adult Christianity and such mature spirituality (See Hebrews 5:12-13). Only then does “everything belong”, and only then do we get off the childish teeter-totter and fall onto a solid ground of joy. But it will surely feel like falling! Don’t be afraid.

What do you think of Rohr’s contemplative/mystical approach?  Would love to get your comments! 


Three Cheers | A Christmas Eve Reflection

From Robert Farrar Capon:

Advent is the church’s annual celebration of the silliness (from selig, which is German for “blessed”) of salvation. The whole thing really is a divine lark. God has fudged everything in our favour: without shame or fear we rejoice to behold his appearing. Yes, there is dirt under the divine Deliverer’s fingernails. But no, it isn’t any different from all the other dirt of history. The main thing is, he’s got the package and we’ve got the trust: Lo, he comes with clouds descending. Alleluia, and three cheers.

What we are watching for is a party. And that party is not just down the street making up its mind when to come to us. It is already hiding in our basement, banging on our steam pipes, and laughing its way up our cellar stairs. The unknown day and hour of its finally bursting into the kitchen and roistering its way through the whole house is not dreadful; it is all part of the divine lark of grace.

God is not our mother-in-law, coming to see whether her wedding-present china has been chipped. He is funny Old Uncle with a salami under one arm and a bottle of wine under the other. We do indeed need to watch for him; but only because it would be such a pity to miss all the fun.

Pub Theology Recap June 16

one tasty beverage

Whose idea is it to recap a discussion on theology over beer a week later?  Not a great idea.

But here goes anyway.

These were last week’s topics, and I’ll do my best to give a couple thoughts that were expressed:

1.    What is your favorite part about summer?

2.    How does one move forward after a tragedy?  How do you explain it?

3.    Is history science or art?  (See recent Paul Revere revisionism)

4.    “Children are bad at lying for the same reason that adults are. We are born with a conscience (which is God’s voice in our soul) that says it is wrong for us to bear false witness.”

5.    The Declaration of Independence dogmatically bases all rights on the fact that God created all men equal; and it is right; for if they were not created equal, they were certainly evolved unequal. There is no basis for democracy except in a dogma about the divine origin of man.

6.  “The point of the universe is the hallowing of God’s name.”

Favorite parts about summer: no socks, the beach, SUNSHINE!, garden parties, SUNSHINE! and so on…  in short – we’ve waited a long time for summer, and woohoo!  it’s here!

Topic no.2 was a much more sobering one, given the tragedy with Carly Lewis, a local teenager who was killed in Traverse City.

How do you move forward after something like this?  How do you explain it?

Most said that there is no explaining a tragedy, other than giving the straightforward account of what happened:  so-and-so did this, and so-and-so did that, and X or Y was the result.  It sucks, but that is what happened.  Most felt it was beyond us, or even inappropriate, to try to give any larger philosophical or speculative explanations about the bigger picture.

That said, many felt that what is most important is how one responds to a tragedy.  One can wallow in it, perhaps even remain paralyzed by it.  One can find something deep inside that they didn’t have before.  One can find communal support that he or she wasn’t aware of before.  And one can perhaps be a source of help for others experiencing similar difficult situations.

But much of that is down the road.  The immediate reality is grief, shock, anger – raw emotion.  And no one can tell anyone else how they ought to respond to such things.

Some personal stories were shared around this topic, and I think it was a meaningful and important time to spend together.

Topic no.3:  is history science or art?  Did Paul Revere ring bells while warning the British about American weapons?

Here’s a re-enactment by Stephen Colbert of Paul Revere’s famous midnight ride:

OK, it’s not letting me embed.  Here’s the link:


4.  We noted that children are actually quite decent at lying, and adults perhaps even moreso.  But what does lying say about someone?  And have you ever experienced someone blatantly lying to you and you knew it?  What did you do?

5.  Everyone agreed this quote was bunk.

6.  One person responded: “I don’t think that is the point of the universe.”  Then he rephrased, “Or maybe that’s part of it – but it isn’t the whole thing.”  What do you think?

The Wars of the Lord 5

This is the fifth in a series of posts about the wars God commanded the Israelites to fight against the Canaanites, guided by some excerpts from Thom Stark’s excellent book, The Human Faces of God: What Scripture Reveals When It Gets God Wrong (and Why Inerrancy Tries to Hide It) (2011, Wipf and Stock).

