Theology to Come

As a theologian, Bible scholar, science fiction author and fan, I have odd thoughts on a regular basis. What follow are somewhat random thoughts in need of much more contemplation.

The universe we know today is radically larger than that which the authors of the Bible knew, than that which the Church Fathers knew, and what the theologians of the Reformation and early modern era knew.

Yet, if we look at the bulk of theological musings since the burst of information that has become available in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, much of it seems stuck in a geocentric, medieval, small-scale universe.

What adjustments must be made in our understanding of God and the Bible as a result of quantum and relativistic physics, astronomy, geology, biology and neurological and computational science? Those who reject the existence of God will see the question as entirely nonsensical, while many Christians will be tempted to pick up stones or worse, will simply fail to comprehend that any of these questions need to be thought about at all.

But as odd as the following questions may seem, I believe they may affect our understanding of God and his workings.

So. What do we do with the inevitable discovery of both life and intelligence elsewhere in the universe? The Milky Way Galaxy alone contains around 400 billion stars. We now know planets are common. If even one percent of those stars have planets like Earth, that’s 4 billion just in the Milky Way. What of the hundreds of billions of other galaxies just within the observable universe, each of which might contain 4 billion or more Earth-like worlds?

If there are multiple-beyond-comprehension intelligent species scattered through the universe, did their equivalent of Jesus die for their sins? Will it be necessary at some point in the future for theologians to do “comparative” Christianity: discuss the similarities and differences of the incarnation of God on other worlds and the resulting religion? Should we start planning for that eventuality?

Given the size of the universe, why “is God mindful of man” as the Psalmist writes in Psalm 8:4?  Is humanity alone special, or should we assume that God’s mindfulness extends to all sentient beings in the universe? If not, why not?

What effect might neuroscience and computers have on our understanding of the soul? What are we going to do when strong AI becomes a reality? I’d suggest that those who imagine HAL 9000 or its equivalent isn’t ever going to happen are naïve. We need to think about this and come to grips with it now, before someone like Data, Star Trek’s android, appears and starts wondering about the eternal destiny of his soul.

How is the resurrection accomplished? What happens at death? How does God restore us? Does our experience with computers help us understand that? Is the universe like a computer simulation, but with much better graphics? Does he “save” our running programs—our souls—to his flash drive? Is the resurrection thanks to the fact that God has created a backup of each of us?

According to some branches of Christian theology, Christians will, at some future point be “raptured” when Jesus comes back to the Earth. What are the logistics of that if I’m on the International Space Station, or on the Moon, or Mars or in interstellar space? How does the resurrection work if my body is buried on the moon or in orbit? After all, the astronomer Gene Shoemaker’s ashes are already sitting on the moon, and the ashes of several other people are currently in orbit. This is not just a theoretical question.  It is now a real one. Most theological treatments of the resurrection and second coming are hopelessly geocentric and naïve, it seems to me. Perhaps the wording of Mark 13:7 is more literal than most have thought:

“And he will send his angels and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of the heavens.”

What I’m doing here is just thinking out loud. Asking crazy questions. But that’s what theology is really all about: asking questions and then looking to see if there are answers–and then finding even more questions. 

There is more to doing theology than just reading the Bible. Most theologians recognize that God’s revelation of himself to humanity is not limited to just what is called “special revelation”: the Bible. It also includes his “general revelation”: God’s creation. As the Psalmist wrote, “the heavens declare the glory of God.” (Psalm 19)

Modern theology must therefore address the ramifications of what we’ve learned from general revelation. With each new discovery, God becomes bigger. When that Psalmist commented about what the “heavens declare” during the first millennium BC, he knew of only about three thousand stars and five planets: all that can be seen with the naked eye on a dark night.

Thanks to modern astronomy, the ancient psalmist’s words have become far more profound and powerful. Today we see a heaven filled with more stars than all the grains of sand on Earth, planets beyond counting, galaxies, super novas, black holes and quasars.

Theology becomes ever harder and the questions ever multiply. Our understanding of theology is still in its infancy.

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Sinners in the Hands of Angry Christians

If a Christian sees people in the world behaving badly, if he or she sees politicians misbehaving, celebrities doing bad things, pundits saying mean things, corporations acting irresponsibly, and other individuals who are morally reprehensible, what should he or she do?  What should he or she say?  How does the Christian confront depravity in the public square?  If a Christian witnesses moral bankruptcy and he or she doesn’t speak up for what he or she believes is right, is he or she really a Christian?  I’ve heard both Christians and critics of Christians ask exactly this.

