Some of my favorite pieces of music – Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9, Danse Macabre by Camille Saint-Saëns, Pictures at an Exhibition by Modest Mussorgsky – are written in minor keys. All of these pieces have a brooding, melancholy air to them created by a slight shift in the way the chords are constructed within the music. This shift creates a sound that is at once haunting and comforting, as though something is deeply troubling and yet perfectly sound in the same moment.
The structure of the chord is the key to creating this effect. Essentially, the chord is created by breaking the normal chord structure slightly. For instance, a C major chord would be composed, as most chords are, of three notes, C, E, and G. To create the minor chord, we change the middle note, the E, by dropping the pitch half a step. This simple shift in tone creates tension in the music, a haunting, eerie sensibility. Minor key music is a beautiful, artistic expression born of the tautness of sound that it creates.
While many find themselves frustrated by the current climate in the UMC, and for that matter in the greater church, it is that tension that creates space for a greater number to find their way into the Kingdom of God. While those who have “drawn lines in the sand” continue to stand fast at their posts, others have chosen to accept that we do not, nor have we ever, agreed. There has never been a time, a moment in our shared history within or without the UMC that the church ever truly and completely agreed on doctrine, traditions, focal point, or anything else. Tension has been a part of who we are from the days of the early church, through the Reformation, and into the 21st century. It has always been a part of the church as it is part of any human institution. We have always lived with it, even when we splintered into smaller versions of ourselves.
Living with tension is part of living, part of being in proximity with humanity. While we may like the idea of agreeing with one another, it is in disagreement that we grow. Much like shifting the middle note of a chord back and forth between major and minor helps a piece of music to evolve, as the church body responds to discomfort, it too grows. Thus, it needs to feel discomfort, needs to disagree in order to evolve into its next iteration. Instead of forcing agreement where there will never be true agreement, why not accept the disagreement and work within our own individual contexts to bring about Kingdom growth.
“Do you know what’s in the middle of the road? Roadkill”
Often, I have heard this little saying from people taking a strong position regarding something in life. Usually, they are trying to convey the idea that you cannot take a middle stance on an issue because those in the extremes will ‘run over you’. What they most often want is for you to capitulate and see their way as the ‘right’ way, giving them a ‘win’ for their team. From my perspective, I see that as a faulty expression of logic often predicated on anecdotal arguments, expressions of personal incredulity, or an appeal to a biased understanding of authority. It is the concept that there has to be ann absolute right and an absolute wrong. For those who are into Star Wars, only the Sith (the ‘bad guys’) deal in absolutes.
From my perspective, the idea of absolute thinking is a form of intellectual and theological imprisonment. When you define something as an absolute, you are in essence saying the idea you espouse to is so airtight, so concrete, so infallible, that it is a form of scientific, provable evidence (a by product of modernist, enlightenment thinking). Absolutes should be reserved for things like 2+2=4, Planck’s constant, and E=mc2. To try to define something like faith, which is built purely on subjective, relational ideas and ideals is in my opinion; a fool’s errand, something akin to chasing your tail. You will most likely never mature in your in your thinking, political or theological, due to the refusal to see yourself as growing.
Jim Harnish writes, “If we Methodists can find a way to be in ministry together while honoring the diversity of our convictions, we may have a critically important witness for our deeply divided nation.”[i] I think there is a great deal of truth to this. Rev. Harnish, I believe, is alluding to being able to have a perspective, yet allow others to do so, not necessarily ‘live and let live’ but ‘live along side one another’. It is an invitation to diverse community, an ideological stew, where the ingredients do not melt into one another but mix to bring out the flavors that each has.
I hold no illusions that the world will sort this combative, philosophical milleau anytime soon, but my prayer is that we can at least begin to have enough of an honest dialogue to see past our own absolutism in order to hear one another. A wise man once said, “If you love those who love you, what reward do you have?”[ii] I believe it time to reach beyond those we love to those we might not feel so much kinship with or feeling for and begin to accept that absolutism will only lead to political and religious despotism and create an environment none of us want to be a part of.
Whenever she sees a post that interests her on social media, she goes straight to the comments sections to see what is written there. Almost always, the commentary section looks like a verbal war zone, usually fueled by the primary, extremist expressions of political position. Yesterday, a horrific tragedy fell on the people of Sutherland Springs, Texas as a man entered the First Baptist Church and began firing into the congregation. Lives that range in age from five to seventy-two were cut short and the lives of those left behind irrevocably scarred from this point forward. Almost immediately, the social media engine came to life and every comment by every politician, celebrity, lobbyist, and average Joe became lightning rods for controversy. Everyone seemed to be picking a side in some peripheral argument, tangential to the situation at hand.
