Rankin File

Ruminations, fulminations, and cogitations on the spiritual life

Easter Monday

Easter Monday.  The second day of the New Creation.  

Because I am again serving as pastor to two small congregations, I preached yesterday.   I followed the lectionary and used Mark 16:1-8 as the Gospel text.

Perhaps because of our circumstances, I was taken with how the story describes the response of the women to the news of Jesus’ resurrection.   “Terror and amazement seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.”

Here the so-called shorter ending of Mark stops.  It is thus replete with ambiguity.  The scripture clearly states that Jesus is alive.  The women don’t know how to deal with this news, so they do nothing.

Their lack of action seems particularly relevant for the way many of us live today.  We Christians claim to be Easter people, but we live pretty much like Jesus were still dead.  It’s Easter Monday.  After the little bump of Easter festivities, what is different about today?  What is different about our vision?  Our witness?

As part of my personal prayer time, I have been reading through 1 Corinthians.  As you might imagine, chapter 15 has been holding my attention.  This morning I re-read verses 24-25: “Then comes the end, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father, after he has destroyed every ruler and every authority and power.  For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet.”    

I found myself asking, “By what means is Christ now destroying every ruler, authority and power?”  Clearly Paul believes that God is the Lord of history, period.  We’ve all had our view about history distorted by learning that it involves (social history excepted) only major public events: governments and wars and world leaders and such.   Jesus doesn’t seem to fit very well in that picture, even for Christians.   

This historical myopia exposes a huge problem.  I think the answer to how Christ is destroying rulers and authorities is “by means of Christian witness,” not a comforting thought.  We (American) Christians are not doing too good a job in the witness department.  

We’ve gotten too cozy with rulers and powers.   Again I’m using terms I don’t like.  Conservative Christians have tried to use the levers of governmental power to legislate against abortion, homosexual practice, taxes, etc.  Liberals have taken the same tactic with a different view of the same issues.  Then the two groups argue about who is “more Christian,” as if advocating for legislation is Christian witness.  

Certainly we have a responsibility to act as good citizens, which means we should have opinions about such matters.  But we should also remember that this citizenship is double-edged, fraught with temptation.  And when we permit our witness to narrow to nothing more than expressing certain political opinions, even if couched in the rhetoric of morality, we should be ashamed.  I know it has been said a thousand times by people more eloquent than I: when Christians get too comfortable with worldly power, we forfeit our good witness.  We still have a witness.  It’s just a bad one.

It’s Easter Monday.  By God’s grace, let Jesus’ people make a good witness.

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April 13, 2009 Posted by | Biblical Preaching/Teaching, Christian Spirituality, Pop Culture, Religion, The Church | , , , , , | 1 Comment

Everybody Has to Be Someplace, Or Why I Don’t Buy the Interfaith Perspective

Are Christians with an “exclusivist” view (a term used for the idea that Jesus is the only way to salvation) incapable of interfaith dialogue? I heard exactly this claim a few days ago at a conference of college professors and administrators and I’ve been stuck on it ever since.

The same man who made this claim also said that one needs an “interfaith perspective” to be able to engage in such dialogue. I pressed him, saying that he is simply privileging another opinion about religion over the exclusivist position, so he is actually making the same move as the exclusivists. He qualified: the “interfaith perspective” is a not a position but a “conversation tool” (his phrase) requiring openness of all parties to having their minds changed by the others’ viewpoints.

What we have here, folks, is an artful dodge. I am not saying anything about the man’s motive. I don’t know him. I am talking about the line of conversation itself, which has been repeated countless times in such settings. The interfaith perspective is popular on college campuses. It is profoundly misleading, though it sounds compellingly true to our culture of knee-jerk relativists.

First, even though the man said that the interfaith perspective is not a position but a conversation tool, he continued to use the word “perspective.” Doesn’t it imply a position, an opinion? If I have a perspective about something, then I have an opinion, no?

If I have an opinion, then I think my opinion is right. I privilege it over other opinions which I find, in some way, deficient. My opponent criticized exclusivism, ergo he likes his interfaith dialogue position better than exclusivism.

Lying behind the ostensible generosity of the interfaith perspective is the basic pluralist claim: no one religion is adequate to encompass legitimate, saving (to use a Christian word) forms of spirituality. Every major world religion is both right and wrong. If I’m convinced by the pluralist view, then I have two options: (1) I can try to live in a constant state of suspended belief. I can try to stay on a spirituality quest without ever identifying with one religion. (This position sounds familiarly American and Baby-Boomerish.) (2) I can settle for some kind of lowest common denominator “faith” – a set of attitudes (like loving one’s neighbor) that basically all the world religions affirm. In spite of how it seems, there is an identifiable theological position at work even here.

Thus, each of these two positions still say something about God, even if it’s a negative (i.e. we cannot really know God as God is). Now, if one prefers this opinion over the claim that Jesus fully reveals God, then preferring one over the other is the same as believing one is superior to the other, hence my contention that my opponent was actually doing the same thing for which he criticized exclusivists.

For people who have given sustained, careful thought to these questions, the notion that true dialogue requires a degree of open-mindedness that risks conversion is impossible. There is nothing new under the sun. If I have studied carefully and with humility, then I have come to some careful conclusions that elicit confidence in me about those conclusions. I cannot pretend as if I do not believe what I believe.

Thus, the “interfaith perspective” as I heard it last week, anyway, is incoherent. Everybody has to be someplace. My opponent has an interfaith perspective. I, on the other hand, believe in Jesus as the full revelation of God. This disagreement is the honest starting place for dialogue.

March 16, 2009 Posted by | Christian Spirituality, Doctrine/Theology, General, Higher and Theological Education, Pop Culture, Religion | , , , , , , , , | 7 Comments