Thursday, January 29, 2015

Theology matters

Well, it's about time I finished this (lol). I've been away for a while, but I've had this post in mind for what is starting to feel like a very long time. In the fall I was busy with assignments for a course I was taking and so this piece kept getting put on the back burner, and then came the holidays...but it seems that every time I get around to working on it, the news brings the relevance of this subject to the fore, theology and culture in the 21st century, the recent terrorist shootings in Paris being no exception. Interestingly enough, the day I began working on this was to be the day of the Parliament Hill shootings here in Ottawa, and rather than completely back track, it seems fitting to pick up where I left off on that sombre October day.

Morning of Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Interesting morning, I have the radio on listening to reports from downtown Ottawa, the city where I live, and there has been a shooting on Parliament Hill, not something we're used to here. I'm still processing it, but my husband is working downtown at U of O this morning, and as they are on lock down, I'm starting to wonder if he'll be home for dinner tonight. (Sigh). On that note though, seeing as how I can't really tell you anything more about the above, other than what is in the news, I'll continue with some general thoughts that may or may not be relevant to today's events.

Late last week, while anticipating the long Thanksgiving weekend, I got a call from my youngest daughter's school saying that she had fallen and cut her head on a bookcase in her kindergarten classroom. I was deep in thought finishing up my last blog piece and so in a jolted haze I made my way to the emergency room of the closest hospital and while watching my little Julie swirling and climbing and jumping off hospital furniture while waiting to get stitches, I realized I had two things to do for the next number of hours, watch her intently and catch what I could of the closed captioning that was running across the screen in front of me. The two big stories were Ebola and the emerging Islamic State.

The power just went out and I can hear military aircraft flying overhead. It is a thoroughly grey, disturbingly strange day indeed, but realizing that there's nothing I can do but wait, my mind turns back to that day in the emergency room when an equally strange thing happened. The guy being interviewed on the screen about the Islamic State said that they talk to the young radicals about theology. As a newly enrolled seminary student, my ears perked up, trying to hear what I could. Theology? Was he saying they talk theology on the afternoon news? I don't know if I've ever heard that word on the news in my life. Have you? And yet there it was on the screen in front of me. "Theology, we talk theology with them. And they are eager to talk back," he continued. Wow! What do they say? He said they are eager to speak of why they are doing what they are doing, and eager to proselytize. Hmmn. And somewhere around there is where the interview ended. Just when I wanted to know more.

In continuing with my thoughts on the above, this is perhaps where I should allow the secular culture to speak for itself, and Muslims for that matter, but I do wonder if our present culture is equipped to deal intellectually and spiritually with radical Islam. What do I mean by that? Well, what does a secular minded person say when talking to a radical Muslim about theology of all things? Am I the only one who finds myself wondering this, because it seems to me that we can only be polite for so long, and assume for so long, but at some point we need to start asking questions about Islam and what Muslims believe, but also what we believe as a society. I say this because in my experience, there is a lot that is just assumed within our own culture. As a student of history and theology, I find myself wondering, what would Luther say if he were living today? Any ideas (lol)? Something tells me he'd have a few things to say, but we seem to have left behind an intellectual tradition that had the depth to confront the problem of evil and the breadth to recognize and name heresy, and in it's place we have a mild Judeo-Christian ethic and quasi secular/ Christian culture. But we have reason, we tell ourselves. We have comfort and we have distractions. But is reason enough for a suicide bomber who in convinced that God is on his side, and is comfort enough to fill a spiritual void and if it isn't, what will?

Some people seem to think that a billion dollar entertainment industry and a commercial wellspring of mile long malls are enough; we don't need religion. In response, I think there is a reason why young people are leaving to fight in Iraq and Syria, because our superficial culture isn't enough for them. It doesn't offer the meaning and purpose that many young people crave. When do you ever hear the big questions asked on television between the ads with the comfortable families and the assumed moral law of cop and talk shows? No one ever discusses why we cheer for the side we do. It's just there. And I think the Muslim world sees it too, a consumer frenzied superficiality coupled with a general moral slide, while they read the liberals and the skeptics who cater to their assumptions, that the Bible is hopelessly corrupted, that Jesus was made into a God over time, etc. I know this to be true because I hear Bart Ehrman quoted by Muslims as much as I hear him quoted by skeptics and liberals in online debate rooms. But is is true? Is it balanced, and how much can you tear down of your own culture's historical and ethical foundations, before you recognize a need to stop and build again? Before there's nothing left?

