Saturday, January 26, 2013

Relationship and Theology

I have a theory; one that regular followers may very well have guessed but which I will come out and explicitly say now. Relationship is the key to theology. Let me explain.

It starts with God Himself. As I’ve talked about before on this blog, God’s freely chosen Triune nature establishes God, in and of Himself, as a relational being. This must be foundational in our understanding of the universe and how reality works. God, without involving anyone else, just as He is, exists as relationship. Now, if you don’t understand relationship as a theological term, then his Trinitarian nature becomes somewhat confusing and inapplicable; but when you start looking at theology and reality through this lens of relationship, then God’s relationality becomes a really big deal.

Why, well, because it forms the foundation of how God created and how He interacts with that creation. I wrote a whole chapter on this in my thesis, and have uploaded parts of that to the blog (look in the sidebar “Relationship in Genesis 1-5”), so I’ll just hit the highlights here. I think that the way God chose to create is telling. God didn’t just create individual beings, individual, unconnected pieces and then set them off to live individual, unconnected Lone Ranger lives. He created us to live together in this vast interconnected web we call the universe. Everything from stars, to planets, to bacteria, and even pebbles exist as integral parts of the environment in which God has placed them. Every member, every piece of creation can only function well as it relates correctly with the other pieces of its eco-system; and when all members of creation correctly relate to all others, that is called Shalom. God is a relational god and He created us to be relational people.

Further, God has chosen to relate to humans and to humanity. He could have left us on our own to wander through life as best we could, but He didn’t. He chose to commit to us. He chose to make Himself known to us. He chose to walk with us through all the worst consequences of our choices. Nowhere is this more evident than in the incarnation and crucifixion of our Lord. In the person of Christ, God descended to live as one of us, to experience all of the hardships of human life, to be tempted, and ultimately to die to heal the breach in relationship between God and humanity.

So we have a relational God, who created relational people, and who has chosen to enter into intimate and committed relationship with those people. Now we can look at other areas of theology and see them through this lens of relationality. Heaven is defined as a state of pure, unhindered, and intimate communion with God. This communion has always been God’s desire. It is why He created us, it is what Sin robbed us of, and it is what Jesus is saving us to. Communion is the Mission of God. Sin is relational entropy, as I’ve claimed here before. Righteousness is the practical means by which communion is formed and sustained. Every area of theology, from eschatology to hamartiology, ecclesiology and all the other -ologies may be seen through this same lens of relationality.

As we pursue this course, however, it seems to me that relationship, or communion (relationship’s more theologically weighted synonym), is the glue that brings together all aspects of theology into one meaningful whole. It is the one idea that can unify the disparate field of theology.

Friday, January 18, 2013


This week, I’d like to talk a bit about sin. We don’t address this topic often enough or seriously enough in the church. I feel that there are several reasons for this. One reason that we don’t talk about it is because it’s simply not a very fun topic to dwell on. We don’t want to think about rules that forbid; and we don’t want to talk about all the ways we don’t measure up. Another reason is because we’re experiencing a backlash from a more legalistic era in church history. At times in the past, we in the church have come down so hard on sin that we made people feel like God didn’t love them, that they could never be good enough for God, and that they were unwanted in the church. We didn’t want to make people feel like that anymore, so we stopped talking about sin. Another reason, really a sub-point to the last one, is that some of those who do feel the importance of this subject feel that, if they bring it up, they will be immediately lambasted as hypocritical and judgmental.

Despite all of this, sin is still an important topic. If we are going to call ourselves Christian; if we’re going to claim to live by the Bible, then we must read the whole Bible, not just the parts that we like. And the Bible is very concerned about the topic of sin. From beginning to end, the Bible is almost constantly outlining good and bad behavior, warning us away from evil, holding up good and bad examples of how to live. Jesus himself talked about sin quite a bit as well; and we can’t just ignore that or sweep it under the rug. We need to take sin seriously.

So, ok, let’s take sin seriously. Let’s think about the nature of sin. What is sin? Classically, sin can be defined in either of two ways. Wesleyans define sin as a willful transgression of a known law of God. Calvinists define sin as any transgression of God’s law. I don’t find either of these definitions satisfactory. I don’t think they go deep enough into the nature of sin. I find myself asking why sin is sinful. Ok, God said that adultery is bad, and as He is the Absolute, He has the right to declare actions to be good or bad as He sees fit; and as the Absolute foundation of existence, His will defines reality. But why did God say that adultery is bad? Why didn’t He say that open marriages and free love is good and monogamy is selfish? Was it arbitrary? Did He roll dice? Pick things out of a hat?

