Bo Sanders: Public Theology

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Brian Mclaren

John 14:6 simply isn’t about other religions

I love John 14:6. I take so much encouragement from it and it challenges me deeply.

I love John 14:6 but I do not like what many today are doing with it: hiding behind it as a catch-all explanation for other religions...

Here is what I love about the passage and the three things I don’t like that people do with the passage:

What I love – this is a disciples invitation. It happens within a story, it is in dialogue that Jesus’ famous sentence “I am the way, the truth, and the life”. It comes in response to a very specific question. Here is the thing – the question is not “What about other religions?” The question was a disciples’ question about following.

Three things people do that scare me – My first concern is that people only quote John 14:6 and not John 14:1-5 or even 14:7. They have ripped this one sentence out of its narrative context and acted like it emerged in a vacuum. This is never a good sign. In fact, the only way this famous sentence of Jesus works as an answer to the question ‘What about other religions?’ is if you isolate it from the rest of the story and place it in a vacuum.

The second concern is that our inherited (non-Hebrew) concern with substance and our language’s (non-Hebrew) lack of relational emphasis really handicaps us when reading the scriptures. I have to explain to people all the time that when Jesus calls God ‘Father’ he is speaking relationally – he related to God as one relates to one’s pappa (or abba). He is not saying that god IS ontologically a Father. Language about God is not univocal, it is equivocal. Or, if you prefer, as Nancey Murphy points out, language is not representative of God, it is expressive. Language does not represent God is a 1:1 ratio – it is merely expressive of some aspect or nature of God.

The third concern is that in John 14:6 Jesus could not possibly have been talking about Muslims. He had never met a Muslim (as Islam didn’t exist yet) and therefore could not have been talking about them. In fact, once one comes to terms with this reality, one has to question whether Jesus would have even know about Buddhists or Hindus either. No, Jesus had probably never encountered them and certainly wasn’t referring to other religions in John 14:6.

(Unless of course you are retroactively ascribing attributes … at which point you are going to have to explain why you chose this one over other preferable ones.)

This sentence was uttered:

  • in conversation with his disciples
  • in response to a very specific question
  • as an invitation to his disciples
  • to relate to God as Jesus related to God

Where the problem seems to lie: When people miss the relational language (come to the Father as related to God), remove the sentence from its narrative context (as if it emerged in a vacuum) and assume that Jesus was referring to things he couldn’t possibly have known about … then irony sets in.

The ironic thing is that quoting John 14:6 as a stand alone explanation – without receiving it as a disciples invitation – one may actually be doing the exact opposite with that passage as Jesus was asking one to do: follow his way.

Having said all of that: Maybe Prophet Isa was talking about Muslims in John 14:6. Maybe he was saying that if they want to relate to God as he did – that they could only do so by walking his way and following his life.  In fact,  if you take away the univocal  calling God Father (ontologically) and see it as expressive (or equivocal) of relating to God as one relates to a loving father … you would remove the biggest obstacle Islam has to Jesus – namely that the Quran tells Muslims not to say that ‘God has children’.

You may think that I am way off here – but until we:

  1. stop quoting John 14:6 in a vacuum
  2. stop thinking that Jesus was talking about other religions
  3. stop thinking that Jesus’ Father language is univocal (instead of relational)

We won’t even be able to have the conversation and explore the possibility.


Evangelical Orthodoxy? no such thing

Roger Olson posted an excellent article by Mike Clawson (hubby of Julie Clawson) on his blog last week. It was about the fundamentalist roots of evangelicalism and their contemporary implications. In the comments (and Roger always has tons of comments) Olson reminded everyone of an article he wrote 12 years ago for Christianity Today.  I subscribed to CT back then and remembered the article.  I went back and found it but what I did not remember was just how contentious things were.
In the article Olson is trying to fight off criticisms from the ultra-reformed, or rabid-Calvinist wing of the Evangelical camp. Folks like MacArthur, Piper, Driscoll, and Mohler – besides being continuously contentious – are always throwing around words like heresy and orthodoxy at folks like Olson, Rob Bell, and Brian McLaren (all former pod guests on HBC).
Here is the thing: there is no Evangelical Orthodoxy

