Let My People Think

BibliolatryIt’s fascinating how often the Bible gets deified, based on the way we use certain phrasings: “The Bible says …”, “The Scriptures teach us “, “The Bible tells us”.

In all of those examples, the Bible is antropomorphized – i.e., it’s getting endowed with characteristics which belong to sentient beings. That is without warrant. The teacher is the Holy Spirit. The One who is to be obeyed is God. The human being to emulate is Jesus. And the Bible is simply a very, very useful tool on the journey. It is the official historically accurate record of God’s dealings with humankind, containing a lot of “inside information”.

Typically, by the time we get to studying our Bibles, we are already given the looking glass through which we perceive everything that’s written in the Bible. In doing so, we calibrate our reading experience to our apriori theology, and we draw out and magnify things that are in line with what we already believe, and minimize and discard the things that could challenge our existing beliefs.

So, often times it’s not “the Bible teaching me”, but actually quite the opposite of that. It’s “me” telling the Bible what I think it should be saying.
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Image of GodWe are all created in the image of God. Inside of every single one of us, there’s a better human struggling to get out. If that’s focused upon, recognized, and encouraged, that will happen.

From a social standpoint, I really don’t so much care what religion people formally confess as I care that by their actions and attitudes they see the other human being as being infinitely worthy of love and care. In daily life, it’s more productive to deal with good Samaritans (atheists / Muslims / Buddhists / whoever else) that care for the person on the side of the road, rather than be in the company of those who use the name of God as an excuse to ignore or even provoke needless sufferings of a fellow human being. For the latter group, it’s immaterial whether they refer to themselves as Christian or Muslim or Nazi or Communist. Those designations are a mere veneer over the real mechanism of destroying the image of God in a fellow human being.

The problem that happened as the result of the Fall was not that humans became wretches / irreparably depraved / etc. The problem was that death entered the world, and corrupted the image of God in people and in the world. What was needed was an infusion of life, of divine nature, and the presence of Someone who would believe in people’s infinite worth. That was the mission and the role of Jesus. He didn’t die for us because we were wretches. He died for us because we were mortal and frail, and also because we believed in the lies that told us that we were not worthy of God. We believed the voices of others, and had lost our way. He showed us exactly what we were worth, and he showed us that the way to God is simply by allowing our human nature to be infused with the nature divine (theosis), and letting that combination take over our lives.

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Image of GodHumans are the God-breathed image bearers of God. God created us in the same general class of beings as himself, which is why we can relate to him on many levels.

You may have heard religious ideas about how every person born after the fall of humanity was devoid of the image of God in them, was born “utterly depraved”, “born of the devil”, personally repulsive and deeply abominable to God, etc. That’s not only Scripturally inaccurate (if you go beyond superficial prooftexting), but it’s also very conducive to awakening the worst of our instincts relative to other human beings. Such teachings simply attempt to dehumanize fellow humans, to strip the image of God off of them, since that’s the only rhetorical way of gaining imaginary authority to destroy them through slander and violence.

What happened after “the fall” is that humanity acquired a progressively thicker layer of self-reliance followed by blindness followed by sin followed by death – in that order. They departed from the divinely established order by relying on various systems of right and wrong (self-reliance), their worldviews and perspectives got retrained to perceive the world in the terms of “right vs. wrong” and “with us vs. against us” dichotomies (blindness), their skewed perspectives (think spiritual eyesight) caused them to constantly miss the mark in their interactions with other people and with God (sin in “hamartia” in Greek – literally, “missing the mark”), and in continually operating in sin they progressed in death (or entropy – increasing degrees of disorder, culminating in state of disorder – literal and irreversible death).
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Here’s one verse that is often taken out of context and misconstrued.

1 John 1:9
If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.

We are tempted to read “cause-effect” relationship in this verse in a way that’s not supported by the verse’s grammar in any way at all. The problem is not with the verse; the problem is that our Protestants minds are still so conditioned by the Roman Catholic confessional booth that we tend to read into the verse the stuff that’s not even there.

Here’s what the verse DOESN’T say ” if I confess sins – God WILL BE faithful and just to do xyz”. Future tense in NOT used in the second part of this verse. It’s fascinating how often this crucial detail gets missed. Rather, the verse says “If I confess sins – God IS [ALREADY] faithful and just to do xyz”.

