One thing about Christianity that struck me as odd, even as a child ,is the notion of how important belief is. I could never understand why G-d was more interested in me believing than anything else. Why is belief a virtue? The way I was taught Christianity it didn't matter what you did. What mattered was what you believed. Belief was taken to mean the acceptance of certain facts. The harder the facts were to accept, the greater the belief (or faith). Belief that the Old Testament bible stories were literally true. Belief that Jesus was born of a virgin. Belief that Jesus was killed and rose again. If you were to be "saved" you had to wrap your head around these things. That's easy when you're a child. It gets harder as you become an adult. I was told that no other religion had this requirement. Christians would say with great pride the thing that separated their religion from others was it was not what you do that matters but what you believe. Not one to just take things at face value, I always wondered "Why?" Why would G-d set things up this way? On the surface, and as it was presented to me, salvation was rather easy in Christianity. Other religions made you work hard. You had to live up to a standard. (BTW, that standard was impossible to live up to according to what I was taught. ) So, trying to achieve "salvation" without belief was like running on a treadmill trying to reach the finish line in a race. Christianity didn't require you to do anything. Oh wait. Not do anything except "believe", maybe the hardest thing to do at all. How does one force oneself to believe something? You can't. I was told as long as I held on to this belief I was safe. But, the moment I let it go, I was doomed. Oh I know, they told me "once saved always saved". They told me you really don't have to do anything except.... However there was an exception to this rule. If I ever let go of this belief, obviously I had never really been saved. My favorite prayer and my favorite passage of the Bible, one verse I could always quote without hesitation was "Lord, I believe, help thou my unbelief." (Mark 9:24). I tried, I tried hard to believe.
It's clear in the New Testament that Jesus put great value on "belief". Right? I mean He blasted people for their lack of faith. Once again, what may appear to be so clear to those who think their Bible was written in English by the hand of God is not so clear when we start looking at the original language. We have what has become a poorly translated word that has caused us modern people a great deal of confusion and many of us a great deal of suffering. The word translated as "faith" in the New Testament, is the Greek word pistis. Pistis is better translated as "trust", loyalty, engagement or commitment. When Yeshua was asking people to believe, He was not asking them to believe in a set of claims. He certainly wasn't asking them to believe in His divinity. He was asking for commitment.- commitment to a way of life. Commitment to way of looking at life and their fellow humans. He was asking for people to set aside the cares of this world and focus on what is truly important. He was looking for people who would spread the good news, who would live lives of unbridled compassion, who would love everyone (even tax collectors and other sinners). This is the pistis he was talking about that could move mountains. Not a belief that by having enough "faith", we could magically move the mountain. But, that people with such commitment living out that commitment could accomplish anything they set their minds to.
When the New Testament was translated from Greek into Latin, the word pistis (the noun) became fides (or loyalty). Saint Jerome used the Latin verb credo that was derived from cor do "I give my heart". He could have used opinor "I hold an opinion". But, he did not. When the Bible was translated into English credo (the verb) and pisteuo became "I believe". Actually this was not a bad translation-at the time. In 1611, the word "believe" meant something different than it means today. In Middle English to bileven meant to prize; to value; to hold dear, related to the German belieben (to love). So, belief meant loyalty to a person, binding oneself to that person or holding that person dear. Many people think (and I was taught) that Yeshua did miracles to prove His divinity. But, as Karen Armstrong points out in her book The Case for God, many people did miracles and no one ever claimed they were divine. People we are familiar with, Moses, Elijah, etc. did miracles. Contemporaries of Yeshua like Honi the Circle Drawer (brought the end to a drought) and many others performed all kinds of miracles, including miraculous healings. Yeshua did not perform miracles so that people would believe He was divine. I believe He performed the miracles to point to the power of G-d, the power available to anyone with the faith (dedication, commitment, love) to tap into that power.
