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]”

The war of the lamb: A response to Jason Porterfield’s Fight Like Jesus

Ted Grimsrud—June 14, 2022

Jesus has gotten sidelined in many ways, which is one of the main reasons why the record of Christianity is so poor when it comes to witnessing to the world in a healing manner. One kind of sidelining goes back to the several centuries after Jesus when church doctrine evolved to exclude the life and teaching of Jesus from core creeds and confessions, moving from Jesus’s miraculous birth to his death and resurrection with scarcely a glance at what Jesus said and did. Another kind of sidelining has been what we could call the sentimentalizing and devotionalizing of the events of Jesus’s life in a way that minimize their social and political elements.

Jason Porterfield’s new book, Fight Like Jesus: How Jesus Waged Peace throughout Holy Week (Herald Press, 2022) initially may give the impression of fitting in this second category as a devotional treatment of the last week of Jesus’s life. Happily, though, Fight Like Jesus ends up being a challenging account of ways that the events of Jesus’s final days actually have powerful socially transformative significance. As such, its relevance extends much further than simply a spiritually uplifting set of meditations that would mainly be of interest just during the Easter season. Indeed, this book would be a valuable resource for any Christians seeking to understand better the practical relevance of Jesus’s life and teaching for all peacemaking work the year around.

Giving a close reading to the stories from Jesus’s final week, Porterfield shows how those several days serve as a kind of microcosm that help us better understand Jesus’s overall peacemaking agenda. The book is both practical and theologically perceptive. The Jesus that is presented here was creative, courageous, confrontive, and constructive in his response to the deadly resistance he faced due to his activist peaceable ministry.

Continue reading “The war of the lamb: A response to Jason Porterfield’s Fight Like Jesus

New Book—To Follow the Lamb: A Peaceable Reading of the Book of Revelation

I am happy to announce the publication of my most recent book: To Follow the Lamb: A Peaceable Reading of the Book of Revelation (Cascade Books, 2022), ix + 278pp.

To Follow the Lamb is a commentary of the entire book of Revelation that places a special emphasis on the peace message of Revelation. Revelation is not a book that portrays a violent, vengeful God but rather than shows God to be most profoundly revealed in the gracious Lamb. The key to reading Revelation is to take seriously the opening words of the Book that tell us it is a”revelation of Jesus Christ.”

Revelation is an exhortation to discipleship—follow the Lamb wherever he goes! It offers a sharp critique of the world’s empires and a sharp critique of how people of faith all too easily find ways to be comfortable within the empires. Revelation portrays God as merciful and peaceable—but engaged in a battle against the spiritual powers of evil that energize the nations’ domination systems.This battle, though, is fought with the weapons of love, not worldly violent weapons.

Available online from:

Amazon (the Kindle version is only $9.99)

Wipf and Stock Publishers

Both sites have previews that show the first part of the book.

Also available at: Bookshop.org

Endorsements:

“Ted Grimsrud is a worthy and capable guide through the often misread and confusing images laid out by John of Patmos to the churches of Roman Asia. Anyone who has ever wondered how to make sense of this powerful narrative will find a great companion in To Follow the Lamb. Go form a study group and dig in!”—WES HOWARD-BROOK, Seattle University, author of Unveiling Empire: Reading Revelation Then and Now

“In this important book, Ted Grimsrud clears away decades of misunderstanding and misuse to reveal the beauty and power of the Apocalypse. Writing with deep insight and lucid prose, Grimsrud forcefully challenges violent interpretations of Revelation and fixes our gaze on the nonviolent Jesus. A treasure trove for peacemakers and justice seekers, To Follow the Lamb is accessible, relevant, and sorely needed. Guaranteed to deepen your appreciation of Revelation—I highly recommend it!”—ERIC SEIBERT, Messiah University, author of Disarming the Church: Why Christians Must Forsake Violence to Follow Jesus and Change the World

“In the midst of the sometimes violent rhetoric of Revelation, Grimsrud makes abundantly clear that Revelation features the nonviolent victory by the slain and resurrected Lamb, who reveals a nonviolent God, over the powers of evil, represented by the Roman empire. One of the most valuable contributions of this comprehensive theological analysis of Revelation is how it applies the book’s nonviolent resistance to empire to our call to challenge the American empire.”—J. DENNY WEAVER, Bluffton University, author of God Without Violence

More posts on Peaceable Revelation

Pacifism and saying no to the state: Various motives for refusal [Pacifism today #7]

Ted Grimsrud—April 15, 2022

With a breathtaking rapidity, the United States in the last couple of months has moved decisively in a militaristic direction. As historian Andrew Bacevich recently wrote, many American leaders “welcome the Ukraine War as the medium that will reignite an American commitment to the sort of assertive and muscular approach to global policy favored in militaristic quarters…. Putin … has handed the United States ‘a historic opportunity to regroup and reload for an era of intense competition’—with not only Russia but also China meant to be in our crosshairs.”

The delight of these militarist leaders and the arms dealers who also are profiting so greatly from the new conflict should give people who actually care about peace on earth pause before believing the spin our government and corporate media are giving things right now. We will almost certainly face a continued ratcheting up of militaristic dynamics in our society for the foreseeable future. The warism of our culture has always been bubbling just below the surface even as other crises have demanded attention. For it to move front and center hopefully will clarify that militarism is the problem that must be resolved if we are to make progress in overcoming the climate crisis, the curse of white supremacy, the violence of our policing and mass incarceration regimes, environmental collapse, the functioning of our democracy, and many others.

Effective opposition to the warism seems far from possible at this moment, though. The one single issue that seems to unite Democrats and Republicans is expansion of our war-making capabilities. The apparent impossibility of opposition does not diminish what may be a fact—we turn from warism as a society, or we all go down.  

In face of all this, the witness of pacifism seems more relevant than ever. When there is such uncritical support for pouring weapons of war into Ukraine, Germany greatly expanding its military spending, and the dynamics of confrontation rather than reconciliation with Russia and China, it seems pacifists are some of the few who voice opposition. One hope we might have is that with our nation’s warism so front and center, more people will question whether we actually do want our nation to be so committed to military “solutions” after all. Maybe this will lead to more interest in pacifism.

Continue reading “Pacifism and saying no to the state: Various motives for refusal [Pacifism today #7]”

Reflecting morally about the conflict in Ukraine [Pacifism Today #6]

Ted Grimsrud—April 10, 2022

[In early March, as the conflict in Ukraine gained the world’s attention, I wrote a blog post, “Thinking as an American pacifist about the Russian invasion.” In the weeks since then, I have continued to think—and posted several shorter reflections on Facebook. I have gathered those pieces into this blog post essentially unchanged.]

Some different concerns in response to the Russian invasion [3.9.22]

Like most people I know, I am heartsick about the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the possibility of an expanding and continuing conflict. However, I don’t notice many other people voicing some of my main concerns.

It was almost 50 years ago that I first learned that my country’s leaders regularly, and to devastating effect, lied to justify engagement in unjust and disastrous military actions around the world. When I was in college, I learned to know numerous Vietnam War vets who told me stories that made my hair stand on end. To a man, they bitterly spoke of the lies we Americans were being told about that war.

Continue reading “Reflecting morally about the conflict in Ukraine [Pacifism Today #6]”