Good Friday Thoughts

Last Sunday’s sermon was right on the money (I hate to say that, because it was one of those video sermons, and the preacher looked like he had been bathing in coconut oil before he started), but it strikes me as only partial.

Substitutionary atonement is great; it’s a core doctrine, one of the great threads of Christian thought. But it’s not enough, is it? It doesn’t seem to go far enough.

I think that’s because it only speaks to what Jesus did in a legal sense. I think that it speaks to balances and weights and accounts, and that’s fine, but it’s only a part of the puzzle.

That’s part of the problem with Christianity as we know and practice it today. We get a lot of things right, but we don’t follow through. It can’t be just that Jesus died and we believe and have his righteousness transferred to us and then we can go to heaven.

I think there’s more to it than that. Doesn’t Jesus’ death speak to present reality as well as future? Doesn’t it speak to how we live now, how connected we are to God now, as opposed to us living in that middle time between the cross and eternal bliss.

Scripture speaks of Christ not only dying to redeem souls — it doesn’t speak in the language of “souls” at all, does it? — but also of redeeming everything. People are part of that equation, and a big part, but Adam’s and our sin doesn’t just affect our souls. It affects everything.

When Adam fell, everything changed. We live in a broken world, a world that is winding down and falling apart. It’s a world where the best works of humanity decay and fall apart, something that strikes most of us as completely backwards.

Jesus death is the start of fixing all that. On the cross he fixed the divide between perfect God and imperfect humanity, but also between perfect reality and imperfect reality.

Between heaven and earth, if you will.

In other words, I think it’s entirely appropriate to think of Jesus’ death in terms of saving people, but also of saving the world, of seeing his Kingdom come, not just in our hearts but in our reality, in our physical world.

So the question becomes… what are we doing? Are we working with God to fix this reality? Are our acts of love helping to bring in the kingdom? Are we in line with God’s plan?

It’s not enough to stand around waiting to get lifted into the sky in some absurd escapist rapture. Anyone can do that. We need to celebrate Jesus’ death in remembering what he did for us, in celebrating his agony, but also continuing to remember what that means going forward.

Four things that make me rather cross.

  • Transit strikes.

I can get on board with unions. They’re necessary to balance the interests of workers against the interests of corporations. I get that. Yet when it comes to transit workers, some of the most overpaid and impolite unionised individuals in existence barring perhaps automotive workers, I’m not on their side. Especially when the TTC members reject an offer that would make them the highest paid transit workers in the country, even in the face of their union recommending they take the deal. Especially when they give an hour or less notice that they’ve decided to strike, stranding tens of thousands of people who count on the TTC to operate. They could not possibly have engendered less public support for their actions. Almost everyone I’ve talked to about the strike is enraged at the TTC. Couldn’t the union have simply started a work-to-rule campaign wherein they stopped accepting fares? That would have put pressure on the city without garnering for themselves the further, aggravated dislike of an entire city.

  • Shark fin soup.

I watched Sharkworld last night. The film is amazing, but the events portrayed in the film are a travesty. An unmitigated, utterly barbaric raping of the oceans. Frankly, anyone who eats shark fin soup should have his arms and legs chopped off and be left to starve on the side of a road somewhere. If flaunting your wealth involves damaging the life-support system of the entire earth, perhaps you should be made to feel the cost of that. I hope future generations look back on the Chinese and Taiwanese as a sort of barbarian race of ecological terrorists whose actions severely diminished the richness of the world’s oceans. Not that I have much of a high horse to speak from; Canada’s seal hunts and government subsidised fisheries are just as ruthless and unconcerned with long-term impact. Personally, I stopped eating fish — any fish, at all — about six months back, after reading A Short History of Nearly Everything. And it’s sad to see that a bunch of nutcases at Greenpeace are doing God’s work (in their own strange, rabid way) while the vast majority of Christians don’t bother to tend to the world’s largest garden: the seas.