Over the centuries, mankind has bounced back and forth between two extremes. There are periods of time where we acknowledge the mystery of G-d and in which philosophers, theologians and mystics have said you can say nothing about G-d. During those times they have even gone so far as to say G-d does not exist, G-d is a nothing (no-thing), G-d is not a being. These were not atheists saying this, but believers who realized that G-d is beyond all conception, that G-d is beyond description and that, in fact G-d is beyond existence. G-d has been called the "Ground of Being". They made it clear that G-d is not a being and to think so is the beginning of idolatry. But, people cannot be satisfied with saying nothing about G-d. So, we use language, we use symbols. That's OK. That's what we do. It's in our nature to seek to try to understand. The problem comes when we think we've got G-d in a box. When we think we have G-d "defined" we are putting limits on the limitless. Then, the theist thinks he has G-d all figured out. But, in reality what he has done is he has created an idol. This idol some people realize is just that. It's too small. It's merely a projection of humankind- bigger perhaps. Smarter- yes. Maybe even better. But, it's just another being among many beings in the created universe. The agnostic challenges the theist "Show me this god of yours." The theist confidently replies "There he is" and the agnostic becomes an atheist.
In a universe as wonderful and confusing as our own, how could we possibly hope to show someone G-d? If I say show me yourself? To what do you point? Are you your body? Most people would say I am not my body. My body is made up of completely different material than it was just 7 years ago. So, if I am the little boy I was at 10 or even the man I was at 40, it's not because of the atoms that make up my body. Are you your memories? If you are struck with Alzheimers or amnesia you don't cease to exist. Just a few decades ago people thought they had the nature of the universe all figured out. Atoms were these hard solid objects that combined together to make everything. Now we're finding out the material universe is mysteriously made, consisting mostly of space and infinite possibilities. Nothing is solid, even though it appears to be solid. Light- is it a particle or a wave? Yes. Light behaves like a stream of particles and like a continuous wave, depending on how you look at it. If we can't figure out exactly who we are and exactly how our material universe operates, what makes us think we can clearly define G-d? When the theist attempts to answer the agnostics questions, he is doing the best he can using a finger to point to the moon. But, the finger is not the moon.
Over the decades, my beliefs have changed. In a sense, I guess I believe less than I ever have. I don't take the Old Testament Bible stories literally anymore. No talking snakes in the Garden for me. I doubt Jesus was born of a virgin. If you asked me now if G-d even exists, I'd answer "Not in the way we think of existence.". But, my faith has grown stronger. I have more confidence than ever in what G-d is and that G-d binds us all together. I have confidence that G-d will never leave nor forsake me, G-d cannot because I am made of G-dstuff. When I go to look for G-d now, I don't look for a being outside myself, I get still and look for a spirit within myself. Christians say all the time that G-d is spirit. But, in truth, most don't believe it. I confess I still have the remnants of that idol . I still picture G-d as a old white guy sitting on a throne unless I consciously reject it.
Jesus was asked by His disciples to show them the Father (G-d). Jesus replied with this:
John 14: 9 Jesus answered: “Don’t you know me, Philip, even after I have been among you such a long time? Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? 10Don’t you believe that I am in the Father, and that the Father is in me? The words I say to you are not just my own. Rather, it is the Father, living in me, who is doing his work. bring glory to the Father. 14You may ask me for anything in my name, and I will do it.
If there had been atheists around during the time of Jesus, I can imagine this conversation taking place.
Jesus was speaking to a crowd of people. An atheist in the crowd interrupted him. "Jesus, I say to you this God of yours does not exist." Jesus answered him "You have spoken well my friend. The mysteries of the Kingdom have been revealed to you. Now, go and serve G-d."
Great post! Very thought provoking!
Oops, didn't see that you were moderating comments, sorry for the double post.
Yeah. Had to turn on comment moderation. I guess my blog's made the big time. The male enhancement companies have found me.
Glad you enjoyed the post, Mike.
Ha! There has been a recent rash of spam, I've seen it on some really old posts on other blogs. The other day I saw a spam ad for a UK based escort service as the very first comment on brand new post thanking readers.
Having been a Panentheist for the past 25 years, and a "universalist" (I dislike that label tremendously) for at least the last ten, I tend to agree with 90 percent of your thoughts here Brian.
Very interesting post.
You were a panentheist long before I knew what a panentheist was. I am one, too.
Why do you dislike the label universalist? I don't like labels, in general. But, I find them useful and even necessary at times. I wish it weren't necessary to say I'm a universalist. But, as long as mainstream Christianity accepts that G-d will eternally torture anyone, I find it necessary to say I am an universalist.
