How Do We Dialogue Among Faiths?

I will be teaching Inter-religious Dialogue this next semester at seminary. First time I have ever taught such a course. I look forward to it. But it is challenging to find good sources within the Evangelical Realm as far as how to do Interfaith Dialogue.

I think some of this is because there is a basic disrespect, and distrust, of Dialogue. To be fair, some of the concerns have merit. There are genuine concerns regarding the practice of Dialogue. But instead of dealing with that directly here… I would rather look at three basic approaches to Dialogue. Note:  These are my terms. I suppose I could use someone else’s terminology, but I like my own.

spectrum-dialogue

The spectrum above is based on how similarities and differences are handled.

  1.  Relativistic Approach.  On one side, people can dialogue where the emphasis is on finding similarities. The interaction seeks to be positive and finding common statements of belief. Although it sounds good, it does have problems from and Evangelical standpoint. First, there is a tendency to whitewash differences with vague terminologies. Second, a “lowest common denominator” is often sought– emphasizing as important the things we share, while trivializing the differences. Third, as the sketch suggests… there is a temptation to relativize belief– suggesting that all belief systems are equally valid and relevant. One might note that emphasizing similarities does not automatically lead to relativism… it seems to commonly happen.
  2. Apologetic Approach. On the other side, dialogue can be focused on differences. This can be problematic since it tends to lead to arguments (thus “apologetic approach.”) Additionally, by deemphasizing similarities, there is a temptation towards stereotyping or exaggerating the differences, and treating similarities as trivial. The apologetic approach often finds a welcome place among Evangelicials since it tends to promote an Exclusivistic (or at most Inclusivistic) view of Salvation. Tied to this, many Evangelicals, valuing evangelism, have the ill-considered notion that focusing on differences and arguments is a good strategy to convert other people. It is hard to imagine where such a notion would come from.
  3. Clarification Approach. Rather than emphasizing one or the other, the goal is to identify similarities and differences. The aim is neither to argue nor to relativize… but to gain mutual understanding. From such mutual understanding, one can lead to finding areas of common ground that could lead to partnerships in some areas (more in line with Relativistic end of the spectrum). On the other hand, it can also lead to finding areas of honest conflict and then develop means to express these differences in ways that can be understood and evaluated by all  (more in line with the Apologetic end of the spectrum).

It is pretty clear from the way I described these, that I primarily value the middle path… of clarification. I believe it is the most:

  • Intellectually honest. It is a bit dishonest to stereotype beliefs to emphasize differences, or to relativize or whitewash beliefs to emphasize similarities.
  • Useful. Evangelicals want to share their faith, but this is done best through open dialogue that compares and contrasts openly the beliefs of two faiths. One extreme (apologetic) makes the other faith irrelevant. The other extreme (relativistic) makes the need for change irrelevant.
  • Respectful. The Apologetic approach tends to disrespect adherents of the opposite side by emphasizes areas of conflict. The Relativistic approach tends to disrespect by trivializing the treasured beliefs of one or both groups.  The middle ground seeks to respect the beliefs (honestly clarifying similarities and differences) and respecting those of other faiths.

Frankly, the extremes are not only less respectful, they can be a bit insulting. I have had people talk to me about their own faith in such vague, generalized terms, to try to give the impression that I should really join their group because “we really believe the same thing, don’t we?” At the other extreme, I have had people from other groups who will throw verses at me from the Bible (like JWs repeating any verse using the term “Jehovah/Yahweh,” Adventists repeating any that mentions the Sabbath, or radical monotheists that refer to God’s “oneness”) as if verse dropping adequately divides the world into two groups… those who are correct and those who are dead wrong. I tend to find it insulting because it seems to me that they assume that I don’t know my own beliefs well enough to understand the complexities that go beyond “proof-texts” or generalizations. Maybe I am too sensitive… but I really doubt that I am alone in this.

Consider looking at an issue through all three approaches of the age-old question:  “Do Jews, Christians, and Muslims worship the same God?”

Relativizing Approach.  Of course we worship the same God. All three groups say that there is only one God. If there is only one God, it is impossible to worship another anyway. But not only that but key aspects of the revelation of the three groups identify the God of each group as being the same. This includes His Transcendance, His intent to interact and reveal Himself in history, and His power and wisdom. Additionally, we share some commonality of prophecy, such as God revealing Himself through Abraham and Moses.

