Is Jesus God? [Questioning faith #9]

Ted Grimsrud—December 8, 2022

Many years ago, I had a friend who was probably the most principled person I have ever known. As a young college professor, he was denied tenure in large part because he sided with a student in a dispute with one of the school’s high administrators. My friend and his family then moved to a new town on the other side of the country.

A few years later, he was offered a teaching job at another college. However, he didn’t take the job because he could not sign the school’s doctrinal statement. The school dean argued with my friend—“Nobody takes this statement seriously. Just sign it; we don’t care if you agree with it or not.” What was the issue? The divinity of Jesus Christ. The doctrinal statement said something to the effect that “we believe Jesus Christ is God Incarnate.”

Now, my friend was hardly a liberal. He was kind of a biblical literalist, and he didn’t think the Bible itself taught that Jesus is God. He didn’t give much weight to the later creeds and confessions that make that affirmation. At that point in my life, I hadn’t really questioned the standard “orthodox” view, but my friend’s costly commitment to his belief system impressed me. So, I started thinking about this question, “is Jesus God?” I still haven’t figured it all out, though.

What’s the question?

One of the difficulties I have is that I can’t quite figure out what the statement “Jesus is God” actually means. It seems a bit like saying that in the 4th quarter of a close basketball game, Steph Curry is a cold-blooded killer. You have a sense of what the statement means, but it’s a metaphor. A person playing basketball is not in any literal sense a killer. But Curry can be like a cold-blooded killer when he ignores the pressure and makes a crucial shot that leads to his opponent’s defeat.

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How do we get the Bible right? [Questioning faith #8]

Ted Grimsrud—December 5, 2022

To my previous question, “Why did Christianity move so far away from the message of Jesus?” (11/21/22), an important part of the answer that goes beyond the themes I discussed in that blog post would be to think about the Bible. We could say, I suspect, that a major reason why Christianity moved so far away from Jesus is that Christianity quit getting the Bible right. The message of Jesus mainly comes from the gospels—and in the history of Christianity quite often the gospels have been marginalized, beginning with the great creeds that jump from Jesus’s birth to his death without a word about his message.

Approaching the Bible today

I want to focus here on the present version of this issue—How do we get the Bible right today? I have written before how I struggled with the Bible during the early years after my entering the Christian fold. I think now one of the main reasons is that the Bible was presented to me in an uninteresting way. Once I was introduced to the gospel of peace and was helped to see how the entire Bible ultimately presents us with this peace message then studying the Bible became interesting and meaningful. As my theology has evolved away from the rather conservative “Bible Baptist” theology I started out with, my embrace of the Bible has actually been strengthened. I realize that my positive view of the Bible has a great deal to do with my reading strategy. I am aware of many other different approaches to the Bible today that actually contribute to the problem of separating Christianity from the message of Jesus.

I have become convinced that one of the most important aspects of my reading strategy that makes the Bible interesting for me is to recognize that the Bible has a particular agenda. Now, this is a complicated point partly because we actually know so little for sure about the original writing of the Bible. And we must recognize that the Bible is filled with a large variety of writings from different times and places with different styles and, we could say, different agendas. So, we should be cautious about asserting a single agenda. Nonetheless, cautiously, I do want to make such a suggestion (perhaps not as insistent as an assertion). The Bible’s particular agenda is to encourage healing in the world (what I call in my book introducing the Bible, God’s Healing Strategy). I think that healing agenda motivated the writing of most of the books of the Bible. It motivated the use of these various writings in communities of faith. It motivated the gathering of these writings into a larger collection. And, ultimately, it motivated the sustained use of the collection as the normative scripture for the faith tradition.

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Why did Christianity move so far away from the message of Jesus? [Questioning faith #7]

Ted Grimsrud—November 21, 2022

From the time I made a commitment to Christian pacifism in the mid-1970s, I have believed that Jesus and the Bible as a whole support that commitment. In the years since, I have learned a lot more about how this “support” is complicated and at time ambiguous. However, I still believe that the general message of the Bible and more clearly the message of Jesus obviously point toward peace, compassion, care for the vulnerable, and what we now refer to as restorative justice—even if some may quibble about whether it explicitly teaches pacifism.

