Our Reasonable Faith 5

This post is by RJS – so personal reflections are mine, not Scot’s
In Chapter Four of The Reason for GodTim Keller broaches a topic I have found a real stumbling block over the years: If the Christian story is true why has the Church been responsible for so much pain and injustice both large and small? We must address the behavior of Christians both individual and corporate.

The first thing we should do here is examine the nature of the Christian message. The Christian gospel condemns violence, oppression, injustice and fanaticism – even fanaticism and violence in the name of Christ for the truth of the Gospel. Keller has some great insights and quotes –

Think of people you consider fanatical. They’re overbearing, self-righteous, opinionated, insensitive, and harsh. Why? It’s not because they are too Christian, but because they are not Christian enough. They are fanatically zealous and courageous, but they are not fanatically humble, sensitive, loving, empathic, forgiving, or understanding-as Christ was. … What strikes us as overly fanatical is actually a failure to be fully committed to Christ and his gospel. (p. 57)

and this one:

In Jesus’s and the prophets’ critique, self-righteous religion is always marked by insensitivity to issues of social justice, while the faith is marked by profound concern for the poor and the marginalized. The Swiss theologian John Calvin, in his commentaries on the Hebrew prophets, says that God so identifies with the poor that their cries express divine pain. The Bible teaches that our treatment of them equals our treatment of God. (p. 60)

and finally:

What is the answer, then, to the very fair and devastating critique of the record of the Christian church? The answer is not to abandon the Christian faith, because that would leave us with neither the standards nor the resources to make correction. Instead we should move to a fuller and deeper grasp of what Christianity is. The Bible itself has taught us to expect the abuses of religion and it has also told us what to do about them. (p. 62)

So Christianity is not the problem and, in fact, provides the foundation for our sense of justice and compassion and integrity. The Church strays… and corrects itself; a pattern repeated through the centuries.
But in my mind there is still a question —
If the Christian story is true and if the Church is the ordained, Spirit led, body of Christ, God’s people – why has God allowed his Church to err so profoundly on so many occasions?
What is the Church and what is the story we find ourselves in?
Thoughts?

  • http://davidjmorgan.wordpress.com David Morgan

    Ah I feel like a fool rushing in where angels fear to tread.
    A theological answer that some give is we repeat the mistakes of Israel and so often stray. However as you say by the church being Spirit led we don’t have the excuse of not keeping the law like the Israelites.
    Rather it seems God is gracious and allows us to go astray rather than keeping us on a tiht rein.

  • VanSkaamper

    I think the answer is the same as the answer for the problem of evil. The “church” is not a sentient being. It’s a collection of flawed and fallen human beings, each of whom has their own walk with God. They have free will. They commit the same sins that human beings in any and all other institutions commit.
    God, somehow, continues to work through the church and achieve His ultimate purposes through it…but the church remains as much a human institution as a divine one, and as long it’s comprised of imperfect human beings, God will allow it to stumble along with its frail and flawed humanity on display.
    I also believe, however, that the degree to which the church has historically strayed and then corrected itself is the degree to which we affirm that the church is being led, corrected, and moved by the Spirt.

  • Ranger

    There are so many levels to this issue, but the ones that I see as being the “cause” of the church doing injustice in the past are:
    1. A confusion between the church of God, and the institution of the church. Just because Rome sanctioned the crusades does not in anyway mean that God sanctioned the action. Nor does it mean that the church of God at work in the earth sanctioned the decision (as is clearly seen by the many eastern Christians that opposed the crusades and faced death at the hands of the crusaders).
    2. A confusion in viewing all acts in the past done by Christians as naturally being motivated by God. We are all free creatures, and have natural inclinations for evil. Therefore, I see no reason to equate our actions with God’s will. There is a reason why we are constantly encouraged to live by the Spirit and reject the flesh, and that reason is simply because we still have the ability to follow the flesh (even as a mass group of individuals).
    3. A submission on the part of Christians to unquestionably follow their “Christian” leaders. There is no reason that an action sanctioned by a Christian in a position of authority must be followed by those under their authority, especially whenever that action clearly going against God’s revelation.
    I find Keller’s answer to be sufficient. I also like how he begins to make his case for a revealed morality in this chapter (which he builds on later), by which he judges the crusades against. God’s revelation is the reason for our seeking justice and believing people are inherently valuable. This of course would be opposed to the claims of Dawkins, and other extremist forms of atheism, when he claims that morality is an illusion. If morality is an illusion, then there is nothing wrong with the crusades because it was merely one group of people trying to strengthen their power by dominating another group of people (and vice versa). Although Dawkins never says this last statement, it is the obvious end of his belief in an amoral world.

