Archive for May, 2010

Complicated Ground

Stephen Prothero, a professor at Boston University’s department of religion, has written a short opinion article in response to a New York Times piece written by the Dalai Lama.  I think it is worth a read, though it may be a slight overreaction.  After reading the Dalai Lama’s article, it seems to me that Prothero is stretching the Dalai Lama’s argument beyond what he (the Dalai Lama) intended.

The Dalai Lama (whose name is Tenzin Gyatso) argues for mutual understanding between religions by finding common ground that will foster peace and tolerance.  “Finding common ground among faiths can help us bridge needless divides,” writes Gyatso, and “These days we need to highlight what unites us.”  He submits that one of these common areas is compassion.

Prothero seems to take Gyatso’s article to advocate the claim that all religions are essentially the same, and have compassion at their core.  While there are certainly hints of this in Gyatso’s article, it is not what he’s saying (this time).  What he’s saying is that we should find common ground.  This is classic Buddhism: The middle way.  One of Gautama’s four great renunciations was that of extreme asceticism and extreme decadence.  And so Buddhism has always been marked by finding middle ground.

I agree with Gyatso that it is possible to respect other people’s choices, and even highlight common ground among faiths. However, some crucial caveats are in order:  (1)  Respecting other people’s spiritual choices is not the same thing as agreeing with those choices, or thinking that the object of their choice is wise, true, admirable, or in any way laudatory.  I can respect my friend’s choice to be a Buddhist because I honor and love him as a person, not because I honor or love Buddhism.  I can lament said choice just as well; wishing it were not so.  The fact that I honor the person means I stop there, and don’t move on to coercion or something worse.  (2)  Finding “common ground” among faiths can be a slippery slope, since said commonalities most often lie in the realm of moral injunctions (e.g., don’t murder).  Here is the root of the erroneous platitude that “All religions are basically the same: Just be a good person.”  Even more, the commonalities are found on the surface of the faith.  Perhaps many faiths enjoin us to respect life, but the reasons for these commands are starkly different, as are the implications and ostensible consequences for failing to keep them.  As such, (3) finding “harmony” among world religions is not possible; the various world views within are ultimately irreconcilable.  Finding harmony among the peoples of different religions is a more realistic goal, thought it will still be amazingly difficult, complicated, and ultimately imperfect.  Through our common ground, we can agree on a few broad constructs that can govern social behavior, not belief.  Said constructs will be very broad, and very few.  It seems that once details and specifics need to be fleshed out, the harmony will quickly become dissonance.

For example, let’s assume that one area of common ground among religions is indeed compassion.  How does this look in terms of social behavior?  What do Muslims do with the Koran (“Fight those who do not believe in Allah or in the Last Day” At-Tawbah, 9:29) when they interact with Buddhists?  And does compassion extend to the unborn?  And how do we treat those who fail to live compassionately?  How shall Brahmins treat Dalits with compassion?  Do men and women have equal rights and roles to receive and give compassion?  You see where I’m going with this.  If you let men and women from various faiths answers these questions, you will get very different answers.  In fact, you will probably get different answers from people within the same faith.

I’m all for doing everything I can to live peacefully with everybody (e.g., Rom. 12:18).  The problem is that the answers are terribly complicated, even when we’re standing on this “common ground.”  The Prothero may misread Gyatso, his diagnosis is correct: the Dalai Lama’s suggestion, however admirable, is naive.  Furthermore, it is a slippery slope to dangerous misunderstanding of the world’s many faiths, and how the interact.

Finally, I should remark that to world reduce religions to codes of conduct is to misunderstand my own.  Christianity is not another ethical framework to which humankind must comply in order to be blessed after death.  Christianity is not about following a great leader (Jesus) who came to show us the way.  Jesus is the way (Jn. 14:6).  Jesus is the one who lived the life we should have lived, and died the death we should have died.  His sacrifice on our behalf is what releases us from the need to comply to another set of rules and human striving to reach God.  Christian faith isn’t placed upon the hope that we got our theology right, or that our performance will bring us reward, or that we have a better worldview than others.  Christian faith is placed in a person.  Even if the commandments of each world religion were identical, we could never say they are the same, because in Christ, these commandments are already met.  Christianity is the only faith where the “doing” is already done.

