Wednesday, 26 April 2017

Crucified God

On the Trinities podcast, we have been looking at various efforts to explain how one who is "fully God" could die, if God is immortal.

It's a bit of a head-scratcher, but I had a go at playing "devil's advocate" and wrote to both the show host and the PhD student advocating a new form of social Trinitarianism to try and assess the strengths of this approach.

Here then I posit the following impossible triad (all cannot be true) and how I think a Trinitarian should answer. These alternatives are inspired by Jurgen Moltmann's distinction that it is not as accurate to say death of God as death in God (The Crucified God) and McIntosh's intrinsic/group persons. If I were a fourth century or later trinitarian, I would also want to distinguish between person and being, or intrinsic and group persons. I would say that the Triune God is a being (or group person) and that Jesus Christ is not a being (or a group person); Jesus Christ is an intrinsic person.

God = one (group) being; God = three fully divine intrinsic persons, F S & HS
Immortal = "never dying"

1) God is essentially immortal
2) No fully divine person has ever died
2) Jesus is fully divine

As I mentioned in my comment, I think the way forward for a capital T Trinitarian might first be to deny the wording as accurate because Jesus Christ is an intrinsic person, not a being (i.e. human-divine person, not a human being), to substitute the word person for being, then deny 2. Now they can take refuge in the person/being distinction and propulse a possible further distinction that might follow from Moltmann's thought, that God experienced death within him.

Alternatively, if we took a McIntosh Group Person social Trinity, this scenario could invite the comparison with a closely knit family losing a treasured member. The functional group person experiences the death of an intrinsic person. Here, it is the group person who is essentially immortal, and the intrinsic person Logos incarnandus (Barth) who is not.

Monday, 24 April 2017

Unsurprised by injustice?

In the Bible, there seem to be conflicting views about quite what to expect from God in this life in terms of justice. On the one hand, you have the idea that if you are good, then God will reward that good attitude and action with blessings and safety, and conversely, woe betide the one who crosses God's law. The biblical authors, really early on, worked out that is not at all how it works out in reality. The sun rises on the good and the wicked. Job realised this; others realised this; yet they continued to believe.

Today, faced with the apparent injustices of our world, coupled with other reasons, many no longer feel a need to embrace theism. They don't "reject God". If the world rejected me, I would be the loneliest man alive, but I would still be alive. Rejecting-God language is the language of believers - not of unbelievers. But let's get back to this interesting slice of the biblical worldview that says:

- God is about justice!
- This world is unjust!
- God, what is going on?! This is rubbish, God!

What I like and what I don't like about this biblical view

I really like the way in which writers like Philip Yancey encourage honest and disappointed Christians and seekers (I put myself in both categories) to properly wrestle with the incompatibilities and ask God all the hard questions. Nothing - literally no deep, disgusting or shameful desire or emotion, should be kept from God. He wants 100% honesty, and as a result, we become more honest too. Who would not count it as a blessing to be more integrated and single-minded human?

I also like the fact that the biblical promises of justice can be interpreted eschatologically. That is to say that one day, from a Christian worldview, there really will no longer be any selfishness, pride, manipulation, pain, harm, and so on. To feel a sense of injustice now, is not only a confirmation of the later but a commissioning to do something about it. With Tom Wright's utter blessing, John Dominic Crossan describes the period in which we live as participative and collaborative. What he means is that God enrolls his people is a powerful Judeo-Christian mutation from within the Jewish worldview in order to advance to completion the establishment of his Kingdom, no longer through fairly dramatic and direct divine intervention, but from the new Christian perspective, Christ has spent his Father's Spirit in order to empower his people to usher in this future kingdom rule in the here-and-now.

What is there to not like? Well, like everyone else, there are times when I suffer and question. I hope that I will never give up my faith as a result. I very nearly did do exactly that when in 2014 I realised how weak I saw the direct biblical evidence to be for Jesus being "fully God" (according to my categories), and I can say it was not a very liberating experience. I always want to question things and doubt things - sounds awful, right? But in this context, not liking some aspects of how I see this biblical perspective I think can be healthy in keeping me honest in my faith.

