Sunday, November 24, 2002

No Questions Allowed

Why is it that in the church scene, if you ask certain questions, people look at you as though you just walked in without your trousers on? I mean, some questions aren't even allowed in discussion groups! I'll list a few examples -- but let me quickly say, lest you feel inclined to look at ME in that way, I am not raising these questions myself. They are the questions asked by people who presently feel alienated from today's church scene, partly because they aren't allowed to ask them, or if they do ask, they're expected to settle for a briefly worded explanation, such as, "The Bible says, blah blah blah. End of discussion." I'm talking about questions like:
-- Did Jesus REALLY die on the cross and rise the third day? (the inquirer cites either Islamic belief, or something about some deep dark secret location somewhere in France, closely kept under cover by the Catholic Church, or the Knights Templar, which is in fact the final resting place of Jesus, son of Joseph)
-- How do we know that the books of the Bible are all inspired by G-d, or if other books shouldn't have been included that weren't, or if some of the books that were, shouldn't have been?
-- How can we be so sure we don't reincarnate? What about people who remember there previous lives?
-- Why can't Christians be gay? (the inquirer either cites Bible references like John leaning on Jesus' bosom, or points out the existence of gay churches)
-- Is hell really eternal? Is it really the destination of every single person on earth who didn't choose the Christian religion?
-- Did the holocaust really happen? (inquirer cites data from Neo-Nazi sources that support their assertion that the systematic extermination of Jews during World War II didn't really happen)
...I'm sure you can think of many more.
My point is, by maintaining an environment in which such things are never to be questioned, even by the serious doubter, we're losing a whole generation, both by barring them from the front door, and by members slipping out the back.
According to an article in the WASHINGTON TIMES, October 18, 2002 FLOCK STRAYS FROM U.S. CHURCHES about a growing number of people who have lost their faith, and have decided that "their earlier choice [to follow Jesus] was no longer right", "... those who leave have often put in years, even decades, of dedicated service ... Others who 'drift away' from their earlier faith often cite logical contradictions between belief and everyday experiences ... Many are felled by a crisis of faith that sends people into agnosticism or antagonism. Others say their faith is irrelevant to their daily lives..." (I found the link to this article on the blogsite)
Could it be that we've forced people to keep up the mature, confident "know-it-all" front until they've finally buckled under all the pressure? The rest of us who haven't buckled under yet, are we trying so hard to hold on to what we believe, that we refuse to entertain questions? Are we, by our heroic holding of our forts, the ones thus maintaining this stoic "club house" atmosphere?
If so, we're both locking out the current generation that badly needs to see an example of TRUE FAITH, and we're burning ourselves out in the process. If the church were a place where doubts could be freely expressed instead of buried, just maybe, that could relieve some of the pressure, before some of us reached a breaking point in our walk with G-d. That would also make us better prepared to be honest and open and "ready to give a defence to everyone who asks ... a reason for the hope that is in [us], with MEEKNESS and FEAR" (I Peter 3:15). Meekness is something we certainly lack when asked uncomfortable questions, though we seem to be in pleanty of fear -- although I think FEAR OF G-D is what Peter had in mind, not the other.
But the key word I want to dwell on is "true faith". Mental assent to Christian precepts, however hard we cling on to them to maintain our corporate identity, is not true faith. Many of us began with true faith, but ended up in mental assent.
Faith is the opposite of fear. Real faith won't fear what questions people will ask. Mental assent does.
"Without faith, it's impossible to please G-d, because those who approach Him, must believe that He is, and that He rewards those who diligent seek Him" (Hebrews 11:6)
Real faith leads us into relationship. It's a seeking for Him, and having found Him getting to know Him. Knowing Him is a so much more secure place to be. That, of course, leads to opening up to one another. Mental assent only maintains status quo, and does nothing to break down barriers to relationship.