Apologetic Approach. Of course we DON’T worship the same God. Both Muslims and Jews see the Christian God as really being three Gods, and thus not monotheistic. Christians reject the views of Muslims especially that minimize God’s immanance, and reject the Jewish view that does not see prophetic relevance in the teachings and nature of Jesus. In fact, our understanding of who God is, comes primarily from our Sacred Scriptures. Since Christians and Jews both reject the Quran, and Jews reject the New Testament, and Muslim Scripture in many places contradicts Jewish and Christian Scriptures (even while claiming to find value in them), it is ridiculous to think we worship the same God. If the characteristics of God in the three groups is different, and the sacred texts that are suppose to reveal God are different, clearly these are three different “gods.”

<Both of these points have merits. The Relativizing Approach can whitewash differences with common terminology. As I have noted in another post, three people may believe in “the largest animal on earth.” Since they all believe in the same term we might guess they believe in the same thing. However, if one gets past the common terminology, one may discover the person A believes that animal to be a huge fish-like creature that breathes air, person B believes it to be a large gray land animal with big nose and ears, and person C believes it to be a giant winged reptilian-like creature that breathes fire. The terminology disguises the vast differences. On the other hand, the Apologetic Approach may seek to “major on the minor,” focusing on relevant but somewhat minor differences while minimizing the major, and perhaps more important, similarities.?>

Clarification Approach respectfully listens to both sides and tries to understand their beliefs from the other’s perspective. In line with that, try to understand the terminologies so that differences are not hidden by similar terms, and similarities are not hidden by different terms. So if Muslims use the term Allah, Christians use God or Dios, and Jews use the Tetragrammaton, Elohim, or Adonai, the different terms do not necessarily point to worship of different Gods. On the other hand, using a mutually agreed upon term, like “The God of Abraham” does not necessarily mean that each understand the divine being behind the term the same way.

 

The Hopeful Pessimist

I am a self-described pessimist. Some find this troubling… believing that optimism is healthier, and makes one happier. As a melancholic, I am not all that sure I want to be happier… I want contentment… I want peace,.. I want purpose… I want belongingness.  I think I can generally do with just a small bit of happiness most of the time.Mud Splat.jpg

But as a Christian, I often wonder whether pessimism is wholly consistent with my faith. Additionally, there are people who describe pessimism as another term for “realism.” That sounds more negative than I am, or want to be.

With that in mind, I decided to start reading Jurgen Moltmann’s book “The Theology of Hope.” I still have a long way to go in the book, but it emphasizes eschatology (the “study of last things”) as not so much a field of academic rigor, but a recognized hope that helps us interpret the past and especially the present.

This may sound strange, but one thing I like about this viewpoint is that it leaves room for an element of pessimism. Consider a quote of John Calvin on Hebrew 11:1, referred to by Moltmann:

“To us is given the promise of eternal life– but to us, the dead. A blessed resurrection is proclaimed to us– meantime we are surrounded by decay. We are called righteous– and yet sin lives in us. We hear of ineffable blessedness– but mean time we are here oppressed by infinite misery. We are promised abundance of all good things–yet we are rich only in hunger and thirst. What would become of us if we did not take our stand on hope, and if our heart did not hasten beyond this world through the midst of the darkness upon the path illumined by the word and Spirit of God!”

In other words we live in a world of suffering and injustice. Pessimism, then, is in a sense justifiable, a truly realistic and appropriate viewpoint much of the time. YET… as people of faith in Christ, we also have a divine hope– a hope that starkly contrasts and contests with the world we perceive.

