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My faith

I would have to say that being a Christian is the single most significant aspect (not part) of who I am.  This immediately raises three questions:
     What is Christianity?
     Why do you choose to be a Christian?
     How does being a Christian inform and permeate your life in such a significant way?

[Warning – this is a bit long for a blog entry – the equivalent of 7 pages single-spaced – but these are big questions.  😉   If you prefer, you can download this as a pdf document: About my faith.]

What is Christianity?

Before answering, let me emphasize that this is my understanding of Christianity.  I would argue that what I write here does accurately reflect and represent the teaching and example of Jesus, the Bible, and much of the Christian Church’s belief and practice over the last two millennia.  However, it is vital to remember that all of us interpret – not just holy books, but everything we hear, see, read, etc.  There are many, Christian and non-Christian, who would disagree with aspects (or all) of my interpretation.  I offer this as an insight into who I am, but also, humbly, for your consideration.  Please understand that what follows is brief (relatively) – all of this could be and has been discussed much more deeply.[1]

First, let me mention what Christianity is not.  It is not mainly about me going to heaven when I die.  Nor is it mainly about me finding significance or being fulfilled in my life now.  While we figure significantly in “the story”, I think it is mistaken to view or proclaim Christianity in a “what do I get out of it” way.  It is so much bigger than that!

God’s Revelation

Christianity is about God – who he[2] is, what he is like, and what he has done.  Three of the most significant (from our perspective) things God has done are:

  • to create (the universe – including us humans);
  • to communicate (to people directly or through other selected people – prophets); and
  • to incarnate (God the Son[3], Jesus, becoming human).

These are significant because they are all ways God has revealed or shown himself.  Christians call the first, general revelation.  God has revealed himself in the universe he created.  Thus, we can learn about God by observing, studying and living in the universe he created.  God has also revealed himself by creating humans “in his image” – making us, in some ways, like himself.  We can get some idea about what God is like by looking at ourselves.  We are persons – having free will and creativity, being able to communicate and love (or hate).[4] As humans we share certain values (e.g. ethics, justice, beauty).

Christians also believe that, throughout history, God has also communicated more specifically in various ways to different people – often with a message that was to be communicated to others.  Some of this communication (called special revelation) has been collected into the Bible.  Most of the Bible is not God dictating, but rather stories, histories, poems, and letters.  One can see and study the human element in these writings, e.g. literary style, vocabulary usage, eye-witness accounts, use of sources, etc.  Christians believe that God guided or “inspired” these writers to communicate his message, but also considered it important to allow their personal style and experience to be a part of the writing.

We consider the incarnation to be God’s ultimate revelation of himself to humans.  We believe that Jesus lived a perfect example of how we should live – showing God’s compassion to all people.  But also, in his death and resurrection, he provided a way for us to be forgiven and made right with God (reconciled).  A significant section of the Bible is devoted to the story of Jesus’ life, death, resurrection and ascension – for the benefit of those who were not around to see him in person (as the apostle John explains in John 20:24-31).

The Bible – A Story

In addition to being composed of stories, the Bible presents an overall story or narrative of the history of God’s work and his interaction with people.  It starts with a creation story told in the style of other ancient near-eastern creation stories.  God forms and fills a world that is good and puts Adam and Eve in a special garden where he has a close relationship with them, pictured as walking with them in the garden in the cool of the evening.

The Fall is the story of our ancient parents disobeying God (eating the forbidden fruit), thus breaking their relationship with him.  God pronounces judgment, but also hints at a solution that somehow involves suffering – the descendent of the woman would crush the head of the serpent (who deceived Eve), but the serpent would strike his heel.

God calls Abraham and his descendents to be his people – the means by which he will bless all “nations” (tribes, peoples).  God gave them a legal system to show and remind them of the way he wanted them to live – and the problems that arise from not living that way.  Their unique way of life was also to be a sign to the nations – to bring them to God.  They failed in living this way.  God sent prophets who condemned injustice, oppression of the poor, and false piety, and called for repentance – as well as warning of God’s judgment on his people for these things.  Abraham’s descendents also failed to be a light and blessing to the nations.  They came to see themselves merely as God’s special favorites – not as those chosen for this task.  The prophets also spoke of a coming Messiah, a “Suffering Servant” who would fulfill God’s call to Abraham – rescuing and blessing all peoples of the earth.