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I have a confession- I like to pick on philosophers.  To give an example, I’ll share a funny story from an OT prof in undergrad.  He was at a conference for Christian professors, intending to go to a session for OT professors.  He accidentally ended up in the session for philosophy professors and couldn’t get out.  What transpired (with perhaps some hyperbole) illustrates why I couldn’t go into philosophy.  According to my professor, they never actually arrived at the topic of discussion because they spent the entire time arguing over how certain words were best defined.  From the perspective of my professor, these were the worst kind of philosophers- talking about everything except the important things.  (Before Cousin Jeremy flays me, I should note that I’m needling.  I actually really enjoy philosophy… in 30 minute doses.)

As cumbersome as constantly worrying about proper definitions can be, philosophers of this ilk are on to something important.  What we mean by certain terms that we drop in casual conversation is of utmost importance, especially when we are discussing matters of eternal importance.  So while I do believe one can go too far down this road, constantly worrying that their words have no meaning until they explicitly define them for their listeners (which, of course, could descend into a never-ending cascade of defining the definitions), I think it is good to make sure that everyone is more or less on the same page.

I bring this up because I’ve recently been recalling my interactions with adherents to other faiths overseas.  I’ve had conversations over meals or cups of tea/coffee with Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists regarding their faith, Jesus, Christianity and a whole host of other topics.  These are instances where I’ve had to be sure that the other person is at least in the same ballpark as I am.

Let me give an example.  When a Muslim from another country asks me, “Are you a Christian?” it would be easy for me simply to say “yes.”  After all, I am.  But what I mean by “Christian” and what they mean may be, and probably are, two different things.  Instead of answering the question, though, I usually ask them what they mean by “Christian.”  The reason is this: “Christian” carries certain cultural connotations for them that it does not carry for me.  Most non-Christians in the non-Western world assume all Americans are Christians.  Many of them watch American TV via satellite (I’m caused some confusion overseas for not knowing the latest American pop phenoms) and assume that what they’re watching is representative of American culture and, thus, Christianity.

Christians sleep with multiple partners (example: a female friend was teaching English to a group of Muslim girls in Asia when they asked her about prom night.  They had seen on TV that American girls lose their virginity on prom night and were intrigued.  Keep in mind, their assumption is that these girls on TV are Christians).  Christians get drunk frequently.  Christians never go to church, never pray, never worship, and never mention God unless they’re swearing.  Christians use crude language.  Perhaps most importantly of all, Christians always support the American government, especially when they are attacking Muslims.

So if I answer “yes” to the question, I may be confirming some or all of these points, and potentially many others (I should note that not all non-Westerners think these things about Christians, but many do).  Is that what I want?  But if I ask them to explain what they mean, I get an inside track into their perception of Christians.  I can affirm what is true, deny what is wrong and clarify what is confusing.  But most importantly, I get to talk about Jesus, who is the centerpiece of all I believe. 

This goes for any number of terms we’re accustomed to leaving undefined: sin, salvation, God, heaven, hell, and so on.  These potential problems are multiplied when talking with a Buddhist, for example.  At least when I’m talking with a Muslim, I know that we can stand on common ground on a couple points: they have concepts of sin, heaven, hell, creation, etc., that are similar to ours.  Even though we understand God differently in many ways, at least we are both monotheists (though Muslims often don’t think we are) and don’t need to be convinced of God’s existence.

Buddhists, on the other hand, don’t even believe in a god.  Because of this, bad karma is different from sin, because they don’t believe in a God who can take offense to an immoral act.  Salvation and enlightenment are very different, as are nirvana and heaven.  Resurrection?  Forget abotu it.  If I’m going to talk with a Buddhist, I must take time to explain what I mean and let them into my worldview, just as I try to enter theirs.  It takes time, but it’s worth it.

