To love an Unfathomable God.

I love my wife.

“Love is but the discovery of ourselves in others, and the delight in the recognition.” The words of 19th century poet Alexander Smith ring true to me. The first glimmers of fondness usually spark in the recognition of commonality. It is when we meet someone and think “here is somebody who is like me” that the potential of friendship and all that is beyond it is kindled.

So too with my wife. In her I have found a kindred spirit, a friend who I understand on an instinctive level. When we look at the world, it is with similar eyes. We have the disgusting habit of making the same jokes simultaneously. We delight in the same things.

I love my wife. And so much of it is because of this. There is no way that I would have been able to love someone who is the antithesis of me.

Someone like God. If he even exists, God is so wholly other as to defy any kind of understanding. Picture Flatland: the world on a sheet of paper. Imagine people who live only in two dimensions, like stick figures on a page. They cannot perceive depth. They only have length and breadth. So when one of us decides to enter that world and stick our finger through the paper, the best they can do is perceive it as a line, maybe a circle if they walk around it. For them to even conceptualise that it is a finger that stretches on in a third dimension is very nearly impossible.

Scientists believe that there are at least 10 dimensions to reality. Many believe that there are many, many more. If God exists, he would be beyond all of those. Now think of the incomprehension of the flatlanders, with just one dimension of seperation from us, and try to conceive of how inconceivable a God of just ten dimensions would be.

How do you love something like that? Awe, I can understand. I have felt it. I can revel in the glorious incomprehensibleness of a being like that. But love, love is something different.

I love my wife.

I do not love God.

I cannot.

I struggle to understand how it is even remotely possible.

I have been thinking about this a lot lately. I believe in God. I admire him(or the idea of him, at least). But love, love is harder for me. I can’t understand God. Not the way that I understand my wife. My very best conception of love falls short, because it is bound to the flesh of another human. A human I love more than I thought possible, but still. We have too much in common.

I love my wife for all we have in common, but the moments when she electrifies me is when she surprises me. When all my understanding and common ground falls short of the complex creature that I share my life with. We crave wonder. We shudder for the unexpected and the transcendent.

Maybe that’s the crux. I cannot possibly love something I can’t even conceive of, but what if the God hobbled himself, tore the dimensions from his back like skin? What if that God came down to our level and showed us something of himself?

It would never be a true picture. It can’t be. But it would be the closest a human could ever get to understanding the divine. It might not make sense, and it might not take the form we’d prefer, but it would be real, be true for our limited scope of truth. And it would be human. We would be able to relate to it and stand aghast when it did the unexpected. And here lies the ray of light for me.

Maybe God made himself relatable. Maybe he allowed us to see shimmers of himself. Maybe he’s given us a way to draw near to him in some strange way. Maybe that person is the most consistently surprising character of all time. It is, after all, when understanding and surprise meet that I am filled with lightning.

We would never be able to love the being itself without first transcending our limitations. But we may know that there is something so excruciatingly greater than us that is reaching out, something unfathomable that came to us in the only way we might understand. So that we may know just a tiny pinprick about it, because it knows that, for now, that will be enough.

Maybe that is a God that I can start to love.

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What is it to you?

So Jesus looks at Peter and says, “Follow me.” They’ve just been talking about how Peter will die, about whether he truly loves Jesus, so naturally Peter turns around and points to John, asking “And what about him?” Naturally.

Jesus replies: “What is it to you? You must follow me.”

If I look back at the apostles, it seems like they often set the example for the rest of Christendom that followed. The disciples were a fractuous lot. Besides spending their time constantly missing the point, misrepresenting Jesus, and walking around confused, they seemed to fight among themselves. A lot.

Just a short while after this conversation with Jesus, they’re at it again, fighting over who gets to sit on  Jesus’ right and left hands. Once again, worried about power and authority rather than the things Jesus cherished.