Interesting thoughts Brian. At one time I thought you indicated that you were a Christian Universalist (I may not be remembering correctly though).. this post seems to indicate that you are a Universalist but not the Christian flavor.. am I wrong?
::chuckling here a little::: Bob, I'm not sure if you were wrong before or are wrong now.
I did say I was a Christian Universalist. And, I would still say that I am. The term I used to describe myself a while back is BUTCH- Buddhist-Universalist-Transcending-Christian-Heretic. The Christian is still in there.
I am pretty far from a modern Christian though and what many people now would consider to be a "traditional" Christian. What I have found through a lot of my reading is I am not as much of a heretic as I once thought. Many Christians through the centuries have not taken the Bible literally, or thought G-d to be a "being". Many Christians have not thought Hell was a literal place or an eternal state. But, I understand if people today would say I'm not a Christian and I wouldn't object. After all, neither was Jesus.
I do consider myself to be a follower of Yeshua (Christ- if you will). I do attend a Christian fellowship and I do continue to hold the Bible in high regard.
My thinking is that Christian Universalism embraces the idea that Christ was divine and as such was able to universally reconcile the whole world on the cross.
Does that sound like an accurate definition to you? If not how would you define Christian Universalism?
Bob, that definition would narrow Christianity or Christian Universalism down to one particular element of Christianity "salvation" or more particularly atonement.
There are a few (several?) atonement theories. I personally don't subscribe to any that believe man was headed for eternal hell before Yeshua was murdered. I also don't subscribe to the penal substitution theory that says that G-d had to kill Yeshua instead of killing us. I do not believe that G-d needs a sacrifice in order to forgive.
To me, a Christian Universalist is someone who is a follower of Yeshua who believes that G-d will reconcile or has reconciled all to Himself. How that is accomplished we may disagree about. Some Christian Universalists do believe that, barring the murder of Yeshua, none of us would be saved. I am not one of those. And, AFAIK, most of those people don't like to be called universalists. Every one of them that I have met or interacted with can't stand the word universalist.
What makes Yeshua worthy of following?
A few questions about:
"They made it clear that G-d is not a being and to think so is the beginning of idolatry."
Does that mean that God is an impersonal Force ala Star Wars? And was Jesus being idolatrous when He called God Father?
I guess I don't like the word "universalist" because it seems that people have applied a whole set of dogma's around it and it appears to have become a denomination in it's own right. But there are Baptist Universalists, Catholic Universalists, Orthodox Universalists, Pentecostal Universalists, etc etc. And that's Just mentioning some of the Christian Universalists.
I call myself a Christian. I'm no more or less a Christian than the next person.
I didn't know I was a Panentheist until about 5 years ago. I was pretty confused for 15 years. I thought I was a Pantheist for most of that time. It wasn't until I was on the web and came across the term that I had an "AHA" moment. What I thought was a form of Pantheism turned out to be Panantheism when I sat and thought it through.
But even though I call myself a Panantheist, It is to me just my personal interpretation of Christianity. I am neither right or wrong , just experiencing Christ as my meditations/prayers have lead me over the years.
Great question, Bob. I think you could probably cobble together an answer from the hundreds of posts I've made.
Perhaps Yeshua had a special connection with G-d when He arrived on the planet. Perhaps He was sent here with a mission. Perhaps He had lived 2 or 3 or a thousand lifetimes before and had grown to be enlightened. But, for whatever reason, His wisdom has shone for the last 2,000 years unlike any others'. His life demands that we live better. His grasp on what is truly important was amazing. Something about Him turned a rag-tag group of illiterate fishermen into the founders of a religion that has literally changed the course of history.
I believe that Yeshua was, in a way, the first of many. I believe that His life is an example that we can all follow. I believe this is what He was saying.
Does that mean that God is an impersonal Force ala Star Wars? And was Jesus being idolatrous when He called God Father?
No, Bob. I didn't say I necessarily agree with what they said about saying "nothing" about G-d. We seem to, as a species, alternate between the extremes of saying nothing about G-d or saying too much about G-d. Modern man has thought he had G-d in a box. This has contributed to the rise of agnosticism and atheism.