Faith is simple, but for many of us, keeping ourselves in faith, as opposed to mental assent can be an uphill battle at times. The secret is to keep at it. That's what the "good fight of faith" is (I Tim 6:12). The trouble with many of us is we've lost sight of that battle long ago, and have reverted to fighting to maintain our mental assent.
Faith is dependable. You can lean on it. We're afraid to lean on mental assent, out of fear of finding out that what we've held on to all this time wasn't real after all. To find out that G-d doesn't come through when we need him, or that Jesus really didn't rise from the dead 2000 years ago, would simply shatter our self identity. Should anyone actually venture to lean on their faith for any reason, mental assenters always gasp, "Presumption!" (what presumption really is, is thinking you have faith when all you have is mental assent).
Faith keeps us in the real world -- which is filled with people asking the kinds of questions I've listed above. Mental assent isn't strong enough to face the real world, so it keeps us sheltered in a fantasy world where those kinds of questions can't enter -- where those honestly asking those kinds of questions wouldn't want to enter anyway.
Because it's founded in the real world, Faith is based on the actual fact of what Jesus did for us in the real world. Mental assent is afraid, deep down inside, that if one were given the opportunity to travel backwards in time 2000 years minus 33, one just might not find the resurrected Yeshua of Nazareth showing Himself alive to His disciples. Rather, one might find either a Jesus who's still dead, or a Jesus who mysteriously avoided death, only to die naturally many years later, or someone who is the antithesis of who we believe in today. Therefore mental assent goes out of its way to avoid any argument that would possibly lead to that conclusion.
Mental assent is fearful that maybe what we believe in isn't true after all, but must still cling to it for dear life, because ones identity is wrapped up in it. We've been in it too long. We've gained a measure of status in the Christian community, and to keep it requires us to cling on to the tenants of the faith.
So, if we suspect that what we've been living on is mental assent, not faith, what do we do?
If we suspect that we're quickly losing our grip on this whole thing, and about to go the way of many others, what is the urgent first step?
Yeshua said, "Seek and you shall find...", "Blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness..."
If we seek Him, we'll find Him. But Hebrews 11:6, referred to above, says we must believe that He's there to be found.
But how do we believe when all we have is mental assent?
Often, we have just a teeny weeny bit of faith, but it's buried under a giant pile of mental assent. "G-d has dealt to each one a measure of faith" (Romans 12:3). The secret is to dig it out.
Some hints how to look for it:
Romans 10:17, "Faith comes by hearing, and hearing by a word regarding Messiah." That can come from the Bible, or from a spoken word inspired by G-d.
Another place to look for it: In the New Testament, we often find faith listed after "repentance": i.e. -- Mark 1:15 "REPENT and BELIEVE the good news"; Hebrews 6:2 "...REPENTANCE from dead works, FAITH towards G-d...", a few places in Acts and others as well.
Repentance can involve a lot of different things depending on who you are. For the rich young ruler, it meant selling everything he owned, giving it to the poor, and following Yeshua. Yeshua required him to give up all his comfort and all his status in the world he lived in, and follow His idea of reality.
What about our status and comfort of the church world we live in? What about all the benefits we're clinging on to by holding our mental assent? ...our "good old boy" image? ...our title of "reverend"?
Maybe for some of us, this means throwing everything we thought we believed up in the air, being honest with G-d, and saying, "If you're real, which just a tiny bit of me genuinely believes you are, take all this and piece it all together again as faith. In the process, I'm willing to give up my standing in this pretend world I've been living in, and lose myself in the real world."
You won't really be lost, because the real world is where G-d lives.

Sunday, November 03, 2002

Letter to a Moslem

The following is an answer to an anonymous Moslem who wrote in to the discussion board of Next-Wave. His message was too long to reproduce here, was evangelistic (on behalf of Islam), and was signed, "Your Brother in Humanity". The following with a few edited changes, was a response. I decided to also post this here as an open letter to all Moslems. Footnotes are at the bottom.


