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Bo Sanders: Public Theology

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A B C’s

Z is for Zebra (modified)

There is a great danger – especially in 2020 – of not understanding the thought and convictions of those you disagree with.

I was taught to refute evolution. It was a cornerstone to evangelical apologetics.

Zebras and their stripes were a primary example used to refute evolution. If the stripes are for camouflaging a herd of zebras from predators … then the first striped offspring would have actually stood out from the heard and thus would have been an easy target.

This is an example of getting ahead of oneself without fully entering into the school of thought one is trying to combat.

We saw this same problem with Ray Comfort and Kirk Cameron’s banana conversation [watch the video here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YfucpGCm5hY].

You can’t simply start with where we are and extrapolate backwards from there [for more on this see the note below].

You have to understand the primary concern:

  • Science has a commitment to the process.
  • Apologetics has a conviction of the conclusions.

We can’t pretend to honestly engage in asking questions if we begin with the assumption of the answers. That will always result in coming out with twisted conclusions.

Admittedly, scientists have been baffled over the zebra’s stripes for a long time. Recently some strong studies[1] has have shown that the stripes are not about camouflaging herds from large predators but about flies.

The region where zebras dwell has a breed of flies called tsetse that are legendary in their viciousness. Scientists have historically known that flies have an aversion to landing on striped surfaces. The zebra’s striped pattern acts then as a natural deterrent. This leads to greater health with less blood loss and therefore greater vitality which benefits reproduction – passing on those key genetics to offspring.

It turns out that zebras stripes are not primarily about herds camouflaging from large predators but about individuals deterring small pests. This means that the initial zebra ancestor to have that genetic variation would have benefited and thus that attribute would be more likely to be passed on to the next generation.

The apologetics argument I learned is flawed and would not refute the point it is intended to.

That is the first problem with not fully entering into an idea well enough to understand it – there has to be a commitment to the question not just a conviction about the conclusion.

The second problem is that much of the suspicion from creationists about evolutionary thought is based on the hard and cold version of survival of the fittest from a century ago. Many don’t know of newer strains of evolutionary thought that incorporate cooperation, mutuality, and emergence thought (see O is for Open & Relational).

Evolution has evolved in the past 30 years but many creation apologists prefer to takes pot-shots at the straw man caricature of Darwinian schools of the past. They have perfected taking swings at shadows of where the theory used to stand.

As we wrap up the ABC’s series, I wanted to acknowledge that not only has Christian belief evolved and adapted over the centuries but to encourage you to embrace these historic adjustments.

The gospel is itself incarnational and the universe is evolutionary. Those two things go together beautifully. The gospel is good news and is constantly in need to be contextualized to new times and new places. The scriptures are inherently translatable and come into every language and culture. This is one of the unique aspects of the christian religion (K is for Kenosis).

If evolution is true of the universe, christians should have no need to avoid or refute it. We can embrace evolutionary thought wholeheartedly.

Christians should, after all, be people who love truth.

If we want to contest certain aspects of the evolutionary theory, we should at least understand its claims thoroughly so that we can do that well. Christian and atheists do this to each other. Protestants and Catholics do it to each other. Islam and the West do it to each other. We would be served by adopting the debate principle that you have to explain your opponents’ position to their satisfaction before proceeding with yours.

This the problem starting in the middle. You can’t just walk into the way things are, assume the status quo and then make a case for it.

I was camping in a national park with a longtime friend who lives in and loves his ‘red’ state. We were hiking out and enjoying the beauty when he began to tell me about how ridiculous the environmentalists are and how stupid it is to put all these regulations on industry – we are handcuffing these innovators who create jobs for people. His evidence was to point to the trees around us and say “look at all of this amazing space – what are they so worried about? I don’t see why we need to have all these regulations and get so upset at industry.”

I pointed out that if somebody 100 years earlier had not had the foresight to preserve this land, the timber industry would own all this land and would have harvested all these trees. It would look nothing like it did and we would not be walking or hiking there. He had literally never thought about that.

You can’t start in the middle and ignore how things came to be – then present it as evidence of how they should always be! 

A fundamentalist pastor said: In the Old Testament God was a King not a Queen – Jesus was man not a woman – and he picked men, not women, to deny him, betray him, doubt him and abandon him.   (I added that last part)

It would be like walking into a grocery store, seeing a steak wrapped in saran wrap on a Styrofoam platter and beginning to articulate how perfectly the  steak was designed for your grill – how the saran wrap crumples in your hand for ease of disposal in the waste basket – how the steak is the same dimensions in thickness from side to side for consistent grilling. Clearly God designed this steak to go on your grill and for your enjoyment!

If we do not take into account the elaborate set of systems that delivered that perfectly proportioned piece of protein to your plate, we will miss much of the beauty in the process and may falsely be under the impression that the way things are is the way that they have always been and thus the way that they should always be.

So we don’t start in the middle, we can’t get back to the beginning, and shouldn’t start with the conclusions already established. What is left for us to do then? Understand your opponent’s position, explore the history of yours, and account for the ways that your currents position have been adapted or adjusted.


[1] https://www.newyorker.com/tech/elements/how-zebras-got-their-stripes

Y is for Y2K (modified)

Is the way that the world runs today the way that is has to be?
Is the status quo the best that we can do?  

  • What would it take for the world to work a different way?
  • Are small adjustments to the current system the most we can hope for?
  • Is it enough to make the current arrangement slightly more just?
  • Can you imagine something better than democracy or an economic system after capitalism?

In December 1999, I got a call from a newspaper reporter. They were calling pastors and religious leaders in our city to see what we were telling our people about Y2K. 

