Monday, May 26, 2014

Freedom! Happy Memorial Day


To celebrate Memorial Day, today I thank God for freedom and remember those that fought to bring us our liberty in this great country.  We are grateful for religious freedom, freedom of speech, and other freedoms guaranteed by our constitution that enable us to live in peace.
We also remember those today that live enslaved by masters and tyrants around the world, those that do not live in peace, and those that suffer at the hands of others.   May God continue to bring freedom, justice, peace and equality in the world today.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

The Postmodern Revolution of Freedom

by Brad Duncan

In these articles I'm exploring an interesting concoction called Postmodern Christianity.  It's what you get when you combine postmodern thought and culture with belief that Jesus is God and the Bible is true (as a historical narrative more than a law book).  In some ways I've provided an over-idealized view of the world in which postmodernism creates a new amazing! form of Christianity.  You might say I'm overly optimistic.  You might say that postmodernism will do nothing to Christianity except ruin it with false notions that truth is relative and uncertain.  You might say that I am focusing too much on people and humanity, rather than rules of behavior, devotion to God, and structured organization.  It could lead to anarchy.  You might also be concerned that postmodernism will water down the gospel, negate holiness, and abandon love for the Bible.  Am I right so far?

In this article I want to propose reasons why postmodernism will create something very good for Christianity.  I'm proposing a revolution!  Just like when Jesus came and brought a huge revolution of thought about God, religion, spirituality, right and wrong, and purpose for humankind, I am certain that embracing aspects of postmodernism and letting go of past modern structures will liberate us Christians to return to these core aspects of the teachings of Christ and lead a revolution of Christian culture and thought.  This revolution will make the Church a more positive influence with a more powerful message of love for the world.  The Church will take it's place as the example and inspiration for others in the world on how to best treat our fellow humans.  In doing so it will point the way to God, the God of love and grace that we believe in.  The Church will also act to make the world a better place.  By doing these things, the Church will honor God and spread the good news of God's kingdom to the world.  And all of this by following Jesus!  Let me take a few minutes to explain the connection.  Maybe, just maybe, whether you are an idealist like myself or not, you will see this connection and embrace the same hope.

Articles so far in this series:

Slavery vs. Freedom


The first major revolutionary thread of the gospels is freedom.  If you were to read Luke chapters 1-8, as well as some of the prophecy literature in the Old Testament, and then stop and describe what Messiah means based on these passages, you would describe a king and his kingdom designed by God to set people free.  The king is revealed to be the Son, or Incarnation, of God born as a human with the purpose of bringing rescue ("salvation") to all mankind.  This image of liberation by a savior closely (and amazingly!) parallels the rescue of Israel from Egypt -- in both cases the people of God were rescued from a kingdom of slavery and oppression.  In both cases they were brought to a kingdom in which they were given freedom and independence while being governed directly by God as the head of the kingdom.  The hybrid image of "a kingdom" & "liberation from slavery" forms a powerful identity for Israel.  While they serve God as their king, this king does not seek to dominate them, but to give them an identity as the "people of God", elevating them to holy status.  God calls on the people to govern themselves in kindness and wisdom while living holy and pure lives that honor God.  In contrast, serving the human king, Pharaoh, meant violent oppression and slave labor.  Given this history and identity of Israel, it's not a coincidence that God chose to promise the Messiah as a liberator, who would come to once again bring liberation, perfecting and completing the promise of a kingdom populated by the people of God.  It also fulfills the promise of God to Abraham, long before Moses, when God called Abraham and told him his heir would bring blessing to the whole earth.

If we understand Jesus as this liberator, then Luke 1-8 makes perfect sense. Some of the highlights that strongly support this image are:
  • Before Jesus' birth
    • Luke 1:17, the angel promises that John the baptist will make ready a people prepared for the Lord
    • 1:32,33, the angel promises Mary that Jesus will "be great and he will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of David his father. He will rule over Jacob’s house forever, and there will be no end to his kingdom."
    • 1:46-55, Mary's song is a beautiful prophecy about God "my savior" rescuing people from oppressors and blessing them.
    • 1:67-79, Zechariah prophecies at the birth of John the baptist, that God has come to "help and deliver his people" and has raised up a mighty savior.  He also indicates that this liberation will look like compassion and peace, in contrast to "darkness" and the "shadow of death".  A kingdom governed by God is understood to be first and foremost a liberation of the spirit and humanity of God's people, not the formation of a political entity.
  • At the birth of Jesus
    • 2:10,11, The angels declare the famous "Good news for all people!  The savior is born today.  He is Christ the Lord," and the host of angels declares peace on earth and glory to God in heaven.
    • 2:25-38, in the temple, both Simeon and Anna declare the baby Jesus as the salvation of all people and the liberator of Jerusalem
  • Jesus as a child
    • 2:41-52, Jesus grows up aware that he is the Son of God and not just the son of his earthly father, and he is preparing for his greater purpose.  
  • John the baptist
    • 3:1-14, John prepares the hearts of the people to return to God and to follow the Messiah.  He levels the playing field (mountains leveled, crooked roads made straight) and calls all humanity to see God's salvation, proclaiming the good news to the people
    • John baptized Jesus and God confirms with a loud audible voice and visual sign of the dove descending from heaven that Jesus is indeed the Son of God.
  • Jesus in the wilderness
    • 4:1-13, In an amazing exchange between Jesus and the devil, Jesus is offered by the devil to inherent the earthly lordship of the kingdom of man, to rule over them and have all power over them.  The image resonates with the slavery and oppression of Egypt over the Israelites.  Jesus opposes the devil and shows that he will lead a different kind of kingdom, where people live in the goodness of God, not in the shadow of a tyrant.
  • Jesus in the temple
    • 4:14-28, in direct declaration of his intentions to liberate the oppressed, Jesus quotes Isaiah 61:1-2 and is nearly thrown off of a cliff for it!