  • Scott M

    Jesus decided to form his visible, tangible presence — his body — from those who have chosen to follow him, even though they remain very fallible human beings. And if the whole point is for us to become people who can be one with God and one with each other as the Father is one with the Son and the Son is one with the Father (and the Spirit also one with both) then it seems we must be left free to become that or not. We are becoming now what we will be forever. And that means we are often less than we should be. I will note that, as you study Christian history, the less ‘one’ we have become, the less wholeness there has been within the body, the more pronounced this problem has typically been. More recently it took the intervention of the Enlightenment (with a healthy dose of sheer fatigue) to get us to stop slaughtering each other in the West.
    But here’s the hard truth. When we live and act in a manner which divides the body, which sows conflict, which creates schisms, and which spills out from that internal life into the world around us, we embody antichrist.
    I don’t understand those who dismiss past (and often present) actions by Christians as something someone else has done, as somehow disconnected or distant from themselves. If you follow Jesus of Nazareth, then Christians cease to be the other and become your family. And you bear a familial responsibility for the actions of all. In some ways, the disavowal of many Christians in this arena brings to my mind Cain’s haunting question, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” We then have a very lengthy story and text culminating in the Incarnation of Jesus through which God’s answer to that question seems to be, “Yes. You were always meant to be your brother’s keeper. And your brother is your keeper as well.”
    Maybe it’s because of the different path I took to Christian faith, but I was always very aware that if I made this story my own, I was taking on the bad as well as the good. My heart swells with pride and joy when I hear or read the stories of the saints as well as every time I see a member of the family living (or maybe even just acting once) from love. However, it breaks my heart to see Christian set against Christian and to see that wash over those who often can’t escape. We’ve done much that is wrong. And yes, we’ve also done much that is right. And yes, people in pretty much every other family have done stuff wrong as well.
    But it’s not a contest or a tally sheet. If we are the people of God called to live for the healing of the nations, to be one with each other and one with God, to be a people shaped by love and service, how awful is it when we live as something other than true human beings? When we fall away from our own story? We need to begin not with excuses, but with apologies. There is no excuse and we can’t slough our responsibility for our family. Now, when we do that we might reach a point where we can offer more of the story and be believed.

  • Scott M

    Ranger, the dualism you draw between “the church of God” and “the institution of the church” strikes me as essentially an application of the platonic dichotomy between spirit and flesh. The institution(s) which you can directly see and experience — the visible body — is bad while there is actually a pure, unblemished “spirit” of the true Church which you can’t actually see but which is good. This particular dualism is, however, completely alien to Jewish perspective and is actually something we see some of the letter writers fighting against. And I would say that whether you apply it to treat ourselves as individuals or to the body of Christ, you are essentially reinterpreting our story through the lens of platonic thought.

  • http://mikerucker.wordpress.com mike rucker

    i have some thoughts on this chapter of Keller’s book here, so if you come across the need for several paragraphs of useless information today, you’ll know where to find it…
    my initial thoughts were in line with david in #1 – we’re just like Israel. and, since both the church and Israel are made up almost entirely of homo sapiens, that is to be expected.
    i say blame it on Paul – his zeal as a pharisee played out in his similar zeal as the church’s first poster boy, and he couldn’t resist putting what he saw as needed structure and order onto a group that should have been unique precisely because it blended in with daily life.
    mike rucker
    fairburn, georgia, usa
    mikerucker.wordpress.com

