Friday, August 17, 2007

The Foolishness of God

Does Christianity make sense? Do all its various teachings add up? Is it logical?

For a time, I began to think - yes. It must make sense.

Something within me demanded logical explanations to all the haunting questions of the ages. “Why am I saved and not others?” “Why do the innocent suffer?” “What is the point of my life?” “What is the REAL truth and how am I to know it?” etc. etc.

I started to think that if Christianity can’t answer these big questions in a logically airtight, satisfying way, what good is it?

But this kind of thinking and search for logical answers (thankfully) proved fruitless.

Oh, I know there are Christian pat answers to these big questions. The best theological minds down through history (and continuing mercilessly in our time) offer us lots of ways to explain God and try to harmonize human logic with what we find in the Bible. But most of this is just interesting speculation. What I found was - regardless of which logical path I followed - God eventually ended up being either non-existent, impotent or a monster. So much for my logic.

Now I am certain that Christianity does NOT make sense. Christian theology is the very opposite of philosophy. It springs from different premises, operates by different rules, and in most cases (perhaps all?) cannot be reconciled with natural reason.

And that’s OK. In fact, it’s more than OK. If God is to stay God, it is the way it must be. When God and my reason collide, my reason necessarily yields, whether I like it or not. And I admit I seldom like it.

I am currently re-reading a book that has been in my library for many years - The Foolishness of God, The Place of Reason in the Theology of Martin Luther by Siegbert Becker. It is a fascinating and comforting book, because Prof. Becker (correctly, I think) uncovers the key to understanding Luther’s seeming anti-rationalism. He explains and defends Luther’s way of fitting Scripture, faith and reason together by relegating reason to its proper place - as a servant of Scripture and faith, not their master or judge. Put in a somewhat more spiritual way, faith inevitably puts natural reason to death, giving birth to a sanctified use of human reason, ruled by faith. (We don’t check our brain at the door. It is exchanged for a new one.)

The irony of the book is that it obviously employs human reason (as any book written by humans must) in a way that makes Luther’s unreasonableness totally reasonable. Or, as one commentator put it, “Luther may have been antirationalistic, but he was not irrational.”(David Scaer)

While all this sometimes makes my head swim, (using human reason to analyze human reason is a somewhat circular process), I believe that a simple recognition of the limits of natural reason is a gracious ingredient of the gift of faith. And it is immensely freeing.

Prof Becker’s book is not just a key to understanding Luther. It provides, I believe, a key to understanding Christianity itself. An escape, if you will, from the bondage of the fallen mind.

Thursday, August 2, 2007

The Bad Grammar of Tragedy

One of my pet peeves is politicians and news reporters who consistently torture the language in times of tragedy. The Minneapolis bridge collapse serves as but the latest sad reminder.

“My thoughts and prayers go out to the victims and their families.”

This cliché contains two errors.

First, our thoughts do not really go anywhere. They either stay in our head, or, if they go anywhere, they “go out” to God. They certainly cannot “go out” to the victims and their families.

Ah, you say, but this is just an idiom. Well, actually it’s not. Unless we corrupt the language enough to make it one. The proper idiom is “My heart goes out.”

I could perhaps tolerate a new idiom where “thoughts go out” to someone, but the second error is not tolerable. Prayers ought never “go out to” the victims, nor to their families. Prayers can only go out to God, “on behalf of” or “for” the victims and their families.

Why politicians and news reporters want to continually tell us that they are praying to the victims and their families is beyond me. Don’t they know how silly this sounds? I’m guessing that many of them don’t even believe that God hears their prayers. Why would they believe the victims and their families can hear their prayers?

Maybe this is just a petty pet peeve.

But for some reason I want to throw a brick at the TV every time I hear the language tortured in this way. The suffering is bad enough at a time like this. People ought not be adding to it.

“My heart goes out to the victims and their families and I am praying for them.”


Is that so hard to say?

Monday, July 16, 2007

Can a Lutheran be a Universalist? (Part 8)

Now to Luther’s fourth “exit”, which is to stop searching for a logical exit and simply accept and believe both sides of the paradox.

Luther believed that theological exit strategies too often lead us astray, in circles, or down blind alleys. We are so desperate to escape our Biblical paradox that we will, at great cost, reason our way out of it.