Here is where I would like to take a moment and share a bit of my own experience. I speak to skeptics online and other Christians but probably more than any other group these days, I respond to Muslim arguments and questions that are easily identified as such in online debate rooms. Same old lines, "Christians are following Paul, Jesus never claimed to be God, the Bible is corrupted," etc. And it does seem like a good chunk of Muslim apologetics is directly focused on confronting and attacking the claims of Christianity. And I am very frank, by the way, in speaking with Muslims. I dig up Ehrman quotes to show that what he says often can't be taken at face value and I confront their beliefs with historical and textual realities. I challenge their assumptions, in short, and you know what else, I have very seldom had problems in speaking with Muslims in taking a discussion oriented and didactic approach.

And so my question becomes, while people are getting killed over cartoons, and the Muslim world feels overpowered and frustrated, presumably by western military involvement in the Middle East and other parts of the Muslim world, why are we not challenging the Muslim world intellectually? We have the capability and the capacity to do so. The Internet as well, offers incredible opportunity for engagement and discussion as never before, for people as individuals, even. So why aren't we?

Recently I removed myself from a very politically correct online site because I could see where my questions were going to get me, so yes I do know the answer as to why we're not doing more to challenge Muslims intellectually, because it's not deemed politically correct to question Islam. So again I ask, me being me, not p.c., why not? As a Christian who has been living in a secular culture for much of my life, I've had to learn to take constructive and sometimes destructive criticism and respond to it appropriately and politely. We're living in a globalizing world, at some point we're going to have to learn to challenge each other respectfully, and Muslims are also going to have to learn to respond appropriately. I feel, speaking personally as a follower of Jesus, that I have been mocked, ridiculed and interrogated living in a secular culture and you know what, it's made my faith stronger. So what's the problem?

I should probably remind people that my starting point here is rights. I respect people's right to make up their own minds at the end of the day. What someone believes is up to them (shrug). I love a good discussion, but I do respect people's right to disagree with me. I know that most Muslims are not terrorists, but I also think that there is a place or should be a place to ask honest questions, and if we cannot do that without fear, we no longer have a free society. What I'm talking about is having the freedom to ask honest questions and challenge Islam and other ideas, secularism included, in the same way that my own faith and beliefs are challenged in western society.

So let's get to it, shall we? Islam makes historical claims about a historical person, namely, Jesus. Are those claims accurate? I don't believe they are. Islam is relying on sources that were written six centuries after the person and events in question. Skeptics as well, in their haste to discredit mainstream Christianity, despite their claims to objectivity, seem to deny the earliest sources in favour of later sources. They also seem to apply standards that if applied consistently to other ancient literature, there wouldn't be much left. I ask people to simply go back and read the earliest sources on Jesus, for the first time if they have not, and again if they have. And what do those sources say? Well, I'll tell you one thing, Jesus was put to death by the Romans, one of the most secure facts we have about him, and Islam denies this central fact of history. What was the charge? Good question isn't it? And how do you kill someone who never existed, by the way?

Speaking personally, it amazes me to think that 2000 years later, as the world braces for yet another terror attack and western militaries respond again and again with force, that the self-identifying question of Jesus remains as relevant as it was 2000 years ago. "Who do you say that I am," Jesus asked his first century audience. His response may surprise many, but how would they know, if they've never heard his response to his own question? Missionaries don't get a lot of respect in this culture, but ask yourself what you would prefer, someone talking to you, while respecting your right to decline their worldview, or someone bombing you, regardless of your preference?

I think the Muslim world needs to discover the Jewish Jesus of the first century, which directly challenges the 7th century Islamicized Jesus of Muhammad. I know from talking to Muslims that they respect Jesus and I want to appeal to that respect in suggesting to them that it is worth their time to look into the historical Jesus. With that inquiry in mind, my understanding is that this is a list of critical facts as agreed upon by the majority of scholars in the field of historical Jesus research. As you can see, it closely resembles the Jesus of orthodox Christianity, and Islam and radical skepticism such as mythicism aren't even in the ballpark of discussion of the historical Jesus as discussed in academic circles.

In continuing, if the above facts are correct, where does this leave Islam? Could it be that the sensitivity we see in response to criticism of Muhammad, stems at least in part from a knowing on some level, whether conscious or not, that Islam stands on two pillars, the Quran and Muhammad? If it can be shown that Jesus did indeed make divine claims and that is the reason why he was put to death, where does that leave the average Muslim who sees Jesus as an authority in line with Muhammad? Interestingly, Islam agrees that Jesus is the messiah, but what does that mean? He obviously didn't save anyone from the Romans, so what did he save people from? And most importantly, if Jesus did indeed predict his own death as a ransom for many, and the historical facts can be shown to line up with these claims, what kind of prophet comes along six centuries later and speaks against the very personhood of God while denying God's own plan for the redemption of the whole of humankind?