  • http://rhymeswithplague.blogspot.com Bob Brague

    This discussion is very interesting, and questioning is always necessary for faith to grow, but I am disturbed by this sort of questioning:
    If God is great and transcendent – why hasn’t he stopped evil and suffering? (Our Reasonable Faith 3)
    If the Christian story is true why has the Church been responsible for so much pain and injustice both large and small? (ORF 5)
    If the Christian story is true and if the Church is the ordained, Spirit led, body of Christ, God’s people – why has God allowed his Church to err so profoundly on so many occasions? (ORF 5)
    Maybe it is a small point, and I don’t mean to sidetrack the discussion with semantics, and I’m not disparaging anyone’s faith, but such questions, by the way they’re worded, seem to me to have their origin in unbelief, not in belief; in doubt, not in faith. To my way of thinking, questions rooted in faith, however small it might be, would not start with the word “if”; they would start with the word “since”.
    I’m not advocating an uncritical acceptance; I’m advocating a critical acceptance, if there can be such a thing.
    Or perhaps I don’t know what I’m talking about.

  • RJS

    Bob (#7)-
    Perhaps the problem here is that I am expressing the questions from a position of unbelief. Not my unbelief, but from the skeptical position of those with whom I generally interact.
    If I were to pose them from my position – and I still have questions – they would be posed from a stance of belief, not unbelief. How do we reconcile A with B…

  • http://rhymeswithplague.blogspot.com Bob Brague

    Belief and unbelief cannot be reconciled. They stand in opposition to one another. But both can exist at the same time (Lord, I believe; Help my unbelief). Maybe it’s a way of saying “I’ve come this far down the road, but there’s a lot more road ahead; guide me and enable me to travel it well.”
    The problem with unbelief in the clergy, as I see it, is this: “If the blind lead the blind, they will both fall into the ditch.”

  • Mike K

    Bob (#9)
    If belief and unbelief are on a continuum (which I believe they are) then I could agree that belief and unbelief cannot be reconciled but only if one is at the extreme end of either perspective…but that is not where we live. We live in the middle (as you suggested with you commment that they can exist at the same time). If we accept this to be true then we have to live with the fact that we believe and doubt simultaneously. To see these in boolean terms I think misses the point. So to say that they cannot be reconciled I think clouds the issue.
    Getting back to the question of why the church errs I think we have to look at the rise of the institutionalized church and understand that institutions realize the benefits and consequences of being an institution…that is they have great capacity for doing good as well as harm just like the people who fill them. Now we can ask “why do supposed spirit-filled people do harm individually or as a group?”…but it goes back to the fact that we are spirit-filled and sinful…at the same time.

  • http://www.cityfellowship.com Leo

    BTW – I love the way you phrased the question. My $0.02 is in two words: Sheep…and wolves…
    God calls us sheep (and not sheep-dogs who are really good at following directions) and sheep wander… But the shepherd does bring them back, and perhaps God wants us to see that – because there is something profound in realizing our sheepiness.
    Jesus warned us to beware of wolves (in sheep’s clothing) – those who are not really following the Shepherd, but following the sheep, to have their way with them. People who see religion as a way of self-promotion and power (which can be any of us if we’re not careful) – but perhaps the church’s foibles are a result of our this: a combination of our sheepiness (which is why God allows the foibles) and our lack of vigilance against wolfiness.

  • http://homewardbound-cb.blogspot.com/ ChrisB

    I’ve long wondered why the same God who struck down Ananias and Sapphira let the Corinthians be so, well, Corinthian.
    For whatever reason, God seems to prefer to work with human agents. When they go wrong, He rarely intervenes in as overt a manner as He did with Ananias or Korah’s rebellion.
    Perhaps part of the sanctifying of the church is the church deciding to do right rather than being smacked around every time it strays. Perhaps the extreme course corrections are made only when there is no option. Or perhaps I’m full of crap.

  • http://mikerucker.wordpress.com mike rucker

    mike k (#10),
    exactly! this is where i’ve come to in my faith-walk, and life is lived within many paradoxes (paradoxii?). to me, the only benefit served by the boolean choices at the extremes is that it allows us the head-start of knowing two incorrect answers…
    i think i’ve said it here before: we go from unknowing, then to certainty, but we don’t stop there – we then go back to a humble degree of unknowing. maybe there’s a fourth step, but i haven’t gotten there yet.
    we hit certainty starting in our teenage years, btw…
    mike rucker
    fairburn, georgia, usa
    mikerucker.wordpress.com

