Faith Seeking Wisdom: A Prophetic Approach to Our Time

child reading a BibleThe title of this post refers to a sermon I preached last December to the hospitable Evangelical congregation, but I was nervous in the pulpit because I knew it would not be the kind of Evangelical preaching that most Evangelicals would be accustomed to hearing on a Sunday morning. I would not be talking theology. Instead, I had felt compelled to share some biblical insights and personal experiences to indicate ways in which good citizens of all faiths, or no faith at all, have a responsibility to work toward ending “the logic of violence” in this country and replacing it with the peaceable wisdom of God.

As I say, I was nervous and misspoke a few times as a result, such as when I used the word “church” but meant “mosque,” though the congregation understood what was meant. I was also nervous because I was, in part, going to contrast the effect that two different kinds of preached messages can have on a crowd toward stirring up or defusing adversarial relations. The one message was from a Christian, the other from a Muslim. I wasn’t sure how this congregation would take to an illustration in which it was the Muslim who got the gold star. So it was a great relief when, right after my talk the pastor of the church took the mic and affirmed the message to his congregation.

This is the first time we’ve put a talk (by anyone) on this blog. It may be the only time! So this is something of an experiment. We don’t know if it will fly. We’ll leave that up to you.

I should also say that because I’m no great shakes as a preacher, I hemmed and hawed about whether to put this talk on the blog. The tipping point came in recent weeks, as I and countless others have with great sadness watched the already heated social and political climate of this country being kindled with inflammatory rhetoric that has now burst forth into physical violence at Trump rallies. My talk is not on that subject, but I think its message is directly related. If it helps even a few listeners just in that regard, it will have been a successful experiment.

To listen to the talk “Faith Seeking Wisdom: A Prophetic Approach to Our Time,” just click the little arrow and you’re away.

©2016 by Charles Strohmer

Image by Samantha Sophia, courtesy Unsplash

Our Confession is Good for Their Souls

sorry skywritingLike many people who would not consider themselves Christian, I as a Christian have grown to dislike much of what passes as Christianity. If it’s not one thing, it’s another. Talk-radio clichés parroted by the Christian right; the ideological liberalism of the Christian left – both seem to me as different from a gospel-shaped wisdom as night is from day. And far too much privatized pietism and the Hellenistic dualism remain to be swept from our minds.

Inside various kinds of church leadership for decades, I have seen churches run more like business enterprises, psychology sessions, entertainment centers, or political enclaves rather than as sacrificial, life-giving biblical communities working for justice. I have worked in the Christian publishing industry for thirty years and been burned more than once by publishers increasingly organized around the gods of gold and silver more than the God implied in their founding principles. Like churches that follow a similar path, staying committed to “staying in business at all costs” is costing them dearly: the fear of the Lord.

People who are not Christians are not stupid. They pick up on this stuff that we try to pass off as Christian, and they see through it. All sorts of bad rumors about Christianity – many are deserved – have lodged in people’s minds as obstacles to seeking a gospel-shaped wisdom for the ills of the world. When nonChristians see us as hypocritical, irrelevant, simplistic, offensive, or even comic, we have stripped ourselves of our prophetic calling in the realities of contemporary life and end up with little public relevance.

Rather then being voices and samples of biblical truth, healing, and justice to a nation of drifting sinners, exhausted ideologies, and failing structures we too easily take our cues from the world system (already judged by our Lord). What is a transforming vision organized around the principle of a sacrificial life to us? We Christians thus deprive our communities and nations of true insights into their problems. Are we not, then, “wretched, pitiful, poor, and blind”?

Alternatives will have to arise, and many are, but the extent of what needs to take place often seems like a pipe dream to some of us. However, I have been talking in broad categories and abstractions here, but those are not what one meets in real life. There, it is people we meet. People with wounds from Christians. I believe that before we will ever be able to get a fair hearing from such people for whatever truly Christian alternatives we have on offer, we ought to start apologizing publicly for doing so badly. And I think that those of us who are public Christians have a special responsibility here. I have personally seen such wounds healed through a public apology.