When the article came out I was the only pastor who was telling their people not to worry and that the real fear was people panicking and doing stuff like pulling all of their money out of the banks.

This was especially odd because I was part of a denomination that majored on eschatology and was very end-times focused.

I had multiple friends in that group who made major purchases (like extra freezers) in preparation.

One close friend went in with another family and bought a trailer full of food and supplies and had it parked in a remote location … but then they had to worry about guns in order to protect the trailer in case of societal breakdown.

The alarm and drastic measures are telling. There is something about the way that we have been taught to read the Bible that makes us especially susceptible to panic. By calling the Bible ‘the word of god’(see W) and not distinguishing genres (see G) we end up creating a tight little system of end-times expectation that repeatedly fails us.

I became a bible-believing Christian during the cold-war era. Communist Russia was our biggest threat and ‘Christian’ bookstores and TV shows were filled with very specific projections about how current events lined up with biblical prophecy.

I was taught to read the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other – because they lined up!

Not understanding that apocalyptic literature in the Bible is a critique of their time and  contemporary present order and a hope of future deliverance makes us vulnerable to panic in ours.

We are taught that apocalyptic elements in the Bible are predictive instead of prophetic critique and this is creating the problem that leaves us so susceptible.

In my short lifetime I have seen so many predictions come and go. I have seen layers and layers of moving onto the next thing a passage means without even acknowledging that 6 months ago we were told it was something different.

There is a sort of amnesia required to stick with this way of reading the Bible for more than a couple of years.

I have seen more than 40 antichrists come and go. Everyone from foreign leaders to Popes to Presidents have been said to be the Antichrist.

This exposes a second problem with eschatological expectation. Every time I hear the phrase ‘the Antichrist’ I know I am in trouble. The person has not done a close reading of the Bible.

If you read the 4 passages in the New Testament[1] in which this phrase appears you will be left asking why we think that a world leader is this character. The answer is that in eschatological readings there is a great deal of amalgamation.

Amalgamation happens when you take a character like ‘antichrist’ and blend it with an Old Testament character like ‘the prince’ from Daniel 9 or a the bad-guy from Revelation 13. You take all of the villains in all of apocalyptic literature and meld them into one super-baddy.

I just had a talk this weekend with a denomination leader about how end-times expectations have changed in their lifetime. We talked about young leaders and how different their eschatology is from 50 years ago.

My hope for the next 3 decades is that sincere people of faith get fatigued on this unfulfilling way to read the Bible and this next generation is released and empowered with an understanding of genre that does not leave them susceptible and vulnerable to panic over sensations like y2k and franchises like Left Behind.

The world is in too great a need for really great people to be distracted by thinking that apocalyptic is A) predictive and B) about the 21st century.

Here we have 2 crippling problems to confront – and the problem is that they compound the effect of each other intensely.

The more minor problem is the one that we have touched on above: a loss of the prophetic or our Christian imagination.

The major, and more hideous problem, is something called “final forms”. We live in an era where systems have become so solidified, concrete, and assumed that are assumed to be ends in themselves.

  • Capitalism is the pinnacle economic system.
  • Democracy, while flawed, is superior to all other political systems.
  • Nationalism will never be topped or undone.

They are final forms that, once invented or introduced, are here to stay.

And there is an ominous implication:

  • Christianity is purported to be in its final form.

The faith we have today cannot be reexamined, tinkered with, or questioned. It is written in stone and unchanging.

In fact, it gets worse – true Christianity was found in the early church and the answer to our current problems is to get ‘back’ to that kind of a faith.

We live in the odd hybrid space where we live in the ‘end’ – the world in its final form – imagined to be the pinnacle of history … and a sort of primitivism or originalism that looks ‘the’ early church, the founding fathers, pure democracy, and raw capitalism.

The danger is two-fold: 

  • Those 4 constructs are elaborate ‘imaginaries’ the detached from (or maybe devoid of) their actual histories.
  • Those 4 imaginaries neglect to account for the complexity of their current manifestation.

The church, the law, the nation, the economy (and so many other categories of life) are severely complicated evolutionary adaptations in their current configurations.

So I want to end the way that I began this entry:

Is the way that the world runs today the way that is has to be?
Is the status quo the best that we can do?  

What would it take for the world to work a different way?

Are small adjustments to the current system the most we can hope for?

Is it enough to make the current arrangement slightly more just?


[1]  For instance, 1 John 2:22 says “ Who is the liar? It is whoever denies that Jesus is the Christ. Such a person is the antichrist—denying the Father and the Son.”

X is for X-Ray (modified)

X is for X-ray

Something a little different this week.

What happens when our technology exceeds our ability to understand it?

Is there a danger when technology goes beyond the scope of most human’s understanding?

Let’s start in a different place and then come back to those questions.

100 years ago, we were engaged in what would become World War I.

I am fascinated by the changes that have come in that 100-year period.

The transition from the 19th to the 20th century houses a fascinating and rapid shift in both politics and technology (to name just two fields).

The buildup to World War I is a study in what seems like not just a different time but wholly different world at points. Like learning the geography of Tolkien’s Middle-Earth or the kingdoms and families in The Game of Thrones, the world before the great war seems alien.

You have to get up to speed on such things as the Habsburg Dynasty and the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

Eschatology is an interesting entry point to this conversation. At the beginning of the 20th century, Post-Millennial views were the overwhelming position for protestant churches and denominations. The optimistic view of human progress and societal transformation brought an expectation of ushering in the Kingdom of God and a reign of peace and prosperity that would fill the whole earth. The horrors of the war brought that to an end. There was no ‘war to end all wars’ and by the end of the 20th century (the Christian Century) Post-Millennial views were as a rare as telegraphs.