  • http://julieunplugged.blogspot.com/ Julie

    RJS, I think you got to the crux of the issue when you brought the Holy Spirit into it. It’s one thing to have a faith/religion that admonishes its followers to do good (and then they fail). We can blame the people and not the tradition. It’s another to be a part of a faith tradition that asserts that its members are transformed into better people through the power of God’s spirit as both evidence of God’s real presence in the world (today and times past) and as the empowerment necessary to overcome the tendency or temptation to do evil or to not fulfill the higher ideals found in our religious tradition.
    In short form: Where the heck is that elusive Holy Spirit?
    Personally, I haven’t found a satisfying answer to that question. Just because there have been good Christians doesn’t negate the question of why there have been so many abusive and dangerous ones, or apathetic and “not-so-different-from-everyone-else” ones.
    So what you think? How do you reconcile the apparent absence of the HS for long stretches of our history and particularly in the manifestation of the larger institutional church when harnessed to positions of power?

  • http://www.matthewsblog.waynesborochurchofchrist.org Matthew

    A true expression of Christianity should never hurt the world, but it can certainly appear to unbelievers that the church is destructive.
    http://www.matthewsblog.waynesborochurchofchrist.org

  • http://www.myspace.com/theonlypj theonlypj

    his Church to err so profoundly on so many occasions?
    My simple answer: because that’s what Covenant Love is all about…

  • http://homewardbound-cb.blogspot.com/ ChrisB

    Julie said: It’s another to be a part of a faith tradition that asserts that its members are transformed into better people through the power of God’s spirit…
    We also belong to a faith tradition that teaches that there will be numerous fakers in the church.

  • http://julieunplugged.blogspot.com/ Julie

    Fakers… consciously or not?
    I don’t think that the “sins” of the church have been committed by people pretending to be Christians. Many of them even felt they were carrying out the will of God as it was understood in that epoch and later generations judged those actions as wrong.
    Moreover, even today, those who want to lead lives of faithfulness don’t always… is that faking it? Or is it something else?

  • ron

    Perhaps there is too much “faith”. A great deal, perhaps all, of the abuses for which Christianity has responsible have been the result of Christians believing they had the truth and as such that they were justified in imposing this truth on the rest of the world. This was true for the Roman Catholic Crusaders; it was true for Protestant Christians who burned, hung and/or quartered other Christians; and it is true for Christians today who would have the government pass laws that impose their particular religiously influenced view of morality or truth.
    It seems to me that, whatever the good news is, it’s not found in the church’s conviction that it possesses the truth. A bit more doubt, rather than “faith”, may be in order.

  • http://homewardbound-cb.blogspot.com/ ChrisB

    Julie, I think Matt 7 makes it clear that many will think they’re doing God’s will and find out they’re wrong. Then there’s that general sin thing — saved people are still people.

  • http://awaitingredemption.blogspot.com Matt Edwards

    I think this is the biggest apologetic weakness of Christianity.
    When you read the Scriptures, you can’t avoid the language of the radical change that is supposed to take place in the nature and behavior of a person who is indwelt with the Spirit of God. The Christian should be living out the eschaton in all of its glory in an already/not yet sense. And yet, in my experience, most Christians do not live the lives that the Gospel calls us to live and that the Scriptures claim the Spirit will enable us to live. (You can include here simply the moral elements of spiritual transformation or you could add the more extreme manifestations of the Spirit such as raising people from the dead.)
    To me, that means that either: (1) I grossly misunderstand the Scriptures and God, (2) Most Christians (including myself) are “fakers,” (3) The Holy Spirit isn’t doing a very good job of conforming us into the image of Christ, or (4) My exposure to “Christians” is not broad enough–it is limited to American Christians.
    I hope it is (1).

  • VanSkaamper

    #’s 8 & 9: RJS is posing questions that are relevant for both believers and unbelievers. If we’re going to be prepared to give a reason for the hope that lies within us, then we’d better be able to make sense of the church’s rather inconsistent track record for an unbelieving world that questions the reality of the Christian message. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with posing the questions in the way she has.
    Any reflective believer should ask the same questions, but perhaps with a greater openness and understanding when it comes to Biblical answers to those questions.
    #20: Agree with Chris here. There have been countless sincere people who love God who have been utterly misguided…either because of bad teaching, bad interpretation, or who knows what else might pushed them off the rails. And then there’s the incorrigible and enduring problem with institutional Christianity that afflicts any and all human institutions in which there are careers, reputations, and money to be made and/or power and influence to be exerted. Motivations and rationalizations can get rather carnal, just like anywhere else.