Moltmann also quotes J.G. Hamann rhetorical question, “Who would form proper concepts of the present without knowing the future?” The future hope doesn’t just contrast with the present… It helps us understand the present.The present, likewise, drives us to hope.As a Christian… pessimism, expecting the worst rather than the best in the present and near future, may be well-founded anecdotally– perhaps even empirically… yet it is still not fully realistic. Quoting Moltmann directly this time:

“Hope alone is to be called ‘realistic’, because it alone takes seriously the possibilities with which all reality is fraught. It does not take things as they happen to stand or to lie, but as progressing, moving things with possibilities of change. Only as long as the world and the people in it are in a fragmented and experimental state which is not yet resolved, is there any sense in earthly hopes. The latter anticipate what is possible to reality, historic and moving as it is, and use their influence to decide the process of history. Thus hopes and anticipation of the future are not a transfiguring glow superimposed upon a darkened existence, but are realistic ways of perceiving the scope of our real possibilities, and as such they set everything in motion and keep it in a state of change. Hope and the kind of thinking that goes with it consequently cannot submit to the reproach of being utopian, for they do not strive after things that have ‘no place’, but after things that have ‘no place as yet’ but can acquire one. On the other hand, the celebrated realism of the stark facts, of established objects and laws, the attitude that despairs of its possibilities and clings to reality as it is, is inevitably much more open to the charge of being utopian, for in its eyes there is ‘no place’ for possibilities, for future novelty, and consequently for the historic character of reality. Thus, the despair which imagines it has reached theend of its tether proves to be illusory, as long as nothing has yet come to an end but everything is still full of possibilities. Thus positivistic realism also proves to be illusory, so long as the world is not a fixed body of facts but a network of paths and processes, so long as the world does not only run according to laws but these laws themselves are also flexible, so long as it is a realm in which necessity means the possible, but not the unalterable.”

So what does this mean to me? Pessimism can take (at least) two flavors. One flavor is despairing or nihilistic. I remember a quote from the TV Show “Late Night With David Letterman” that stated “Life is a sucking, swirling, eddy of despair, bespeckled with brief glimmers of false hope in an ever-blackening universe.” Some pessimists are disappointed when good comes… They have come to not only expect, but appreciate, bad things occurring.

But another flavor of pessimism is hopeful. Such a person recognizes the failings, the flaws of the NOW, and anticipates these flaws, these ills, are pushing the world towards more misery and pain. Yet, as a Christian one is aware that God is committed to redemption of His children and His world. This commitment gives us hope and helps us to interpret the present from a less myopic perspective. That perspective does not eradicate pessimism… we still see the institutions and powers of this world that perpetuate sin and misery. In fact, a clear-eyed recognition of the NOW can better give us the heart that makes us all the more long for God, and to pray, “Thy Kingdom Come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in Heaven.”

(By the way, I websearched the term “Hopeful Pessimist” and discovered that I am not alone. Perhaps I should feel good about that.  Or maybe not.)

The Taxidermic Minister

fox-and-pheasant-001

I come from a rural community in upstate New York in the United States. It is not known for its art culture. However, one art form that is quite strong there is taxidermy. I haven’t really seen it practiced here in the Philippines. For those who don’t know, it is the art of making the skins of animals resemble living animals by stuffing them and placing them on a frame. The etymology is from the greek for “Arranged Skins.” Those who are especially adept are able to produce artwork that looks like it is alive. While some simply mount the heads on a wall, many prefer to make the full animal (whether mammal, bird, or other) “come alive.” The true artist (taxidermist) can make the art look:

  • Real
  • Alive
  • With personality
  • In an appropriate setting for the animal

Of course, that is what makes it art, because:

  • It is not real. Underneath the dead hide is wood, foam, stuffing, or other materials.
  • It is not alive, and most of its components were not even part of the animal.
  • It has no personality. It’s eyes and mouth are fake, and its posture is attained through proper framing.
  • The setting (a branch for example) is as fake as the rest… to give the illusion of being in the wild, when it is actually in someone’s house… or perhaps a museum.

This art form can, in fact, be quite beautiful. It can also be comforting. Some people will have their dearly departed pet “stuffed” to keep with them always.

This reminds me of Revelation 3 in the description of the Church of Sardis. Jesus through John states that the church has the “reputation on being alive” but is, in fact, dead. The term “reputation” means “named” or “labelled.” But another way of saying it is that the church  presents all appearances of being alive, and yet isn’t. One might call this a “Taxidemic Church.”

I want to think about Taxidermic Ministers, whether pastors, missionaries, or layministers. Appearing alive, and not dead in ministry is not that hard.