Some years ago while traveling and teaching about a Christian view of the New Age Movement, I met two “readers,” as the women called themselves, who turned up at a Davis-Kidd bookstore where I was signing my recent book, a Christian criticism of a New Age subject. They were professional psychics and we had an interesting conversation. It became clear to me that the two women represented the class of non-Christian spiritual seekers who saw through Christian dopiness about the New Age. “A friend said you might be different,” they told me. “So we’ve come to see.”

Their honesty was refreshing, and they were not being petty or cynical or ever bitter as they described some Christian failings they had encountered. They just wanted to think out loud with me about why some Christians don’t seem to know any better. Even though I’m a professional gasbag I really didn’t know what to say to them. But as I listened I began to sense that, as a Christian minister, I ought to offer some sort of apology for the church’s failing of them. But what to say?

Then the penny dropped and I swallowed my pride and said, “I’m also disillusioned about much of the current state of Christianity. In fact, I feel so strongly about this that I wrote about it in my new book. May I read a couple paragraphs to you?” They were good with that, so I picked up one of my books from the table and read from it.

What I read wasn’t a formal apology, but it showed them a public face of Christianity that they had not encountered before. It acknowledged their concerns and commiserated with them, instead of fobbing off their legitimate criticisms and going for the juggler and, say, rebuking them for being psychics.

I don’t know what happened to those two ladies afterward, but we continued to talk and eventually they left. But not before they bought two of the books. Now I had some tough love in that book about the New Age. Did my “apology” lay the groundwork for that to speak to them later? I don’t know. But I do know that they wanted some honest conversation.

on air radioElsewhere during those same years, but now in Nottingham, England, near the legendary Sherwood Forest, I participated in a live, radio debate with a popular spirit medium (I’ll call her Sheila). Just minutes into the gave-and-take it was obvious to both me and the presenter that Sheila was being unjustifiably antagonistic toward me. You could feel the tension in the air of that quiet radio studio. Of course the presenter saw the makings of a real dustup, but I wanted to reach the woman’s heart. And something was definitely in the way. I had a hunch, looked to Heaven, and took a risk.

 

“This is off the subject,” I said gently, ignoring the presenter’s next question to me. “You seem upset with me. Have I offended you in some way?” When she said no, I asked if she had been hurt by other Christians. “Yes,” she said. “I’ve had some pretty bad experiences. I wasn’t even going come here today when they told me that a Christian would also be here. I’ve learned to stay away from Christians.”

Now what? I was acutely aware that this was going out live – who knows how many were listening – and that the presenter wanted to control what took place. And he wasn’t expecting Sheila to suddenly be talking about some of the wounds she had received from Christians. I was getting nervous and wondered where this was headed. Who ever heard of a debate like this?

I looked to Heaven and took another  risk. “I don’t know if this will make sense,” I said, “but as a representative of Christianity, I want to apologize to you on behalf of those Christians.”
In the air and on the air things changed dramatically. It was one of those golden moments. Her animosity melted away. I remember her brightening and saying how nice it was finally to be talking “to a Christian who understands.”

The presenter, bless him, after sidelining himself for a few minutes, reentered the conversation and we improvised for the remaining few minutes. Outside the studio afterward, Kris astonished me. “What are you doing this afternoon?” she asked. “If you’re not busy, how would you like to see some of the historic sights around Nottingham? My daughter and I could show you Sherwood Forest or take you to see the cathedral.” Or take you to see the cathedral? My. What had happened? Unfortunately, I had another commitment, but I probably would have taken her up on the offer otherwise.

An appropriately sincere apology to a nonChristian by one Christian on behalf of Christian failures can be an intercession that warms an offended heart and closes the gap between that person and Jesus. Confession is good for the soul. It may be good for others’ souls too.

