Tag Archives: god

Reframing the Question of Jesus and Divinity

In today’s post I’m not particularly interested in the academic question of whether or not Jesus thought of himself as divine, or of how early the ancient church came to identify him with/as God. I’m more concerned with the modern side of history and what it might mean for us to say that Jesus is or isn’t divine. In fact, I’d like to sketch out two basic models for understanding the “divinity” of Jesus, a traditional authoritarian model and a more subversive model grounded in faith and risk.

The Authoritarian Appeal to the Divinity of Jesus

The classic church approach to this question is, like so many of our traditions, grounded in an authoritarian appeal to an inerrant Bible. A flat, literal, uncritical reading of scripture yields a systematic (and schizophrenic) concept of God which is then retrofitted onto Jesus of Nazareth. Our knowledge of “the God of the Bible” comes first, and then Jesus comes along to confirm and endorse it. In this model, believing that Jesus is God becomes one of many Christian shibboleths, like inerrancy or creationism, load-bearing doctrines that must be affirmed lest the entire house of cards should topple. Continue reading


How To Be Perfect

One of the major themes of this blog is the importance of clarifying and privileging the teachings of Jesus in every interaction with the Bible. My understanding of scripture as consisting of multiple subjective witnesses to claims and experiences of God in the history of Israel means that I must reject a flat or systematic reading of the Bible in favor of a Jesus-shaped critical reading of the entire library. This is a fruitful approach and, I believe, the only tenable one for a Christian. However, it is not always particularly safe or tidy. Jesus’ teaching seems to get more narrow and difficult the more one studies it.

Consider the famous saying from the Sermon on the Mount that you must “be perfect as your Heavenly Father is perfect” (Matt 5:48). In English and out-of-context, this sounds like an impossible mandate. “Be flawless and immaculate, just like your abstract notion of a Supreme Being. Start… now!” Um, sure. I’ll get right on that.

The Gospel of Technical Perfection (and Inevitable Failure)

This statement comes from Jesus and so carries the weight of a command, yet it is so vaguely defined in isolation as to invite all manner of interpretive reappropriation. Here’s how it worked in the evangelical world in which I grew up: God demands that you must be technically perfect in your obedience to His Word (the whole Bible) in order to enter His presence (in heaven when you die), but no one can ever live up to this standard and be worthy by their own efforts and that is why we need a savior to die for us! I was taught this message over and over, it was called “the gospel,” and evangelists like Ray Comfort continue to shout it into their neighbors’ faces on a daily basis.

Is this really what Jesus was talking about? Did Jesus knowingly preach an impossible technical standard simply to illustrate people’s need for a religious solution to their abstract “sin problem”? Many Christians simply assume this to be the case, but it is a gross misreading of Jesus and a misappropriation of his real message.

The Ethical Gospel of Jesus: How to (Really) Be Perfect

Despite the vigor with which some Christian traditions have worked to marginalize and dilute his teaching, it’s clear from the gospel texts that Jesus was primarily a teacher. He was a rabbi who set forth an ethical vision, a dream of how human beings ought to live in light of what he understood God to be like. His sayings and parables construct a world of imagination and possibility into which his listeners are invited. The saying in question is a prime example, presented here in fuller context:

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy!’ But I tell you: love your enemies! Pray for people who persecute you! That way, you’ll be children of your father in heaven! After all, he makes his sun rise on bad and good alike, and sends rain both on the upright and on the unjust. Look at it like this: if you love those who love you, do you expect a special reward? Even tax-collectors do that, don’t they? And if you only greet your own family, what’s so special about that? Even Gentiles do that, don’t they? Well then: you must be perfect, just as your heavenly father is perfect.” (Matt 5:43-48, KNT)

Three observations about this passage:

  • The saying has a context, and it is radical, inclusive love – even love for one’s enemies.
  • There is absolutely no indication that Jesus thinks his hearers incapable of responding to this teaching.
  • The Greek word translated “perfect” elsewhere indicates maturity and advancement rather than technical proficiency (see Philippians 3:15, James 1:4).

Jesus does not call his followers to the doom and despair of failing to fulfill a technical obligation to religious laws and regulations. He invites his hearers to grow up and be more like God, to give up the petty divisions and bigotries that define our sense of self and community, to embrace and include all just like God does. Of course, if we’re unable or unwilling to envision God the way Jesus does, how can we endeavor to emulate that God? In America, many religious figures and organizations move in the opposite direction, projecting and perpetuating a God who is less mature and inclusive than they are and calling their cohorts to follow that regressive path. These watchdogs of the “true faith” preach against tolerance and openhearted love, calling their followers “back to the Bible” or “back to God.” Back to which God? Surely not the God of Jesus.