I think the only appropriate way for me to begin this is with an apology:
I don't know your background, whether you are from the Middle East, from the Far East, from Central Asia, North Africa or a European who has embraced Islam. You no doubt feel, as I would acknowledge, that your identification with the faith of Islam makes you a son of Ishmail, just as my embracing of faith in Isa* [there are footnotes below], the Word of Allah**, makes me spiritually a son of Isaac.
For myself, I am only a spiritual son, not a natural offspring of Isaac (having come by faith in Isa, not a convert to Judaism). I therefore feel a debt of honour to the physical sons of Isaac and Ishmail. The book of Geneses records blessings for both Ishmail and Isaac. For the gentile nations, to which I belong, no blessing is given at all -- only an opportunity to receive a blessing through the sons of Abraham, as it says, "In you, all the nations of the earth will be blessed", and "I will bless those who bless you, and and curse those who curse you."
I'm afraid that we gentile believers in Isa deserve a curse both for our past and for our present sins against you, the children of Abraham. The Crusades are definitely a blotch on our history. In those dark times, we destroyed whole communities and slaughtered, without mercy, many more Moslems than can even be measured by the recent terrorist attacks. I realise that most Moslems are equally appalled by what happened to the WTC and other attacks, and do not consider terrorism as a good thing, but if that were to be used as a measuring stick, we Christians have still done far more wrong to the Muslim community than the Muslim have, to us.
That is only one example of our past atrocities against the children of Abraham. As for the present: We loudly sing "G-d Save the Queen" at our football matches, and then proceed to bash up anyone supporting the opposite team. We put "In G-d we Trust" on our currency, and with it we finance pornographic and blasphemous films and literature with which we corrupt the rest of the world, including much of the Muslim world.
Although these examples only cover the tip of the iceberg, and my knowledge of history fails me for more, please accept my humble apologies on behalf of the Christian community for our sins. I'm sure other members of this discussion board will also affirm this confession and apology.
Having said that, I must now allude to a point on which your religion doesn't agree -- in which Islam states that no mediator is necessary in order to gain access to Allah. Because of our sins against the rest of humanity, and against the Muslim world in particular, I find I have no choice but to acknowledge our absolute dependence on the intermediary role of Isa, the Word of Allah, in obtaining forgiveness for our sins. In light of what we have done, how we've miss-used the grace of Allah in the past, the only way I feel I can proceed is to humbly acknowledge that it is only because of His mercy that I deserve to be alive, let alone be talking to you. With that in mind please allow me to speak my heart:
Looking at us now, it's hard to believe that we were, once-upon-a-time, a simple down-to-earth Middle Eastern religion, similar to Islam. In fact, we were not a religion at all, in our own right, but only one of many sects within Judaism. Messiah Isa had revealed Allah to us in a more profound way than we had known Him before, and then, had opened up the way for us to come yet closer to Him -- closer than was possible through simple Torah observance (though we believe that Isa fulfilled the Torah in that regard, so that the final veil between Allah and man was lifted in a way stimulated by the Torah. Thus true Torah observance is the acknowledging of Messiah).
So, we began with a knowledge of Allah as revealed through Isa, Allah's Word.
I think we can be open and honest here. In describing Isa as Allah's Word, of course, I'm simply using a "Islamically Correct" phrase in place of the usual Christian usage, "Son of G-d". Islam states that Allah has no offspring, and no one can be referred to as a son of Allah. Whatever the assumption was, we don't necessarily think of Isa's "Sonship" as being the result of his birth to a human mother. Rather, we see it in the same sense as His being the "Word", spoken by Allah, emanated from Allah in much the same way that the rays of the sun are emanated from the sun itself. If it's only a matter of terminology, I have no trouble on my part in dropping the phrase "Son of G-d", for the sake of this discussion.