The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. It seems like every time some Christian does something I find truly inspiring, John Piper (and others like him) feels the need to go on Twitter and say goodbye. Indeed, the “farewell {insert name here}” trend has become one of the most famous pieces of public disapproval that Christians use against those they deem doctrinally unsound.

I recently chanced upon a Christian blog, which will remain nameless here, driving the point home with uncharacteristic exuberance. The actual post was a warning against how Angus Buchan will “take his deceitful show on the road to unleash its contagious religious lies into the unsuspecting world.”

While this is a great example of one Christian disowning another with the judicious application of vitriol, the point of the article wasn’t what drew my attention most (I am also very much like the disciples, it seems). Hidden in between the unsubstantiated claims and personal attacks on Mr Buchan is this gem: He is placed among his “NAR / pseudo-charismatic counterparts such as Reinhard Bonnke, At Boshoff, Benny Hinn, Joel Osteen, TB Joshua, Joyce Meyer, Todd Bentley, Rick Warren, Rodney Howard-Browne, Billy Graham, TD Jakes, Nevil Norden, Kenneth Copeland, Rob Bell, Reinhard Bonnke, John Piper, Kay Arthur and Cindy Jacobs to name but a very few.”

To name but a few. Look at that list again. If the writer truly believes that each of those people (and the large theological streams they represent) are part of the “vile deception of the false gospel”, then the true gospel must be believed by an extremely small group of people. That list encompasses almost the whole spectrum of major Christian movements. There is even some nice inside-greeting there, since John Piper has Farewelled Rob Bell years ago for his views on hell.  This is an extreme version of the same problem that plagues anyone who declares anybody unChristian because they espouse a different theology.

Do you really believe that you, and only you speak for “true” Christianity? Can you be so arrogant as to think that everyone else is either completely misguided or false prophets? Who gave you the authority to say who is and isn’t Christian? Where did you even find the gall to assume that you know what true Christianity is?

There are thousands of people honestly seeking God who don’t believe as you do. Smart, loving, deeply committed Christians read the same text and believe wildly different things. Why should you be any different?

Rachel Held Evans recently replied to a “farewell” blog with her characteristic wit and insight: “You can’t “farewell” me from the Table because it’s not your Table to set. It’s Christ’s. And the hungry are welcome.”

The hungry are welcome. By all means, rather spread your bile and destructive judgements. Keep going trying to split the world into US and THEM.

But remember, when you deign to cut off legitimate seekers from Christ’s body, know that He just might turn and ask “What is it to you?”

What is it to you?

“You must follow Me.”

Jesus and the Wrestlers

Jesus told these stories.

He’s famous for them, actually, and why not? Stories are great. You see them employed everywhere difficult concepts are explained simply. Stories make nebulous concepts clear, they make understanding easier.

Except when Jesus tells them.

Jesus didn’t seem too taken with absolute clarity. He would often answer direct questions by telling a long story and then walking away, leaving everyone confused. His disciples never really got the hang of it either, often returning to their master to ask for some kind of explanation. Jesus, it seems, was making things difficult on purpose.

This has always seemed to be the case in the rest of the Bible as well. The old testament is mostly a collection of ancient stories and artworks collected into a single volume. Some stories are inspiring and beautiful, but much of it is just plain weird to me.

A prophet takes a walk and some children mock him, so he calls a curse on them in God’s name and two bears maul the kids. 42 of them, to be exact. That’s it. (2 Kings 2:24)

Two daughters get their father hammered so they can have sex with him. (Genesis 19:36)

A poet writes a song in which he says “Blessed shall he be who takes your little ones and dashes them against the rock!” (Psalm 137:9)

It goes on like this, for hundreds of pages. What do we make of these stories? When people call the Bible God-breathed, do they mean “This story’s so obtuse, Jesus could have told it?” Stories just end, seemingly without closure or some Aesopian moral, like the book of Jonah’s powerful conclusion: “And should I not have concern for the great city of Nineveh, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left—and also many animals?”