For example, on one social media post that was running an early version of the news story, a man wrote a comment regarding the need for stricter gun laws. A woman responded to that comment saying this was not the time to discuss things like that. The man replied, so when is it time? From there it devolved into name calling and hate filled invectives fueled by religio-political positions. By the end of the thread, no one was discussing the story itself, but everyone seemed to have launched into diatribes on why everyone who disagreed with them were wrong and how their opponents were misguided and best, not worthy to breath the same air at worst.
As a Christian, I struggle with this kind of commentary. On the one hand, I feel the need to speak on both religious and political issues, particularly when they come into contact with the Kingdom work of the Church. On the other, I’m simply tired of hearing it. I believe the continued exposure to it is something analogous to radiation poisoning; a little expose can be tolerated, much more than that begins to alter your physical structure and eventually, destroy it. So, as believers in the Way of Jesus (I emphasize that because I feel it is often forgotten that it is a Way of Life and Being and not just a decision to be made once), there must be a better way. As trite as it sounds, I believe that way begins in love.
When I say love, I don’t necessarily mean the warm, fuzzy feeling you get watching a Hallmark movie or seeing pictures of kids and grand kids. What I am talking about is the kind of love that gets below that, the deep seeing, I recognize your pain because it is my pain kind of love. The kind of love that knows the humanity in the other person exists even when they are not acting very much like a human at the moment. It is the kind of love that comes from abiding in the Sermon on the Mount, the High Priestly Prayer of Jesus, and fruit of the Spirit.
Maybe if we see beyond the pain in us to the pain in others, maybe if we seek to ignore the smoke screen of political and religious difference, maybe then, we can actually find solutions to problems rather than finding new and inventive ways to damage an already broken society and its people.
I’m not certain of when the first time I saw pig wrestling was, but I remember it being something I had no desire to do. Mud flying everywhere; mud getting everywhere; honestly, I’m just not a fan of mud. But the idea appeals to some and so at county fairs across the land you will find great pits of earth turned and filled with water; churned into gooey, sloppy milkshake of terra-not-so-firma. Often, it is children who do the dirty work, sloshing around in the pit, trying to get a handle on an animal that makes its home in this inhospitable environment.
The rules of the game are simple:
“Rules vary depending on the venue. Some contests use larger pigs, while others use those that are smaller. Some include a single pig, while others use more than one. The pigs are coated with shortening, vegetable oil, lard, or another lubricant. Contestants chase the pigs around a field or other determined area. Depending on the contest, contestants either try to get one or both hands on the pig, tackle and hold the pig down, or drag the pig to a set point. There may be several rounds per contest. The prize for winning is often the pig itself.
Children too young to compete in pig wrestling may compete in a greased pig chase, the object of which is to hang onto a greased pig for a certain amount of time. A more juvenile pig is often used for this competition.
As I said, I have never participated in such revelries, however, I have witnessed a few and I can say that whether they catch the pig or not, people seem to enjoy the effort.
Engaging postmodern thought and postmodern expressions of Christianity are kind of like pig wrestling; most people never really quite catch it. The definitions are slippery. The logic is slippery. The thinkers and theologians are often talking in vague generalities or microscopic specifics that are difficult to understand and even more difficult to explain. Yet, I have found that the questions that arise from this kind of study and the approach to theology that comes with this to be something worthwhile and quite often, enlightening.
To look through this lens, we will look at the idea of postmodern thought and Christianity in general and then make the attempt at trying to delve into a specific area. We will define the idea of postmodernism in general and then begin to unpack and hopefully simplify these ideas in order to remove the vagaries and better define the details.
Postmodern theology: an attempt at definition
“Postmodernism means different things in different contexts…a critique of these claims to knowledge.” One way to look at postmodernism is to look at it as a movement of resistance, a way defining itself as against modern thought or the philosophies of the enlightenment. In a sense, postmodernism is a questioning of the way we think and the assumptions we have, a way of questioning what we call truth usually by examining language and the way we use it.
For example, the English philosopher Thomas Hobbes, once noted, “to say that God hath spoken to him in a dream is no more than to say he dreamed that God spoke to him.” What Hobbes is trying to say in this, I believe, is that the perspective you bring and the way you express that perspective is the truth for you. Looking at this one way, a divine presence is directly communicating with a person. Looking at it another way, the person is dreaming about a divine presence communicating with him. One implies a direct message being given, the other implies thoughts about the one assumed to be giving the message.
It is a way to say that truth is relative to the perspective of the person seeing it. For instance, if you stand in front of your car and the front is in pristine condition, the paint just like it was new, no blemishes, freshly washed, it is a good car. If you were looking at it from the rear of the car which had been in a recent accident and the lift gate was smashed, and the glass fell out, it might not be such a good car anymore. For that matter, you could stand at the driver’s side and look toward the front and think good car, look toward the back, and think not so much, all from the same position. Postmodernism says that your viewpoint is a perspective and that perspective is the sum total of your experience and chosen ideologies.
