Wanted to let you all know that I’m transitioning my blog to a new URL. I’m going to keep all former posts here (for linking purposes) but for new content (and there’s a new post up now), you’ll have to click over to:
Thanks for reading.
Wanted to let you all know that I’m transitioning my blog to a new URL. I’m going to keep all former posts here (for linking purposes) but for new content (and there’s a new post up now), you’ll have to click over to:
Thanks for reading.
About a month ago, a challenge went up on the Homebrewed Christianity podcast that asked listeners how they handle the verse in John 14:6 which says,
Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” (TNIV)
More specifically, they were asking people to respond to the question, how do you have a conversation with another Christian who uses this verse to claim that Jesus here is saying that people who follow other religions will go to hell.
The Homebrewed crew took all the responses, chose a few and put them in their latest podcast. People whose responses made it into the podcast got a free copy of Brian McLaren’s new book, Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Mohammed Cross the Road?.
After listening to the podcast, I think it’s clear that this challenge was above my pay grade as a theologian, but still, I had a good time crafting a response and thought I’d share it with you all.
I encourage you to listen to the John 14:6 podcast – the people who contributed had some really fascinating things to say and the hosts’ engagement with the responses is fun and enlightening.
And here’s what I contributed:
I completely affirm John 14:6.
I do believe that no one comes to God except through Jesus.
But I read that verse as saying that when it comes to what happens to people in the afterlife, I don’t get to decide, my theology doesn’t get to decide, my denomination and its doctrines don’t get to decide. Jesus is the one who decides.
Now some Christians claim this verse as an assurance of their own salvation. They read this verse and come to the understanding that if they confess faith in Jesus as the way, the truth, and the life, then Jesus will allow them through to God.
But I don’t know if that’s exactly what Jesus is saying here.
I think the idea that NO ONE comes to God except through Jesus should give everyone pause – even those in the church.
The writer of Matthew quotes Jesus as saying “not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only one who does the will of my Father in heaven.”
That seems to suggest that it’s not what one profess that saves, but how one lives within the will of God. And if that’s the case then if there are people of other faiths (or no faith) who live out an ethic that mirrors that of the kingdom of God – one that is in line with the way, truth, and life of Jesus (whether they profess Jesus or not) – then I don’t see why it’s necessary to claim that Jesus will exclude them on the basis of John 14:6.
The following post is from a short paper I had to write for a Disciples of Christ History and Polity course. The task was basically to talk about my understanding of salvation.
Being a paper for a history and polity class, I did have to throw in a bit about the denomination at the end. If I had more time I would reformulate that paragraph to make it more applicable to this blog but I’m back in the swing of school and am already behind in readings for class, so you’ll just have to read it as is (and really, if you don’t know about the Disciples, you really should check them out – they’re a quirky, fascinating little denomination).
We live in a world that, for both better and worse, is controlled by two dominant power structures – the commercial and the political. If we were fishes, commerce and politics would be like the hydrogen and oxygen of the waters we swim in. Every system of power operates within a set of rules or principles and whether people are aware of it or not, they participate in these systems. Some benignly, transparently move with the flow of these systems while others consciously work for or against them. Regardless, the point is that everyone is immersed in corporate and political forces to some degree or another.
There is, however, a third system in play. This one is far more elusive and mysterious, but it is no less a part of the life of the world than commerce and politics. Christ spoke of this third system as the kingdom of God (or heaven). To return to the fish and water analogy, the Kingdom of God can be likened to the mineral component of water. No natural body of water is purely H2O – there are always other chemical/mineral components that give water a certain flavor (the saltiness of salt water, for example). In fact, it’s this third component of water that gives it its life-giving properties (freshwater fish cannot survive in pure, distilled water).
But what does any of this have to do with the question of salvation – what does is it mean to be saved? Jesus talked about his followers being salt and light. To participate in the kingdom of God is to live into this third system – to bring life-giving flavor to the world and to illumine the often-toxic nature of the commercial and political systems. Thus, to be saved is to be saved from slavish participation in systems of oppression and greed and to be saved into a new understanding of life – a life based in a kingdom ethic. This is a way of life where enemies are not to be annihilated but loved, where leaders are called to serve, where the scales of justice are themselves weighed against grace, freedom, and forgiveness, where love of God and neighbor is the lens through which all other laws are understood.