  • Evangelicals in bed with the Republican party

Certainly after Mr Bush’s disastrous dual terms in office, some of the Republicans in the States must be second-guessing their religious affiliation with their party. That it took a bunch of crooks to do that is a great tragedy. That some will never question that affiliation is a greater tragedy still. Still, with the mythology of the Pilgrims and Religious Freedom and Democracy and Fighting The Evil British and God Is On Our Side still going strong, it’s not really that strange. It’s just… sad. America is no more on God’s side than Charlemagne or Constantine (whose in hoc signo vinces should still ring as an affront to the very ethic of Jesus, and one of the greatest lies the devil has managed to perpetuate over the ages). You mix your religion with your politics and you find that they make very bad bedfellows. Your religion must of course inform your political views, but politics must not ever inform your religion. Politics is about the exercise earthly power; Jesus is about the exercise of heavenly power. These things are very, very different. They are oil and water. You should not mix them up, or soon you find people painting Jesus on the side of their nuclear warheads.

  • Cliches in sermons.

If you are attempting to preach an authentic sermon, something that resonates in the hearts and minds of your listeners, don’t use cliches. Don’t use marketspeak. You’re not a motivational speaker. You’re not an entertainer. You must approach scripture and let it inform your method of preaching. People do not need handy bullet points that rhyme and have a particularly pleasing cadence. Bullet points do not impart truth, at least not any sort of useful truth. As anyone trying to implement and idea will tell you, it’s not simply enough to have a great idea: you need a great implementation. That is to say that while a turn of phrase might be handy to encapsulate the thrust of your message, the nuances are where the magic lies. Or, you might say, the difference between Mac OS X and Windows. There’s a reason Jesus used parables and not a lot of handy tracts. You can mine a parable for ages, you can look at it from different directions and see things you didn’t see before, you can over-analyse it, you can approach it with too much gravitas, you can do all kinds of things. A bullet point is boring. A bullet point that rhymes and sticks in your head is annoying and boring.

I have to expand on this. Jesus told stories that had a particular richness to them. They weren’t simple anecdotes with simple points. They were designed so you have to look at them just the right way — often in hindsight — to get the point. And often you’ll quite dislike the point because it hits you dead-centre.

These days preachers tend to tell stories both brief and humorous that make a particular broad point that lines up with their sermons. These stories are blunt instruments. They’re not really narrative: they’re cleverly disguised bullet points. There’s no meat. There’s no content. They’re like a dancing monkey with colourful clothes: it might be briefly entertaining, but you certainly wouldn’t want to marry the monkey. It’s just a monkey. Take off all the clothes and strip away the dancing routine and it’s just a monkey. And you’ll find that monkeys are rather boring, after all.

I’d like to be told the truth. Not a particularly one-dimensional version of the truth that can fit in three points and thirty minutes. If telling the truth means you need to go into overtime and tell stories and confuse me and dig deeper than I’m prepared to go, DO IT. God knows I’m never going to do that myself, willingly.

Going forward; what now?

Today, take a moment and look at a globe. Spin it around. See if you can find a place full of tragedy and injustice.

It’s not that hard, is it? The names roll off my tongues one after another. If you’ve been exposed to the world outside your own borders at all, you’ll recognise them. They have existed, and they exist right now, these places.

There’s so much evil in the world. So much injustice. So much stricken poverty and horrible injustice. There’s so much evil that standing before it makes me feel powerless, unable to help. I’m just one man. What can I do?

It’s always been here: the scale of our atrocities as a species increases, but it’s the same thing that’s been happening since the first humans sinned. It is not right that some go hungry, but some have always gone hungry. It is not right that some die in genocides, but some have always died like that. It is not right that brutal dictatorships flourish while the church is poised at the brink of the abyss, but this awful balance has always just been kept.

So going forward, what now? What is my posture towards these things to be? How do I, as a Christian, effect change in this world?

I don’t have a very good answer for that, I’m afraid. I don’t have a grand revelation. I haven’t had an epiphany or seen a blinding light. All I know is that I am convinced that what I do matters, not simply in the sense that people are important and I should care about getting their souls into heaven, but in the sense that the physical world is important, that taking care of it is important, and that justice here and now is something God speaks of over and over in the scriptures.

All I can say is, keep plugging. The church has done an amazing amount of work in the world. It has done some evil, some grandly evil things it should never have done, but the unspoken kindness and grace and justice it has visited on mankind is a testament to its greatness, its transforming power. The church is a beautiful thing with a great opportunity to do work today, here, now, on this physical planet. We have the keys to the kingdom in our hands, so to speak.

We work in the hope that at the end of this earth, this earth will become something new, but yet not new. That when we rise to life again after the brief sleep of death we will rise to a world without injustice, as God judges and begins to set things aright.