So what would Jesus do?  Is that the question that might lead us to clarity?

Jesus’ harsh criticism of sinners is exactly why the scribes and Pharisees so loved Jesus.

Right? Um…

And that’s why we’re so fond of the vegans who lambast us for our choice in lunch.  It’s why we enjoy hearing from our neighbors who prattle on about how irresponsible we are for not recycling.  It’s why we are so happy when a coworker natters about “ethically-sourced” coffee as we try to hide our Folgers. We love to listen when our friend regales us with how he ran another marathon–and “you should run with me this weekend.”

Wait.  

No, that’s not quite right, either.

And that’s why I wonder about Christians who regularly argue that we need to preach against whatever sin the crowd has taken notice of this week, or how we need to take a stand against the latest outrage.  I’m uncomfortable with the notion that we need to sign another petition to demand redress of some systemic wrong.  Silence is violence, and if we don’t say something then there will be no one left to speak up.  If that sin-monger were about to be hit by a bus, wouldn’t we warn them?  How can we be so unloving that we won’t condemn their degenerate lifestyle?

After all, look at how the prophets condemned the ancient Israelites. Isaiah and Jeremiah thundered against the evildoers!  Pay attention to how harshly Jesus’ denounced the scribes and Pharisees, those “white-washed tombs!”

How are we being loving, how are we obedient to the mandate of scripture if we don’t get in their face and let the sinners know? How can we deny the words of Matthew 18:

 “If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you. If they listen to you, you have won them over. But if they will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.’  If they still refuse to listen, tell it to the church; and if they refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector.  (Matthew 18:15-17)

But I still find myself uncomfortable with the whole concept of “hellfire and brimstone” activism.

How come?

While Jesus was harsh with the religious establishment, while he was not slow to denounce them for their hypocrisy and worse, I can’t help but notice that he spent quality time with those that all the right-thinking members of that religious establishment condemned so harshly.  In fact, the righteous condemned Jesus as a “drunk and friend to tax collectors.”  Sort of like being called a junk food junkie and friend to tobacco lobbyists.

Those who were outside the house of faith liked Jesus and wanted to spend time with him; meanwhile, the religious do-gooders denounced him more than the sinners Jesus was friends with.

The condemnation of the prophets was directed at the priests and leaders of Israel.  Isaiah and Jeremiah thundered against the priests and self-proclaimed prophets.

Matthew 18 is written for those who are part of the household of faith.  Paul’s condemnation of the man sleeping with his father’s wife in 1 Corinthians was directed at a church member.  Ananias and Sapphira were wealthy members of the first church in Jerusalem when Peter called them out. 

But when Paul visited Athens, we learn that Paul was “deeply disturbed” by the idolatry he saw there.  Yet, when he spoke at the Areopagus, rather than yell that they were idolaters doomed to Hell, he used the idol to the “unknown god” as the basis for his sermon, and quoted from a hymn to the Greek god Zeus.  (see Acts 17:16-33)

John’s gospel tells us that the Holy Spirit convicts the world of sin, judgment, and righteousness (John 16:8-11).  Human beings are without excuse, Paul pointed out, and they already know they are sinners (Romans 1:18-20; 2:14-15). 

How effective is criticism?  Does it help you lose weight if your friends make comments about how you keep going back for thirds?  Do you find yourself attracted to vegetarianism or veganism by the antics of PETA?  Why the jokes about Cross-Fit cultists? 

Being a jerk to people is hardly loving, and it is, more importantly, hardly effective.  If we are attempting to bear witness to the good news of Jesus Christ, then we need to ask ourselves how effective are we?  As Doctor Phil might say, “how is that working out for you?”

Jesus told his disciples that people would recognize they were his disciples by their love (John 13:35).

Is that how the world usually thinks of Christianity and Christians?

Consider that God does not take pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that they repent and live (Ezekiel 18:23 and 33:11, Lamentations 3:33, Jeremiah 18:7-8, Micah 7:18, 1 Timothy 2:4).  Consider the point of the book of Jonah: Jonah wanted to see Nineveh get what it had coming to it so badly he was willing to run away from God and die just so they wouldn’t get a chance to hear his message and repent. He was mad when God forgave them.  There is a perverse pleasure that some take in judging sinners and making them suffer.  It is a pleasure that God does not share.

Which again, demonstrates the importance of the One Verse, Matthew 7:12 for both interpretation and practice.  “Do to others as you’d have them do to you.”  If you’d not enjoy a punch in the gut from an arrogant self-righteous jerk, then perhaps you should try to avoid being a self-righteous jerk who enjoys punching people.

