Category Archives: Theology and Ethics

A Theological Point and a Historical Fact

An important theological point and a fun historical fact:

Dionysus the Insignificant constructed a dating schema for the whole world based on the (supposed) birth date of Jesus. The fact that this scheme is still in use more or less worldwide despite abortive attempts such as that of the French Revolutionaries to supplant it came briefly to notice a few years ago at the time of the millennium but is largely ignored.3 Like a great church bell ringing out over a sleepy town, every time someone puts a date on something it speaks of the lordship of Jesus, whether people listen or not. — N. T. Wright

The point Wright is making is an important one. Nonetheless, it is the fact that the name of the person who created our current method of dating events is named “Dionysus the Insignificant” tickled me so much that I had to share it.

Please note that Wright does not doubt whether or not Jesus was ever born, but is instead referencing the fact that our schema may be about 4 to 6 years off. Dionysus seems to have miscounted, Jesus was probably born about 4 or 6 B.C. (Given that he lived from 470 – c. 544 AD. I’m willing to cut Dionysus quite a lot of slack. Furthermore his name was probably a reference to his humility—at least according to Wikipedia.com)


N. T. Wright, Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church (New York: HarperOne, 2008), 260-261.

“Dionysius Exiguus,” Wikipedia, April 14, 2018, accessed April 19, 2018, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dionysius_Exiguus.

The Strife is O’er, the Battle Done

I’ don’t think we can pull off the hymn, “The Strife is O’er, the Battle Done” in worship, but the lyrics are too good not to share somewhere:

The strife is o’er, the battle done;
the victory of life of life is won;
the song of triumph has begun:
Alleluia!

The powers of death have done their worst,
but Christ their legions hath dispersed:
let shouts of holy joy outburst:
Alleluia!

The three sad days are quickly sped;
he rises glorious from the dead;
all glory to our risen Head!
Alleluia!

Lord, by the stripes which wounded thee,
from death’s dread sting thy servants free,
that we may live, and sing to thee:
Alleluia!

You can find it as number 306 in the hymnal. According to said hymnal, the words were written (in Latin) in 1695, but the author is unknown. If you disagree and think we could pull this off let me know.


“The Strife Is O’er, the Battle Done” in United Methodist Church, The United Methodist Hymnal (Nashville, TN: United Methodist Publishing House, 1989), 306.

The Function of Faith

The function of faith is not to reduce mystery to rational clarity, but to integrate the unknown and the known together in a living whole. — Thomas Merton


Thomas Merton, “From Faith to Wisdom,” in New Seeds of Contemplation (New York: New Directions Book, 2007).

Overlooking Artifacts to Learn from the Past

Fair warning: you may want to skip this post. Go ahead, I will not think any less of you.

In response to my post “God is Easy to Please, but Hard to Satisfy” yesterday (April 6, 2018), I received the following comment via email: “I do hope [George] McDonald didn’t have a gay son.” This comment was probably in response to the phrase “As a great Christian writer (George MacDonald) pointed out, every father is pleased at the baby’s first attempt to walk: no father would be satisfied with anything less than a firm, free, manly walk in a grown-up son.” I replied by email and a phone call to the individual who made this astute observation. It turns out that they were just cracking wise and not seriously offended. Nonetheless, I asked permission to share their insight that I might respond to it publicly. They graciously agreed.

To explain my sharing of what might now (in 2018) be interpreted as a homophobic comment, I would argue the following.

  1. C. S. Lewis was writing in 1952 when the world was considerably less tolerant. I don’t know what figures of speech I use that will seem intolerant in 2084, but I’m sure there will be some. Hopefully, folks in 2084 will be willing to give me the benefit of the doubt and assume I meant no offense.
  2. One of the first “out” gay men I knew was a fellow student I worked with one summer while I was in college. He was the only one of our crew who could drive the dump truck and also the one who broke the handle on the sledgehammer. I learned not to make any assumptions about the mannerisms of homosexual persons. At any rate, I think McDonald’s use of “manly” has to do with maturity, not sexual orientation. Furthermore, anyone who has met me in person knows that even if I felt differently, I would have no room to talk because my own gait is so idiosyncratic that it is shared only by my father and me. (When we walk alongside each other in public, I do my best to stay out of step in order to make it less obvious.)
  3. McDonald (and Lewis with him) is using an old, less inclusive convention—much like “mankind” instead of “humankind”—but without (I trust) any intention of being offensive or exclusive. I gladly use “humankind” instead of “mankind,” “people” instead of “men,” etc., but I don’t take the time to redact every quote I post for the simple reason that doing so would often interfere with the flow.

I sincerely hope that my readers will know where I stand on gender equality and the acceptance and inclusion of gay men and women (very much for both) when I let a quote speak from its context. There is much that we can learn from our predecessors in the faith, but that does mean that we sometimes have to overlook the artifacts of their times.