I know judgement is not a particularly comfortable thing, and our culture is decidedly MPD about it, but it must be done. Evil must be identified and pronounced against and rooted out. Jesus will do that when his kingdom comes in fullness, yes, but I am his agent here and now, part of his kingdom or revolution that exists now in bits and pieces. Should I not do the same?

Should we not all do the same? Should we not identify evil, judge against it, and proceed to root it out wherever we can?

Surprised by Surprised by Hope

In reading N. T. Wright’s book Surprised by Hope, I’ve (thus far) drawn together a bunch of strings in my own thought that I hadn’t really put together. This surprises me because I was not at all expecting this book to do that.

In the last few years I’ve harboured a suspicion that most popular Christian thought about the kingdom of heaven is simply missing the point. The seminal moment for me was reading Brian McLaren’s The Secret Message of Jesus, which tried very hard to weld together the ideas that God’s kingdom is about saving souls, yes, but also about making the world a better place. Now, if McLaren got there by saying “I am not a Platonist, I am post-modern, I am trying to re-envision the true meaning of the church”, and if N. T. Wright got there by saying “I am not a Platonist, I am orthodox, I am trying to re-discover the true meaning of the church”, there’s something to be said about looking differently at the physical world and what comes after it and what that means for today. And where McLaren offers a compelling vision, N. T. Wright provides a brilliant theological underpinning for the whole idea.

Take for instance the miracles of Jesus. We often — and I’m as guilty of this as anyone — suppose that Jesus’ miracles are signs that point to his authority as the Messiah. Then we stop there. Of course they are that, but they are also more. They’re woven into God’s story, the story that we often skim over while calling the kingdom of heaven something else entirely. Jesus’ miracles are directly related to his saying that the kingdom of heaven was there right then, and look what happens when the kingdom of heaven enters the world: spiritual healing, yes, but also physical healing. The language of scripture is absolutely, starkly clear on this: your sins are forgiven, your body is made whole, you are saved. As N. T. Wright points out, our ingrained division between spiritual salvation and physical salvation didn’t really occur to the early church, and they weren’t really bothered by both being part of the same ball of wax.

The point is, when the kingdom of heaven is here, healing happens. This is both spiritual and physical healing because when Jesus rose from the dead he didn’t simply redefine death as something that happens to release you from your earthly body so that you can spend eternity as a disembodied soul in paradise. He conquered death. His resurrection is a sure promise that death itself will one day die, but also that in death dying we will reclaim the sort of physicality we were meant to have.

I believe this is part of God’s story, a story that has so many times bewildered Israel, and I’m firmly convinced will bewilder the church as well: we have signposts pointing into a bright mist, but we don’t know exactly how things will turn out. God’s story seems to be a tale of flowering, of outgrowth. Every time we think we’ve got the whole thing down pat, God grows something amazing and new and unforeseen and barely hinted at out of our familiar surroundings. Take the children of Israel. We know in retrospect that they are the seed from which the entire world will be fed, but for them the ultimate question was “How is God going to save Israel?” God comes along and says, “I’m not going to. I’m going to cause an outgrowth from you that will save the world, and in that, you will also be saved.”

It’s the same for us. We ask, “How is God going to save our immortal souls and bring us to heaven?” God comes along and says, “I’m not going to. I’m going to grow from you the kingdom of heaven on earth that will eventually transform the world, and in that, you will be transformed.”

Which of course means that what we do now, in this world, has significance. What we do here is not all doomed to be cast away, to be burned, and to be no more after we die or after Christ returns to earth. No, the opposite is in fact true: what we do here matters because what we do here effects who we are are what we will do eternally. It makes me quite happy to think that one day, when I receive a glorified body and am living in the earth made new with the New Jerusalem’s grand appearance, I am going to be writing poetry there too. My hope is that I will be much better at it then than I am now. My confidence is that I’ll still enjoy it then as much as I do now.

But this whole train of thought also underpins the whole idea of the Missional Church. The idea that we must be God’s hands and feet in our community derives from the fact that when we help people by giving them food and clothes and credit counselling and HIV/AIDS relief, and when I steward God’s creation by recycling and attempting to be sustainable and spewing less carbon into the air, I am fulfilling part of God’s mission on earth, that I am really being a member of the kingdom of heaven.