More fundamentally than “what would Jesus do?” we might better ask instead, “would I like this done to me?”   If I wouldn’t, then maybe that’s our answer—and why giving people hellfire and brimstone may not be all that useful, even if it is emotionally satisfying.

And so how should Christians respond to the moral degeneracy around them?  “The fields are ripe for harvest,” as Jesus told his disciples (John 4:35).  Give them the Good News.  “Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins.” (1 Peter 4:8)

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The Truth

I saw a meme this week:

“The news used to tell us what happened and we had to decide how we felt about it.  Now, the news tells us how to feel and we have to decide if it happened.”

Science is a systematic enterprise that builds and organizes knowledge in the form of testable explanations and predictions about the universe. It involves careful observation, applying rigorous skepticism about what is observed, given that cognitive assumptions can distort how we interpret observations. It involves formulating hypotheses, via induction, based on such observations. It requires experimental and measurement-based testing of deductions drawn from the hypotheses. And it necessitates refinement (or elimination) of the hypotheses based on the experimental findings. 

For postmodernists, in contrast, science is a set of unquestionable beliefs, handed down from above, to be accepted completely and without question or doubt.  Which of course isn’t scientific at all.  Science is a methodology, not a feeling. Reality is what exists regardless of how you feel about it.

But actual facts don’t matter in a postmodern world, nor does objective truth.  You’ve probably heard the term “postmodern,” but do you know what it is?

Postmodernism questions and criticizes Enlightenment rationality.  It opposes certainty. It rejects the concept of objective reality.  It denies universal truth. It argues for relativism.  It is skeptical of explanations that claim to be valid for all groups, cultures, traditions or races.  Postmodernists claim that reality is a mental construct. Facts are malleable. It has no clue what “science” actually is nor does it care. It redefines it.  It hollows it out and wears it as a skin suit. It uses it as a club to intimidate those who disagree.

In the final scene of the first Star Wars movie,the rebel alliance launches an assault on the Death Star in an attempt to defeat the Empire. The hero, Luke Skywalker, pilots his X-wing fighter along a heavily fortified trench in search of a small exhaust port in which to fire his missiles.

Amid the chaos of the battle, Luke hears the wise counsel of his recently departed mentor, Obi-wan Kenobi, who whispers, “Luke, trust your feelings.” Luke then switches off his targeting computer and — using the Force as his guide — proceeds to fly by instinct, eventually reaching his objective and destroying the Death Star.

And then later, in The Empire Strikes Back, in the confrontation with Darth Vader when Luke learns the truth, that Darth Vader is his father and he resists accepting it, Darth Vader tells him: “Search your feelings. You know it to be true.”

If you know it to be true because it “feels right” then you don’t need facts.  “I’ve made up my mind, don’t confuse me with the facts.”  That’s our world today. 

And this is not a new way of approaching things. Humans naturally default to this.  The nineteenth century was dominated by this outlook.  It was an age of Romance, not an Age of Reason. 

And so again today.  Logic and facts are doubted; we imagine feelings are more “authentic,” more real.  We retain the trappings of the Enlightenment and deny the power thereof.  We don’t want to “reason together” to discover the truth.  We just want to feel good about ourselves and our choices.  It’s okay if I self-identify as a kumquat.  It’s my reality, right?  It’s who I really am.

And yet we know down deep that elevating emotion over rationality is nonsense.  We still look both ways before we cross a street.  We don’t purposely run red lights.  We willingly go to a doctor if we break a bone.  We don’t give out our social security number to strangers on the phone.  We know we have to eat. And we count our change.

We don’t actually live by postmodern or romantic thinking. Facts do matter in our day to day existence.

And facts matter to God.  He asks us to believe the truth, not just to embrace our feelings. Our choices have real consequences.

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Christianity and LGBTQ

Another episode from the weekly webcast A Mirror Darkly: unbridled inquiry (Saturday’s at 4 PM Pacific Time) simulcast on Facebook Live and our YouTube channel. This webcast discussed Christianity and LGBTQ.

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Suffering

It is clear from a biblical and experiential standpoint: suffering is real.  And what is also real is that we are righteous, and God does not hold our sins against us.  Thus: it is not the case that there are no good people.  We have been made good in Christ.  And it is not the case that suffering is the result of us doing bad things: that is, it is simply not the case that bad things happen to bad people and good things to good people. 

A woman I know had a stillborn baby.  At the hospital, my wife and the woman’s mother were having lunch and the mother said “you know, good things happen to good people and bad things to bad people.”  And my wife was aghast and asked, “what bad thing did your daughter do that would cost the life of her baby?”