The beginning of the 20th century also saw seismic shifts in technology. The telephone, the airplane, vaccines and the radio mark the era.

The X-ray illustrates the point as well as any other from this era.

The ability to see into the human body is remarkable. It transforms not just how we practice medicine but how we conceptualize the human body.

I read a passage a while ago, which I can now not find, where an author wondered how the apostle Paul’s writing would have changed if he had been able to take a trans-Atlantic flight or if he had seen that famous picture of the earth as a little blue marble as seen from the moon.

Which brings us to the question at hand as we begin to wrap up this series:

If technology and medicine, communication and psychology, economics and politics – and every other field – get to (and are encouraged to) advance, evolve, adapt and transform … why is religion so bound to the thinking of the pre-moderns and the ancients?

There is something peculiar about religious thought that needs to be examined. I understand those who want to conserve the tradition – I don’t agree but I understand the conservative impulse.

I prefer an approach that is incarnational and contextual. I see christianity as embodied (in-body) in a time and a place. Our faith must be re-calibrated, re-formed and re-membered within our cultural context.

Faith, like language, does not happen in a vacuum. It is inherited.

There is a given-ness to faith. We receive what is handed down.

But faith is also in-acted and em-bodied.

This is a delicate dance to both honor the tradition and express in our time and place the truth of what was passed on to us.

The 1500’s had both Copernicus and William Harvey. The former told us that the earth revolved around the sun, the latter that the heart was responsible for blood circulation. In science, the telescope and the microscope changed everything.

We live in the nuclear age. The Xray, the nuclear bomb and the microwave are just the tip of the iceberg. I have not even touched on TV, cell-phones, no-fault divorces, Christian-Mingle websites and credit-card giving machines in the pews.

Why, when every area of our lives from medicine to politics to economics to psychology is updating and evolving … why would religion insist on holding to the cosmology, metaphysics and epistemology of the pre-modern world?

When we get sick, even conservative/traditional folks will take an aspirin and get an x-ray.

The Christian faith, based on the story of incarnation, is designed to be embodied in a time and place. To hamper this process of adaptation and adjustment is to not only miss the point of the entire story but to worship an idolized moment in the development of its trajectory.

I would love to address the previously enchanted world (though we must avoid supernaturalism) and the concept of second naiveté – but here is what I really want to leave you with:

The gospel is designed to be (in)carnate and (em)bodied. We have no fear of losing the gospel’s essential character by appropriating it to our time and our place. We live in a world come of age. It is time for a response to the nuclear era or our technology is in danger of outsizing our theology.

W is for the Word of God (and Wesleyan Quad)

There is no phrase that is more misused, or more contentious, than The Word of God. We might need to take a vacation from throwing the phrase around as a tight summary until we pull it apart and clarify its multiple uses. 

The Word of God, when used properly, carries three layers of meaning:

  • Divine Communication. The prophets used the phrase in the Hebrew Testament to convey weight and authority. They had a message for the people of God that could be encouragement, directive, corrective, or illuminating.
  • Logos – divine wisdom. New Testament believers are treated to a cosmic twist when the Gospel of John prologue draws off the Greek notion of logos and then shockingly says what no Greek thinker could fathom saying: “the word became flesh and dwelt among us”.
  • Revelatory elements in the scriptures. When the Spirit who inspired the original works illuminates the message again for a contemporary audience, it is said to be ‘the word of God’ for the people of God. (Thanks be to God)

For clarity, I will now refer to the first and third meanings as ‘the word of the Lord’ and the second as the ‘Logos made flesh’.

The pitfall that some fall into is that they take this last sense (revelatory elements within scripture) and attempt to make it concrete (or foundational). Doing so is to erroneously confuse the messenger and message, the vessel with the element, the sign for the object.

Calling the Bible the Word of God is as inaccurate as it is accurate. It is not exactly true … but it is true enough that it is tempting. The problem is that it confuses the ‘curves ahead’ road sign on the mountain road for a road-map up the mountain. It is not that they are unrelated – it is that they are not equivalent or interchangeable. The map may be accurate, and trustworthy for the journey, but it is not the landscape itself.

Knowing the map well is not the same as going on the journey.

This is the important difference between a sign and symbol.

  • A sign points to a greater reality … even if it does so imperfectly. The yellow and black ‘curves ahead’ sign on the mountain road is not telling you the exact sequence of twists and turns ahead. It is not map. It is alerting you to something bigger than itself.
  • A symbol, when used theologically, is a sign that participates in the reality that it points to. In this sense, the Bible contains the potential for the word of the Lord, it records instances of the word of the Lord, and it tells us about the Logos made flesh. The Bible is thus not unrelated to the Word of God but is not exactly equivalent either. It records and points to a greater reality (like a sign) and under the influence of Holy Spirit inspiration participates in that reality to which it points (symbol).

One can see the problem in legal court and in Sunday school. It is ironic to place one’s hand on a Bible and swear ‘to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth so help you God’. The irony, for those who have actually read the Bible, is that two different New Testament passages say not to do such things. We are not to swear by things but to simply let our yes be ‘yes’ and our no, ‘no’. That should be enough. We don’t need to swear by heaven or earth or anything like God. It is an odd practice. It treats the Bible like a talisman and a fetish[1] full of superstitious power.

Similarly we see things like this in the songs we learn as children:

The B-I-B-L-E,

that’s the book for me,

I stand alone on the Word of God

The Bible is not a book. It is a collection of 66 books by different authors in different centuries representing different histories, perspectives, and opinions utilizing diverse genres of writing. This is part of why you can not say ‘the Bible says’ as the late Billy Graham was fond of doing.