This is all an aspect of the experiential life. Leonard Sweet writes, “Postmoderns will do most anything not to lose connection with the experience of life.” Consider some of the great technological advancements in communications of the postmodern age: the cellular phone, email, digital messaging services, and most recently, social media platforms. All of these advancements have allowed this sense of connection to flourish and yet not so much. A good postmodern thinker would have to question whether this real communication or simply a facsimile of communication, a false sense of being brought together by anonymous technology, a way of being someone other than ourselves.
So, what happens when we look at the bible with these critical, questioning lens.
John chapter 20 brings us to a triumphant part of the gospel story: he who was dead is alive again and we have seen it. One theologian specifically refers to this resurrection event as “the central Christian event and symbol…This is symbolic of the dawn of a new day in the life of humanity, for with the resurrection of Christ a new consciousness comes into the world.” In this chapter, we have four stories about resurrection perspectives centered major characters in the gospel records: Mary Magdalene, Peter and John, the disciples without Thomas, and the disciples with Thomas.
In the first story, Mary Magdalene, a woman whom biblical history has unjustly vilified, comes to the tomb on Sunday morning. She finds the tomb empty and concludes that “they have taken the Lord from the tomb and we don’t know where they’ve put him.” After telling Peter and John about the missing body, she finds herself sitting outside the tomb crying, her grief deep and painfully real. Suddenly, she sees angels and repeats to them the same words she said to Peter and John. The angels do not respond but a man appears who Mary assumes is the gardener who has taken the body away and she begins to plead with him for Jesus’ body. When she realizes it is the resurrected Jesus, she reaches out to him and he says, “Don’t hold on to me, for I haven’t yet gone up to my Father. Go to my brothers and sisters and tell them, ‘I’m going up to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’”
In the second story, a story that happens in the middle of Mary’s story, Peter and John hear from Mary that the body is missing, the grave clothes lying empty, and run to the tomb. The body is gone, and they return to the others. The third story finds the disciples, minus Thomas, waiting in a hidden room to avoid the Jewish authorities for fear of being arrested and tried like Jesus. Jesus appears to them, bids them peace and then the writer of John says, “Peace be with you. As the Father sent me, so I am sending you.” Then, he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive anyone’s sins, they are forgiven; if you don’t forgive them, they aren’t forgiven.”
The fourth story is similar to the third with the exception that Thomas is present. In one of the more famous episodes of scripture, Thomas declared that unless he sees, “the nail marks in his hands, put my finger in the wounds left by the nails, and put my hand into his side, I won’t believe.” Jesus appears, and the conversation goes something like this,
He said, “Peace be with you.” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here. Look at my hands. Put your hand into my side. No more disbelief. Believe!”
Thomas responded to Jesus, “My Lord and my God!”
Jesus replied, “Do you believe because you see me? Happy are those who don’t see and yet believe.”
Then Jesus did many other miraculous signs in his disciples’ presence, signs that aren’t recorded in this scroll. But these things are written so that you will believe that Jesus is the Christ, God’s Son, and that believing, you will have life in his name.
In all these stories we have some common elements: Jesus is there but not there, people experience belief and disbelief, there is a sense of awe and wonder and shock, and there are definitive theological statements being made about these things. From a postmodern perspective, the question in and under the text is about the idea of the spiritual life of someone continuing after their physical death. The perspective of literalism or fundamentalism is that these are factual, historical events that happened exactly as they are written as though you would have been a fly on the wall and seen the events exactly as recorded.
Another perspective is to consider the words and their meaning as metaphorical or allegorical. The church father Saint Augustine notes, “All teaching is teaching of either things or signs, but things are learned through signs.” Augustine goes on to note that physical things in the real world like logs and sheep are simply things while something like the log Moses threw in the bitter waters to remove their bitterness or the sheep that Abraham sacrificed in Isaac’s place are signs of other things.
Postmodern thought would want to know about resurrection as a metaphor or a sign for something else. John Shelby Spong writes that resurrection is physical, but it is real, meaning that “Resurrection frees us from the need to cling to the physical; resurrection reveals life that cannot be bound by a tomb or the grave cloths in which the body has been wrapped; resurrection is an invitation to step into the life of the transforming spirit, and the ultimate blessing of resurrections comes to those who do see physical evidence and yet who believe.” For Spong, it is a spiritual transformation from being dead in spirit and brought to life in the Way of Jesus and not a physical event bound by a time and a place.
So, now we have our invitation to connect and practice a little postmodern thought. What do you think?
Adam, A. K. (1995). What is Postmodern Biblical Criticism? Minneapolis: Fortress Press.
