Human and divine

humanismI receive emails occasionally from the Harvard Humanist Community. Recently they awarded comedian Eddie Izzard a Lifetime Acheivement Award, and featured one of his quotes on their Facebook page –“I don’t believe in a God. I believe in people.” That got me to thinking (as the Harvard Humanist Community usually does). This is a classic “either/or” point of view — a false dichotomy which arises out of a false assumption. Either you believe in God or you believe in people. Probably Eddie didn’t intend it that way. What he probably meant was you don’t have to believe in God to believe in the basic goodness of people. If so, that statement also makes me shake my head. Let me take you through my logic.

What is the source of human goodness?

The issue comes down to what is a human being? If we are only an evolved animal, with a large brain that enables us to become self-conscious and develop langauge — which is what the Harvard Humanist Community and Eddie Izaard place their faith in — then the source of our goodness is some kind of Darwinian process that equips us to survive better because we are good. To put it more bluntly, when we commit evil acts we are decreasing our chances of survival as a species. I think it’s admirable that some people can have such faith in “survival of the fittest” and devote their lives to goodness to increase the chances of humanity’s survival. As they say, “Whatever turns you on.” But let me contrast the Humanist position with the Christian belief about human goodness. In a nutshell, God gives us his life (grace) which enables us to do good acts. We are not alone in the struggle between good and evil. And, as we do good, collaborating with God, we become more and more like Him, in a process of inner transformation. We are meant to become like God and we participate in making ourselves like Him through our free choices. You can read this many places in the Bible but I’ll give you one quote to illustrate: “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God — what is good and acceptable and perfect.” [Romans 12:2]

Why be a Humanist? Why be a Christian?

As I read the Harvard Humanist Community’s aspirations I thank God that they are trying to achieve many of the same goals as we Christians are. I can agree with some of their philosophy (taken from their website) — “Humanism is a progressive philosophy of life that, without theism and other supernatural beliefs, affirms our ability and responsibility to lead ethical lives of personal fulfillment that aspire to the greater good of humanity.” If someone simply cannot believe that they are a supernatural and transcendent person who will live forever, then it is good to “aspire to the greater good of humanity.” I will do everything I can to help them in this. But why settle for the “B Team”? Why eliminate the wonderful, mysterious possibility that God has created us to transform ourselves and the world and, in doing so, become like Him? It seems to me self-evident that Christianity is the “A Team.” Oh I know, religion raises its ugly head here. “I can’t be a Christian because of what they do in the name of religion,” quoting crusades, inquisition, bigotry and paedophilia among other evils committed by Christians, some in the name of religion. (All of which are factual but not at all characteristic of Christianity). My invitation to Humanists everywhere is to consider the promise of Christianity — then look fairly at a real local Christian community near you. My invitation to Christians is to befriend Humanists and help them in their work of improving the lot of mankind. Don’t worry about their beliefs; it’s really no contest in the race between the A Team’s and B Team’s beliefs.



Tis the season to be jolly?

We have arrived at that special period just before Christmas when all the platitudes emerge. How frantic everyone is, buying last minute gifts, etc. But what I really look forward to are the pre-Christmas editorials in newspapers. I thought I’d share a sample of a bit of the wisdom from the Sydney Morning Herald on the weekend before Christmas — and then draw a few conclusions.

  •  Julia Baird gives three reasons why even atheists ought to go the church on Christmas: “Boredom  is often good for you.” “Church is one of the rare times — along with movies or music concerts — that we are able to sit, think, let our minds meander and reflect on who and where we are.” “[Christmas] is religion as we understand it turned on its head.”
  • Richard Glover writes a set of rules from God for celebrating His birthday — “And verily should the wine not be opened until 11am, and even then a tiny sip.” At the end of laying out all the rules about shopping and parking and cooking, “God became a little maudlin and thought about how all he’d wanted was a simple celebration.”
Silent night, holy night

In the spirit of the season, I should now answer the Sydney Morning Herald with some profound words about the true meaning of Christmas. Christians are usually on the back foot when it comes to Christmas — we love the seasonal hoohah as much as everyone else so our hearts aren’t really in the debate. We love Christmas trees, Santa Claus and getting presents as much as the next guy. So why fight it? And we don’t. My neighbourhood church has a Christmas tree on the altar, in the spirit of “If you can’t beat them, join them.” So let’s just admit that right after the Winter Solstice we have a pagan festival that we all love — and not confuse celebrating Christmas with remembering the Incarnation.

But alas, at Christmas-time we attempt to celebrate the Incarnation. I say alas because we humans can only usually celebrate one thing at a time. So we shouldn’t try to celebrate the Incarnation. We should fall silent, reflect and worship anew. And then, awestruck, realise that the real presence of God-is-with-us isn’t a seasonal thing at all. The cycle of Christian feasts rolls on inexorably, down through the centuries. Incarnation — Crucifixion — Easter, over and over, so each generation can fall silent before this incredible reality. Silent night, holy night — and holy world because God-is-with-us is real. I think God smiles as he watches us struggle to celebrate Christmas, and infects the season and the world with paradoxes to remind us, when we fall silent, what the word holy means.