  • http://abisomeone.blogspot.com/ Peggy

    Matt #21,
    You got me thinking with this: “To me, that means that either: (1) I grossly misunderstand the Scriptures and God, (2) Most Christians (including myself) are “fakers,” (3) The Holy Spirit isn’t doing a very good job of conforming us into the image of Christ, or (4) My exposure to “Christians” is not broad enough–it is limited to American Christians.”
    …and my two cents is:
    Regarding (1): I’m sure that most of us, in one way or another, grossly misunderstand Scriptures and God — or, rather, are not actively striving to be obedient to the Jesus Creed.
    Regarding (2): I figure there are a goodly number of folks who are “fakers” — and there are those who are “fakers” in order to deceive as well as “fakers” because they’re trying to fit in and have not really submitted their lives to the transforming power of the Holy Spirit. Which leads to….
    Regarding (3): The Holy Spirit will only do what we are ready and willing to have done. We must cooperate. See #s 1 and 2 above….
    Regarding (4): It is very important to have a bigger view of “Christian” — and this blog and other forms of “virtual” fellowship have really aided me in this arena.
    …this always takes me back to Chesterton (bear with me one more time…) when he talks about Christianity being found difficult and left untried.
    I’ve come to the place where I am unwilling to teach someone another thing until they put into practice the Jesus Creed. More of anything else without this firm foundation just won’t hold up to the “sheep and goats” test.

  • http://awaitingredemption.blogspot.com Matt Edwards

    Thanks, Peggy. I appreciate your thouhts–especially on my point (3).
    The balance between will and grace in spiritual development has long been a challenging issue in theology. On the one hand, the power of the Holy Spirit is integral to spiritual growth. On the other hand, the individual is responsible to submit to God’s work in his or her life. How this all balances out–I don’t know. But it raises a serious question for me.
    Grant me the following for argument’s sake–most “Christians” fall short of the life they have been called to live–the life considered normative in the Scriptures.
    Why is this?
    Is it because Christianity is truly a “narrow road” and most people we see in churches are not really indwelt with the Spirit? I hope not.
    Is it because most Christians are not submitting to the power of the Spirit? If this is the case, what does this say about our God? He promises drastic transformation and a new heart, but He is unable to deliver the goods because people are too hard-hearted. What, exactly, is the “power” of the Gospel if it is not powerful to transform the majority of people who claim its power? To me, this is not a satisfying solution.
    Again, I appreciate your thoughts. Perhaps I am way off base.

  • http://julieunplugged.blogspot.com/ Julie

    Matt, you hit the all the nails on all of the heads.
    The idea of gross misunderstanding of Scripture goes to the same problem since the Scripture is supposed to be inspired by the Holy Spirit and believers are supposed to be guided into all truth through the Spirit when they read and study and meditate on them!
    My contention is that our theology is too “magical” and not rooted enough in reality. To defend the magical idea of Holy spirit transformation, we’re reduced to ignoring the evidence… namely that Christians, while motivated by a desire to do good are not always any more capable of it than anyone else similarly motivated (without the guidance of faith or spirit).
    That drives me to reconsider what that spiritual indwelling means and is. I have thoughts on all this… but they may not be the subject of this blog. In brief: I see the early church giving us the image of spirit as a way to conceptualize how the experience of being deeply rooted in spiritual life and community will produce fruit… a transformed life and community.
    I don’t think we are promised superior behavior to non-Christians but are offered the possibility of transformation and outward focus as a humble hope worked out with others who pray, work and love together.
    I frankly think we only ever get glimpses of good… rarely sustained, but usually longed for by the few. And amazing how much good that does, when you think about it.