Akkerman, J. R., Oord, T. J., & Peterson, B. D. (Eds.). (2009). Postmodern and Wesleyan: Exploring the Boundaires and Possibilities. Kansas City: Beacon Hill Press.
Augustine, S. (2008). On Christian Teaching (2nd ed.). (R. Green, Trans.) New York, NY, USA: Oxford University Press.
Sanford, J. A. (2000). Mystical Christianity: A Psychological Commentary on the Gospel of John. New York: Crossroad Publishing.
Spong, J. S. (2013). The Fourth Gospel: Tales of a Jewish Mystic. New York: HarperCollins Publishing.
Sweet, L. (2000). Postmodern Pilgrims. Nashville: Broadman Holman Publishing.
Thiselton, A. C. (1995). Interpreting God and teh Postmodern Self. Grand Rapids: T&T Clark Ltd./Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing.
Westphal, M. (2003, Jun 14). Blind Spots: Christianity and postmodern philosophy. Christian Century, 32-35.
For years I’ve been a fan of fantasy fiction, reading everything that I could get my hands on from Knights of the Round Table to JRR Tolkien to modern writers like Terry Brooks and David Eddings. Many of the ideas in this genre remain the same regardless of the author: there always warriors, maidens to be rescued, great deeds to be done, and magic. So many things remain the same in the style of literature that sometimes it almost seems like you’re reading the same book over and over. Yet, each author seems to find a different way to spin those similarities. No matter the story or setting, one character consistently shows up for just about every author: the mystic.
The mystic is normally the person with the wild and crazy eyes, their physical appearance completely unkempt, and their demeanor one of distance and mystery. They tend to live in remote places, caves and out-of-the-way cottages in the woods. They are almost always alone, preferring the solitude of their thoughts and the opportunity to study those things that seem to be beyond the realm of others.
What do you think of when you hear this word Mystic? Does it bring to mind all of the things that we’ve just talked about? Do you have some vision of a weird hermit living off in a cave? For many of us, the idea of the mystic is the idea of someone who is out of touch, someone who is perpetually lost in a spiritual Neverland. Mystics, however, live among us today, are worshiping with us in church today, and lead lives that look no different from yours or mine.
So just what is a mystic?
While these things seem far-fetched, the truth is there is a reality behind this idea of the mystic. As long as there have been people who have wondered about things beyond the physical world there have been mystics. From the shamans of the most ancient of civilizations to mystery religions of antiquity and through the Jews, Greeks, Romans, and into today, there are those who have always sought the divine in their cultures. This idea of mysticism has long been a part of the Christian experience, going back to the earliest texts in Christianity and seen in the practices of the faithful. Christian experiences in the early church were developed around the Eucharist meal, seen as a spiritual, and for some, a literal connection to Jesus of Nazareth, whom they worshiped.
Christian writers have been trying to expound on this idea of mysticism from the earliest known expressions of Christianity. Catherine Keller talks about this idea of mystery and wonder in relation to our ideas about God. She notes that when we give this mystery the name God it’s almost as if we have given up on the mystery itself. For most people, we bring so much baggage to our ideas about God and what that word God means that we lose the mystery. We are so inundated with our presumptions that we cannot see beyond them.[i]
Rudolph Otto sees the mystical as something we experience as a community. He writes,
“There is only one way to help another to an understanding of it. He must be guided and lead on by consideration and discussion of the matter through the ways of his own mind until he reached the point at which ‘the numinous’ in him perforce begins to stir, to start until life and into consciousness.”[ii]
Meister Eckhart, a thirteenth-century monastic writes, “…do not try to understand God, for God is beyond all understanding.”[iii] And modern existential theologian Paul Tillich writes, “…entering the sanctuary means encountering the holy. Here are the infinitely removed makes itself, near and present, without losing its remoteness… The holy transcends this realm; this is its mystery and its unapproachable character.”[iv]
Of all the writers of mysticism that I have studied, Evelyn Underhill strikes me as having the best balance between being a student of it as a discipline and a practitioner of the art. According to Underhill, whose works on mysticism in the earliest part of the twentieth century are considered classics, notes that there are four basic guidelines for defining a mystical expression of faith. First, mysticism is rooted in the practical not the theoretical.[v] Mystical experience is a part of normal religious life and cannot be separated from that.[vi] Underhill notes that mysticism, “…is at once an act of love, an act of surrender, and an act of supreme perception; a trinity of experiences which meets and satisfies the three activities of the self.”[vii] These are all considered to be acts that are consistent with the life of discipleship, the following of Jesus.