Some great responses to my earlier posts – I appreciate some of the pushback as well as some of the alternate possible understandings.  The issue no doubt merits further review, and I should clarify that I’m not sure where I fall on this whole discussion, as I’ve been by and large presenting the views in Thom Stark’s book.  I think he raises some very valid questions, and isn’t willing to settle for the usual answers or simple solutions.  That said, I may not agree with him everywhere, and some of you have noted excellent other possible approaches as voiced by Greg Boyd and Walter Brueggemann among others.

One respondent to the first post noted the following possibilities:

— Maybe the [Israelites] (or their power-hungry leaders) made up the stuff about how God told us to do x, y, and z to get the people to do things they would ordinarily find repellent.

— Or, this is the usual revisionist history to boost morale, legitimize past war crimes and maintain the new dominance.

— Or, more specifically, as one of my Calvin profs barely hinted at, maybe all this stuff about violently defeating their enemies was an attempt to glorify (in a war-glorifying world) what was actually a gradual immigration involving a somewhat boring and dishonorable out-reproducing of the natives, cultural and genetic assimilation and religious syncretism.

In this post I want to focus on the third possibility that he raises, and we’ll find that we may wind up looking at the first two as well.

The question is: did these brutalizing campaigns and slaughter of the people of Canaan and elsewhere actually happen?

I suppose many of us would initially respond to that question with, “Of course it happened – it’s in the Bible.”  But I wonder if it’s that simple.

Thom Stark notes that “the conquest narratives face serious problems with regard to historicity.”

In other words, did they really happen?  Or at least happen as depicted in the text?

Inventing Genocide?

It appears that “many of the conquest accounts depicted in the biblical narratives are in fact contradicted both by archaeological and internal textual evidence.”

For example:

In Numbers 20:14-21, the Israelites head east across the Negev and arrive at Edom, where, according to the text, they are refused passage by the king of Edom.  Yet the archaeological record indicates that at this period, there were only a meager number of nomadic tribes in the region of Edom.  Israel could not have been denied access by the king of Edom, since Edom did not attain statehood until the seventh century BCE, approximately 600 years after the events depicted in Numbers.  There was no king to deny them access!

Further, Num 21:1-3 narrates that Israel destroyed all the cities of the northern Negev, in the region of Arad.  One of the cities they subsequently renamed “Hormah” (meaning ‘destruction’).  Contrary to this, excavations in the 1970s found that no Late Bronze Age occupational levels exist in this entire region.  In other words, at the time of the supposed Israelite attacks, nobody was home.  With regard to the city of Arad in particular, it was not founded until the tenth century BCE, about 300 years after the events described in Numbers.  Furthermore, the tenth century city of Arad was built upon the ruins of an Early Bronze Age settlement, which was abandoned at around 2600 BCE.  Thus, at the time the Israelites are said to have destroyed it, Arad had already been a ruin for over 1,300 years.

But how accurate is the archaeology, you may ask.  Or do the archaeologists have an agenda to disprove the biblical account?

From 1968-1976, the site of ancient Heshbon was excavated by a group of archaelogists who also happened to be confessing Seventh-day Adventists.  They had set out to prove the accuracy of the Bible.  What they found instead was no evidence of any Late Bronze Age settlements.  In fact, according to their results, the city of Heshbon was not founded until the Iron II period – at the earliest, 250 years after the events depicted in Numbers and Deuteronomy.

Apparently not an isolated incident.  The Moabite city of Dibon was excavated by a group of Southern Baptist scholars in the 1950’s, a city which according to Num 21:30 (and 32:3) was besieged and subdued by the Israelites.  They were expecting the biblical claims to be validated by the archaeological record.  Their excavation resulted in the discovery of the sparse remains of a city from the ninth century BCE, some 400 years after the time of the conquest, and no Late Bronze Age residues.  Once again, Israel had sieged a city that wasn’t there.

There are more examples.  One archaeologist, Joseph Callaway, a conservative Christian and a professor at Southern Baptist Seminary set out to reexamine several biblical sites, hoping to vindicate the biblical record against earlier findings.  Instead, he too confirmed the earlier findings and conceded the historical inaccuracy of accounts like Joshua 7-8.  Callaway wrote, “For many years, the primary source for the understanding of the settlement of the first Israelites was the Hebrew Bible, but every reconstruction based upon the biblical traditions has foundered on the evidence from archaeological remains.”  After this, Callaway took an early retirement from the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.