When we say that ‘the word of God is living and active’ or that ‘all scripture is God breathed and useful’ we are right … but we must avoid the temptation of too quickly boiling those three into down into one interchangeable phrase lest we miss the awesome power and invitation provided by the interplay between them.

Now, if we mean that because of what we learn in the Bible, we hear the word of the Lord and believe in the Logos made flesh … that would be fantastic. If, however, we mean that the Bible is equivalent to the Word of God, then we have set our children up to be confounded, frustrated and spiritually impotent.

We have given them a road sign and told them it was the adventure. The word of the Lord propels us on a journey! To walk the way of the Logos made flesh, to know the truth of that which was in the beginning – with God and was God – and to live the life of the ages (eternal life).

To paraphrase a famous line – we are like children making mud-pies out of dirt in the back alley while there are real pies waiting in the kitchen.

Part of the problem is that we have tried to cram too much into the phrase ‘the word of God’ and asked more from it than can be expected from any sign or symbol.

The most helpful thing I have found to address this problem is called the Wesleyan Quadrilateral. The quad is composed of 4 elements:

  1. Scripture
  2. Tradition
  3. Experience
  4. Reason

This quadrilateral of values provides an amazing framework for congregational vitality, personal faith, and communal discernment. It is probably the most helpful tool that we have as Methodists for spiritual/religious thinking and discussion in the 21st century. It is not only unique among religious perspectives but it is supremely fruitful for personal development, congregational discernment, cooperate life, as well as ecumenical and inter-religious dialogue.

There are three important issues to understand aboutthis Wesleyan quadrilateral that illuminate the four core elements themselves.

       The first issue is related to Scripture. Wesley, being from an Anglican tradition, held to prima scriptura – scripture first. This position was in contrast to the more famous (and dominant) position help by many other Reformation protestants of sola scriptura – scripture alone. This distinction is significant for the slight change of emphasis and significant change in ethos that is evident in Wesleyan traditions in contrast to some other more fundamentalist approaches that descended from the Reformation and took root in the soil of North America.

      The second issue relates to experience. Methodists, by adding ‘experience’ to their quadrilateral, depart from the inherited Anglican tripartite formulation of Scripture, tradition, and reason. This recognition of the importance of experience is a key distinction that transforms the formulation from merely a cerebral (intellectual) approach to inherited religious frameworks to a vibrant expectation of personal application and a clear recognition that community’s (or person’s) experience of the divine is a valid location for God’s revelation and our reflection. We recognize the importance of people’s concrete lived realities and not just a set of ideas or abstract speculations and theories. This is especially true when considering the underrepresented voices that have traditionally been marginalized or repressed in Christian history.

         The third issue deals with sequence. The four elements of the ‘quad’ are not perfectly parallel. In fact, the formation works best when addressed in the sequence presented in the above question. We start with Scripture because it provides us a starting point and trajectory for the revelation of God’s work in the world. We don’t start with experience because Christian faith does not begin with us. There is a givenness to the faith that we have inherited. That is why we look to the tradition next. We don’t lead with reason either because ours is a faith tradition centered on incarnation – the embodied presence of the divine – and not merely ideas, concepts, and theories. The sequence is nearly as important as each of the four elements themselves! I would go as far as to say that the sequence is a fifth element and should be discussed (and debated) on its own merit.

My favorite way to present the quadrilateral is to temporarily remove each one and examine how the construct would be impoverished without its presence.

Scripture: Try to imagine a religion or faith that had tradition, experience, and reason. It might still hold together and provide communities and people with direction and connection. It would, however, be lacking something vital and central to the entire enterprise. Scripture provides us with an essential framework for our belief and practice. This is done through the use of narrative and example. The framing stories given to us in Scripture are vitally important both for the precedent that they provide us and for the trajectory they set in expectation for faithful (and faith-filled) continuation. 

Tradition: Without tradition we would be left to try and read this antiquated text which has been translated into modern language and to attempt to import and apply it in our contemporary context without any framework or guidance. Tradition provides us an example of practices, behaviors, approaches, relationships, and applications that we can learn from and be enriched by. This is available to us in both the positive of what to do and the negative of what to avoid. Without tradition we are left with only trial and error and we are poorer without the exemplars of the faith.

Experience: A faith that is not experienced is an empty shell; a corpse with no life in it. The church was birthed in Pentecost and it is Holy Spirit power that animates her life still. This faith must be experienced and allowed to transform our incarnated (embodied and enacted) expressions of it. It is important both that we experience the things that we say we believe and that our experiences inform our beliefs through reflexive praxis

Reason: We live at the far end of Christian history and know well the dangers of an unreasonable faith. Heresies, cults, and genocidal atrocities are the result. We learn a great deal from the legacy of these tragic consequences.  We not want an unreasonable faith that hurts people, causes harm and dysfunction at the personal and societal levels, or contributes to the hatred, vitriol, and violence that plagues our world.

The ‘Wesleyan Quadrilateral’ was formulated as a construct in 1960’s based on historic Methodist teaching and practice.[2] It is notable that this development came about as a result of a period of time which saw the demise in societal certainties, stable cultural norms, and challenges to authority in every arena of life from family to government, from sexuality to religion. This loss of a centralized authority (or hierarchy) in an instructive milieu for the need to develop a tool-box like the quadrilateral that provides a dispersed set of anchor points for communal decision making. This tool facilitates communal discernment in a way that allows multiple elements for informing and empowering diverse perspectives and which honors people’s differing perspectives, insights, experiences, and backgrounds.

The danger of what has been called ‘Bibliolotry’ is not simply that it makes the Bible ‘a paper pope’ or ‘the 4th member of the trinity’ (as bad as those seem). The danger is in missing the way, the truth, and the life that is available to us by instead settling for a road-sign instead of an adventure.