God is Triune; He has chosen to exist as a community, as a relationship. He has created us to be relational people, naturally drawn to socialize with one another. He seeks to commune with us in Heaven, and seeks for us to commune with one another on earth. When asked what the greatest commandment was, Jesus promptly answered “Love God, and love each other.” I think that the Bible paints a clear picture of righteousness as pure, holy, unselfish, vulnerable, and perfect communion with God and with one another. This is what God planned, it is what He saved us for, and it is what He is guiding us to. A second look at Scripture reveals that sin is the opposite of righteousness. Look at the 10 Commandments. Every single act forbidden by God revolves around the idea of broken relationships: idolatry, murder, adultery, deceit, theft. Some are less obvious, like keeping the Sabbath; but even that is grounded in the idea of respect for God. Sin is sin because it chips away at our relationship with God; and it shatters our relationships by using us to break each other down.

God is the Absolute and Supreme Something. God is existence. Therefore, if Evil is the opposite of God, then evil is the Supreme Nothing. Righteousness is that which contributes to the building and preservation of the Universe as God planned it to be, it is that which contributes to Shalom. Sin, then, is that which breaks and tears Shalom apart. Sin is not only relational, sin is, by nature destructive. This brings us to a definition of sin as that which destroys creation and breaks apart relationships.

From this, we can gather a few further insights. First, there is no such thing as personal sin. There is no such thing as a sin that is just between you and God. Every sin you commit, no matter how hidden, no matter how small, affects every person around you. Even an extremely small thing like a lapse in your devotional life affects how you are letting God form you, which affects who you are as a person, which affects who you are as you enter society. Every sin, from murder and adultery, down to ingratitude and spiritual laziness affects those around you. There is no such thing as a victimless sin.

Second, we see that sins are not isolated instances of good or bad behavior. Sin is a part of a systemic and eschatological movement (eschaton is the greek word for the end of time; it means “last things”). Those of us who follow Christ are following Him in pursuit of God’s Kingdom Come on earth as it is in Heaven. Leading a righteous life is integral to that pursuit. You cannot say that you stand with Christ if you aren’t involved in the building of His Kingdom. Likewise, on the negative side, you can’t say that you’re following Christ if you are consistently undermining His mission by engaging in acts which destroy the relationships and people around you. And I feel guilty and convicted even as I type. Sin is important because it is part of what defines us as either those who are seeking or those who are destroying the Kingdom of God. If we love God; and we love His Kingdom; and we love each other; and we are concerned about our society; then we must stand against sin.

Third, and as a natural expression of the first two points, we need to talk about sin. We, as the church, must realize that as important as it is to love the sinner and extend God’s grace to him or her; it is equally important to love the victim of sin; to the point of, where possible, preventing sin from occurring. One way of doing so is by talking about sin, why it is wrong and how it destroys. We need to do this from the pulpit certainly, but we must also undertake this one on one in small groups and in every relationship we have. Sin is a cliff, and we need to talk about sin to help warn people to stay away from the edge.

An example might help, I knew of a teenager at a church I went to when I was younger who got his girlfriend pregnant. As I’ve reflected on this scenario I get more and more convicted of our church’s (not the local church but the national church) complicity in his choices. Who ever warned him that sleeping with his girlfriend was a bad idea? He had been born, to the best of my knowledge, out of wedlock; his sibling(s) had a trail of past lovers; the society he lived in consistently presented extra-marital sex as normal behavior; the culture he lived in produced shows like Glee and Friends; and his church was too afraid of offending people to say out loud “Sex outside of marriage is bad because . . .” Why should I ever have assumed that he knew that sleeping around was wrong? He was actually happy when he told me that she was pregnant.[1]

We need to start talking about sin. We need to speak in love; and we need to speak of grace; but we can’t ignore the destruction that sin is wreaking all around us. We must get beyond ourselves and our(my) guilt to speak truth where it is needed; yes, I am guilty of sin, but I can’t let that guilt define me and my actions. I can’t let my failures stop me from encouraging others’ to success. If we claim the name of Christ, then we must stand for the things which Christ stood for. We must stand for love against betrayal, hatred, and faithlessness; we must stand for truth against deceit and fraud; we must stand for life against murder; we must stand for charity against oppression; we must stand with God against sin.


[1] I’m not trying to say that the child was bad or a curse or a burden; and many teenage parents are able to go to college and/or make a really great life for themselves; but the fact of the matter is that having a child too early in life severely limits one’s options later in life and makes all subsequent life decisions much more difficult. Especially if his girlfriend had decided not to stick around, he just stuck himself with child support for the next 18 + years of his life; and he was only 17. The child was worth smiling about, the work that child represented for this teenager was not.