And also many animals indeed. Open ending have been with us for a while, it seems. This open-endedness only deepens when we start looking more closely at our holy writ.

Nineve could almost certainly not have been as big as it is described in Jonah. The amount of people is accurate… For a hundred years after the time Jonah was said to have lived.

God tells David to hold a census (2 Samuel 24). No, wait, it was the devil (1 Chronicles 21). It’s the same census, but the Bible claims two radical different reasons for it.

What kind of God make his Word so damn confusing? If it’s God’s word, shouldn’t it be basically straightforward? Shouldn’t it give us simple rules to live by (and don’t get me started on how weird the actual rules inthe Bible are)? If the Bible is God’s love letter to us, I don’t think I’d want to introduce her to my parents.

I’m not saying there aren’t explanation for the weirdness and inconsistencies. But it takes some digging to get to them. Getting the neccessary tools to read the Bible well is a life-long journey. You have to struggle with the text for a long time.

A lot like the disciples who were listening to Jesus’ stories. If the point of a parable is not to tell you something about the world, but to change the way you interact with it (Peter Rollins), there is more involved than simply understanding what a story’s about. We only ever change through engaging deeply. It is when we hurl our very spirit into something that we find changes in the shapes of our souls.

I think this is true of Jesus’ stories. By making his parables difficult, he forced those who were really serious about his words to wrestle with their meaning, to truly engage, and through the engagement discover something about themselves and God in a way that impacted them deeply.

I find it interesting that, before he is blessed and named Israel, Jacob is portrayed as physically wrestling with God. For hours. And he gets his hip broken in the process. True change doesn’t happen without wrestling and pain.

So maybe we are looking at large pieces of the Bible in the wrong way. In the third Liturgists podcast Peter Enns talks about one of his Jewish professors at Harvard. The professor told him that historically, for Jews, the bible is a problem to be debated, not a message to be delivered. You find God in the struggling with the text, in the reconciling of contradictions. And there are different people who do it differently. And they may both be good.

“In the Talmud, the great collection of Jewish tradition in talking about the Bible and Jewish life,” says Enns, “They’re forever going back and forth, debating how to understand this stuff and what to do with it. And the debate is canonised. It’s the debate that’s there for people to read and look at… The debate is the way that union with God is fostered.”

We can even see this conversation happening in the Bible: in the changing way that God is viewed and portrayed. They were moving, growing, getting beter at understanding God.

Maybe the reason getting to final conclusions on the Bible is so difficult is because that was never the point. What if the Bible is a tool, rather than just a text? What if it points to Jesus in more than just words, but in difficult stories and changed hearts? Is it possible that all those inconsistencies might actually make this book MORE authoritative, MORE inspired?

We Christians have made accuracy into an artform, dissecting the Bible so that we may find the exact true meaning of every verse and then take an inflexible stand on your interpretation. Maybe it’s not the answer that’s important, but the honest wrestling with the text in search of the answer. Because that is the only way we will ever truly embody the message of the Bible.

People living out the agonising beauty of love and self-sacrifice, taking part in the very nature of God. If I had to write a holy book, that would be a much better result than a set of rules. It isn’t called the living word for nothing.

Of beams and splinters: Homosexuality and Christian activism.

World Vision has caved under pressure. I don’t necessarily count this as weakness on their part.  As an explicitly Christian charity, the kinds and amounts of pressure that can be brought to bear against them are unfathomable. Which leads me to my first point: the Gospel is under attack, but not from outside. Rachel Held Evans summarised this so eloquently.

I have been working myself up to this point for a while, thinking about complicity and bigotry and where I stand in the strange maelstrom of where all these things intersect with theology. To those who know the shape of our souls silence does not mean assent, but to the world at large silence is yes. This is true of social organisations too. To outsiders an absent no means you agree. Always.

This is how systemic evil stays alive: when good men stay silent. If nobody speaks out, everyone stays isolated and impotent in their dissent. It’s in the absence of communication that relationships break down, societies calcify, progress is hamstrung.