17 The synagogue assistant gave him the scroll from the prophet Isaiah. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written:
18The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me.He has sent me to preach good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the prisoners and recovery of sight to the blind, to liberate the oppressed, 19and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.[e] 
 20He rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the synagogue assistant, and sat down. Every eye in the synagogue was fixed on him. 21 He began to explain to them, “Today, this scripture has been fulfilled just as you heard it.” [Luke 4, CEB]

  • Start of his ministry
    • 4:31-44, Jesus begins to spread the good news that the kingdom of God has arrived, in all the areas around his home town.
    • Chapters 5,6, Jesus calls disciples, heals people, and teaches about the new kingdom
  • Sermon on the mount
    • 6:20-26, In the Beatitudes, Jesus sets up a stark contrast between the new kingdom, in which people of all walks of life love God and live in peace and happiness, as opposed to the old kingdom, where the people with power, wealth and privilege rule the oppressed.  See my article discussing this.  
    • 6:27-49, with many other teachings, Jesus describes how the new kingdom will be a place of kindness and the goodness of God, in which people love their enemies, and share their belongings.  They will understand the "heart" of the law of God that puts all people on equal footing before God, rather than the legalistic "letter of the law" approach that allows people to lord their righteousness over others while treating people badly.


When we celebrate the birth of Jesus and the good news of God's salvation for all the earth, we are proclaiming a king which is the Incarnation of God on earth, and a kingdom where we exist as God's people.  At the same time ruled by God and bringing freedom and independence to God's people.  This is in contrast to, and in liberation from, the old kingdom and oppressive ruler of man.  What/who is this old ruler?  Jesus directly opposes the devil and the prince of the world as the ruler of the earth.  But, he also directly opposes oppressive human power as well as the "slavery from within" that comes from living by selfish deeds that satisfy selfish desires.  Greed, consumerism, unbridled ambition, selfishness -- these are often the things that enslave us.  God came to liberate us from slavery from oppression both from without and from within, by offering us membership in a kingdom as God's free people.

Another word for liberation of people from slavery, is Revolution!  Like when the people of Israel revolted against Pharoah.  By coming to start a new kingdom, saving people from the old one, God started a revolution that in time would sweep the face of the earth, to become one of the most powerful human forces on the earth.  The kingdom of God led by Jesus is now embodied in the Church.  And as the Bible indicates many times, this kingdom shares its goodness (blessing, salvation) not only with believers, but also with the whole earth.

The Modern Kingdom

In modern times, theologians well understood the important role of Jesus as liberator of mankind.  Liberation theology (see the wiki article) and other movements such as the civil rights movement led by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., captured this concept the most strongly.  These ideas continue to influence Christian ethics and church policies.  The role of Jesus as liberator, creating a kingdom characterized by freedom and independence, forms a strong identity for today's Christians.  We talk about religious freedom being a God-given right, not only so we can be free to organize and worship God without being coerced by government, but also so that we can enjoy the liberation of choosing our own path for following God as we feel God is leading us.  We recognize that all people have a right and need to listen to God (the holy spirit) for themselves and to be able follow as they are led, rather than following human kings who indirectly represent the will of God for us.  When we become Christians do we still believe in rights, equality, and freedom?  Liberation theology says that the gospel brings that kind of independence to believers.

However, if you read about liberation theology, you will also see that it was strongly opposed.  At the time the movement was a splinter off the Catholic church, and the Catholic church opposed it as being too Marxist (socialist/populist) - leading people away from orthodox practices and toward a grassroots, localized organization.  It was too focused on the people and not on religion!  Also, some proponents of liberation theology did not follow a peaceful path, but sought to secure their independence from oppression via violence.  On the other hand, Martin Luther King, Jr., correctly redefined the liberation movement as a pacifist movement, where we stand up for freedom using peaceful means, following also in the footsteps of Mahatma Gandhi in leading peaceful resistance.  Jesus taught revolution by changing within, not fighting the rulers in power.  However, Jesus DID oppose those that claimed to follow God but instead followed selfishness in order to build their own kingdoms.

Continue reading about theology and the evangelical movement, and what you find is that in the modern era, much of the teaching about Jesus as liberator was replaced (or combined with) the notion of domination, conquest, or an army of God.  In the modern mindset, the kingdom of God should be expanded using structure, persuasion and physical means to create a large army of followers for God.  People should be enlisted in the Church through membership, reciting creeds, declaring their loyalty or saying the prayers of forgiveness.  The kingdom became more of a lofty future concept (the kingdom "in heaven" instead of the kingdom "of heaven"), and whatever hardship we endure on this earth is worth it in order to secure future glory.  The kingdom on Earth became more an issue of duty and service, rather than freedom, independence and abundant life that comes from peace.  In fact, we don't live in "peace" but instead are called to service, confession of sins, prayers for forgiveness, disciplined religious duties, organized worship and dedicated evangelism.  In many ways the new believer is offered "good news" and "freedom" only to find that this good news is filled with requirements for service and duty.  Instead, the good news should be described as freedom and independence.

In modern times, liberation of the people and removing worldly power often led to a power vacuum that was filled again by the structural hierarchy.  We see this in history over and over again.  Socialism, initially just a populist philosophy, led to tyants taking power and enslaving the people again.  In the modern mindset there must be clear hierarchy, rules, institutions and authority.  Those that wish to take advantage of this for their own gain are the most likely to end up in charge.  This modern tendency negates the freedom.  But in the Church, this very freedom is fundamental to following Christ !

Does religious freedom only mean that we are free to enslave ourselves to whichever master we choose?  Or does religious freedom mean that under God we are all on level ground and God brings us into a new liberated state, in the new kingdom?

What does liberation look like for the Christ-follower?  If we pledge our service and allegiance to God, the Church and human authorities - we may be missing what God really has in mind, which is to unleash our creative mind, heart and spirit to grow into a more beautiful human and to make a positive change in the world.

Postmodern.  Revolution?