Thus far, I have not said anything about how the church fits into this schema. The early Disciples seemed to have done the same. They initially resisted the urge to become a denomination, in part, because they understood that if one is not careful, the church can turn into yet another institution of power and profit – it can return people to the very systems of oppression from which they were saved. Even today, as a denomination, because the DOC have emphasized a congregational polity and a very open doctrinal stance, they are uniquely poised to be salt and light in a world desperately in need of flavor and illumination, and to do so in a way that is relatively (hopefully) free from the corrosive lures of power and profit.
I’m not sure when or how it happened, but I’ve become rather political lately, especially on facebook. I’ve been putting up a bunch of links to articles about Republicans disenfranchising Democratic voters, the odd claim this year from the GOP about Democrats not having the word, “God,” in their platform, the lies being told on the campaign trail by Republicans and Democrats (IMHO, the lies coming from the right are far more egregious than those from the left), and a bunch of other links.
Based on the articles I’ve been putting up, I think it’s easy to see that I side far more with liberal Democrats than I do with Republicans (at this point, calling them conservative Republicans would be redundant).
In addition to linking to articles, I also (occasionally) comment on posts/articles that some of my more conservative friends put up. When I do this, I do my best to be polite and respectful (and this often requires a great deal of restraint on my part) while still being clear about why I might disagree. But no matter how nice and reasonable I try to be, some people just can’t help but go apeshit when people disagree with them.
For example, twice last week (once for saying I support gay marriage and once for saying I support the right for women make their own choices regarding abortion), in two completely separate comment threads, I got accused of not being a Christian because of the political positions I supported. Both times, I politely pointed out that I entrust my salvation status to God, not facebook commenters.
Anyway, in a surprising turn, one of these fb political discussions got unexpectedly personal – in a good way. One person (who pretty adamantly disagreed with me) shared a bit from his own story about why he felt so strongly about his stance.
And I was touched. I mean, I still disagreed with his position, but getting a glimpse of the humanity behind the politics was really refreshing.
And I decided to respond in kind.
Here’s a lightly edited version of my fb response:
Tony Campolo once said: “We need conservatives in the church because they hold lines that should never be crossed. We need liberals in the church because they erase lines that never should have been there in the first place.”
Here’s the bottom line for me. I don’t know the will of God. I don’t know the one correct interpretation of scripture. I readily admit that my theology, my hermeneutic, my politics, my ethics are all incomplete and flawed. I do my best to listen for the still small voice of God, and over and over again, it can be maddeningly difficult to discern the difference between God’s ways and my own.
But I try.
And I fail.
And then I try again.
One of the ways that I grow in my learning is by listening to and discussing matters with people who hold views that differ from my own. Because I know it’s all too easy for me to get stuck in ideas that are familiar, I need the voices of others to question and challenge me and my positions – to point out flaws and blind spots in my thinking.
I always try to do my best to take objections seriously – really weighing the merits of peoples’ objections – and because of this, throughout my life, I’ve changed my mind around a large number of issues.
See, I actually used to be really, REALLY conservative. Reading Rush Limbaugh’s book, The Way Things Ought To Be was my introduction to the world of politics – his book taught me what an entitlement was and how gun laws only punish law abiding citizens. He was the one who showed me that what happens in Washington has a huge impact on my life and so I had better pay attention.
I’ve obviously moved very far away from most of Rush’s ideology and here’s the thing that I think very few people appreciate. My shifts in ideas only came after very long, very difficult struggles with myself, with friends, with scripture, and with God.
Really, honestly weighing the merits of new ideas isn’t easy and jettisoning old, familiar conceptual frameworks in order to take on new ones is an angst-ridden, often demoralizing experience – because who wants to admit that the way they understood the world was flawed? And after that admission comes the long, difficult work of reorienting one’s self into a new paradigm.
But I always did my best to follow trains of thought wherever reason and discernment led.
And now I’m a lefty.
