Is Christian theology war theology? [Question faith #14]

Ted Grimsrud—January 9, 2023

The kind of theology I believe in is what I call “peace theology.” By “peace theology” I mean the conviction that love of God and of all neighbors are the center of faith. No other conviction or commitment is as important as love. As a result of this conviction, violence, warfare, injustice, and domination are all rejected as acceptable behaviors—that is, I believe we are called to a pacifistic way of life. One of the main emphases of peace theology is to seek to understand all of our key convictions in light of this core conviction of love.

I also recognize that the Christian tradition has not affirmed peace theology. The vast majority of Christian teaching and Christian practice has found war and other forms of violence to be acceptable for most of its history. However, I believe that peace theology is the original Christian theology—it follows directly from the life and teaching of Jesus. So, for me, one of the key questions that arises in relation to Christianity is: Why did things change (see my earlier blog post, “Why did Christianity move so far away from the message of Jesus?”)?

The social context for thinking about peace theology

The question that just now has intrigued me is this: In recognizing that Christian theology (defined here in terms of what most Christians believe) is no longer peace theology, does that mean that Christian theology is “war theology”? In this post, I want to reflect on that question. I will start with an assumption that not everyone will share. I suspect it is impossible to be neutral about war in our current world, at least in the United States. That is, the momentum in our society it towards war. Public spending, policy decisions, and the message of popular culture all are prowar, pro-preparation for war, pro-military response to conflicts. Peace theologian Walter Wink used the term “myth of redemptive violence” to describe the general disposition of American culture (and most other cultures). Americans believe that violence works to solve problems, that often it is the only thing that works. So, we are drawn to orient ourselves toward violence and warfare. Another coined term fits in describing our general disposition in the US: “warism.” By “warism” I have in mind the belief in war, a belief that leads to the acceptance of making preparation for war-making the most important focus of our society (as measured, say, by public expenditures).

In a warist world that is shaped by the myth of redemptive violence, theological neutrality is impossible. To say nothing and to ignore the dominant mythology in our society is actually to offer implicit support and affirmation. To say nothing also seems to be blind to the ways that warism shapes everything about how we perceive the world—including our theology. I tend to think we either self-consciously notice and oppose warism or we, at least implicitly, affirm it. We can’t avoid it.

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Did Jesus (and the early Christians) actually expect him to return soon? [Questioning faith #13]

Ted Grimsrud—December 23, 2022

Many New Testament scholars and others influenced by them assert that Jesus (and, following him, other New Testament writers such as Paul and the writer of Revelation) believed that he would return within a relatively short time after his death. This return would be tied with an end to history and the inauguration of a new heaven and new earth.

The people who advocate this view go on to point out that Jesus (and the others) were obviously wrong. Christianity thus quickly evolved to be a more conservative, more doctrine-oriented—and less radical-ethics-oriented—religion. Christians linked themselves with political structures (e.g., the Roman Empire) that would allow them to sustain their structures so long as Christians would contribute to the wellbeing of the political status quo. Over time, various small renewal movements would arise that would hearken back to the radical message of Jesus (and, in some interpretations, of Paul and Revelation). These movements could be dismissed because they were basing their visions on a message from Jesus that was meant for the short time between his life and his return. That message was not meant for the long haul of coming generations who were tasked with sustaining the faith over a much, much longer period of time than Jesus had anticipated. This work of sustaining the faith, thus, in the real world, required accommodation to the political systems of the world.

But is this true?

I have the impression that many of the people who accept the idea that Jesus (and the others) expected a soon end of history have not scrutinized the evidence very carefully. The first thing that I note is how ambiguous and peripheral most of the references are that seem to voice such an expression. We don’t have a clear, straightforward statement that Jesus will return soon. We do have various statements that seem to allude to something major happening in the near future without explaining what that would be and what would be the consequences. And there are more vague statements of hope about God’s victory to come. How should these be understood?

It could be that they are indeed predicting a soon end to human history and the inauguration of a new age of pure salvation. But such a predication does not have support in the overall message of Jesus and the rest of the New Testament that emphasizes the call to faithful living in a broken world. A key value in the New Testament is perseverance, the sense that followers of Jesus have a long haul ahead of them that will require strength, a commitment to resist the ways of the world, and an acceptance of the likelihood of suffering for the sake of their faith.