That brings us back to the original question.  Since Christ liberated us, how does postmodernism bring freedom, if we are free already?  How is postmodernism any different than what we have in modern religion?
Postmodernism avoids prescribing doctrines, practices and requirements.  What is important about the Church is the humanity of it.
Let my people go!
Any such system of requirements should be taken with a grain of salt.  It may be useful or interesting, but it is not to be taken too seriously.  If it works, keep it.  If not, toss it!  We should not value the institution above its constituents.  The individual and community aspects of people who are the carriers of the very spirit of Christ on this earth, are formed into a vital entity - the people of God - that offers huge hope to the world.  It also embodies and demonstrates the freedom that God is so determined to bring to humanity: freedom from oppressive rulers, freedom from structure and domination, and freedom from the destructive cycles of greed and selfishness that can enslave us from within.  Only with this type of freedom can we succeed in spreading God's kingdom to the whole world.  God is serious about Freedom!  Thus the Liberator.

In this way, postmodernism can bring a revolution against the modern structure, even tearing it down when needed.  In doing so it gives us a new chance to explore the freedom that comes from our identity as God's children.  This brings us right back where we started, with John the Baptist and Jesus opposing the religious system of the day, and offering membership in a new kingdom ruled by peace and freedom.  As Jesus said, blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of God (Luke 6:20).




Modern God: a ruler king that is pleased by service and duty
God Postmodern: a creator king that brings freedom and identity


Sunday, May 18, 2014

Ever Feel Like a Robot in a Faith Factory?

Me too!

Check out my current series on postmodern Christianity, to see what we can do about it.

*from Brad*

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Let Go of Elitism

Here's a poetic reminder that elitism is wrong, and against the teachings of Jesus. 

*by Brad Duncan*









Let go of elitism
Let it go
Let go of both grudges and privileges
Let go of the status quo, and stop adamantly defending it
Let go of the comfortable social environment and social standing
Let go of defending God against humanity
Let go of divisions over who is In and who is Out
Let go of being separate from the world. We're not any better than anyone else.

Let it go

Let go of prejudices. Admit we can be wrong
Let go of discrimination
Let go of marginalization of women
Let go of fear of the unknown

Let it go

Let go of goods made by slaves in foreign lands. Refuse to buy them.
Let go of some of our wealth, to bring a future for others
Let go of all the best stuff for ourselves
Let go of permanent poverty, perpetual hunger, and unequipped medical care

Let it go

Let God's will and passion thrive without standing in the way
Let God's kingdom come
Let our kingdoms give way
Let elitism fade. Let grace grow

Let it go




Wednesday, May 7, 2014

The Modern Defense

by Brad Duncan


In this article of my series on postmodernism in Christianity I address the response to change.  I want to look at how Christianity today is responding to the inevitable shift toward postmodern thinking that is occurring in the world around it and in noticeable increments from one generation to the next.  To every force there is an equal and opposite reaction, and we are definitely seeing the reaction.  It is natural to see a strong defensive position taken as a reaction to suggestions of change.  How is the Church, how are Christians, responding to these shifting sands, and defending against the forces of change?

Articles so far in this series:


The Defense

The first defense is of course fundamentalism.  You know what this is, and I don't need to spend much time on it.  Fundamentalism is more about holding onto power, trying to control others, and creating an elite "in-group" that fights the world outside, than about any of the original good purposes of the group.  We see a strong defensive position of fundamentalists in Christianity, and strong political action from this group.  Dominionism is the latest manifestation and you can find it all over the blogosphere and public media (here is a wiki article).  Basically these guys want to take over the world !  However in my discussions with thinking people I don't normally have to make much of a case against fundamentalism.  It's clearly misguided, and you can argue against it on moral and spiritual grounds.  If you want to fight it, you can find a strong effort over at the Christian Left, for instance.

However the second defense is more ubiquitous.  It is a defense which is prevalent among non-denominational churches, many mainline denominations, and is the most popular position in politics as well (wow, can you say I'm overgeneralizing?).  I call this defense, moderatism.  More specifically, it is moderate modernism.  In other words, it's moderate, but it's still modernism!  It's reacting to postmodernism, taking a moderate, but defensible position.  In my view, Christianity is retreating to a position it can more easily defend, by removing much of the unnecessary requirements for membership, lowering in importance many of its structural supports, and embracing the postmodern crowd.  In doing so, the Church gives the message that "all are welcome here", and strives for the relevance in today's culture.  Like I have heard in many debates and messages from such churches, the objective is to define the important truths which we must continue to hold up as infallible, and still define us as Christians, so that we can continue to be the church that God wants us to be.  Other topics of doctrine may be subject to opinion and can be glossed over.  Even further, various topics of "sin" can be avoided so as not to ostracize those in the group - such as couples that live together outside of marriage, people who are divorced, people who smoke and drink, ... (whatever your list of sins is that you are willing to just let slide).  I should also mention that this list of sins is changing.  Drinking is "in" now (within moderation) in many Christian circles.  Count me "in" on that one.  But homosexuality and abortion are definitely NOT okay for these moderates and they will take a strong defensive position against controversial issues that are close to the heart for them.  Let's not go into the controversies here.

But, as I said before, moderatism, is STILL modernism.  It is a strong and strongly defended belief in the inherent value and God-pleasing purpose of the institution of Christianity.  The beams and bricks of the structure are even further reinforced against the onslaught of modern thought, and the defenses are used to call out Christians to be different than the world around them, holy and set apart.  The defenses become requirements for membership, calls to "obey God", and a source of pressure and high expectations for members.  This moderate defense creates and further propagates the separation of "us" and "them" in the church by defining clear boundaries around the group.  And there is the problem - by reinforcing this position, the temptation to hunker down, isolate itself and exclude others is acted upon, creating a more elitist culture among modern Christians.  It is harder to belong now.  As a result church sizes are decreasing (here are a couple of random articles on this: Are church sizes decreasing, and The Number One Reason).  Take a look at what the second author is calling for as response to this decline!  "1. Raise the expectations of membership".   It is the moderate defense. 