Who knows. Maybe a day will come when I find good, solid arguments to move way back towards the right. I intentionally try to keep myself plugged into conservative news and commentary because I know that bias can blind (or at least influence) reporters’ coverage and I do understand and admit that the news media as a whole tends to lean left-ward (though not as much as conservatives claim – I think most reporters do their best to remain objective, but bias is a subtle, pernicious, often subconscious influence).
Anyway, I’m not sure why I’m saying all of this. I guess the previous commenter gave a bit of his story and that got me to open up and offer a bit of my own.
Thanks for sharing and for letting me share.
You know, when I engage in political discussion, I never really expect the person on the other side of the discussion to change their mind. I mean, it would be great if they did, but that’s not my primary aim. My aspirations are far more modest. I just want to give a cogent account for why I hold the views that I do – to show that they’re not unreasonable or emotionally based or heretical, and that liberals aren’t out there to destroy America.
I also engage in discussion because maybe I’m the one that needs to be changed and the only way I can know that is to see the other side’s objection.
In short, I do my best to think of these encounters not as debates, but as discussions. For me, the difference is that in a debate, people are aiming to win, whereas in a discussion, people are aiming for understanding – to understand the other side’s perspective and to hope that they can understand theirs.
Understanding doesn’t mean agreement – that’s a point I think a lot of people miss. It just means that we actually comprehend the totality of what we’re disagreeing about. Because here’s the thing. Most people only listen for weaknesses in the other side’s argument. They’re only listening for confirmation on why the other side is so misguided. They seldom listen for the merits of the other side’s position.
Most of what passes for political debate/discussion today is really just pundits pitting straw man against straw man. And then we wonder why our political system is so divisive and deadlocked. What we need is more humanity in the process. We need less debate and more substantive, sincere discussion. We need to stop trying to win arguments and start trying to understand (really understand) both sides of issues that we disagree on. We need to love and pray for our political enemies and we can only love and pray for people we understand. Otherwise, you’re praying for a straw man – you’re praying for someone else (maybe yourself).
Left, right, and center, we all want a better America for ourselves, for our kids, and for generations to come. And the only way we can have that is through understanding.
I’m Randall Ajimine, and I approve this message.
A friend on facebook recently asked me this question:
So… who does go to hell if everyone is in “favor?”
And I started a reply to him and the reply started to get longer and longer and so I figured I’d just turn it into a blog post.
Which gives me an idea. If you have questions you’d like me to take on, feel free to leave them in the comments or leave me a message on facebook or email me (lonetomato808 AT gmail DOT com), and I’ll give it my best shot.
The question of hell is a really difficult one. Honestly the best answer anyone can (should) give is that no one really knows. And if you find someone who says they know definitively what hell is and who’s going there, well, I’d love to meet them because I also have questions I’d like to ask.
Now I haven’t done much research on the topic of hell specifically, but I have been thinking a lot, lately, about the nature of God and the Bible. I’ve found that God (and the Bible that points us to this God) is radically relational – that the whole of theology and interpretation hinge on loving God and neighbor. From this idea, I do feel relatively confident to say that I believe that it isn’t in the nature of God to send anyone to a place of eternal torment, which is what most people think of when they think of hell.
But before I go into my own (speculative) thoughts on hell, let me briefly go through the traditional view first.
There are many stories in the Bible about the justice of God, and many who argue for the existence of hell base that view, at least in part, on these stories. And that makes sense. There are people out there who do bad things and there is a primal urge in all of us to cry out for justice when we’ve been wronged.
Some evil thing gets done to us and it breaks us. It makes us feel less secure, less safe, less able to extend love, basically less alive. And there’s something within us that cries out for restitution. Because we all try to do right, don’t we? And then someone comes along and kicks a dent into our lives and we want justice to restore order – for things to be made right again. And sometimes the person who perpetrates harm on us gets caught and punished. And sometimes they don’t. And it’s in this second case where some people look forward to a future reckoning, a future justice, a future hell.
Now at this point I could spin off into the various ways that hell has been described and then talk about how the way most people view hell today is influenced far more by the writings of Dante and Milton than the Bible, but again, I’m ill equipped to lead that discussion.