  • RJS

    Leo #11,
    I don’t have good answers for all of this – especially the role of the Holy Spirit. But I do think that part of the answer is that this is not an unexpected failing of the church – invalidating the gospel; but an anticipated fact of the way it will be in God’s world as long as the kingdom is not fully realized. Like you I come to ponder the reference to wolves in sheep’s clothing, and good trees bear good fruit, and the rest of that section of Matthew (Mt 7:15-23). After all – this section ends with Not everyone who says to Me, “Lord, Lord,” will enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father who is in heaven will enter. Many will say to Me on that day, “Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in Your name, and in Your name cast out demons, and in Your name perform many miracles?” And then I will declare to them, “I never knew you; Depart from me, you who practice lawlessness.” Look at this – casting out demons and performing miracles is not small potatoes; this is powerful stuff. And yet – Jesus says depart from me, you who practice lawlessness.
    Oh well — still thinking.

  • RJS

    Scott M (5),
    We’ve had this discussion before – but I think more along the lines that Ranger writes, and I don’t think that it is a platonic dualism. It is, in fact, a concession to the fact that humans are flesh and spirit. Neither the letter writers, nor the evangelists, nor Jesus himself from the evidence we have, propose that there will be a perfect exclusive community of human beings on earth. The Church must be those who do the will of the Father – not those who claim before men to be the Church. And the institutional church is those who claim before men – not a set identical with “those who do the will of the father.”

  • Howard Walters

    I find the notion compelling that the institutional “church” as we have come to know it in modernist terms, i.e. professional ministers empowered and salaried, at the helm and exercising control to maintain their own power, cannot be the church that Jesus was talking about. We have missed something critical and horribly important: doing the work of God, being the incarnational presence of God in His world today. This is the church. Organized, institutional religion, while having the capacity to do good, to appear to be the “church”—is most typically and most likely not really the church. We’ve settled, once again, for the mud puddle while God calls us to a life at the shore of the ocean.

  • Brad Cooper

    Great conversation! Lots of great comments….I especially appreciate the way you clarified things in #24, Peggy.
    I don’t have a lot to add except that it seems like the wolves among the flock often seek power and in those positions of power do a disproportionate amount of damage while too many others blindly follow. I guess I also tend to see the true Church like a remnant among those who think they are the church just because they were born into a “Christian family”….similarly to the way in which there was a remnant among the people of Israel (See Romans 11:1-5). I think these things were probably especially true in Europe during the Middle Ages.
    That’s my $.02….

  • Ranger

    Scott M.,
    I’m sorry for not explaining my comment more fully. I’m not suggesting a secret, hidden “true” church of God as is common in many Reformed circles. I agree that this form of dualism is foreign to ancient Jewish thought (although I wouldn’t agree that it is foreign to second temple Jewish thought). Anyways, that wasn’t the point I was making.
    What I am saying is that when Westboro Baptist Church has a rally against homosexuality that their rally is not representative of the kingdom of God (no matter how many people partake in the rally). It is just representation of one group of people that has ‘church’ in their name. The reality though is that in 300 years historians might see all of the articles dedicated to rallies against homosexuality by Westboro Baptist Church and may assume that this was the overarching view of God’s people.

  • Scott M

    Thanks for clarifying, Ranger. I had misunderstood what you said pretty much precisely that way.

  • Timothy Keene

    The issue of fanatical Christians who are quite repellent because they are arrogant etc. is not unconnected with the previous issue of truth. If truth that one speaks is viewed as objective and unconnected with the speaker, the way is open for arrogance. There is an instructive story of George Verwer on this of an argument between two Christians in which one triumphed rather brutally over the other. George asked him afterwards whether he had been speaking in the flesh or in the Spirit when he so savagely demolished the other Christian. The person said defensively that it might have been in the flesh but that he had been right. Drawing upon James 3:13ff, Verwer objected to this. If the truth is in the flesh it is from the devil, the Father of Lies and cannot be right. This opens up a serious question; can something be true without reference to the person who says it? Those who believe in objective truth would say no. If something is true, it is true whoever says it. If Verwer is right, then James would reject that utterly.