©2015 by Charles Strohmer

Images by Butupa and Radio Caravane respectively (permissions via Creative Commons)

Islam and Christianity: A Conversation with James Skillen

The Farthest Mosque JerusalemA leading social and political thinker and practitioner, James Skillen is the author and editor of many books and journal articles, and he is president emeritus of the Center for Public Justice. His new book, The Good of Politics: A Biblical, Historical, and Contemporary Introduction, has been aptly cited as “a call to political repentance.” Having known Jim for a long time, I have greatly benefited from his biblical grounding and generosity of spirit on a staggering array of topics. Since retiring from CPJ, he is sharing his wisdom by writing, speaking, and mentoring more than ever. This conversation took place at the Terminal Brewhouse in Chattanooga and afterward via email.

Charles Strohmer: Jim, let’s begin with what you see as some core differences between a Christian and a Muslim view of religion and politics in the context of the spread of Islam and Christianity.

James Skillen: Islam is basically a religion of law and its scholars are scholars of the law, and there is no imperial authority. The chief authority is God, who has directed his word through the Prophet. And the Qur’an, in Arabic, is not debatable. It’s the law. Of course Islam has become very complex because you’ve now got all sorts of different schools of interpretation. But what gives it its identity as a whole is the Qur’an.

Where I think it makes the most sense to understand Islam politically is in its view of history, that the whole world should become the dar al-Islam (the abode of the people of God in obedience to Allah). The indisputable idea is that God is creator and sovereign over all, so the dar al-Islam has to unfold, but not necessarily by force, although the early Islamic conquests in the Arabian peninsula and across north Africa and into Spain were seen as satisfying this progress of the dar al-Islam. And this created the idea of the umma, the unified community of Muslims.

CS: Where do militant groups today, such as ISIS/ISIL and al Qaeda, fit in? They are seeking to spread the dar al-Islam through force and violence.

JS: For some Muslims, the big crisis since the end of World War One and the collapse of the Ottoman empire is the shrinkage of Islam. I just heard it again today on the radio: Why isn’t the umma increasing like it should, where is the progress of the dar al-Islam? So there has arisen a radical fringe element that believes you can take up arms to advance the spread of the dar al-Islam, and people like Osama bin Laden and the leader of ISIS [Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi] have found legitimacy for that militancy in the Qur’an, whether against non-Muslims or even against Muslims, such as those who support democracy and other things of the West.

So there’s this crisis in Islam in which, on the one had, you have those who, like ISIS, want to see rise of a new caliphate that rules the dar al-Islam through sharia law, and on the other hand you have those who have accepted much about the West.

CS: This doesn’t sound unlike the Christian hope for Christianity to spread around the world, for everything to come under the lordship of Christ.

JS: I would say it is very parallel to a Christian view of the kingdom of God that will someday be fulfilled. It can’t be stopped. The gates of hell will not prevail against God’s progress of this. But the Christian community is not called to conquer all nations but to preach the gospel. Christianity itself cannot be brought by force. With Islam, the nations need to come under rule and everybody needs to submit.

I think the parallel that ought to exist in Christianity is to say, and you see this in Isaiah and other biblical prophets, that to come to church regularly but not to live a life of holiness and justice, that’s mocking God. I mean, you can’t have the God who is the sovereign of all just as a Sunday activity. So to bring all things under the lordship of Christ has to be understood as each thing in its God-ordained sphere of activity. So the radical difference from the radical Muslim and the radical Christian, I would say, is that Christians do not see force as their means for bringing in God’s kingdom. God will do that in his own good time.

Wheat and Tares iconCS: Someone once said to me something like: Christianity is a kind of voluntary society and arose as such, but Islam arose as political religion. Would you say that’s an accurate way to describe a radical difference between the two faiths?

JS: I think Christianity is as much a political religion as Islam, but the view of the political is different. In Christianity, Christ is confessed as king and lord of all. All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to him. But the political task of Christians is one of following Christ as disciples, and Christ did not call them to try to clean up this world of all the weeds that fell into the field of good plants (Matthew 13). God will decide when that should be done. In the meantime we are to live as those seeking justice and loving our neighbors in the world that God is upholding in Christ with the same rain and sunshine falling on the just and unjust alike. The Muslim view of human responsibility under God’s law on earth is very different.