  1.  Anyone raised up in a church culture learns how to behave to be recognized as being alive in that culture. Sometimes we talk about “cultural Christians” as people who describe themselves as Christians, but live on the periphery of the church and (perhaps) lack saving faith. But the second part (living on the periphery of the church) is presumptive. A Christian who lacks saving faith are often deeply embedded in the church. They are connected through decades of habits to the church culture. They can play church as good as, or better, than anyone else.
  2. Seminary indoctrinates the future minister in how to give the appearance of a vibrant spiritual life. What to say in different occasions, the proper theological and biblical lingo, the denominationally appropriate expressions of proclamation, worship, exaltation, and piety— all give false indication of vitality.
  3. The ministry culture establishes fairly clear expectations for the minister. By “listening” to these expectations and carrying them out, a minister learns not only how to “talk the talk” but how to “walk the walk” in the eyes of those around them.

And yet they are dead. They may be dead spiritually… having no faith… or having “lost the faith.” There have been articles of pastors who were, or became atheists. Despite this, they maintained their roles in ministry. Hardly surprising. Most of us, at one time or another, have worked for a company or a person that we don’t respect (or at least don’t believe in their vision). It is highly demotivating. However, a paycheck and other perks can help considerably  Some ministers reach a point in which their relationship to their ministry culture is so enmeshed that employment outside of ministry is unlikely, or at least scary.

Some are not spiritually dead (referring here to faith) but are emotionally dead. This can occur through psychophysical burnout. Elijah (running to Mount Horeb) or Jesus (going to Gethsemene) appear relevant examples. I think it can also happen as one loses “one’s first love” (as mentioned of the Ephesian church). Some have drifted from service as worship to service as duty.

This last one is part of my problem with the common evangelical doctrine of “calling.” People have told me that to go into ministry, one must have a “clear sense of God’s unique calling to professional ministry.” Additionally, if someone is considering getting out of such ministry, others will tell them that they are “rejecting their calling.” I have problems with this for two reasons. First, it is doubtful from a Biblical standpoint. In the Bible, all Christians are called to ministry… and “Whoever aspires to be an overseer desires a noble task” (I Timothy 3:1) regardless of whether the church, ultimately calls the person to this role. This common understanding of “calling” seems to have deeper roots in the Catholic sacrament of “Holy Orders” than in the Bible.

Secondly, however, this understanding of calling leads to dejection and burnout. A minister is struggling with faith, priorities, vision, burnout, and such, and the “calling” card is tossed on the table essentially saying, “Too late now… you are stuck.” No one should minister because they feel trapped.

How can one identify a “taxidermic minister”? There can be obvious signs of burnout or hypocrisy… but not all may show it. Some people feel that they have special discernment to identify the spiritual strength of another. Usually, I suspect, this is more hubris than anything else. (I recall a lady coming to Baguio claiming the ability to identify the hidden sins of others. I recall her telling a teenage boy that his secret sin had to do with “sex.” Not exactly a difficult guess… and I assume it was a guess, since I can’t see why God would give out such a useless, and a bit pharisaic, gift anyway.) The skill of a minister to have the reputation of being alive, while being dead, is akin to the artistic competence of a taxidermist to make his art to make what is dead appear alive.

However, allowing ministers to “be real” in ministry rather than put on the garb (arranged skins) of culturally mandated piety and unique holiness, could help. Recognizing calling as a path of following Christ that all of us share, not just a unique vocational group, couldn’t hurt either. We are ALL on the same pilgrimage with Christ.

If the church can recognize that every self-reflective, honest person struggles with faith, including ministers, I believe we would do much better in helping all process it. I recall a time years ago when I struggled with my faith. I was able to resolve it by recognizing that faith is NOT blind trust, and that doubt is NOT antithetical to faith. My honest struggling with faith, has greatly strengthened my faith. I am glad I found resources where I could deal with these doubts without castigation.

 

 

 

 

New Evangelism?

A new evangelism, expressed in terms of contemporary experience, must begin with finding a new motive for mission. The imperatives of earlier centuries, particularly of the nineteenth and the first half of the twentieth century, are no longer valid or compelling.devil

Dr. Michael Green states (“Evangelism in the Early Church”, 1970) there was a three-fold motive for mission in the early church. First, there was a sense of gratitude for what Christ had done. Second, early Christians were conscious of their responsibility to God to communicate the message they had received. Third, there was a concern, a passion for people.