[1] an inanimate object worshiped for its supposed magical powers or because it is considered to be inhabited by a spirit.

[2] Albert C. Outler is generally credited with this formulation through a series of published works of Wesley.

U is for Universalism (modified)

I used to joke with people that you had to be careful attending churches that had a ‘U’ in them. United, Universal, Unitarian, Unity, etc. They seemed to believe in almost everything or in not much of anything. 

It was much funnier before I was a UMC pastor… but to be honest, there is something to it.

Theological words are much the same. ‘U’ words tend to be big and sweeping in their scope. Much like the ‘I’ words seem to embody a certain period and concern, the ‘U’ words are large and consequential.

We will tackle Universalism first and then look at Ultimate Concern.

Our Pocket Dictionary defines it this way – but pay attention to how it does so:

“Universalism. Known historically as apokatastasis, the belief that all persons will be saved. Hence universalism involves the affirmation of universal *salvation and the denial of eternal punishment. Universalists believe that ultimately all humans are somehow in union with Christ and that in the fullness of time they will gain release from the penalty of sin and be restored to God. Twentieth-century universalism often rejects the deity of Jesus and explores the “universal” bases of all religions.”

  •  Pocket Dictionary of Theological Terms (Kindle Locations 1325-1327).

Did you see it? By presenting the concept as a historical concept with some biblical precedent, it is put forward with some credibility. Then modern versions are handled in one sentence and in a way that rejects the deity of Jesus.

This is not a mistake, nor is it an accident.

Universalism is an old idea. The version that emerged in the 20th century is a different animal. In a globalized context where religions, traditions, and world-views bump up against each other everyday,  the conversation changes immensely.

There are really 2 distinct universalisms:

  • Classic Christian universalism relates to the belief that salvation is for everyone. A couple of years ago Rob Bell’s Love Wins was accused of being universalist. Karl Rahner’s notion of ‘anonymous christians’ is another expression of this impulse.

If you think that the christian God loves everyone and that ultimately (another U word) God’s work is for everyone and that basically everyone will end up with God, that would be a type of universalism.

  • Contemporary universalism is more about world religions. It is a type of pluralism. Contemporary universalism is concerned with the validity of any – or all – approaches to religion. Many look to figures like John Hick or use the ‘many paths up the same mountain’ analogy.

Contemporary universalism is as different from classic universalism as lighting is from a lighting bug.

Classic universalism is concerned with the work of Christ for every-one [thus the concern for Jesus’ divinity]. Contemporary universalism is not about Christ’s effectiveness so much as the inherent validity of traditions and religions.

Both of these notions are beautiful attempts at something grand but are warped deeply by the legacy of colonialism.

The globalized world of the 21st century means that religious conversations and convictions are perhaps the most important conversation happening in our lifetime. Unless Jesus’ return is soon, we are going to have to learn to live on this planet together.

Which leads us to another important U word.

Ultimate Concern: The idea arising from Paul Tillich that everyone has something that is of highest importance to him or her. Tillich suggested that persons’ ultimate concern, or “what concerns ultimately,” is their God. In this sense, everyone is inherently religious.

Pocket Dictionary of Theological Terms (Kindle Locations 1318-1320).

Tillich presented several innovative concepts* that reframe the whole theological enterprise. This notion of Ultimate Concern is the perfect addition to the Classic/Contemporary address of Universalism and Pluralism.

I prefer ‘comparative’ approaches that allow each tradition to speak in their own language and to utilize their own categories – and then find similarities and difference.

I also really like Heim’s approach that religions are not all paths up the same mountain but are different paths up different mountains – that are all a part of the same mountain range.

Thoughts? Concerns? Questions?

Below is a short bibliography of resources I find helpful.

T is for Theopoetics (modified)

What is your favorite poem?

Poetry is so different than math. Math is wonderful and necessary in many arenas … but there are certain things that just can’t be captured in a formula where X+Y=Z.

God seems to be one of those topics where poetry is more appropriate than math. The divine-transcendent-eternal-cosmic beyond is not something that fits easily into a series of mathematical formulations.

Theo-poetics is a way of thinking about and talking about the divine-eternal that allows for the playful, uncertain, mysterious, and intriguing to capture our imagination of might be and what can be.

Don’t be intimidated

Sandra Schneiders (in the essay “Biblical Spirituality” from The Bible and Spirituality) says:

To begin with, we need to recognize that the discourse about “theopoetics” in general and particularly in relation to the interpretation of Scripture is a quite recent development arising at the intersection of theology and literary studies much like “biblical spirituality,” which arises at the intersection of biblical studies and spirituality. The interactive meeting ground of literary biblical studies, theology, and spirituality is precisely theopoetics or a theory of the spiritually transformative power of biblical texts as texts, actualized through a certain kind of reading or interpretation . . . It would probably be accurate to say that theopoetics is the literary or textual face of the wider concern with theological aesthetics as an approach to spirituality.

The origins of the contemporary idea of “theopoetics” are traceable to Stanley Hopper and a 1971 speech.[1] Hopper’s student David Miller offers that “theopoetics is not merely the “poetizing of an extant religious faith or theological knowledge,” but is “a reflection on poiesis, a formal thinking about the nature of the making of meaning, which subverts the -ology, the nature of the logic, of theology.” In other words, theopoetics is an attempt to subvert lifeless theology and metaphysics with beauty and a poetic sensibility.

It is a mode or flavorof theology.