Anonymous Christians

“You aren’t a Christian but you are the most Christian person I know.” I hear this statement occasionally and it always makes me pause. I wonder what the person saying it means — and how the person being referred to feels. There are lots of possibilities.

Then I realize that the person I need to question is myself. Why do I care if a good person is a Christian or not? More importantly, does God care? Depending on your brand of Christianity, you may have clear answers for these two questions. How another Christian answers these questions probably determines, in your mind, if that person is really a Christian.

How would God answer these questions?

It isn’t absolutely clear how God views these questions. On the one hand we have a very clear statement about how God will judge all people at the end of time in the story about “sheep and goats.’ God values our behaviors, it seems, rather than our beliefs. On the other hand, Jesus said, “The work of God is this; to believe in the one that he has sent.” [John 6:29] Perhaps, then, these questions are more about God’s mercy than about understanding what’s in God’s mind. Should we be so confident about our understanding of God’s mind?  Job learned that understanding God’s mind was completely beyond him, saying after his dialogue with God, “Surely I spoke of things I did not understand, things too wonderful for me to know.” [Job 42:3b] We do not understand and cannot define boundaries for God, or say with certainty, “That person is (or is not) pleasing to God.” Perhaps we should place all our confidence in God’s mercy, and not try to divide the world up into Christians and non-Christians.

So why be a Christian?

All this leads me to my basic point. What is my motivation for being a Christian? Is it about being  more confident that I’ll get to heaven? Like a spiritual insurance policy? Or is it my response to grace? The gift of faith and the gift of knowing Jesus. My life-long journey has led me to see that my reasons for being a Christian are more about being in relationship — with Jesus and with fellow Christians — than any other factor. And that is what I seek in my local church — ways to deepen these relationships.

A. Why Change? — Is there an urgent need to transform our local church?

The need to change almost always starts with a threat. Someone can tell you how great the future will be after some change happens  but human beings will inevitably choose to stay in the status quo unless there is some threat or danger or bad experience.

This is especially true when it comes to changes relating to our spiritual life and church. “Many of us get caught in surface living or in the pressures of the practical. We want to escape the costly strangeness of this voyage within.”  [Michael Paul Gallagher in Faith Maps] The promises of Jesus can easily be overlooked by Christians, who feel the daily pressure of living in a complex modern society. We are losing our sense of being a unique people with a vital calling: to announce the Good News that the world is filled with God’s grace. It seems unlikely and even absurd that we are God’s sons and daughters who are meant to transform the world. Most of us don’t even notice that we are losing something crucial to living;  the surrounding secular culture seems quite normal to us and church seems like something that must be fit into our everyday life.

I want to raise the possibility that Christians and local churches face a ‘burning platform.’  The burning platform metaphor originated when the oil drilling platform Piper Alpha in the North Sea caught fire. A worker was trapped by the fire on the edge of the platform. Rather than certain death in the fire, he chose probable death by jumping 100 feet into the freezing sea. He had to risk change because he was faced with a status quo that was completely untenable. We like the worker on the burning oil rig can’t stay where we are because the threat to our life as Christians is too great.

I will quote several authors, from among many, who sense that there is something profoundly wrong with church in general.

  • “[We live in] a culture in which central features of the Christian story are unknown and churches are alien institutions whose rhythms do not normally impinge on most members of society.” Stuart Murray, Post-Christendom
  • “Everywhere in the Western world the Church has suffered a massive loss of ground. It is seldom at the centre of people’s lives. In today’s complexity it is just one of many potential sources of meaning, and perhaps not a very attractive one at that. For huge numbers of the younger generation what the church offers – in terms of teaching, or worship, or spiritual image – rings strange, and sometimes even hollow and dishonest. ” Michael Paul Gallagher in Faith Maps
  • “. . . Traditional churches are emptying, their congregations are graying, the eyes of their fewer and fewer young people are glazing over, and turning elsewhere. ” Scott Cowdell, God’s Next Big Thing
  • “If we are the church, then the church is a fellowship of those who seek journey and lose their way, of the helpless, the anguished and the suffering, of sinners and pilgrims. If we are the church, then the church is a sinful and pilgrim church, and there can be no question of idealizing it.”  Gerald A Arbuckle, Refounding the Church

The first task of Christians in every local church is to read the signs of our times, both in the world and in their own church. Are these authors reflecting the true state of the church? What do you discern? Do you sense an urgency to act and transform yourself and your local church?

Discussing the need  to change with other people in your local church, and learning together with the Pastor how to proceed is a critical task which every Christian needs to prayerfully consider and then undertake.

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Unity — Who is a Christian?