… Over the years since the first century, the motive for mission has varied. Let us look for a moment at the evangelism of the eighteenth, nineteenth, and early twentieth centuries. … The driving motive of Christians in these years was a passion for souls. With the vivid belief in the reality of heaven and hell, Christians sought to rescue people from eternal punishment and to open the door to heaven for them before it was too late.

Perhaps the most vivid expression of this type of motive can be heard throbbing in the ministry of Dr. Jonathan Edwards. It is powerfully expressed in his famous sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” Dr. Edwards apparently produced a tremendous impact on the eastern coast of America as he thundered: “God holds you over the pit of hell. You hang by a slender thread with the flames of divine wrath flashing about it. Now harken to the loud call of God’s word and providence. Therefore let everyone who is out of Christ now awake and fly from the wrath to come.”

Nineteenth century motives for mission are no longer viable or credible. Enticement of heaven or the dread of hell no longer possess the power they once did. There are several reasons for this decline. (Alan Walker, “The New Evangelism” (Abingdon Press, 1975), 8-11)

Alan Walker suggest a few reasons:

-Reduction of early morality rates makes death seem less real or pressing. While this feeling is essentially inaccurate (death is still inevitable), death and post-death experience doesn’t connect as viscerally as it may have in the past. I have heard a study that 3% of Americans are afraid of hell. Some perhaps lack fear because they are convinced that they are heaven-bound. Others lack fear because they don’t believe in hell. However, others may be uncertain about the future, and believe in hell… but they don’t feel the fear because there is a perception of “distance” between now and death. This would be pretty similar to a 20 year old eating junk food and being asked to think about its effect on his heart… possibly, eventually, a long time from now.

-Hope of Reward and Fear of Punishment seem like inadequate motives for salvation. Many are uncomfortable with using this methodology to inspire conversion. James Fowler’s faith development stages does point out that doing right because of fear of punishment is a much lower (and not wholly desirable) stage of faith growth. Those who use only fear of hell as their argument to convert can come off more as fire insurance salesmen… rather than bearer’s of good news and Christ’s kingdom.

-Focusing on hell does tend to portray God poorly. The God portrayed by Jonathan Edward seems to have made cultural sense in the time of Jonathan Edward, as well as John Tetzel, but today such a God does not appear to be worthy of worship. Frankly, the God of the Bible generally seems much more compassionate than many more recent evangelistic portrayals.

I would probably add at least one more. Modernism brought doubt about old answers, a faith in certain new answers, and a pluralism based on greater interaction of people of different cultural viewpoints. It also inspired Post-modernism which has doubts regarding modernism, as well as the new answers, but without necessarily embracing the older answers.

Of course, not believing in hell does not make it go away. But over reliance on it as an evangelism strategy seems out of sorts with many modern or post-modern cultures. I have mentioned before the controversy as to whether accepting the Lordship of Christ is necessary for salvation.  We often say that we accept Jesus as Savior and Lord… but some suggest that only one is necessary. I am not competent necessarily to determine if both are necessary, but the bigger question, I believe, is on the other side. It seems pretty obvious from Scripture that calling on the name of the Lord implies a decision to follow Christ… as Lord. The bigger question is whether salvation necessitates recognizing Jesus as Savior. Can a person be saved who accepts Jesus as Lord… before understanding that He is also Savior? Or if a person accepts Jesus as Savior, must he be absolutely aware of what exactly he has been saved from?

I think the note in the quote about the three motivations of the early church for evangelizing is important. The three motivations:

  • Gratitude for the work of Christ in their lives
  • Responsibility before God to share the Good News.
  • Concern or passion for people

These seem like appropriate motives. When I interviewed medical evangelistic ministry workers/organizers, I asked what are their motives for doing the ministry. The top three were:

  • Love of God
  • Love/concern for people
  • Obedience  to the Great Commission

These three are about the same. Unfortunately the motive, “a passion for souls,” has proven inadequate. One might surmise that passion for souls would necessitate love or concern for people. But that has not proven true. We find many who tirelessly share the word of God seeking conversion, who show little to no concern for the social, economic, psycho-emotional, plights of the people they share with. To ignore these other areas may be consistent with a passion for souls, but outrageously dissonant with genuine love or concern for people.

