One of my long standing areas of interests is Eastern Orthodoxy. Sparked many moons ago in a course at Redeemer University College, I have continued in fascination for these many years. I was thrilled while at McMaster Divinity College we were given the assignment for Church History class to attend an Eastern Orthodox service. Having already done so in the past, I was looking forward to “skipping” church to be part of a worship service in the Orthodox tradition- worship which embraces beauty, tradition, wonder, awe and experiential grace.
I think part of the reason I find it so fascinating is that I find myself in a place of tension. I adamantly disagree with large chunks of their doctrinal positions (paedobaptism, praying to saints, among other issues). But then when I read the spiritual side, I am floored. The intimacy of the Holy Spirit and worship which is engaging of the whole self blows my Western trained mind. Outside of Scripture, the book which has most informed my spiritual development is Kallistos Ware’s The Orthodox Way, which outlines the basic views and practice of Orthodoxy. Particularly appealing is the chapter called “God as Mystery” which outlines the tension of a God transcendent yet imminent, omnipotent yet tender. Ware writes, “We see that it is not the task of Christianity to provide easy answers to every question, but to make us progressively aware of a mystery.” (Kallistos Ware, The Orthodox Way. Crestwood, NY: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2003, 14). Further,
God is not the conclusion to a process of reasoning, the solution to a mathematical problem. To believe in God is not to accept the possibility of his existence because it has been “proved” to us by some theoretical argument, but to put our trust in One whom we know and love. Faith is not the supposition that something might be true, but the assurance that someone is there. (Ibid. 16)
While I hope that few protestants would find this objectionable, my struggle is the fact that Protestantism rose up alongside the rise of rationalism, and so we have this Westernized approach of making all things about the intellect. Am I an anti-intellectual? No, absolutely not. I love study. But I find it drab, boring and dull if it is not rooted in something tangible. A gospel which is an idea to receive my intellectual assent, or perhaps the sum total of doctrines I must adhere to does not appeal to me- and I find it dangerous. If the gospel is rooted in doctrine(s), then salvation rests on being on the right team, thinking the right stuff, and given Christians inability to find consensus, and our propensity for schism and anathematizing, I would fracture psychologically pondering whether I had the right doctrine or if the other guys were right and heaven and hell rested solely on this decision. I find comfort in knowing that my doctrine will always fall short, but my salvation rest on God’s character and my trust in that. There needs to be a place for Holy Mystery. Where we throw up our arms and say, “Lord I believe, help my unbelief” (Mark 9:24). We won’t “get” God intellectually. As Evagrius of Pontus writes, “God cannot be grasped by the mind. If he could be grasped, he would not be God.” The Orthodox apophatic approach to theology can be helpful- the idea that the human mind and language cannot fathom or describe God meaning we must then understanding that anything we proclaim about God is simply insufficient (negation to a positive effect). Of course, the Orthodox are without their own doctrinal debates and conflicts, but out of that has developed this understanding that even correct doctrine can only get us so far. God’s grace which extends down in revelation and experience, which is completely mysterious, is that which we can rest in.
Similarly, worship which consists of sing a few hymns, take up the offering hear a sermon, sing a song go home can get old very quickly. Orthodoxy when done poorly can be just as mechanized, some would argue even moreso. But when authentically lived out, Orthodox spirituality engages the mind while still being mystically oriented- we can experience and think about a God who is beyond us. Our worship “box”- the framework in which we feel at home can actually be limiting. The Orthodox liturgy may look mechanized or like vain superstitious repetition, but they understand each celebration of the liturgy to be an avenue for real grace- the actual worship of God is not the liturgy itself, but worship goes beyond- mystic union of the church universal gathering in recognition of the God who is outside time and space. Us baptists may affirm it in word, but seldom do we operate on that assumption. We simply do what we do because we get it.