J. Denny Weaver is someone who has thought about these things and here is his heady explanation:[2]

A non-poet’s definition of theopoetics might be that it is a hybrid of poetry and theology. But to call it that misses the mark. It is an entire way of thinking. From the side of poetry, it shows that ideas are more than abstractions. They have form – verbal, visual, sensual – and are thus experienced as least as much as they are thought . . . What one learns from the theology side of theopoetics has at least as much importance. One observes that theology is more than an abstraction. It is a way of thinking, visualizing, and sensing images of God. And at that juncture, theologians should become aware that traditional theology . . . is a way to think about the divine but is only one of multiple ways to consider God. Thus for theologians, theopoetics will underscore their (sometimes reluctant) admission that theology is one form of truth but ought not be confused with TRUTH itself.[3]

It has a heavy emphasis on the importance of aesthetic, sensual, and experiential knowing. It discourages the growth of “gate-keeping” mentalities in which people must learn to speak and think a certain way to have their voices heard. It is a post-modern inflected style of theological discourse without the (sometimes) slippery slope of skepticism leaving people with no ability to say anything.

As a Christian thinker, what is most compelling about theopoetics is its insistence upon the incarnational not just in content, but in method. Theopoetics wants the practice of theology to be a spiritual practice and accepts the limitedness of humanity,  affirming that there is a possible power in our words without having to pretend otherwise. It is the language of theology spoken in the accent of someone whose first tongue is not academic but sensual, whose dialect betrays an origin of flesh, and whose tone suggests that at any moment we might all be caught up in some grand dance.

Why should we encourage the development of poetic sensibilities in theological discourse? Because we were all — even theologians and pastors — made to dance, not merely think of dancing. Because when we close our eyes there is a gripping duende to the music of this world which makes us want to cry and make love. Why theopoetics? Because I believe we owe it to ourselves and to the hope of our God to live and write and pray as if the world was a gift and each Other a reminder of that which gives.

I am immensely indebted to Callid Keefe-Perry for helping me with this article.


[1] entitled “The Literary Imagination and the Doing of Theology.”

[2] In the foreword to Jeff Gundy’s Songs from an Empty Cage

[3] A useful distinction to make is one from David Miller in his essay “Theopoetry or Theopoetics?” Whereas “theopoetry” is just “an artful, imaginative, creative, beautiful, and rhetorically compelling manner of speaking and thinking concerning a theological knowledge that is and always has been in our possession and a part of our faith,” theopoetics concerns itself with “strategies of human signification in the absence of fixed and ultimate meanings accessible to knowledge or faith.” That is, theopoetics is decidedly not about saying the same old same old but with spiffy new verbiage. Rather, it begins with an acceptance of “the absence of … ultimate meanings” (very resonant with some of the work of Derrida and Foucault in regards to our inability to have certain, fixed, language) and yet insists that ours is the task to attempt to put words to that which we know we cannot get right. To eff the ineffable, as it were.

S is for Salvation (modified)

Are you saved?

If so, from what are your saved?

And to what have you been saved?

Salvation is one of those words we sing about and talk about a lot in the church but rarely define.

During my teen years,[1]  salvation seemed like some kind of religious multi-level marketing program. You get saved by saying some special words (usually at the end of a church service or retreat), later you learn to make the presentation in order to get as many others as you can to take advantage of the salvation opportunity.

Sometimes, benefits are added like rewards that have something to do with crowns and mansions in the afterlife. Adding people to ‘team Jesus’ meant that you were accruing treasure in the right place.

Salvation was defined primarily as a one-time, transactional moment, meant to take you from death (physical and spiritual) to an eternal life that secures a torture-free, beautiful afterlife. [2]

“Salvation should be about more than eternity and a multi-level marketing scheme.”

One formal definition sounds this way:

“God’s activity on behalf of creation and especially humans in bringing all things to God’s intended goal….salvation entails God’s deliverance of humans from the power and effects of sin and the Fall through the work of Jesus Christ so that the creation in general and humans in particular can enjoy the fullness of life intended for what God has made”.

-The Pocket Dictionary of Theological Terms (Kindle Location 1994).

Christians largely associate salvation with Jesus. Understandings about salvation often start with soteria in the original Greek New Testament. Some break it into a multipart process, others see it a ‘crisis’ event. Many see it as a synergy that humans needs to consent to and partner with, a few see it as an outgrowth of God’s sovereignty and may even hold that it is done unilaterally.[3] 

One fascinating study is to look at the different translation is Luke-Acts. According to Luke-Acts, Salvation is variously:

  •     blessedness
  •     rescue
  •     forgiveness
  •     escape (from the end of the world)
  •     the Holy Spirit (receiving it)
  •     repentance
  •     entering God’s reign, feasting in God’s reign
  •     spiritual healing, physical healing, exorcism, resuscitation
  •     revelation
  •     walking, sight, survival
  •     freedom
  •     peace
  •     glory
  •     being a child of Abraham
  •     being clean

A few noteworthy things about salvation in Luke-Acts:

  • It’s individual and communal
  • It’s present, future and arguably past
  • It has to do with God or Jesus, most of the time

According to Gonzalez, the concept of salvation was not unique to Christianity:

“In the Greco-Roman in which Christianity was born, there were many religions offering “salvation.” Most of these understood salvation mainly or exclusively as life after death, and often combined these notions of salvation with the ideal of escaping from the material world.”

  • Essential Theological Terms (Kindle Location 3851).

Religion that promises freedom and joy in the by-and-by and not in the here-and-now keeps today’s liberation at bay since it is only really possible in another world. As Christianity became the religion of empire, the understanding of salvation flattened into a far-off promise.

Salvation became so heavenly minded that it was not of much earthly good.