 

 

 

Instilling Healthy Doubt

I saw on FB another bit of foolishness. Okay, there has been a LOT of foolishness on Facebook lately. A recent  post claimed that Satanists utilize “LOL” to mean “Lucifer our Lord.” So if we use “LOL” in our posts, we are endorsing Satan. Let’s have a reality moment here:

  1. I don’t use “LOL,” so if all Christians stopped using the term, it is entirely possible that the world would be a (slightly) better place. Who knows?
  2. It is possible, I suppose, that SOME people who call themselves Satanists do use those letters that way. The last time I had an insightful discussion with a self-described Satanist was 25 years ago. In his case, he did not believe in a literal Satan, but appreciated a “satanic” philosophy… not so far from Hedonism. In his case, and those like him, since he does not believe in Satan per se (ontologically), such a use of “LOL” would be humorous or ironic, rather than worshipful or respectful.

There is some serious foolishness here. It is not about the doubtful use of the term by Satanists. Rather the foolishness springs from:

  1. The thought that the term inherently endorses or empowers Satanism. There may be two different beliefs here. One belief may be that a symbol can only have one meaning. For example, reading comments on FB, there are serious questions regarding the Confederate Battle flag. Two different segments of society argue about what the flag REALLY represents. In fact, it represents two different things to two different groups.  If a symbol means something to Group A and something different to Group B, each can use the symbol as they see fit… without being affected or tainted by another groups use. (I am talking about meaning here… not political affects. Two different meanings can lead to problems, like if a red octagonal road sign means “STOP” to one group of people and “SPEED UP” to another.) . A symbol is always culturally determined. A symbol is not inherently “tainted” by another group. However, the second possible belief is in the power of incantation. That is, that words, if used in the right circumstance in the right order have special magical powers. Even though there are some examples of blessings or curses in the Bible, they appear to be tied to a direct appeal to God to act (relational call) rather than due to the power of formula (incantational or magical call).
  2. Failure to check sources. Frankly, the FB post might have been put up as a joke to test the gullibility of “Christians” or anyone else who would read it. Lot of Gullibility Tests on the Web. Alternatively, it could be “clickbait”… articles that are designed to be provocative and lure people to click on the article to make advertizing money.
  3. Having poor sources of authority.  I read it on the Internet is like saying you heard it on the telephone, or read it spray painted on a wall. It says nothing about its veracity.

Why do Christians fall into such a trap? Of course, we are not alone. Weird reactions appears to be pandemic– a universal sociological phenomenon. But Christians have had their share of such… sociological phenomenon.

  • When I was younger, I was told that one should not say “Good Luck” because “luck” has (supposed) etymological roots to Loki, the Norse God of mischief (perhaps SLIGHTLY similar in very limited ways to the Christian concept of Lucifer, or Satan). So to say, “Good Luck” is a positive Satanic blessing. Ridiculous! No one uses the term that way, and probably never did. Frankly, Christians might prefer to not say “Good luck” because it seems to reference a non-Christian view of providence, although, one would have to define “luck” in context before one could say whether or not it is Christian. But to tie it to an irrelevant reference to the past, and then tying it to an equally pointless cross-religious reference, makes no sense whatsoever.I believe the Luck and Lucifer connection has been made by Kenneth Copeland. I believe Luck and Loki was connected to some statements by Pat Robertson, back when I worked for him. Neither Copeland nor Robertson should be considered competent, reliable sources for… well, much of anything.
  • More recently, people have been trying to pick a date for Christ’s return. It seems to be more a cynical ploy to get people to “choose to follow Christ” or, equally bad, for self-styled “prophets” to gain an audience. But I have to think that more people are turned off by the foolishness of making claims that prove to be ludicrously false. This is done sometimes by “Bible Numerology” (a doubtful practice more in line with the Kabbalah than with Christianity) or by making up false phenomena and that rigging the data (such as the “Blood Moon” thing). Why make up dates anyway. Each of us is a couple of skipped heartbeats from the “abyss.” That is a much more solid prediction.

Why don’t Christians do better? Some argue that it is because Christians (especially Evangelical Christians) have a tendency to be anti-intellectual. But, in truth, I haven’t noticed that intellectuals do any better (or at least not much better). We all, as finite human beings, choose who we hold to be in authority. Intellectuals are as likely to choose poor authorities as non-intellectuals.

I would like to suggest that Christians should Have Faith in God and God’s Word, and Follow Christ. In other things maintain a healthy doubt.