It’s bothered me for a long time that the vanguard of evangelicalism seems to be simply co-opting their secular liberal counterparts’ fashionable concern for this world without knowing why exactly they’re doing it. (Not to mention those who don’t like it because it smells a bit like those dirty Christian liberals who’ve converted Jesus into a mascot for world change.) But here are the underpinnings. This is the engine that drives the whole thing. If one day we are going to rise physically and inhabit this physical world, when heaven and earth are made new and the New Jerusalem (a picture of the fullness of the kingdom of heaven, and heaven itself, natch) meets up with earth, our labours now matter. It makes sense of Paul urging people to labour in Christ, and makes sense out of our post-modern urgency to do something, anything, about the state of the word our liberal secularist forefathers left us in.

It’s all there. The great flowering of the church is when we are resurrected and glorified and then go about doing exactly what we’re supposed to do exactly the way we’re supposed to do it. That’s the bright fog: all I can say is that it will be sometime in the future, and that it will absolutely blow my and your mind.

In the meantime, we have our mandate. We are the kingdom of heaven, right here and right now, and we are called to bring healing into a very, very broken world. And not just one kind of healing, but a holistic healing that not only prepares the soul for glory, but the body as well.

Unsafe

I’ve been ruminating on Sunday’s sermon for a few days now. It’s been bouncing here and there inside my skull, or my soul, or whatever you want to call it, gathering moss like any good stone.

It’s C.S. Lewis saying that Aslan is not safe, but he is good.

We love safety so much, don’t we? And there’s nothing wrong with that. I, for instance, feel incredibly safe with Laura’s love. I don’t feel like she’s going to blow up any minute and abandon me. I know what that’s like, and trust me, you don’t want a relationship (God forbid a marriage) that resembles more a landmine than a safe harbour.

You can find in God that incredible safety as well: no matter what you are going through in your life, if you’ve bought into his grace, if you’ve been granted that faith, you are above all safe. As Mrs Elliot used to say, Underneath are the everlasting arms. From our seemingly impossible disasters to actually impossible disasters, there is hope that will not leave you ashamed for having hoped. Or assurance. You may lose your lover, you may lose your health, you may lose your house, but you will not be ashamed of finding refuge in God. He is a strong tower. You are above all, safe.

But there’s safety and then there’s safety. God isn’t bound by your desire to be financially secure. When Joel mentioned how so much preaching is geared towards a better life now, I wanted to stand up and cheer. (Not to mention that Mr Osteen reminds me of a smarmy used car salesman and I would very much like to punch him in the face, with all Christian love.) Or maybe God does care that you have a better life now, but we’ve simply got the frame right and the picture all wrong. Maybe your better life now isn’t about being financially triumphant or well-loved. Maybe your better life now is about crossing a wilderness and getting to a promised land. The trip isn’t necessarily going to be cushioned. Maybe it will be. You don’t really get to know that.

Laura and I have been very tight for money since we’ve been married. We have one income and some debt from her schooling and from my life as a bachelor. One of the things we’ve been really convicted about, ever since Joel talked about giving, is separating a portion of my income and giving it to God. We do this in several ways, but primarily it’s giving to the church. We don’t have a lot to give, and common sense says that what we do give should be instead squirrelled away for a rainy economy. Yet it seems better to me to live outside of that small comfort and safety zone by obeying God with our giving than using it for ourselves. I’m not going to spin a sob story here: we live very well on what we’ve got, but there are a lot of things we have to forgo whilst living this way.

This is a small thing. There’s a couple from Imago Dei who essentially walked away from a comfortable life to work in the Himalayas with an unreached people group. Joel moved to Mississauga and started a great church. Paul was whipped and beaten and shipwrecked ultimately killed. These are not small things, and they are not safe things.

But they are good things, and things that will ultimately be blessed. Because in following God, sometime you end up dying on a cross. Look at what Jesus did: was his life at all safe? Yet here we are, millennia later, still looking at his legacy and seeing it change the world.

Sunday’s Assorted Grab-Bag of Thoughts

I have something like three topics in my head, none of which would make a proper blog post on its own; I think if I roll them all up into one big post it’ll go much better, and I’ll probably end up remembering that one last nagging thought I think I thought but can’t remember thinking, though at some point I thought I thought that thought and forgot that thought, you see.

* * *

Normally, I’m okay with James MacDonald. He’s generally a decent preacher, and I’ve had opportunity to be blessed by a number of the things he’s said. On Saturday I caught a snippet of a sermon he did on post-modernism, a snippet that I’m going to go on to criticise mercilessly. I’m not even going to pretend that I don’t like criticising, just to be nice, because I generally do analyse things in my head. This is no exception.