What I want to do instead is to ask the question, what happens when we look at the issue of justice/hell through the lens of relationship? (And I ask this question because, again, I believe that the primary message of the Bible is loving relationship.)
When read with a relational hermeneutic (I talk more about this way of reading the Bible here), I believe that whenever the Bible talks about justice and/or hell, I believe that the ultimate end result is restoration of relationship. In Matthew 18:21-35, Peter asks Jesus how many times he should forgive someone who sins against him. Jesus answers, “seventy-seven times.” He then goes on to tell the story of a master who forgives one of his servants a huge debt that he owes him. In turn, this servant goes to a fellow servant who owed him a much smaller debt. He demanded the debt owed him and when this other servant couldn’t pay, he got him thrown in jail. The master hears about this and goes medieval on that first servant. The story ends rather ominously, “In anger his master handed him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed.”
(Now some might argue that Jesus was alluding to hell at the end of that parable. I don’t know, maybe, but I think that might be reading too much into it. But even if Jesus did mean to allude to hell, it’s still not an eternal sentence – it’s only “until he should pay back all he owed.”)
Here, we have Jesus teaching about unending forgiveness. Not only that, but he begins the parable about the master and servants with the phrase, “the kingdom of Heaven is like…,” suggesting that this message of forgiveness is not just a message that applies to this life on earth, but also to whatever comes afterwards.
So to (finally) answer the question about who goes to hell, I guess I would say that if there is some kind of hell (I don’t have time/space here to take on whether hell is a biblical concept or not), I have no idea who is or isn’t going there – passages like Matthew 7:21-23 and Matthew 25:31-46 seem to suggest that some people will be surprised to find God’s favor (because they didn’t know they were “in”) and others will be surprised that they don’t have God’s favor (because they thought they were “in”). But regardless of who goes to hell, I don’t see how it could be a place of eternal damnation – that idea is in stark contradiction to the idea of unending forgiveness and the idea of a radically loving and relational God. Maybe there is some sort of “debt” that needs to be paid before being let out of jail/hell/whatever, but I just don’t see how it could be eternal damnation.
Now there might be one exception to this. C. S. Lewis talks about how a loving, relational God would not force God’s self onto someone who consciously chooses to reject God – that would not be loving, it would be overbearing. Maybe it’s possible for someone to choose to reject God for eternity, but that’s not on God (I believe God would always be open to reconciliation).
One last bit.
I want to reiterate that anything anyone says about what happens after death is pure speculation. The Bible just really doesn’t have that much to say about the afterlife. It does, however, have a great deal to say about life before death. Shane Claiborne points out that far too many Christians are worried about an abstract hell after death, but far too few are concerned about the actual hells on this earth that people are living in right now.
Jews have a saying – “ask two Jews about what happens after we die and you’ll get three answers.” And I would add that they’d both admit that they were unsure about all three of them. And I wish more Christians would hold their ideas about the afterlife as loosely, because here’s the thing. Religious Jews are far more concerned about how they treat people in this life than they are about the afterlife. This life, and this world, and the people that inhabit it – these are the things that God wants us to care for. This is where we should be focusing our ideas and our efforts.
…puts a whole new spin on Matthew 6:34, doesn’t it?
So do not worry about tomorrow [life after death?], for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s [this world's] trouble is enough for today. (NRSV)
There are more than enough problems on this planet in this time to keep the church busy. Speculation about what happens after we die? I suppose that makes for an interesting theological discussion, but we miss the point entirely if we get fixated there. Far more pressing, is discussion about how to alleviate the present-day hells on earth that people are suffering through.
So I’ve written about a different understanding of hell. I would add that N.T. Wright – in his book, Surprised By Hope – suggests that the early church’s understanding of heaven was very different than ideas that are popular today. Basically, he argues that heaven isn’t where we spend eternity – it’s just the place where the dead await the second coming of Christ when we will all be resurrected to a new heaven and a new earth. It’s a very good, very thought-provoking book. Highly recommended.
[PREFACE] (feel free to skip)
This post is an attempt to take up a challenge posed by Tony Jones (author, theologian, professor, blogger at Patheos). In his post, he declared, “…progressives write lots of books and blog posts about social issues, the church, culture, and society. But we don’t write that much about God. That is, we don’t say substantive things about who God is, what God does, etc.”