I am a Baptist. There’s no way around that. But I have a love-hate relationship with my own denominational identity. My perspectives on baptism (more to come on that one- as I’m embroiled in some cool reading on Baptism in the early church), the priesthood of all believers, among other doctrinal issues leave me solidly within the Baptist community. However, I struggle at times, feeling like our doctrines don’t flow where they should, and don’t allow room for Holy Mystery, for authority of the called and gifted, and for a faith which rightly engages the mind and the spirit.
Luckily though, I’m also a Canadian and can, when necessary, play the fence, and enjoy the best of both.
I read this post this morning which got me thinking about things again. Russell Moore of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary speaks of our marking of the day we were “saved”. He remembers his (it’s today, hence the post). Others don’t. He writes,
Some of you were brought to Christ suddenly and dramatically. Your past life as a prostitute or a drunk or a warlord gave way to a radically different direction as a disciple. In that, your situation is quite similar to the Apostle Paul’s. Others of you, though saved just as truly in some point in time, aren’t able to identify that time. Your memory is of a slow realization of the gospel, and you can’t necessarily pinpoint when you were converted in that time-frame. Your situation sounds more like that of Paul’s disciple Timothy. The point of the gospel isn’t celebrating an experience; it’s believing a Man who is your crucified, resurrected, reigning Life.
But I wondered, are we saved at specific moment in time, even if we can’t remember it? Those who have prolonged conversion- do they have a point in that process when they “qualified” as saved? Where is that marker? One moment we were condemned sinners on the threshold of hell, and the next we were on the road to glory in our heavenly dwelling. Possibly. But I can’t say I truly see God as operating that way; as if that one prayer is a magic key out of hell and into heaven.
Perhaps part of the problem is a bad theology of repentance- thinking of repentance as moment when we prayed for forgiveness. But true repentance, μετάνοια, meaning to change one’s mind, making an about-face, is about more than that. It can be a process of stripping away, tearing down the old ways to make way for the new (See Colossians 3). Scripturally, we do see in Acts moments of illumination, where sinners turn and begin a new life right away as disciples. We often point to Saul of Tarsus, and his experience on the Damascus road (pictured right, as portrayed by Caravaggio). But what of the time spent by Paul after this in Damascus and elsewhere? Paul himself speaks of a prolonged time of learning and reflecting. When was he actually “saved”? Was it on that road, or was it while he was visited by Ananias, or the moment of his baptism (Acts 9:10-19)?
Salvation, I think is a journey. Paul tells the Philippians to “continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling” (Philippians 2:12). Salvation, is a journey, an endeavour, a movement, moreso than a moment. There may indeed be a dramatic moment when that journey starts, but I cringe when people ask others “when did you get saved?” My response would be “I’ll be saved when God is done saving me”. I need salvation daily, hourly. That’s what Paul is saying to the Philippians. We are always in need of God’s life in us to remove the remnant of sin. That’s what Jesus meant when he called us to abide in him (John 15). Live in salvation. Salvation isn’t simply switching teams, but living as new person within the new team, until the final redemption occurs and salvation is fully experienced.
I appreciate Russell Moore’s take on the situation- that it’s OK to not have a momentous occasion to call your moment of salvation- and to focus on how we as individuals are hearing God’s call along the way. But what I struggle with is the way Moore speaks of a “realization of the gospel”, of his own salvation he says, “I just knew at that moment that the central point of all those things was true: the gospel” which seems to imply that salvation hinges on intellectual assent, a mental affirmation of an idea as true; a proposition I simply find difficult. The gospel isn’t something to be “realized”, but something to be experienced and surrounded by, and lived in. One of the passages that rocked my world last year was 1 John 1:
1 That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched—this we proclaim concerning the Word of life. 2 The life appeared; we have seen it and testify to it, and we proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and has appeared to us. 3 We proclaim to you what we have seen and heard, so that you also may have fellowship with us. And our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ. 4 We write this to make our joy complete. 5 This is the message we have heard from him and declare to you: God is light; in him there is no darkness at all. 6 If we claim to have fellowship with him and yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not live out the truth. 7 But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin
In other words, intellect is one small part. Salvation is revealed to us, and we are to walk in that light- it isn’t enough to simply accept that the light is in fact light. To call Jesus saviour and Lord is not what Jesus is calling us to. In his sermon on the Mount, Jesus says,
“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. 22 Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?’ 23 Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’”
Intellectually accepting that Jesus is Lord isn’t enough (See James 2:19). I would assume Moore would agree on this. The problem is the way salvation has been talked about for so long gives us the ingrained way of thinking about it and talking about it; “I asked Jesus into my heart”, “I accepted Jesus as my Lord and Saviour”, “I have a personal relationship with Jesus”. The sinner’s prayer is not found in Scripture. What is found is a call to die to self, and walk in salvation. To live a new life, free from the entanglements. Salvation is lived, not realized.