I mentioned Jesus’ incarnation above.  Obviously, for Christ-ians, the life, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus, the Messiah (Hebrew), the Christ (Greek), the “Anointed One” is central.  The idea of being anointed carried, in the Hebrew mindset, the idea of being made king – as the leader, but also as representing, as identifying with the people.  In this capacity, Jesus is the “son of Abraham” who fulfills the task given to God’s people and the promised “descendent of the woman” who would crush the serpent’s head.  As I mentioned, Jesus is both our Example and our Savior, but he is also our King, our Lord.

Jesus, as an adult, was known to his contemporaries as a Rabbi – or Teacher.  Men and women followed him and listened to his teachings about God and his kingdom.  His life was also characterized by love and service.  He healed the sick, cast out demons, raised the dead, fed the hungry, and comforted the afflicted.  However there was also controversy.  Many of the religious leaders felt threatened by his popularity and disagreed strongly with his non-standard interpretations of the Hebrew Scriptures.  They tried to trap him and find a way to portray him to the ruling Roman occupiers as a political or military threat.  Jesus and his followers were aware of this, yet Jesus insisted on going to Jerusalem, the center of opposition to him.  He was arrested and tried by the Jewish authorities who then turned him over the Roman authorities who reluctantly agreed to crucify him.  Over his head on the cross, they posted the charge against him, “King of the Jews”.

I admit the strangeness of the Christian idea that (King) Jesus’ suffering and cruel death (by crucifixion) somehow “saves” us from our sins.  While I don’t fully understand this, I think there are two important concepts tied up in this.  First, our choices – our attitudes, words, and actions matter.  In giving us a real free will, God necessarily took a risk – the chance that we would “sin” – we would make choices to live in selfish, unloving and violent ways – choices that would have real consequences for the actor and for others in a real world, and would, thus, entail real responsibility.  The “reality” of the problem, I think, necessitates a “real” solution.  We see this.  “Making things right” between humans involves real repentance.  How do we feel when a friend carelessly breaks an irreplaceable vase our grandmother gave us – and then blithely says “Sorry”, without any evidence of true sorrow or any actions that are commensurate with the apology?  In addition to the true repentance of the offender, making things right also involves costly forgiveness from the offended.  If, in the same scenario, but with a sincere apology, you decide to truly forgive your friend, you must accept the loss.  You must absorb – and not reflect or bounce back – the sorrow and emotional pain of not having this special heirloom.  With true repentance and costly, absorbing forgiveness comes reconciliation.  Jesus’ “sacrifice” is, I think, something like this – he absorbed the suffering, pain, loss, alienation, and judgment that sin brings – the cost of forgiveness.  He did this knowing the joy of reconciliation that it would make possible.  One way this is expressed in the Bible is that Jesus “for the joy set before him, endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of God.”  (Hebrews 12:2)

The second concept that helps me process the idea of Jesus’ sacrifice for our salvation is kenosis.  Kenosis is a Greek word that means self-emptying.  It is used in the Bible to describe what Jesus did in his incarnation:

Though he was God,
     he did not think of equality with God as something to cling to.
Instead, he gave up his divine privileges;
     he took the humble position of a slave
     and was born as a human being.
When he appeared in human form,
     he humbled himself in obedience to God
     and died a criminal’s death on a cross.
Therefore, God elevated him to the place of highest honor
     and gave him the name above all other names,
that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
     in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord,
     to the glory of God the Father.
          Philippians 2:6-11

In order to be a real man – not a superman, Jesus chose to limit himself and give up many of his God attributes.  A significant aspect of being human is NOT knowing everything, NOT having power to do whatever one wants, NOT being present everywhere.

So, what about kenosis helps me in processing all this?  I believe that kenosis not only describes what Jesus did in his incarnation, but it also is a core characteristic of God.  We can see evidence of God’s kenotic nature in many of the ways he interacts with humans.  He gives us free will.  He gives laws, but does not force us to follow them.  He offers a reconciled relationship, but is not too pushy.  He is hurt by our sin and rejection.  He is shy – revealing himself, but not in incontrovertible ways – refusing to coerce belief.  When revealing himself, he chooses to use humans – and not just dictate, but let their ways and styles be present in the communication.  In all these ways, God chooses NOT to use his power to make things go his way.  Through kenosis and love, suffering and sacrifice, God works to make things right, to pursue reconciliation, but does this in a way that respects and preserves our freedom and his image in us.