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Was Jesus raised from the dead in history? [Questioning faith #12]

Ted Grimsrud—December 19, 2022

Of all the questions I have related to Christianity, I suspect that the question of whether Jesus’s resurrection was a historical fact may be the most vexing. To keep it simple, I’ll just say that what I am referring to is the belief that Jesus actually fully died and was buried and then, a couple of days later God raised his body from the dead and for several weeks Jesus walked on earth as a living human being. A related belief, of course, is that 40 days after he was raised, Jesus ascended to the heavens to be with God. I will focus on the resurrection here, though I find the factuality of the ascension to be a vexing question as well.

What is the problem?

On the one hand, the stories in the gospels and in Paul’s writings seem clear in reporting that Jesus was raised—and that this is a key aspect of Christian faith. The beliefs that God is victorious and that salvation is real appear to depend upon Jesus’s resurrection. Over the past 2,000 years, acceptance of Jesus’s bodily resurrection possibly has been the most non-negotiable Christian affirmation.

It is clear that something real appears to have happened. Reading the gospels carefully, we learn that Jesus’s followers were devastated when he was arrested and ultimately executed. They ran away and some even denied that they knew Jesus when they were confronted. These are the kinds of stories that seem unlikely to have been invented by later Christians as they put the disciples in a very unflattering light. Then things dramatically changed. Those people who had scattered in fear regathered and began risking their lives to proclaim that the Jesus who had been crucified was alive. This proclamation was at the core of the movement of Jesus’s followers that grew and spread in the coming years.

The historical reality of the resurrection itself may be unverifiable (no one saw it happen), but the transformation of Jesus’s followers does itself seem to be historically likely. And how could that transformation have happened without the story of Jesus being raised being true? The gospels don’t claim that anyone saw the actual event of Jesus being raised, but they do claim that many of Jesus’s followers did see the raised Jesus. That must have been why they embraced and witnessed to his teachings and way of life even at great risk to their own lives.

And yet, on the other hand, many of us find it difficult to believe that Jesus could literally have been killed and then days later restored to life.

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What are Christians saved from? [Questioning faith #11]

Ted Grimsrud—December 15, 2022

“Salvation” is one of those Christian words that we use a great deal but aren’t always clear about what we mean by it. In my recent posts, I have focused on how we might find salvation without really addressing what it is. One way to work at understanding what salvation is is to reflect on what we are saved from. Other words in the Bible that seem to be rough synonyms with salvation include “liberation,” “redemption,” and “ransom.” All of these seem to have in mind being delivered or freed from something. What are we saved from?

The old story

My first encounter with Christianity came when I joined a Baptist church when I was 17 years old. The main message about salvation I heard was that, in reality, we are saved from God. More specifically, we are saved from God’s judgment, God’s punitive justice, God’s wrath. Or, we could say, we are saved from hell, from eternal torment in separation from God. The means to gain this salvation was very narrow and particular. We must accept Jesus as our personal savior, which means to believe in the efficacy of his sacrificial crucifixion on my behalf, a death he took upon himself in order to receive, as our substitute, the punishment that we deserve.

Because I did not grow up with this theology and had a much more positive sense of my place in the world, that salvation story did not scare me in the way that it has so many other people. I didn’t have the deep-seated anxiety about whether I was okay or not that many lifelong Christians seem to have. Despite not feeling that anxiety, I did try to believe that story—though I was always uneasy about it—until a few years into my journey when I began to learn of another way to read and apply the story.

I won’t go into all the problems here with the kind of atonement theology I was taught. I’ll just note that from the beginning I sensed that the story of Jesus and his love was not fully compatible with belief in an angry and punitive God. Though I don’t remember thinking of the issue in these terms, I would say now that part of my problem with what I was taught was that my sense of the human problem was not that God was displeased with us so much as that too many human beings gave allegiance to oppressive and hurtful ideologies and institutions.

In retrospect, I think it is important to remember that the period in my life that I became a Christian, left home for college, and initially worked out my theology coincided with the final years of the Vietnam War and the Watergate scandal that drove President Richard Nixon from office. I became much more interested in social issues during this time and discovered and embraced Christian pacifism. I was eager for a theology that would help me make sense of the world I was living in and that would empower peaceable social ethics. I realized the salvation story I had been told wasn’t doing that. The key for me came when I realized that Jesus himself talked about his cross as a model for his followers, not as a necessary sacrifice to satisfy God’s punitive justice. How do we best understand salvation in light of Jesus’s cross as a model?

Continue reading “What are Christians saved from? [Questioning faith #11]”

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]”