Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Being wise

Christians often pray that God would give them wisdom, and it's right that we should do so.  Most often we pray that God would make us wise in a particular decision.  Again, perfectly correct.  It's just an acknowledgement that God is involved in, and indeed sovereign over, the decision-making process, and that the outcome is in his hands.

Still, I do sometimes feel like we're not really asking for wisdom, but just for the answer.  Do we want God to make us wise, or just to have him point us in the right direction for this particular decision?  Sometimes wisdom is not much more to Christians than sanctified common sense, sanctified clear-headedness, or even just sanctified 'getting it right'.  To put it another way, wisdom is all about the process and the decision; it has no content of its own, it is just the way to get to the right outcome.

In Scripture, wisdom has content.  In the Old Testament, wisdom begins with the fear of YHWH (Ps 111:10, Prov 1:7), and works itself out in devotion to his law (Deut 4:6).  That is why wisdom is a tree of life, and why such exorbitant promises are attached to the pursuit of wisdom.  To be wise in the OT is not really to have a canny sense of what to do in a given situation, or to leap to the right conclusion.  To be wise is to know God, to fear God, to study God's ways.  Wisdom has a shape.  It is about following God, perceiving his work and way and conforming our lives to his revelation.  Wisdom is often linked to creation (e.g. Ps 104:24), because the Scriptural authors saw in God's creation his way of working, and sought to follow it.

In the New Testament, the content of wisdom is filled out with a personal name: Jesus.  It is Jesus who is the wisdom of God (1 Cor 1:30), and in him that all the treasures of divine wisdom are to be found (Col 2:3).  Wisdom is knowing God through Jesus.  In Jesus Christ, we see how it is that God works, and so in continuity with the OT, we are encouraged to get on board with God's actions, methods, activities.  Wisdom is something that we can learn from Jesus.

The hard part is that this wisdom is particularly the wisdom of Christ crucified.  God works through the cross of Christ, through the crucified Jesus.  That is why in 1 Corinthians 1 and 2 Paul is insistent that wisdom will not look wise.  Wisdom will look foolish, because it hinges on crucifixion.  Paul rejects the wisdom of the world, which moves easily from here to there, from where we are to where we want to be, in favour of the wisdom of God, which he reads in the cross of Christ.  Far from being sanctified common sense, this is senseless and foolish from a human perspective, but it is nevertheless divine wisdom.  It is the way God has gone, which means it is the way things work, which means it is the way we ought to walk.

In practice, I think this means that when we pray for wisdom we should first of all seek the answers to our prayers at the cross of Jesus.  In making this decision, which outcome looks cross-shaped - which outcome looks like dying to live?  Which outcome looks like the humanly-foolish, divinely-wise action of the cross?  I think that will often mean running precisely contrary to common sense.  In life, if something is going well, we continue it; the cross may mean giving that thing up to death for eternal gain.  In church, we often assume that growth or success should be continued - if we're growing, let's plan for growth!  But where is the cross?  How do our decisions reflect the Calvary road?

Wisdom is cross shaped, which means it often will cut across what seems good to us.  It often will look foolish.  But Jesus Christ, and him crucified, has become to us wisdom from God.  We should follow him.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

How to do liberal theology

I recently read Walter Brueggemann's book Sabbath as Resistance, which is really helpful in many ways and has challenged me to re-think my own position on Sabbath keeping.  However, at heart this book is a work of liberal theology, and I've found it interesting to think through what that means and how it shows itself.

To start with, for those brought up in a conservative evangelical tradition, it may be surprising that liberal theology is very interested in the Bible.  This book is all about engagement with Scripture.  Liberal theology at its best - and much of it is really rather good - is a genuine attempt to be Christian, and that translates into a real desire to hear the voice of Scripture and take it seriously.  If we imagine that liberal theology is not very seriously oriented toward the Bible, we will get it wrong.  If you want to do liberal theology, Scripture is the best place to start.