The Moderate Wall

In terms of theology, moderatism is a a popular and strongly defended position.  Most Christians will say something like "I can be flexible on many things, but HERE IS THE LINE, and I will not cross it".  In doing so the dividing lines are drawn between "us" and "them", between right and wrong, between good doctrine and bad doctrine, and so the structure and culture of the modern Church is maintained.  The line forms a wall of thought.  A moderate wall that defines the Church.

Some time ago I started working on the idea of the Moderate Wall.  It seems that progressive ideas in theology are met on every turn by this defensive wall, so I looked into it and considered, "why the wall?"  Why aren't people open to discussion.  What don't they take a position that we can all agree to disagree and actually discuss the issues?  If we could do that, then some people in the crowd would remain more conservative, and some would want to push the boundaries into more progressive ideas (at the expense of old traditions), and there would be a healthy diversity of though and active discussion.  But instead, there is this Moderate Wall blocking such diversity.  As a result I wrote several articles on it.  I want to share with you here a parable -- yes a parable.  Or maybe more of a fable, that explains the moderate wall, and what to do about it.  I hope you enjoy it.  I'll take up the topic further in next blog entry.

The Parable of the Golden Bricks

The Parable of the Golden Bricks (by me)
In the land of Urt there was a kingdom called Kog.  The people of Kog were at times kind and gracious, and sought to do right, building their kingdom into a place of peace and wholeness.  A place where children could grow up nourished.  A place where everyone had their place.  But like all people, the people of Kog also struggled in every imaginable way.  They were threatened by corruption from within and without.  They were shaking and afraid, and their fragile kingdom was on the precipice of collapse.  
God came to these folks of Kog, and gave them a gift of golden bricks to properly build their kingdom.  Each brick, made of heavenly material that was impregnable, was bestowed with the beauty of God, and carried something of the goodness of God's character.  They represented everything good and strong that could be used to build the kingdom of Kog.  
The rulers of Kog met to decide what to build with these golden bricks, and how to use them to save their kingdom from collapse.  They decided to build a strong tower to show the beauty of the bricks so that they could be seen throughout all of Urt.  They formed bricks of rock and clay from the land of Urt, and built them into the base of a mighty tower.  The golden bricks were used to finish the tower, taking it to a mighty point high up in the air.  This tower became the greatest symbol in Urt of all that is good and strong.
But while the kingdom of Kog did prosper with their new tower, all that was good and beautiful did not.  The tower brought power.  The rulers of Kog became strong and wealthy.  They became hungry for their own power.  By control of the rest of the people who worked the land they made themselves more and more rich.  By building armies they took control of all of Urt.
But in time, the armies and the workers failed, and the wealthy rulers could not hold on to the power they had longed for.  After some time, the mighty tower of Kog was toppled by wars and battles.  The golden bricks lay in piles of rubble.  The bricks of rock and clay from the land of Urt lay next to them.
After some time had passed, the people rose up to reclaim their kingdom.  Seeing the fallacy of their past efforts, they sought to build something that would truly make Kog a place of beauty and peace, rather than a place where leaders could rise up to become tyrants.  They decided to build a wall.  They circled Kog with a wall made of the bricks of rock and clay,  They interspersed the golden bricks to add strength to the wall, and to surround their kingdom with the goodness of God who had provided the bricks. The wall represented all that was good and strong.  The wall protected the kingdom, bringing order, and allowed the people inside to find peace and happiness.
The kingdom of Kog prospered again with its new wall.  Other people of Urt would visit and marvel at it.  Families and communities thrived in Kog.  The rulers and government were able to lead the people without resorting to tyranny and control.  Kog was a place of freedom and order.  The wall became of fortress of strength for the people for many years.
But eventually the wall failed, and the kingdom failed.  The wall did not prevent the main two problems that plagued the kingdom of Kog, corruption within and without.  Inside the wall, turmoil and conflict led to disputes over how to keep the freedom and order in the kingdom.  Outside the wall, other kingdoms rallied from time to time and waged war on Kog.  The kingdom was besieged, and plagued from within.  Eventually the wall was toppled by wars and battles.
After a long and very dark time, new hope arose.  The people of Kog once again rose up to build their kingdom.  They found the golden bricks among the rubble with the bricks of rock and clay.  They had an idea.  Instead of building a tower or a fortress, what would happen to their kingdom if they built the bricks into a symbol of peace instead?  Since any tower or fortress was doomed to eventually collapse when attacked by enemies, why not resist the problem at its core - why not create peace instead of enemies?  How much more could the people of Kog prosper if they used all the strength and beauty of the golden bricks to try to achieve this?  Certainly, what harm could come from it?  Certainly, the failed experiences of the tower and the wall showed that something different should be done.
So the people built a bridge out of the golden bricks.  The bridge rose over the piles of rubble left from the bricks of rock and clay.  The bridge connected the kingdom of Kog to the world outside.  The bridge was a symbol of peace as well as strength.  It welcomed the people of Urt to visit the kingdom of Kog.  And come they did.  And they brought all kinds of treasure to Kog and helped build it into the most majestic kingdom the people could have imagined.  What's more, the people of Urt invited the people of Kog to come out of their kingdom and visit other kingdoms throughout the land of Urt.  When they did, they found something amazing.  In many places, they found other symbols of peace, like bridges, roads and welcoming statues, and they were all built out of golden bricks!  They realized that the kingdom of Kog had in a way spread to all of Urt, and it was a land of peace.
The End. (see the original article and subsequent series)

Discussion 

Here I am copying some of the discussion about the parable from the original series...

The Tower of Control

I hope you liked the parable. Like a children's story it leads us to follow the progression in thinking of the characters, through their failures and toward redemption. The first failure is a common one for all of us. When we are given challenges, stresses, and resources to handle them, one way we can react is to grab hold tightly of anything that can give us control. When we respond to need and pain with control and structure, we are trying to apply our own power to overcome the obstacles we face. I can think of many situations in relationships where good intentions to help another person lead to trying to force control on that person. "Here, let me help you. Here, you should do it this way..."