For Jesus, perfection is the triumph of love over hate, embrace over condemnation, inclusion over exclusion, and forgiveness over accusation. This perfection is not unattainable or unrealistic, it is ours for the taking. We can do this!


Three Things We Never Noticed About Adam and Eve

In light of my previous post about the church’s interpretive exploitation of Adam throughout history, I want to briefly propose a more helpful and authentic approach to reading the material in question. By paying closer attention to a) what the text actually says and b) anticipated things that are actually not there, we might get closer to understanding something true about the strange, ancient stories we call Genesis. In the case of chapters 2-4 and the tales of the first humans, I’ll collect my observations under three subheadings.

1. Adam and Eve Are Israel

This aspect of Genesis 2-3 in particular seems so obvious, so explicit, and yet I had not even considered it back when I researched and recorded a podcast on the subject. The proposal is a simple one: the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden is a mythical encapsulation of the story of Israel in the Promised Land.

In the text, Adam and Eve inhabit an agricultural wonderland prepared for them by God, who dwells there with them and provides for all of their needs by the natural goodness of creation (not by magic or sorcery). There is a decree, a covenant by which Adam and Eve must abide in order to enjoy the full benefits of life in the good land. When they are tempted by pagan evil and break the covenant with God, they must leave the land. The abandoned land is guarded by cherubim (ancient symbols of divine authority), a sign that they cannot re-enter until God issues a new decree. This is the story of Israel and Exile.

Israel’s storytellers crafted this story, perhaps from ancient sources and elements, at the time of exile to explain and illuminate the defining crisis of their time. This does not mean that it cannot have more to say beyond its immediate context, but it does appear to be the primary setting of the story, a fact that should figure heavily in its interpretation.

2. Adam and Eve Are Exemplars of the Human Condition

The divine elements in the Garden story generate endless questions. Why would God make it possible for Adam and Eve to become more like Him, only to forbid it? How does God physically walk around in the world He created? Why does He promise them they will die “on the day” they eat the fruit, yet when they eat it they do not die? Why does God need to search around to find the humans? We’ll look a little closer at the portrayal of God in Genesis in the next section. For now, these questions appear to be unanswerable, and stand as major distractions from what these stories do offer with great clarity and insight: a distillation of the human condition. So much interpretive energy has been spent mining these stories for theology and cosmology while their rich anthropology has been largely ignored.

Before Adam and Eve eat the fruit, their life is defined by three realities: breath (a relationship with God), agriculture (a relationship with the earth), and sex (a relationship with each other). After they eat the fruit and begin to discern “good and evil,” the three beautiful relationships that shaped their idyllic existence turn out to be dangers and limitations. Life with God becomes contentious and complicated. Animals bite and thorns prick. Adam and Eve stand naked and vulnerable. In other words, Adam and Eve discover that they are human, they are just like us.

Christian interpretations, obsessed with cosmic notions of legal guilt (“original sin”) or Greek style dualism (“the fall of man”), can only imagine this condition as a divine punishment. But what if, as the text suggests, nothing changed for Adam and Eve but their perception of their own condition (“their eyes were opened”)? What is God’s “curse” (which targets animal and soil, not humans) after all but an adept description of what life is like on planet earth? What if this story is not about the crime that landed all of humanity in sin jail, but a frank and creative pageant of mortality, a song about the bittersweet realities of breath, food, and sex?

3. God Is a Friend and Protector, Not a Cosmic Judge

Finally, one of my favorite things whenever I revisit these texts is the fresh, strange, and fascinating implications of what they say and don’t say about God. I outlined some of the problematic oddities above, and now I’d like to highlight the unexpected goodies. In short, the God of Genesis 2-4 is a far cry from the angry cosmic punisher envisioned by Augustinian or Calvinist Christianities, for example. While the basic themes of disobedience and consequence are present here, God’s character and behavior are surprising at every turn.

In the Garden, when Adam and Eve breach their covenant with God, He is technically the offended party. But while most of Christian theology has focused on God’s offense and His just anger and retribution, that is not the focus of these early Genesis stories. This God does not damn Adam and Eve to eternal hellfire, nor does He demand that they appease Him with blood sacrifices. No, this God comes alongside them as a friend and guardian, explaining the natural consequences of their human fallibility. This is not the God of strict religion or fire and brimstone, it is the God of farms and families, the God of hard work and childbirth.

Likewise with Cain in Genesis 4, God’s role is not what we would expect. It is Abel’s blood which accuses Cain, not God. It is Cain who convicts himself and announces his own guilt, not God. And it is other humans who threaten Cain with retributive harm, not God. In fact, God only steps in to warn and protect the murderer. In Genesis, the greatest dangers faced by humans come from nature, society, and within themselves. God is a companion and provider who resembles the “Heavenly Father” of Jesus’ teaching more than the space tyrant imagined so often by our religion.