The story does not stop with Jesus’ life and death.  At this point God the Father did show his power – over death – and raised Jesus from the dead (which is seen in the Bible as a promise of our physical resurrection).  For 40 days, the risen Jesus showed himself to his followers (giving them evidence of his resurrection) and continued to help them understand what all this meant (another example of kenosis – he did not just do some kind of a knowledge implant or mind-meld).

Before Jesus returned to God the Father (called his ascension), Jesus “sent” his followers to continue his work, the work of his kingdom, the work of God’s people – to “make things right”, to bless all peoples, to tell about Jesus and his teaching – and to do all this in Jesus’ humble, kenotic, refusing-to-use-power-to-get-what-we-want way.  To help with this tough task, Jesus promised that the Holy Spirit would come shortly after he left and stay with and in them.  The “indwelling” of the Holy Spirit in Christians is a difficult, controversial but key concept.  There is a good bit written about it in the New Testament – and thousands of books written by Christians advocating different interpretations and understandings.  Most agree that one of the things the Holy Spirit does is to offer power to Christians that are seriously following Jesus.  I think a key aspect of this power is to help us to resist the temptation of using power – human, social, political, violent power – to get what we want – even if what we want is to advance God’s kingdom.  The irony, of course, is that there is, indeed, a different, but real kind of power in refusing to use power.

The upside-down nature of God’s Kingdom and Jesus’ values are clear in Scripture.  “Turn the other cheek.”  “Love your enemies.”  “Do good to those who persecute you” “Return good for evil”  “The first shall be last, and the last shall be first.”  “The greatest should be the servant of all.”  And we can’t forget the most poignant picture of these counter-intuitive, yet beautiful values.  Jesus, at the Last Supper – just before his suffering and death, wrapped himself in a towel (as a servant would), and washed his disciples’ feet – including the one who would, hours later, betray him!  These principles are also well known by many non-Christians who, rightly, expect this behavior from Christians – and criticize us when we don’t measure up.  I say, “Bring it on!  I want to know when I am not living like the Jesus I talk about.”  For Christians, it is really a question of faith – do we really believe that Jesus’ way is right – enough to live by it?

Since the coming of the Holy Spirit on the Day of Pentecost (often called the “birthday” of the Church), the Church has both followed and not followed the example of Jesus refusing to use power to get what we want.  The Church has been at its best, of course, when it has followed Jesus’ example – serving the poor, ministering to the sick, fighting on behalf of the oppressed[5], and witnessing in a respectful, honorable way.  Unfortunately, there have also been times when the Christian churches, organizations and individuals have not followed Jesus example and have used power for their own sake or even, misguidedly, to extend God’s kingdom.  In fact, some of the most egregious examples of failing to follow Jesus in this area are when Christians see God’s kingdom itself in a political or military way – and end up launching Crusades, burning “heretics” at the stake, or having courts try “witches”.

The end of the story – or more accurately the next big event in the story – is when Jesus returns to finish the job of making things right, and inaugurates a new heavens and earth.  An unsavory part of this area of “end times” is judgment, punishment and hell.  Some feel that God’s love is so great that it will allow everyone to be with him in the new heavens and earth.  I find two main problems with this ostensibly attractive idea.  First, justice – I don’t think that this idea takes justice seriously.  One key attribute of God, that he shares with us, is that he is just.  We feel this very deeply – active, conscious, pre-meditated evil should be punished.  I remember watching a British film (never would have been an American film) where the corrupt, bad-guy, Prime Minister wins in the end.  The last good guy and girl have the only remaining piece of incriminating evidence, and are taking it to non-corrupt judge when their car is obliterated by a bomb (which is blamed on the IRA).  The movie ends with the Prime Minister looking into the camera smugly and saying, “Isn’t it better this way?”  The power of the film is that it reaches deep inside of us, and grabs and shakes our value of justice.[6] Is it really a good idea that this fictitious Prime Minister, Hitler, and those who have led mass genocides should be our neighbors in the new heavens and earth?[7]

Another objection to the idea of heaven for everyone is that it does not respect the real free will of people.  Suppose someone actively, consciously, with pre-meditation chooses to do something wrong, for which he/she knows the consequences, and then shows no repentance or remorse.  If God takes those consequences away, I would argue that this diminishes the reality of the person’s decision.  If this is done on a large enough scale, it seems that there could cease to be any difference between good decisions and poor decisions – thus eliminating the reality of free will.[8]

I suspect that many (including myself) have at times thought that heaven sounds boring.  “OK, we can have a few worship songs to God, but doing this for 5 hours?  for 30 days?  for 200 years?  forever?”  I think this may be an overly narrow view of worship and heaven (and an underestimation of what it will be like to see God).  I also think it may be related to another idea I question.  I have heard people talk about big philosophical or theological questions and end their conversation with, “Well, we will know when we get to heaven.”  How do these two thoughts relate?

