Global Theology

In 635, a Syrian monk named Alopen arrived in the Chinese capital.  A monument was placed in 781, called the Nestorian  Stele was a nine-foot limestone covered with inscription. It details the teachings of the Christian community as well as describes Alopen and his students. Nearly 150 years after his arrival, it is impossible to know what was originally in Alopen’s message and what was elaborated by the Chinese who became Christians. These inscriptions present a fairly orthodox understanding of Jesus, yet express that orthodoxy in distinctive ways that would resonate with the religious plurality of Asia at this time. Besides the text, there is the imagery of a cross emerging from a lotus blossom, demonstrating how the Christian message can grow from the existence of ancient Eastern religions.

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Quote from Philip Jenkins and Timothy of Seleucia

This is an extended quote from Philip Jenkins book, “The Lost History of Christianity: The Thousand-Year Goden Age of the Church in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia– and How it Died” (HarperOne, 2008).  I suppose it may be a longer quote than normal copyrights approve. But I do heartily recommend getting the book for those who are interested in Christian history… even more so since Asian and African Christianity are gaining in importance. Interfaith dialogue and interaction are also gaining in import, so there is much to be gained from this book.  This section speaks of Bishop Timothy living in the 8th and 9th centuries AD in Selucia. I am quoting from pages 16-19.

“Timothy’s church also had critical interactions with Islam, inevitably because for the past century and a half most Eastern Christians had lived under Muslim political power. Christians largely flourished under that authority, although subject to legal disadvantages. Timothy lived in a universe that was culturally and spiritually Christian but politically Muslim, and he coped quite comfortably with that situation. As faithful subjects, the patriarch and his clergy prayed for the caliph and his family. The catholicos was a key figure at the court of the Muslim caliph, and when the city of Seleucia itself went the way of ancient Babylon, fading into ruin in its turn, the caliphate moved its capital to Baghdad; and Timothy naturally followed. Most of his patriarchate coincided with the legendary caliphate of Haran al-Rashid, the era of the Arabian Nights.

As in the case of Buddhism, Christians had to engage intellectually with Islam, and the interactions were impressive, even moving. Timothy’s famous dialogue with the caliph al-Mahdi survives as a precious monument of civilized, intelligent religious exchange. …. He asked the king to imagine that

we are all of us as in a dark house in the middle of the night. If at night and in a dark house, a precious pearl happens to fall in the midst of people, and all become aware of its existence, every one would strive to pick up the pearl, which will not fall to the lot of all but to the lot of one only, while one will get hold of the pearl itself, another one of a piece of glass, a third one a stone or a bit of earth, but every one will be happy and proud that he is the real possessor of the pearl. When, however, night and darkness disappear, and light and day arise, then every one of those people who had believed that they had the pearl, would extend and stretch their hand towards the light, which alone can show what everyone has in hand. The one who possesses the pearl will rejoice and be happy and pleased with it, while those who had in hand pieces of glass and bits of stone only will weep and be sad, and will sigh and shed tears.

In the same way, Timothy said, the pearl of true faith had fallen into the transient mortal world, and each faith naively believed that it alone possessed it. All he could claim– and all the caliph could assert in response– was that some faiths could see enough evidence that theirs was the real pearl, although the final truth would not be known in this world.

Timothy could speak so freely because Eastern Christians played such a critical role of building Muslim politics and culture, and they still had a near stranglehold over the ranks of administration. Their wide linguistic background made the Eastern churches invaluable resources for rising empires in search of diplomats, advisers, and scholars. Eastern Christians dominated the cultural and intellectual life of what was only slowly becoming the “Muslim world,” and this cultural strength starkly challenges standard assumptions about the relationship between the two faiths. It is common knowledge that medieval Arab societies were far ahead of those of Europe in terms of science, philosophy, and medicine, and that Europeans derived much of their scholarship from the Arab world; yet in the early centuries, this cultural achievement was usually Christian and Jewish rather than Muslim. … Timothy himself translated Aristotle’s Topics from Syriac into Arabic, at the behest of the caliph. …

It was during Timothy’s time that Baghdad became a legendary intellectual center, and the caliph’s creation of the famous House of Wisdom, the fountainhead of later Islamic scholarship. But this was the direct successor of the Christian “university” of Jundishapur, and it borrowed many Nestorian scholars. One early head of the House of Wisdom was the Christian Arab Hunayn, who began the massive project of translating the Greek classics into Arabic: the works of Plato, Aristotle, and the Neoplatonists, as well as medical authorities like Hippocrates and Galen.”

