What does a theologian do when death is in the air? I’m not there yet. But in the midst of death, when it’s fresh on my mind because it’s affected the community around me due to the loss of a dear individual, it’s in this space that the artist in me becomes alive, not the aspiring theologian (and philosopher). Here’s my emotional response with prose out of that space.
When God Dies and Where People Live
One of my last memories of my dad is him picking scabs the size of the palm of his hand off his cancer ridden body. The cysts formed on him like his skin was forming un-scalable mountains that looked like mole hills. The radiation treatments did in fact make them worse, and despite the fact they usually lift people from the deepest trenches of illness. My father’s must have been deeper still. The scabs though. Why the scabs?
He held one in the whole of his left hand once. He looked at it. He looked at me. He smiled. I don’t remember my response, but I think we both died inside, no matter what my young child’s face did. Sure he’s dead. But in these experiences with him I’m a little dead too.
Since then I’ve grown very contemplative. Theology and philosophy have become my hopeful future aims. Nightly I sit here on my couch, with books, prayers, thoughts. And all this was triggered because I’m haunted by many things like these memories of my dad, and more so by God.
Honestly, I can almost feel God like the air is thicker for me, with his great immensity all around me. Most of the time it’s pleasurable, but it’s never not a little weird.
Anyways, put it all together and I always think about God, but I don’t think about my dad much anymore. I don’t know why? Certainly I’ve lost God more than a few times in life. And in some ways more so than my dad. Like all, I’ve had my doubts. In a sense we’ve stared at each other and have died inside, like me and my dad did once together. At least that’s how I imagine these rare but many times the air is empty of his presence.
So, here’s to today. Another good one has died. I’m reminded of my dad. I’m contemplative of Jesus. God is heavy but an easy load to bear. And here I am. A man now. Far from the scabs. Full of life, and that life is full of itself. How did this happen? How is there so much death, and pain, and thoughts, and life keeps on being alive despite its constitutive nature that is made of so many negative things? (If such a thing is possible?)
At some point in our lives God dies. He dies for all of us. That is not a loss of innocence, or naïveté, but an exodus. Death gives everyone an opportunity to pick an infected scab. But I have a hunch that no matter who has the scabs the greatest things are the ones with them.
I want to be with him again, as much as I am with God now. But I’m alive. Maybe despite death we are just picking the scabs off our bodies and smiling? Maybe this is the space to be human? To put up a smile in between the death inside and the scabs others see in our hands. Certainly having my dad in that moment, with a smile, is better than now.
I must go back to my books, my prayers, my haunted thoughts.
But, to keep the examples general enough for our questions in focus here, it is Moltmann who provides clearer words to illustrate how the Spirit plays in giving this holistic dimension a voice. In his book, The Source of Life, he writes, “In charismatic experiences God’s Spirit is experienced elementally, not personally. And from these experiences we can deduce and discern that the Holy Spirit is the source of life, the origin of the torrent of energy” (Moltmann 1997, Kindle Edition, location 863). To answer our question here directly, a strong pneumatology interplays in the orthopathic life by literally being the ground of this life. But how do we point to specific modes of being and learning in order to understand how we are mediated the benefits of this ground in affective ways?
