Writer Rachel Held Evans had a superb post on her blog a couple days ago entitled, “Liberal Christianity, Conservative Christianity, and the Caught-in-Between“. I invite you to take a glance at both her writing on this topic, as well as the comments people are posting about it. I am certain that you will be able to read something you can relate to. For me, in addition to finding personal resonance with some of the viewpoints, it also inspired me to focus on some blogging about some reading I have done lately.
Over the last few months I have read a trio of books that, quite by accident, gave me a good overview of the spectrum of Christian religious thought. Reading these books has helped me tremendously in separating out the threads of Christian thought that have spread out across the social fabric during the expansion of post-modernism in the church. Several social issues (same-sex marriage, and homosexuality being the headliners these days) have catapulted Christianity into this post-modern realm, where all the translations, teachings, traditions, dogmas, polity, and applications of faith over the last two millenia have come into question over such issues. Moreover, Christianity continues to permeate politics as government intervention (or inaction) is being debated for war, social welfare, abortion, civil rights, property rights, finance reform, and practically every other issue affecting the human race. This is no surprise, as Christianity is the dominant western religion – even as it sees a decline in “membership” at the many of the mainline denominations.
The church’s chief debate, then, has become how to maintain the church – the Christian faith as a whole, not one specific denomination – in light of the controversies. Some of the conversation has served to draw some lines between “liberal” and “conservative” Christian theology. However, it seems that the proverbial bell-shaped curve once again could be used to describe the plotline of where Christians lie on the spectrum. That is, the majority of us fall somewhere “in between.”
Well, on to the books. My readings started out with an extremely meaningful work by N.T. Wright, regarded by his contemporaries as a “conservative” Christian scholar (though I am not sure he would agree with the label, it fits this discussion). Following that, my wife had checked out a book from the library that was decidedly on the “liberal” side of the spectrum (the word “liberal” is part of the title) by Rev. Scotty McClennan. Rounding out the trio was a book jointly written by Marcus Borg (a scholar on the liberal side who works closely with John Crossan) and N.T. Wright that juxtaposed the two men’s viewpoints on Jesus. I started out trying to fit all of my review and commentary on these books into one post, doing a somewhat brief overview of each book, where its foundations are, how they apply, and where the book had affect on my own personal understandings and convictions in my faith. However, there is too much to be said and understood from each tome. Therefore this is blog post Part 1. I am writing about them in the order I read them, but I think that it would not have mattered what order I read them in. My reflections and conclusions would be the same regardless of the order.
N.T. Wright’s “Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church” was recommended by my friend, Dave Burkum, after I shared with him that, “I really don’t believe that hell is a place where people burn forever in literal fire and brimstone torture chambers, etc.,” and that I furthermore “wasn’t so sure that heaven is somewhere ‘up there’ or in any one physical place in the universe other than right here on planet Earth, metaphysically speaking.” His response was, “Have you ever read anything by N.T.Wright?” Dave’s inclination to use this particular book to introduce someone to Wright’s theology was a good one. For me, it was pretty satisfying and assuring for my own reflections and edifying in terms of finding a way to understand the Bible in such a way that supports those reflections (the least of which were my beliefs about heaven and hell). The book is about eschatology — the study of what happens in the “end times” — but uses Wright’s eschatological stance as a platform for what needs to happen with the mission for the Christian church today.
Wright, as former Bishop of Durham in the Anglican Church of England (“Theologian to the Queen”), and as a prominent New Testament scholar, has a wonderful scholarly-yet-witty style of writing. While the arguments Wright makes are decidedly within the broad-brushed traditional and conservative concepts and understandings of Christian traditions, they do not comport with the fundamentalist viewpoints, or even the “infallible/inerrant” view of scripture. He doesn’t take all scripture as granted, but he doesn’t take any of it out of context either. He clearly dislikes what the Enlightenment, the Industrial Revolution, and post-modern evangelicalism has done to distract us from what the early 1st century church was rooted in — following in the footsteps of the resurrected Christ Jesus. As a result, his views of Jesus, the early church, and the worldview that Christians should be called to are refreshingly non-denominational, somewhat post-evangelical, and very straightforward.
Surprised By Hope starts out reviewing what modern Christians believe about heaven, hell, and resurrection, and compares it to what the early church believed. The shift over 2000 years has been dramatic, thanks mainly to pop culture, but also to church culture. Great examples are: Dante’s Divine Comedy — the medival work which inspired popular images of the underworld and heaven; the work of Darwin and others catering to Enlightenment thinkers who wanted to disprove divine creation and debunk the Genesis story; and even church hymns that inspire glimpses of a heaven holding clouds, angels, harps, and pearly gates. After drawing up the differences between then and now, Wright makes a common-sense, albeit very academic, explanation on what the early church believed about Jesus (and their own) resurrection, applying it to what then was the heaven our earliest Christians looked forward to. He writes, “For the first Christians, the ultimate salvation was all about God’s new world, and the point of what Jesus and the apostles were doing when they were healing people or being rescued from shipwreck or whatever was that this was a proper anticipation of that ultimate salvation, that healing transformation of space, time and matter. The future rescue that God had planned and promised was starting to come true in the present.”
At the core of his argument is Wright’s belief in Christian Mortalism. Basically this belief holds that after (mortal) death, the human spirit is in an intermediate, unconscious state awaiting final resurrection and judgement. That state is “life after death”, which Wright says Jesus speaks of when he tells the criminal being crucified next to him, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.” (Luke 23:43) In this understanding, life after death was the “paradise” of being removed from the conscious awareness of the cruel world of man, unconsciously awaiting the coming judgement. Upon resurrection one experiences final judgement before God, and “life after life after death”. Wright professes that the earliest Christians believed in this. Judaic belief in resurrection started with the prophecies of Daniel 12:1-12:4 and Isaiah 26:19, and the resurrection of Jesus was the first fulfillment of these prophecies.