It is sad that the congenial relations were not mirrored in Western Christianity. It is also sad that the usually peaceful relations in “Muslim” territories between Muslims and Eastern Christians ended starting in the 13th century continuing until today. However, as more and more Christians live in countries whose government is not aligned with Christian beliefs (be they Muslim, Buddhist, Secularist, or otherwise) we may find better models from the 1st Millennium Eastern Christianity in how to relate in their societies.

God, Space-Time, and the Church

<Warning:  Just some speculative mental wanderings. If it seems imbecilic or pointless… you are probably correct.>

Long ago, I used to be an engineer. I was a mechanical engineer and (for awhile) a nuclear engineer. As such I had a certain fascination with “techie” things, and with the boundaries of physics. As I transitioned into full-time Christian ministry, my readings moved more towards practical ministry, theology, and philosophy. I kind of wish now that I had kept up with physics, because it sure seems like there are areas in Modern Physics that brings up interesting ways of looking at God and the Church. Take the concept of Space-Time.

Einsteinian Physics focuses on Space-Time. Newtonian Physics assumes that time is constant, an unchanging ticking of a universal clock (it is interesting the Newton recognized that this was merely an assumption he was making, but did so since he had no way to prove or disprove it). But with Einstein, this changed. We see time as a vector tied to the three vectors that we are more comfortable with (length, width, and depth). In the past, one might look at the universe as a big (very big) ball. The ball may be changing (growing, shrinking, oscillating, whatever). However, with the new understanding it might be better to look at the universe as a giant hotdog.  Hotdog? By that I mean, if one looks at the universe at a moment of time (an admittedly questionable concept of itself, but never mind) it might look like the giant ball, but as it interacts with the time dimension one could see it as a series of balls forming a sausage shape with the curved surface at one end being the beginning (in the beginning) and the other side being the end (FIN).

With space-time, time and space interact in strange ways. Not only does change of position in space and time result in velocity, but velocity affects space and time (in space-time). Because of this, the concept of “the present” becomes muddy. The past and future become different parts of the hotdog. Modern Physics tends to downplay the perception of the passage of time. How MIGHT this affect theology?

1.  God’s position regarding the Universe. We often describe God as omnipresent and timeless. These could be described as God’s relationship with space and time. Some add immutability. This would be God’s unchanging nature (with respect of time). I am not particularly convinced that immutability is an accurate characteristic of God, based on the Biblical record.  “God and Time: Four Views” is a book showing four different Christian views (based on four Christian philosophers) of God’s nature regarding time. I will let others fight the details, but if God created space-time, then one could argue that God is outside of space-time, or at least not affected by it. God would be like a person looking at a hotdog (space-time). God is (from our perspective) in an eternal now. That does not necessarily mean that God is in a static existence where time does not exist. Rather, it means that God is timeless from our perspective (living as we do in the space-time “hotdog”). God can be said to be omnipresent and timeless by existing and permeating all points of space-time, but have existence that goes far outside of its boundaries.

2.  Prophecy. We often looked at prophecy (the foretelling-type of prophecy at least) as peeking into the future and writing it down beforehand. The question that resulted from that was whether prophecy violated freewill (or is there freewill to violate in the first place?). However, if one looks at the Universe in terms of space-time, prophecy is putting a note about what is seen in one part of the hotdog in a different part. As such, it loses, to some extent, its predictive quality. Space-time seems to allow for the idea that the future can affect the past. The principle of causation seems to prevent it, but a valid prophecy could be the result of an iterative process between past and future, which in the final point does not affect causation. Prophecy is simply writing down what is seen as happening in a different part of the space-time continuum (much like writing down in one place what is happening in a different geographic location). The effects of causation of a prophecy would affect instantaneously (if one could use such a term) space-time. A prophecy from divine perspective would affect other events, affecting the prophecy and so on until a stable loop results.

