Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Something Still Worth Living For

As I come to preaching at the final 545 worship service at Bidwell Pres and ponder what I'll tell the college students before they head off to summer or to life beyond the classroom, I remember the amazing quote (one of my favorites) from "St. Clive," aka C. S. Lewis
If we consider the unblushing promises of reward and the staggering nature of the rewards promised in the gospels, it would seem that our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling around with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in the slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by an offer of a holiday at sea. We are far to easily pleased.
The reward C. S. Lewis envisions is the "weight of glory," and for me, this pairs beautifully with Paul's description of what he lives for in his letter to the Philippians, chapter three:
Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.
Following God's upward call to glory--that makes life worth living. What does that look like for you?

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Science, Time, and Eternity: A Meditation on the Way to Easter

(This entry is excerpted and adapted from my book, Creation and Last Things: At the Intersection of Science and Theology. Look right or click here.)

Time—one of the most fascinating topics for human reflection—arises from God’s creation. It was the brilliant fourth century North African rhetorician and philosopher, Augustine, who presented the question,
What, then, is time? There can be no quick and easy answer to that question, for it is no simple matter even to understand what it is, let alone find words to explain it. Yet, in our conversation, no word is more familiarly used or more easily recognized than “time.” We certainly understand what is meant by the word both when we use it ourselves and when we hear it used by others. 
What then is time? I know well enough what it is, provided that nobody asks me; but if I am asked what it is and try to explain, I am baffled.            
And so time is a puzzle, but also a gift. Without creation—and scientists would remind us that without matter—there is no time. God continues to relate to creation as the eternal God, as the One who is not limited by time, but encompasses time. To grasp this relationship with the temporal world, we have to look at God’s entering human history in Jesus Christ. There time is “baptized” so-to-speak—God touches time and surrounds it with eternity. Thomas Oden, a theologian who has done much to demonstrate the importance of classical insights from ancient thinkers, summarizes the connection between Jesus Christ and time this way:
The decisive Christian analogy concerning time is that between the eternal indwelling in time and the incarnation. Brilliantly, the classical exegetes taught that the creation of time is analogous to the incarnation in this way: The Father inhabits time, just as the Son inhabits human flesh.         
In this light, God’s eternity surrounds our time-bound world. God is before all, in the present moment, and the One at the end of time. The Bible clearly presents God’s ability to act “before” all now exists. 1 Timothy 1:9—where on would never expect to find a metaphysical thought about time—describes God’s grace as “given to us in Christ Jesus before the ages began…” (my italics). In a similar vein, God comes “after” our current temporal sequence. God is described in Revelation 6:12 as the One “who was and is and is to come” (my emphasis). 

God’s eternity therefore is not timelessness, but the fullness of time. You can imagine a piece of paper with a long, thin line written on it. In this analogy, time is the line, God is the surface on which it is written. One has to advance along the line to get from point A to point B. Yet using the paper, you can move between A and B without moving along the line. Or try another analogy: an author writing a play. The author can write in Act Two, then step back to Act One, then jump to Act Five, without any difficulty. She can even be writing more than one play at a time. God, whose eternity encompasses time, is not bound by a chronological sequence.
This understanding of time is reflected in the language of biblical Greek. Its two words for “time” create a distinction that instructs powerfully. Chronos is clock-time, the rhythmic advance of minutes, hours, and days, which surprisingly, I am told, has only dominated Western thought since public clocks became prominent in the late Middle Ages. “Does your watch keep good time?” That is the question of chronos. The other word for time, kairos can be translated as “opportunity,” or more literally “a decisive point in time,” and in it is contained the sense of divine appointment, a “God incident.” An event is kairos not because a watch says that it is five minutes before six on a Friday morning, but because all is in place and God is ready to speak. So God is not confined by the chains of time (chronos), but can fill any moment with divine Presence (kairos). We long for this fullness of time. We crave a ripple of Eternity in the waters of time.
The Oxford scholar and twentieth-century Christian apologist, C. S. Lewis, offers an electrifying analogy for this longing as a sign of our eternal life. Our constant surprise at the flow of time (which scientists call “the arrow of time”) means God created us not for temporality but for eternity. Lewis comments on the insight from 2 Peter 3:8 that for God, not only is a thousand years like one day (Psalm 90:4), but also “one day is like a thousand years.” He reminds us that the Eternal can meet us at any moment, “but we have touched what is not in any way commensurable with lengths of time, whether long or short.” Our hope then is to be removed from the sequence of time.