Let me put it a different way. The relationship between the two clauses of this sentence is not “cause and effect.” The relationship is not between between me confessing sin and God forgiving and cleansing. The relationship is between me confessing sin and God being faithful and just! Both of these are stated in the present tense. Your confession cannot cause God to be faithful and just – otherwise your lack of confession would cause God to be unfaithful and unjust. This is nonsensical, and it should be quite obvious.
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Logos of GodThe Bible assigns a very special place to the “Word of God”. In fact, we even capitalize the word “Word”. Let’s take a deeper dive on this concept.

Often times, we equate the Word of God with the Bible, pretty much without thinking. After all, that’s the normal usage of the phrase, right? So, “studying the Word” turns to “reading the Bible”. “Flowing with the Word” becomes “knowing details about Biblical events” (culture, history, perhaps even Hebrew / Koine Greek, etc.)

Let’s take a close look at this notion. The Word of God is very important indeed:

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” (John 1:1)

Let’s try to substitute this with the word “the Bible”, and see if this bears out:

“In the beginning was the Bible, and the Bible was with God, and the Bible was God.” (John 1:1)

There are a few problems with this. One, the first book of the Bible was likely penned in about 1500 BC, and the last book of the Bible was most likely penned shortly before 70 AD. The entire Bible was put together in its (more or less) final form no earlier than circa 367 A.D. Clearly, those 1800-1900 or so years happened long after “the beginning” of John 1:1.
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IntegrityIn the modern world, we are truly experiencing a crisis of integrity. I have no idea when it became normal for leaders to stop standing by their words, drastically changing the stories several times in a row in a course of days. Reading recent news stories about the United Airlines CEO squirm around like an eel on a frying pan trying to explain why it’s OK to knock out the teeth and break the nose of a paying airline customer gives a new meaning to a phrase “top communicator”. The only thing that’s uplifting about that particular story is the universal outrage that followed. On a practical level, that outpouring of wrath at a big corporation gone fat and proud gave me more faith in humankind than perhaps anything else in recent news.

After 2016, many Christians stopped looking to national Evangelical figures for examples of value-driven integrity-based leadership. That distrust has been in the making for some time. In the fall of 2016, I remember a time when a leading Evangelical ethicist changed his lofty ethical prescription 3 times in the course of 10 days. Not just modified it a little bit, but dramatically flip-flopped on his stance – went one way, then in a few days completely reversed himself, then in a few more days reversed the reversal. It was truly a painfully pathetic sight to behold. It seemed to have served as a capstone to a trend that has been two to three decades in the making.

It was clear that “being faithful to the end” somehow turned into “being faithful to one’s tribal self-interest to the end”. And for the publicly vocal and politically engaged group of Christians that the above-mentioned ethicist claimed to have represented, any claim to moral or ethical higher ground, along with any right to criticize ethical and moral relativism, went straight out the window. Yep, just like that. You can’t just flip-flop 2 times on “timeless moral and ethical values” in the course of 10 days and still expect to be recognized as a beacon of pure light in the corrupt world.
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Fear of DeathSomething just dawned on me, as clear as day. At the root of the way modeled by Jesus Christ is the certainty and security about our relationship with our good heavenly father, carried into eternity. At the root of religious fundamentalism is the ever-present good old fear of death – and at its core, that fear of death is unmitigated even by the cross of Calvary. These two streams flow within the larger nominal framework of Christianity. They may employ the same terminology and the same sacred texts, but the difference is truly night and day.

Here’s what brought it to light for me. During these past few years, I’ve read theological books on a variety of subjects, and from a variety of perspectives. I’ve read much material on the subject of atonement. I’ve read entire books on some of the views, in addition to reading background material on all of the currently and historical popular views. I came away with a renewed understanding of the complexity of the issue. What’s important – awareness of those perspectives, coupled with my own in-depth research and analysis, gave me many tools to help me construct my own understanding of the meaning of the atonement.

I did very similar kind of research with the issues of “hell”, “heaven”, “theodicy” (goodness of God vs. evil that’s in the world), “end times”, and many others. Again – my awareness of those perspectives, coupled with my own in-depth research and analysis, empowered me to construct my own understanding of the meaning of the “hell”, “heaven”, “theodicy”, “end times”, etc. My understanding of these and many other subjects became much more textured, much deeper, much more internally coherent, much more resonant with the Scriptures in their historical and cultural context – and as the result, often very different from the commonly circulated pop-theology teachings.
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