And on the subject of human reason, Luther had much to say. It is precisely here where Luther is most misunderstood and most criticized. This is because Luther believed human reason itself was paradoxical. He called it the devil’s bride and a damned whore. But he also called it God’s greatest gift to man, a glorious light.

So although Luther’s theology used reason to discover Biblical truths, his resultant theology sometimes ended up being quite “unreasonable.” That is to say, it embraced logical absurdities. He would simply not allow reason to stand in judgment of Scripture.

Luther believed that if something was taught in Scripture it didn’t matter to him if he and others thought it to be absurd. He saw, as did few before or after him, that logical attempts to escape from something clearly taught in Scripture often just ended in another kind of contradiction - contradicting the words of Scripture itself. This, to him, was more absurd than accepting a Biblical paradox on pure faith.

So Luther had no difficulty teaching contradictory absurdities. The saved are predestined to salvation, but the lost are not predestined to damnation. The saved cannot lose their salvation and, oh, by the way, yes they can. No one can make a decision to accept Jesus, but we can make a decision to reject Jesus. The saved are saved entirely by God, but the condemned are condemned entirely by themselves.

These are, to most theologians and philosophers, logical absurdities.

So it would be quite in keeping with Luther’s way to accept and believe in the universal restoration of all, and - at the same time - accept and believe in the eternal punishment of some. Both are taught in Scripture, so both can be believed and taught.

Logically absurd?

Maybe so. But it seems to me that one could hold to both sides of this paradox and still remain quite Lutheran.

Perhaps more Lutheran than Luther.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Can a Lutheran be a Universalist? (Part 7)

The third (and supposedly final) exit from a Biblical paradox is theological.

Here at last is where most find their exit from the contradictory teachings of eternal hell and universal restoration. The problem is, there are two exits. The traditionalists find one, the universalists find the other. Then they each go back to re-exegete the critical passages, reinterpreting them in light of their preferred exit - their theological grounding. Suddenly one set of passages becomes much clearer than the other. And, one way or another, the other set is (even if with some difficulty) re-explained in light of some other overriding theological precept.

So what theological issues are really in contention here? There are several I think, but the overriding one is the nature of God’s love (or mercy) and God’s righteousness (or justice). How will these two (seemingly conflicting) attributes of God ultimately influence what God will actually do with all us sinners - believers and unbelievers? And then secondarily (or perhaps primarily) what does Christ’s death and resurrection have to do with it all?

Now we find ourselves at the very soul of Christianity. And this explains why the question of universal restoration pushes people’s buttons and stirs the emotions to the boiling point. It is why some have to use pseudonyms when they write about it.

There are many who believe that Christianity has no meaning without an eternal hell. To them, a temporary hell - regardless of how severe - is no hell at all. Being saved from such a hell depreciates Christ’s atonement, compromises God’s justice and makes being a Christian meaningless. What’s the point, after all, if everyone will be saved in the end? Why not eat, drink and be merry and believe whatever you want? Nothing matters anyway.

On the other hand, universalist theology believes that Christianity has no meaning with an eternal hell. An eternal hell represents the ultimate failure of God and a permanent victory for sin, death and Satan. It makes man’s will sovereign over God’s will, compromises God’s power, love and mercy, and ultimately turns Christianity into a self-centered, exclusive, highly judgmental religion based on fear. It is, in the end, no different from any other religion - where we are ultimately responsible for saving ourselves and others.

To those of us Lutherans who take a high view of Scripture, the question becomes - which of these two theological exits is the most consistent with the overarching message of Scripture?

When Law and Gospel collide, what is trump? Does love prevail or does it fail? When God appears to be defeated by man's rebellion, is he really?

Does Scripture portray God’s wrath and judgment as disciplinary and redemptive? Or is it portrayed as purely punitive - something God is required to do because of his righteous nature?

What are we to make of Jesus’ teachings to forgive seventy times seven and love our enemies? Does God ask this of us without requiring it of himself?

Are the chosen of God (Israel and the church) portrayed as the “frozen chosen” or are they the first-fruits, the part that represents the whole, the visible pledge of God’s promise to the whole world?

Does the Bible ever portray God’s attributes of mercy and righteousness to be in conflict, so that sometimes one wins out over the other? Or are they essentially the same, always in harmony - so that God’s mercy is righteous, and God’s righteousness is merciful? And if that is so, is it possible to reconcile this nature of God with the concept of an eternal hell?