I currently co-host a podcast with my friend Reinald in which I play a role - a role that is true to my mind - of being skeptical about some Christian apologetics. We are scheduled soon to do an episode or two on the question of biological evolution. I always want to identify the risks of the various positions that seem available. I side strongly with the dominant scientific consensus that evolution has indeed taken place to produce life. I enjoy linking this to God's enormous creative ability and the privilege of being shown more of his workings than previous generations (and thereby realise that this is less than future generations). Also, and in part thanks to Reinald's caution on evolution, I am in no way discouraged in thinking this happened despite the limitations in current explanatory power of the workings of evolution. It's humbling, that's all.

But I am nonetheless exposed to risk. There's nothing special about that - all views about pretty much most important things that people debate are exposed to risk. What is my risk? My risk is the deist God. This is the God who doesn't need to intervene much in human history. He set things up so perfectly, why should he? And there's the apparent paradox. A perfect creator doesn't need to fix anything.

What about apparent injustice? Well, it's just about drawing people closer to God, that way they can go deeper and get properly philosophical about truth and God and meaning? It mobilises people into a sense of empowered, corrective action? But what corrective action is there for the profoundly loving and caring Algerian mother in palliative care probably just months away from abandoning her three daughters?

The risk is the same as with evolution. On the one hand, it can be deeply inspiring and mobilising. On the other hand, you can legitimately ask the question: what difference does God actually make, i.e., what is the difference between belief in the active existence of God and active belief in the existence of God? That is my risk. The point is that, at the end of the day, we have a choice. To believe or not to believe, the choice is yours. It is a true choice. Since I am a skeptic, I am deeply skeptical of Christian views that overstep their bounds about the evidence for the active existence of God, and I also feel very skeptical about refutations of the Kalām cosmological argument, from which I am certain all theistic apologetics must flow.

So, belief that justice and injustice have meaning is a choice. To believe that they have theological meaning is another.

I have to confess, as I wrestle with my model of the Triune Hub of first-century Christian faith, why on Earth might God confer a new perspective through me, someone who struggles with the fundamental choices? Perhaps God needs skeptics, loves skeptics even! Maybe they help keep us sane and encourage honesty on important issues that affect him and how he is perceived in his world.

For me, the fundamental choice is eternally preserved by the New Testament writers, who insist over and over and over again, that God acts in this world through his agents. A lot of Christian apologetics ignores this, in part because it undercuts some of their other concerns, such as demonstrating the deity of Christ. But it is perhaps the most radical message of the Christian gospel, right there, that we are significant in this Kingdom-come melarky.

Blessings. Choose well. John

Saturday, 22 April 2017

The startling surprise of resurrection

I am currently researching for some further chapters in my book, Mutated Faith, which is a serious historical re-think about how belief in the Trinity arose in what I believe is a two-stage process over the first four centuries of the common era.

I am absolutely loving looking again at a very cherished book of mine, The Resurrection of the Son of God, by N. T. Wright, published in 2003 (which is also when I bought it). The reason why this is an important book for me again is that I need to demonstrate why this "mutation" talk is so relevant, since I am applying it to the Trinity. There is a fundamental issue that historians of early Christianity have had to come to terms with, which is to answer: how could it have been possible that the first Christians were also Jews? Furthermore, why even did they hold to the Jewish Scriptures - surely the occasional New Testament citation should have been sufficient? Heck, we could just call it "The Testament". Something similar to this was indeed attempted by a Second-century Christian called Marcion, who dissociated the loving Father of Jesus from the vengeful YHWH of the Old Testament.

The answer to these questions lies in the word "mutation". Although other vocabulary can be and is applied (e.g. "innovation"), fundamentally, Christianity described as a mutation of Judaism provides a good historical understanding of how the movement rose up from within an existing religious framework, before their points of incompatibility became too great.

"I spy, with my little eye, something beginning with..."

I have spied out three key contributions to understanding the Christian mutation, all of which can and are described as mutations in their own rights, and all of which prepare for the understated "mumma" of all mutations: the religious core, a.k.a. the Triune Hub.