A few years after my turn toward peaceable Christianity, my wife Kathleen and I spent a year at the Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary. We gained a terrific foundation there of biblical peace theology, especially from Old Testament professor Millard Lind and New Testament professor Willard Swartley. I have preached through much of the Bible in the 40 years since attending AMBS, each year during my 20-year teaching career at Eastern Mennonite University I taught a class called “Biblical Theology of Peace and Justice,” and I have written several books on peace based on the Bible. I feel quite established in my sense that the Bible (especially, but not only, Jesus) gives us a strong message of peace.

The difference between the Bible and Christian practice

So, that leads to the obvious question. What happened to Christianity? The history of Christianity is a history full of wars and militarism, conquest and domination, crusades and the embrace of empire. One statistical piece of evidence comes from the United States. In 1940, after several years of intense lobbying by peace advocates, the legislation passed to begin a military draft included allowance for pacifists to be exempt from joining the military. So, this proved to be kind of a test case.

From my analysis, I would estimate that about one out of 1,000 American Christians chose the conscientious objector route. For the vast majority of the young men who were drafted, the option to be a CO—and the sense that Jesus would support such a stance—seemingly never even entered the realm of possibility. Not only have Christians around the world almost always supported their nations’ wars, even when they would be fighting other Christians, it actually seems to be the case at least in the United States that Christians are more likely than non-Christians to support wars and preparation for wars. It doesn’t seem farfetched to call Christianity a pro-war religion—the opposite of Jesus’s message.

So, again, the question: Why the transformation? This is a question that has interested me for a long time, but I have never devoted serious attention to it. I have come up with a preliminary list, though, of what seem to be key elements of the evolution away from Jesus’s teaching.

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Is there a place for prayer in a world with a weak God? [Questioning faith #6]

Ted Grimsrud—November 17, 2022

Prayer has never been something I have been comfortable with. For a number of years after my conversion when I was 17, I tried pretty hard to make it part of my life. I even bought a book considered to be a classic by fundamentalist preacher, John R. Rice, Prayer: Asking and Receiving. I read it eagerly, but it did not actually help me that much. It might be interesting to figure out why I couldn’t get into prayer, but I’ve never spent much time on that kind of reflection. I suspect it at least partly has to do with me being a pretty rational, concrete person. The idea of actually conversing with an unseen being never quite made sense—even when I believed in such a personal, all-powerful being.

On prayer: Live and let live

After those first few years following my conversion when I did feel like a failure because I wasn’t into prayer or (this would be a different story) personal evangelism, my non-praying approach to faith never bothered me much. I was generally comfortable when called upon for public prayer, but that was about the extent of my self-conscious attempts to speak to the almighty. Along the way, I would occasionally read something about prayer that was a lot less directive than John R. Rice had been—prayer more as thought (“please keep me in your thoughts”), meditation, or simply cultivating good will. At one point, I read an interesting bestselling book by a medical doctor, Larry Dossey, Healing Words.

I don’t remember Dossey’s book very well, it was probably nearly 30 years ago that I read it. As I remember, he was actually an agnostic religiously. He studied prayer as a phenomenon practiced by people across the spectrum of religious faith and found it to be an efficacious practice. People who prayed and people who were prayed for tended to have better outcomes as a whole. I found it to be an attractive argument—and still do. But it didn’t really change anything for me. In facing a few of life’s difficulties and grievous moments, I didn’t find myself any more likely to pray in any kind of self-conscious, overt way.

I can’t imagine taking the time to do so, but it would be kind of interesting to reread the Rice and Dossey books together to compare and contrast. Certainly, they couldn’t be farther apart in what they actually believe about God. Yet, they seem to share a similar idea—prayer actually works and can affect what happens in people’s lives.