What would be the implications of that. We would doubt authority figures, Christian or otherwise. So…

  • We would separate between God’s Word and human interpretations of God’s Word.(question human wisdom)
  • We would separate between following Christ and following people who claim to follow Christ (question human authority)
  • We would spend less time worrying about the intensity of Christians’ faith, and be more concerned about the true object of their faith.
  • We would spend certain critical moments of our lives doubting ourselves… since each of us are often the most effective in leading ourselves astray.

It matters. We all need healthy doubt.

Moving Beyond the Post-Modern

Modernism

I could be wrong, but I think the above figure is a nice way of looking at different “societies.” It is a very simple way of looking at “epistemology”— how do we know what we know (or think we know). All four look at how truth comes to us. We can start with the 2nd flowchart.

1.  Pre-Modern. Pre-modern society assumes that truth comes to us through ancient authorities. These ancient authorities (typically Scriptures or authoritative writings) are then  mediated and interpreted by contemporary experts– such as priests  or scholars.

2.  Modern. Modern society tends to hold to the superstitions (to be blunt) belief of “progress.” As such, they do not place much value on ancient authorities. For them, truth is mediated by local experts— whether scientists, theologians, scholar/educators or otherwise.

3.  Post-Modern. Post-Modern society strongly questions the “experts” with regards to their connection to their competence or trustworthiness. As such, truth is perceived and interpreted directly by “US” through our perceptions. While some post-moderns deny objective truth, most accept it’s possibility but doubt the ability to identify it with certainty.

4.  Evangelical. I am saying Evangelical, not Christian, since there are Christian groups that are Pre-modern (“apostolic”), Modern (“liberal”), and Post-modern (“new age” or perhaps “post-modern/emergent”). Evangelical groups, however, accept that divine truth comes to us through ancient authorities (Holy Scripture). However, Evangelicals hold to the priesthood of the believer and the sufficiency, and responsibility, of each believer to study and understand Scripture personally.   As such, there may be individuals who have insights we can learn from… but there are no experts that can take the place of learning and growing ourselves.

If one accepts this oversimplified model as expressing some level of truth, what does it tell us? It tells us that the battle between post-modernism and modernism (to say nothing of pre-modern thinking) is not all that relevant for Evangelicals. All three may have their strengths, but all are ultimately flawed from an Evangelical Christian perspective.

Universal Commission for Mission

I was asked to lead a commissioning service today. It made me think about what a commissioning is… or at least should be. Commissioning is an interesting Christian tradition. And it is even used in non-Christian circles.

In 1987, I was involved in my first commissioning service. I was commissioned as an officer of the United States Navy.

In 2004, my home church in the United States, Spring Hill Baptist Church, had a commissioning service for us to serve as missionaries in the Philippines. Then First Emmanuel Baptist Church, a Filipino church in the US had a commissioning service for us. In 2005, I was commissioned here in Baguio as a minister of the gospel. In 2006, the Virginia Baptist Mission Board had a commissioning service for us as Mission Venturers… and then in 2008 as Mission Ambassadors. In 2011, I was ordained here in Baguio. It has a different name, but it is still essentially a commissioning service.

So I have been commissioned at least 6 times. Eventually, I decided that I wanted to learn what it means to be commissioned.Some commissioning services give the impression that they are bestowing authority on the recipients. Others appear like they are trying to inject some sort of spiritual power into those being commissioned. While either might fit a particular denominational tradition, I think in this case a bit of etymology may come in handy.

The term “commission” comes from two related Latin words… “commissio” and “committere”. From them we get the two related ideas of commission and commit. Both words give the same idea… to place one’s trust in. I then had an amazing realization. The Commisioning service was not about me as the one being commissioned… It was about them, the “commissioners.” When I was commissioned in the Navy… the commissioning ceremony was the Navy’s way of telling me that they trusted me… and they entrusted me to do what is right. When my church had a commissioning service… they were telling me and my family that they were placing their trust in us… they are sending us off to the other side of the world because they chosen us to trust us to do what is right and good in our role as a missionary of their church. That is a heavy thought. Let’s read a parable that you all probably know.