First, worship is much more than just what happens in church.  I believe that living in the world God created, with other people created in his image, according to Jesus’ radical, upside-down values is worship.  Another aspect of worship, I believe, is studying and learning about God – from what he has made and what he has said.  The worship aspect of studying the Bible seems clear.  However, I think God likes us studying and appreciating his handiwork as much as we would appreciate someone giving careful consideration to a sculpture we created, or a short-story we wrote, or a machine we designed.  Johannes Kepler spoke of his astronomy as “thinking God’s thoughts after him”.  More recently Francis Collins wrote, “By investigating God’s majestic and awesome creation, science can actually be a means of worship.”

Second, I question the idea that we will automatically know everything upon our arrival in heaven.  While the Bible talks about God “wiping away every tear” and there being no more hunger or suffering or death, will God suddenly implant understanding or knowledge about everything into our minds?[9] I wonder if heaven will be more like the disciples experience with Jesus, with Jesus interacting with us at the level of our finite minds – an opportunity for us to learn and grow.  I wonder if God, like a good teacher, will refuse to answer our questions, but will give us the means to figure out the answer ourselves.  As someone who is incurably curious – always being lured away from what I should be doing by all sorts of fascinating articles on the Internet about science or theology or sociology, or linguistics – this sounds amazing.

In summary, it is not that Christianity is not at all about “going to heaven when I die”, but that it is about so much more than that.  More importantly, I think I have shown how a “what can I get out of it” mentality is antithetical to the core, upside-down values of Christianity.  I think it is nicely summed up in Jesus words, “If any of you wants to be my follower, you must turn from your selfish ways, take up your cross, and follow me.  If you try to hang on to your life, you will lose it. But if you give up your life for my sake, you will save it.” (Matthew 16:24-25)

Here are three books that address this question of what is Christianity that I would recommend:

Mere Christianity by CS Lewis – adapted from a series of radio talks Lewis gave between 1941 and 1944.  As you might expect from the timeframe, this book presents the basics of Christianity to a modernist audience.

Simply Christian by NT Wright – first published in 2006, presents the basics of Christianity to a post-modernist audience.

Letters from a Skeptic: A Son Wrestles with His Father’s Questions about Christianity. by Gregory Boyd and Edward Boyd. – a series of letters between a Christian son (Greg) and his atheist father (Edward).  Many typical hard questions about Christianity are posed and answered.  Towards the end of the correspondence, the father became a Christian.

Why do you choose to be a Christian?

I have not written this answer yet, but I will include at this point a couple things to give you an idea of my answer:

Here is a link to my Letter to Bethany.  Christian friends of ours asked me to write a letter about “truth” to their daughter who was graduating from high school.  They asked many of their and her friends to write on various topics and compiled the letters into a book for their daughter.  While this letter does not directly answer this question, it does include certain elements of my answer.

Below is the outline of what I hope to write to answer this question.

Starting point – consciousness of my own existence (Rene Descartes)

Extreme Skepticism doesn’t work, placing the burden of proof on the skeptic.

Adopting a theory of truth and epistemology

Evaluating competing systems – worldviews, religions, philosophies

Reasons for accepting, adopting, and adapting a Christian worldview
     Hermeneutics is key
     Its claim
     Internal consistency
     External evidence
     Fit and Resonance

How does being a Christian inform and permeate your life in such a significant way?

This document is in the About Me part of my blog because, as I mentioned at the beginning, being a Christian is the most significant aspect of who I am.  I think the way I answered the first question, What is Christianity?, explains (at least partially) Christianity as a worldview.  My answer to the second question, Why do I choose to be a Christian?, explains why I choose this worldview over others.

Seeing my faith as a worldview means that it is much more than a list of doctrines or something I do on Sunday.  It is the way I see – my perspective, how I make sense of “life, the universe and everything” – including what I heard someone say today or read in a book yesterday.[10] It also informs and guides what I choose to say and do.  (I would argue that everyone has a worldview that affects and guides their lives in this kind of way, although many may not actively or explicitly think about it much.  Also, for some, their faith or religion may only be a part of their worldview, perhaps even inconsistent with the rest.)