In groups, human tendencies are even more dangerous! The need to control and overcome leads to a need to institutionalize, as a way to set up power over enemies, to fight hardship, and to organize and distribute resources. When we institutionalize worship of God, we replace genuine seeking and spirituality with something that looks like worship, but is a replacement for true relationship. When we institutionalize emulating God's character, we create rules and expectations, that are erroneously connected with being spiritual. We think we need to be correct, pleasing, conforming, even popular, in the expectations of our social, religious system, in order to be right with God.

In the story of Kog, the attempt to control fails. It fails, I suppose, because control creates revolt within and war without. Those that resist the control will most likely topple the tower and declare victory.

The Isolating Wall

The second failure comes from a more reasonable, moderate, attempt to gain control. Instead of forcing everyone to submit to centralized leadership, instead, let's try isolating ourselves from outside influences, shutting out bad things, and basking in the glory of our own view of ourselves. This failure is also a common human reaction. We can retreat, observe, and shore up our defenses, making sure that we protect our own kind. In relationships, we avoid risks, maybe staying to ourselves in order to protect ourselves from harm. In groups, we look for comfort among those that are similar to us, so that we fit it, they fit in, we all fit in. The hope is that this low risk approach will avoid conflicts and protect from harmful influences from outside. We all do it -- in our families, within the walls of our own houses, don't we defend against outside intrusion while protecting those of us within? In our schedules, jobs and associations, don't we group together with like-minded folk where we feel safe and accepted? In this way, we gain control of the chaotic world around us and fill our lives with safe havens. We can relax, we can enjoy, we can relate, and hopefully we can prosper, within these safe confines. But as we all know, minimizing risk can also minimize reward. Our most brilliant moments in life are not these safe ones, but the ones where we found courage, embraced change, and took risks. Isolationism leads to loneliness in the end. It doesn't end well. Risks, courage and change are required for healthy life and relationships.

In groups, isolationism is prone to its own risks. Corruption within can easily take over. A wrong idea, and leader with bad intentions, or a lack of resources can easily drive a group to desparation and possible collapse. Even when things are going well, the limited perspective that we have due to isolation from outsiders can drive us into miserable, selfish complacency. We can come to see tiny problems as giant mountains, while missing the true problems and challenges of the world outside. It looks like bickering, complaining, infighting, power struggles, and basically just driving one another crazy! Meanwhile, inside the walls of isolation, we become less useful, less concerned, less able, and less relevant. The world outside doesn't care about us, in our walls, because we don't care about them. The world is divided into "Us" and "Them".

Eventually, if we are lucky, the wall cannot stand the pressures from inside and out. The isolationism doesn't hold together, and the outside world comes crashing in. The wall crumbles. The safety and comfort is lost. The community collapses. And we are alone once more, in a crowd of people that don't understand us.

The Hope of Peace

Is there another solution? Can we find a secure place to live, with comfort for ourselves, stable social structures, secure cultural idenity, without building a tower of control or a a wall of isolation? The solution must be a way of peace. We must find our identity in a place where we can embrace others with a peaceful posture. What can be built that brings both security and peace? The people of Kog found that this was possible. Peace was the solution. It brought side-effects of security and wealth. It was risky, but it avoided the problems that come from controlling the world around us.

Can we find a peaceful solution to the chaos around us? Can we seek peace in relationships, peace in social settings, and peace in our spirituality? The parable offers hope that peace can be found.

They `R Us

Once again, who are these people of the world outside the wall? What does our doctrine say about them? How does God see them? I will delve into the doctrines that hold up the Moderate Wall and split the world into “Us” and “Them” categories in further chapters. But for now, consider who these people are. In many cases, they are our (literal) brothers, sisters, cousins, parents, children and other relatives. They are our co-workers and friends. They are the people of our towns, cities, countries. In other words, they are “Us”! Any distinction that you can make in people is blurry and filled with exceptions and doubts. Spiritually speaking, the only distinctions between people are the ones that people choose for themselves. People can identify as Christians and can attend a church, so they self-identify as part of the inside group. Or people can identify as atheists and self-identify as part of the outside group. Then there is the ambiguously-identified group of people in the middle that do not make it easy for us to decide where they stand. But can an outsider follow Christ? Can an insider refuse to follow Christ? Can an honest man who doesn’t like church be good, kind, and seek God with all his heart? Can those that question the existence of God (both inside and outside the church) at the same time be pleasing to God? Does God enjoy the presence of people, whether they question or accept? The point is this: when we can no longer create clear definitions of “Us” and “Them”, then the wall separating us crumbles. 

When the people on the outside are indistinguishable from those on the inside, then the wall is simply a mechanism for self-identification. It is a construct. It is a club membership card, and nothing more! If we are not different, then we are separate only by choice. We choose this life of isolation, to protect ourselves and our own comfort from the inconveniences of embracing people that are different than us. In other words, we are benefiting from disobeying the law of Christ! We refuse to follow him into the world outside, and we sanction it with our worship of Christ. This is contradictory behavior, founded in wrong beliefs about how we are so special that we are better than someone else. If we are to follow Christ we must abandon the wall that divides us. 

Sunday, May 4, 2014

Postmodern Right and Wrong


by Brad Duncan

In my previous three posts about postmodern Christian faith, I described a God that is more personal, and who values people over structure and systems of laws. Instead of pleasing God, we should know God in a healthy relationship in which we enjoy God's acceptance and love for us. Most Christians would agree. After all God is love, and the greatest commandment of Jesus is to "Love God. Love People". God is more pleased with us than we think. God brings freedom and acceptance to us, as the model of the perfect parents loving their children. The challenge for modern Christianity is to leave behind the structured approach to righteousness which places too high value on systems of laws to follow and organized institutions - which we are taught help us to please God. We need to approach our faith with an open mind, seeing ourselves, others, and the world as God sees us. We need to open our eyes to see the kingdom of good that God is building on Earth, and then to participate in this kingdom.