In using the analogy of the sun, I think we are on somewhat common ground. The sun, the closest star to earth, is so hot and so full of energy that a human could never even hope to approach it directly. Yet, the rays of the sun are the primary source of sustenance to all life on earth. You have no doubt noticed, in the West, our obsession with turning our skin dark so as to look more like Middle Easterners and North Africans :-) Driven by that, we flock to the beach on our days off, where we can enjoy pure sunlight, so we can come home with darker looking skin. Even though that's as close as we can get to it, we call it being "in the sun".
As the Word of Allah, Isa revealed Him to us in much the same way. In Jewish terminology, He would be the "Shechinah" of Allah, or the "dwelling" of Allah among us. The rabbis speak of the Shechinah of G-d being present among His congregation, or among the two who gather to study Torah, or three who sit to judge, etc. We believe Allah spoke His Word, which emanated to earth in same way as the rays of the sun, and became Shechinah, in the form of a person, Isa.
In those early days, we weren't so intent on defining things, but were content to simply bask in the Shechinah of Allah, in the same way as many today like to bask in the sun. We had come to know Allah as revealed in Isa, and that seemed enough for us, as it should be. As time went on, from being a simple Middle Eastern religion, we began to try to go "up market" by explaining it all to Greek and Roman minds. Oriental religion is of the heart, but Western religion emphasises the mind. We began to search for answers using our heads instead of our hearts, thereby becoming "Westernised". In trying to have it all figured out with our rational minds, and to protect ourselves from a barrage of rational ideas from just about every source imaginable, we came up with creeds. With it, we defined the "Trinity".
To be honest, I do not find any fault with the doctrine of the Trinity*** in and of itself. But I should clarify, the "Trinity" is not about three separate individuals who came together and decided to be "G-d". To me, the word "One" goes much further than the word "Three" in describing Him. It's just that, by offering a scientific sounding definition, people began to depend on what their minds could fathom instead of what their hearts told them. They began to apply it rationally, and began approaching G-d as though there were three gods, or a family of gods. It was very simple matter, then, to add Mary as a fourth member of the "family". That just about describes the state of things when the Prophet Muhammed began his career, so to me it's quite understandable that someone of his calibre would decide to throw out the whole thing and seek to find his revelation directly from Allah Himself. If the word "Son" were to be understood as being a part of a family of gods, then I fully understand the Prophet in his rejection of the idea of Allah having a son.
"One" is an apt description of G-d. If Isa is a part of the G-dhead, then he is inseparable from that oneness. Just as the rays of the sun can't suddenly decide to move to a different part of the universe, and have no more to do with the actual sun -- they would then cease to be rays, or anything for that matter -- so the Word of Allah could never be thought of in isolation of Allah Himself. At the same time, the sun, by its nature, must have rays, or it would become a black hole. Therefore, the sun and its rays are one. The Holy Spirit is the breath of Allah, and the Word is His Shechinah, or radiance. As for His being a person, I would say that Allah can be what He wants. The rabbis say that G-d creates angels, complete with personalities, simply by giving a command, and the angel formed by that command exists for as long as it takes to fulfil that command, and then returns and merges again with the substance of G-d****. Being One G-d isn't about His person-hood, whether one or many, but being One G-d.
The Torah says man is created in G-d's image. I think we could safely say man is a very simplified and abbreviated image of G-d. Man is at his healthiest when he is "one" with himself. Some people are diagnosed with multiple personalities, but such people cannot be described as being "one". Being abbreviated and simplified, that's all man was designed for. Man is limited, but G-d is infinite. Just as the sun is composed of pure energy and too hot and radiant for man to approach any closer than the circle of earth's orbit, so are G-d's ways far above our ways and His thoughts than our thoughts -- so much so that His thoughts could be animated with personalities if He chose. As many of such thoughts G-d would choose to have, they would all agree, as G-d is infinitely "one", far exceeding man's attempts at being "one".