  • Scott M

    RJS, I wasn’t going to say anything further, but as I slept on it I realized that there is something important to say as we discuss this particular problem. Related to the confusion and antipathy created by the evil Christians have done and continue to do is the confusion introduced by present day Christian pluralism. I don’t particularly care one way or another about specific institutions and labels for those institutions. I do reject the idea that there is somehow ‘one’ church today when that statement contradicts visible, observable reality. Nor do I see any way you can believe that without accepting some sort of platonic or platonic-like perspective that there is some idea of oneness which is purely spiritual and transcends the physical reality we see and experience.
    Nor is it the case that all these different churches essentially (now there’s a word we could spend time deconstructing) worship the same God. Christianity at its core is about how we relate to a God who is known in three actual persons. The Christian God is not an idea. He is not a concept. The Christian God is three distinct and unique persons who are so interpenetrating and unified they form one God. And we say that in order to be a true human being, you must relate to the actual persons of that God and eventually become one with God (and each other) in a manner like the way the persons of the Trinity are one. We become one even as we retain our own unique personhood.
    However, when you scratch below the surface exploring Christianity in its various present-day traditions, you find that different traditions do not actually describe the same Jesus with whom you are to relate. Further, the various Jesus’s described in different traditions are actually very different from each other. If ‘Jesus’ were nothing by an idea or an abstract concept, perhaps they could be reconciled in some way. But if Jesus is an actual person, then he cannot be all the different and often contradictory things different traditions would have him be. This is why questions and disputes about the nature of Jesus were such a huge deal in the ancient church. If we aren’t worshiping, relating to, and striving to conform ourselves to the actual person named Jesus of Nazareth, then we’re wasting our lives and our time.
    I have quite a few atheistic and agnostic friends and family members. And this Christian pluralism is seen and recognized by many of them for the problem it in fact is. I find it ironic they see the problem when most Christians either don’t or refuse to acknowledge it. This is not a problem in, say, Hinduism, which offers a very different perspective on the nature of God, reality, and the human being. It’s a Christian problem. And it’s one we mostly seem to refuse face. We are not one with each as the Father and the Son are one. And if we refuse to be one with each other, you have to question how one we are with God. We seem to be living at cross-purposes with his plainly expressed will.
    If the Jesus you worship is not the same unique person as the Jesus I worship, if they are incompatible or even opposing, as is true within many of the different present traditions, one or both of us are reshaping ourselves and the course of our lives in the image of our own constructed god. For in Christian thought there is only Jesus and he is a living and unique person.
    So, tell me: Where today is this ‘one’ church? This ‘one’ body? Where is there anything in our sacred text that even vaguely justifies the level of division and fragmentation we see today within Christianity? How is it possibly OK to live open rebellion to the commands of the one we call Lord? Again, I could care less about structures and titles. But in order to be one in a Christian sense we have to worship the same Jesus. And we simply don’t. We don’t.
    That’s the elephant in the corner that nobody wants to acknowledge.

  • Phil

    Just some thoughts in response to no one in particular, but to general sentiments expressed in this thread. I agree with the lament that Christians don’t, on the whole, live the sorts of lives that we might expect out of someone who is supposedly being so transformed by God’s Spirit. At the same time, I feel like we should be very careful about fixing down exactly what it is that we do expect. Grace can be a subtle thing, and the difference God makes in people’s lives, and in communities, is not always so obviously visible. I don’t mean by this that it is intrinsically invisible, but just that it might not manifest itself in something like an obvious outpouring of good works. People aren’t instantly transformed, and moreover their biggest hurdles, and God’s greatest victories in them, might be things that the world at large isn’t even going to notice (but perhaps a close friend or family member might). Of course, this isn’t always true–as some have rightly pointed out, the bible says that visible love among God’s people is to be a witness to the world of God’s presence, love, and activity.
    But just because this isn’t always obviously manifest, doesn’t mean God’s Spirit isn’t at work in his people in a special way, that his saving presence and activity isn’t among them–I think there is quite a bit of evidence that he is. One of the things I think that contributes to the perception that he isn’t is the tendency we have to think that God isn’t active AT ALL among non-Christians. How can we believe this if we think that God desires them to be saved and come to a knowledge of the truth? Even if they are ultimately resistant to him, surely he must be doing something in their lives. When we think like this, we tend to compare ourselves to nonbelievers (and that’s almost never a good thing), trying to isolate what it is that sets us apart. I do think it is clear that Christians are supposed to have a relationship with the Holy Spirit, and indwelling, that sets them apart from the world, but I think it a mistake (one I make constantly), and even spiritually dangerous, to always be looking for outward indicators of this.