In this post I want to address the #1 concern of modern Christians who may consider a more open-minded approach to their faith. The issue is holiness. Does postmodernization of our faith abandon truth and our quest for living a pure, good, holy life in service to our God? Does it water down God's character into something easy and flexible, so that just anything goes? Does it make Christians just the same as everyone else in the world, not set apart as God's children? This question is about the fundamental definitions of right and wrong. Since postmodern philosophy is famous for making truth relative or asserting that it is unknowable, this is a valid concern. Let me briefly try to address this question here. 


What is Good?

Those of us that love God and the Bible are called to a high ethical standard of behavior and treating others, which we call Good. Even our thoughts, beliefs and feelings are subject to scrutiny, because we recognize that what is in our heart will manifest itself in our outward words and behavior. Holiness is a word that describes our goal of having a pure heart that is fully committed to God so that we belong to God. Since God is described as Holy and representing all things Good and Pure, then Holiness also means that we emulate God's character. Without splitting hairs on definitions, we can see that broadly speaking all of these words are the same thing: holy, pure, good, and right. So, holiness is about the very notion of right and wrong, and our notions of right and wrong exactly correspond to our concept of God. We should emulate God's character order to live a pure life and have a pure heart.

But what is the character of God? What is right and wrong? This is the problem. Knowing "Good" depends on understanding the character of God, which means that understanding what is "Good" depends on our THEOLOGY! Unfortunately. Whatever we understand as God's character, defines the character we should live up to. As an extreme example, if we think God is mean and judgmental, then we will feel justified, even called, to live that example in our own lives. If we think God is harsh and authoritative, then we will be dogmatic and picky. If we think that God offers love conditionally, then we will systematically exclude others that fail those conditions. So, theology cannot be ignored. We must explore the character of God so we have a roadmap to follow. This is why postmodern theology is so important.


Just Follow

On the other hand since knowledge of God in heaven is necessarily abstract, and theology is difficult to agree on, we need another way! We can look to Jesus. Jesus was the only real way to understand God in concrete terms. If we can just follow Jesus, then we can be smarter about our theology, finding a more clear source and pattern of truth. As Jesus taught us, we can abandon religious baggage and requirements and just focus on character -- increasing the goodness and kindness in our lives, and undoing the corruption that comes from seeking personal gain. 


This is where there is common ground. Postmodern Christianity calls us to "just follow Jesus". Modern Christianity says the same thing!

Progressive postmodern faith in Christ is actually a call to a more authentic life of kindness and compassion, following the character and example of Christ, and leaving behind the baggage of extra requirements that have accumulated in time, culminating in the modern Church and modern understanding of the Bible. It calls us to acknowledge many of our collective actions which led to violence, discrimination, and elitism. We repent for giving power to the few and oppressing the weak. We often use the voice of Christ when we talk about peace, acceptance and kindness. Truth is relative only in the sense that applying the words and example of Christ in our daily lives is a challenging task and requires thinking and adjusting, knowing that our hearts are naturally inclined toward selfishness and may not readily see the way toward unselfishness and love. Like in the example of the good Samaritan, we often find ourselves inadvertently to be more like the morally deficient (but religiously correct) characters in the story, rather than the compassionate Samaritan. We want to be the Samaritan. The one who understands that "everyone is my neighbor". 

When it comes to following Christ, we are all on common ground. Following Christ is the point of the Bible and of Christianity. It defines right and wrong for us. It defines goodness in opposition to sin. It defines holiness.

In summary,
  • Following Jesus defines universal good. Behavior counter to this universal good is defined as "sin". 
  • Living a lifestyle dedicated to this universal good, so that we are set apart as Christ followers and children of God, is defined as "holiness" and should lead us, with God's help, to have a pure heart instead of a corrupt one. 
  • Goodness is selfless and kind, whereas sin is epitomized by seeking selfish gain and hurting others. 
  • Goodness also stands up for what is right: defending others against injustice, taking action, showing concern, embracing the wounded and healing the hurting. 

The community of faith is also about following Christ. When we come together as a community, one of our main goals is to encourage, teach, support and equip each other as we all follow Christ, so that our shared life experience will make it easier to do what's right when much of the world around us points us toward selfish gain.

How do we correctly "Love God. Love People"? We follow Jesus.



Sunday, April 27, 2014

Pleasing God Postmodern

by Brad Duncan

In my two previous posts I brought up the question of how God may relate to people in the postmodern era.  Based on our understanding of God's nature from the Bible and our experience, how will God leverage postmodern thinking to bring more good into the world?  How can the kingdom of the Holy Spirit grow and expand as the culture shifts from a modern one to a postmodern one?  And finally, how is our postmodern concept of God a big improvement over the modern construction of God using systems and laws?  These are the underlying questions.   Who is the God Postmodern?

In this post I would like explore the question: 

How do I please this God Postmodern? 

I will start by discussing the modern mindset on this question, and then consider how it can be different in the postmodern mindset.

Articles so far in this series:

The Modern Heartbreak

We have for so long taken for granted that we can please God through structure, that we do it without thinking.  We evaluate all of our choices, actions, and beliefs through a lens of righteousness that defines which ones will please God and which ones won't.  Choices are rapidly filtered through a decision tree using a complex system of laws of right and wrong until we come up with a choice.  If we know the Bible and have attended church since childhood, we easily determine the choice that "God would want".  If we then don't act on that choice, but choose to do something else (perhaps for a very good reason?), we feel guilty that we are not pleasing God with our choice.  Throughout the day, this accumulation of choices leaves us acting as Christians, while building up guilt when we don't.  Then there is a pent up need for "repentance" and "forgiveness" in our prayer time to clear out the list of transgressions, re-evaluate our decisions, and start fresh the next day.  I put the word "repentance" in quotes because this use of the word is not correct.  Repentance doesn't mean listing our sins and apologizing, but instead means recognizing something wrong and changing it.  In the scenario above, the wrong was recognized already and probably we wouldn't have changed anything anyway.  Also in the scenario above, "forgiveness" is the wrong word, because what we are actually asking is for God to accept us, or at least put up with us, for another day in spite of our displeasing decisions.  Let's call this scenario above the righteousness cycle.