Theologically, it seems to me that a Lutheran can believe in a universal restoration without being in conflict with any other of Dr. Luther’s teachings. In fact, it seems to me that all Lutheran doctrines fall much more neatly into place with universal restoration than without it. So (to me) it is quite remarkable that there is not much more interest, study and discussion of it within Lutheranism.

That brings me to my final point - Luther’s mysterious fourth exit from a Biblical paradox.

Tuesday, July 3, 2007

Can a Lutheran be a Universalist? (Part 6)

The second exit from a Biblical contradiction is hermeneutical - the art of interpretation.

Here, if we are good Lutherans, we lean not on our own understanding (or tradition), but we “let Scripture interpret Scripture.” And anyone can do this, since we believe in the perspicuity (or clarity) of Scripture. Thus hermeneutics in not some magic art performed by professionals. It centers on the process of letting the clearer passages of Scripture shed light on those that are less clear.

How this plays out in actual practice, of course, is not so simple. Lots of things get in the way, not the least of which is our own preconceived ideas (or the ideas of others whom we respect). So the paradox is this. Although Scripture is clear, there is no guarantee that it will be clear to me.

This in itself is an odd doctrine, and one which tends to drive me just a little crazy. It can also stop me from reading the Bible entirely, which is unfortunate. Nevertheless, I have found that - when confronted with a Biblical paradox - examining the Scriptures which create the paradox has always been a profitable exercise.

In the case of the universalist and never-ending punishment views of God’s judgment, the critical issue is not the reality or nature of a literal hell, the wrath of God, the seriousness of sin, the role of faith in salvation, salvation through Christ alone, or any such matters. It is a very narrow question. Is God’s judgment on the lost the final word? Yes or No?

There are some passages that seem to say yes, others say no. But which are actually the the clearer passages? Which ones are so clear that they are very difficult (impossible?) to “interpret away” or ignore?

Because this is a blog and not an essay (although I fear it could turn into one), I’ll just select ten passages at random that seem to speak to this question - five on one side, five on the other. There are obviously many more.

Five “Eternal Punishment” Passages

1.) Matthew 25:31-46, (Jesus foretells His return and the Day of Judgment) especially the words “Then He will also say to those on His left, ‘Depart from me, accursed ones, into the eternal fire which has been prepared for the devil and his angels’ “ and also “These will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”

2.) Luke 16:19-31, (Jesus parable of the rich man and poor Lazarus) especially the words “Between us and you there is a great chasm fixed, in order that those who wish to come over here to you may not be able, and that none may cross over from there to us.”

3.) II Thessalonians 1:6-10, especially the words “these will pay the penalty of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of His power.”

4.) Mark 9:43-48, especially the words “unquenchable fire, where their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched.”

5.) Revelations 20:10-15, especially the words “and they will be tormented day and night forever and ever.”

Five “Universal Restoration” Passages

1.) Lamentations 3:22-23, 31-33, especially the words “His compassions never fail” and “Men are not cast off by the Lord forever.”

2.) I Corinthians 15:12-28 especially the words “For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ all shall be made alive.” and also, “When all things are subjected to Him, then the Son Himself also will be subjected to the One who subjected all things to Him, that God may be all in all.”

3.) Matthew 16:15-19 especially the words “upon this rock I will build My church; and the gates of Hell will not prevail against it.”

4.) I Peter 3:18-4-6 especially the words “For Christ also died for sins once for all” and “He went and made proclamation to the spirits now in prison, who once were disobedient” and “the gospel has for this purpose been preached even to those who are dead, that though they are judged in the flesh as men, they may live in the spirit according to the will of God.”

5.) Phillipians 2:8-11 especially the words “at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of those who are in heaven, and on earth, and under the earth, and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ I Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”

So which of these sets of passages is the clearer?

Should the universalist passages be used to shed light on the supposed never-endedness of God’s wrath? Or should the eternal punishment passages be used to shed light on the supposed never-endedness of God’s mercy?

The “orthodox” view has treated the eternal punishment passages so crystal clear that it required all the universalist passages to be interpreted away.

The question for the inquiring Lutheran is this, “Are not the universalist passages just as clear?” If they are, then we are still mired in a Biblical contradiction.

Hermeneutics doesn’t seem to help us. (Or I should say, it doesn't seem to help me.)

Where’s the next exit?