Second, mysticism is a spiritual activity.[viii] The idea conveyed here is that the mystic is one who recognizes the nature and direction of the practice to be one that is focused and centered on God as the ultimate and absolute being in life. It is seeking participation in what Richard Rohr terms as the “divine dance”, an interactive life with God at the center of our lives and being.[ix] It reaches into the innermost parts of us and draws us to be one with God, an interconnectedness between Creator and Creation that binds our soul to that of the one who brought it into being.
Third, the focus and direction of the mystical life is love.[x] The love that we talk about here is not a superficial, worldly understood love that seeks to gain from the relationship. It is a love that is focused on the being of God and directed toward the presence of God in such a way as to be enveloped in that presence. In Underhill’s words, “Mystic Love is a total dedication of the will; the deep-seated desire and tendency of the soul towards its Source.”[xi]
Finally, mysticism is definitively a psychological experience.[xii] For Underhill, this means that mysticism is a matter of both the conscious and the unconscious mind, a remaking of the entire self of the individual as they move toward the goal of divine interconnection. This is not a new idea as the early church worldview was directed to an introverted attitude, a gazing within to the soul, which was, for them, a living reality. This led them to see the profound and meaningful ways that God interacted with history, life, and the soul of man.[xiii]
With these four characteristics in mind, I would like for us to take a look at the scripture itself. This passage is commonly known as the High Priestly Prayer, invoked by Jesus over the disciples on their final gathering together before the crucifixion. As we walk through this prayer, I want us to put into practice an ancient Christian method of mystical practice called Lectio Divina, or sacred reading. The practice has four parts to it: lectio or reading, where you simply hear the words and begin to focus on one or two main ideas; meditatio or thinking, where you hear the words again and really key in on the word or phrase you noticed before; oratio or address, where you put into your own words a prayer or stirring that comes from the word or phrase; and finally, contemplatio or contemplation, the idea here being that you simply allow your soul and spirit to ‘sit with the thoughts’ and let the Holy Spirit speak through that.
We will read a section of the scripture passage of the day from John 17:20-23,
20 “I’m not praying only for them but also for those who believe in me because of their word. 21 I pray they will be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. I pray that they also will be in us, so that the world will believe that you sent me. 22 I’ve given them the glory that you gave me so that they can be one just as we are one. 23 I’m in them and you are in me so that they will be made perfectly one. Then the world will know that you sent me and that you have loved them just as you loved me.”
Lectio: What are the words or phrases you hear and gravitate toward?
Meditatio: What do you think about the words or phrase now that you have heard a second time?
Oratio: What prayer do the words and phrases evoke from your spirit?
Contemplatio: Sit with the thoughts and prayer and let the presence of God speak into those thoughts and prayers.
Collins, K. J. (1993). John Wesley’s Assessment of Christian Mysticism. Lexington Theological Quarterly, 28(4), 299-318.
Eckhart, M. (1981). Meister Eckhart: Selections from his Essential Writings. New York: HarperCollins Publishing.
Keller, C. (2008). On the Mystery. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press.
Martin, F. (1974). The Humanity of Christian Mysticism. Cross Currents, 24(2-3), 233-247.
Otto, R. (1950). The Idea of the Holy. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.
Painter, C. V. (2011). Lectio Divina – The Sacred Art: Transforming Words & Images into Heart-Centered Prayer. Woodstock, VT: Skylight Paths Publishing.
Piper, O. A. (1953). Mysticism and the Christian Experience. Theology Today, 10(2), 156-169.
I try to hike regularly, particularly because anything else that resembles exercise seems entirely too tedious and uncomfortable. Since moving to the Black Hills area, I have spent most of my time hiking the Serenity Trail just off Highway 85 north going out of Newcastle. I have also managed a few hikes further north on the Flying V trail or over into South Dakota at Hell Canyon around Jewel Cave, which are a bit more challenging and encroach more on my non-exercise exercise rule. Honestly, I’m just trying to stay healthy enough that I don’t have to give up pastries. So, when I went for a hike this past week on the Flying V Trail, I was just trying to stretch my legs and mange not to work too hard.
My wife, for some strange reason, thinks hiking is supposed to be exercise. She goes looking for places that will elevate your heart rate and stress your muscles and just generally make you feel lousy in the name being healthy. As a medical professional who specializes in nutrition, I know she is right about the exercise aspects but I’m not out there to exercise, I’m just trying to do the bare minimum. So, when we chose a trail to hike at the Flying V this past week, she chose the one that goes straight up.
From a distance, this is a beautiful area, majestic hills with evergreen forests. Riding along Highway 85, in my car, listening to the radio, having a pleasant conversation, is a wonderful way to spend a day. Taking a hard hike, straight up a hill at a forty-five-degree angle, is another story. Entirely too close to work and effort and if that is case, it takes the fun out of it. Understand, I have no problem with work, sweaty, grimy, exhausting work but don’t call it fun and try to convince me I’m having an enjoyable time when I can’t breathe, my lungs burn, and what I really wanted to do was stroll in the evergreens.