Continue reading Is there a place for prayer in a world with a weak God? [Questioning faith #6]

What is the Holy Spirit? How does it work in the actual world we live in? [Questioning faith #5]

Ted Grimsrud—November 14, 2022

I’ve never known how to think about the Holy Spirit, “the third person of the Trinity.” As I remember, one of my first stirrings of resistance to doctrinal orthodoxy when I was in my early 20s had to do with questioning the idea that it was meaningful to call the Holy Spirit a “person,” to think of the Holy Spirit as part of God in the same sense as Jesus and “the Father.” But I can’t say that I have spent a lot of time thinking about it or researching it.

Problems with “Holy Spirit” doctrine

It was pointed out to me in a seminary class in 1981 that there is something a bit strange in the Apostles’ Creed—at least strange if one is expecting the Creed to give us a definition of the Trinity. It starts with clear, albeit brief and rather cryptic, statements about belief in “God the Father almighty” and in “Jesus Christ, his only Son.” But when we get to the “Third Person,” all we get is this, “I believe in the Holy Spirit.” This is then followed by five beliefs that are also only mentioned, not defined. So, what does it mean to “believe in the Holy Spirit”? The original Nicene Creed of 325 also simply says “we believe … in the Holy Spirit” without explanation.

We do get more in the revised Nicene Creed of 381 (also known as the “Nicene-Constantinople Creed”). “We believe … in the Holy Spirit, the Lord and Giver of life, who proceeds from the Father, who with the Father and Son together is worshiped and glorified, who spoke by the prophets.” This helps a little, especially the notion of the Holy Spirit as the “Giver of life.” That is one place that does seem to touch on what we learn from the Bible, especially Genesis 1–2 where we read of the Spirit moving over the waters at the moment of creation and of the Spirit being breathed into the dust of the earth at the creation of the first human being.

Part of my problem from early on was my sense that the idea of the Holy Spirit as a kind of doctrinal necessity (as if, for whatever reason, we need a threesome in our Christian doctrine of God to differentiate us from Judaism and Islam) did not ring true. It didn’t seem warranted from the Bible, and it was part of the making of God into a creature of dogma rather than the experience of love and relationality in life. What happened, though, was that I mainly lost interest in the Holy Spirit. It has always seemed kind of peripheral to faith, not something worth thinking about all that much.

Continue reading What is the Holy Spirit? How does it work in the actual world we live in? [Questioning faith #5]

How can an uninspired Bible be truthful? [Questioning Faith #4]

Ted Grimsrud—November 10, 2022

There are senses of the term “inspired” that we would all agree do apply to the Bible. It has served as the sacred text for all the various Christian traditions for their long histories. In some sense, they all have treated it as such because they have believed it comes from God. The presence of that belief is a descriptive reality whether we think it is appropriate or not. It also seems descriptively the case that the Bible has provided insights and inspiration for many, many people over many, many years.

However, if we add another dimension to the meaning of “inspiration,” some of us are more likely to demur. Some of us, in fact, will believe that this added meaning actually undermines the meaningfulness of the Bible. What if we mean by “inspiration” that the Bible’s existence and content cannot be understood in human, historical terms but must be understood as a direct revelation from God? Many Christians seem to believe that the Bible is different from “merely human” writings and thereby create distance between the Bible and other human writings.

Problems with “inspiration”

Belief in this difference lends itself to the acceptance of ideas about the Bible that may be demonstrably false—such as the idea that the Bible contains no errors, that the Bible contains no internal contradictions. Belief in this difference lends itself to assertions about the Bible’s authority in Christian communities that end up being, in practice, assertions about the authority of human interpreters of the Bible. Ironically, emphasizing the Bible’s inerrancy and its authority often leads to de-emphasizing the actual content of the Bible. The Bible itself is extraordinarily anti-authoritarian. Anyone who uses the Bible in authoritarian ways is actually displaying a commitment to human ideas about the Bible over letting the Bible speak for itself.

Another problem that arises due to belief in this distance between the Bible and other human writings is a tendency to think of the Bible as a kind of magic book that gives us directives that come straight from God. Sometimes this leads to affirming ethical directives that may be supported by specific Bible verses but are not supportable based on human experience and are actually inconsistent with the broader message of the Bible. An obvious example would be the persistent support for slavery in the United States among the most orthodox Christians well into the 19th century. Pro-slavery Christians had a wealth of support from what they claimed was the direct teaching of the Bible.