That simply isn’t the answer to the question of suffering.

God is clear: it doesn’t work that way.  Look at the passage from Luke 13:1-5:

Now there were some present at that time who told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices.  Jesus answered, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way?  I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish.  Or those eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them—do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem?  I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish.”  (Luke 13:1-5)

The same sense, same attitude, same truth as we see in John 9:1-3:

As he went along, he saw a man blind from birth.  His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”

 “Neither this man nor his parents sinned,” said Jesus, “but this happened so that the works of God might be displayed in him.

What does suffering tell us about God?  One thing is very clear: it is not because of our sin.  Jesus suffered for that. 

What does suffering tell us about God?  We learn that God loves us: he tells us he does and he shows us he does.  God suffered for us. On a Roman cross.

We learn that suffering is part of the universe that God has put us into.  Suffering does not exclude our existence. So if our existence is compatible with suffering, why would we imagine God’s existence isn’t?  One very obvious thing we need to remember about suffering: God himself suffers.  We don’t suffer it alone. He suffers with us.  He really does know our pain.  Suffering is as much a problem for God as it is for us.

If God loves us, if God is good, if God is powerful, why do the righteous suffer?  Well, if God loves himself, if God is good, and if God is powerful, why does HE suffer?

Suffering is not incompatible with our existence.  It is part of our existence. Likewise, suffering is not incompatible with God’s existence.  It is part of his existence.

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Intersectionality, Critical Race Theory, and the One Verse

Another episode from the weekly webcast A Mirror Darkly: unbridled inquiry (Saturday’s at 4 PM Pacific Time) simulcast on Facebook Live and our YouTube channel. This webcast discussed intersectionality, critical race theory, and the One Verse (Matthew 7:12).

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Becoming Nazi

Martin Niemöller wrote:

First they came for the Communists

And I did not speak out

Because I was not a Communist

Then they came for the Socialists

And I did not speak out

Because I was not a Socialist

Then they came for the trade unionists

And I did not speak out

Because I was not a trade unionist

Then they came for the Jews

And I did not speak out

Because I was not a Jew

Then they came for me

And there was no one left

To speak out for me

Who are the “they” that Niemöller writes of?  People will read this and see it only as a warning against the Nazis, failing to recognize that “they” is also “us.”  We want to imagine that the Nazis are a unique, unprecedented evil.  We want to dehumanize and other them, because if we don’t, then we are denied the comforting conceit that we are of course better than the Nazis, that we cannot possibly turn into them ourselves. 

But the terrifying reality is that we are all a little bit Nazi because what the Nazis were in their hearts is common to all humanity.  We easily demonize those whom we have decided deserve to be demonized.  We join in condemnation of those whom all “right thinking” people see as obvious demons. We aren’t the bad guys.  We can never be the bad guys.  Only “they” are bad guys. Only those we decide are inhuman are bad guys.  Not all lives matter if those lives are people all good folk rightly despise and recognize as evil.  It is a moral imperative to stand against hate!

In reality, we can trade out any class, any gender, any ideology, any political party, any religion, and any ethnicity from that poem. We can replace “communist” with “libertarian” or “democrat” with “republican” or “leftist” with “right” or “Tory” with “Labor.”  We can replace “Jews” with “blacks” or “whites” with “Asians” or “Hispanics” with “illegals” or “Christians” with “Muslims” or “atheists” with “Catholics” or “deniers” with “sheeple.” 

The point is that it is human nature to “other” those with whom we disagree, to justify our hatred, and to imagine that our hatred is not hatred but rather it is justified and righteous indignation.  It isn’t just “Nazi” nature or “right wing” nature or “left wing” nature. 

And so those who demonize their political opponents, or religious opponents, or whatever opponents are always certain that they are righteous altogether, and those on the other side are evil altogether.  They are always as righteous and full of love and hope and justice as any human ever is when they attack their enemies, when they disparage those who disparage them, when they hate those who hate them.

Niemöller’s words are not just warning us about Nazis.  He’s warning us about ourselves.

We are not allowed this very human way of living.

We must instead, abide by the one verse “do to others as you’d have them do to you.” (Matthew 7:12).  Love your neighbor as yourself (Leviticus 19:18, Matthew 22:36-40, Galatians 5:14, and Romans 13:9).  And our neighbor includes the people we can’t stand the most, it includes those who are our enemies, those who disagree with everything we hold dear, those who would harm us, those who would destroy us, those who would kill us, those who would ask stupid questions and vote for idiots.

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What is the Gospel?