The modern push of Eastern Orthodox thinkers to illuminate personhood in light of a strong doctrine of the Trinity actually has its roots in the mystical tradition of Christianity and goes back as far as the beginning of Christianity. However, modern Eastern Orthodox thinkers are right to emphasize patristics. The study is very illuminating for our attempt here to build a theological voice for the orthopathic life. However, the study of the patristics, because they are so foundational to the doctrine of the Trinity, is not merely for the Orthodox. Mark Del Cogliano of the University of St. Thomas St. Paul, Minnesota, has an illuminating note in his book review of Richard Norris’ translation of Gregory of Nysssa: Homilies on the Song of Songs, and illustrates this point well. He writes,
Norris highlights Gregory’s belief that God is beyond the perceptible and intelligible created order and so must be mediated to humanity. But this mediation takes place primarily within the human being who has been created in the image of God. Since this divine likeness was lost through the fall, the more the divine image is restored in a person, the more one knows the archetype of that image. So, knowing (or seeing) God amounts to the same thing as being like God. In other words, progress in either virtue (being like God) or knowledge (seeing God) entails progress in the other (Cogliano 2013).*
And, as Kallistos Ware said under inspiration by Gregory of Nyssa’s reflections on the Song of Songs said, “we see that it is not the task of Christianity to provide easy answers to every question, but to make us progressively aware of a mystery. God is not so much the object of our knowledge as the cause of our wonder” (Kallistos 1995, 10). The point being of these two quotes is that the Holy Spirit is a partner of our first-person experiences, by the grace of being the source of life, and can be mediated through the scriptures (which was Nyssa’s stance), or through the participation in the Church (which is Kallistos’ stance), or in charismatic experiences in and of themselves (my own view echoed in thoughts like Moltmann’s quote from earlier). There’s plenty of space for us to be affected before we’re ever effective, and the Spirit is the ground of this affect.
*this is a copy and paste from a paper I’m in the process of editing so proper citations are correct in that paper but due to lack of HTML skill was not able to make them show up here. I apologize!
He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace, and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it. -NRSV
One thing that often trips up Christians as they try to make sense of the Old Testament is that Jesus’ Bible, WAS THE OLD TESTAMENT! I mean that’s a bit over simplified as our Bible is not quite like his was, because we carry 2,000 years of history that the context of the New Testament didn’t carry. But, never-the-less Jesus was NOT opposed to the “Law and the Prophets.” For example, according to Matthew Jesus said, “unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven (NRSV).” So the question is inevitably begged to be asked and answered, what does the Christian do with the Old Testament Law?
What I’ll set out to do here is accentuate, theologically, one way of explaining how some of the New Testament writers characterized the Old Testament law (but you can include the prophets too). But I’ll shape this theological accent through a sociological and then a literary move, so bare with me as I guide us through the context of the Biblical texts.
Please understand I’m using the term “Old Testament Law” very loosely here, and simply mean the spirit of the law and the prophets as it was culturally baked into the psyche of the 1st century texts and traditions. As you can imagine some of this stuff is as much an art as it is a science to understand because the Hebrew scriptural traditions during the time of Jesus were passed on more through orality, culture, and religion (temple practices), than they were passed through books (of course NOT as we understand books today, because back then books weren’t even invented yet, but that’s a different story). Literary tradition is important to this reflection here so we can see the context of the law as a whole.
I have read that perhaps as much as 90% of the population in Jesus’ day were probably illiterate (by our standards). Where this gets interesting is that the literacy rates seem to be dramatically higher if you were a member of a specific religious sect, like say a disciple of Jesus (see pages around 98 of Rodney Starks’, “The Triumph of Christianity”). And that is a point of this reflection here: much of the New Testament is an opinionated commentary about their context, but much of that opinion is about what they thought of the Law and the Prophets meant for their times, struggles, and needs. In fact, it’s highly likely Jesus told Christians how to go about doing this process as his teachings seemed to be recordings done much in this mode. (But what came first the chicken or the egg? If you get my drift.) So what is this underlying opinion that guided their reflections of the times they wrote out of?
The Law as Prognosis
One way to understand the NT writer’s understanding of the Torah tradition they were saturated in, is to see Torah as both revelation and a preserved tradition that served as a prognosis on the people of God. The law and the prophets were a subversive way of diagnosing the disease of human sin and worldly disorder in a universe ruled by a God of the opposite type of nature. The law wasn’t an ideal, it was a rule of life to reveal this tension between the Righteous King over all and his unruly subjects. The key here is the writers of the NT saw and expected this tension to have an inevitable breaking point. That’s the scene Jesus was born into. He walked onto the stage and said I’m the outcome of this tension and we’re going to settle this once and for all because he was that Lord.
You can imagine when God called out this tension for the first time, not through the chaos of historical turmoils, like wars, or periods of feast to famines, but rather chose to do it through a head on battle of messiah versus the worldly powers of Rome and the Temple, it was sure to end badly one way or another. Jesus was fulfilling the law because a good diagnosis understands what is the inevitable prescription. Let me illustrate this quickly with a different but contemporary tie in.