  • Brad Cooper

    Scott M (#34),
    Glad you decided to keep at it….a very important and lucid thought.
    I would go a step further, synthesizing your thought with something I mentioned earlier: I believe that there is a remnant of true believers (found throughout the world and throughout the various denominations and independent churches) who have not bowed their knee to a different Jesus but who all worship the same Jesus.
    This has been my sense of what the Scripture tells us and it has matched my experience. And here are the primary Biblical passages I am referring to:
    2 Corinthians 11:2-4:
    “I am jealous for you with a godly jealousy. I promised you to one husband, to Christ, so that I might present you as a pure virgin to him. But I am afraid that just as Eve was deceived by the serpent’s cunning, your minds may somehow be led astray from your sincere and pure devotion to Christ. For if someone comes to you and preaches a Jesus other than the Jesus we preached, or if you receive a different spirit from the one you received, or a different gospel from the one you accepted, you put up with it easily enough.” (NIV)
    Romans 11:1-5:
    “I ask then: Did God reject his people? By no means! I am an Israelite myself, a descendant of Abraham, from the tribe of Benjamin. God did not reject his people, whom he foreknew. Don’t you know what the Scripture says in the passage about Elijah—how he appealed to God against Israel: ‘Lord, they have killed your prophets and torn down your altars; I am the only one left, and they are trying to kill me’? 4And what was God’s answer to him? ‘I have reserved for myself seven thousand who have not bowed the knee to Baal.’ So too, at the present time there is a remnant chosen by grace.” (NIV)
    Peace.

  • Bill

    Scot M (#34),
    “We are not one with each as the Father and the Son are one. And if we refuse to be one with each other, you have to question how one we are with God. We seem to be living at cross-purposes with his plainly expressed will.”
    Very exact. Very true. It’s not complicated either. We don’t live the way Jesus expects because it’s not what we want. It’s our refusal to love each other with the same love the Father loved the Son. It’s our unwillingness to humble ourselves before God and have Him teach us what it actually means to abide in His love. We have the tools. We don’t have the heart. Can I call it sin? It’s not OK to live in open, willing rebellion to the express will of God. It isn’t.
    To answer your question, where is the ‘one’ church? With sadness I answer, I don’t know. May God be merciful to us.
    Peace.

  • Mike K

    Scott M (#34)
    You have hit on some very salient points…however I think the elephant in the room has to go one step further to ask “is Jesus, as revealed by scripture, even knowable from one coherent point of view”? I do not think that he is…thus the mystery (and consternation) of what we believe.

  • Scott M

    Mike K, I certainly would agree that any God we can fully understand is a God which is smaller than we are. Therefore catophatic statements must be held in tension with apophatic statements. However, the point of the Incarnation seems to have been for God to come near and make himself known to us. Jesus himself tells us that to know him is to know the Father. And a bit later he says the comforter will come, but then Jesus says that he will be with us. So apparently the presence of the Spirit is the same as the presence of Jesus. Either God has made himself known (and thus knowable) to us in the person of Jesus of Nazareth or much of Christian sacred text and tradition is simply wrong and we have yet another unknowable God among many different unknowable gods. I don’t need Christianity for that!
    However, all these different perspectives construct images of a knowable person of Jesus. It’s just that they are not compatible images if Jesus is, in fact, a real person.

  • Scott M

    Brad, the thoughts on remnant theology I’ve found most cogent and compelling are N.T. Wright’s. There is a significant theme of a ‘remnant’ of the people of God in the OT and there was a lot going on trying to identify that true remnant around the time of Jesus. But he sees the remnant of Israel ultimately being narrowed all the way down to Jesus on the Cross. And then a very strange thing occurs. It becomes a remnant that grows and grows and grows. Instead of reducing and being narrowed, it grows without limit or traditional bounds. There is no Jew or Greek. There is no free or slave. There is no male and female. The people of God, the post-Cross remnant, consist of all peoples who place their confidence in Jesus of Nazareth as the Jewish Messiah and thus Lord of all.
    I probably mangled his thought. But that’s more or less what I took from it. And I really like the imagery and the way it fits into the story.

  • Brad Cooper

    Scott M (#40), Beautifully put!


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