“Praise be to the name of God for ever and ever;
wisdom and power are his.
He changes times and seasons;
he deposes kings and raises up others.
He gives wisdom to the wise
and knowledge to the discerning.
He reveals deep and hidden things;
he knows what lies in darkness,
and light dwells with him. ” ~Daniel 2:20-22
Autumn has always been my favourite season. The moderate temperature, the new colours, Thanksgiving dinner, and there is a certain feel of peace and beauty in the air. Also, it has become a special time for my family, as October now boasts my wife’s birthday, our anniversary, and most recently, the birthday of our beautiful daughter Karyss. It’s a time of celebration and joy in our household.
The scriptures tell us that the seasons are assigned by God as regular markers of our years and experiences. All seasonal changes have their own inherent beauty, as the author of Ecclesiastes tells us, “He has made everything beautifulin its time. He has also set eternity in the human heart; yet no one can fathom what God has done from beginning to end” (Eccl. 3:11). But of all the seasonal transitions, autumn is probably the most dramatic- in the visual sense- but it’s a beauty which comes from death, and end. Yet we celebrate. The end of the growing season means the harvest is ready. The end of the leaves ability to grow means the beginning of the fall colours. The end of my bachelorhood meant the beginning of my wonderful new life. The end of my days of regular sleep means the beginning of a beautiful blessed life of parenthood. Endings and beginnings typically come together, blessings and challenges are always both on the horizons.
This autumn has been a special one for us. Many things ended, but God has breathed life into us. God is always creating, making beauty, and raising up life from the ashes. Often the difference between worshippers of God and those who are ambivalent, is that worshippers see God- the unchanging eternal artist, whereas others see leaves to rake and the inevitability of snow and cold. A good parent sees the beauty of and blessing of the experience of the creation of life- whereas some would simply see sleepless nights, dirty diapers and the cost of bringing up children. Challenges should not dissuade us away from our pursuit of beauty. Appreciate the beauty always.
Friends, be encouraged this season. God is always pouring out new life. God is by nature and creator, always moving to bring newness and regeneration. The snow is coming. But it too shall pass. As Bruce Cockburn sang, “gotta kick at the darkness ‘til it bleeds daylight”. Celebrate the light and find in the darkness the hope of the light to come. As the prophet recorded, “he changes times and seasons… he knows what lies in darkness, and light dwells with him.”
*The Visionary is the Newsletter of Centre Street Baptist Church
Sundown tonight marks the beginning of Sukkot the Jewish Festival of Booths (Tabernacles), marking the forty years of wandering in the dessert.
33 The LORD said to Moses, 34 “Say to the Israelites: ‘On the fifteenth day of the seventh month the LORD’s Festival of Tabernacles begins, and it lasts for seven days. 35 The first day is a sacred assembly; do no regular work. 36 For seven days present food offerings to the LORD, and on the eighth day hold a sacred assembly and present a food offering to the LORD. It is the closing special assembly; do no regular work. (Leviticus 23:33-36)
According to Deuteronomy 16:16, all men were to go to one designated place of worship three times a year; Passover, the Festival of Weeks, and Sukkot. The Community of Faith was called together to recognize the salvation of God regularly. It was also every seventh Sukkot that the cancelling of debts was to be observed. I wonder if the National Student Loan Service Centre would take this seriously? Not likely.
