What does it mean to be human? [Questioning faith #26]

Ted Grimsrud—May 25, 2023

One of my favorite theologians, Abraham Joshua Heschel, the great Jewish thinker who died in 1972, wrote a profound little book called Who is Man? back in the 1960s. In that book, Heschel laments the negative view of humanness in our modern world. The human being, he writes, “is being excessively denounced and condemned by philosophers, theologians, and artists.” Heschel asks, what does the modern worldview say about us? “Humans are beasts. The only difference between humans and other beasts is that humans are beasts that know they will die. …You must cling to life as you can and use it for the pursuit of pleasure and of power.” Heschel concludes that human beings have “very few friends in the world, certainly very few in the contemporary literature about them. The Lord in heaven may prove to be humanity’s last friend on earth.”

While some Christian thinkers do agree with Heschel’s own positive humanism, a great deal of Christian theology—academic and popular—more likely reinforces the problems Heschel laments. In its actual view of humankind, Christian thought often has differed little from secular philosophy in its hostility toward humanity.

Hostility toward humanness

The roots of this hostility toward humanness go back a long way, perhaps at least to the fourth century, to the theology of Augustine and his powerful doctrine of original sin. This doctrine evolved into John Calvin’s doctrine of total depravity. Human life, in the immortal words of a later Augustinian, Thomas Hobbes, is inevitably “nasty, brutish, and short.” We are born sinful, rebellious, and basically despicable.

It is highly ironic though, that these views commonly led to strong support for violent governmental control over the general population. I have never understood the logic. Why does belief in human depravity lead to trust in people with power? Why do we think rulers will transcend their own depravity and use their monopoly on violence in undepraved ways? Tying together negative views of humanness with support for domination systems has a long and still vital history. We’re all pretty bad, we’re told. That’s why we need so much military and police violence, to keep our human proclivity toward evil in check. But what about the human proclivity toward evil of those building, buying, and wielding the guns?

Continue reading “What does it mean to be human? [Questioning faith #26]”

What (if anything) is special about the sacraments? [Questioning faith #25]

Ted Grimsrud—May 19, 2023

Probably the places in Christianity where the “sacred” and the “mundane” intersect the most directly are the churches’ sacramental rituals, particularly the observance of communion. Views range from the Catholic notion of transubstantiation, where the bread and wine literally become the body and blood of Jesus—and where the actual attainment of salvation depends on one’s participation in (and belief in) the miracle of the Eucharist, to some “low church” views wherein the communion ritual is strictly mundane and symbolic. Even more extreme is the Quaker understanding where there is no communion ritual at all.

As one whose views are decidedly low church, I have not experienced the communion ritual as being very important or meaningful. However, I have thought about it quite a bit and have found my general idealism about the importance of the way of Jesus to be something that informs my views of the sacraments (in this post I will only reflect on communion and will not address the practice of baptism).

I do feel reluctant to take up the issue of communion. It’s not so much that I have personally had negative experiences with communion—actually my experiences have mostly been positive. But I do know people who have had hard experiences: the denial of participation in the Lord’s Supper for my friend’s father back in the 1930s for owning life insurance, a trauma that still haunt her; the gay man who was refused communion when he returned to his home congregation hoping to rebuild a sense of connection; the teen-ager who was told she was too young to take communion, making her feel like a second-class Christian even though she deeply desired to follow Jesus….These exclusions have bothered me.

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Should we bother with church? [Questioning faith #24]

Ted Grimsrud—May 16, 2023

I did not grow up with churchgoing as part of my identity. My family did go to church regularly until I was eight years old, but I don’t think it was that important for us. When their Methodist congregation folded, I don’t believe my parents grieved much. Then, for nine years I rarely went to church. At the age of 17, by my own choice, I began attending a Baptist congregation. In the 50+ years since, I have always felt that going to church was my choice, and when I have had extended periods of not going, I did not feel guilty or unhappy—unlike many of my friends over the years for whom churchgoing has been part of their identity. These days, as I think about church, I have a lot of mixed feelings.

In the Bible, human beings are given salvation so that they might embody God’s will in this life. From the calling of Abraham and Sarah to the final revelation of the New Jerusalem, the Bible portrays lived salvation as community centered. Faith communities provide the context for human flourishing. However, in our fallen world faith communities also in practice have often not actually been that healthy for people. Their legacy is ambiguous. So, when I think about the Christian church, the questions come pretty quickly—especially one set of questions: The church, comforter or afflicter? The church, a place that heals or a place that hurts? The church, oppressor or liberator? The church, a blessing or a curse?

I have an answer to these questions: “Yes!” What I mean is, in my experience, the church has been both a blessing and a curse. We invest ourselves in this community, we make ourselves vulnerable to each other, we care deeply. The rewards can be great—but so too can be the disappointment and hurt.

Continue reading “Should we bother with church? [Questioning faith #24]”

Is Christianity the only way to God? [Questioning faith #23]

Ted Grimsrud—May 11, 2023

A number of years ago, my wife Kathleen and I visited a Sunday School class in a large Mennonite congregation. The speaker was a member of the congregation who had just returned from a year in the Far East, and he was reporting on the experience. He talked about how he found the religious beliefs and practices that he had seen so interesting. He then told how he tried to encourage his new friends to be the best Buddhists (or it could have been Hindus) they could be.