In the news a few days ago there were stories of human devastation on world wildlife populations. Apparently we have killed off a significant percentage of animal life on earth. But should one be surprised by our ignorant opposition to the good nature God created? God visited here once and we killed him too. God knew the inevitable outcome of his prognosis because the law and prophets said as much accordingly. At least the NT writers interpreted the Law and Prophets as such. And this is why the NT writers could say so often, “according to the scriptures,” or similar phrases like that.
The law and the prophets were not only a tradition, but a literary lesson that set an expectation: God was coming to set things right one day. Jesus and his teachings, and his Church, and most importantly, His Spirit, are the outcomes of that prognosis.
Christ as the New Prognosis
So what should Christians do with the law? Well, that’s the problem. The writers of the NT kept the tradition going. They accepted the prognosis they inherited is the reality of the earth as long as it is spared from complete dismantling and rebuilding from the neutrino up. The continuation of history with any God given prognosis is the fate of life. Christ as the new prognosis on the world was seen as the patience of the Father, Jesus and his teachings are seen as grace and mercy, and the Holy Spirit as the ultimate gift and help until the end. This triune reflection is the new prognosis resurrected out of the outcome of the old prognosis. Much of the NT is basically inferring that the grace of God the world has received through Christ will inevitably have its own fulfillment like the law did.
So, “when will this cycle end!?,” is a good question to ask here. No one knows. But just as the NT was expectant of the law, not to be abolished but fulfilled and transformed into something new, we too, look forward to being fulfilled and transformed into something new. The law, such that it is still relevant is a slave, like us all, to the service of Christ. The point of the Law in the NT is, don’t obsess about the details of the law but pay attention to the prognosis of it. So, if you must flirt with the question, “what to do about the law?” I suggest see the law as, in fact, abolished, because our current situation, in light of Christ, has a much more existential crisis and prognosis: the law of Christ is here and its inevitable fulfillment is a scary one. God himself is directly with us not some easy law to fulfill.
Every year around Halloween I’m reminded most are haunted by ghouls and ghosts but I’m haunted by God. Trust me, I’d rather have the ghost problem because God’s is Holy and I am not. The law systems we have to navigate with today are way more complicated and harder to keep, like American law and the law of Christ, but I digress.
In summary, Jesus inaugurated something dramatically new to the world but the New Testament presents this newness from a world view ok with cyclical thinking, in a historical sense. But don’t be fooled. The law has been abolished and its authority made subservient to Christ. As the scripture says (in the NRSV),
“Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom he also created the worlds.”
The Gospel’s stance on gender is to establish a common sharing of origins and derivative characteristics in relationship to the Father, through the Son, by the Spirit. Christ calls all to be reestablished into the family of God by accepting their place in the kingdom of God: a kingdom big enough for all! But, there is no general ontological role for either gender in this call. Gender is the wrong lens by which to define this call and is frankly too broad and ambiguous a lens to make work given the specificity of this call on people.
Read Romans 11:36-14:19 as one unit to get the next point…
An example of the approach above, that is, to understanding gender accurately in general biblical/theolgical terms here is to ask both Complimentarians and Egalitarians, have either of you ever read Proverbs 31:10-31? A better approach for understanding these types of texts, where a representative of a gender is living an idealized life, is not to force the vision of an idealized life into either of those models (Complimentarianism or Egalitarianism) but to see that kinship and glorification of the ideal individual are key to making an ideal “kingdom” if you will. There’s not a reducible model in the ideal for genders because an ideal society and individual flourish as they simultaneously flourish in their relationship to God.
Christ, in inaugurating the Kingdom of God, makes a space for the kinship of humanity to be reestablished with its only true God. But the ideal for genders in the fullest consummation and ideal state of the Kingdom is a genuine flourishing of both genders on their own terms because God has become a part of those terms (“or rather have become known by God”). This is why it’s so hard to understand the Bible’s view on gender, because these things are left in the tension of the occasions the books of the Bible were written in rather than spelled out theories in some weird modern model or categories like we like to have.