But I’ve always wondered why Christians can’t take the Old Testament festivals and other Jewish celebrations seriously. I’m not suggesting we must or even should practice these things (if we aren’t Jewish, these observances are not “ours”), but maybe it’s at least worth being knowledgeable about these things, and they shaped the earliest Christians. If we lose the connection to our roots, we lose something of our faith, I think. Part of my intro to Hebrew class curriculum was celebrating a Passover together, and it was a really blessed experience.
For most of us, Sukkot would probably be the most difficult to observe fully- the inconvenience of living in a booth for a week, and doing a week-long Sabbath is not congruent with the Western lifestyle. But that’s kind of the point- get out of the routine to understand the wondrous power of God to work for the redemption of his people. Our Jewish friends consider Sukkot a blessing and a time of joy, recognizing what God has done, not just long ago, but also Sukkot is also a recognition of harvest and provision from God- interesting that it falls right after thanksgiving this year. It’s worth contemplating and reflecting on.
Blessed are you, LORD our God, King of all, for giving us life, sustaining us and enabling us to reach this season. (Part of the Kiddush for Sukkot)
Came across this story today which I found weird and interesting. Turns out we’re further from understanding/explaining the universe than we thought. I’m sure this may cause someone, somewhere to say something confrontational and arrogant about scientists and their god complexes, and how this discredits the scientific endeavour to disprove God’s existence. Any minute now…
But really, I think this should humble some folks regarding the limitations of perceptions and experiments, as scientific laws are human constructs based on our perceptions (many of which have stood the test of time, but not all have) and we have to be open to seeing the grander complexities of our existence.
In my last post I made reference to the band Mumford & Sons’ use of a “cuss word” in their song “Little Lion Man”. I thought I should say more about Christians and profanity, so here’s some thoughts. Firstly, in Mumford & Sons defence, they make no claim of being a “Christian Band” (by the way, the Boar’s Head Tavern is currently having an interesting back and forth on the issue of “Christian” art and business). So I don’t want to dwell on Mumford & Sons specifically. But how do we talk as Christians about profanity? I think we’ve all dropped a few expletives in our time. I’ve let a few things fly that would make sailors blush (I remember distinctly the look on a bible college classmate’s face when he dropped an f-bomb and I let fly with worse, at a greater volume… it actually helped set him straight… priceless memories). But the words we often dub “profane” or “curse words”-do we have a biblical basis for calling them that? When Paul refers to “obscene talk” (e.g. Eph. 4:49, 5:4, Col. 3:8) what does he have in mind? Obviously if he is telling his readers not to use such words, he wouldn’t give a list of the words he wants Christians to avoid. We could speculate as to what he’s thinking, and perhaps investigating Greco-Roman and Jewish obscenities would be interesting. But of course, Paul doesn’t have English words in mind. But is there a basis on which we can evaluate our choice of words; guiding principles that we can use to better understand how we can honour God with our language use? Or are there words which are just obscene in and of themselves?
Well, I think I’ll side with the camp that sees the criteria for defining “obscenities” as primarily cultural. The reason I say this is mainly because different language groups use different types of words as explicit. The French use words connected to Christianity which when in the context of Church service or theological dialogue are appropriate, but not so appropriate when spoken in frustration when cut off in traffic. We Anglos have a whole other set of words we aren’t supposed to use, unless of course we are looking to create a gimmicky stand-up comedy bit. But most of the “vulgar” words are synonyms for other words we are ok to use. So is it wrong to speak of fecal matter or intercourse? At one time it was, and perhaps maybe at the dinner table it still is (though some would probably still say public discourse on bowel movements and human sexuality are inappropriate), but the meaning of the word doesn’t warrant it being dubbed “obscene”. Yet our culture decided there were certain things not to spoken of, and still are certain words we can’t use on TV or in front of children- even though we can now use a synonym.