Stark notes that some of these facts actually seem to be reflected in the biblical accounts themselves.  For example, the city of Ai mentioned in Joshua 7-8 literally means “ruin.”  Most scholars believe that the account of the destruction of Ai was an etiological narrative, explaining how the ruin came to be such.  That it is known in the Bible by no other name than “ruin” suggests that it was already a ruin by the time the Israelites arrived.  Interesting, isn’t it?  This is in fact what the archaeological record shows, a fact that is quiet problematic for inerrantists, who concede that a solution to the ‘Ai problem’ continues to be elusive.

One of the few sites at which excavations have shown evidence to corroborate a biblical conquest account is Hazor, which was excavated by Yigael Yadin from Hebrew University in Jerusalem.  They have found destruction levels dating to the thirteenth century – the period of the conquest.  This means that the account of the destruction of Hazor is most likely based on a tradition with a historical kernel.

Stark concludes, “In light of this overwhelming evidence against the historicity of the biblical conquest account, some conservative biblical apologists have begun to attempt to use this to their advantage.  For instance, Paul Copan argues from the archaeological evidence that the Canaanite conquest did not occur, thereby exonerating Yahweh an the Israelites from charges of genocide.”

I wouldn’t mind this conclusion.

Yet Stark notes that for inerrantists, this is hardly a defensible strategy: “Apart from conceding the loss of biblical inerrancy, it continues to ignore two facts.  First, such annihilations most likely did occur, as the archaeological record at Hazor and some other sites seem to confirm.  There is no reason to doubt that early Israelites did engage in such warfare.  Although Ai, Jericho, and other genocidal battles probably never occurred, it is not likely that such stories were invented whole cloth.  They would have been rooted in the historical memory of similar battles, although probably much fewer in number than the account in Joshua claims.  Second, even if the genocides never took place historically, that does not remove the problem that they are presented as Yahweh’s ideal in the scriptures.  Even if it is merely rhetoric, it is evil rhetoric.”

Stark goes on, “Apologists taking this tack have unwittingly conceded to my own position: that a loving God could not have commanded genocide, and our scriptures are therefore deeply problematic.”

There are later textual discrepancies that note the Israelites wiped out the Midianites (in Deut and again in Joshua 13:21), yet Judges 6 tells us that a few generations later, the Midianites are not only alive but are powerful and numerous enough to have been Israel’s oppressors!  Stark asks, “How did this occur?  Did the surviving virgins who were assimilated into Israel’s ranks conceive from their Israelite husbands and secretly raise a Midianite army?”

Inerrantist biblical scholars acknowledge these discrepancies, but dispense with them by claiming that descriptions of slaughter of “everything that lives and breathes” were “not necessarily intended literally.”  Stark notes that “this is a classic example of the unwritten inerrantist hermeneutical principle that historical texts must be interpreted literally unless or until a literal interpretation creates a factual discrepancy, in which case it obviously must be taken metaphorically.”

So we’re still stuck – the biblical stories seem exaggerated beyond what plausibly took place historically, yet they do in fact represent some historical events, even if not to the same scale.  So where does that leave us?

The Empire Strikes Back

Here’s where we get into the first two points raised earlier.

Lawson Younger, an evangelical scholar, has done work on ancient conquest myths and has compared the accounts in Joshua to Hittite, Egyptian, and Assyrian conquest literature.  He concludes that “the historical narrative in which Joshua 9-12 is cast utilizes a common transmission code observable in numerous ancient Near Eastern conquest accounts, employing the same ideology.”

He goes on: “The ideology which lies behind the text of Joshua is one like that underlying other ancient Near Eastern conquest accounts – namely, imperialistic.”

In other words, Stark summarizes, “The literature reflects the attempt of rising empires to express their hegemony through origin stories that crystallize their present-day claims to power.  These origin myths present the young nation as an unstoppable force, specially empowered by the deity whose strength far outstrips that of other tribal deities.  The myths serve to crystallize and legitimize the nation’s rise to power.”

Aren’t we jumping the gun here though?  Can we just automatically make the leap that because we have comparable literature from other nations, it means Israel was doing the same thing?  Good question.

I think we need to again consider the timing of when these accounts were written.  It is important to note that the conquest accounts in the Bible reflect almost no knowledge of thirteenth-century geography; instead the geography reflects the vantage point of a writer from about the seventh century BCE.  A large number of critical scholars believe it is likely that many of these accounts were written during the reign of King Josiah, whose unprecedented (and extremely violent) reforms consolidated religious and political power within Jerusalem.  Stark notes that “Joshua, the ideal leader, would thus have been read as a type of Josiah.”

He goes on to note that the narrative functions as a type of propaganda, helping legitimize Josiah’s consolidation of power in the name of national unity and faithfulness to Yahweh.  Historian Eric Hobsbawm notes that “traditions which appear or claim to be old are often quite recent in origin and sometimes invented.”