And so, he posed this summons:
Now I don’t know if I qualify as a “progressive theo-blogger,” but I do know that I’ve been moving pretty consistently towards the liberal, progressive end of the theological pool, so I’m going to declare myself eligible.
I haven’t read what any of the other contributors have put up yet so I have no idea what I’m up against, but the challenge sounded way too fun to not take up. And it seemed to fit right in with my whole …about God series.
And so I bring you…
I want to begin with Matthew 18:20
“For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.”
I want to suggest that in this verse, Jesus is not the antecedent of “my name” and “I am.” Based on the verse that comes immediately before, Jesus is not referring to himself, but to God.
In the more conservative, mostly pentecostal-leaning churches I attended in my formative years as a Christian, Matthew 18:20 was always cited as a verse about prayer. It was taught as a way to encourage people to pray in groups since, for them, the takeaway message was that when people prayed together, God was there in a special, unique way.
I want to go further than that and suggest that perhaps what Jesus was really saying about God is that God only exists in relationship – that God is only made manifest in relationship, so apart from relationship God doesn’t exist (or if we want to maintain a metaphysic of God apart from relationship, all we can say is that God is inaccessible apart from relationship).
And here I want to borrow a bit of Peter Rollins who expands on 1 John 4:8 (which says that God is love) by asking the next question, “what is love?” Love does not exist. Love is not a thing in and of itself. Love is something that only appears in relationship, because there is no love apart from an other.
So in this challenge to “write one post about God,” I find myself in a strange position. If God, like love, is not a thing in and of itself then I can’t say anything about God with mere words on paper. However, I can say that God is there in the midst of your reading of this post. As I write these words in love, my hope is that they will be taken up again in love, and as they are read, there God is.
I can no more say anything about God than what anyone can say about love. We say things like “love is patient, kind, does not envy, etc.” but in doing so, we’re not saying anything about love because you can’t be patient or kind or not envy except in relation to an other. And so you’re not really saying anything about love with those words – they’re mere abstractions that can only be made concrete in relationship.
In the same way, I can’t say anything about God (who is love) apart from relationship. That’s why the relational image of the perichoretic trinity is one that most Christians hold so dear – because God (even as one tries to speak of God in/as God’s self) is still relational by definition. There is no God apart from relationship. Or to put it positively, God is love in relationship.
Now what does that mean? That sounds like an abstraction of an abstraction, and I agree. But forcing God into words and definitions and declarative statements forces God into abstraction. So let me try again to make this more concrete – and the only way to do that is to talk, again, about relationships.
If relationships always require at least two differentiated parties (and I would include the intra-relational realm here as well) then I want to suggest that any attempt to say anything about God requires us to not stop at just coming up with our own declarative statements about God. We need to take the next step and bring our differing understandings of God to one another and in so doing, we manifest God – “God is there among us.” So in a way, this whole project – having people write about God, collating the posts, and placing them alongside one another – is itself a beautiful statement/portrait of who God is.
But a word of caution is in order. If this project is about looking for the one right, true, definitive post describing God, we miss the point entirely – we miss God altogether.
But if we can hold these different posts/statements/poems/images about God together in loving relationship, God shows up. In the resonance and dissonance, in the coherence and contractions, God is there. That is God.
Indeed, it may be the best way to talk about God.
I’m trying (again) to get back into the habit of posting at least one new post per week. These past two weeks, I’ve put up two monster posts – one about reading the Bible through a hermeneutic of love in relationship and another about sex.
(Guess which one got more hits.)
In order to give a break to both myself and my readers, this week is a short, softball post.
Hope you like it.
So basically, the idea is, you take a film title, remove one letter, and give a brief description of what this newly titled film might be about. Really simple and the results were surprisingly clever and hysterical.
I retweeted some of my favorites
And then I started coming up with some of my own:
And finally, the two that I’m most proud of:
And as you can see, some people even modified movie posters:
It was a great way to waste an afternoon – the perfect way to unwind during grad school summer break.