I’m well acquainted with the art of making a straw-man and then tearing it down: it’s a useful skill in certain circumstances. For instance, showing people what a straw-man is. Making a straw-man out of post-modernism, saying it’s all about relativism and denying truth claims, etc, is disingenuous at best, and outright dishonest at worst. The only way someone could come to such a conclusion is if he had never, ever actually joined the conversation and instead sat in the bleachers and listened to the hecklers.

Any post-modern worth his salt will admit that right now post-modernism is a tag applied to a whole bunch of junk, all of which is unified by the undeniable supposition that modernism is no longer good enough to meet today’s challenges. In short, modernism is broke. When modernism first burst onto the scene — or I should say evolved out of the Middle Age’s chaotic ruins — I’m sure the first generation considering themselves modern had no idea what that even meant. It took hundreds of years for the philosophy to coalesce. It took a long time to look down and see where the world had planted its feet. And even modernity as a definition fails to capture every facet of modern thought: after all this time we’re not quite sure where we stand.

I’m sure the first generation to question the King’s divine right to rule raised a few eyebrows. The first generations to question rationalisation, alienation, commodification, decontextualization, individualism, chaos, and industrialism should raise a few eyebrows too.

But the post-modernism as a philosophy, as a way of life, is in its infancy. Mocking its shortcomings or even its perceived shortcomings is like making fun of a budding artist’s paintings. It’s not in good taste, and it smacks of pure meanness.

Besides, no post-modernist will say that 2 + 2 does not equal 4. But if you can’t see the difference between that and saying that truth claims are contextual, that narrative matters, and that not everything can be measured and sorted into a list, then you’re the one who deserves a good mocking. It’s not hard to make straw-men for modern American churches — pastored by a Canadian or not — especially when they cater to a rich middle-class audience by tickling their ears while explaining why they’re better than those dirty post-moderns. Thank you, Lord, that I am not like them, that I believe in truth claims! (See what I did there?)

That said, I don’t consider myself post-modern. I don’t think it’d be a good idea, as it seems to be every good Evangelical’s whipping boy lately. I have, however, read books by Brian McLaren and Donald Miller, and see a lot of good in them. Though I fear I’ve said too much…

* * *

Today’s message reminded me that there’s quite a difference between hearing the stories of Jesus and hearing lists of attributes of Jesus. Maybe it’s just me, but I can list facts all day and no one will give a toss (facts are by their very nature boring; even documentary film-makers understand this). Novels and poetry and stories and songs aren’t simply entertainment, they’re also communicative mechanisms.

Once, when was a lot younger than I am today, I started volunteering at a soup kitchen. My motives weren’t that great, I suppose, as it gave me an excuse to not attend one service of a church I had begun to dislike quite a lot. But I still did it, and I think that counts for something. Most of the people that came there were pretty much the dregs of society. I was trying to think of them as noble and loved and the sort of people that Jesus would have had a meal with or maybe healed of something, but I had hard time seeing them as anything but very smelly and dirty. I honestly didn’t like myself for feeling this way, but I just couldn’t get past it. To me they were just people who needed a bath.

Then this one guy — he looked about fifty years old — sat down at this badly tuned piano, pulled out a sheaf of dog-eared music, and played. And man, could he play. I presume to play keys a bit here and there, but nothing, nothing like this man. Later the staff told me he was a hardcore alcoholic, that he had destroyed his life with booze, and I’m sure this was very true. Yet it seemed to me that amidst all that brokenness there was this indestructible beauty that simply couldn’t be kept in.

I don’t how he did it, but this man helped me as much as I helped him. I gave him a meal, true, but he gave me the ability to see past the surface into the inherent nobility that is contained in each person’s soul, whether that person is a redneck or is homeless or is a soccer mom or is an annoying television preacher with bad hair.

Sometimes I tell this story to people to show them that there is beauty even in ashes, that there is joy in an alcoholic’s music, something like that. I suppose I could simply tell them that, or maybe make a slide with some bullet points, but it isn’t the same, is it?

* * *

Laura and I just got back from celebrating our six month anniversary. It’s flown by! In that time, we’ve had no major problems or even any major fights. My mum thinks this is because we’re essentially still honeymooning. I like to think it’s God’s grace. See, I’m much more spiritual than my mum, though of course I’m not. She’s got me beat by a good kilometre or two.