Applying it to our context here in the West, I wonder if we should take time to define our terms more clearly for people.  A coworker might ask you on Monday morning, “what did you do this weekend?” and you may reply, “went to church.”  Do they know what that means?  What would change if you answered, for example, “worshipped God in a community of redeemed sinners”?  Would that open more doors to talk about what it really means to be the church and to follow Jesus?  I’ve used this approach before when a coworker asked if I were an evangelical.  I asked them what they mean by that term.  I’m happy to affirm my status as an evangelical, properly defined.  But if my coworker is thinking mostly in terms of how I vote in the elections and what TV programming I watch, then I don’t want to affirm those things.  Even if I line up with most evangelicals on many issues, that’s not what makes me an evangelical.  My belief in Jesus, as He is portrayed in the Bible, and the saving power of the Gospel is what makes me an evangelical.

So maybe the philosophers are right.  Maybe we do need to take a few minutes to define our terms and explain clearly what we mean.  Keep in mind, I’m not advocating abandoning our terminology in our culture, doing so will only spring forth new terms that will eventually become ill-defined.  I’m pushing us to assume less.  I’m pushing us to ask more questions, to get into the minds of those we talk to and understand where they’re coming from.  Doing so will open more doors that will otherwise be shut.  Spending more time explaining what we mean will give us a chance to talk about Jesus, which is what we should be trying to do anyway.

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A Call to Spiritual Reformation: Priorities from Paul and His Prayers.  I’m slowly but surely making my way through many of D A Carson’s books.  It is a rare skill to be exegetical and devotional in the same book, or even on the same page, yet Carson pulls it off.  This book came at just the right time, as I need a pick-me-up in the prayer department.  It’s interesting, and a bit disheartening, to see how little we allow Scripture to shape our prayers.  While this book doesn’t answer every question regarding prayer, it does provide a biblical framework with which to start, and contains numerous bits of practical advice along the way.  My wife is currently reading this as well, and has also benefitted greatly from it.  I’ve quoted from this book once in a previous post.

Paul, the Spirit and the People of God.  Have you ever had a book that you’ve never read from beginning to end, but probably read the whole thing in chunks over a long period of time (for many of us, that’s the Bible)?  That was me and this Gordon Fee book, until recently.  I finally made the time to read through the whole thing, and I’m glad I did.  Stemming from his work in God’s Empowering Presence, which is 900+ pages of detailed exegesis and theological reflection, Fee offers this manageable 200ish page volume.  I think this would make an excellent book for a small group to study if they are interested in learning more about the Holy Spirit in Paul’s letters (and in the NT as a whole).  Much of the church today lacks a robust understanding of the Spirit, including my own charismatic circles.  It will be hard to read this book and not be challenged to see just how central the Spirit is to biblical theology and practice.  From eschatology to ethics to spiritual gifts, Fee does a tremendous job of making accessible what a lifetime of research has taught him.

From Jerusalem to Irian Jaya.  We read this Ruth Tucker book (affectionately known as FJ2IJ) in our missions training school.  It is, as the subtitle indicates, a biographical history of missions.  Tucker runs through the history of missions by looking at various important figures, with some historical setting for a little context.  Reader beware- she pulls no punches.  The history of Christian missions is mixed with triumph and failure, and she’ll let you know about it.

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Note: I promise this post will be more interesting than the title indicates.  If you disagree, I’ll refund your money.

Anytime we encounter lists in the Bible, we’re probably tempted to breeze over them.  There are, after all, more exicting things to get to and lists were something that were important to ancient people but less important to us.  But, they can, at times, reveal something very near to the heart of the biblical authors.

Take, for instance, the list of the tribes of Israel in Revelation 7:5-8.  It would seem straightforward enough, a listing of the 12 tribes is not that difficult to understand, except that when you look closely, the list isn’t quite what you’d expect.  Here is the list in the order it’s presented:

  • Judah
  • Reuben
  • Gad
  • Asher
  • Naphtali
  • Manasseh
  • Simeon
  • Levi
  • Issachar
  • Zebulun
  • Joseph
  • Benjamin

Now, there are a number of listings of the 12 tribes in the Bible, and they almost always differ (Genesis 35:23-25; 49; Exodus 1:2-4; Numbers 1:5-15; 26; 1 Chronicles 2-8).  I want to focus strictly on one aspect of this particular list, though, to demonstrate how it can reveal the author’s intentions.  Levi is left off some lists in the OT, mainly because his sons became the priests of the land and did not receive an allotment of land like the other 11 tribes.  Instead, Joseph’s two sons, Ephraim and Manasseh, received land, keeping the number 12 intact. 