What the New Testament says on the matter doesn’t seem to suggest that the problem is the word itself. Here’s Matthew 15:10-20
10And he called the people to him and said to them, “Hear and understand: 11 it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but what comes out of the mouth; this defiles a person.” 12Then the disciples came and said to him, “Do you know that the Pharisees were offended when they heard this saying?” 13He answered, “Every plant that my heavenly Father has not planted will be rooted up. 14Let them alone; they are blind guides. And if the blind lead the blind, both will fall into a pit.” 15But Peter said to him, “Explain the parable to us.” 16And he said, “Are you also still without understanding? 17Do you not see that whatever goes into the mouth passes into the stomach and is expelled? 18But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this defiles a person.19For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness,slander. 20 These are what defile a person. But to eat with unwashed hands does not defile anyone.”
Jesus is instructing his disciples regarding Pharisaic application of ritual purity and eating, not really about language. But what Jesus is saying is that dirty hands and bacon aren’t what make someone morally repugnant, but the hatred, apathy, bitterness, disdain, etc. bottled up inside that make some spew immoral life onto the unsuspecting world. Words aren’t evil or morally “wrong”, souls can be. When a word is used to express hate, it become evil. Paul writes in Ephesians 4:29, “Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen.” And again in 5:4, “Nor should there be obscenity, foolish talk or coarse joking, which are out of place, but rather thanksgiving.” In other words our language is to be used for certain purposes, to express ideas that are helpful, instructive, or to express gratitude and love. Can an f-bomb do that? It’s most common uses don’t, but in theory, it could. Same goes for that other word. It’s possible. While I don’t always agree with the “conversionists” (to use Niebuhr’s categories) but I think there is something to the idea that Christ is the “Transformer of Culture” (H. Richard Niebuhr, Christ and Culture, chapt. 6). Can Christ also “redeem” words? I think Christ’s redemptive power living in the human heart brings new life which flows out, in cultural creativity as well as language.
I’ve read a few arguments is that “profanity” properly defined is something that takes something valuable or sacred, and degrades it, belittles or devalues. For instance, the prohibition against using the Lord’s name in vain is a recognition that because God’s name is holy, using in any way other than proclaiming his holiness is thus profaning his name. Of course many have extended that to suggest “O God” in frustration is profane; neglecting to realize of course that “God” is not his name, but that’s a whole other issue. So then, do certain words devalue or degrade something by nature? Does calling it a bowel movement intrinsically communicate more value or a different sense than the other word I’m not supposed to use? Perhaps, but I think each Christian should make that decision on their own. But on this, I think Paul’s advice fro 1 Corinthians 10:23-33 is the best solution. We have freedom in Christ, but we also have an obligation not to cause anyone else to stumble. If my choice of words offends Christians around me, our fellowship may be compromised, so it would be best to tread carefully.
Something else to make note of is the distinction between words used to express frustration or pain versus expressing anger or hate. I would argue that there is a difference between the words use when I stub my toe versus the words we use to address the person who almost caused a ten car pile-up because they don’t care enough to check mirrors and blind spots or use a turn signal. The expressions that flow out of physical pain are different from those which flow from rage directed at a person. If we throw a blanket ban over the words used in both contexts we miss the point- that we are meant to address the root problem, not the cause. Paul writes in Colossians 3:18, “But now you must put them all away: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and obscene talk from your mouth.” See how slander and obscene talk (whatever that means) are lumped with anger and hatred, probably because Paul understands that words have power, and words communicated in hatred have destructive force far beyond our typical comprehension.
Finally I also want to make note of the new use of certain words as unnecessary additions to a sentence, like “I went to the store” does not need an f-ing, first because the store cannot be engaged in intercourse, but also because it lends nothing to sentence. Unfortunately, the English language is picking up a lot of these unnecessary place-taker words just thrown in which are just tacky and awkward. Not just those words we consider “profanity” but also words such as “like”, “you know”, “totally”, “whatever” among others (e.g. “And I was like, all, totally, you know, whatever and f-ing stuff” is a “complete thought” to some teens I’ve met). This isn’t profane, just poor use of the English language and it annoys me.