The resurrection expected under Wright’s understanding of mortalism is also “bodily” — meaning that our physical bodies are somehow transformed into a new being for our lives after life after death. How? Doesn’t matter how. Even those who are ashes will be raised, and given new “resurrection bodies.” Kinda mind blowing, mystical stuff, but actually more meaningful in faith than the idea that when we die our souls kick around heaven as ghosts. This sets up the argument that our own resurrections will enable us to inhabit the resurrected earth, rather than simply watch from heaven above as earth and humankind continues to self-destruct until God does away with it and creates some new place for our souls to reside. Wright argues that Jesus’ resurrection is the basis for belief that a new world can be created starting today (God’s kingdom) with hope that through Jesus we all can experience resurrection and renewal along with the realms of heaven and earth at the end.
What is so refreshing to me from this book is this exact argument, directed against the dualistic view of end times which dominates our culture. Propagated in the least by Revelation 21:1 (the “new heaven and new earth” verse), the dualist belief is that our present metaphysical realm of earth, sea, sky, and everything we know in our mortal lives will be replaced in end times by a new metaphysical creation. Wright’s argument is that this was not the view of the earliest Christians (who would not have likely known of the visions recorded in Revelation), and it should not be ours, either. Why, if God’s original creation was “good” (Genesis 1:31a) why would God Himself dump it all? Wouldn’t we be drawn more to God to renew and refresh God’s present creation instead of destroying it? Wright suggests we need to understand that since Jesus has been resurrected, the creation of God’s new kingdom is underway as the remaking of his first (and present) creation of heaven and earth into its original perfect form…and in the end we all can be resurrected as earth is resurrected.
The “hope” we can be surprised by, then, is this concept that (1) through Christ, we can experience resurrection — “life after life after death” — where the Spirit resides in our resurrected bodies (see Galatians 2:20), and (2) as a result we can work now to rebuild and restore God’s kingdom in which we will reside in this resurrected state. He says, “The mission of the church is nothing more or less than the outworking, in the power of the Spirit, of Jesus’s bodily resurrection and thus the anticipation of the time when God will fill the earth with his glory, transform the old heavens and earth into the new, and raise his children from the dead to populate and rule over the redeemed world he has made.”
Where this book gets truly meaningful is Wright’s practical application of this concept. He promotes in his writing the proper workings of justice, beauty, and evangelism, and how Christians who are called to work for the renewing and recreating of God’s kingdom must seek justice (including the righting of social/gender/racial inequities and disparities); nurture and patronize the beauty of nature, the arts, and intelligence; and work to spread the gospel, bringing evangelism back to the root mission of calling people to work in the furtherance of God’s kingdom through Christ.
For me, this book reinforced some very important points of my own personal views of eschatology and of Jesus:
1. God loves us and wants us to be a part of his grand design — his plan to restore our relationship to him is not lost, and it involves every aspect of who we are today, what we are today, and what the world is today.
2. Jesus “leveled the playing field” for the perfection of our relationship with God. Every human was sinned against — even Jesus — which God can make amends for (a father’s calling is to always redeem his children). But to be redeemed, and to reside in perfection with God, humans need to be sinless — and only one human met that criterion (J.C.) Jesus makes his atonement and grace available to us, but our part of the bargain is working towards the realization of God’s kingdom here and now through repentance and reviatalization, which was exactly Jesus’ vocation for his mortal time with us.
3. Heaven is not somewhere up in the sky, or some place that exists in the nether-cosmos of the expanding universe. It is a dimension of our current reality that can only be “entered into” through the final remodel of creation into God’s perfected kingdom, via Jesus.
4. Hell is not located at the core of Earth or in any metaphysical state or location. Instead, I point to the eleven times Jesus refers to “hell” (as translated from the Greek word “Gehenna”) in the synoptic Gospels (the majority are overlaps betwen Matthew and Mark’s recounting of the Sermon on the Mount). Gehenna was the name for garbage dump outside of Jerusalem, and Jesus’ use of the term is graphic – such as in Matthew 10:28: “Do not fear those who kill the body but are unable to kill the soul; but rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in Gehenna.” Hell is a garbage dump. If you end up there, you are trash – metaphorically and realistically. What happens to trash when it gets tossed out and sent to the dump? It is forgotten. Destroyed forever. Separated from the living world. Forever. For one’s soul, this means there is no “life after life after death” in Gehenna. God can leave you in the dump…forgotten. Forever. Call it somewhat “annihilationist”, but I think that this is what Jesus was teaching.
5. Through the work of social justice, environmental conservation, and the practice of true appreciation and promotion of the beauty, creativity, and intelligence of all of God’s creation (atmospheric, geologic, aquatic, flora, fauna, human), I follow Jesus and work with him to usher in God’s kingdom.
Finally, with regard to Christian mortalism, bodily resurrection, and the idea that the 3rd rock from the sun (planet earth) will be renewed and perfected rather than destroyed at the end, I have this closing thought: I want to go fishing with my dad, with his dad, and live, work, and play with all my faithful brothers and sisters in Christ when I “get to heaven”. For so long I have wondered, “How could that ever happen?” My faith has always answered, “God knows how, and he has promised it will happen.” The concepts Wright lays out in Surprised by Hope underscores that faith, and gives it a structure and resonance that I have been missing.
In my next post (Part Deux) I will tackle the book that puts a good framework up in describing “liberal” Christianity.