I love reading books like Revisioning Evangelical Theology by Stanley Grenz, Discovering an Evangelical Heritage by Donald Dayton, History of Evangelical Theology by Roger Olson.  I was part of the the Lussane gathering of young leaders in Malaysia. I was very vocal last summer that Evangelical is not only a political term but has deep theological implications and is inherently and historically theological (I used Bebbington’s 4 indicators) .
 But there are two things I think need to be clear:
I got a book called the Evangelical Catechism. It is a compilation of consensus beliefs from 200 leaders, pastors, and thinkers that were surveyed. I like the book – but that is not the same as a catechism! We have no Pope, no ability to call a council, no catechism … so we need to knock it off with the “Orthodox” insistence and throwing around the word  “heresy”. LOOK: there actually is an ‘Orthodox’ church and they think that  the likes of Driscoll, MacArthur, and Piper (as well as the rest of us) has lost their way!  *
1) There is no evangelical catechism and there is no evangelical orthodoxy!  I proposed earlier this week that a dynamic conversation is the best we can hope for (I am partial to the Wesleyan quadrilateral). Can we have consensus? Ok. Can we have conversation? Absolutely. Is there a governing body to enforce your brand of ‘orthodoxy’? NO – so knock it off. Get some new words in your vocab. Think of some other ways to say what you want to say and stop pretending like you believe only what the early church believed. It fantasy at best and delusion at worst.

2) You can’t kick me out of the family. We all have siblings that think we are off and even wrong. Some brothers don’t talk to each other for years … but they are still family. That is not what determines if you are a part of a family! It is not how it works. So snuggle up sister! We are in this together, like it or not, we have the same parent, we were birthed through the same water, and we have the same blood. We don’t have to agree on everything – but stop trying to kick me out of the ‘fam’ bro! We are in this for eternity.
Now I know someone will come along and say “I told you its a meaningless term” … but I want to say

Hey Mr.  – if you don’t want to be evangelical that is fine. But some of us call this family and it means a lot to us. If you are done with the term, fine. But to us it has deep meaning we still use it as a family name. If you don’t count yourself as a member anymore – that is your call. But stop telling us who are inside the conversation that Evangelical doesn’t mean anything. It does to us.

We may not have a catechism or an actual orthodoxy, but that doesn’t mean we aren’t a  living branch on the family tree.

This was originally posted at Homebrewed Christianity as “There is no Evangelical Orthodoxy”

I also shared some thoughts about Christian unity and conformity on a TNT episode.

* I appreciate the real Orthodox and have learned much from them.

Apologetics or Apologizing? Progressing toward… the future?

originally written for Homebrewed

I have migrated – both theologically and geographically – from where I was raised. My move from east of the Mississippi to the west coast was mirrored by a similar (and more than symbolic) move in theology.

I grew up with Josh McDowell being the most reasonable (pun intended) voice of faith. I even went to the Billy Graham School of Evangelism and focused on apologetics. I bought Ravi Zacharias books on tape (and later CDs) and used my best stuff when I spoke to college groups or at outreaches. I loved it and it went pretty well most of the time.

At one point the questions changed and then the answers didn’t seem to work as well. Around this same time I read Brian McLaren and Len Sweet and, like a billiard ball struck by the cue ball, I was radically redirected into a different trajectory. Actually, truth be told, I didn’t know that at the time. I didn’t figure it out until I was cautioned about using N.T. Wright as my go-to scholar. One day it just hit me: if McLaren and Wright are the far edge before you are ‘out of bounds’ then I might be playing the wrong game… or least have been taught the wrong rules. Continue reading “Apologetics or Apologizing? Progressing toward… the future?”

Signs that make you Wonder

Let me just say how much I have enjoyed the conversation this week. One of the dynamic elements of a conversational blog is that sometimes that conversation takes longer or goes in a different direction than expected – this is the nature of dialogue (vs. a monologue). I was supposed to write on allegory today but that can wait till Friday – today we get talk about miracles, the supernatural and signs that make you wonder.

It seems to me that there are two main things to get on the table here.

The first is the phrase ‘super-natural’ comes from specific worldview that came to ascendancy in the seventeenth century. It is very mechanistic. It says that God set up the natural world to work a certain way (like a clock) and the debate was really between folks like the Deists who said the God stepped away after creation and is letting it run like clockwork. The other group believed in intervention and held that God did – from time to time – interfere with the normal mechanisms and do something … super-natural. The activities of angels and demons were outside the perceptibility and predictability of the ‘natural order’ and so on.

That is the supernatural and that is exactly what I do not believe in.

Now, I do believe in the miraculous. The miraculous in this sense is that which is extra-ordinary, outside the expected normality of human experience. Since I am a believer, I attribute that to the power of God who is at work in the world in Holy Spirit.

I want to say again that I do not believe in a solely transcendent God who in ‘his’ holiness can have nothing do with fallen matter and thus resides ‘up’ in the heavens and intermittently ‘breaks through’ the veil of reality in order to intervene in human affairs.

The second thing that we need to get on the table is Biblical language repeated so often in the Gospels of “signs”. What we calls miracles are often referred to as signs. I have even heard them called ‘signs that make you wonder’. This is sacramental language – which is why so many of us are not familiar with it.

A sign, by being fully itself, points to something that is beyond itself. Think of a road sign. A symbol, similarly, is something that participates in that which it signifies without being totally that thing. So in communion, we might say that the bread points to the body of Christ while remaining fully bread. Or that the church is not the Kingdom of God even though it participates in the it. It is a sign that points to a greater reality.