CS: This idea about bringing all things under Christ’s lordship within their God-ordained spheres – many university students and graduates are struggling with this. You often call this “sphere sovereignty,” which is quite different than the Islamic view of sovereignty.

JS: I think Abraham Kuyper’s phrase about “sphere sovereignty” places too great an emphasis on the kind of authority the “sovereign” should have. This is understandable in his context, but his main point was that only God is truly sovereign. And he delegates that sovereignty in differentiated measure to the different arenas of human responsibility. No single human authority, whether church or state, can subsume all human responsibilities under its ultimate sovereignty.

The better way for us to think about this today, I think, is for us to emphasize different kinds of responsibility God has given us, most of which exist by the very nature of what God created us to be: friends, spouses, parents and children, gardeners and farmers and shepherds, priests and governors, and so on. What is required is that we learn how to serve God in every sphere of responsibility in accord with what is required of that responsibility.

In our sin we go crooked, backwards, destructively, violently with our responsibilities, such as by dishonoring our friends, rejecting our parent’s responsibility, destroying the earth, and killing each other. In the new life of Christ into which we have been called, the whole of our identity as human beings – the image of God – is called to repentance and to the renewal of all creational responsibilities. And since these responsibilities are diverse, it is a mistake (historically demonstrated) to ask governments to rule families, or to treat a farm like an engineering corporation, or to expect church leaders to tell us how to vote or how to run a business or how to do chemistry.

Jesus healing the blind manCS: What about the secular / sacred split that afflicts Christianity? It has been severely attacked by Muslim intellectuals such as the Egyptian political activist, the late Sayyid Qutb, who taught that the secular / sacred dichotomy is at the root of the world’s ills. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, and Osama bin Laden before him, and other radicalized Muslim leaders, are absolutely opposed to the split. And the caliphate that al-Baghdadi is trying to create through ISIS/ISIL seeks to rid the world of it.

JS: Christians should not be accepting any sacred / secular dualism, which in a sense goes back to the Middle Ages, when the Catholic church established a distinction between the religious and the secular. The “secular” didn’t mean “not related to God.” It meant related to God via the Catholic church, the sacraments. Then after Christendom fell apart and the church could no longer command politically with moral authority, the secularists said: Thank goodness we’re getting rid of God and the priests and the hierarchy. We don’t need priests for the things of this world. And so they have what’s before them: a secular world.

All that remains is for that to be radicalized by saying: There is nothing else that exists but this world. There is nothing transcendent that can lead to faith in the radical secularity of this world, in which humans are totally in charge and the idea of God is dispensed with. In Islam generally and in radical Islam as well, there is no recognition of such a secular reality. There is only what God created and God himself, who calls us to rule everything under God. So ISIS would say: We’re not going to get anywhere just by blowing people up. We need a political entity not only to replace the Ottoman empire but to do better than that by establishing a domain, a territory, in which all who live there submit to shari’a in submission to Allah, who will bless this effort and pretty soon the whole world will be submitted to Allah. And the idea of the “secular” will disappear.

What the Christian would say is that there is no secular if what you mean by it is something separated from God and is on its own. Instead, every vocation should be seen as one of the aspects of human dedication to God, in which you love God with all you heart and your neighbor as yourself. And within that framework we would not accept any duality of life. You can and should accept distinctions, such as between churches and states or schools and families, and between this age and the coming age, but this age is not a secular age as compared to the coming age as sacred. It’s all part of God’s one creation.

CS: So where do we go from here? What do you see as a gospel-shaped-wisdom response to Christian – Muslim relations and to U.S. policy toward Muslim majority countries in the Middle East? The problems can seem so overwhelming that one may be forgiven for throwing his or her hands up in despair.