I sat in on a bible study yesterday which was working through Genesis 3, and I began thinking about some deeply held theological beliefs which stream largely from this passage, but sometimes bother me. Whether people believe in the historical veracity of the events of Genesis or not, the typical conclusion is that Genesis 3 points out that mankind’s sinfulness has severed the relationship between us and God. As the discussion progressed we got into a little bit of original sin, and total depravity and all that fun stuff. But the conclusion of many of the saints is that the relationship with God is broken by sin, and only in Jesus are people able to have a relationship with God.
But part of me wonders, wait, Cain and Abel were still able to commune with God, as were all the Old Testament saints. If the relationship was broken in such a way that only in Jesus can we connect, then the Old Testament ceases to make sense. Does sin have catastrophic effects? Absolutely. But, at the risk of sounding like a heretic, the relationship is not severed as a direct consequence of sin. Those who have no relationship are in that state not because original sin prevents them, but because the sinfulness leads them to ignore the possibilities they have. Total depravity does not mean that mankind is completely cut off, but that all of mankind is affected and tainted by sin.
Salvation, I am proposing is not an issue of sinful man being “blocked” from God by sinfulness. Why would “a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin” (Ex. 34:6-7a) allow sin to blockade man away from himself. The chasm between God and man has to do with man’s preference for ignorance than an actual inherited effect of the first sin of mankind. People choose to ignore God, even though he is always available.
Salvation, then, is something bigger, deeper, and more wonderful than just a removal of sin so we can relate to God (while sin does indeed hinder us in our pursuit of God, and in Christ we have atonement and forgiveness- I don’t deny this). Salvation is a total transformation of creation. A new relationship, not just bringing back the old. It is bringing a shared life between God and mankind. It is the Kingdom of God penetrating people’s hearts and minds to free them from the ignorance they once held so close. Salvation is about freedom; not just from from something, but also freedom for something- “that they may have life and have it abundantly” (John 10:10, ESV) or as The Message renders it, “so they can have real and eternal life, more and better life than they ever dreamed of.”
“It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.” (Galatians 5:1)
My daughter is fast approaching that wonderful time in the journey of life; this weekend, we bought her a potty. This really doesn’t seem like “church” talk or the subject matter for a “spiritual reflection” or whatever you want to call a pastoral blog post. But it got me thinking about a lot of things. Mainly, it brought to an analogy used in three different New Testament authors, Paul, Peter and the author of Hebrews.
From Paul (1 Corinthians 3:1-2);
1 Brothers and sisters, I could not address you as people who live by the Spirit but as people who are still worldly—mere infants in Christ. 2 I gave you milk, not solid food, for you were not yet ready for it. Indeed, you are still not ready.
From Peter (1 Peter 2:1-3);
1 Therefore, rid yourselves of all malice and all deceit, hypocrisy, envy, and slander of every kind. 2Like newborn babies, crave pure spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow up in your salvation, 3 now that you have tasted that the Lord is good.
And from the anonymous author (Hebrews 5:11-14);
11 We have much to say about this, but it is hard to make it clear to you because you no longer try to understand. 12 In fact, though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you the elementary truths of God’s word all over again. You need milk, not solid food! 13 Anyone who lives on milk, being still an infant, is not acquainted with the teaching about righteousness. 14 But solid food is for the mature, who by constant use have trained themselves to distinguish good from evil.
These three passages all say basically the same thing- there is a maturation process when it comes to faith. One of the weaknesses of evangelicalism (in my opinion) is the poor understanding of this process. We sometimes assume that we “win souls” and conversion is the victory. But there is so much more to be done in the life of a new convert. In fact, new converts are very likely to struggle. The basic functions need to be sorted out. There is a process of spiritual potty training. Almost two years after being born, my daughter is still not quite ready to begin what is so basic for an adult.