I’m not suggesting that these stories aren’t terribly strange and difficult to interpret, I simply want to suggest that there is more here than we have been willing to see. I want us all to feel free to revisit them again and again with our eyes, hearts, and minds open a little wider than they have been before.


The Utilitarian Trinitarian

These are some ideas I sketched out after church on Trinity Sunday. They may or may not warrant a post, but here we are.

Hey, Christians. Real talk. What’s the deal with the Trinity? Isn’t it kinda weird? I mean, the word isn’t even in the Bible. It’s just one of those things we have to believe in to be a Christian, right?

Basically, Trinity says that the one God exists in three persons: Father, Son and Spirit; each distinct but of the same essence. The doctrine was formulated in the early centuries of the church to establish the borders of orthodox belief against the heresies of that day. Among other things, it was a way to assert both the divinity of Jesus AND Christian monotheism in the context of the pagan religion of the Roman Empire. Since we are very far removed from that context, we might wonder what value or purpose such a doctrine might have today. But we usually don’t.

For most Christians today, the Trinity is simply a litmus test for true belief. We affirm it because that’s what real Christians do. The fact that it is profoundly paradoxical and abstruse doesn’t really bother us, because it rarely comes up.

I consider myself a utilitarian trinitarian. That is, not unlike the forgers of the doctrine, I think its true value is in its function. I’m not sure it makes any sense as a standalone assertion, but its internal logic can work wonders in keeping other theological ideas in check. I offer a quick example.

Trinity vs. Good Cop/Bad Cop Theology

My favorite thing about trinitarian logic is the way it defuses and debunks any theological system that makes God into a monster and Jesus into the hero that saves us from that monster. For example, extreme formulations of Calvinism portray God as wrathful and punitive in his posture toward humans, with meek and mild Jesus negotiating a concession of forgiveness for the elect. According to the doctrine of the Trinity, this is blasphemous! If Jesus and the Father are of the same essence, that is, made out of the same stuff, it is deeply problematic to conceive of them as two figures with conflicting agendas, one offended and wrathful, the other compassionate and selfless. God is either one or the other.

Reformed and Evangelical theologies reach their conclusions by systematizing the “attributes of God” from the Old Testament, and then forcing Jesus into that mold, thus “proving” that he is divine. But that is all backwards! Jesus sought to correct and clarify his people’s ideas about what God is like. He didn’t come to endorse and confirm every notion they’d ever had about God, he came to challenge and subvert them. No one on earth has ever met the Father, but we have met the Son. Jesus is how we know what God is like. If your God doesn’t look like Jesus, it’s not the Christian God.

Or we might say it like this: Jesus doesn’t come to change God’s disposition toward us, he comes to reveal it. This is trinitarian.


Taking Easter Apart and Putting It Back Together Again

I’m easing my way back into blogging with some quick thoughts about Good Friday and Easter.

Growing up Evangelical, I learned to think about Holy Week within a certain framework (for one thing, we never called it “Holy Week,” we called it “the week before Easter”). Here’s what I used to believe about Easter. Not that I could necessarily have articulated all or any of this, but these were the assumptions and implications of our beliefs:

  • Jesus died as part of God’s Master Plan to assuage His wrath via human sacrifice, a plan that came together with precision in fulfillment of very specific ancient prophecies. None of the players in the story was acting outside of God’s Plan.
  • God needed Jesus to die so He could legally forgive our sins, so we can also say that we helped to kill him by committing the sins that necessitated the sacrifice. If we had not sinned, Jesus would not have had to die.
  • The shedding of Jesus’ blood propitiates (satisfies) God completely, but not universally and not automatically. For the sacrifice to be effective, one must convert to Christianity and believe in the sacrifice. Anyone who does not do this cannot enter Heaven when they die, since they have not taken advantage of the legal mechanism provided by the sacrifice.
  • Jesus’ resurrection was miraculous and triumphant without diminishing the effectiveness of his sacrificial death. God raised Jesus once the sacrifice was complete as a proof of his divinity and of afterlife. God brought Jesus back to heaven to prepare an eternal home for true believers.

Here are just some of the problems that swarmed my mind and heart as I grew up and learned to think through these beliefs:

  • Why does the God who (according to the Old Testament) ABHORS human sacrifice and who ultimately (according to the prophets and Jesus himself) REJECTS all sacrifice hatch a Master Plan that involves manipulating humans to carry out the horrific execution of a truly innocent person? Do we really believe that shedding the right blood was the key to pleasing God all along? What does this say about the character of God and the nature of the universe He created?
  • How can anyone (even God) conceivably satisfy their own anger, legally or otherwise? How does orchestrating a sacrifice for Himself “deal with sin” and make God happy enough to absolve a few humans of their guilt?
  • What is the level of accountability for the human pawns in God’s Master Plan? The priests and crowds demanded Jesus’ death, Pilate ordered it, and the Roman soldiers carried it out, but weren’t they carrying out the holy will of God? In this way, weren’t their actions strangely sacred? Is it wrong for God to hold them responsible for fulfilling the ancient prophecies He arranged “from the foundations of the world”?
  • If the death of Jesus has the power to heal and save, how is that power limited to only those who “believe in it” in a certain way? Doesn’t this put the onus of salvation onto humans and their decision to think or not think certain thoughts? And how does the salvation of a small remnant of humanity fit in with the Bible’s vision of renewal and rescue for all of creation?
  • If Jesus’ death was legally satisfying to God, does the resurrection in any way dilute or complicate its effectiveness? If the death of an innocent is required to “pay for sin,” how could God be pleased and placated by a death that is not “final”?

Here are some fresh thoughts about Good Friday and Easter. These are not the “correct” beliefs, they are my current best attempts at interpreting and appreciating this story I’ve inherited:

  • God did not kill Jesus. We did. And we did it not by committing isolated and disparate personal sins but by ACTUALLY KILLING HIM. The violence of human religion and empire conspired to murder Jesus. And if a prophet appeared among us today preaching empathy and a forgiving God, we’d murder him or her too. That is the scandal of Good Friday.
  • Resurrection is not the triumphant epilogue that gives the story a happy ending, assures us of heaven, and helps us win the culture war by following the correct religion. Resurrection is both a vindication of Jesus’ legacy and God’s non-violent rejection of our attempt to scapegoat and sacrifice His Son. It’s God’s “no thank you!” to our disgusting rituals and violence which were exposed on the cross.
  • Jesus does not come back to seek revenge or “settle the score” (as his followers clearly expected), he comes with “peace” on his lips, announcing a new world. His followers still didn’t get it, so he promised that his spirit would always be with them to guide them, if only they’d listen. If only we’ll listen.
  • Salvation is not achieved by rolling around in the magic blood of an innocent scapegoat. It is found in the light of Easter morning, in the hope of New Creation, and a willingness to follow in the Way of selflessness and vulnerable love. Jesus saved us from our sins by exposing their true nature, absorbing our hate and offering us the opportunity to repent of our violence and self-destruction.
  • We seek the presence of the Risen Jesus, not as our Holy Emperor leading us to conquest, but as the One who announces shalom and the end of violence and sacrificial thinking. Each Easter, like every new day, is another chance to open our eyes to this astonishing reality.

Hamburger Heaven

Every summer our little family spends a week down at the beach in Cape May, New Jersey. It’s great. Everyone has their favorite activities: Gloria plays in the sand and looks for “crabbies,” Shereen has a Victorian style tea party at the Emlen Physick Estate, and I unhinge my jaw and stuff my bloated face with greasy meat products. There’s one establishment in particular, a small hole-in-the-wall lunch joint (which I won’t name for reasons), which I must visit at least once every year. It’s great. Super cheap burgers and hot dogs and cold bottles of Stewarts Root Beer. Wonderful garbage food (for my wonderful garbage body).

The owner of the place is also its public face and its only server. He runs the whole show. Let’s call him “Hamburger Harry.” Hamburger Harry is a wacky, grinning man wearing a colorful apron and a very silly hat. Everything about him screams “fun!,” and his smiling face is the eatery’s logo and mascot. Trolley ads, maps, and tourism brochures all prominently feature Hamburger Harry’s toothy smile, and they all promise one thing: come to Harry’s and you’ll have THE MOST FUN OF ALL, EVER. It’s irresistible.

Until you go. To be sure, the food is great and Hamburger Harry is as smiley and wacky as advertised. But to enter his restaurant is to breach a domain of anxiety and impossible expectation that undercuts “fun” in a thousand ways. Doors open at 11:58 precisely, no earlier, no later. Line up here. Stay behind the line. Have your money ready. Use only the approved nomenclature. In fact, here’s a chart of the official, acceptable ways to refer to our menu items. Deviate and you will be loudly corrected. Do not pause too long between topping requests (I swear to you there is a sign on the wall that actually says this). Stand here to wait for your food. Stay behind this other line. Take exactly two napkins. And so it goes at Hamburger Harry’s.

The truth is that I find this all endlessly hilarious (and I like cheap food), so I still go to Harry’s every summer. I was there last week, and thank God it was still the same wacky, tense, angsty, eye-twitching wonderland. Speaking of God (tacky blog transition!), it occurred to me on this visit just how much Hamburger Harry’s reminds me of the American God and his church. Behind a facade of smiles and a pretense of open welcome lies a world of ritual and expectation, of rules and repression. You’ll have a great time for the rest of eternity, as long as you stand behind this line and use only the approved nomenclature and don’t deviate or be yourself. And for heaven’s sake, never, EVER pause between topping requests.