But this list is not for land allotments, so Levi makes an appearance.  One would expect, then, that Joseph would be on the list and the number would come out to 12 again, corresponding to the actual 12 sons of Jacob who originally headed the 12 tribes.  Joseph does make this list in Revelation 7, but so does one of his sons- Manasseh.  Ephraim, on the other hand, does not make it (despite his brother’s presence).  Dan, one of the original 12 sons of Jacob, is also left off the list. 

The omission of Dan would seem to be confusing, given the presence of the other 11 brothes, and Ephraim’s absence is also confusing because of his brother, Manasseh, making the cut.  So, the question is: of the available candidates (14 in all, the 12 sons and Ephraim and Manasseh), why were Dan and Ephraim chosen to be left off this list of tribes?

I would venture to guess that the answer goes back to 1 Kings 12:25-33.  I’ll quote vv28-30 (TNIV), with an explanatory comment or two, to make the point:

After seeking advice, the king [Jeroboam, of the Northern Tribes] made two golden calves.  He said to the people, “It is too much for you to go up to Jerusalem.  Here are your gods, Israel, who brought you up out of Egypt.”  One he set up in Bethel [which was controlled by the tribe of Ephraim, Jeroboam’s tribe], and the other in Dan.  And this thing became a sin; the people came to worship the one at Bethel and went as far as Dan to worship the other.

The tribes of Ephraim and Dan became the centers of idolatry for the Northern Kingdom.  Instead of going to God’s Temple in Jerusalem to worship and offer sacrifices, the citizens of the northern tribes (all except Benjamin and Judah) would worship at these two centers of idolatry.  Hosea even changes the name “Bethel” (meaning “House of God”) to Beth Aven (“House of Wickedness,” see Hosea 4:15; 5:8; 10:5). 

I don’t think the omission of Ephraim and Dan are random or accidental, especially given their roles in the Old Testament as the centers of idolatry.  Idolatry is a grave concern for the book of Revelation because it gives worship that is due only to The One Who Sits on the Throne and the Lamb (see 4:8-11; 5:9-14; 7:10-17). 

The churches of Pergamum (2:12-17) and Thyatira (2:18-29) are warned about new incarnations of Balaam (who enticed the Israelites toward idolatry, see Numbers 31:1-24) and Jezebel (who promoted Baal worship in the Northern Kingdom, see 1 Kings 18; 21:25; 2 Kings 9:22).  The people of the earth worship the dragon (13:4) and the beast (13:8, 11-17), and kill those who refuse (13:15).  Throughout the Bible, adultery and harlotry (chapters 17-18) are images used of idolatry. 

But we are encouraged to “worship him who made the heavens, the earth, the sea and the springs of water” (14:7; 15:1-4).  Those who worship the beast and receive his mark will be judged (14:9, 16:2; 19:20-21).  Those who reign with Christ in 20:4-6 are those “who had not worshipped the beast or his image.”   Idolaters are among those who will have no part in the New Heaven and New Earth (21:8; 22:15). 

Looking back at the list of the tribes in Revelation 7, John could have chosen a different way of presenting them.  He could have gone with the originally 12 sons of Jacob, leaving out Ephraim and Manasseh and including Dan.  He could have gone with the 12 tribes as they received their portions of land, leaving out Levi and Joseph and adding Ephraim and Manasseh.  But Ephraim and Dan were the ones omitted. 

I submit it was because of their role in leading Israel into idolatry.  I want to be clear, I don’t take this list of 12 literally, as if no descendents of Ephraim or Dan have any part in the Kingdom of God.  I think there is a theological and literary point John is making throughout the book that is captured in this list, or more specifically, what is omitted from the list.  Those who participate in idolatry, who worship anything other than the only One worthy of worship, have no inheritance in God.

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