Friday, January 11, 2013

I'm sorry there will be no post today.  Started a new job.  Helping lead youth worship.  Sleep training a baby.  I won't be posting as regularly in the next few weeks.  Thanks for your indulgence and have a good weekend!

Friday, January 4, 2013

Order and Chaos

                My wife and I recently went to see Les Miserables for our anniversary and it got me to thinking about the dynamic between order and chaos. Now, I know that it’s a popular faux pas to think about the universe in terms of dualisms, but in this case, I think it’s helpful and informative; though I’d prefer to think of it as a spectrum rather than a duality.

                Any society floats back and forth on the spectrum between order and chaos, between law and anarchy. Most of us would associate order with goodness and righteousness, and chaos with evil and badness. I don’t think that’s the case though.

                I read a book called Paris: The Secret History by Andrew Hussey and it attempted to tell the story of Paris’ underbelly, the history of the bums, orphans, prostitutes, and work-a-days (as opposed to the history of kings and wars). It very much painted the history of Paris as a struggle between the aristocratic forces of law and order against the common folk and their quest for freedom. As I read that history I realized that order is not a synonym for good.

                In Les Mis, Javier, the police inspector and the character representing the law, was willing to sentence a child to death in order to see the letter of the law upheld. Further, order doesn’t like change. If the bed is made, order doesn’t want it messed up from sleeping; if a room is clean then order doesn’t want people living in it and spilling tea or leaving dirty socks around. Order doesn’t like the spontaneous or unpredictable. In short, order doesn’t like life. In fact, order can only be complete when there is no life to mess it up. The most ordered place of all is a vacuum, a void with nothing and no one to break the rules.

                Problem is that life needs order to thrive. Pure chaos is like a swamp where every living thing is constantly eating and being eaten by every other living thing so that life doesn’t really get the chance to make the most of itself. Human civilization craves order to be able to progress in science, technology, human rights, etc. So neither order nor chaos is “righteous” or “unrighteous,” we need a mixture of both.

                Another problem, exemplified in Hussey’s writing, is that we tend to group values together by the factions that hold them. So, in the French Revolution, order was lumped in with Christianity, aristocracy, greed, and oppression. The whole lot were thrown out the window in favor of secularism, equality, fraternity, and liberty (also known as anarchy). We forget to make distinctions and realize that just because Bob believes in ideals a and b, doesn’t mean that ideal a has anything to do with ideal b, our distaste for Bob (sorry Bob) predisposes us against both.

                As I think about this, I realize that the order-chaos spectrum coincides with the security-liberty spectrum. Order gives us security and safety, it allows us to live without the risk of the unexpected and undesired. Chaos allows maximum personal liberty because it frees us from the law. The tension between the two exists because I cannot have personal liberty without everyone else also gaining that same liberty. I can’t be free unless everyone else is free too, and that means that everyone else is free to do things that I don’t agree with, that I don’t like, and that may even bring me harm. Liberty means that people will be free to steal, to lie, to defraud, and to kill. So security and liberty, also known as safety and risk, are synonymous with order and chaos. Often this coincides with rich/poor because the rich want to secure their wealth while the poor want maximum liberty to go out and procure wealth, although this isn’t always the case, and we shouldn’t equate the rich/poor spectrum with the other three.

                So what does this mean? It means that we can’t have 100% liberty and 100% safety. It seems almost tautological as I say it, but a successful society must learn to deal with a certain amount of risk and a certain amount of restriction. It seems tautological but we don’t behave, as a society, as if we actually believe it. We need to really understand that every security we obtain is a liberty we lose, while every freedom we gain is a risk we undertake. Until we really get this, we can’t but stumble blindly across the spectrum between order and chaos.

We should understand one last thing about order and chaos. All other factors being equal, order always wins. Order is disciplined, patient and well-planned while chaos is too distracted and disorganized to ultimately put up a real fight. Yes it will win a few battles here and there, and when it does win, it wins spectacularly, but ultimately order always carries the day. Hussey might agree that the history of Paris is instructive here. Paris, for centuries, was synonymous with rebellion, back-alleys, and an earthy, messy lived-in-ness. You could smell the place for miles and the stench clung to travelers for days. But eventually the paving stones used for barricades are paved over with asphalt, indoor plumbing banishes the smell, the back-alleys are constructed into oblivion, the hovels are torn down for art galleries and tourist traps, and that innate lived-in quality is gentrified out of existence. The day-laborers move to the suburbs leaving the city to glow a little less despite the million light bulbs sanitizing the darkness. Order always wins.

So, I think we should pay attention to this spectrum and be purposive in how we, as individuals and societies, interact with and exemplify order and chaos. We need to be mindful because we can’t let order win; for when order finally wins, life dies.