JS: There is no easy answer, because what is really required of Christians is that we show we agree with Muslims in rejecting any acceptance of the “radical secular.” Christians need to show what this means by living it out in every arena of their responsibility as disciples of Christ. In many cases this requires more than churches and Christian publishing companies, more than Christian colleges and some evangelistic organizations on university campuses. It will mean Christians finding appropriate ways to organize themselves in their responsibilities as attorneys, doctors, engineers, bankers, broadcasters, and much more. We have to learn how to quit treating any part of our lives as “secular” and not part of our Christian walk.

At the same time we need to gain a deep understanding of what Muslims believe and how they live in many different countries and settings. And then we must learn to engage them wherever possible in friendship and conversation – where we work, where we study, and where we vote and pay taxes. And in all of that we need to be bold to contend with them about our disagreements as to what the Bible teaches and as to why we ought to live to obey God.

©2015 by Charles Strohmer

For interested readers, this site will help you start discovering the wealth of Jim’s wisdom, much of which is being made available on the Web.

Images by Mohammad Usaid Abbasi, Ted, and Fr Lawrence Lew, O.P., respectively (permissions via Creative Commons)

WHERE ISIS STANDS: US VS. EVERYONE ELSE part 2 of 2

old typewriter and booksHaving identified when, where, and how the world went wrong (in ancient Jewish history; see the previous post), the Egyptian intellectual and widely-read Islamist activist Sayyid Qutb believed he had found the religious and historical starting point for what he considered history’s God-less trajectory. The life and times of Jesus in ancient Palestine was the next stop is his radical view of history.

Qutb believed that the ancient Jews had reduced God’s rule over all of life to the religious and moral aspects, and that Jesus, like Moses and the Jewish prophets, was a true messenger of God sent to restore Jewish life and practice back under God’s total rule. In Islam: The Religion of the Future (IRF), Qutb wrote that “Jesus (peace be upon him) … was sent by God as a prophet to the Jews, confirming and corroborating the Law of Moses.” But the Jews “reacted unfavourably to the message of Jesus” and in the end “resisted Jesus and his message” and “induced Pontius Pilate … to attempt the murder of Jesus by crucifixion.” (Of Christ’s death itself, Qutb was ambiguous because, as he said in IRF, “there is no definite injunction in our Qur’an or Traditions regarding” Jesus’ death. The Qur’an, not the Bible, was his ultimate authority.)

Judaism, per Qutb, had rejected Christ’s restoration message, but Christianity did not fair any better. Due to the persecution and scattering of Jesus’ disciples, Christianity, at least not in any systematic sense, never recovered the original unitary vision of the Mosiac Law concerning God’s rule over all aspects of human life.

And then came another historical disaster: the official conversion of the Roman Empire to Christianity in the fourth century. Noting that many people of the era called it “the triumph of Christianity,” Qutb called its Christianity’s “greatest calamity” (IRF). In the books of his that I have read, Qutb ranges through the domestic life, social policies, and foreign relations of the Holy Roman Empire, lambasting much of it, including Church councils. Along the way, he interprets hundreds of passages in the Qur’an as supporting his conclusions. The Christianity of the Holy Roman Empire, like Judaism before it, became hopelessly lost to other gods. In IRF he writes:

“The Christian community …could not crush or eradicate idolatry. Christianity’s principles became muddled and transmuted as a result of a new synthetic religion displaying conspicuously  equal elements of both Christianity and paganism. In this respect, Islam differs from Christianity. It completely exterminated its rival (idolatry) and propagated its principles pure and without opacity.”

Yet at times Qutb shows sympathy for those faithful Christians who were horrified by Roman immorality, imperialist debaucheries, and pagan influences but who could do little about them. He had no patience, however, for the monasticism that arose to counter those tendencies or for the Roman Catholic church’s priestly monopoly on biblical interpretation.