What we would call miracles, what the Gospels often refer to as signs, are activities of God’s presence that point to something beyond themselves while – or by – being fully themselves.

Once these two understandings are in place the conversation takes on a whole new set of possibilities. Once you say goodbye to predictable formulas (mechanistic) then you can move to a conception of a dynamic relationship with a living God. Once you move away from a super-natural mentality (which is often superstitious), you can move to a sacramental participation with the natural world.

God is at work in the world. As Christians we say this proudly and confidently. (I understand those in the Enlightenment who rejected the interventionist view of god and who explained away the miracles in the Bible by simply saying that ancient pre-modern people only interpreted things that way – but that is not where I am at).

If you are into Process Theology, there is a whole second conversation that takes you into all sorts of fun places!  But today I just want to point people to Chapter 7 in the Secret Message of Jesus by Brian McLaren called “the Demonstration of the Message”.  It is wonderful.  I will close here with the words he closes with there.

… this is in large part what I believe the signs and wonders of Jesus are secretly telling us: that God, the good King, is present – working from the inside. The King is in the kingdom, and the kingdom is among us here and now – for those who have eyes to see and ears to hear. The King is present in the mess and chaos of everyday life on earth, bringing healing, sight, perception, liberation… The incursion of the kingdom of God has begun. We are under a gentle, compassionate assault by a kingdom of peace and healing and forgiveness and life.

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>a couple of (quick) things

>I am running a day behind.  Between the Rob Bell controversy and getting ready for my new job …

so here are a couple of things that you may want to look at in prep for tomorrow. Our topic will be “Do you have to believe in Hell to go to Heaven?”

So here is the Rob Bell video

Here is a blog series that I am doing for Hombrewed about the new Brian McLaren book.

Here is something that I wrote about ‘Perfect Theology‘ (hint: there is none)

see you tomorrow!

>Friday Follow up – Relational Religion


Two things that I wanted to follow up on – one brought up by Wanda on Facebook and one brought up by Joe on the blog. Luke gets my comment of the week.
Wanda asked if there was a difference between being born sinful and being born full of sin. That is an interesting question. It caused be to think.  I responded by saying being born sinners is Status. Being born full of sin is Substance. 
What I am suggesting is the we are born into families that have broken relationships, and that we are born with the ability (and propensity) to foul things up all on our own!

I once heard Brian McLaren say  (this my memory and not a direct quote) if you mean by original sin that humans don’t need any help figuring out how to mess things up and to be selfish… then yes I believe in it. But if you mean something at the cellular level or that means babies who die are going to hell… then no. 
That might be a good way to say that. 
Joe brought up a scenario about prayer – “A recent acquaintance requested a group of people to pray for his friend who had sent suicidal text messages to his wife and kid. So we did. There’s a relational connection there, but it’s a couple of degrees separate. There wasn’t anything we could do OTHER than pray…  By the way, the news was good, they got to him in time.”
 Let me put forward a definite theory and tell me what you think:
If we were having a small group meeting or a night of prayer and Joe said “God told me that we need to pray for Mike he is planning to commit suicide.”  We would pray for Mike.  But how would we know if it worked?  Would we just end the meeting and think ‘we did what we could – we did what God wanted us to do’?  But what if Joe said “God told me that it worked and Mike is going to be fine.”  Then we go home having detected and resolved a conflict without having any contact with ‘Mike’?
Now you may choose to concentrate on Joe’s quality of discernment or his track record. But what I am saying is that though those scenarios may be fantastic and exceptional – I actually think that it is not how prayer is designed and it is not how God wants work. Some people may be called to that kind of intercession. I just think that it is not and should not be the normative mode of prayer for the majority of believers. I think that we should pray for people that we know. 
 I am actually saying that God wants to work through relationship and wants us to pray for people that we know (even our enemies as Luke pointed out).  Maybe it is just me – but I do not want to go prayer meetings where people are pulling things out of thin air  where there can then be no verification or validation. I want to go to a prayer meeting where we pray for people that we know by name and then go love them in tangible ways. 
Luke had the comment of the week!  “I feel like the traditional idea of Original Sin views sin as kind of a cosmic STD. I think the idea of sin as primarily broken relationship  is much better, and much more in line with the biblical narrative.”
That got me thinking: we do talk about Sin as an STD – a Spiritually Transmitted Disease!   That is why you have to be so careful about who you interact with – and once you get an STD… it can be tough to get rid of and cause a lot of damage to your health and be passed onto others… Wow.  Scary.

I hope everyone has a wonderful weekend not matter what the weather is like where you live. I am researching a major project on the topic of the history of Practical Theology.  
Let’s keep the conversation going!  I will put up the new Podcast on Tuesday entitled  “Jesus is not Violent” .

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