3.  Calvin and Arminius. This really relates to prophecy. Calvin saw salvation is imputed in the past (prescriptive) by God. Arminius saw it as based on divine foreknowledge (predictive). Since the Bible has passages that support both sides, Calvinists and Arminians tend to build their theology on the verses they prefer and downplay the theological significance of the verses of the opposition. There should be a better way. It seems as if the concept of space-time allows for a reading of scripture where the prescriptive and predictive meet. If God exists outside of Space-time, then God working with and respond to us now is not in conflict to God working for us in the past from our perspective since both are in the eternal NOW.

4.  The Universal Church. If we talk about the Universal Church, we talk about churches in the Americas, in Asia, in Africa, in every part of the world. But from the space-time concept, it is equally valuable and important to think of the church in all points of time, not just space. I am an evangelical, and evangelicals tend to be ahistoric. Some other groups are highly focused on the past… on tradition. But both kind of miss the point. The church of North Africa died close to 1200 years ago. This is a sad thing. But they are not gone. In space- time, they are equally part of us. They exist in history, so they exist. They are an active part of the Universe as much as we are. As such, to ignore them or fail to interact with them is as foolish as ignoring churches today in Southeast Asia. When Jesus noted that God is the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, we need to remember that God is our God now as well. If we are connected to God in the eternal NOW, as is the patriarchs, then we are connected to them as well. If this is a valid way of looking at things, it is an awesome thing to meditate upon.

5.  The spirit world. Attitudes differ as far as ghosts, angels, and demons. There are even arguments as to whether we are simply flesh and blood (the mind/soul/spirit simply being a simplistic model for describing the chemical-electrical interactions of the flesh and bolood) or if there indeed is a ghost in the machine… a driver inside, but unique, from the vehicle. The space-time Universe allows for the idea of the Multiverse. Many Universes. These may be independent, but could, potentially, interact. Phenomena that do not fit well into the naturalistic (repeatable and predictive) phenomena of our space-time may be due to unpredictable interactions with other universes. It might be a bit like the ghost images one might get on a signal due to problems of multiplexing signals. Don’t know. Just something to think about.

So what does this all have to do with Missions? I have no idea. However, Christians should not fear science (nor get to impressed by its strongest supporters). God put us in a place more amazingly complex and interesting than we have even allowed ourselves to dream. We should be prepared, as Newton, Kepler, and many others, to understand ourselves and understand God, by understanding His works. If the heavens do indeed declare the glory of God, we need to listen to that declaration.

 

Missionary for Hire

Being a missionary is both a divine calling and a professional vocation. These two truths exist in constant tension with each other. This is true of other forms of ministry as well.

Micah’s Idol

Take the story of Micah and the Levite in Judges 17-18. The two main characters are Micah, an Israelite living in Laish, and a Levite from Bethlehem, but looking for a new place to live and work. You can read the story yourself. Micah was a syncretized Israelite. He believed in the God of Abraham, Jacob, and Moses. He was also a pious person desiring to have his own special place to worship God. However, much of the way he understood God and worshiped him was in line with regional pagan understandings. He set up an idol (“graven image”) in his own house (along with already having little “house gods” already there) and he set up one of his sons as a priest of God. This all was in violation of Mosaic Law. As the writer said in the book of Judges, people did whatever was seen as right in their own eyes.

When a Levite from Bethlehem came by, Micah offered to make him a priest. This was also in violation of Mosaic Law, but since the man was a Levite, he was tied to the ministry work of God. Clearly, having a Levite as a priest would be more presitious than having his own son. Micah offered a really sweet deal of position and wealth. The Levite accepted. However, later on the Danites (a tribe of Israel) found the place, stole the idol of Micah, and offered the Levite a promotion… being priest of the whole tribe.

In the story we see a minister (the Levite) looking for work. It appears that his decision-making process was primarily guided by pay, position, and prestige. He worked for Micah, because of good pay and the title of priest. He then switched to working for the Danites since he retained the good stuff of before but was added the prestige of being the religious professional for a whole tribe.