I think the best way to see this is review my various entries in this blog and the in related sites mentioned on the home page – or just to talk to me for a while.  While it is not always explicit, I think you will frequently see elements of my faith / worldview in my life.

Often my worldview is the underlying reason or rationale for what I do.  For example, as a teacher, I give my students readings representing both sides of arguments to develop their critical thinking and analysis skills, which I see as an aspect (reason) of being created in the image of God.  Other readings expose them to different cultures to broaden their understanding and develop their appreciation for human diversity, which I see as something God appreciates and wanted to happen.  I should mention that what I am do in the classroom follows the goals and objectives of the course I am teaching, as well as being consistent with the liberal education values of the university.  I feel good about my teaching both as an educator and as a Christian.  The goals and values are shared, even if the underlying rationale for them may be different.

I am also involved in interfaith dialog.  One of the foundational values and “rules” for dialog is mutual respect.  Again, while my dialog partner may share with me a commitment to mutual respect, we may disagree on the rationale for this value.  I find this value grounded in the idea that all humans are God’s image bearers, and thus, all are equally worthy of equal respect.

I could give more examples – including how I have fun.  (I love anything that allows me (along with my family) to explore and appreciate the beauty and diversity of God’s creation and creatures – hiking in the mountains, snorkeling in the Red Sea, visiting different cultures, etc.)   I also want to emphasize that I find this kind of an integrated life and worldview deeply satisfying – sensing the fit, the resonance with my Creator.


[1] In addition to being brief, this document assumes some minimal understanding of basic Christian ideas.

[2] Some are legitimately concerned about the use of gender pronouns for God.  This is a significant issue, but one which I cannot discuss at length here.  I will point out, though, that there are, in the Bible, descriptions of God which emphasize both (what we would consider) masculine and feminine characteristics.  I think that the issue is more about human language than about God’s nature.

[3] A core (and difficult to understand) belief of Christians is that there is one God who exists in community – as three persons – God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit.

[4] In doing this, God also set up the possibility of having a real, personal relationship with his creatures.

[5] Notice that this fighting – including any use of power – is not for the rights of those fighting, but for the rights of the oppressed.

[6] I have forgotten the name of this film and many details of the story – if you know the film, please send me its name.

[7] Another objection to God’s punishment and hell is whether eternal conscious torment in hell for terrible, though finite sins is just.  One way some Christians answer this question is to propose that the Bible does not teach eternal conscious torment for human sinners, no matter how bad they are.  Instead they propose that God’s “eternal punishment” of them is to “destroy” them in hell.  This view is called Annihilationism.

[8] Another interesting exploration of this topic is CS Lewis’ short book, The Great Divorce.  In it he tells the story of some residents of hell taking a bus trip to heaven – and then deciding heaven is not for them and boarding the bus for the return trip to hell.

[9] While this idea in general seems consistent with the Bible, I need to think more about 1 Corinthians 13:12.

[10] But let me be quick to reiterate that my worldview is not set in stone – it can be adapted or changed, based on new information.  As I mentioned elsewhere, my worldview is my best current guess as to how it all fits together.

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. Scott permalink
    2 Feb 2011 12:01 pm

    Love the comments about learning and studying continuing in heaven. I often look forward to this – studying God’s Word and His creation with a mind cleansed from the shadows, distortions and limits of the curse. And since God is infinite, it will be a ever deepening study into the wonder of the Eternal One. Wow! That’s something to look forward to!

  2. 4 Jan 2011 1:12 am

    Hi John,
    Your website was generated automatically when I posted on my website. Normally, I don’t bother to look at these computer-generated websites, but yours caught my attention. I’m happy to see that you put great emphasis on following in the footsteps of Jesus, rather than the footsteps of hateful Christian Zionists such as John Hagee, and others. Like you, I also had the privilege to work in the Middle East (for 13 years), and when I came back home to Canada, some of my friends asked me what “those people over there” were like. I said, “It’s really strange about those people, but they respond to human kindness just the way we do!”
    Peace and blessings,
    David

    • 4 Jan 2011 6:57 am

      Hi David,

      Thanks for your note. I like your response to the queries of your friends.

      -john

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