The righteousness cycle also drives community behavior.  Communities are naturally defined by laws of inclusion and exclusion, standards of behavior we call social norms, and a culture that defines the group's purpose and character.  A community of faith is largely about protecting a certain ideal so that it stays in tact and is reinforced across the group as the members come and go.  In a typical Christian church and in the Christian community at large, defense of the status quo leads to a righteousness cycle of evaluating the actions of the group and individuals and leading others or the entire group to do what is right.  Communication of what is right occurs through the church leadership, through public statements and information broadcasting, and through many one-on-one conversations (in the American church at large, communication happens through popular media and public leaders).  In addition, the social norms that are well understood by members are enforced minute by minute through body language and verbal responses to others.  In other words, if you do something wrong in that type of community, you will quickly know it!  If you are on the perimeter of the group, you will not notice this scrutiny unless you do something glaring (try raising your hand during a sermon to ask a question :) )  but if you dig in deeper to actually belonging, you will find that membership is rife with expectations.

The righteousness cycle also drives all biblical interpretation, the understanding of the purpose of Christ's time on Earth, and our derivative purpose on Earth in the era following Christ.  In spite of many indications by Jesus to the contrary in the gospels, we interpret following Christ as an effort to secure our righteousness, in a way earning the grace of God.  We may call it faith, but what we are engaging in is more of a logic activity than a heart one, as we use the decision-tree approach to follow Christ and act according to the "gospel" to earn our salvation.  "Am I going to heaven?"  "Are you going to heaven?".  If these questions are ever asked, they reveal the righteousness cycle and the strong need we have to choose and repent, in such a way that we hope the answer is "yes" (but we are never sure)!   In our structured notion of the "gospel", faith and righteousness are pretty much interchangeable.  In other words, faith is a mental activity of evaluating our behavior based on our beliefs.  Again I quote the word "gospel" as the word actually means good news, and the above scenario doesn't quite fit with the notion of good news.

By now you might be laughing at my foolish explanations.  You might say that certainly faith is belief in a system of facts from the Bible, that our pleasing God is just because we love God and loving God takes effort, and that the gospel is the wonderful, fantastic grace of God that we are just doing our best to follow.  We might say our heart is transformed by the work of our minds, individual actions and social behavior, so that we act consistently with our love for God.  We might even say we LOVE the Bible in this role as decision fabric, as it defines for us our life and purpose.  We can call all of this activity our love for God.  I have had many heartbreaking earnest conversations with believers that are wondering about their salvation and fearing the wrath of God because they evaluate themselves constantly against the decision fabric of the Bible and find themselves lacking.  Then they consider grace and find some relief, trying to decide that God will indeed accept them, in spite of their inadequate nature.  The righteousness cycle leads to a need for Christ.  The work of Christ is explained as a mechanism by which God can accept us in spite of our failures, and the gospel of grace is sort of a standardized forgiveness that we are guaranteed as long as we keep repenting and perpetuating the righteousness cycle.


This is heartbreaking for believers mainly for one reason - it doesn't feel like the love of God.  It is in fact a constant reinforcement that God doesn't like us, that God loves us in spite of ourselves, or that God's love is conditional.

I have also heard believers in frustration at some point declare "what's the point? If I will never be good enough why should I keep trying?"  Or at times one will question "If I was so bad that the only thing God could think of to do for me was send his Son to die to make me good enough, then why do I really want to believe in this God anyway?  What kind of parent is God anyway (to us, and to Jesus)".  Comparing God's actions and nature with what we understand as parenting leaves us perplexed, and wondering about God's core nature.  God is LOVE.  But what we experience is not love.  We simply hope to find LOVE in heaven but give up in truly finding it on Earth.  To quote Bono, in spite of all of our efforts to be loved "I still haven't found, what I'm looking for."

This feeling of inadequacy spreads to all areas of life, and we aren't ever confident that just being human is good enough.

How is this notion of the gospel reinforced?  Just try to challenge it - ask a believer if you really have to do this stuff to go to heaven, and you will find that it is strongly reinforced by a system of laws directly taken from the Bible.  It is the "gospel" where "gospel" means unquestionable truth, rather than good news.  In other words, it's the truth, simply because it's the truth - the gospel truth as they say.  It's logical because it says it's logical, etc.  Any modern system can validate itself using circular logic, by building into its structure a law that states that the structure is right.  If that happens, then questioning the structure is wrong, thus reinforcing that we must all follow the structure.  It is simply a defense mechanism of modern thought to add rules that reinforce the cycle and perpetuate the system.  If we question too far - in a government, we call it treason!  In church we call it blasphemy or heresy or disrespect for the Bible.  It's just not okay to question the structure at it's core, because if we do we threaten the structure's reason for existence.

Still need proof?  You might say that our belief system is more tolerant and loving than I have described.  Ask yourself if you would accept others that clearly fall outside of righteousness rules, if they wanted to be core members of the group.  How would you respond to them, correct them, and guide them toward being right in order to fully participate in the group?  If they insisted on going against the flow, would you pull an emergency rip-cord and notify the leadership of their errant behavior?  What if a person claims full faith but stands up contrary to a core belief?  Would you offer that person acceptance or disdain?  Would you let them teach your child's class?  I can ask myself this question because for years I honestly in the name of Christ offered plenty of disdain and chastisement to others, to help reinforce what I thought was right, and for their own good.  I remember when heavy metal music was wrong and we were expected to criticize people who liked it (I'm showing my age here - that would have been the early 80's)!  Now I love it!  In fact, bands like Metallica are earnestly exploring God and the implications of faith, much like I am doing in this blog.  In some ways they are more aware of what the Church is doing (albeit from the outside), than it's members.