A Christian is a person who loves Jesus Christ and follows him as their leader.  [1] There are many types of Christians: Roman Catholics, Anglo Catholics and Protestants, evangelicals and eucharistic, orthodox and modern, eastern and western, believers in the Bible as the sole guide and believers in the Bible and tradition, and other variations as well.

But what characterizes all Christians? All of us are individuals and have our own experiences of the realities of living as a Christian and we also have many debates about what it means to love and follow Jesus. But I believe that if we are to transform the world as Jesus wishes us to, we also need to see each other as brothers and sisters who have been given some common gifts by Jesus, and because of that, share some things in common. “Yes, that’s what a Christian is! I hope to become more like that.” Jesus said, “I am the vine; you are the branches.” There is only one vine, one body of Christ. We all belong to the same body and share Jesus’ life in the Holy Spirit flowing through one vine.

I offer the following statements that describe what a Christian is, not to spark debate but to spark recognition and alignment among all of us, no matter which local church we attend. These statements describe our aspirations as Christians, and describe who we hope to become. These ideals are unchanged since the earliest days of the church. My hope is that we can all agree on them, share them in common and pledge to each other to follow them as we gather and do our work together, as a global Christian community.

1. Christians are “Jesus-centric”

While the world may shy away from talking about Jesus, Christians don’t. This doesn’t mean that there is any specific or right way of talking about Jesus; there isn’t. Each Christian has her or his own unique encounters with him, no matter how subtle or hidden these may be. We know him and recognize his voice when we hear it.  Some may proclaim him quite easily and openly; others may view their relationship with Jesus as quite private and be more diffident. The point is, Jesus is part of our conversations and the wise counselor / facilitator of all that we do. Non-Christians may try to be more politically correct and refer to God as ‘the Universe’ or some other name, but Christians are certain about the name of God’s Son.

2. Christians have a different way of thinking than non-Christians. We are “in the world but not of the world”

Basically, this is a cultural statement. If culture means sharing common ideas, common language and communication, and alignment about how things ought to work, Christians share a culture that is different than the world’s culture. We see and speak about the world differently than non-Christians. To be “of the world” means you buy-in to the conventional culture. Christians are “not of the world.” We don’t see things in the world quite the same, use quite the same language about them or believe things ought to work quite the way that they do in the ‘system.’ In a few words, Christians have different hopes for the world, love it differently and have faith that they will, with the Holy Spirit’s help, ultimately transform it.

3. Christians experience time differently. We are “already but not yet completely” living in a time when the promises of Jesus are fulfilled.

We live in a world where we say in the Lord’s Prayer that the kingdom has already come on Earth but not yet fully as it is in heaven. We live in the 21st century of the Christian era but we also live in the last days, working and waiting for the complete fulfillment of Jesus’ promises. We live in a time of horrible events in the world but we see them differently and believe that their present outcome is already being transformed, in some mysterious way, but not yet fully. Christians distinguish between the appearances of the space-time continuum, and the reality of God’s time. One is measured by astrophysicists and the other is unmeasureable, safe in God’s care, flowing toward His desired eternal state.

4. Christians use the word ‘power’ differently. “We are Easter people who are empowered by the Holy Spirit”

As Paul said, when we do good, it is not us but Jesus’ power in us that does it. This power was given to Paul and to us because of what happened on the Cross, at Easter and Pentecost. We live mindfully and prayerfully, able to distinguish between when God’s power is empowering us, versus when we are doing “our own thing.” We also distinguish between having gifts of the Spirit and our own self-development. Our gifts are meant for others; our efforts at self-development, while understandable, are focused on ourselves.

[1] Every Christian ‘loves’ and ‘follows’ Jesus in their own unique way. There are no widely accepted criteria for how much a person must love and follow Jesus in order to be a Christian. Jesus loves us first and tells us that his ‘yoke is light,’ which is a gentle invitation to follow him. Therefore, if you feel that you love not hate Jesus (although you may hate the church at times) and would like to follow him if you could only figure out how in this complicated world, then you are a Christian as I mean the term.

Angry Christians

Sometimes, I notice different kinds of anger when I talk with Christians or read their Blogs:

  1. “The church doesn’t give me what I need”
  2. “Those other Christians and their churches are heretics, apostates or just irritating.”
  3. “The Pastor offended me.”
  4. “They are ruining the church.”

What is Jesus’ mind when it comes to such anger? I suspect he would tell them a parable, like this one.

Nan-in, a Japanese master during the Meiji era (1868-1912), received a university professor who came to inquire about Zen.

Nan-in served tea. He poured his visitor’s cup full, and then kept on pouring.

The professor watched the overflow until he no longer could restrain himself. “It is overfull. No more will go in!”

“Like this cup,” Nan-in said, “you are full of your own opinions and speculations. How can I show you Zen unless you first empty your cup?”

Jesus says, how can I show you my love unless you empty yourself of your anger?