On Christian Theology

A person does not need to self-identify as a Christian in order to know God or Christ or the Love the pervades and sustains all existence.  God will not be controlled.  Christ will not be contained.  Love will not be owned by any person.  And thank God for that!  Central to Christian teaching and theology is the simple affirmation that God may be directly known by trust and hope.  Indeed, Christ taught that anyone may personally know God, who he affectionately called Abba, within the hidden depths of their heart through faith—before and beneath and beyond outward appearances or signs or surfaces or stereotypes. This intimate, relational knowing originates at a gut-level, immediate and unmediated by anything or anyone.

You may know God directly—and nothing whatsoever can possibly separate you from God, who is Love.  Not death.  Not life.  Not angels or demons.  Not things in the present or things in the future or any powers.  Not the highest heights or deepest depths.  Not even dogmas or institutions or religious traditions or anything else in all of creation could possibly separate you from the powerful love of God that has been displayed by Christ Jesus.  This is at the heart of the Christian gospel.  And it is a message that, ironically (and thankfully) enough, subverts the ultimacy of even the best and the worst of Christian religious traditions.  For the Divine Love revealed in Christ could never be controlled or contained or owned by anyone—not even by Christians.  This is one reason why it is so crucial that Christians learn to adequately distinguish the essence of Christian faith and spirituality from the many Christian religious traditions that have been (hopefully) formed around it.  Failing to make this distinction can create countless misunderstandings that limit and distort the good news that Christ proclaimed.

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On Christian Theology

“Friendship is the nature of God. The Christian concept of god as Trinity is the most sublime articulation of otherness and intimacy, an eternal interflow of friendship. This perspective discloses the beautiful fulfillment of our immortal longing in the words of Jesus, who said, Behold, I call you friends. Jesus, as the son of God, is the first Other in the universe; he is the prism of all difference. He is the secret anam cara of every individual. In friendship with him, we enter the tender beauty and affection of the Trinity. In the embrace of this eternal friendship, we dare to be free.”

—John O’Donohue, Anam Cara

On Christian Theology

It would be an unfortunate oversight not to notice the similarities between the language of classical trinitarian theology and sex.  Early Christian theologians formed mind-bending concepts such as perichoresis to affirm the paradox of God’s three-in-one-ness.  Perichoresis means that the members of the Godhead—Father, Son, and Spirit—coinhere, interpenetrate, commune, and mutually-indwell within each other in perfect loving friendship.  This is a vision of Reality as a Comm-unity of Active Love.  Now it would be a mistake to imagine that this means God is constantly having sex within God as we understand human sex.  It is more the reverse, actually: human sex, at its best, gives us a small window through which we can imperfectly perceive something of the Love and Life of God.  Life-giving sex is a brush with the Divine.  Indeed, the bodily act of sex likewise gives an image of what all loving relationships involve at deeper levels: a profound oneness of hearts and souls.

On Christian Theology

“For whatever reason God chose to make man as he is—limited and suffering and subject to sorrows and death—he had the honesty and courage to take his own medicine.  Whatever game he is playing with his creation, he has kept his own rules and played fair.  He can exact nothing from man that he has not exacted from himself.  He has himself gone through the whole human experience, from the trivial irritations of family life and the cramping restrictions of hard work and lack of money to the worst horrors of pain and humiliation, defeat, despair, and death. When he was a man, he played the man.  He was born in poverty and died in disgrace and thought it well worthwhile.”

—Dorothy Sayers

On Christian Theology

Balanced Christian theology is a mix of both details and mystery.  It exists in the tension between the extremes of overly-detailed dogmatism and overly-obscure mysticism.

The object—who is really the supreme Subject—of Christian theology is the self-revealing God.  It is the suffering-God who has compassionately involved himself in our painful, divisive human affairs.  It is the incarnate-God who has experienced the full weight of our human condition in the man, Jesus of Nazareth.  Christian theological inquiry, then, is a reaction to the self-disclosing, incarnational action of the Divine.  So it cannot be entirely apophatic, nor entirely mysterious.  For if it is a reaction to the activity of a God who has made himself knowable through a particular person in a particular place in a particular time, it must have details.  Details about the God-man who lived and breathed and bled in history; details about who he is, why he acted, and what he accomplished; details about our purpose and place in the ensuing drama of humanity.  Because it is not pure meta-physical speculation, it must have details.

And yet, in Jeremy Taylor’s words, ‘a religion without mystery must be a religion without God.’  I wholeheartedly agree: if Christian theology is entirely devoid mystery, then God has been significantly—if not entirely—squeezed out of it.  The object of Christian theology is the supreme Subject; the transcendent Creator and Sustainer of all things, visible and invisible.  So theology, more than any other form of inquiry, must be done with humility.  This does not mean that theological knowledge has to be utterly obscured beyond having any recognizable meaning, especially if it’s focus is the self-revealing incarnate-God.  But it does mean that such knowledge should be learned, embraced, and shared with a deep reverence for mystery.

Existing between full-blown dogmatism and full-blown mysticism is not easy.  It is much easier to become only addicted to details or only addicted to mystery.  But healthy Christian theology needs both; an uncomfortable thing for know-it-all dogmatists and obscure-it-all mystics.

On Christian Theology

Do you know the message of Christianity?  Have you ever heard the ‘good news’?  Don’t worry, I’m not going to shove it down your throat like some street corner evangelist.  But these questions are worth asking because—scandalous as it sounds—I’m convinced that sometimes what Christians claim to be the ‘good news’ is, strictly speaking, not really the good news.  There are two essential features of the Christian message that are sometimes overlooked or ignored: it is a message that is based on a story about who’s in power.  But what’s significant about this?