I know you won't agree with most of what I'm saying, but at least I think it's a way of presenting our beliefs in a way that would be of least offence to your sensibilities, and show that Christianity honours Allah as a true expression of monotheism.
As far as I see it, that leaves only one other fundamental area of disagreement: the death of Isa on the cross, and His ressurection*****.
Unlike the issues I've discussed above, this is one that I cannot play down, skirt around, explain away or even apologise for. The "offence of the cross", according to Rabbi Sha'ul, is the offence that defines us. Before the Prophet arrived on the scene, it was already offensive. To the thinking Greeks it was offensive, to the organic Jewish mind it was offensive. Unfortunately, it also offends some of us!
The offence of the cross is the only offence we are allowed (indeed, required) to maintain, but our problem is, we've offended in just about every way BUT that. We've offended you in many ways, so that we now have no choice, before Allah, but to come to you in deep sorrow and repentance. But it is through the cross, our only legitimate offence, that we can, by humbly repenting, receive forgiveness and cleansing from all our other offences that are filthy blotches on our history.
I know that nothing I can say right now can make up for the evil that has been done in the name of Messiah. I can only speak for myself, but others of us continue to offend, with militant, nationalistic, racist attitudes towards the Moslem community, while continuing to flaunt sexual and moral permissiveness in a way that would make most in the Moslem world blush.
Yet, there is so much we could learn from you: your morality, your simple faith, your furverancy, your close family unions, honouring of one another (why, in Afghanistan, which we in the West consider the most "backward" of countries, the traditional family unit is still a remarkably solid foundation for society at large, and an example we should be studying for our own benefit). This is not to mention praying three times a day and fasting one month out of the year. Most of us Christians, if we pray once a day, or fast the whole weekend, we think we've achieved sainthood.
But my personal belief is, we are slowly learning that or own ways have got us nowhere. Our only strength is in the offence of the Cross of Isa, the Messiah. Once we learn to not be offended by that ourselves, but to fully rely on that for our strength, and our way forward -- as we thus learn the humility of Isa -- you will see a profound change in us.
In Isa, the Messiah,


* "Isa" is simply Arabic for "Yeshua", which is Hebrew for "Jesus". Jesus is believed by Moslems as a prophet, and as Messiah, and the Word of Allah.
** "Allah" is simply Arabic for G-d. Even Christian Bibles in Arabic and in Bahasa-Malayu and other Moslem languages use "Allah" as the generic term for the creator of the universe. The only fundamental difference in Moslem belief is their insistence that Allah cannot have children. I personally believe it is a mistake to insist that the Moslems worship a different god than the Christians.
*** Lest any of this is taken as questioning the doctrine of the Trinity, let me just clarify. What I'm saying is simply this: at that point in history, when we sat down and begin rationalising everything and laying down creeds, we lost our innocence.
At the time, it seemed like a necessary move, both to be able to explain it all to Greek and Roman minds, and to protect ourselves from a host of rationalists who tried to steer everything in a totally different direction (ie. Marcion, Arius of Alexandria, Nestorius and others). What SHOULD we have done? I don't know. I'm not even sure that had I lived then, I would have done any better. Never the less, we lost our innocence
Once we've lost our innocence, it's hard to gain it back again. That's why it would be a mistake, at this point in history, to try to backtrack and UN-docterinalise the trinity.
Instead of trying to UN-do 1800 or so years of ecclesiastical evolution, I'd suggest that the challenge for us now, is to try to see where our original innocence (that we lost) would have taken us, and try to steer a course towards that. That is, simply, a clearer revelation of G-d as revealed in Yeshua/Isa/Jesus.
**** That's not to say Isa is no more than one of many angels created by a command of G-d. As the Word of Allah, He is permanent in the same way as the rays that eternally emanate from the sun are permanently part of the sun.
***** Islam states that though the Jews attempted to crucify Isa, they didn't succeed, as Allah rescued Isa at the last minute, so He didn't die on the cross nor rise from the dead.