Consider the Parable of the Talents… Matthew 25:14-30. The primary message is that we cannot know when Christ is returning (a good lesson for anyone seeking “secret knowledge” to time the end of the world. But the story is also a commissioning.

The first verse (vs. 14) makes this clear.  “For it will be like a man going on a journey, who called his servants and entrusted to them his property.” The passage said that the master entrusted his property to His servants. That is another way of saying that he commissioned them. The rest of the story is about what each did. Two were trustworthy and one was not.  Because it is primarily not about a rich man and his servants. It is about God and us. God has entrusted everything He has to us. God has commissioned all of us.

Isn’t that the crazy thing? We keep being reminded that we are supposed to trust God. But God trusts us??? What have we ever done to suggest that we are trustworthy???

In the story, God has placed His trust in three different people. Two accepted and embraced that trust and were faithful to God. One was very uncomfortable with the trust… with the responsibility that God gave him. He took what God gave him and hid it, continuing to live the life he chose… not the one God had called him to live.

God has placed His trust in each person who follows Him.

  • God has entrusted us with His work… His mission. God is at work in the world. But much of that work He has given to His servants. So often, we look around at the problems in the world and ask “Why isn’t God doing something about this?” But really, God has entrusted us to be a blessing in this world. When I see problems in the world… it is quite appropriate to look into a mirror and say, “Why am I not doing something about this?”
  • God has entrusted to us His reputation. When we are calling ourselves Christians, we are saying that we are followers of Jesus… followers of Christ. Followers of God. If you share the Gospel with people enough, you are likely to come across people that will not listen to what you have to say because they have seen Christians. They have seen Christians who are hypocrites. They have seen Christians who are sinful. They have seen Christians who are lazy. They have seen Christians who are selfish. When they see that, they are turned off about Christianity. They are turned off about God. To be fair… sometimes I am a hypocrite. Sometimes I am sinful. Sometimes I am lazy. Sometimes I am selfish. We all are. Yet God has entrusted us with His own reputation.

I think the story implies a possible different form of commissioning. The commissioning doesn’t have to be primarily about the commissioner. It can be about the one being commissioned. After all, it is quite likely that most of the people at the commissioning service today did not care all that much whether I trusted them or not. My son Joel, who was part of the commissioning, might care somewhat whether I trust him or not… maybe those from West Baguio care a tiny bit. … But most probably care even less… even zero. And that is okay. 

When each person chooses to follow Jesus… to accept God’s gift… each is  commissioned. God entrusted his work and his reputation to each and every believer. In 1 Corinthians 12 it says that to each one he gave specific gifts or talents for different roles. But each role is important… it is all part of God’s work. And one can accept or embrace that role… or one can ignore it… hide it… and make the trust that God has placed worthless.  Jesus trusted Peter… he trusted John. He also trusted Judas Iscariot. God often trusts us more than we deserve to be trusted.

I would suggest that every Christian should have a Commissioning Service. It is fine if certain people are formally commissioned (entrusted) by their church or by their mission board for mission work. But we all have been entrusted by God to serve and to maintain His reputation. The commissioning for all believers should be to remind us that God has entrusted His work and reputation with us. The question is how we will respond to that trust. Will we embrace it with excitement… or will we cower and hide what God has entrusted to us?

14 15 To one he gave five talents,[b] to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away. 16 He who had received the five talents went at once and traded with them, and he made five talents more. 17 So also he who had the two talents made two talents more. 18 But he who had received the one talent went and dug in the ground and hid his master’s money. 19 Now after a long time the master of those servants came and settled accounts with them. 20 And he who had received the five talents came forward, bringing five talents more, saying, ‘Master, you delivered to me five talents; here I have made five talents more.’ 21 His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant.[c] You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your master.’ 22 And he also who had the two talents came forward, saying, ‘Master, you delivered to me two talents; here I have made two talents more.’ 23 His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your master.’ 24 He also who had received the one talent came forward, saying, ‘Master, I knew you to be a hard man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you scattered no seed, 25 so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.’ 26 But his master answered him, ‘You wicked and slothful servant! You knew that I reap where I have not sown and gather where I scattered no seed? 27 Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and at my coming I should have received what was my own with interest. 28 So take the talent from him and give it to him who has the ten talents. 29 For to everyone who has will more be given, and he will have an abundance. But from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away. 30 And cast the worthless servant into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’