As I've said many times, I do not believe G-d is an impersonal force. Neither do I believe G-d is a personal being. Marcus Borg used the term "transpersonal" which is almost meaningless because it's really impossible for us to grasp. But, the reason I like it is because G-d is impossible to grasp, so it's appropriate.
I completely agree with what you just said. All of it.
I found out I was a Panentheist after I found out I was a universalist. I had never heard of either until it was revealed to me in my heart. I didn't know such people existed or that there were labels for them.
Thanks for taking time to answer my questions Brian. Helped me to understand where you are coming from and why you feel comfortable identifying with Buddhism. My take is that the teachings of Yeshua maybe trumps Buddha in your thinking?
Do you reject some Scripture. I'm struggling with that now. It's clear that Matthew described Mary as a virgin.
hey, just wanted to say I checked out your blog and I really liked it. Cool to see other people breaking out of fundamentalist christianity like myself. Check out my blog too if you like, I talk about universalism in most my blogs.
"Do you reject some scripture?"
Reject is an interesting choice of words. To answer the question simply, the answer would be "no". I don't reject any scripture. However, I think some scripture was appropriate for the time and place it was written and has little or no direct application to our lives today. For example, the commandment not to each shellfish or wear garments made of two different fabrics.
Some scripture I don't take literally. Other scripture is a victim of simply poor translation. For example the "virgin" birth? The Hebrew word in the OT that was translated virgin actually meant young woman. You can do a word study on almah and bethulah to see all the controversy that still surrounds this. Not all of the gospel writers even saw fit to discuss the "virgin birth". I don't "reject" the scripture, I don't take it literally anymore. And, frankly, I don't find whichever way one believes on this issue to a make or break thing. For those who believe in it, I'm certainly not going to try to convince them otherwise. I am agnostic about it.
Any interpretation of scripture that leads to divisiveness, condones violence or portrays G-d as divisive, violent, vindictive or petty I do reject (the interpretation, not necessarily the scripture).
I can vouch for SavageSoto, I've never seen him be the least bit savage. ;-)
Matthew and Luke do present a virgin birth, but Mark and John do not, neither does Paul. If a virgin birth was a common belief it seems pretty significant, why omit it?
John and Mark also have no birth record of Jesus and some would try to point to the above argument as an argument from silence stating that if we disbelieve the virgin birth because they aren't in Mark and John, then we must disbelieve the birth it's self. Which is trying to make the argument look ridiculous, however births are not uncommon, miraculous events, virgin births are.
Does this mean it didn't happen? Of course not, it may very well have happened, though as an atheist I seriously doubt it. What's more important to me is what people do with their belief. Does belief in the virgin birth of Christ inspire one to become more loving to their fellow earthly residents? Wonderful! Or does the virgin birth inspire one to say "look, my belief is better than your belief" and then discriminate against others, that saddens me.
I agree with what you've said. What's important is what people do with their belief, not what they believe about the virgin birth. Some say the virgin birth is necessary for our salvation because Jesus had to be born without sin to be the perfect sacrifice. OK, let's go with that- for the sake of argument. But, does that mean I have to believe in the virgin birth for the sacrifice to count?
I have no problem with those who do believe. I wouldn't even say I disbelieve. I think it very well could have happened. But, I'm not sure the gospels are even putting forth a virgin birth. I don't know that they intended for us to take those stories literally. And if they do it may be based on a misunderstanding of a passage from Isaiah. If they do want us to take it literally, it's certainly not all that important since it is omitted from two of the four synoptic gospels (including the earliest one- Mark) and Paul doesn't even give it a mention. It certainly didn't seem to be all that necessary for salvation to them.
I agree, Brian.
You've hit the nail on the head with Mark being the earliest - the four didn't get together and discuss what they were writing, rather they gathered the best accounts of Jesus' life they could: in Matthew and Luke's cases they borrowed a lot of their source material from Mark. The fact that both amend Mark's by including the virgin birth should be significant - and John has no birth narrative whatsoever, so has no reason to mention it. But as you've surely asserted by now, none of this has any bearing on any importance the doctrine of the virgin birth has!