One conversation I had recently gives this idea a new dimension. One pastor in town of a missional, contemporary, cutting edge church articulated the struggle of having a congregation comprised mainly of “baby” christians- those new to discipleship. The ministry of that church is challenging in that there is much passion, enthusiasm and ideas, but a lack of maturity, stability and know how. We never want to stifle that passion as many churches have, carving out christians who have the scriptures cover to cover, but have not developed the skills to apply it. Learning by doing is perhaps a better approach. Instead of instructing a toddler on the concepts of the potty, it’s typically better for them to learn by trying it out. Jesus sent out his disciples on missions early on (see Luke 10), and they learned by walking with Jesus, seeing how it was done, and doing it.
I think we need a new understanding of discipleship, and renewed sense of growing up as Christians- a new emphasis on mentoring. Being a christian is not a static ontological existence, but a process, a life, a journey. We actually have to do stuff (not just fill our heads with stuff) to be disciples, and we have to start with the most basic functions; learning first to eat, walk, talk and even to use the potty, before we move on the more complex tasks.
“Here below, to live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often.” John Henry Newman (1801-1890).
Last week I picked up a copy of Mark Noll’s What Happened to Christian Canada?, a short read which examines the circumstances surrounding the trend towards secularization in Canada in the second half of the 20th century. While it’s no secret at all that Church attendance in on the decline in Canada, and has been for some time, several questions came to mind while I read, like; does high church attendence (Canada in 1950 had better church attendence numbers than the US and Quebec was among the highest in the world) equal a Christian society?; do low numbers indicate Christianity is no longer influencing?; is there even such a thing as a christian society?
The last of these questions is probably the one I pondered the most. What is a Christian country? 70 years ago the majority of Canadians went to church regularly, even took part in other activities like bible studies, sunday schools, and other charitable work. But does this make society “christian”? In Velvet Elvis, Rob Bell suggests that Christian is great as a noun, but not as an adjective. In other words people can be Christian, but how does music, politics, education, culture become christian? Is the U.S. christian because it enshrines God in the constitution?
In Matthew 13, Jesus tells the parable of the weeds:
24 Jesus told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a man who sowed good seed in his field. 25 But while everyone was sleeping, his enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and went away. 26 When the wheat sprouted and formed heads, then the weeds also appeared.
27 “The owner’s servants came to him and said, ‘Sir, didn’t you sow good seed in your field? Where then did the weeds come from?’
28 “‘An enemy did this,’ he replied.
“The servants asked him, ‘Do you want us to go and pull them up?’
29 “‘No,’ he answered, ‘because while you are pulling the weeds, you may uproot the wheat with them. 30 Let both grow together until the harvest. At that time I will tell the harvesters: First collect the weeds and tie them in bundles to be burned; then gather the wheat and bring it into my barn.’
The Kingdom of God is something which operates alongside that which is not of the Kingdom. Jesus compares the Kingdom to yeast being worked through the dough (Mt. 13:33). At what point do we decide to call a nation entirely penetrated by the gospel in such a way that we can call it collectively “Christian”? In other words, is Christendom a valid expression of the christian faith; can we see the gospel permeating the structures of society and culture in such a way that it is distinctively different from everything else? Post-Constantinian Europe saw many attempts to create Christian nations and Empires, which looked remarkably similar to all other nations and Empires. What I understand to be the message of the Kingdom of God is that it bring renewal of all of life and reconciliation to mankind from God. Jesus is more subversive than to just upend a political system and purge the old ways and put in a new whitewashed system on top (see Jesus’ perspecitve on Pharisaic application of Torah in Matthew 23:13-39). Church attendance is a positive thing, but God is more interested in mercy, justice, transformation. I would suggest that the Kingdom is no more or less present now than in ages past.
Of course all of this has little to do with the actual content of the book (that will have to wait for another post), just a question sparked by the opening pages in which Noll begins “with the assumption that there once was a Christian Canada which is now gone”. Noll does not really dive into the question of the possibility of christian nationhood, but stays within the framework of social and political changes in Canada away from traditionally held christian values towards an open, secular, welfare state.