Musing on Corporate Guilt, pt 1

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Several of my progressive Christian friends have great difficulty with the prevalent understandings of the death of Jesus.

They’ve heard the cross (the atonement) explained as an “atoning sacrifice,” a “ransom,” “substitution,” “Jesus taking the punishment for our sin,” etc.  As they read it, these explanations evoke the image of an angry, punitive God–an image that they reject. “If God is love,” they reason, “then these punitive explanations of Jesus’ death cannot be correct or acceptable.”

I think there are several problems with their thinking on this point.

  1. They are minimizing the nature of sin, particularly the very Jewish idea of sin as a personal affront to God. Limiting your understanding of sin to “mistakes” minimizes the intentional rebellion and naked selfishness that’s at the heart of some of our sins.
  2. They’re drawing their picture of God with a “buffet” mentality (“meat & potatoes, yes; but no green beans.”) They’re not alone in this: we all tend to reject the parts of God that challenge us or make us uncomfortable. We all need to reevaluate our picture of God regularly, because we’re always creating God in our own image.

A third problem with their thinking is that they are ignoring the corporate nature of guilt. This is part & parcel with the individualism woven into Western culture & values. This aspect of the atonement–our corporate need–is the focus of this post.

We usually think of ourselves in isolation from the actions of others, as long as those actions don’t directly impact us. But occasionally, things happen … (next post)

Anger, Forgiveness, and Prayer, pt 1

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Some thoughts:

 

First: anger is part of how we’re wired.  God gave us these strong, sometimes negative emotions–anger, sadness, fear, etc.  The problem isn’t that we’re feeling something sinful, bad, or wrong when we feel them, the problem is that we frequently don’t handle them, process them, the way God intends for us to process them.

Ephesians 4.26 quotes Psalm 4; “‘Be angry, but do not sin.’ Do not let the sun go down while you’re still angry.”  Do you see it?  It’s not the anger that’s the problem, it’s letting it simmer, letting it go unprocessed.

So: when someone has wronged you, or someone has wronged others, it is perfectly normal for anger be part of your response. Just process it, don’t let it fester.

Second: unprocessed anger will wreck your life.  Unprocessed anger usually = a lack of forgiveness toward others.  The destructive power of unforgiveness is the reason that the New Testament writers, including the words of Jesus himself, keep linking our forgiveness of others with our own forgiveness from God:

  • “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us. … For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.” (Matt 6.12, 14-15)
  • “… forgiving each other, just as God in Christ forgave you.” (Eph 4.32)
  • “Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you.” (Col 3.13)

The devastating effects of unforgiveness are proverbial.

  • “Holding a grudge is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die,” is a widely disseminated saying in Alcoholics Anonymous and other recovery groups.
  • “Forgiveness doesn’t erase the past, but it unshackles the future,” is a more positive version, one I heard from James Dobson.

Third: unprocessed anger cripples you spiritually.  I paraphrased Richard Rohr the other day, that angry people cannot pray, angry people cannot practice the presence of God.  (The quote I was thinking of was from his interview with The Liturgists, where he said “Angry people can’t be mystics.”)  This has certainly been my experience.

Jesus himself alludes to this in Matt 5.23-24: “If you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to them; then come and offer your gift.”

And Peter alludes to the way our horizontal relationships affect our prayers: “Husbands, in the same way be considerate as you live with your wives, and treat them with respect as the weaker partner and as heirs with you of the gracious gift of life, so that nothing will hinder your prayers.” (1 Pet 3.7)  Leaving aside the questions raised by “weaker partner,” the point is clear: disharmony in our horizontal relationships negatively affects our relationship with God.

So how do we handle our anger?  How do we forgive people who have hurt us?  How do we find health and restoration in this area?  That’s my next post.

I Haven’t Written Lately, Because …

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So I haven’t written much lately.

I’ve gone through long periods of silence on this blog, but A. I’ve been disciplined at writing regularly this summer, and B. most of those silences were job-related, as I got bogged down with the daily work of the semester.

Well, this silence was job related.  As in: I lost my job, and it made it difficult to write.

If you don’t know, I lost my job at the end of June.  This was unexpected, and (as you might expect) really threw me for a loop.  Losing my job is one of the reasons I haven’t written.

It’s hard to focus and write when you’re trying to be especially careful about what you say.

It’s hard to focus and write when life has been turned upside down.

It’s also hard to focus and write when your most productive writing time–early morning–is now filled by necessity with driving Uber.

I got an Uber driving account last summer, kind of on a lark, and have kept it current by driving for a few hours every month since.  Since I lost my job, Uber has been a terrific device for helping us stretch our savings to cover an indefinite period of joblessness.

It’s hard to focus and write when you’re hurt, or angry.  In fact, I think I’ve been dealing with (or not dealing with) anger for several years now.

Richard Rohr says that you can’t really pray, you can’t practice God’s presence, when you’re angry.  I will attest to that.  Between my upset over the unexpected job loss and the upheaval in my schedule–my best time for prayer and scripture has also always been early morning–my prayers have been empty and dead for the past month.

Until this last weekend, that is.  This last weekend, I worked through anger and forgiveness over a few issues.  And then I was able to (again) sit down with my Bible and my pen and feel and hear God.

So: about anger and forgiveness and letting go of anger, … I’ll have more to say in my next post.