Yet, the story also shows the Levite giving up a lot as well. He had to violate Mosaic moral law. He had to worship and serve a graven image (an idol) in violation of the Decalogue. He violated Mosaic ceremonial law. A Levite (who was not of the Aaronic line) could not serve as a priest. Finally, he served money and people rather than God. His decision-making was based on pay, position, and prestige, rather than on what God wanted.

The story of Micah and the Levite is pretty straightforward, and sometimes things are pretty straightforward today. I have seen ministers who follow the money. Heterodox groups come in (here in the Philippines, this is quite common) and offer money to ministers if they will change allegiances. Again, pay, position, and prestige are used to lure the person to serving a god that is somewhat similar to the one they were trained to serve, but is somewhat different now.

The story of Micah and the Levite is pretty straightforward, but sometimes things are NOT straightforward today. Serving God in ministry often results in opportunities to serve in different places in different roles. This is not inherently bad.

There are some who assume that a divine calling to ministry is either tied to a specific role, or to a specific location. This does not appear to be correct. First, there appears to be little evidence of such a calling in the Bible (especially, the New Testament). Second, the church fathers appeared not to follow that either. Take, for example, John Mark. John Mark began ministry as a helper of Barnabbas. Later on, he served as a helper of Paul and of Peter. This type of work is apostolic (missionary role).  However, later in life he changed role and location, becoming bishop (pastor) of the church of Alexandria. Another example appears to be St. John. He served as an apostle for many years. But what about later in life? It depends on who you ask. The church fathers note a person called John the Elder who served in Ephesus. Some church fathers show John the Apostle as the same person as John the Elder, but some disagree. I would like to suggest that the confusion that people had in later centuries was based on confusion as to what an apostle was. An apostle was a missionary, a church-planter. It is a role outside of the local church. I believe that John did the same thing as John Mark. As he got older, he “retired” from the travel and responsibilities of the apostolic role, and moved to serving in a local church (Ephesus) as an elder.

There are other examples as well. The challenge then is this:

1.  Maturity and opportunities may mean that it is needed, appropriate, or desirable to change ministerial role or location.

2.  It is not wrong in and of itself to change role or location.

3.  I believe that we have a certain amount of freedom in this, but not total freedom. Paul appeared to have a great deal of freedom to go where he wanted to go, yet God did step in to guide him away from one area to send him to Macedonia.

4.  The freedom God gives is limited by God’s will. Serving a ministry that violates God’s Word and will.

5.  Pay, Position, and Prestige are not bad of themselves, but one must be sure that these are not used to rationalize serving in the wrong role, the wrong place, or the wrong person (or god).

6.  I don’t believe that making a wrong choice, leads necessarily to failure. I do believe that Paul made a mistake in not recognizing divine warning from church leaders about going to Jerusalem. However, regardless, God used him. We can make mistakes, and correct later if necessary.

7.  I believe that the guiding principle is the Great Commandment. Our priorities are love of God and love of man (rather than pay, position, and prestige).

Anyway, that is the way I see it now. But I am learning and growing as well.

A Life of Faithful Imperfection

Consider the following metaphor:

A child is running on the sidewalk. He trips and falls down. After a moment of being stunned and another moment of reflection and evaluation, he ties his right shoe lace, brushes the pebbles off his pants and shirt, gets up, and continues running.

Apollo Quiboloy With Some of His Followers

 

Who is the best witness? I would suggest that it is an individual who lives a life of faithful imperfection.

Not everyone agrees. Often the thought is that perfection is the best model. Certainly, Jesus is our model. Yet, He is the image of the transcendent God in immanent form. Yet, Jesus did not stay with us, but rather returned to heaven leaving us as imperfect people acting as witnesses of a perfect God. PERHAPS an imperfect witness is a better witness than a perfect one since we have a hard time relating to perfection… or even recognizing it.

Certainly, many groups seek to show themselves in terms of perfection. Turning the channels on TV here in the Philippines, I stop briefly at a channel owned by a local religion created by a man who claims to be “the new Son of God.” He says that Jesus was the Son of God, but now Jesus is the Father, and he (Apollo Quiboloy) is the new Son of God. I don’t really pay much attention to the group… happily the group has little impact up here in Baguio… but the channel really portrays a very sweet, syrupy, (and to me at least, creepy) image. The people at his temple in Davao are all dressed the same and act the same. The leader is the clear center of attention (of himself as well as his followers). All of the TV productions are developed to portray a certain perfection. The camera angles and lenses are set up to make the temple appear larger than it really is (it is kind of reminiscent of the Mormon tendency to always show the Salt Lake Temple from low angles to make it look taller and grander). The music is heavily audio mixed, with photogenic singers (all dressed the same) or with idyllic backgrounds like those used for videoke.