Back to the subject at hand, if you are honest with yourself, you can quickly think of several areas of "sin" where you would readily chastise another believer if called upon to do so.  You might even go as far as to say that someone's eternal future in heaven is at stake if you don't chastise them.

These are Christian congregations that advertise as accepting gays.  What about all the others?

If you still don't believe me, than ask yourself about the stated purpose of baptism and communion, the two most important institutional practices of the church.  Aren't they reinforcing the modern notion of righteousness through action, to declare group membership and loyalty, and to encourage regular repentance of sins?  (In fact these two practices could be used much differently - I'll go into that at a different time - and I'm sure I'll offend some people by even bringing it up :) ).

So, bringing this to a point - modernism has done this to us.  We derive meaning and membership from structure, just like we engineer a bridge using Newton's laws, material properties, and structural analysis.  In the modern mindset, laws are life, and we have no meaning in life without them.  I recall reading the famous Christian book by Rick Warren "The Purpose-Driven Life: What on Earth am I Here For?", and attending Bible study groups where we went through the 40-days of studying this book.  I liked it.  It felt like a well-explained structure for living using modern language and examples.  But I also grew to dislike it, feeling that something was off.  Now I know why -- it is a perfectly modern synopsis of the structure of Christianity.  Take a read and see if you agree.  Now I have a completely negative reaction to this type of thinking.  Why?  Because this notion of life is extremely performance based.  We achieve purpose through excellent performance.  We are inadequate when we can't achieve that performance.  I wrote several articles on this idea (here is one).  I really like the article in which I explained an alternative concept to the purpose/performance-driven life, which I called the perspective-driven life.  Ok here's an excerpt:

Why call it "Perspective-Driven"?  If we open our eyes to see the world the way that God does, and conversely to see God as Jesus demonstrated and revealed God's nature, then we are driven to lives of peace, caring about others, and living in the present.  


Whereas the old modern definition of Christianity is a call to a high level of achievement in our relationship with God, the new progressive definition of Christianity is a call to a high level of awareness of the present and of the needs of other people, more as a partnership with God than as a fulfillment of a prescribed purpose.  [end of excerpt]
What do you think?  Does fulfillment come more from achievement or awareness?  

Achievement?
Awareness?

As they say, "seeing is believing!"  In fact, seeing the truth and ourselves through God's eyes gives us a true perspective that replaces the inadequacy coming from seeing our purpose only as a call to achievement.   Note that the words achievement, performance, purpose, righteousness, and adequacy are all the same concept in modern faith - namely, acceptance via right choices.

The Postmodern Sigh

Ok now that I have made you feel fully depressed, take a deep breath.  If you are feeling like a robot in a faith factory, breathe in the air of true forgiveness and grace.  Take the quotation marks off of faith, repentance, forgiveness, gospel, grace and love.  What will you find?  FREEDOM!  Freedom from the cycle of sin?  In a way, yes, but more like, freedom from needing to engage in the righteousness cycle at all.  Isn't it freedom from our inadequacy that we so earnestly seek?  The modern Christ doesn't fully offer that kind of freedom, but the postmodern gospel offers freedom from ever being inadequate in the first place.  How?  If the gospel comes from the Bible, how can it offer this type of freedom, when the Bible is a system we simply must follow?  Certainly many people who have left their faith do so because they see the Bible as a modern law book which they must choose to either follow, or not.  

Without going into a long description of postmodern hermeneutics, I would summarize by saying that our interpretation of the Bible in the modern era was largely a product of the modern times we were living in.  

We had no choice but to see the Bible as a constitutional hierarchy creating a fabric of laws, in spite of many passages in the Bible that contradict that notion or call us to an even higher standard of righteousness than simply following laws (that's why we call it the "New" Testament).  In fact, in the modern era, God used our modern mindset to do great things, to build a populist faith structure that propagated the knowledge of Christ to the entire world.  In fact, I'm not negative about it relative to the times it was born out of -- it was a good thing at the time, and God used it for good.  However, it also left many, many people behind (e.g., native Americans, Jewish people! For a long time - women were allowed only second-class status!, the list goes on and on).  In so many ways we are willing to make advancements and progress in society, when we learn something new.  It should be the same in faith.  We should learn our lessons and move to something better.  The Bible actually supports the notion that we should abandon religious shallowness, abandon performance-based elitism, and embrace authentic knowledge of God and ourselves as God's children.  Then we will see our true role in building the kingdom of God on Earth.    

So, now let me answer the original question.  What pleases God?  The answer is simple:

God is pleased already.  There's nothing you can do to change that.

God has already covered our inadequacy with grace!  Through the work of Christ we are accepted and redeemed (meaning rescued from all inadequacy), not first despised/rejected/hated, and then somehow made acceptable through our faith or actions.  Did you ever fully absorb these words spoken by Jesus to Nicodemus?:

17 For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. (John 3:17)

and

Jesus replied, “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.” (John 3:3)

These words which we consider as the very core of the gospel message spoken by Jesus, speak of complete transformation of us and the entire world, through the sending of God's Son into the world.  Notice how the notion of being "born again" is about awareness - we must open our eyes anew in order to see the kingdom of God.  Any notion of performance requirements here?  Somehow the modern world turned this into a structure of faith requirements, and a notion that God is displeased but willing to overlook that displeasure at the request of Jesus.  Really?  Is that what 3:17 says?  NO !  God did this!  God and God's kingdom are about total rescue of the world, and we need to see this rescue as a new kingdom created by God, by looking through God's eyes and being completely reborn.  Transformation through awareness, not through the cycle of artificial repentance to achieve righteousness. 

What pleases God?  God is pleased already.  Enough to send Jesus to rescue us from all inadequacy, and to promote us to full kingdom status.  Love without qualifications.  If you were the parent in this relationship, what would you do?  Would you be happy with your kids even when they mess up, even proud of them?  Or would your acceptance be earned day to day by good behavior?  Breathe a sigh of relief.  God is the perfect parent.  End of story.

Modern God: Needs to be pleased and appeased
God Postmodern: Is happy already!