Friday, September 2, 2011

Redefining God

There's a troubling trend that's been spotted by researchers of religion in America. It's not just that less people are religious; it's who those people are. The biggest drop in belief and observance is among whites without college degrees and even more so among those who never graduated from high school. And yet the number of people who say they believe in God has not dropped by the same amount. What has happened is that less people are subscribing to established religions. And I can't help but think that at least part of the problem is that they have rejected what the established religions have come to represent. In the last 40 years, conservative Christians have allied themselves with conservative politics and with certain positions on contemporary issues. They have become so closely identified that to reject the politics and positions seems to necessitate in some minds rejecting Christianity, even though the connection between them is not essential. (The same is true of the Christian Left but it doesn't make the press like it does for the Right.)

The impulse to add something else to the essentials of the faith, or subtract something unpopular, is an old one, going all the way back to the beginning of Christianity. In Matthew 16, Jesus asks the disciples who do others think he is. They offer a wide variety of answers. Then Jesus asks the disciples who they think he is. Peter says Jesus is the Messiah or in Greek, Christ, the Son of God. Jesus congratulates him on getting it right. So then Jesus begins to teach them that the Messiah is going to be rejected by the Jewish authorities and killed. Peter promptly corrects Jesus on this matter. And Jesus rebukes him robustly.

The reason for Jesus' reaction is that Peter is presuming to define what kind of Messiah Jesus can be. The popular conception at the time was that of a holy warrior king, who would defeat Israel's political oppressors, the Romans, and set up an earthly kingdom of God. There was no separation of religion and state, nor, for the most part, of religion and race. So the notion that a religion could exist apart from the political power structure, or that the kingdom the Messiah would set up would include non-Jews were not considered serious ideas by most people. Jesus' assertion that as Christ he would be rejected by Jewish leaders and then killed had no place in the popular paradigm. Peter couldn't believe that Jesus had gotten it so wrong. What good was a dead Messiah?

Jesus does say that the Christ will rise again but again the popular idea was that all the dead will rise on the last day. The concept of anyone having their own separate resurrection was as unheard of as a dead Messiah.

Right after Jesus is declared Messiah, he tells the disciples not to let anyone else know. Why? Since Jesus has a very different concept of Messiahship, he wants the general populace to arrive at the same conclusion as his disciples without having to wrestle with the popular picture of the Christ. And based on Peter's reaction, Jesus is right.

Throughout the history of Christianity, the problem of redefining Jesus has remained. When it became the official faith of the Roman Empire, Jesus was reconceived as a holy warrior king. This version of Christ also made him acceptable to the militaristic Germanic tribes that dismantled the Empire in the West. The most common portrayal of him in this period is not Christ crucified but as Christ in majesty, ruler of all.

You can argue that this is just a matter of what part of Christology you emphasize. Christ is the second member of the Trinity, the eternal Son of God, the one through whom everything was created and to whom every knee will bend. To depict him as ruler of the universe is not heresy. But the de-emphasis of his suffering leads to an unbalanced perspective on Jesus and God.

In the context of our Gospel, it is jumping the gun. The Twelve cannot imagine how but the Kingdom of God cannot come about without the suffering and death of the Messiah. All earthly kingdoms come about through the sin of violence on the part of their leaders. A kingdom so founded always falls the same way. The Kingdom of God will not be founded on the infliction of violence on its future subjects but on the absorption of violence by its future sovereign. It is not built on retribution but on reconciliation. It is not about strict justice but boundless grace.

You can't get to the Kingdom except through the cross. It is a little more understandable for the disciples to be confused because what Jesus was going to do was unprecedented. But, 2000 years later, what is our excuse? Why do we overemphasize certain aspects of the faith and diminish others? Why do we confuse what is merely cultural or traditional with what is essential? Worst of all, why do we add things contrary to the gospel and insist they aren't?

Let's take these questions separately. Why do we overemphasize some aspects of Christianity and downplay others? In my historical example, it was a matter of one aspect of Christian theology (Christ as triumphant ruler) that appealed to a culture adopting the faith. In the same way, we see churches that emphasize Jesus as divine and others Jesus as human. Some focus on teachings of Jesus and others on the teachings of Paul. And we each have parts of the Bible's ethics that appeal to us and others we wish weren't there. Some people are all for the social justice emphasis in the Bible but wish less was said about, say, sexual ethics. Others like the emphasis on personal ethics and spirituality but are less enthusiastic about, say, what it says about our duty to immigrants or those in prison. Most of us like the idea that God forgives us and not so much the that the Lord's Prayer links it to our forgiving others. Some don't like forgiveness at all but prefer the judgment of sinners. Some would like to divorce forgiveness from repentance and changing one's life. But without all of these aspects, the resulting theology and ethics are lopsided. You need a balance to address all issues adequately.

