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Wednesday, December 16, 2009

New Perspective, Unexpectedly

Anyone who has ever attended a church for any period of time has encountered, oh, let's call it "theological diversity" within the flock. As much as we believe we share spiritual and religious perspective, there is only so much overlap between each of us. Everyone has a unique point of view because every single one of us is unique. And that's a beautiful thing!

I would assert that most who believe in a single God, creator of the universe, believe that God is the ultimate, absolute truth. Most would also agree that our understanding of God is far from absolute; each perspective, relationship, and experience of God is unique.

With that backdrop, let me step out onto the eggshells. I've recently witnessed a bit of a storm between different factions (yes, within my own church). Risky labels to follow: Conservative vs. Progressive. Members in each camp probably offer other labels, but I'll stick with those. The topic that caused the chasm? A group of biblical scholars was to visit our church (sponsored by several other churches in the area as well) to host a weekend seminar. This particular group was famous (or infamous, depending on your bent) for a "search for the historical Jesus" in an endeavor to reveal the Jesus of history from the Jesus of myth.

An interesting set of behaviors and events began to emerge. Firstly, one would think that any Christian church would welcome a discussion about Jesus, his life as a man, as well as his ministry and spiritual purpose. Secondly, one might also assert that the debate that ensues would be held on reasonably high ground; after all, we're a church. We're also human, and indeed, our humanity shows more often that we would like.

The interesting thing I've found through all of this, is that the fuss actually drove me to investigate further what the fuss was all about. I'll be specific: The conservative camp did not want certain progressive concepts discussed in our church, for fear it would "lead astray those weak in their faith." Sounded like a case for dogma to me and that's all I needed. If they found it threatening, then I needed to see what it was all about. Their objection actually drew attention to something that might have gone largely unnoticed by many.

Pause. I don't want to be overly critical of the conservative camp. I've been very positively influenced in my spiritual journey through some relatively conservative apologists (Dr. William Lane Craig, Dr. Timothy Keller, and C.S. Lewis to name a few). These guys are clearly in the more conservative camp and I have a tremendous amount of respect for them. I've taught their concepts in my adult Sunday school class and continue to be fed by many of their perspectives.

But there are many people who I respect who have a different perspective. Stephen Covey's 7 Habits of Highly Effective People holds the following as Habit #5: Seek first to understand then to be understood. Following this habit, I decided to look into some of the progressive view.

Honestly, it was a scary proposition. I fully expected to encounter points of view that were uncomfortable for me. Perhaps questioning things that I've accepted as non-negotiable, as dogma. Was I really willing to engage in this conversation? Finally, I decided that if I believed in God and I was honestly seeking Truth, then how could I not engage the questions? It has been one of the best decisions I've ever made.

To be clear, not all of the perspectives I've read thus far in the progressive camp completely square with my own experience. For example, I believe that God is with us and actually does more than just listen; He is active in our lives when we are open to Him, but it is our responsibility to seek His will and not our own. This is not a concept of God that is equally shared among all Christians. As I mentioned earlier, each of our life experiences and relationships are unique. My relationship with my two daughters are each unique, why wouldn't each of our relationships with God be unique as well? But there are some perspectives the progressives have that have been very helpful to me.

A particularly enlightening notion held dear by the progressives is the metaphorical view of the Bible. So much of the teaching that I've been exposed to early in life has focused almost exclusively on "belief" in the literal events of the Bible. In the back of my mind, some of this perspective has troubled me. Which parts of the Bible are historical accounts vs. metaphorical in nature? The parables that Jesus told are obvious standouts; clearly he's not retelling history, but illustrating a point. But what about Jonah and the whale? What about Job? In the story of Job, did Satan really go up to heaven and have this conversation with God? Does the story lose its meaning if Job was not a real person? Can't we all see ourselves in this story in different ways? What if we take it further? How about the virgin birth? The physical resurrection of Jesus? Does this change the reality of his life and its impact ours? Where does it end? Each of us must answer for ourselves, and if I may, be careful not to answer it for others.

One writer asserts that the hundreds of witnesses to the physically resurrected body of Jesus may have indeed had an experience with Jesus, but was it necessary to be the physical body to still be a true story? Could we have filmed it? I would add to this argument: Has any Christian alive today witnessed the physical body of Jesus? Yet how many feel that Christ is alive in them today in a very real way? The physical / literal nature of the story doesn't fully communicate the many, much more important lessons that the scriptures tell. If we believe that God is the creator of the universe (look into the Original Cause case in the Kalam Cosmological Argument ), then the miracles that Jesus performed pale in comparison. There is much more metaphorical meaning behind them than the events themselves. If we believe that Jesus is God with us and the knowable representation of God, then of course he could have performed the miracles, but in the bigger sense, the events themselves are not the greatest points.

Write down all of the metaphors you can recall about Jesus. Just to name a few: Lamb of God, Savior, Way, Shepherd, Word, Truth, Life, Vine. Was he literally any of these things? Much more importantly, why were these metaphors chosen and what did they represent to the people at the time? What can we glean from them today? I would assert that when we harvest the greater metaphorical meaning, they are as true today as they were then.

Once again, for the record, the apologetic arguments that Dr. William Lane Craig and others make surrounding the historicity of the Bible speak to me. But to make my entire spiritual life revolve around "believing" the actual events vs. moving past the events to the bigger truth they tell seems like a relatively impotent faith; it's a "belief of the head" and not faith of the heart and is not very transforming.

It's easy to see how someone would be very unsettled by anyone calling into question the historical accuracy of stories they've been told were absolutely flawless, inerrant, direct-from-the-mouth-of-God truths. But does a story have to be historically accurate to be true? A Native American's might start a story with the following lead-in: “Now I don’t know if it happened this way or not, but I know this story is true.” A Catholic priest recently said "The Bible is true - and some of it happened."

Believe what you must regarding the historicity of each event and story. The Bible is full of rich stories of both early Jewish and early Christian struggle to understand and commune with The Holy. Let's not miss the greater point:

Matthew 22:36-40 (New International Version)

36"Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?" 37Jesus replied: " 'Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.'a]">[a] 38This is the first and greatest commandment. 39And the second is like it: 'Love your neighbor as yourself.'b]">[b] 40All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments."

Blessings my friends,


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