Luke makes a fairly big deal of it, with an angel announcing it and even Mary asking how it could happen if she was a 'virgin' or unmarried girl;
On discovering the pregnancy, Joseph goes so far as to almost divorce her for infidelity if it weren't for the angel's message;
The two genealogies have inferences in the greek that set Jesus apart from the genealogies as not being born directly of Joseph;
Further (more logically) surely God wouldn't have his Son conceived in adultery - after hundreds of years of His prophets rebuking such behaviour among his people?
From many of its details most scholars hold that much of Luke's gospel contains testimony from Mary, so it's likely that any birth narrative in Luke would have her input.
So there's a lot of textual evidence for the gospels 'putting forth' a virgin birth, disregarding theology entirely.
Theologically, the only important reason (besides the inerrancy of God's word) many have defended the virgin birth in the past is due to the doctrine of Sin, original sin and inherited sin - that some have revoked the virgin birth and then gone on to the conclusion that humans are not born sinful, or in 'total depravity' as it's better known.
So while in theory some parts can be disregarded freely, there are greater issues at stake in losing meaning from chunks of the gospels - in the reverse of your logic, the fact that the virgin birth is inferred multiple times in the gospels that mention it shows that it's not as much of a throwaway issue as it can be taken for.
You bring up some good points both for and against belief in the virgin birth. Mark didn't include it in the earliest gospel and John ignored it. And, it's not as if a gospel writer would leave things out because it had already been covered. The lack of the account in Mark might indicate it's not so important. But, the prominence in Luke might indicate it is important). Again though just because it's important doesn't mean it's literal.
You're also right about the theological implications around original sin. If Jesus was born in "sin" I guess that would be a problem. But, assuming anyone born a human birth is born with the sin of Adam assumes a genetic transference of sin. That assumption is problematic when you start looking at Paul's parallel of the first and second Adam. If Adam's sin is imputed to all men genetically and automatically, then how is Jesus the second Adam since we are not genetically descended from Jesus? The parallel falls apart if Adam's sin is imputed involuntarily and genetically and Christ's sinlessness is obtained some other way and is only partial.
I didn't mean to imply the virgin birth is a "throw away" issue. It's actually a very interesting issue. My point is one can be "saved" and even be a Christian without taking the story literally.
As Mark's Gospel was first, we can't even be sure he knew about the virgin birth in order to include it. The framework of John's Gospel lends itself to symbolism and theology in a way the synoptics don't - so it's unsurprising it doesn't contain a historical birth narrative, but rather a theological explanation of Christ's origins. Can a non-literal approach to it account for Joseph's response and the prominence in the genealogies? I can see some room around some of the points for taking it literally, but don't really see any points for why a non-literal interpretation would be more likely or beneficial.
Jesus is the second Adam in the terms that Paul puts it: that in Adam all shall perish and all in Christ shall live - that Christ was the second man with a choice in whether to sin or not, and thus due to His sinless death his righteousness is imputed to us spiritually (as Jesus puts it 'born again', in a birth that imputes righteousness rather than sinfulness). Adam was a "type of the one who was to come" (Rom 5:14) - a man whose father was God alone, with the untainted choice between sin and righteousness. Paul goes on in the next verse to say that "the free gift is not like the trespass", that while one was passed on to all men so that "many died" by the one, that the justification after many trespasses is of greater stuff than the effects of one man's trespass (sing.)
Truly, one can most certainly be a Christian without taking this part the story literally (or even knowing it!), it's just always been 'safest' for the church when such doctrines are reasonably defended as they always have been when there are greater issues tied up in them.
... I was hoping for a response to my second comment, but for some reason you also deleted my first, while leaving your response? Neither's coming back now anyway I suppose, just thought I'd let you know I noticed =/
Steve (and others),
Sorry there has been a delay in publishing and responding to some of your comments. I had to turn on comment moderation due to increase spam. And, for some unknown reason, I didn't get emails when a few comments came in. So, I didn't see them.
Sorry I hadn't gotten to your question on Yeshua's teachings versus Buddha's.
I wouldn't say that Yeshua's teachings trump Buddha's for me. I see them as very similar, parallel for the most part. I see very little if anything that is truly contradictory.