To conclude his march through history through another series of critical moves (which I omit discussing here), Qutb arrives at twentieth century Marxism, which gets his severest attack. E.g.: Marxism “cannot survive without its abominable police machinery, its bloodbaths, its liquidation purges and its concentration camps.” “Marxist doctrine is nothing more than incomprehensible ‘scientific’ fallacy.” “Marxism is completely ignorant of the human soul” (IFR). What Qutb called “the hideous schizophrenia” – the segregation of religious life from practical life in the world – which “the whole modern world” suffered from – made its appearance in Marxism as the world’s worst social disease to date.

But there was fix. Constantly relying on his doctrine of the sovereignty of God over all of life and history, Qutb believed that the solution to the hideous schizophrenia – to what he at times called the sacred vs. secular dichotomy – was “the religion of God.” And he was absolutely clear that by this he meant “the Islamic way of life” (IRF). That was where Qutb stood. It is where ISIS and al Qaeda stand: us vs. everyone else.

We will pick up the story to consider “Why Islam?” in the next post.

©2014 by Charles Strohmer

RELIGION: A NECESSARY WORD

steel structure“You would love our church. It’s not religious.” In the previous post I said that we ought to ditch that widespread Christian slogan. Here I want to say explain why, by thinking about another common Christian slogan: “If Jesus is not Lord of all, he is not Lord at all.” This, of course, a way of stating from the negative that Jesus is Lord – has the final say – over all of life – not only over what we do on Sunday but throughout Monday to Saturday as well. Either he is Lord of those days too, or he is not Lord at all.

But what does it mean that Jesus is Lord of our lives outside the church walls? Simply said, it means that you are not just a student, or just a journalist, or just a math teacher, or just a single mom, or just a singer in a rock ‘n’ roll band. You are much more than “just” anything everyday.

To help Christ’s daily lordship seem more understandable and manageable, some Christian philosophers and theologians see life in terms of specific aspects, such as the physical, the biological, the aesthetic, the linguistic, the social, the economic, the ethical, the political, and so forth. This makes sense when you think about it, because we all function in these basic areas of life. I mean we have bodies (the physical), we eat to stay alive (the biological), we pay our bills (the economic), we vote (the political – to note vote is a political statement), and so on. So to claim that “Jesus is Lord” is to claim that he has the ultimate say over these and every other aspect.

Now here’s the thing. There is also the “religious” aspect of life. It is about one’s ultimate faith or confession. As we saw in the previous post, it denotes, for instance, how people express the commitment they have to God symbolically, such as during a church service or in the mosque or in the temple. Further, the religious aspect tops the list of all the aspects. This is because one’s ultimate faith commitment gives direction and shape to how the person will think and act in all the other aspects. So there is no “just anything” about our lives.

If we claim to be Christian, then our ethics, and our economics, and our communications, and our art, and how we treat your bodies, and how we treat others, and the way we are singers in rock ‘n’ roll bands are  directed and shaped (at least they should be!) by what we confess as our ultimate religious commitment – Jesus as Lord. No one does this perfectly, of course, but we ought to be doing it prayerfully, deliberately, and more consistently as disciples, that is to say, as a learners.

As well, if our religious commitment is to what the Old Testament person would call an idol, or a god, then our ethics, and our economics, and our communications, and our art, and the way we treat others and even our bodies, and all the rest of life too, will be directed and shaped by whatever that ultimate faith commitment is.

In the West today, of course, most people do not have shrines in their homes to Baal, or Dagon, or Mars, or Venus, or Whatever. Well, maybe to Steve Jobs. But the Western gods are mostly invisible. Nevertheless ultimate faith commitments exist to them under names such as Reason, Materialism, Scientism, Empiricism, Individualism, Collectivism, Secularism, Self, The Almighty Dollar. The list goes on.

If this stuff is making your head hurt, sorry about that. But try to stick this out. Just as our ultimate beliefs give direction and shape to our lives as individuals, nations are also shaped by their ultimate beliefs. We need to wise up about this. I’ll suggest why by wrapping up this theme of “religion” in the next two posts.

©2014 by Charles Strohmer

Image by Harry Cjr (Permission via Creative Commons)