Now, you may be reading this and think Marg, that's a bunch of nonsense. Okay, but I'd suggest you look into it, and even having said that, is it nonsense to Muslims? Is it nonsense to a mother who is about to send off her only son on a suicide mission? What would it mean to that woman to hear someone say that her son didn't have to die, because God's own Son died in his place? That it's not a physical battle. That we should therefore repent of our own wrongdoing because God is just and will repay accordingly. What would it mean for her to hear that we can be assured of salvation through Christ Jesus, who died and rose again, that it is a gift and not something anyone can earn through their own efforts? That we should therefore love our enemies and repay evil with good. That the whole of the law and the prophets are summed up in one word, love. Love of God and love of neighbor. Theology matters.

You know I've found over the years, in discussions with hard line secularists and Muslims as well, that the people you would expect to be the hardest people to talk to, are often the easiest people to get talking. It often amuses me to find myself speaking with atheists and so often when they open up a bit they start talking about their Baptist upbringing. I'm not kidding you (haha), it happens, more than you might expect. Having said that, there is a common critical tradition in the western world, and I think often secularists and Christians have a lot more in common than we would like to admit. In other words, I don't think it's a coincidence that it is hardcore atheists and conservative Christians alike who are daring to speak out in questioning Islam while the moderates in the middle remain silent.

I think it is precisely because there is a common critical tradition in the western world to do just that, to question, to reason, to critically evaluate, and it is here that we realize that our western history is not just a secular as opposed to a Christian history as it is often presented. Rather, it is a common critical secular and Judeo-Christian tradition with both secular and Judeo-Christian contributors. And so I ask the secular culture that surrounds me, like I ask my three year old who calls me "bad mom" 50 times a day but when I take him to his preschool he hides behind me and won't let go of my hand. How is it that there's something about getting outside of the familiar that helps us to see more clearly who we really are and there's something about remaining inside the familiar, that enables our criticism of that upon which we depend? Interesting, isn't it, that as Europe grapples with Islamic extremism, I hear talk of Europe rediscovering it's Christian roots?

Whether they realize it or not, there's a good chunk of a Biblical worldview in the New Atheist culture, while they criticize the historical Judeo-Christian cultural ethics that their secularism relies on. In fact, I'd go so far as to say that many people who seem to be influenced by the new Atheists and their leaders are cultural Judeo-Christians, whether they realize it or not. I suggest to people sometimes that if they are opening presents on Christmas morning and taking their kids to see Santa at the mall, they might just be a cultural Christians. But if you don't believe me, that our secular culture is dependent on theological concepts, feel free to ask around as to the meaning of "human" and how we might use the scientific method to explain our apparent humanity from purely mechanistic origins. Human is a theological concept. Theology matters.

So, in wrapping up, here's to discussion, and here's to evaluating worldviews on the basis of the evidence and what can be supported through our human experience, while respecting people's right to make up their own minds at the end of the day. And in the spirit of that inquiry, if I may conclude with my own thoughts. Once again, it amazes me that Jesus' self-identifying question 2000 years ago is still so incredibly relevant, "who do you say that I am?" Who is Jesus? I'll say it to our secular culture, and I'll say it to the young Muslim radicals wanting to proselytize, who is Jesus? What's the date on your source in determining the answer to that question? How do you know it's accurate? Have you read the earliest sources? If you haven't how do you know Muhammad got it right six centuries after the fact with no connection to Jesus and no connection to the early church? Did Muhammad read the Bible? How could he if he was illiterate? Does it not appear that the whole of Islam rests on the testimony of one uneducated, disconnected person? Could that be part of the reason why Muslims are so sensitive about Muhammad's character and testimony being questioned? Even if our mainstream culture doesn't care about the answers to those questions, something tells me that the kids leaving to fight in foreign wars do care. And so for the kids thinking about leaving, their churches and their families and their countries and their homes, and for the kids who are already there, fighting for their lives and for eternity, theology matters, and so it should to us.

Thanks for listening,

M.A. Harvey


From Matthew 16:

Peter’s Declaration about Jesus

13 Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesare′a Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do men say that the Son of man is?” 14 And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, others say Eli′jah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” 15 He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” 16 Simon Peter replied, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” 17 And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jona! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. 18 And I tell you, you are Peter,[b] and on this rock[c] I will build my church, and the powers of death[d] shall not prevail against it. 19 I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” 20 Then he strictly charged the disciples to tell no one that he was the Christ.

Jesus Foretells His Death and Resurrection

21 From that time Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. 22 And Peter took him and began to rebuke him, saying, “God forbid, Lord! This shall never happen to you.” 23 But he turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance[e] to me; for you are not on the side of God, but of men.”

The Cross and Self-Denial

24 Then Jesus told his disciples, “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. 25 For whoever would save his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. 26 For what will it profit a man, if he gains the whole world and forfeits his life? Or what shall a man give in return for his life? 27 For the Son of man is to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay every man for what he has done. 28 Truly, I say to you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Son of man coming in his kingdom.”

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