For we are so little reconciled to time that we are even astonished at it. “How he’s grown!” we exclaim, “How time flies!” as though the universal form of our experience were again and again a novelty. It is strange as if a fish were repeatedly surprised at the wetness of water. And that would be strange indeed; unless of course the fish were destined to become, one day, a land animal.

This “fish” is meant to swim in the waters of eternity. Doesn't that lead us right to the heart of Easter, the promise of resurrection to new life through Christ?

Thursday, April 14, 2011

C. S. Lewis and the Humanity of Spirituality

One of the persistent temptations for those who write about Christianity spirituality is to be too triumphant—to act as if, once we profess faith in Christ, life is “all kitties and bubbles,” as one friend put it. Or to quote another, “I once was bad and, sad and now I’m good and glad.” This impulse even led to an early heresy that has amazingly persisted in various forms: Jesus didn’t really walk on this troubled, trodden, earth, but he somehow managed to float above it. (I mean literally, he walked, but his feet never made prints.) Consequently, if we want to follow Jesus, we need to move above this earthly existence whenever possible. That concept, however, strikes me as singular inhuman. 

Of course, there are great, amazing, ecstatic days of faith. But we know this unmitigated sugar-rush spirituality doesn’t last. Thankfully, C. S. Lewis agrees. And that’s what distinguishes his writing from the rest of the pack. In his imagined correspondence between a senior and junior devil on how to tempt a human soul, The Screwtape Letters, Lewis reminds us that life, by nature, has its highs and lows. Merely the fact that we are bodies, that we are physical means that we will experience waves these waves.
Their nearest approach to constancy, therefore, is undulation—the repeated return to a level from which they repeatedly fall back, a series of troughs and peaks.
And so a trough becomes not a point for despair, but for reaching to God and for God to develop our wills in the process. The prayers in dryness “are those that please Him best.” Why? Because we are freely choosing God. He closes the eighth Screwtape letter with a stunning allusion to the life of Jesus on the Cross, only too appropriate to mention as Good Friday looms in front of us: the senior tempter, Screwtape, writes to his junior apprentice,
Do not be deceived Wormwood. Our cause is never more in danger than when a human, no longer desiring, but still intending, to do our Enemy’s will, looks upon a universe from which every trace of Him seems to have vanished, and asks why he has been forsaken, and still obeys.
So Lewis will not have an unreal spirituality, nor will he have it entirely other-worldly. God in Everyday Life. God in the Quotidian. God has given us true, good pleasures on this earth, and when we find those, we thankfully forget ourselves. Screwtape writes to Wormwood,
On your own showing you first of all allowed the patient to read a book he really enjoyed, because he enjoyed it and not in order to make clever remarks to his new [worldly] friends. In the second place, you allowed him to walk down to the old mill and have tea there—a walk through country he really likes, and taken alone. In other words you allowed him two real positive Pleasures.”
And those real pleasures come from God who created them, the One that Screwtape complains is “a hedonist at heart.” Pleasures have to be twisted for them to be of use as temptations—that is, put in the wrong context, or for the wrong motives, or wrong ends. But pleasures with the right context, motives, and ends are pathways to God and they connect us to God. The gifts lead us back to the Giver.