Gonzalez goes on to suggest that Christians lost touch with the multi-layered understanding of salvation of the scriptures, instead settling into the more common heaven-focused understanding. However, he points to the development of Liberation Theologies (see L is for Liberation) as helping us recover the wider understanding of salvation “as including not only salvation from death and eternal damnation, but also freedom from all sorts of oppression and injustice” (Essential Theological Terms, Kindle Location 3859).

Salvation is personal and communal, physical and spiritual and oriented in both the present and the future. It is grounded in actual events – a message delivered, the holy spirit falling on people or a place, or a body healing. It doesn’t seem to be reciting a prayer, making an intellectual decision, or even a specific rite or ceremony.

In fact, the dictionary authors seem to sum up our Luke-Acts findings quite nicely. Salvation is God’s deliverance of human beings from the power and effects of sin (sickness, pain, illness, death) and God’s activity on creation’s behalf (including humans) so that we might enjoy fullness of life now and in the future and reach’s God’s intended goal of Shalom.

It is a messy definition and conversation.  

If we were to take a ‘surplus of meaning’ perspective, we are not trying to distill salvation down to its simplest form or minimal requirements. We want to breath life into the concept and expand our understanding to see all that it entails and holds of us.


[1] This chapter is written in partnership with Mickey ScottBey Jones.

[2] It has benefits now like the ability to know more about God, but mostly it is about eternity.

[3] It is not accurate to say that god does it ‘to’ us – since it is something that clearly we would desire so it benefits us and thus we would obviously consent to it and thus it is not done coercively or against our will.

R is for Revelation (modified)

Revelation is a topic sure to bring raised blood-pressure and raised voices! This is true no matter which ‘revelation’ you mean.

  • ‘Revelation’ can simply mean the way that we know anything about the divine reality or the way that God reveals something.
  • ‘Revelation’ to most conservative-evangelical-charismatic believers will refer to the last book in the New Testament that talks about the end of the world.

Both are very serious topics in their respective arenas.

Let’s deal with the concept first and then with the Biblical book.

Revelation: Refers both to the process by which God discloses the divine nature and the mystery of the divine will and purpose to human beings, and to the corpus of truth disclosed. Some theologians maintain that revelation consists of both God’s activity in *salvation history through word and deed, culminating in Jesus (who mediates and fulfills God’s self-revelation) and the ongoing activity of God to move people to yield to, accept and personally appropriate that reality.

 -Pocket Dictionary of Theological Terms (Kindle Locations 1139-1143).

 Revelation is often further parsed out into two categories:

  • General revelation concerned with what can be known (and ascertained) through nature and history.
  • Special revelation is used to designate that which can be known through particular (special) people and events. This is often related particularly to ‘salvation’. [more on that next week]

Those who are suspicious of General revelation say that it can be misleading to try to decipher things about a perfect God from a fallen world.

Those who are suspicious of Special revelation say that it wreaks of fideism (see ‘F’ earlier in the series) – only those who already believe, have read the Bible and been empowered by Holy Spirit can truly understand.

There are many insightful schools of thought that address the concept of ‘revelation’. Those in the evangelical camp, they look to thinkers like Karl Barth as the final word on the subject. For Barth, revelation happens in Christ alone. Apart from Christ, mankind has no hope of in any way coming to a knowledge of divine reality.

More liberal or mainline churches may bristle at that line of reasoning because it seems elitist, exclusionary, and too narrow – surely the God of the Universe can be seen (at least partially) in other religions and cultures around the world. Pluralism is the word for our era.

This plurality makes me very cautious about privileging (or bracketing or silo-ing) any realm of knowledge and protecting it from review to ‘outside’ areas of knowledge like science or psychology. All information, including revelation, needs to be subjected to a correspondence theory of interplay and accountability.  History is too clear about the dangers of allowing one arena to be except from critique. Now, having said that, we do need to talk about which field is in the ‘supervisory’ role and which area in submitted to review. There has to be a mutuality and agreed upon standard – and where that standard is established and who has authority over that is admittedly in question. Knowledge is a contested arena and history is full of dogmas, ideology, and programs that have shown themselves to be terrible masters that have resulted in domination and devastation.  

_________

Growing up, when someone said ‘revelation’ they meant the Book of Revelation – as in the apocalyptic letter that closes out the New Testament.

I love the book of Revelation. I study it all the time. I am inspired by it and challenged by it and am constantly referring to imagery within it.

The only thing I dislike is what most people do with the book of Revelation.

  1. It is not a book about the end of the world.
  2. It is not a book about the 21st century.
  3. It is not a book that should terrify or intimidate us.

The early audience for that book would have taken great consolation and comfort from it. The sad thing is that we should be writing things like the book Revelation for our time – but don’t because we think that John’s letter is about our time!

The book of Revelation is written in a literary form called apocalyptic. It is part of a genre (see ‘G’ earlier in the series) called literature of the oppressed. When you lived in an occupied territory under an oppressive regime, you write in code. You use imagery. You use allegory and analogy.

The book of Revelation is political critique and prophetic hope about those first couple of centuries of the church! It was meant to give hope and raise expectation for those early believers.

We should study the forms and harness the same prophetic imagination that the author of Revelation had and use it for our time. Unfortunately, we have had a failure of imagination because we have been taught to think that Revelation is about our time …

I could literally give you 1,000 examples of how the imagery in the book of Revelation is genius and time appropriate to the first two centuries.[1]

My one prayer is that God reveals to those who are most sincere that the inspiration and imagery that we see in the book of Revelation would be replicated (and surpassed) in our generation for our generation.

God knows we need it.

Artwork for the series by Jesse Turri


[1] If you want to dig deeper I suggest commentary on Revelation by Ronald Farmer in the Chalice series

Q is for the Quest for the Historical Jesus (modified)

The Quest for the Historical Jesus is a topic that I am both intrigued and frustrated by. You may dismiss this reaction up to my evangelical background but I am like a teenager in the midst of drama. 