I am sure this sort of production is appealing to some. For me, it is very disturbing. The narcissistic leader, the high pressure towards group conformity, and huge concern about image points towards an authoritarian, “cultic” structure (though I have never talked to an insider, so I can only go by the way they wish to present themselves). Such an image could never appeal to me and most people I know. 

I would like to suggest that the example above is NOT what we are supposed to show as witnesses of Christ. Yes, it might be attractive to some, but it may be drawing people to individuals or churches rather than to God. It is interesting that none of the church fathers in the New Testament are shown this way. Rather, they are shown making mistakes and learning. Even Jesus is shown in surprisingly human (non-idealized) terms. It is also interesting that there are very few examples of perfect followers of God in the Bible. Daniel might be an exception, but few look to Daniel as an example except for courage.

In business/marketing it has been discovered that when a problem occurs with a customer, it is better to to treat the customer graciously and extravagantly than it is to try to cover things up. In fact, there is greater customer loyalty from those who were dissatisfied and then treated well than by those who were not disatisfied in the first place! Many companies embrace faithful imperfection in building a strong customer base, rather than by denying errors and covering things up.

Let’s return to the metaphor. The boy falls down… making a mistake. There is the momentary shock (normal) followed by self-reflection (what went wrong, what problems now exist). The problem is found and corrected and cleaned up. Then the boy continues on the way. This is faithful imperfection. It is inspirational. It is more inspirational than seeing a child running and apparently not challenged by obstacles and gravity.

Faithful perfection is hypocrisy since we are NOT perfect. (Those who are part of the Holiness tradition believe in the possibility of perfection in this world. I will leave that to theologians to argue about. But I am unaware of any perfect people and am uncertain that a perfect person would be very useful in this world.)

Unfaithful (perfect or otherwise) is simply secular. I have heard some church leaders describing the church as simply a congregation of sinners. Yet that is NOT simply what we are meant to be. We are meant to be sinners, learning, and growing in faithfulness. Otherwise we are no witness at all.

Separatism, Pietism, and Apocalypticism

Bonhoeffer saw the chief temptation faced by Christians as the lure to withdraw out of the world into pious enclaves, to erect private spheres of religiosity or to view religion as one activity or dimension of existence in addition to the others.

The Gospel is not a call to be religious in this sense. Bonhoeffer asserted. Thus he rejected any suggestion that Christians should strive for a detached, disengaged piety that was viewed as elevating them above humankind. To be a Christian, he argued, does not entail cultivating asceticism.

Rather, to be a Christian means to participate in the life of the world, to serve God in the world, and not merely to some sterile religious sanctuary or in an isolated sheltered Christian enclave. The church is ‘to stand in the center of the village,’ he argued, and the Christian life is to be lived in the world. He found this call to be based on the nature of the Christian hope itself, which is not directed toward an escape from the present situation into a better world beyond the grave, but rather sends believers back to life on earth in a wholly new way. We must ‘drink the earthly cup to the lees,’ he declared, for only in so doing is the crucified and risen Lord with us.”

Quote of Stanley Grenz and Roger Olson in the book “20th Century Theology: God and the World in a Transitional Age,” InterVarsity Press, 1992, pg. 153.

I was raised up in a a Separatist tradition. While there is much in my upbringing that I do embrace, I do believe that Separatism (the spiritual, and often physical, removal of the church from society as much as possible) has  tended to make churches increasingly irrelevant. I believe Pietism (I am using the term in this case for the attitude of judging “spirituality” or “godliness” by the intensity or duration of privatized spiritual disciplines) and Apocalypticism (I am using the term in this case as an intense focus on the future Kingdom of God so that the world we live in, and our role in it, is highly devalued) are related problems within the Reformed, Fundamentalist, Evangelical, Pentecostal, and Charismatic movements. I am not attacking these movements. I am deeply rooted in two or three of these movements, but believe it is time for some self-reflection and change to be effective in our work in the world.