And I want no part in it.

This is what I believe. I lay it out in public, because that’s where it may be a small crack in the monstrous monolith that outsiders perceive Christianity to be.

The roots of Christianity are set in the hearts of the oppressed. It’s in the history of the Jewish people; it’s in the oppression of the early church. In the Bible we find, over and over again that God is the God of the oppressed, of those on the underside of power, no matter who they happen to be. The gospel is the story of a God who comes down to the powerless and broken, and offers them healing. I believe that it’s our sacred duty as Christians to speak out against oppression, especially when it originates within the church, because silence is complicity.

Jesus calls us to love. Wherever we support, even implicitly, the systematic oppression of others, we have moved away from God and His good news.

Homosexuality isn’t even close to the issue that it is made to be, even if you believe in its inherent sinfulness. In the Bible, homosexuality is outshone by things like greed, hate and oppression to such a degree that we can almost round its score off to zero. That’s the problem here: it’s become a political issue, not a theological one. It’s a hot-button topic used by lazy preachers to create a fictitious enemy that the church can unite against.

But the church doesn’t need to. The gospel is so much more than a set of rules to protect with force. The only people Jesus ever used force against were religious people. Everyone else received an invitation. So the question comes up for each of us: if Jesus were here, would he weave a whip for me?

Creating laws to kill and imprison people for their sexuality is deeply wrong. We cannot legislate our specific morality: down that road lies fascism and all the many inventive evils that flow from it. Jesus didn’t call us to patrol the actions of others, especially not those of people who hold different beliefs. Not even God does that. If the most high respects free will enough to allow me my faults, who the hell are we to withhold our love in some misguided attempt at social engineering? We’re to bring good news, love and healing.

Withholding homosexuals the right to work alongside fellow Christians for the betterment of the world is more than sad, then. It’s misguided, loveless and evil. As long as the church keeps pushing this stupid homosexuality agenda (in all its forms), it will be an empire of oppression. It will be part of the problem that our religion was started to solve.

The stance taken by most Christians on this topic is so disgustingly toxic that it beggars belief. It is so ‘far-sighted’ that it needs glasses to see its own sin. As long as we remain sinners, we have no right to even pick up stones, no less cast them. I am staggered by the amount of damage done by the rejection of homosexuals. It is possible only because the Christians doing so reduce these people to a single characteristic. These are people who love, fear, feel, cry, dream, and laugh. They are flesh and blood, with lives like ours, full of beauty and complexity. Just like us.

We are meant to be a force of love in the world. The body of Christ. Christ who loved and accepted whores and killers and you and me. We are in good company, no?

Personally, I don’t believe homosexuality is a sin, but “allowing it” (if we assume that it’s sinful) will never be able to live up to the destruction that is being sown all over the world by those who oppose it. Don’t we ‘allow’ so many other sins too, anyway? Isn’t that the point of forgiveness, of tolerance and love?

Christians must start speaking up against wrongs. If we don’t, nobody’s going to change it for us. So this is my start. I denounce Uganda’s gay bill, Russia’s legislation, every Christian’s clamour against a charity allowing homosexuals into its ranks. We must speak out against anybody who treads on those who are different from them.

This madness needs to stop. It’s small-minded and unworthy of people who claim that God is love.

Why I Am A Christian 2: The Person of Jesus

This follows on Why I Am A Christian Part 1.

As a child, the stories of Jesus’ life had already become monuments early on. These engraved stones stood arranged next to my life’s road, so that I would pass them by often. Sunday school, Church, School, home: the stories were relayed to us on a regular basis.

It is an odd quirk of humanity that the more we know something, the less we think about it. In time, the monuments because moss-covered and comforting. Each time I passed, I’d afford them less and less attention. After years of hearing the stories, there was nothing more to learn.