Why do we sometimes confuse cultural or traditional issues with what is essential to the faith? Sometimes things have gone together so long, people don't realize that they are not equally part of the faith. We see this in Islam where certain cultural features like women wearing heavy veils or not being allowed to drive are elevated to the level of badges of the faith though they are not found in the Qur'an. We see it in Christianity in issues like the prohibition on abortion, which goes all the way back to the early church fathers but is not in the Bible. Or the leadership of women in the church, which existed for the first four-hundred or so years of the church, though the evidence in the New Testament is mixed. Both sides can cite Paul. Should women keep silent in church, as he writes in 1 Corinthians 14, or can they pray and prophesy in church so long as their head is covered, as he writes in 1 Corinthians 11? Perhaps that first prohibition isn't as total as some think. And what about his statement in Galatians 3:28 that there are no such distinctions in Christ? In view of the conflicting evidence, it seems arbitrary to make the denial of women's ordination a key point of the faith. In general it's the length of practice and the familiarity of one school of interpretation that makes people confuse what is with what must be.

Long time association and the dominance of one interpretation explains the persistence, if not the origin, of teachings in Christian tradition that contradict the spirit and even the letter of Scripture. One does wonder, though, how so-called Christians ever justified anti-Semitism. In the last 2 weeks we've read what Paul said on the matter of his fellow Jews not accepting the gospel. He saw it as an opportunity for the Gentiles who were joining the church in increasing numbers. Nevertheless God had made a covenant with the Jews and Paul foresaw their salvation. Paul saw them as no worse off than anyone else. All of us need God's grace.

Anti-Semitism first arose 150 years before the birth of Christ. Antiochus IV Epiphanes, who ruled over Syria and Palestine, tried to Hellenize the Jews. Their Sabbath seemed like an excuse for laziness and their dietary laws were seen as superstition. In his effort to suppress Judaism, Antiochus sacrificed a pig on the altar of the Temple in Jerusalem and sprinkled the blood on the scrolls of the Torah, igniting the Maccabbean revolt. The Romans, in turn, never understood monotheism because it excluded worship of the divine emperor. Pilate's first act as governor was to bring the Roman insignia, seen by the Jews as idolatrous, into the Temple. That set the tone for his relationship with the people he was supposed to govern.

Oddly enough, the anti-Semitism of a heretic was the impetus for the church establishing a canon of the New Testament. In the second century, a bishop named Marcion rejected the Old Testament and the creator God and declared that Christ revealed a new God of love. He created a New Testament that consisted of the Gospel of Luke and 10 of Paul's epistles, with all references to Judaism edited out. In reaction to this, the church began to discuss and hash out what books really belonged in the New Testament and fully embraced the Old Testament.

Anti-Semitism seems to have really come into Christianity when it was made the official faith of the Empire. Again the real reason seems to be an effort to strengthen the empire through a faith shared by all citizens. And any negative view of Judaism that could be found in the Bible was magnified and used as justification. Scriptures that went against this were not edited out but ignored or explained away. Anti-Semitism still exists in parts of the church. Not that many years ago, I remarked that Jesus was a Jew and a supposed Christian replied, "You don't really believe that, do you?"

So we can see why Jesus responded as he did when Peter told him he got his idea of the Messiah's mission wrong. But why did Jesus call him Satan? The word literally means "adversary." Peter, whose declaration of faith was the rock on which Jesus would build the church, had almost immediately becoming a stumbling block to that enterprise. Jesus had to let him and the Twelve know that this was not a mistake. His death and resurrection were essential parts of founding the Kingdom. If they didn't get that, they'd never understand the real meaning of Messiah. They'd never understand the depths of God's love and forgiveness and grace. They needed to spread this radical good news, not oppose it.

And Jesus did not tell Peter to "be gone" as he did Satan during his temptation in the wilderness. He told him to "get behind me." Peter's place was following his Lord, not getting in the way, telling him how he should go about redeeming the world.

We do the same thing as Peter, or as Moses does with the God he encounters in the burning bush. Moses tries to beg off confronting Pharaoh and leading the Israelites to freedom. We always try to correct God. We subtract from or add to his agenda. We try to define him as we'd like him to be, rather than let God be God.

In the Middle East, names are powerful. To possess the name of a deity or spirit was to be able to invoke it to do one's will. But when Moses asks God's name, he is given an odd form of the verb "to be." It can be translated "I am what I am," or "I am who I am," or "I will be who I will be." God defines who he is, not us. His agenda is not ours. He knows what we don't and sees what we cannot. He moves as the wind, invisible and powerful and is to be treated with a healthy respect. But he has shown himself to be a God who loves us, enough to become one of us, to live as one of us, to die on the cross, and to rise again, a promise of our fate if we pick up our crosses and follow him. And his promise at the end of the great commission recalls the final and my favorite translation of the divine name: "I will be there." Wherever we go, whatever befalls us, we know that God will be there and, more than that, he will be there for us. Because that is who he is.

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