We stayed at a local hotel, since local hotels cost a fair bit less than non-local hotels, and feasted on Elliot House food. Both were excellent. We even had a whirlpool bathtub. I made it too hot to get into when I first drew the bath. I’m stupid like that, but you can see how my wife is long-suffering.

It’s still odd to say “my wife”. My wife. Yep, still odd.

Elsewhere in thought.

I think everyone has probably met that girl, the one who’s obsessed with marriage, who thinks her life will magically make sense or something if only she could get married. Guys can smell that kind of girl a mile off and I can’t remember a single guy who enjoyed the scent. It was off-putting. There’s something wrong with these kinds of people.

Guys don’t want their women to be crazy about getting married or any of that hoopla. Most of the guys I know can just barely tolerate the commotion or the expense. Guys want their women to be crazy about them. I want my wife to be crazy about me.

Sometimes I think God must feel like a dude surrounded by a bunch of chicks who really want to get married. Sure, they want the best groom available, but pretty much anything will do. He must wonder why we call it so many different names like fulfilment and making the most of life and being all that you can be.

From what I read in scripture, God doesn’t want people to be crazy about being fulfilled. He wants people to be crazy about him. He wants the church to be crazy about him, for his wife to be crazy about her husband. And, if I’m honest with myself, my emotions are pretty much everywhere else, and I don’t think I’m along on this one.

Beyond pure doctrine.

I have a real soft spot for Reformed/Presbyterian doctrine. I’m convinced that it is the most rigorously and fully true expression of the whole of scripture. Any church would be blessed, I think, to be taught it.

Yet, I want to push past pure doctrine. It’s good. It’s right. The statements it makes are, as far as I can tell with God’s help, an accurate reflection of reality. All of this is true, and pure doctrine is still not enough.

Pure water is good, but if you don’t drink the water, you still die of thirst.

Maybe what I want isn’t to push past pure doctrine. Maybe what I’m trying to say is that I want to stop choosing doctrine or practice. Maybe I’m trying to make myself less binary, less like a pendulum. This is the way I’ve thought for a long time, you see: the churches that have the good doctrine generally keep it to themselves as if to let it outside of the church family will make it fall apart, and the churches that have the great practice generally seem to think salvation is about hugs and roses and making everybody feel great about themselves.

If you recoil at this dichotomy, I don’t blame you. I don’t like thinking like that, and I’m probably not right about it.

But I’ve been to too many churches where they put a verse — sometimes even a whole chapter — about sharing the gospel and feeding the hungry and taking care of orphans and the vulnerable, but have no real corporate way to put the words into practice other than shunting some money into a basket every Sunday.

And I’ve been to too many churches that seem to be active in the community and concerned about social justice, but just can’t seem to get it that Jesus’ death and resurrection are the only reason that justice means anything in the end.

These aren’t really helpful categories, though. It’s not like every church has to choose along an axis which percentage of orthodoxy vs orthopraxy, and every prospective member has to choose which percentage they’re content with. Life isn’t like that, and hardly any churches are the gross caricatures I’ve drawn.

I want both. It’s not a difficult formula. The central message of scripture transcends both, bringing both in line. The central message of scripture is that God deserves glory and honour and praise and adoration. He does this by both saving people’s souls, and redeeming the world. He chooses to do so by means of the very people he has saved, and God help me, that decision seems a little daft some days.

The Separation of Church and State

When the founders of the United States first envisioned their country, it seemed they saw a country where religion would inform government, but government wouldn’t impose strictures on religion. Obviously, this sort of pragmatic stance resulted from the obsession old world’s states had with organised religion, as if without a state-mandated faith, their societies would crumble. It probably also had a lot to do with economics, but that’s a whole other topic.

We’ve come far from that point. In Canada, I’m pretty sure we never even were at that point. Now, separation of church and state means more that both government and religion should not inform eachother as much as is possible. This is what we call the secular state.

Christians of all stripes can view this a bunch of ways, I think. There are some that think that a secular state is an impossibility, and that trying to create one is a mistake. Others view the secular state as a sort of unfortunate necessity, a goal that can’t really be reached, but must be, under the circumstances.

I think both are fair positions to take. They both take a different kind of nation with different kinds of goals, sure. Yet they’re both reasonable.

I’m in the second camp, mostly. I say mostly because those categories are a reduction, a sort of boiling down of a whole range of though. I’m not expecting anyone reading this to fall exactly into either category. Life isn’t that binary. I’m mostly in the second on the list. Mostly.