Years later, I found my conception of Jesus to be strangely bland, so, armed with some historical context, (aided by more learned men than I) I set out to rediscover Jesus.

This man from Galilee is the point around which all of Christianity turns. He is considered the full revelation of the Law of God, the one true man, the messiah who came to release all mankind from bondage. But who do we find in the gospels?

Jesus is an enigma. He confounded everyone in his time. The religious elite of his day was shocked by his wisdom and knowledge as much as by his lifestyle. He upended ingrained tradition and theology with a smile and a story. He challenged centuries-old Jewish legalism while exhorting his followers to “sin no more.” Faced with barbed theological questions, he would answer with seemingly nebulous stories which forced the questioner to re-evaluate everything about himself. He advocated a strict moral life, while discouraging judgement. And Jesus mixed with all types.

The apostles were an odd lot. Gleaned mostly from rough folk, his band included fishermen and a hated tax-collector. The very fact that a Rabbi would choose these unworthy people as his closest followers was controversial at best in the 1st century world. It defied centuries of status quo and and showed one of the greatest facets of Jesus’ life: The underside of power.

Jesus showed an intense passion for the marginalised and oppressed. He touched lepers, flouted society’s censure of prostitutes and ate with “unclean” non-jews. He advocated some of the most brilliant forms of non-violent resistance ever devised. When talking about him, the scandalised elite called Jesus a “Glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners”.

Jesus urged the rich to care for the poor. He branded the haughty as hypocrites, and respected women in a time when misogyny wasn’t even considered as anything other than natural. At the time of the last supper, he even took on the lowliest task in a Jew’s eyes: washing the feet of his followers, entreating them to do the same.

Then there was the God-thing. Jesus lived with an unshakeable conviction that he was God incarnate. The statements he made were, to ancient Jewish ears, incontrovertible proof of this. Elders tore their clothes at the blasphemy, Theologians scoffed at the audacity, people bowed in worship, but all were sure what he implied.

Jesus is rough and dusty. He wields a whip like Indiana Jones and plays with children. He weeps often at the state of the world. He is passionate and eloquent and humble. Walter Wink said that if Jesus had never lived, we would not have been able to invent him.

I agree. If Jesus is a fiction, he’s the greatest character ever written.

P.S. Notes on historicity of accounts of Jesus’ life. This is full of links to articles which are by scholars who meticulously reference their academic sources. The articles in question are popularisations of their work, though. I would seriously encourage reading them.

There exists a problematic distance between professional historians and us laypeople. This renders debates between opposing sides of a historical figure like Jesus quite opaque to me. I have often listened to both sides being passionately defended and devolving into arguments about presupposed worldviews.

History is an inexact field. This is necessarily so. The intervening years strip us of detail, corroborating data and the writer’s worldview and identity.

In my exploration of the myriad views around the historicity of New Testament accounts, I have found that the writers’ worldviews are always reflected in the conclusions they reach. So what am I as layperson to do when confronted with two legitimate opposing viewpoints?

I think we need to exercise skepticism for both sides and accept that both sides may be true (insofar as they are plausible. The refutations of the historical data about the resurrection are quite weak).

So here follow some popularisations of the historical data:

If you accept the veracity of what we know about Plato, Julius Caesar and, Homer, you are forced to accept the truth of the New Testament accounts. The alternative is rejecting all ancient historical knowledge we have. The only way to keep one and reject the other is by being academically inconsistent.

Why should we trust the gospel accounts? While it is a game of “How far back can we postulate the Gospels’ origin” for many liberal and secular scholars, there are good historical and textual reasons for at least entertaining the possibility of them being written by people who were there.

Based on the veracity of Luke’s facts, Sir William Ramsay actually went so far as to say:  “Luke is a historian of the first rank; not merely are his statements of fact trustworthy… [he] should be placed along with the very greatest of historians.”[15]

This is from a skeptical scholar.