Moreover, liberal theology can lead to real and valuable insight into the Biblical text.  Sometimes those of us coming from a more conservative position can fail to really grapple with the text as it confronts us.  Sometimes we think we already know what the Bible is about, and that prevents us from asking the important questions.  Other times we look carefully to the text, but do not understand our contemporary world, so that we fail to arrive at an authentic interpretation and application of Scripture for today.  Liberal theology, which often comes from a place less bound by traditional interpretation, less tied to systematic theology, and more grounded in contemporary thought, can often be helpful.

But there is a problem.  Take an example from Brueggemann as illustrative.  In a generally helpful chapter which describes Sabbath as resistance to anxiety, we come across this summary of the activity of Pharaoh:

"...Pharaoh, even though he was absolute in authority and he occupied the pinnacle of power, was an endlessly anxious presence..."

"..Pharaoh, who controlled the Nile, nevertheless had nightmares of anxiety, as he dreamed of famine and as he imagined that the creation would not provide sufficient food (Gen. 41:15-32)."

"...that nightmare of scarcity, which contradicted the wealth and power of read Pharaoh, led to rapacious state policies of monopoly that caused the crown to usurp the money, cattle, the land, and finally the bodies of vulnerable peasasnts..."

See what's happened there?  If you're at all familiar with the book of Genesis, you will remember that Pharaoh is sent dreams from God warning him of famine to come.  The divine origin of these warnings is stressed in the narrative - read through Genesis 41:25-36, and count the mentions of God.  "God has revealed...  God has shown...  the thing is fixed by God and God will shortly bring it about".  Of course, all this is said by Joseph, but the text gives every reason to see this as also the narrator's point of view.  Pharaoh's anxiety in this instance is caused by God, and moreover is well justified!

What about the rapacious state policies?  The reader will recall that it was Joseph, not Pharaoh, who reduced the people of Egypt to serfdom.  But in the text, the stress is not on this but on the fact that the people were saved alive.  The alternative to serfdom was starvation.  Now, if any character in Genesis is portrayed by the narrator as a hero, it is Joseph.  To read this episode as Brueggemann does is to go completely against the grain of the Scriptural text.

And fundamentally, that is how to do liberal theology.  Use the Scriptural narrative and instruction as material, engage with it very seriously and creatively, but do not feel constrained to follow where Scripture points.  Do not feel obliged to let Scripture set the agenda.  In short, make the Bible your servant and not your master.  Then you're well on your way.

Sunday, March 08, 2015

Lent 3

Leviticus 16 - the Day of Atonement.  Two goats, one for the LORD, and one for Azazel.  One to be killed as a sin offering, the other to be taken away into the wilderness and released.

Mark 1:9-13 - Jesus is baptized and then tempted.  In the river, he goes symbolically down into death, and the Spirit drives him out into the wilderness.

I take it that the dead goat points to the need for the sinner to die.  In his baptism, Jesus signals that he himself will fulfil this sign.  He identifies with sinners, and will die for sinners.  Unlike the goat, his encounter with death will end with his triumph in the resurrection, symbolised his emergence from the water of baptism.

The live goat seems to symbolise primarily the removal of the sin of Israel.  Their sin is taken away into the wilderness - to Azazel,  A demon?  So tradition has interpreted the passage.  Certainly the wilderness was considered the haunt of demons in some sense.  Jesus is driven into the wilderness, as the goat was driven away from Israel.  Unlike the goat, he takes on and defeats the devil in his own domain.  He not only bears away the sin of his people, but he responds to temptation to win with perfect righteousness.

Monday, March 02, 2015

Lent 2

But the self-humiliation of God in his Son is genuine and actual, and therefore there is no reservation in respect of his solidarity with us.  He did become... the brother of man, threatened with man, harassed and assaulted with him, and with him in the stream which hurries downwards to the abyss, hastening with him to death, to the cessation of being and nothingness.  With him he cries - knowing far better than any other how much reason there is to cry: "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?" (Mk. 15:34).  Deus pro nobis means simply that God has not abandoned the world and man in the unlimited need of his situation, but that he willed to bear this need as his own, that he took it upon himself, and that he cries with man in this need.

CD IV/1, p. 215