One of these three key mutations to prepare my presentation of the Trinity (which is founded on developed subjective understanding and not ontological fact claims, thus attempting to adopt Ricoeur's voie longue), is resurrection - hence my interest in Tom Wright's tome. The other two are dyadic worship patterns (worshipping Jesus alongside the Father) and participative eschatology, actively including the people of God in ushering in God's kingdom, instead of waiting for God to do it by himself. These three combine to prepare for the dramatic reconfiguration of the core of the Judeo-Christian faith into three inter-locked entities.

Why is resurrection such a startling surprise? Wright does an excellent job showing how in Judaism and in the ancient greco-roman world, no-one had been resurrected. He also forcefully differentiates where others have assimilated 2nd temple Jewish eschatological hopes in the resurrection from liberating platonic escape for the soul. Why are these two not the same? For second temple Jews, I think more so than second-century Christians, the foundation was Yahweh, their God, who created all things and created all things well. He was a redemptive God, saving his people powerfully from the hand of the Egyptians through the Red Sea. He is not in the business of throwing out duff stuff that he loved, but instead of fixing it.

Despite that drastic difference, and maybe some sense of veneration of former heroes of the faith like Enoch, David, Abraham, Moses and so on, there was no talk of them being raised from the dead. At the same time, hope was crystalising as needs intensified for a Messiah-King to coordinate another great act of Yahweh (aka the LORD) to save his people from oppressive foreign forces. As Wright puts it:  "nobody put those two hopes together until the early Christians did so" (p205). As a result, Judaism was "quite unprepared for the new mutation that sprang up [Christianity], like a totally unexpected plant, within the already well-stocked garden" (p206). My emphasis.

Saturday, 15 April 2017

Resurrection and Meaning

Writing toward the end of the second century, Celsus was the first writer to really attack the foundation of Christianity (rather than dismiss or persecute), and he had a go at the resurrection. Interestingly, he wasn't a naturalist, believing in the miraculous. However, he did find the Christian hope really quite absurd - but is that so different to Christians today? How many Christian families raise their kids to believe in an eternal life with Christ and the Father in resurrected bodies like the early Christians did and like Christ taught? I sometimes get depressed thinking how far we have drifted from the early hope, settling for platonic disembodied vagueness and bliss.

But this is my exaggeration, not the situation per se. Lots of Christian education does include the idea of "new bodies", but what of transformed bodies? To get to the heart of the issue, we need to look back at Jesus' resurrection and ask, what did his resurrection mean? Why did it matter that the tomb was empty?

It is often repeated in Christian discussion around the resurrection that we needn't think that an empty tomb means a resurrected Christ - more obvious natural explanations would explain such an event, as Mary Magdalene demonstrates in John 20 ("they've taken my Lord away", v13). It is the empty tomb plus the appearances that point to a resurrected Christ. If you have just the empty tomb, but no appearances, then something else happened to the body. If you have just the appearances, then the earthly body remains in the tomb. But the Christian hope has both. Why though?

Resurrection was the hope of the pharisaic Jews (fairly mainstream) of the second temple Judaism era. More clearly than in the Old Testament itself, these Jews believed and taught that the dead would rise back to life and God's kingdom would come, with his messiah-king to reign eternally as his Son. The bad guys would be kicked out forever. This helps to understand Jesus' early ministry as an apocalyptic preacher, that the end was nigh and God's kingdom had come.

God resurrecting Christ means the beginning of the end phase. But the end of the end phase still hasn't happened. When it does it will be marked by the same resurrection as that of Christ, who was the "firstfruit". But I wonder if Celsus had a point, which leads to some of the confusion today. Part of the point of Jesus' bones no longer being in the ground was to convey all this meaning of God's massive redemptive act and kingdom advance being true "according to the Scriptures", as Paul and his predecessors insist on emphasising. As the psalmist said in Psalm 16: you will not abandon me to the realm of the dead, nor will you let your faithful one see decay.

But what about our relatives' decayed bones and flesh? 2000 years of waiting, for a lot of Christians, including those eaten by lions, can lead us to ask in what sense will we be resurrected if we are to be resurrected as Jesus was? Aren't our predecessors' molecules scattered throughout nature and even reintegrated into other organisms? Aren't masses of folk scheduled for resurrection in a current state of cremation? Is it not all a little absurd?