Diaspora Missions and the “Recovery of the Soul”

This is just some thoughts on Diaspora missions. I have a number of friends and colleagues who are experts on Diaspora missions. I am not such an expert. But writing is my way thinking and learning.  Diaspora refers to the “scattered seed” or the scattered people group in other countries. Filipinos are commonly thought of as a group with a large Diaspora. Close to 10% of Filipinos work overseas. This is a huge number with a lot of sociological implications… many of them not good. However, rather than focusing on the problems associated with the Diaspora (or OFW) phenomenon, I would rather focus on the REALITY of the situation. It exists, so how do we work with it?

1.  Diaspora missions is sub-cultural missions. Missions can focus on cultures (dominant culture), sub-cultures, or micro-cultures. Sub-cultures are different from micro-cultures with sub-cultures involving groups that are unique within the broader society 24 hours a day.  Micro-cultures are unique only part of the time. For example, taxicab drivers have a distinctive culture part of the day and then go home and join the larger culture the rest of the time. OFWs normally are recognized as a different culture 24-hours a day.

2.  Typically, Diaspora missions is Marginalized Diaspora missions. If the Diaspora are Integrated or Assimilated into the broader society, there is little need for a separate missions methodology. It is possible, theoretically, for Diaspora to exist within a Separated relationship with the broader society. This might exist in some scattered people groups such as the Romany. However, with groups like the Filipinos, they are thinly scattered within the broader society because of work status. Rarely do they live with the option of being in a sub-cultural enclave.

3. Marginalized Diaspora missions needs to deal with more than simply conversion. Marginalization suggests that the people have lost important aspects of their culture without gaining some other coping mechanisms from the dominant culture. While most of us don’t FEEL like we need culture… but we do. Partly, this is because culture provides a narrative, a structure, and a set of coping mechanisms. Without these, there is emotional and behavioral chaos.

Why is this? Take the case of Filipino Overseas Foreign Workers (OFWs). Filipinos who work overseas typically are:

a.  Uprooted from their religious, familial, and social bonds, norms, and taboos. This forces them to try to create new bonds, norms, and taboos.

b.  Not only are OFWs removed from the extended families, they are commonly removed from their nuclear families. In many sub-cultures new norms and bonds form that are hugely in conflict with their home culture. Infidelity not only causes a lot of legal and financial problems, it creates a lot of internal tension, and family destruction.

c.  OFWs relate to the broader culture in different ways. In some cases they are welcome and legal. In some cases they are legal but unwelcome (or are at least denigrated). In some cases they are welcome (at least by employers) but illegal. I have seen some places were Filipinos are looked at as a people of servants, because the OFWs take on the roles that the local people don’t want to do (much like the migrant worker situation in the US). Often the OFWs have more education than the people they are working for. All of this adds additional stress and questions regarding self-identity and self-worth.

I am sure there are more. But all of this gives some suggestion of roles needed in Diaspora Missions.

  • The disorientation of the new culture may make OFWs open to spiritual redirection. Conversion and church development are important, but this is just the start.
  • The church for OFWs needs to provide a role more in line with the 1st century church. The first century church created a new family and structure (without rejecting one’s old family).
  • OFWs need to be helped to develop healthy new social structures. They can’t simply copy the ones from home. Yet, assimilating into the new culture can be very unhealthy, as is maintaining a culturally damaged (marginalized) status.
  • OFWs need to be helped to integrate their lives so that they are not developing a compartmentalized life (two families, two sets of morals).

In clinical pastoral counseling, there is language used referring to the “recovery of the soul.” The term soul in this case is closer to the older meaning for spirit… the self empowered and meaningful life. The ideal of clinical pastoral counseling must follow through into Diaspora Missions. OFWs need to feel empowered, but that empowering must have meaning/direction… and that direction needs to be healthy, not unhealthy. 

That is a major challenge with Diaspora missions. To a large extent OFWs gain power (money) through working overseas. But the direction of that power tears families a part and creates marginalized sub-cultures. Diaspora missions needs to step in and work with OFWs to redirect… the recovery of the soul.