It is incredibly significant that the Christian message comes from a story.  To be more specific, it comes from a story about events that surround a person in a place and a time, not a system of abstract ideas.  This is key, because Jesus’ earliest followers believed their message came from a true story and not just some made-up story; they viewed their message more like a news report that concerned real happenings which unfolded in history, not a mythical story that was conjured up in the imagination.

For instance, in one of Peter’s letters he asserts that ‘we did not follow cleverly devised stories when we told you about the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ in power, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty’ (2 Peter 1).  John introduces one of his own letters with a similar posture, and writes, ‘That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched—this we proclaim concerning the Word of life. The life appeared; we have seen it and testify to it, and we proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and has appeared to us. We proclaim to you what we have seen and heard, so that you also may have fellowship with us’ (1 John 1).  Luke opens his biographical account of Jesus by stating his purposes, and writes that ‘Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word.  With this in mind, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, I too decided to write an orderly account…’ (Luke 1)  This is the sort of mindset that is common and often assumed throughout the writings in the New Testament.  The earliest writers and messengers were sharing news, not merely novel religious ideas.

Somewhat surprisingly, Christians need be reminded of this from time to time.  We need to remind ourselves because we have reduced the central message of Christianity—the good news—into sets of abstract propositions or ‘spiritual laws’ at times, and then, in some instances, we unwittingly confuse our systems with the good news itself.  If we’re not careful, we risk misrepresenting the significance of Jesus’ story when we equate it with abstract systems of propositions or laws.  We must remember that the central message of our faith is news about who Jesus was and what he accomplished.

Now, we also believe that this news is good, that it’s incredibly great news, in fact—the greatest news in all history!  But what’s so great about this news?  This bring us to our second, often overlooked, feature of the message: it is based in a story about who’s in power.  We need to situate the Christian message within it’s historical setting to start to appreciate why so many rallied around this news, believing that it heralded truly great events.

You see, Jesus of Nazareth lived and breathed, travelled and taught, died and—as it is startlingly claimed—resurrected, in first-centruy Palestine, while the region and peoples were ruthlessly controlled by the Roman Empire.  He grew up knowing the harsh realities of life under foreign occupation.  Rome had expanded their kingdom by brutal force and maintained their power through ongoing violence and intimidation.  Yet, leaders would claim that their rulership was ‘good news’ for those under the imperial regime, if you can believe it!  Gospel edicts would be issued and proclaimed throughout the Empire, usually to spread the news of a significant victory on the battlefield or the reign of a new Caesar.  And this news was good, but only for a few; it was good news for the privileged and the powerful for the most part, and the social, financial, and political blessings that the imperial evangelists would proclaim really only benefitted the elite.  As Michael Bird notes:

The Roman Empire had its own ‘gospel,’ found in its propaganda and media that asserted that Caesar was the Lord and Savior of the world.  What is more, subjects of the empire could, by devoting themselves to his patronage and power, experience the benefits of obediently living under his imperial jurisdiction.

So when Jesus’ first followers began to spread their message about who he was and what he’d accomplished, they intentionally communicated their claims through this politically-charged language.   But what was the good news about Jesus that they were so eager to share?  I’ve written about it and around it so far, but I haven’t written it, yet.  To use N.T. Wright’s words, the good news is ‘the royal announcement that the crucified and risen Jesus, who died for our sins and rose again according to the Scriptures, has been enthroned as the true Lord of the world.’  This is the central message of Christianity, the news that so many throughout the following centuries have viewed to be so remarkable and revolutionary.  And, if it is true, the implications of this new reality are vast and staggering!

In contrast to the good news about Caesar, the arrival of Jesus’ kingdom and Kingship is truly good news for all; it’s blessings do not just benefit the few while the many suffer in abject hopelessness and misery.  In contrast to Caesar’s kingdom which is established through intimidation, oppression, and violence, Jesus’ kingdom is established through sacrificial love, forgiveness, and reconciliation.  In contrast to Caesar’s peace which comes by the sword, Jesus’ peace comes by the cross.  And while Rome’s power for death appeared to be the strongest force in the world, Jesus’ power for life  proved stronger still.  So Michael Bird writes further that:

The early Christian didn’t steal the idea of a ‘gospel’ from the imperial rhetoric of the Roman empire; instead, they were exposing it as a perverse parody and a counterfeit fraud of the real gospel about the Lord Jesus Christ.  The gospel issues forth a challenge: Who is the real Lord of the world: the Son of David or the son of Augustus (see Luke 2:1-20; Acts 17:7)?  The gospel is a royal announcement that, regardless of what the world may think of Jesus, God has validated him as Israel’s Messiah and installed him as the rightful Lord of the world.

While much gets passed off as the essence of the Christian faith, it is the good news that Jesus is King and in power, that his kingdom has arrived through his life, death, and resurrection, that is the centre of the Christian message, the foundation of the Christian faith—accept no substitutes.

On Christian Theology

For the record, the bible is not a flat moral manual that we can flip open to any random page for quick-and-dirty ethical cues. It is a library packed with poetry, history, philosophy, letters, biographies, and more, that cumulatively chronicle a dynamic story.  Its story is filled with profound tensions between love and hate, promise and betrayal, justice and grace, revenge and forgiveness, despair and hope, war and peace, and good and evil.  Even more, its unfolding narrative tells of the dark powers of death and disintegration clashing with the life-giving, reconciling power of pure love.  Hardly light reading, its narrative brims with brutal honesty and disturbing tragedies, plenty of deeply flawed leading characters, and an uncommon God’s relentless pursuit of his beloved screw-ups that climaxes in a scandalous plot-twist of unexpected triumph.  It’s enough to get caught up in!