Coinciding with the future cataclysmic return of Christ, we can usefully differentiate two distinct types of resurrection. There are mortals who have died and mortals alive. For decayed individuals receiving "transformed" bodies, this will presumably equate to a gift of a new body. The physical transformation of a mortal body disintegrated into a myriad of other organisms or the world at large seems to carry no sense. Conversely, those whose mortal bodies are still alive will presumably experience transformation of their bodies into the new spiritual state of those bodies.

A couple of points of meaning to note then. Firstly, note how Christ's resurrection anticipates both of these distinct types. Secondly, can you imagine cemeteries and other reminders of death and decay in the future transformed physical world order? If that is not conceivable, then one component of the full meaning of Christ's resurrected body from the grave does not need to apply decayed corpses, whose spatial "location" is meaningless. In other words, in light of the resurrection apparences, the empty space of Jesus's empty tomb previously occupied by death carries a powerful symbolism that a new regenerated physical universe would probably not require, unless you think corpseless cemeteries might be a feature of the world to come. 

I hope you can enjoy this Phatfish classic and please have a great Easter!

Saturday, 1 April 2017

Justice: a means to a greater eschatological vision?

In preparation for the next podcast of FatScript, due for recording on Monday, I know that I need to think about this question of "ought-ness". This expression comes up quite frequently and is a reference to the idea that there are moral facts which, so the story goes, do not depend on humankind. Do you agree? How could you know that they existed independently to ingrained rules for your species' success? I think it's difficult to say.

But I need to think more carefully about justice, I realise that. It seemed from my exchange with my co-host, that justice issues might be a special case of the moral realm, that might require a perfect God, such as the God to whom I pray and worship. What can we say about justice from within and from without the Christian worldview?

When we say "justice" in English, the word "fair" is never far away. Another great friend and mentor of mine has been Dean, huge, humble, anti-corruption, American, IPA-lover, Dean. I love him, what a friendship blessing. One of the life lessons he taught me that I will take to my grave and hopefully communicate before that time, is that there is an illness that we can recover from, giving us another keyword connected to justice: entitlement. We are entitled to justice. Why? Because we feel it to be profoundly true?

I live in France, where droit (a literal translation might give you "right" or "rights") seems to give the frame for society's social and educational appatus. As a result, everyone wants to cash in on their entitlement, their inalienable rights. Part of the process of dying to self, in which I think I am caught up to some degree, has been to alienate some of those entitlement mental processes in my mind and life. Why?

It sounds stupid - okay. For humankind to make any kind of progress in this playground called planet Earth that we have been given, we probably need to recognise that every human being has the right to clean water (and probably a lot more given our developmental status, healthcare etc), which is desperately far from reality today in huge swathes of our population. We simply don't seem to have the critical mass of people and power willing to uphold and implement these kinds of rights. Jesus' profound justice statement of "do unto others as you would have them do unto you" is still a monumental struggle, made all the more so by the under-represented party of strugglers. The majority, albeit to varying degrees, would rather prefer others do unto us what we want, "end of".

But is there a problem in the notion of rights and justice itself? Who could ever sue for not having access to clean water? Never seen that case in court. Third world at-risk populations vs capitalism, 2017. Who'd be the judge of that case?

One of the most radical and subversive dimensions of the Christian faith is that human beings are not entitled to anything. We are owed squat. If we are owed a whole bunch of life-sustaining or enhancing stuff, then it is to insist that life itself is not a gift. That's the awkward part, seemingly propagating ideas that might be seen to endorse inequality. If you receive that to which you are entitled, then what space is left for gratitude? Gratitude has been demonstrated to be thereuptic to human minds. Should we then be grateful for our rights? Surely there has to be some middle ground if God is to be involved, and we are to acknowledge no fundamental (i.e. not God-attributed) rights, and yet that he is the God of justice, right?