Legitimating Empire

Such invented or partly-invented origin myths are not anything new to us, notes Stark.  For example, he notes, search any Texas high school history textbook, in which we learn about the “hostile Indians” and the “brave Americans” who made the land secure for peace and prosperity.

“The ‘othering’ of national enemies is a ubiquitous feature in these national origin myths.  This kind of history-making is found wherever there is power, and especially where there is militaristic power with imperialistic pretensions.”

So is it possible that some of the history in our own Scriptures fall under this category as well?  We may not like to think so, but I think, given the historical record and the textual evidence, we have to grant that it is at least a possibility.

Stay tuned for perhaps one more post on the subject…

The Wars of the Lord 3

Worth a read

This is the third in a series of posts about the wars God commanded the Israelites to fight against the Canaanites, guided by some excerpts from Thom Stark’s excellent book, The Human Faces of God: What Scripture Reveals When It Gets God Wrong (and Why Inerrancy Tries to Hide It) (2011, Wipf and Stock).

In our last post we looked at the possibility that God was simply working within a warring culture and showing improvement amidst that.

On further review, it seemed that perhaps that wasn’t entirely true, particularly in instances where God instituted what is called ‘the ban’ – the ancient practice of committing an entire city or town to utter destruction on behalf of a god, as an act of sacrifice or dedication.  This was a practice other ancient cultures also did in the names of their gods.  So much for improvement.

We ended by saying that perhaps we need to understand it another way, within the broader framework of God’s overarching plan for Israel, expressed in the form of his promise to Abraham – that through his seed all the nations of the earth will be blessed.

I think many of us resonate with this, because it seems to echo so much of what we see in the life of Jesus and the early church in the New Testament.

One theologian, Christopher Wright, puts it this way: “the overall thrust of the Old Testament is not Israel against the nations, but Israel for the sake of the nations.”

The challenge is seeing how the texts endorsing slaughter in Numbers, Deuteronomy and Joshua support that, (let alone the rest of the OT).  In fact, Thom Stark notes that “the number of texts in which Israel is pitted against the nations far outnumber those in which Israel is for them.”

But perhaps we could see this as Israel’s failing, rather than God’s, as the prophets so often reminded them.  God wanted them to be a blessing, but they didn’t live up to it.  I think that is very often the case.

But that still doesn’t explain the texts in which they are commanded, by God, to destroy some of these nations they are supposed to bless.

“Imagine the Israelite soldier consoling the young Canaanite girl, just before running her through with the sword: “Not to worry, young lady.  In the overall scheme of things, my people are going to be a blessing to people like you.”


But what about the idea that through Israel would come the Messiah, and so God needed to protect and preserve Israel to bring the messiah into the world?  Stark asks, “How is it that an omnipotent and omniscient God – who is powerful enough to fashion the world with a few words and to bring the dead back from the grave – could not think of any way to bring the messiah into the world than to kill helpless Canaanite children?”

Some of you responded to the last post questioning whether these texts simply represent the human element of what was happening more so than a divine stamp of approval.  It is worth considering (we’ll get to this momentarily).

This protecting-the-messiah tack is “essentially a utilitarian argument: the end justifies the means.  It is at this point that the Christian apologist’s fervent defense of the idea of absolute, objective morality is tossed aside in the name of biblical inerrancy.  The claim is ultimately that although genocide is morally wrong, God had to do it in order to protect the lineage of one Jesus of Nazareth.”

Old and New

But if we go this route, we have to be prepared for the consequences:  that this kind of argument will be used again.

Stark explains: “This end-justifies-the-means mentality has manifested itself elsewhere in history.  An immediate example would be the United States of America.  Like ancient Israelites, early European Americans believed they had a special calling from God, a calling to be a light to the nations.  To them, their destiny was plainly manifest.  God had brought them to this bountiful new land, flowing with milk and honey, and although it was necessary to eradicate the malignancy of the savage natives, in the end, the blessings the United States had to offer the world would far outweigh any necessary evils committed along the way.”

This really was the mentality.  Listen to one American writer waxing just so in the 1800’s:

“Our annals describe no scenes of horrid carnage, where men were led on by hundreds of thousands to slay one another… This is our high destiny, and in nature’s eternal, inevitable decree of cause and effect, we must accomplish it.  All this will be our future history, to establish on earth the moral dignity and salvation of man – the immutable truth and beneficence of God.  For this blessed mission to the nations of the world, which are shut out from the life-giving light of truth, has America been chosen.”  (John O’Sullivan, “Great Nation of Futurity”, 427, 430).