When the next opportunity arises again to go hiking with my wife, however, I’ll go. For three reasons: first, I know, despite my protests, that I need to actually exercise. I’m nearing forty-five years old and if I don’t take care of myself the next fifteen to twenty years may not be so much fun. Second, I love being in the woods. Exercise or not, nature is place where I sort through the stuff that runs through my mind. I get a lot of internal processing done. Finally, nature is temple of worship for me. It is in nature that I feel most a part of Creation and find my deepest connection to God. I see God through the things that have been shaped, formed, set in motion, in the natural order.
This final reason brings us to the idea of natural theology.
Natural theology defined
Natural theology is simply theology that has not been revealed to us by divine revelation, meaning the Bible, the Church, or traditions. It is the truth of God that we come to find out using things like sensation, reason, and science. It is theology practiced in and through the mind and perception of the individual and tries to answer questions like what does the word God mean, does God exist, do we have free will if God does exist and doing so without drawing claims from sacred texts or divine revelation, even if we personally hold those claims. It is seeking God with our natural, intellectual faculties without the use of the Bible or church traditions or teachings.
This kind of thinking about and questioning about God is nothing new and goes back to the ancient Greek philosophers. The earliest idea of theology had to do, not with thinking about a Jewish or Christian God, but thinking about the lives and activities of gods and divinities. Thinkers like Plato, Aristotle, and other Greek philosophers asked questions about the nature of the universe and referred to it as metaphysics. While this was taking place in ancient Greece, the Israelite people began to develop a tribal and then corporate identity around the being the chosen people of Adonai. Eventually, a group splintered off of Judaism around the life and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth and began its own quest to define itself with regard to what theology was and how Greek philosophy intersected with that.
From the Christian perspective, much of the thinking about God that goes into natural theology has been influenced by Greek philosophy, particularly the works of Plato and Aristotle. During the time of the early church fathers, the idea of theology was a difficult term because of the poetic nature of Greek ‘theology’ and the term philosophy was sometimes seen as Greek rather than Christian. Eventually, Saint Augustine made the distinction between revealed theology (what is held by faith) and natural theology (what is understood by reason). Augustine saw the written texts of the Judeo-Christian faith as that which was revealed and those things which were thought out about God in the human mind. The early church fathers Anselm and Aquinas continued this conversation in a more robust way and with a very specific line of thought. Both advocated ideas on proving the existence of God, Anselm by means of his ontological argument (an argument based on logic and laws of non-contradiction) and Aquinas by means of defining two kinds of truth, that which can be reasoned and that which is beyond our ability to reason.
Theologians and philosophers, such as Kierkegaard, Hume, Kant, and Paley continued to expound and build on these ideas until the time of Darwin in the nineteenth century. At this point, natural theology became part of a discussion around the evolutionary process and natural theology was wrapped up in the discussion of modern apologetics. It wasn’t until the end of the twentieth century that theologians and philosophers began asking the questions of natural theology without tying them to the debate about the existence of God although such questions and defenses are still part of that conversation. Typically, natural theology is referred to as the Philosophy of Religion with thinkers like Alvin Plantinga, John Hick and others taking up the mantle of this nearly three thousand year tradition.
So how can we use natural theology as a lens to look at the biblical text. It almost seems like a contradiction to say we are going to think about God without the Bible while reading a story in the Bible. I think this can be done and I think it would work best as an exercise. The plans is this: we will read the story again, looking for questions to ask about how we see God in the natural world presented in the text. From John chapter six:
After this Jesus went across the Galilee Sea (that is, the Tiberias Sea). A large crowd followed him, because they had seen the miraculous signs he had done among the sick. Jesus went up a mountain and sat there with his disciples. It was nearly time for Passover, the Jewish festival.
Jesus looked up and saw the large crowd coming toward him. He asked Philip, “Where will we buy food to feed these people?” Jesus said this to test him, for he already knew what he was going to do.
Philip replied, “More than a half year’s salary worth of food wouldn’t be enough for each person to have even a little bit.”
One of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, said, “A youth here has five barley loaves and two fish. But what good is that for a crowd like this?”
Jesus said, “Have the people sit down.” There was plenty of grass there. They sat down, about five thousand of them. Then Jesus took the bread. When he had given thanks, he distributed it to those who were sitting there. He did the same with the fish, each getting as much as they wanted. When they had plenty to eat, he said to his disciples, “Gather up the leftover pieces, so that nothing will be wasted.” So they gathered them and filled twelve baskets with the pieces of the five barley loaves that had been left over by those who had eaten.