As long as you're going to be consistent with applying Adam's sin to all men and applying Yeshua's righteousness to all men, I don't have so much of a problem with that atonement theory. At that point, I think it's picking nits to say that Adam's sin was passed down genetically therefore, Yeshua must have been born of a virgin birth. I don't get how it's consistent to say that Adam's sin that was passed down genetically is trumped by Yeshua's righteousness that is not passed down genetically because every other human being on the planet still has Adam's DNA. Wouldn't it simpler to say that Adam's sin was passed to men the same way Yeshua's righteousness is? Did Paul make a genetic connection?
The consistency comes through death :) quite conveniently we can see this in the very same passage I referred to in John 3. Feel free to add anything I miss, I think just v3,5,6,14,15 give the jist:
3 Jesus answered him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.”
5 Jesus answered, "Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. 6 That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit." ...
14 And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15 that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.
The first birth is physical and is a birth into sin and this first life. The second birth is spiritual by the 'lifting up' of Christ - the 'gift is not like the trespass'. Peter later refkected on this in 1 Peter 1: "[Christ] was made manifest in the last times for the sake of you who through him are believers in God... you have been born again, not of perishable seed but of imperishable, through the living and abiding word of God;"
regardless of the shape of the atonement, all three passages point to a first birth that is 'perishable' and a second that is 'imperishable'. The sin is surely not passed on by anything imperishable, and the righteousness is not passed on by anything perishable: death is required for that which is then imperishable (it has already died once!)
Might want to consider the nasty word verification instead of moderation Brian.. it does a good job of dealing with spam bots. It is also less work for you and a bit less confusing for commenters.
Scot McKnight has started a series on Christian Universalism here Brian. He is reviewing Gregory Macdonald's book The Evangelical Universalist. Thought you might be interested.
Thanks Bob. Looks interesting.
Call me a pluralist universalist then, well if I believed in God anyway. ;-) Looks like a good series, Bob.
I love your blog and hope you keep it up for a long time.
On the issue of faith over all -- if you think Pentecostals are bad, try being Mormon. I was taught that the reason there is zero evidence for the Book of Mormon and Joseph Smith's claim that funeral papyri from ancient Egypt are actually the writings of Abraham and Moses is because God is testing our faithfulness. Faith is so important that reading anti-Mormon material can endanger your ability to have the Holy Spirit.
I don't know what I believe about the Bible. I read it every day and I love Jesus but there are parts that make me think, Wha???
I am now a Christian universalist. I think there is a hell but it is temporary and people are sent there because of what they DO and not what they believe. Even the NT says we will be rewarded and punished for what we do, so that's how I view it.
I agree wit mg your definition of a Christian Universalist. In that God has reconciled all of his creation to himself, the how I think does differ from person to person, but I do believe that based on scripture correctly translated God Had a plan set from the beginning, He never intended doom for anyone & everything is working towards His purpose, including Jesus' arrival. I don't agree that he was one of many or first of many, I believe He was particularly unique & special in Gods plan. What's Gods exact purpose was, or why He set the board up this way is still mystery, but ir is finished, it was done before it began, because whatever He says He will do He will.
Christian Universalism is comforting in that you no longer are feared into trying to love, but in that in better understanding God wouldn't place his creation in a hopeless situation, you are overwhelmed by His love & mercy & therefore your love for Him becomes genuine & faith becomes more sound than it's ever been.
YumYum, I think that theologians make many assumptions based on two ideas:
1) Time will exist after we die. Many believe in a literal 1,000 year millennium. Some even think there will be a time for people to repent during that “time”. My view is that God created time and exists outside of it. So I cannot see a scenario where there is time in heaven (i.e. the actual presence of God). If existed God were inside of such a place then time would be greater than time.
2) All people are born immortal. Universalists promulgate this view because they believe everyone will be in heaven. Others hold to the more traditional idea that unbelievers will exist in a state of eternal and conscious torment. My view is that eternal life begins when one is born again or born from above or born of the Spirit. Apart from this kind of birth I do not see life beyond death because life is temporal not eternal.
And you know what they say about making assumptions. ツ
Post a Comment