I learned later that this comment caused a bit of a furor. People who believed that faith in Jesus as Savior is the only way to find salvation were distressed. The speaker’s embrace of religious pluralism, his implied belief that any number of religions can lead a person to God, raised concerns.

Religious pluralism as a fact of life

This issue of Christian faith in relation to other religions grows ever more challenging for Christians in our globalized world. Here in the United States, we can no longer avoid asking about different religions. Many of us travel around the world, doing business with people from many cultures and religious traditions, and, if nothing else, rub shoulders in grocery stores, ethnic restaurants, and even in our own neighborhoods with other-than-Christian religious folks.

I taught for many years at a tiny Christian college in small, fairly remote town in Virginia’s Shenandoah valley. I had students who were Muslim, Hindu, Jewish, and Buddhist. Our favorite places to eat in town have included restaurants operated by recent immigrants from Nepal, Vietnam, China, Indonesia, Germany, Thailand, India, El Salvador, Mexico, and Ethiopia. A few years ago, I heard that our local public high school had students from sixty-four different countries who spoke forty-four different languages—and represented many different faiths. Religious pluralism has become part of our everyday life, like it or not.

So, what do we think of the various religions of the world? How do we relate our own Christian faith to Buddhism, Islam, Hinduism, Judaism, and so on? How does our understanding of the religions fit with our broader theological convictions?

Continue reading “Is Christianity the only way to God? [Questioning faith #23]”

Is there such a thing as a Christian political philosophy? [Questioning faith #22]

Ted Grimsrud—April 22, 2023

As long as I have cared about Christianity and politics, which is about as long as I have been a pacifist, I have thought that we need a political philosophy that captures key elements of the biblical vision of human social life. None of the main options one encounters in a political theory class (such as liberal democracy, communism, or monarchy) seem to come close to doing that. That leaves pacifist Christians with a kind of disembodied political philosophy—which is surely part the reason that pacifism seems too unrealistic. To try to fit pacifism into a philosophy of liberal democracy where a core principle is that the meaning of the state rests on its monopoly on legitimate violence is like trying to fit the proverbial round peg into a square hole.

Not long after I embraced pacifism, I learned to know a couple of anarchists. They helped open my eyes to a possible option. Then, when I took a class on the history of political theory in graduate school, I was pleased that the professor treated anarchism as a legitimate theory within the cacophony of theories that have been articulated in the western tradition. He didn’t spend much time on anarchism in the class, but that recognition of anarchism as a serious political philosophy planted a seed for me. I am still trying to make sense of Christian pacifism as a realistic and important set of convictions for people of good will. In this post, I want to reflect on the possibility that something like anarchism (or, more precisely what I will call an “anarchistic sensibility”) actually may help us imagine better the political relevance of pacifism.

What is anarchism?

The term “anarchism,” similarly to “nonviolence,” is a negative term that in its most profound sense speaks of a positive approach to human social life. Though the term “anarchism” literally means against “authority” (arché), it is at its heart—as I understand it—not mainly against something. It is for freedom and for decentralized ways of organizing social life that enhance human well-being. Anarchism has an unfair, though not totally unfounded, reputation for being violent, even terrorist. There indeed have been numerous acts of violence in the name of anarchism, perhaps most notably in the US the 1901 assassination of President McKinley at the hand of a self-proclaimed anarchist (though one who had few links with other anarchists).

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Are we inherently violent? [Questioning faith #21]

Ted Grimsrud—April 16, 2023

One of the difficult issues that often comes up in discussions about pacifism is the widely held view that human beings are inherently violent. A common version of this view holds that we are born with a disposition toward violence that is part of our genetic makeup, in part because violence is necessary to successfully compete in the dynamics of survival of the fittest that is characteristic of the human project. Hence, violence is natural, and pacifism is unnatural and unrealistic—and untenable.

Not all pacifists agree with what I will argue for about human nature here. In fact, I first developed the ideas about human nature that I believe fit best with pacifist convictions for a public debate with a pacifist who argued for what I describe below as the “hard-wired view.” My debate partner believed that the call to pacifism that Jesus made was actually a call to defy our basic human nature and make a conscious choice to embrace love. I admire people who take this approach, but I also think that most people who take the hard-wired view draw from it bases for anti-pacifist conclusions. More importantly, I think the more pacifism-friendly view of human nature I will sketch actually fits the evidence we have about human existence better than the other options.

Views of human nature

I will summarize three general viewpoints concerning human nature that I think represent the main options: the “hard-wired view,” the “blank-slate view,” and the “flexible view.”

(1) The hard-wired view posits that human behavior is largely determined by a quite thick reality of human nature. One main focus of many with this view is on our genetic make-up, asserting that our behavior is profoundly shaped by our genes. As concerns violence, the “hard-wired view” tends to see human beings as naturally violent. We are born violent, we tend toward violence, our work of minimizing violence should focus on finding relatively non-harmful outlets for these naturally violent tendencies. At best, we may redirect violent tendencies, but we cannot hope to live without violence.