Here’s what I think. The Christian faith has a bunch of goals, right? There’s an overarching purpose to it all, that God glorified himself, as he should. Yet there are smaller goals as well. Jesus restoring his creation to himself. His followers living like him and practicing true religion. Christians loving their neighbors, whoever that may be. Praise. Loving God. The pursuit of holiness. These are some of the goals of the Christian faith.

Nations-states, however, have a radically different agenda. Their overarching purpose, though it may unwittingly glorify God, is self-preservation. Like any other organisation, a nation-state takes on the agenda of its constituents, and exists simply to exist. There are smaller goals beneath that, like expressing ethnic identity, gathering around a shared value, or simply protecting a bunch of land. At the end of the day, though, nations are about self-preservation, whether offensively or defensively or both.

These goals clash. Christians simply don’t spread the faith through violence and force. Nations preserve themselves through force: it’s not a perfect world.

When these two entities co-mingle, the resulting monster is hard to put down. The state intrudes into the faith and suddenly there is tyranny and persecution. The faith intrudes into the state and suddenly there is fanatical nationalism and oppression.

Christians can be politicians, and politicians can be Christians, no problem. But the domain of the state is not conducive to the practice of true religion: you do not wage a “Christian” war, and you should not crouch a war in religious terminology. While the state must use force, the Christian absolutely must not.

On the other hand, though the government must not be a respecter of religions, religions are not bound by such strictures. Religions are about opposing truth claims. Christianity makes truth claims that say, among other things, that all the other religions of the world are counterfeits. And while governments must not make these sorts of claims, Christianity must be free to do so, whether it irks the tolerant soul of every civil servant labouring towards an equal commons.

This is essentially what I believe on this matter. Freedom of religion is essential, a secular state is essential, and the separation of the two is the guiding essential that keep both from collapsing into and ruining eachother.

Bullet points for a Monday morning.

  • Fruit Loops hurt. No matter how you eat them, they scuff up the inside of your mouth. I know, you can let them soak for a while, but who wants to eat soggy cereal?
  • At Freshwater Church this Sunday — having braved an early winter storm to get there – we got to see Joel and Tim operating on no sleep. They’d just come back from Cleveland, driving all night through that early winter storm. Thankfully, Joel only had to say a few words, as he didn’t really say most of those words in an particular order. Instead, Jeff (I think? I could be wrong) lit the advent candle and did a sermon about Hope.
  • A lot of people seem to think that lighting an advent candle is pretty hokey, but being the lover of tradition that I am, I like to see a church expressing a connection with the past. Partaking in an ancient tradition (Advent, not necessarily the lighting of candles) and singing the songs of that tradition remind me that I’m part of something that extends beyond me, beyond just the present, and into the past and future.
  • My workplace is moving soon — not just me, the whole thing — meaning I’m going to be 10 minutes closer to home. Everyone else, on the other hand, is 10 minutes farther away, or more if you count the trickiness of the highways in that area. It also makes taking the bus quite feasible, actually, as it cuts almost a half hour off the bus ride, thanks to the trickiness of the bus routes in that area.
  • When it comes to grammar I’m really not a prescriptivist. Grammar and language need to be free to evolve, and let’s face it, you can’t stop that evolution. No matter how hard they try, prescriptivists will always, always fail. If someone expects me to use a gender-specific pronoun when the subject’s gender is indeterminate, they’re crazy. If that person wants me not to end my sentences with prepositions, I have a place they can go to. You see what I mean?
  • When John asked Jesus whether or not he was Messiah, Jesus sent a surprising message back. Surprising in what he didn’t say, I mean. John was obviously doubting Jesus, but Jesus had no condemnation for him. He didn’t list the number of Torah passages he had fulfilled. He didn’t send a letter with three well-argued points and a rousing conclusion meant to nicely wrap things up. He said, look at what I am doing: the blind can see, the lame can walk, the dead are being raised to life. This if, of course, not the only way Jesus used to bolster the faith of individuals, but is it so hard to believe it should be the same way with us today? Are we the true religion? Look at what we are doing: the poor are being fed, single mothers are being looked after, war-torn countries are being rebuilt, people are being shown the light of the gospel and being invited into the family. Am I wrong in thinking this might be what real religion looks like?


Attribution and License for the above photo.