Well, I suppose in a sense that is true - that human equality is a myth. There is one human whom I believe, along with 2 billion others, is not equal to the rest of us, and whom you might think might be "entitled" to more goodies than the rest of us, assuming I was right about this inequality. I'm thinking of Jesus of Nazareth, who humbled himself. Is he entitled to something more than the rest of us?

We can't answer that question without probing this word entitlement still further. What is in this word entitlement, that word to which I had to and still have to "die"? Firmly nestled in there is the word "title". The problem with titles is that they are not essential. In other words, you don't need your title in order to be you. Maybe you are a mother, or a boss, or a well-digger, an app encoder, or well, whatever. One crazy detail that I think is understated, is even your name doesn't really define you (I confess I often feel a real dissonance between "John" and me). You could have been born with a different name, or you could change your name. Those are big changes, but I believe not fundamental.

I think I believe that Jesus does not want his followers to think that he is entitled to worship. That would be worshipping the title, not the person. It would also be to rob us of also being givers of worship; merely debtors of worship.
So far, I guess my thought process is not very favourable of justice, as I see it as reductive of gratitude and the joy of gift.

But what about "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you?"
Well, surprisingly enough, humankind, heck with that, I do not always reckon in terms of gratitude. I do not go to the supermarket and expect the products for free, nor do I bend the knee to the cachier in gratitude. A money transaction happens at the checkout, in which my bank account is debited the exact amount that we have agreed for the goods purchased. This is justice. A product fails to work as indicated, therefore I am entitled, surely, to a refund or an exchange.

So where is justice? What is justice? One way of checking its transcendental nature - for a Christian - is to look into the eschatological hope. Will justice be a feature of that eternal life, in which the "kingdom of God" has fully advanced, every tear is wiped away and death is no more? When all of humankind's evil's are forever eliminated? What need for justice is there when everything works perfectly?

I guess from my random forray, that for us now there has to be a functional, societal baseline of justice, that assumes injury.

Tertullian argues against Hermogenes in the third century that God is not eternally Lord, because to be Lord is to assume a title of lordship over....something. Yet before creation, God was not Lord over anything and so, argues Tertullian, with the apparent backing of the opening verses of Genesis chapter 1, God was not strictly "Lord" at that time. The inaugurator of the word "Trinity" also states that it is not appropriate to call him "Father" at that time either, since he had not yet begotten his Son, but that's probably another subject for another day!

If justice requires injury in order for its invocation, it would seem that it neither belongs to eternity past nor to the eschaton.

If NT Wright et al are correct about the two stage eschaton, i.e. that Christ's resurrection inaugurates the end-times, Christianity is not called to simply uphold justice, but to invoke something more eternal than that. So justice is not the goal, even if it may be the result. If it were the goal, then you might want to say that God sent his Son in order to die to pay for the sins of the repentant world. The fact that this is a massive understatement of the divine purpose should give us purpose to situate justice within a wider and more ambitious purpose.

An iteresting question might be to debate whether or not the pursuit of justice might ever achieve justice. A non-religious perspective could, I believe, look to the optimistic Christian worldview, wherein all is privilege and for others' deep benefit, as a greater vision to secure a more realistic outcome of justice, which remains desirable for individuals and the species as a whole.

Thursday, 30 March 2017


Hi blog readers,
I'm pleased to announce that with my friend Reinald I am co-hosting a light-hearted chat podcast called FatScript, which will contain some content that you have seen in this blog. So while it is light in tone, I hope, it nonetheless wants to discuss matters that we think are healthy for Christians to think about. Maybe the style and content may appeal to some non-Christians too, who knows. Anyway, I hope you can try it and maybe even recommend it. Blessings and thanks, John.

PS Next episode will go through the name of [the] LORD", and the subject of evolution is soon to follow!

Thursday, 23 March 2017

Well blow me down, nice one Hillsongs!

This morning I stumbled over a new (for me) Hillsongs worship song that I thought I'd share. A while ago I started a series of posts on ambiguous worship. Worship is a most critical part of the Christian life and the words we use during that vulnerable time of exposure and surrender have great power to shape us theologically, so it is with joy that I share this song which is undeniably and I think consistently directed to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, free from the tangle weeds of modalism.

Enjoy :)