When the people saw that he had done a miraculous sign, they said, “This is truly the prophet who is coming into the world.” Jesus understood that they were about to come and force him to be their king, so he took refuge again, alone on a mountain.
When evening came, Jesus’ disciples went down to the lake. They got into a boat and were crossing the lake to Capernaum. It was already getting dark and Jesus hadn’t come to them yet. The water was getting rough because a strong wind was blowing. When the wind had driven them out for about three or four miles, they saw Jesus walking on the water. He was approaching the boat and they were afraid. He said to them, “I Am. Don’t be afraid.” Then they wanted to take him into the boat, and just then the boat reached the land where they had been heading.
The next day the crowd that remained on the other side of the lake realized that only one boat had been there. They knew Jesus hadn’t gone with his disciples, but that the disciples had gone alone. Some boats came from Tiberias, near the place where they had eaten the bread over which the Lord had given thanks. When the crowd saw that neither Jesus nor his disciples were there, they got into the boats and came to Capernaum looking for Jesus. When they found him on the other side of the lake, they asked him, “Rabbi, when did you get here?”
What are some the questions that come to mind?
Some of the questions that we might ask that are natural theology questions are:
• What does it mean for something to be a miracle?
• How does God act in relation to nature?
• What does it mean for Jesus to defy the natural order of things?
• What kind of healing is talked about in the beginning of the chapter? Physical? Spiritual?
When I was in elementary school, I remember seeing another kid walking around the playground, seemingly talking to himself. He walked around the schoolyard with a small stick in his hand sometimes making angry faces and shaking the stick and at other times cowering to some invisible thing, but all the while talking to himself. At one point, he even lay down on the ground, arms and legs straight out and stiff like he was dead. I was curious as to what he was doing but as a kid who got picked on a lot, I didn’t dare walk over and ask.
Later on, a classmate told me the boy was acting out some movie. He was essentially telling himself a story but being a kid, he did it in a rather dramatic fashion, acting it out rather than recounting it in his head. At first, I thought the kid was being kind of weird but the more I thought about what my friend said, the more I remembered sitting in my room playing with toys and doing the same thing, acting out some movie I had seen or story I had read, just not in front the entire playground population of Beulah Elementary School.
Do you ever tell yourself stories? Not just remember something you heard from someone else or perhaps read or saw on television, but something that is born from your own experiences. Have you ever seen a person walking down the street and thought to yourself, “I wonder what their life is like? Do they have a family? What do they do for a living? What do they do in their spare time?” Maybe you found yourself piecing together those things from the way they looked or the kind of car they were driving. Maybe they reminded you of someone you know and you began to relate the story of that someone to the person you saw. Then again, maybe I’m the only nut case wandering around town telling myself stories about people I haven’t met yet.
Postliberal or Narrative Theology: A Definition
According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, the word sermon comes from the Latin word sermo, which means “discourse” or “to have a conversation”.[i] This idea of conversation or the sharing of the story is at the heart of postliberal or narrative theology. Narrative theology was formally defined in the 1970’s by Hans Wilhelm Frei and George Lindbeck and later by Stanly Hauerwas, Garrett Green, and William Placher.[ii] The idea, for these men at least, was that scripture is true in that its truth exists within the words of its narrative or story.[iii] It began as word games about what words and meanings could be used to understand and relate the ideas of Christianity using the ‘word games’ approach of the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein. This eventually evolved into the idea of Christianity having its own unique language and way of speaking about itself to those outside the community. What is meant by this is that the words written down in the first and second centuries, claimed by the early church fathers as having spiritual meaning for guiding followers of Jesus, and used for the teaching of the faith are their own story and their own language. This system has at its core a story, the story of God seeking to redeem the world. This story “…was cast upon the waters of history with one very specific and completely essential and desperately necessary objective – to tell the epic tale of God’s ongoing quest to” restore “his creation.”[iv] As one writer puts it,
“The truth is not simply a doctrine to assent to, nor is it a myth or scientific account of reality. The truth is revealed to us through Christ, the scriptures, the traditions of the church, and human reason – all under the direction of the Holy Spirit…Postliberal theologians typically call people to take up their cross and actually follow Jesus. They insist that faith (pistis) means much more than rational belief, but means believing allegiance and an active life of Christ followership. They would say that the church should gather around the scriptures and the traditions of the church and allow them to define our reality over and against any other story, be it Rationalism, Americanism, Capitalism, Liberalism, conservative/liberal politics, individualism, consumerism, militarism, nationalism, etc. It essentially contends that Jesus is Lord – there is no other Lord, not even doctrines or science.”[v]
Stories, or narratives, are the way we relate ourselves to the world and the world to ourselves. We tell our story and invite others to hear and connect to it and usually, we listen to their stories and find a connection to them. For those of us who share comparable stories this is a fairly easy enterprise and for those with some degree of difference, it may become more difficult. Story, however, is our means of communication with one another, our revelation to the community of people we share our lives with. One theologian writes,
“It is increasingly clear from neurobiology that meaning-making is central to our day-to-day experience, and that we will go to great lengths to construct stories that provide a context for understanding and interpreting what we perceive to be true… Apparently, one of the distinguishing characteristics of the human family, when compared with other inhabitants of the earth, is this capacity for and drive toward making sense, storied sense, of our experienced world.”[vi]
I believe this points to the idea that we need story to make sense of the world around us and without it, the world is somewhat confusing. For the Christian, the narrative content or story of our faith is the grammar or the language that we use to tell others about our faith experience.[vii] That said, it is important for us to ask, what stories do we tell? How do we put together our ideas about the past and future to understand the present? What stories from our faith experience as well as our experience outside the faith community shape our perspectives? What stories are we teaching those around us, especially the next generations that they will use to define their own worldview?