“They drive me nuts, I hate listening to them talk! … What did they say? Tell me everything.”

I am both attracted to and repelled by the work and findings of this movement. I am leery of their process, confused by their conclusions, while simultaneously fascinated their scholarship and insight.

Before we go any further, lets see how Justo L. González introduces it:

Historical Jesus: Often contrasted with “the Christ of faith,” the phrase “historical Jesus” is somewhat ambiguous, for sometimes it refers to those things about Jesus that can be proved through rigorous historical research, and sometimes it simply means the historical figure of Jesus of Nazareth. The phrase itself, “historical Jesus,” was popularized by the title of the English translation of a hook by Albert Schweitzer, The Quest of the Historical Jesus (1910). In this book, Schweitzer reviewed a process, begun by Hermann S. Reimarus (1694-1768), which sought to discover the Jesus behind the Gospels by means of the newly developed tools of historical research. After reviewing this quest of almost two centuries, Schweitzer concluded that what each of the scholars involved had discovered was not in fact Jesus of Nazareth as he lived in the first century, but rather a modern image of Jesus, as much informed by modern bourgeois perspectives as by historical research itself.

Essential Theological Terms (Kindle Locations 1905-1916).

González goes on to explain that much of the quest was abandoned after Schweitzer’s findings but has recently reappeared in a minimalist expression (what are the bare facts that can be validated?).

Another person that I trust, Stan Grenz, is clear about this historical quest – that its proponents think Jesus:

  • never made any messianic claim
  • never predicted his death or resurrection
  • never instituted the sacraments now followed by the church.

All of this was “projected onto him by his disciples, the Gospel writers and the early church. The true historical Jesus, in contrast, preached a simple, largely ethical message as capsulized in the dictum of the “fatherhood of God” and the “brotherhood of humankind.”

Pocket Dictionary of Theological Terms (Kindle Locations 1089-1093).

A modern manifestation of this quest is seen in the Jesus Seminar.

I am deeply indebted to those in Historical Jesus research. I never knew any of this stuff (like Empire[1]) as an evangelical pastor. It has been both eye-opening and disorienting (not to mention the spiritual whiplash).

I have problems with so many of the conclusions reached but am at the same time grateful for the depth of engagement and sincerity of scholarship. My faith has been enriched and informed in ways I could never have imagined.

There is just something about the whole enterprise that gets under my skin and rubs me the wrong way. It is possible to be grateful for a pebble in your shoe as you journey?

Even as I write this I am thinking, “I don’t like where y’all  take this… but I need to know what you know. I just want to draw different conclusions than you do.”

This, of course, is the danger of venturing outside your comfort zone.

Why does it get under my skin so much? My agitation stems from three areas:

  1. The reductive maneuver of enlightenment rationale.
  2. The arrogance of assuming that we know more.
  3. The molding of Jesus into our image.

First, the reductive move within enlightment rationale is pervasive in our time. You know that this mentality is being employed when the phrase “nothing but” is used. Emotion and feeling are explained away as nothing more synapsis in our brain. Sexuality is nothing more than hormones and chemicals. Religion is just the projection of our greatest hopes and fears onto the screen of the heavens.

Biology, psychology, sociology, religion and so many other fields are reduced down to their lowest common denominator and summarily dismissed and explained away. I object to this reductive dismissal in favor of a more complicated, nuanced, and emergent exploration of areas of concern by examining the ways that the phenomenon we see are expressions of a complex set of interactions and overlapping manifestations that are mutually impacted by each other.

There is just something suspicious about trying to get behind the text in order to distill the real Jesus away from the presentation (re-presentation) of Jesus in the text of scripture. Which brings me to the second objection.

There is an odd arrogance present in historical Jesus scholarship that dismisses or explains away what we see and hear in the gospel texts. How do we know that Jesus never really said that? I am leery of importing and imposing our modern expectations on an ancient figure. Admittedly, however, the minute I start looking at the four gospels we have in the cannon of scripture I begin to see clearly that the synoptic authors (communities) had different agendas and that John’s gospel is almost entirely novel in many of its aspects. Perhaps my hesitation is because I was raised with a harmonized presentation of the gospel where they were all made to be unified and coherent as one gospel and all differences were dismissed and explained away. I have become very clear that Luke had a very different take on Jesus than Mark – whose text he certainly had and was working off of. The result is that I begin talking of ‘Luke’s Jesus’ which is very different than the image of the cosmic Christ that John is picturing.

Third, it is undeniable that the end product of historical Jesus research often creates a Jesus that is remarkably similar to us. Apparently Jesus is highly moldable depending on which threads in the tapestry of the gospels you choose to highlight and trace. You can get an imperial Jesus, a revolutionary, a capitalist, and even a Marxist one. There is a hallmark version of Jesus who told little boys and girls to be nice to each other and sage-shaman who tapped into the supernatural realm that manifested in miracles from healings to multiplying food to commanding the forces of nature.

In conclusion, work behind the text is difficult but probably necessary. We just want to do it with some humility (especially epistemic agnosticism) and we need to be careful that we don’t make Jesus in our image which seems to dabble in a form of idolatry that should be avoided. Once those three cautions are in place, we begin to engage in a vital and furtive work of excavating and renovating a powerful and important figure of history who has been buried under layers of dirt throughout history.


[1] Beyond the Spirit of Empire – Rieger, Sung, Miguez;  Arrogance of Nations: Paul and Empire ; God and Empire – Crossan , Jesus and Empire – Horsley, New Testament and Empire – Carter

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