Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Just Say It, Jesus!

Detail from "Sermon on the Mount" by Carl Heinrich Bloch

Jesus was action-oriented. He avoided questions about his identity. He spoke in parables rather than in theological explanations. He spent time with all sorts of folks and performed a lot of healings (both of body and of the fractures in society), and he ultimately suffered, died and rose from the dead.

Christian theological debate, by contrast, has been obsessed with beliefs more than actions. These include pinpointing the specifics of Jesus' identity and the nature of God. There are many preachers today who will tell us that our very eternal fate depends on getting certain theological concepts right.

But ask yourself this:

If those beliefs are so important--if our very destiny for all eternity depends on adhering to the right set of beliefs--then the puzzling question is: 

Why didn't Jesus just tell us? 

Jesus could have simply said, Hey you know, I'm fully human and fully divine, I'm part of the three persons of the Trinity, and you need to do precisely A, B and C to be in good standing with this Christianity program I'm rolling out. Oh, by the way, I want to see churches, cathedrals and Mass on Sundays, yadda yadda.

There are lines in the New Testament that are instructional. But let's be honest--they are wide open to all sorts of interpretations. All interpretations are not equally valid, but there is plenty of room for significant disagreement.

Jesus had every opportunity to tell us that we had to have certain beliefs. There are hundreds of pages in the New Testament and a handful of authors. Any of them could have spelled it out in black and white. They could have made a list. Why in the world did Jesus tell stories with unclear meanings if having clear, succinct theological answers was so important?  It makes absolutely no sense whatsoever.

If razor-sharp doctrinal understandings are so important, then the New Testament actually comes across as a cruel trick. It is like the most sinister scavenger hunt where the stakes couldn't be any higher.

Are we to buy the argument that God speaks to us in puzzling metaphor, allegory and code, and it's up to us to decipher nuanced theological interpretations in order to stay in communion with the Body of Christ?

I think it is much more likely that Jesus wants us to be engaged in the process of figuring things out. He wants us to wrestle with the deep issues. He wants us to struggle over paradoxes and parables. It's more about the questions than the answers. It's more about the process than the conclusions--"The medium is the message," as Marshall McLuhan said. 

Like a Zen master, Jesus confuses us on purpose. His stories seem to turn reality upside down. The parable put issues side-by-side that normally do not exist side-by-side. As a mentor of mine used to say, "out of confusion comes clarity." Jesus scrambles our brains so that we jar ourselves lose from the false reality around us so that we can get a glimpse of the Kingdom.
"What if changing our perception of God
 has the potential to change everything?"
-- Richard Rohr, The Divine Dance

The process of doing theology does matter--but maybe not in the way we think. Maybe it's more like going to the gym. You pick up weights and then you put them back down. The world has not changed at all, but you have changed in the process. Theology is important--I am writing, after all, a blog on theology at this very moment--it just needs to be put in its proper place in the hierarchy of importance.

Are our beliefs a pathway toward God or a way to build imaginary divisions between people?

Most Christians believe that God is a Trinity of three persons. But some Pentecostals are not Trinitarian. Muslims affirm the same God that Abraham affirmed, but Islam has some significant differences from Christianity. Are some of these folks outside of the reach of God's love and mercy as a result? That seems enormously difficult to believe. It took western Christianity about 300 years to formulate the precise language for the Trinity and the dual natures of Christ. Those debates have been recorded in the writings of early Christians. What became of the people who didn't understand the Trinity before the larger Church accepted it? What about the people who grow up immersed in one faith tradition and not another?

It is not the New Testament that is playing a cruel trick on us--it is the longstanding malady of obsessing over theological beliefs that gets us off track. It leads us on a wild goose chase, demanding that we find answers that Scripture itself probably may not even give to questions it is not even asking.

I totally understand that church communities will want to take the paradoxes and parables and try to extract from them some guidelines for living life on earth. However, we cross a line when a church community is married to its own conclusions. If those conclusions were so important, Jesus could have simply given them to us. He didn't. It has taken the churches hundreds--and in some cases thousands--of years to come to certain doctrinal conclusions. It's got to be more about the struggle. Rules and laws have their place, but they only make sense if we are compassionately involved with our whole being in the questions.

If black-and-white answers to questions of belief were of such paramount importance, why did Jesus seem to do everything EXCEPT give them to us?

I think there is great freedom in this. I'm sure it ruffles the feathers of people who are devoted to a particular set of doctrinal beliefs. But for the rest of us, it's bread for the journey and par for the course.

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