So, the truth is both models (Complimentarianism and Egalitarianism) fall short of the underriding logic of the Gospel and kingdom of God messages, and miss the nuance of the Jewish ideals being expressed in the relevant texts of the Bible.
Ever try to preach Matthew 7:6?… It’s one of Jesus’ famous “hard sayings.” Here’s what he said, “do not give what is holy to dogs; and do not throw your pearls before swine, or they will trample them under foot and turn and maul you.” Yeah, very hard to exegete. But let’s take a stab at it.
First, the contextual ties here are important I think. I’ll enumerate them:
1. Jesus sounds like he’s doing a combination of wisdom/psalms sayings but he’s actually doing something more akin to Moses’ position, tone, and perspective in Deuteronomy 30:11-20; that is, in context, he’s talking on behalf of God as if he were God. So, we have to keep Deuteronomy 30:11-20 in mind.
2. The history of interpretation on this verse comes down to 2 or 3 tactics for exegesis but the “hard saying” of 7:6 seems best to preach if the tactic used to interpret it so that it includes its context, as I inferred in point 1. The way that reads intuitively, to me at least, is to say Jesus is using proverbs/psalms language as a bridge to tie the logic and theology that the Deuteronomy verse is in: “life or death” theology. Craig Blomberg calls this a Jewish “two ways” genre (but I think it’s also a theology in a sense too). (See Blomberg on these verses, it’s super helpful.) Jesus’ words here are actually a vivid metaphorical tie and transition from verse 5 towards this two ways emphatic theology we find in verse 7-14: choose life! Jesus likes metaphor and analogy. Here he’s transiting to life.
3. Jesus doesn’t think his audience is in a place of righteousness. No, they’re hypocrites and he’s trying to correct them (7:5). This is his general assumption of his crowd from 7:5-14. So the context and logic around verse 6 is 7:5-14 and this is important.
(Yes, I’m aware there’s really not 3 points there as they’re interrelated.)
Let’s exegete the problem out of this section now that we have those preliminaries in order however…
First, what is the vivid metaphor and transition (7:5) mean? It is a unique way of saying something like, when one is able to see clearly in God’s kingdom then they’re able to see God’s word and law clearly, AND judge God’s blessings and provision appropriately. Second, these verses (5-14) act in classic Moses style by assuming one of the best ways to begin to see clearly (spiritually and covenantally) is to start by saying “do not!,” emphatically in fact. This negative technique is done in order to make one aware of their responsibilities to God’s ways and provisions in stark contrast to their own contrary inclinations.
A key to answering the question above is asking where is verse 5 headed? Well, it’s implying that IF one gets in a place to judge God’s ways and provisions for themselves, then they will be able to be aware of how to appropriate God’s ways and provisions not only for themselves but for the equally sinful world around them. BUT, that’s the key, he’s talking to hypocrites so they can’t see God’s ways and provisions clearly. 7:6 is the preverbal “stop!” Or, the “do not,” in Jewish legal tradition terms.
Jesus in 7:6 is essentially saying, since you Jews can’t judge people correctly (or yourselves) let me tell you the key: stop wasting the holy law by applying it to everyone else (like the Gentiles, see 15:26) and start squandering it on yourselves. He goes on to emphasize another “do not,” that is, do not be unfaithful to God’s provisions (probably referring to the blessings of the holy land and law) by essentially being no different than the Romans and other gentile nations around. In other words, verse 5 means STOP being hypocritical and return to the kingdom of God and his Christ; or, better yet, choose life! Choose the kingdom of God.
This sets up powerfully the “two ways” genre we see explicitly through the rest of the section. Blomberg brings in Psalms 16:11 here. (See his contribution in Carson and Beale’s, “Old Testament in the New” commentary.)
Well, that’s my wild stab at it. No doubt this is one of Jesus’ famous hard sayings so I’m ok with being wrong. But, I had to take up the challenge and try to figure it out. Now I feel I have a new challenge to consider for myself. Living this out… Ouch.
Special shout out to professor/pastor Timothy Beck for bringing this text into my view as something to wrestle with. Fun times.