Richard Rohr’s Meditation, 1 July

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More goodness from Albuquerque:

Original Shame and Original Blessing
Friday, July 1, 2016
Christians pinpoint “original sin” in the Genesis story of Adam and Eve eating from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, even though the phrase is not in the Bible. I think a much truer description of Adam and Eve’s experience would be “original shame.” They hide when God comes looking for them, and when God asks why, they say they feel naked. Then God asks Adam and Eve, “Who told you that you were naked?” The implication is, “I sure didn’t.” A few verses later, we see a very nurturing image of God as seamstress, sewing garments and covering the two humans to protect them from their shame (see Genesis 3). How different than the much later and opposite notion of God shaming people for all eternity in hell. The older tradition reveals the deep mystery of transformation: God even uses our shame and pain to lead us closer to God’s loving heart. Of course! After forty-seven years now in active ministry, this has become obvious to me.
We live in a time of primal shame, and we don’t seem to know how to escape it. I find very few people who don’t feel stupid, inadequate, dirty, or unworthy today, even if they do not consciously admit it. When people come to me for counseling or confession, they ask in one form or another, “If people knew the things I think, the things I’ve said, the things I want to do, who would love me?” We all have had feelings of radical, foundational unworthiness. I’m sure they take ten thousand different forms, but the shame is usually there.
There is no ontological basis for holiness without mysticism; it is all behavioral and psychological. In spiritual direction, so many people start with the premise, “If I behave correctly, I will one day get God to love me or even notice me.” We tend toward this behavioral model. But the biblical tradition actually teaches that first we must see God clearly, often by experiencing God’s mercy for our bad behavior–and then our right behavior will follow. We first must encounter and experience God’s original blessing, choosing, and loving of us. If you start with original sin or shame, normally the pit is so deep you never get out of it. This is why more and more the modern world resents Christianity, as any child would understandably resent a foundationally rejecting parent. All the good theology in the world is not strong enough to overcome bad psychology and anthropology. Some reformers actually thought of human nature as “a pile of manure covered over with Christ” or of human beings as “totally depraved.” I am afraid this has become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Let’s try preaching original blessing and see if that can become a self-fulfilling prophecy instead!

Richard Rohr on the Common Depiction of God

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My gears have been grinding over this passage for a couple of months now. From The Naked Now: Learning to See As the Mystics See (Kindle ed; chap 10, section “The Two Heels of a Christian Achilles”):

This all-or-nothing thinking is a cancer at the heart of our preached message, and it takes two major forms: 

1. The individual Christian is told to love unconditionally, but the God who commands this is depicted as having a very conditional and quite exclusive love himself or herself! The believer is told to love his enemies, but “God” clearly does not; in fact, God punishes them for all eternity. This stifles and paralyzes many believers at the conscious or unconscious level, and it should. Such a message will not save the world and surely will not produce many great or loving people. The many loving Christians I have met in my life usually have had at least one unconditionally loving parent or friend along the way, and God was then able to second the motion. There are remarkable exceptions to this, however. I have met a few humanly unloved people whose need for divine love was so great that they surrendered to it utterly. The Gospel worked for them. 

2. Under the message that most of us have heard, we end up being more loving than God, and then not taking God very seriously. Even my less-than-saintly friends, the ordinary Joes on the block, would usually give a guy a break, overlook some mistakes, and even on their worst days would not imagine torturing people who do not like them, worship them, or believe in them. “God” ends up looking rather petty, needy, narcissistic, and easily offended. God’s offended justice is clearly much stronger than God’s mercy, it seems. Why would anyone trust or love such a God, or want to be alone with Him or Her? Much less spend eternity with such a Being? I wouldn’t. We must come to recognize that this perspective, conscious or unconscious, is at the basis of much agnosticism and atheism in the West today.

Parables (Science & Religion 2)

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How the Bible Does (and Doesn’t) Work I

Imagine that you live in a place where people think the world is flat.  Part of their evidence for believing this is that the Bible says that the world is flat.

Well, actually, that’s NOT what the Bible says.  In a few places, it refers to “the four corners” of the earth: Ezekiel 7.2, Revelation 7.1 and 20.8.

I’ve never actually met any Christian who wants to argue that the earth is flat, but if one exists, I imagine that these passages are part of his argument.  “The Bible says the world has four corners.  It can’t be a globe, because globes don’t have four corners.  Gotta be flat.”

So: you’re part of the “the Bible says that the earth is flat” club, and you win a ticket to ride on the space shuttle.  What’s going to happen when you see with your own eyes that the earth isn’t flat?

You can react in several different ways.

  1. The Bible is obviously wrong.  I can see with my own eyes that the earth isn’t flat.
  2. My eyes are obviously wrong.  My own eyes seem to be telling me that the earth isn’t flat, but the Bible says that it is, so my eyes must be wrong.
  3. My understanding of what the Bible was saying on the topic must adjust.  Maybe the passages that I thought were teaching that the earth was flat aren’t teaching that at all.  (As Inigo Montoya says: “I do not think it means what you think it means.”)

Obviously, I think that the third option–circular as it is–is the best.

The application to the Genesis debate is clear.  Many loud voices in our culture say that there’s only ONE WAY TO READ Genesis 1, and if you read it in any other way you are not respecting the authority & supernatural nature of the Bible.

My response: I do not think it means what you think it means.

My position: the Bible and science don’t contradict, except insofar as the Bible is from prescientific cultures.  (That’s a faith statement.  I can’t prove it.)

An example of the prescientific-ness of the Bible is the “firmament” in Genesis 1, the barrier that separated the waters above the earth from the waters on the earth.

When Genesis 1 talks about God placing a barrier there, it’s using a primitive, pre-scientific description of the precipitation cycle, the fact that there are waters above and waters below.  It’s not making a scientific statement; quit looking for some canopy that covered the earth until the flood, that’s not the point.