And so when we find pleasure in doing what we are created to do, we lose ourselves and the stinking self-centeredness that stifles joy. There a deep paradox emerges:
When He talks of their losing their selves, He means only abandoning the clamour of self-will; once they have done that, He really gives them back all their personality, and boasts (I am afraid, sincerely) that when they are wholly His they will be more themselves than ever.
So this is the theme in Lewis I’ve named the Humanity of Spirituality. Human comes from a root that means “earth.” And we are certainly tied to this creation. Our feet are firmly planted in this earth. Even, it’s true, when God’s finger touches our human life we never entirely leave it. I commend then this rule: Let’s be cautious about anyone who writes otherwise—who believes we can lift our feet off the ground, leaving no prints when we follow Jesus—and calls it Christian spirituality.

Sunday, April 03, 2011

Fare Well, Rob Bell

Rob Bell, being hip and optimistic
Hearing the controversies about Rob Bell’s new book, Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived, and then actually reading the book, I’ve been struck by how much better Bell would fare in a mainline congregation. (I’ve also been struck by how popular the book is—I think Love Wins hit #4 Amazon #4 last week and hovers at #7 as I type.) Why would Rob Bell fare better as a mainliner? It’s not because we mainline types are “libbed out” and don’t care about the Bible any more, it's certainly not because of the infallibility of the mainline, but because the questions he asks can find honest engagement without rancor here. And really, mainliners here just engage (at their best) with the whole of the Christian church in time (reading not only Calvin and Luther, but also Gregory of Nyssa and Thomas Aquinas) and in breadth (taking in the insights of Roman Catholics and Orthodox, for example). It’s simply a way of engaging what C. S. Lewis penned as “mere Christianity." 
Bell clearly writes from a contemporary American evangelical context. He talks about praying the “sinner’s prayer,” “accepting Christ” and therefore of “getting saved.” Good concepts, but very particular, coded language—as Bell points out, “personal relationship” with God is not found in the Bible. I have so much good to say about evangelicalism—and have been duly nurtured myself—but there’s simply a mean spirit that has emerged in response to Bell from some evangelical commentators (but certainly not all) that I’ve found neither beneficial for me or for Bell. So back to party-line evangelicals… Bell also asserts that the church is too often seen as “antiscience”? Yes… in certain circles. But I’ll speak personally: I’ve been in the mainline (in my case, Presbyterian) church and am working on engaging science with faith, first through my book Creation and Last Things, and more recently through a grant program particularly designed to engage scientific insight in local congregations, Scientists in Congregations. Have I met with disagreement? Yes. Outright dismissal? Never. And those are just my experiences and only two of them at that. It just seems a little better than what Bell’s experiencing. (But admittedly, who knows what would happen if my books hit the top ten? I’m willing to find out….)
Admittedly, Bell is a little too optimistic. As many other commentators have noted, he interprets Scripture in a particular direction. It’s a kinder, gentler Bible. For example on God’s condemnation, he seems especially concerned that Ghandi—Ghandi was so good; should go to hell? He was particularly annoyed by a response on a slip of paper to quote from Ghandi displayed at his church’s art show: “Reality check: He’s in hell.” Bell seems to infer that Ghandi could never be in hell. This makes certain sections of the Christian church go ballistic, but as I read Bell, and watch the promo video for Love Wins (which these days is more important than actually reading the book), his point is a little more subtle: Do we know for sure Ghandi’s in hell? No, we can’t say with absolute certainty. When Ghandi saw the full light of God's presence, how did he respond? As C. S. Lewis wrote so poignantly (which, incidentally, is one suggestion to Bell: include the chapter on hell in The Problem of Pain): the gates of hell are locked on the inside.
More can be written, of course, but I’ll close this post here: To understand the book we should take in the citation that alludes to the title: “God says yes, we can have what we want, because love wins.” Even in ultimate judgment, God gives us the dignity of rejecting the gospel. One of the most notorious responses to Bell has been John Piper’s tweet “Farewell Bell.” How interesting that judgment has been declared on a book that itself rethinks God’s judgment and emphasizes that God only says “Farewell” when we have shut the door on him. I say, keep it up Bell, but listen to the wider community of Christ. There you can fare well.
P.S. If you want a fresh perspective on Love Wins, read Donald Miller's review.