The first verse of the gospel of Mark in the Greek looks like this:
“Ἀρχὴ τοῦ εὐαγγελίου Ἰησοῦ χριστοῦ.”
Notice anything interesting about it structurally? What I notice is that at the center is the word that we translate as “gospel” (εὐαγγελίου). Keep the gospel center is a very wise approach when you have to testify.
I’m evangelical. I make no qualms about that. It’s who I am and is the place I’m most comfortable in. So when I see evangelical leaders, like Mark Driscoll for example, get lambasted in the media I have this guttural reaction to defend them despite our theological differences (like Driscoll’s cheesy and weak Calvinistic theology). I think one of the main reasons for this reaction-beyond my ties to this identity-is because there’s a leadership component, perhaps even an analog exampled by God, that’s necessary to have in order to do things right. This means people are going to be pissed, they’re going to get hurt, but at some point if there’s someone leading and people following AND they’re doing a good job then they have to get to this point. Let’s explore this space of effective leadership.
The good leadership Point of Exhaustion
A good leader pisses off those who follow at some point because good leadership has to lead to, well, a point. This looks and feels like an abrupt. Stop. But good leaders make it clear this is the leader’s place, the leader’s decision, the leader’s responsibility. (Yeah, I know. It’s intentional.)
The Place of the Follower Who Gets Pissed Off
These points are rare but are where good leaders get to lead to and reveal the defining lines of their achievements. But, achievements are structural they’re not just the leader’s. This means everyone who follows is stopped, exhausted or stripped of power, and obligated to the bidding of the leader because this point is beyond any one person’s domain(s), and in a sense beyond the leader’s power too. In other words, without the work that lead up to this point, this point wouldn’t even be possible. Successful organizations of people accomplish what they intend and that success always breaks down to experiences.
Experiences are a limited power. Experiences must be sustained. Experiences break down people.
Followers will get pissed, feel guilty, scared, there’s a plethora of feelings that may be involved in getting what an organization wants done done, but this is the costs of having accomplished an intentional state of things. Then why is anybody upset if it’s all for the accomplishment?
In this area of a hard stop, where the leader takes control and followers have no more say is where love and heartbreak can seem like the same thing. It’s a place of experience where there’s a reason for pain and suffering, a purpose in the madness, and things only make brutal sense in this place of experience. Let me repeat. Things make the most sense of life in and with and by experience or experiences. But from the outside, without experience, it looks like pain, evil, suffering, rudeness, power, unfairness, or limits.
The Father as our best Example
God the Father has never stopped promising he would rectify the world. He’s made it clear there are reasons, reasons for the pain and suffering, reasons why there are goods and evils we don’t’ get. In the case of our common salvation he accomplished this by his Son, and it is sustained by the power of the Holy Spirit and the obedience of his Church. But his leadership in this respect is offensive, counter intuitive, and from the outside doesn’t make sense.
The fundamental problem is in people’s questions. They ask how can God accomplish salvation in Christ, he died on a Roman cross as a poor insignificant itinerate preacher? But the question is not how. Asking the how question only reveals a right intuition that the solution should have no conflict or be unconfused but the solution should come from the what question. What is God that he would send his Son and accomplish salvation as he did?
So back to our organizational example’s earlier for just a bit. It is people and leaders and what and who they are that accomplish things and the limits of those accomplishments reflect, echo, cohere, or correspond to them. Now back to Jesus…
The cross is a peculiar place to stop and reflect at because it’s confusing, offensive, brutal. But for those inside being saved by the Father, it is a clear place we get to see the powers of sin, death, and evil lose their powers. It is the ultimate accomplishment. (Well, the resurrection is technically.) And those who follow will have to go through this point and be made into and out of all the things that Jesus as Lord implies.
Good leaders who accomplish their goals will lead people to their limits, and it will be frustrating; but great leaders help their followers see these accomplishments for what they are: experiences to be noticed, known, and sustained into new areas where success has yet to be experienced.
Pray, read, and thank God he has reasons. Ask him to show you the circumstances, the scriptures, and experiences to know what he is accomplishing in your life. All have access to his leadership. He is not a God of partiality. And you, as a future good leader, go piss people off but do it right.