God is Easy to Please, but Hard to Satisfy

Writing of Jesus’s determination to make as perfect as the Father is perfect, C. S. Lewis writes:

And yet— this is the other and equally important side of it—this Helper [the Holy Spirit] who will, in the long run, be satisfied with nothing less than absolute perfection, will also be delighted with the first feeble, stumbling effort you make tomorrow to do the simplest duty. As a great Christian writer (George MacDonald) pointed out, every father is pleased at the baby’s first attempt to walk: no father would be satisfied with anything less than a firm, free, manly walk in a grown-up son. In the same way, he said, ‘God is easy to please, but hard to satisfy.’ — C. S. Lewis

Resolve to let God help you take a step toward perfection today.


C. S. Lewis, “Counting the Cost,” in Mere Christianity (1952).

The Resurrection of​ the Whole Cosmos

In yesterday’s post, titled “Seven Stanzas at Easter,” I said, “Jesus’s body was the first example of incorruptible physicality—the stuff of the new creation.” Jesus is the first, but not the last and only. As N. T. Wright puts it, in the quite biblical viewpoint of the early Christians, “God was [and still is] going to do for the whole cosmos what he [God] had done for Jesus at Easter.” [1] This is the ultimate end to which the biblical story points, this is the ultimate end for which we hope. We will be like Jesus, our resurrected bodies (and indeed all the new creation) will be made out of the same kind of incorruptible physicality that his was and is.


[1] N. T. Wright, Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church (New York: HarperOne, 2008), 93.

Seven Stanzas at Easter

I like John Updike’s poem, “Seven Stanzas at Easter,” so much that I bought the book it was published in. Updike does a great job of emphasizing the importance of the real and concrete nature of the resurrection. (Jesus’s body was the first example of incorruptible physicality—the stuff of the new creation.) Here are a couple of excerpts from the poem:

Let us not mock God with metaphor,
analogy, sidestepping, transcendence;
making of the event a parable, a sign painted
in the faded credulity of earlier ages:
let us walk through the door.

Let us not seek to make it less monstrous,
for our own convenience, our own sense of beauty,
lest, awakened in one unthinkable hour, we are
embarrassed by the miracle,
and crushed by remonstrance.
— John Updike

At present, the entire poem is available online at this link: http://bit.ly/2H7XN0D


John Updike, “Seven Stanzas at Easter.” In Telephone Poles and Other Poems (New York: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, 1963), Kindle.

 

The Cosmic Nature of Salvation

Paul declares that the gospel has already been announced to every creature under heaven ([Colossians] 1.23). What has happened in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, in other words, is by no means limited to its effects on those human beings who believe the gospel and thereby find new life here and hereafter. It resonates out, in ways that we can’t fully see or understand, into the vast recesses of the universe. — N. T. Wright

This is a point I have long held, that the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ have cosmic implications, but Wright does a better job of putting it into words than I ever have.


N. T. Wright, Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church (New York: HarperOne, 2008), 97.

An Introduction to Theories of the Atonement

Last week, in introducing the Passion reading from the Gospel according to Mark, I stated the truth that knowing the story of Jesus’s death and resurrection is more important than knowing a theory about Jesus’s death and resurrection. That’s still very true, nonetheless, if you want an introduction to theories of the atonement you could do a lot worse than a recent article in The Week titled “Four Competing Theories on the Theological Meaning of Easter.”

Link:
http://theweek.com/articles/759441/4-competing-theories-theological-meaning-easter

The Story is the Reality

This Sunday we’ll be reading the story of Jesus’s suffering and death (“The Passion”) in parts. We’ll be reading it in parts because it’s a very long reading, two full chapters: Mark 14:1-15:47. We take the time to read the story because in the words of N. T. Wright: 

Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John are not simply telling us in descriptive language something that “really” belongs as a dogmatic formula. It is the other way around. The formula is a portable narrative, a folded-up story. The story is the reality—because it is the story of reality, historical reality, flesh-and-blood reality, Israel’s reality, life-and-death reality. — N. T. Wright

You don’t need to know a theory, explanation, metaphor, or model of the atonement, (although these can be helpful) you need to know the story. It is the story that tells us how Jesus defeated the powers of sin and death and launched the new creation of God’s kingdom. Come and hear it again with us this Palm/Passion Sunday, March 25, 2018.

 


N. T. Wright, The Day the Revolution Began: Reconsidering the Meaning of Jesus’s Crucifixion (San Francisco: Harper One, 2016), 223.

Conversations

In a previous post, I wrote “If you feel differently and this post angers you, don’t hesitate to let me know. But be sure and let me know why in a carefully reasoned dissent.” I said it and I meant it, and today I had a couple of good, solid conversations as a result. I want to point out that the invitation is not limited to that particular topic, it stands on every topic I say or write something about. I think that such conversations are foundational to our identity as United Methodists.

The Danger of Deifying the State

I believe that I’ve mentioned this before, but for me, the most important phrase in the Pledge of Allegiance is “under God.” The reason I place such importance on this is that:

All political power is the gift of God; but when men deify the state, either directly by a religious cult or indirectly by demanding for it the total loyalty and obedience that are due to God alone, it ceases to be human and become bestial. — G. B. Caird

We must place our nation “under God” for its own good and for ours.


G. B. Caird as cited by Colin E. Gunton, Actuality of Atonement: A Study of Metaphor, Rationality and the Christian Tradition (Edinburgh, Scotland: T&T Clark, 1988), 73.