Every Saturday at 4 PM Pacific Time I do a webcast called A Mirror Darkly: unbridled inquiry.

Before the turn of the century, before Y2K, in 1998, Quartz Hill School of Theology produced something ahead of its time: a freewheeling discussion of topics, a cutting-edge, no holds barred broadcast over the internet. We called it Beyond the Box. It was a long-form webcast before such things became common.

The name of this webcast comes from 1 Corinthians 13:12, “For now we see in a mirror, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know fully even as also I was fully known.” (ASV)

We have discussions about Christianity, theologians, theological systems, philosophy, religion and science, religion and politics, religion and sex, psychology and mental illness, ethics, music, television, movies, popular culture, and more. This particular episode was entitled “What is the Gospel?”

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Hate

The great philosopher and Jedi, Master Yoda, declared:

“Fear is the path to the dark side…fear leads to anger… anger leads to hate… hate leads to suffering.”

We fear what we do not know, what we do not understand, what we cannot understand.  Those who are not like us, those who don’t think like us, those who don’t agree with us, those whose priorities and beliefs are at odds with us frighten and confuse us.  We fear those on the outside, those beyond our group, those whose beliefs are weird, those whose dogmas are not our own.

We begin to believe that those who don’t agree with us are evil. How could they not be evil when they disagree with us, we who are so obviously righteous?  We imagine we can discern their motives, read their minds, intuit their backwardness, and we conclude their motives are selfish and malicious. 

Soon, our anger turns to what we decide is justifiable hate. We are convinced that our hatred is reasonable. Our now dehumanized, othered, and vile opponents must of necessity be prevented from continuing to exist.  Preventing their success must be achieved at any cost.

We see such hatred every day, perpetrated by people convinced that their cause is just. 

And so hatred leads to suffering. Crimes are committed in the name of righteousness.  Lives are ruined, associations are terminated, because we’re right and they’re wrong and they must pay.  Justice must prevail, by any means necessary.

Everything from the breaking of friendships to murder to vandalism and theft, can be justified as good and righteous and necessary. No pain, no gain.  Tit for tat. Payment in kind.  Eye for eye.

This, despite the example of Jesus, who forgave those who murdered him.  Despite the example of countless martyrs, who forgave their persecutors and murderers. Despite Jesus’ words about turning the other cheek. Despite the words of Jesus that we should return good for evil.  Despite the overarching principle to love our neighbors as ourselves. Despite God’s words that he takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked (Ezekiel 33:11). Despite the condemnation of rejoicing over the downfall of our enemies (Proverbs 24:17).

Do to others as you’d have them do to you. (Matthew 7:12)

But hatred is easier because we are filled with anger and fear.

And fear is overwhelming, all consuming, and entirely natural.

But.

“There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.” (1 John 4:18)

Love casts out fear.  Perhaps we should listen to God when he repeatedly tells us, “do not fear.”

“Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 4:6-7)

And

 For I am the Lord your God

who takes hold of your right hand

and says to you, Do not fear;

I will help you. (Isaiah 41:13)

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The One Verse

“So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.” (Matthew 7:12)

The Bible is complicated. Sometimes it is boring. For most people, Netflix is a lot more fun. The Bible can be hard to understand. There are 31,071 verses to try to make sense of in the Bible. It tends to overwhelm the average reader.

But I can give you the Bible in just One Verse.

Let me tell you the story of Rabbi Hillel.

According to tradition, Rabbi Hillel was born about 110 BC and died around 10 AD. He is associated with the development of the Mishnah and the Talmud.

One famous account in the Talmud (Shabbat 31a) is about a gentile who wanted to convert to Judaism. He announced that he would accept Judaism only if a rabbi would teach him the entire Torah while he, the prospective convert, stood on one foot. First, he went to Rabbi Shammai, who was insulted by this ridiculous request and threw the gentile out of his house.

The man did not give up. He wandered on until he found Rabbi Hillel, who accepted the challenge. As the man stood on one foot, the rabbi told him:

“What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor. That is the whole Torah; the rest is the explanation of this—go and study it!”

This gets to the heart of things. Jesus, about a hundred years later, will make a similar comment about the Bible, as recorded in the Gospel of Matthew:

“So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.” (Matthew 7:12)

The phrase Jesus used, “the Law and the Prophets,” is the way Jewish people of Jesus’ time referenced the Bible.

And so there it is. The One Verse that sums it all up. The entire Bible in just One Verse.

And, in fact, that single verse is a verse repeated over and over throughout the Bible. And all the rest of the Bible merely explains that One Verse.

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