Professor of classics at Auckland University, E.M. Blaiklock, wrote: “For accuracy of detail, and for evocation of atmosphere, Luke stands, in fact, with Thucydides. The Acts of the Apostles is not shoddy product of pious imagining, but a trustworthy record… it was the spadework of archaeology which first revealed the truth.”

I doubt whether there will be a definitive answer from history, but rejecting the accounts of the New Testament out of hand only shows bias.

Why I am a Christian: Starting from the whole.

I’ve been very quiet these last few months. It’s because I have been trying to understand how I’m to approach the title’s question. Why do I believe in Jesus Christ? It’s not a new question to me. Through the years I’ve become accustomed to periods of intense doubt and self-reflection.

But reflections are complete images. They are somehow hard to tease apart into structured arguments. Every smaller part of the whole is a place to start, with its own problems and defenses. In the last week or so I’ve gotten to a point where I think I have a place to start.

The place is this: I hypothesise the existence of God because, in the words of Allister McGrath, “It is a hypothesis, but it is one that resonates with everything I know to be true.”

It’s an assertion that encompasses all my life. And this is what I have found in the last couple of months: We almost never start from first priciples and work our way up. We believe large statements, which are then made more sophisticated as we delve into them. The better we understand the whole, the better we can understand the part, and vice versa. Our beliefs whirl in this circle, becoming stronger or weaker as we explore their implications.

So I have tried and found it impossible to build this from its parts. I will rather start from the whole and work inwards.

I believe in Truth and Love. I believe in Beauty, Goodness, Evil and Freedom. These are not things I have reasoned my way to. They seem to be carved into my bones. I can build rational frameworks within which they function and are explained, but that is not how I came to believe in them. I believe in Evil, because I know it when I see it.

I have also followed my atheist leanings to what I believe is their logical conclusion: Determinism and Nihilism tempered by a kind of selfish altruism. Within this structure there is no place for the things I now believe in my deepest core.

Christianity makes sense of the world to me. Its portrayal of humanity is the closest to what I see every day around me. Its philosophy fits with reality as I perceive it. I believe it offers the most reasonable answers to the ills of the world. And most importantly, it has Jesus – the most influential person in all of history.

This strange man so confounded all the expecation that first century Jews had about the coming messiah, that one would be hard pressed to think up a stranger saviour for those people. And yet, they ended up believing in him with a fervour that cost many their lives. The teachings coming from this man who claimed divinity were often willfully nebulous and seemingly obtuse. He championed the powerless and stood up those who abused the might they had. And just to prove that he really was special, he died.

The land around Jerusalem is littered with the corpses of upstart messiahs. They had conformed to the cultural beliefs of what the savior of the world should do. They had challenged the Roman Empire; swept up their followers with mighty speeches and died ignominiously, leaving their movements to fizzle out.

So why did this crazy guy succeed? The man who confused and angered everyone with his speeches; who called for nonviolent protest; who seemed to do everything wrong when it came to creating a revolution?

In his death, Jesus embodied all that he taught. He went to his execution with humility, discouraging violence, and showing love even to those dividing his clothes among themselves. He died a pathetic death: a beaten, naked wretch. Mocked, deserted, on the bleeding edge of powerlessness.

And then he rose again. Or, at least, that’s what we’re told. The accounts and actions of the apostles at least tell us that they really believed it. The fact that his movement didn’t fizzle like so many others tells its own story.

Yes, Jesus is the greatest story ever told. And it might just be true. The naturalistic explanations (that I have heard) for the historical data are laughably improbable. Almost nothing about the story of Jesus would suggest that he was invented by a couple of apostles to start a religion. Their own lives and deaths spoke of their faith in the risen Christ.

Jesus is the center around which all arguments for belief in Christianity turn, and rightly so. He is exceptional. He forces a reinterpretation of all that had come before and after him.

I want to paraphrase C.S. Lewis when I say that I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen. Not because I see it, but because, by it, I see everything.

If the Word ever became man, would you expect anything less?