“Clearly, “truth claims,” however necessary, are insufficient for vital Christian faith, since these “beliefs,” these “statements,” are quite capable of functioning as raw data in a narrative whose beginning, middle, and end are antithetical to the biblical story.”[viii]
The crux of it is this, for those who practice narrative theology, the story we find in biblical literature and the traditions and stories of the Church are the way we make sense of the world as an alternate narrative to that of the world around us. This storytelling is the means by which we make sense of life and see lives transformed. The goal is to look at the redemption story of the entirety of scripture and find our way of life and being in that story.[ix]
I believe the best way to approach a narrative reading of scripture is to look at the individual story then place it within the ‘book’ of the bible it is found in and then in light of the greater work of the bible. In this, there is one overarching question we have to ask ourselves, “If I listen to the leading of the Holy Spirit as I read these words and understand this story, how does it lead me to be a more mature and active follower of Jesus?
The story in John chapter five is a story that takes place in Jerusalem. The story is about a man who has been sick for thirty-eight years, a man who is hoping for a miracle. He comes to the pool at Bethsaida along the north city wall where the lame, blind, sick, and paralyzed come to and wait for the Spirit of God to move on the waters of the pool and heal those who can get into the pool. The man, unfortunately, cannot get into the pool by himself because of his illness and is forced to watch as others go in ahead of him and are healed. Jesus comes along and sees the situation and asks the man if he wants to be healed to which the man replies yes, of course, I do but I can’t get into the pool in time. Jesus looks at the man and tells him to get up and walk and the man feels his body being healed, he listens to Jesus and believes him, and walks away.
At this point in the story, what we see is a simple miracle story. A man who cannot walk seeks to be healed and cannot by the means provided to him. Jesus comes into his life and he receives healing and begins to walk as a new man with a new life. At this point, he doesn’t even know Jesus name because Jesus had slipped away in the crowd of gawkers who were watching but the more important part of the story is that a man who was physically broken is now healed of his brokenness.
The story from there goes to a confrontation, first between the healed man and the Jewish leaders, then between Jesus and the Jewish leaders. The issue at stake here is lawful behavior on the Sabbath. The man was found walking with his mat and carrying something like that on the Sabbath was work according to the strict interpretation of the Jewish leaders, violating the Sabbath. Eventually, they find out that Jesus performed a miracle on the Sabbath and then at the end of the story call himself God by saying, “My Father is still working and I am working too.” The claim of God as father had connotations of making one seem like part of the family of the gods in ancient culture and therefore, in the eyes of the Jewish leaders, Jesus was claiming to a god.
This creates a conflict in the story and forces some questions: who is the Sabbath for? What is it for? Who is God and what does it mean to be God? If we back out further into the entire chapter we see the writer of John making assertions about Jesus being the Messiah, the anointed one but also assertions about Jesus being like God. Backing out further into the gospel of John we see that Jesus performs such miracles and makes such claims throughout the ministry portion of the gospel (John 2-12) and again in the Last Supper/crucifixion/resurrection part of the narrative. In this context, the writer of John claims that Jesus becomes Messiah by virtue of God works through him (healing, miracles, etc.) and God’s work with him (crucifixion and resurrection).
If we take it one step further and place this in the overall story of the Bible itself, we have a micro-redemption story in the life of the healed man that mirrors the redemption story of God’s people throughout the whole of scripture. Here was a man who was physically and emotionally broken, unable to redeem himself by his own means who was miraculously delivered by God through one sent from God. Throughout the story of Jewish scripture, God redeemed his people over and again through patriarchs, prophets, and kings and not always the good ones. In this story, we see Jesus as redeemer revealing God to one who is without hope and in need of deliverance.
Truly a story we would all like to live into and hopefully share with the world around us.