I note one problem that has become apparent in recent generations with the influence of the understandings of inspiration that I have just mentioned. Many people who disagree with the leaders of Christian communities or with authoritarian practices or with the oppressive ethical practices agree that those leaders and practices are “biblical.” Thus, they conclude that in order to advocate for more egalitarian and humane approaches they need to jettison the Bible. The liberating message that is actually present in the Bible is thereby missed, and the Bible’s potential to empower human wellbeing is diminished.

Continue reading “How can an uninspired Bible be truthful? [Questioning Faith #4]”

In what sense is Jesus our “savior”? [Questioning faith #3]

Ted Grimsrud—November 7, 2022

Quite a few Christians, it seems, assume that there is a clear demarcation between those who are Christians and those who are not. They might differ on how they describe the line of demarcation, but for many it has to do with whether a person trusts in Jesus as one’s savior or not. That is certainly what I was taught when I started going to church. I don’t find that a helpful notion anymore.

What I was taught about salvation

It took a while after my age 17 conversion for me to figure out what I was actually being taught about Jesus as savior. As I look back now all these years later, I find it remarkable that something that was such a pillar of faith would be so little explained. But this is how I would now reconstruct my first church’s understanding of Jesus as savior.

The key first step would be to assert that human beings are inherently sinful—each one of us. We are born that way. And because we are sinful, we exist in alienation from God. Ultimately, if something does not happen, we will be condemned to spend eternity in hell. So, making “something happen” is extremely important. We can be assured that God wants this “something” to happen, that God has provided a way for this alienation to be overcome.

This way (and it is the only way) is for us to accept Jesus as our personal savior, to recognize that we are sinful and deserve condemnation, and to recognize that Jesus’s death on our behalf has made is possible for us to find reconciliation with our holy God and thus to escape our certain condemnation. What is rarely explained, though, is how this works. How does Jesus’s death make our salvation possible?

Continue reading In what sense is Jesus our “savior”? [Questioning faith #3]

Why is the typical Christian understanding of “God” such a problem? [Questioning Faith #2]

Ted Grimsrud—November 3, 2022

In my early teen years, I often engaged in conversations with my friends about God. As none of us were churchgoers, we didn’t simply repeat orthodoxies. We were all trying to figure things out for ourselves. We were pretty naïve, as near as I recall. I wish I could remember more about what we talked about. I do remember that at one point I decided I was an atheist—which of course meant that I was pretty preoccupied with the “God” I didn’t believe in. I would say now that I was only an atheist in relation to my conscious ideas about God, which were uninformed and basically had to do with some big, all-powerful person in the sky. It took me awhile to figure out that there was a different kind of God that I did believe in.

When I was 15, I attended my first funeral. It was an extra sad one, a popular guy in the community who died of cancer in his late 20s. During a prayer time during the service, I felt God’s presence and decided at that point that I did believe in God. I had little sense of what that meant, but I was eager to figure it out. I had a close friend who had recently joined the local Baptist church. In a careful, thoughtful way, he guided me in a process that culminated about two years later in my decision to accept Jesus as my personal savior. I then began a journey among the fundamentalists (defined as people who affirm that label for themselves).

A desire to believe in God

I think ever since, I have always sincerely wanted to believe in God and to live truthfully. At first that meant affirming the understandings of God that I received from the Baptists. Those were standard beliefs—God is a (male) person who is all-powerful, in control, and a jealous God. This God is just, angry at those who disobey him, and forced by the demands of justice to punish the disobedient. Accepting Jesus as your savior means that you will get to go to heaven to spend eternity with God. Jesus can save us and turn God’s anger to mercy because he died on the cross and took our place as the recipient of God’s punitive anger. God wants us to turn to him in prayer throughout each day, to read the Bible regularly, to share the gospel with others, and to worship with God’s people in church at every opportunity.