We might not like this honest assessment of our own history, but who of us cannot read this and cringe?  It’s true – we committed indefensible evils in our treatment of the Native peoples, and did it in the name of God.  And then, centuries later, it was conveniently seen as the bigger picture of what God is doing in the world.

Rereading the Bible

Isn’t it at least possible that ancient Israel did exactly the same thing?  Committed atrocities as a growing nation and in retrospect credited it to God?  (The Scriptural accounts were written down much later than the occurrence of the actual events).  You may not like this approach, and I’m not sure I do, but we have to at least grant that it’s a possibility.

Are people any different today than they were then?  Maybe in some ways, but not in every way.  We want to make an exception, because “it’s in the Bible.”  I certainly want to.  But if you’re not willing to at least grant the possibility, you may be defending an idea about the Bible that may not actually be the case about the Bible (but that’s another blog post).

Some will say that this devalues the Bible.  Maybe.  Maybe not.  It is interesting that some will prefer to defend the Bible than to defend God.  I’m not so sure a perfect Bible is more comforting than a perfect God.

This approach actually gets God off the hook for some pretty heinous stuff.  Shouldn’t we consider it, or perhaps even embrace it?  Who wants to worship a God who looked exactly like the gods of Mesopotamia, Sumeria, Egypt, and Babylon?  If the God the Germans worshiped in the 1930’s and 40’s endorsed the holocaust, and it was in our Scriptures, would we just swallow common sense and say, ‘Well, God said…’?

Fell From Heaven?

Is there room in our assessment of Scripture to say that it is a product of humanity?  There has to be. Can anyone even argue this is not the case?  No one that I know argues that the original manuscripts were some golden tablets that fell from heaven discovered in the hills somewhere in Galilee (or upstate New York).  That would be a different religion.

Humans wrote the Bible.  And humanity, as we know, is incredibly flawed.  That does not mean God was not involved in the writing of the Bible.  I believe he was.  But I don’t believe the Bible fell from heaven, or was directly dictated to people who were little more than robots.  The evidence doesn’t support such a claim.  In fact, a Reformed view of the inspiration of Scripture is that it was organic.  In other words, it was a cooperative effort between humanity and God.  I think too often we fail to allow this view to fully develop.

People were involved.  So is it really beyond the pale to assume that on some occasions people put their particular spin on events of history?  Or even that in some cases they put words in God’s mouth?  People certainly do it today, and we tend to be skeptical when they do.  Someone will say “God told me that you need to _____.”  We hear that and are generally skeptical.  But when we read that in the Bible, even when the words are scarcely believable, we believe it anyway.

[But, again, this is getting into another future blog post on the idea of inspiration, and what is the Bible, and all of that.]

Sleight of Hand

Back to killing people, and how we make it OK in one instance, and abhor it as evil in other cases:

“To argue, then, that the extermination of the Canaanites must be seen as part of the larger picture of Israel’s calling to bless the nations is, in effect,” notes Thom Stark, “just a sleight of hand trick: ‘Don’t look over there.  Look over here.’  Or as Barack Obama said when queried about the possibility of an investigation of past U.S. human rights abuses, “I’m a strong believer that it’s important to look forward and not backwards.”  Buried beneath layer upon layer of such rhetoric lie the victims of those who just want to get on with things.  But as Obama said when queried about the possibility of an investigation of past Indonesian human rights abuses, “We can’t go forward without looking backwards.”


As with this version of United States history (‘selective perception’), so with us when we want to focus on all the good bits of Israel’s history, while ignoring the rest.

Blessed to Be a Blessing

We are to be a blessing to the nations.  I believe that.  I also believe that means owning the places in our own Scriptures where God’s people failed to be that, and being open to the possibility that there are instances where they gave the credit for that to God.  Adam blamed God for putting Eve in the garden with him.  Is it so unbelievable that later Israel wanted to blame God for the actions of their own hands?

I find it nearly impossible to believe that a God who calls us to “act justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with him”, to “loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke”, and to “share food with the hungry and provide the poor wanderer with shelter”, is the same God who calls for wholesale slaughter of men, women and children.

I love the Bible, and I believe in its pages I discover God himself.  But I also believe that uncritical readings of Scripture, and inappropriate appropriations of it can lead to some of the terrible things done in history in the name of God, and it’s time we own that, and seek to do otherwise, that we might indeed be a blessing.