Continue reading Why is the typical Christian understanding of “God” such a problem? [Questioning Faith #2]

Questioning faith: Blogging through key convictions [Questioning faith #1]

Ted Grimsrud—November 2, 2022

I will be posting a series of short essays where I will reflect on some of the main questions I have had about the world I live in and Christian faith’s relationship to it. These questions indeed are concerned with “the faith”—that is, the Christianity I have been immersed in for my entire adult life. They reflect a great deal of the doubt and critical stance I now have toward my received Christianity. So, they are about “questioning the faith.” Ultimately, though, my reflections will be more affirmative than simply challenging things. These questions, and my reflections on them, my attempts to answer them, are expressions of a faith that sees questioning as a core component. That is, I will present the fruit of living with a “questioning faith.” The reflections are from a standpoint of a person with faith. Going back to when I was 17 years old, I have never actually questioned whether to have faith or not; it is always about the shape of that faith.  

Somehow, for my entire life I have always loved to ask questions, to try to understand. My initial attraction to Christianity arose out a desire to understand life, to try to find the truth. I have come to think of “understanding” and “truth” quite differently than I did when I was a teen-ager. Still, that quest I embarked on over 50 years ago remains at the center of my life. I expect my forthcoming blog posts to be elements of the ongoing journey.

Liberated by Francis Schaeffer

A turning point in my faith—and my life—came when I was 21 years old. At that moment (Summer 1975), I started attending a new church. I still accepted most of what I had been taught in the theologically very conservative Baptist church I had joined after my conversion four years earlier. In my new church, I almost immediately joined a book study group engaging Francis Schaeffer, an American living in Europe who was becoming known as “the evangelist for intellectuals.” Like many others, I found Schaeffer to be a formative influence in moving away from fundamentalism.

In my case, I rather quickly moved past Schaeffer and have never really stopped moving. As I learned later, Schaffer had been deeply immersed in the world of fundamentalism during the heyday of the famous fundamentalist/modernist conflicts that were probably their most bitter and consequential in Schaeffer’s own Presbyterian tradition. He ultimately became a victim of the battle himself and moved to Europe in part to separate himself from the faith-traumatizing struggles. But he never actually moved much in his own theology and ended his life as a key player in the emergence of the politically focused Christian Right in the United States in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

Continue reading Questioning faith: Blogging through key convictions [Questioning faith #1]

More thoughts about Ukraine and the American Empire [Pacifism Today #8]

Ted Grimsrud—June 23, 2022

[In early March, as the conflict in Ukraine gained the world’s attention, I began to write about that conflict, especially in relation to the American Empire. I posted a blog entry, “Thinking as an American pacifist about the Russian invasion” on March 3. On April 10, I posted “Reflecting morally on the conflict in Ukraine,” a collection of four shorter Facebook posts from the previous month. This current post also collects Facebook posts and leaves them essentially unchanged.]

So, what’s going on with Russia/Ukraine? [5.10.22]

I have struggled with how best to understand the current conflict in Ukraine and, especially, the American role in it—especially in light of Jesus and his biases toward peace and against the power elite. These are some brief points about which I have developed some clear impressions (subject to revision):

1. The US has been seeking a unipolar world at least since 1945 (for example, note the size of the American military budget in relation to the rest of the world and its extensive set of military bases around the world). This quest for global dominance has led to the US relationship with the Soviet Union/Russia to be very adversarial. Russia has a long history of facing aggression from the West going back to Napoleon.

2. Ukraine was the site of armed conflict before the Russian invasion in early February 2022, with thousands dying since 2014. What happened in February was an acceleration of the conflict, not an initiating of it.

3. There are great profits for arms dealers (war profiteers) in the deepening of this conflict. These profits come on top of the great profits throughout the Cold War era and the resistance to a post-Cold War “peace dividend.” These profits have been a key factor driving American policies.

4. Our mainstream (corporate) media are mainly repeating what they are being fed by government. Note the lack of dissenting voices in relation to the militarized American response in the core national media (e.g., Times, Post, NPR, CNN, MSNBC, New Yorker, Atlantic).

Continue reading “More thoughts about Ukraine and the American Empire [Pacifism Today #8]”