(2) At the opposite end of the spectrum from the hard-wired view, we may speak of the blank slate view. This view asserts that it is meaningless to posit a “human nature;” we are all born with blank slates, and human behavior is totally shaped by our environments and is variable and non-determined.

(3) A second alternative to the hard-wired view we may call the flexible view. This view, which I hold, agrees with the hard-wired view that human nature is a meaningful concept, but would differ from that view by denying that human behavior is in any meaningful sense determined by genetics or, really, by any other unchanging element of human nature.

Continue reading “Are we inherently violent? [Questioning faith #21]”

Why do so many Christians support warism? [Questioning Faith #20]

Ted Grimsrud—April 13, 2023

One of the aspects of Christianity that has long troubled me and has played an increasingly significant role in my sense of my own faith has been how Christianity has for so long and so decisively been comfortable with “warism” (by which I mean to believe in war, to have a generally uncritical and positive disposition toward preparing for, threatening, promoting, and ultimately fighting in war). I grew up in my family with a mild warism and a vague Christian sensibility and had no sense that there could be a tension between the two. After my conversion at age 17, my religious convictions became much stronger as did my warism (in church, I was presented a very favorable view of America’s wars).

However, a few years later, I embraced Christian pacifism and became convicted that warism and Christian faith should be mutually exclusive. The contradiction became apparent once I began to see Jesus’s message as politically normative for Christians. Very quickly, I also came to see warism as deeply problematic on its own terms even when not judged in light of Jesus’s message. Mainly, though, my convictions about Jesus showed me the inherent problems with warism. As John Prine sang back in those days, “Jesus don’t like killing, no matter what the reason for.” I faced a crucial historical question. What changed? If Jesus was about peace, how did his followers become so warist?

Christianity’s turn from Jesus’s way

From the time of my embrace of Christian pacifism, I have wanted to understand better why the large majority of Christians have tended not to do likewise. I learned that the history of Christianity from New Testament times to the fourth century is ambiguous on questions of war and peace. Hence, analyses tend to be contested. I feel comfortable saying, though, that earliest Christianity did (with few exceptions) apply Jesus’s teachings in a way that led to pacifism. We have no record of a Christian leader supporting participation in warfare until the 4th century.

The evolution of Christianity during its first few centuries did move in the direction of the acceptance of war even though not in overt and direct ways. The big picture political situation changed early in the 4th century when Emperor Constantine formally established a rapprochement with Christianity following generations of intense and at times deadly persecution. Christians, it seems, accepted that connection immediately and without debate and in short order became soldiers and supporters of the Empire’s wars—to the point that less than a century after the initial rapprochement, only Christians were allowed in the Roman military.

Shockingly (at least from the point of view of Christian pacifism), the history of Christianity since the 4th century is, essentially, a history of the largely uncritical acceptance of war in almost all Christian communities. This is shocking because this warism seems so drastically contrary to what Jesus advocated. It is also shocking because we have virtually no record of debate or disagreement with the turn toward war among Christian leaders. And it is shocking as well that Jesus’s life and teaching essentially disappeared from the main accounts of Christian theology and ethics (this is apparent early on in the authoritative creeds and confessions of the churches that, typically, if they mention Jesus’s life at all, jump from his virgin birth to his crucifixion).

Continue reading “Why do so many Christians support warism? [Questioning Faith #20]”

How should we think about the violence in the Old Testament? [Questioning Faith #19]

Ted Grimsrud—April 7, 2023

I have heard it said that the stories in the Old Testament about God’s involvement in war, punishment, and various other forms of violence have been responsible for more Christians losing their faith than any other single thing. I have no idea whether that is actually true, but I do know from my career as a pastor and teacher that Old Testament violence is a problem for lots and lots of people. Because the Old Testament is so big and diverse and the issues so complex, it is impossible to give a quick, clear, and concise answer to the questions. But because they are so often present and distressing, I think it is important to try to have some kind response in mind. What follows is mine—which is admittedly not likely to change anybody’s mind.

Starting with God’s love

My starting point for all theological questions is my core theological conviction: God is love. It follows from that, for me, that I would affirm that God is nonviolent, as I believe that violence and love are mutually exclusive. And, I happen to believe that the Bible supports these convictions. So, when I turn to the Bible, I am seeking to understand what the Bible’s teachings are that give us the best images of God. What in the Bible leads us to confess God’s love and, thus, nonviolence? And what should we think about the parts of the Bible traditionally cited as the bases for denying that God is nonviolent?

Let me first, though, say just a bit about what saying “God is nonviolent” means for me. In a nutshell, to make such an affirmation is to confess that the Bible teaches that God created what is out of love and for the sake of love. It also teaches that God participates in the world most directly in how God brings healing in the face of brokenness, binding wounds, reconciling alienated relationships, and empowering creativity and compassion.

Also, I believe that the Bible’s definitive portrayal of God is found in the story of Jesus. That is, God is most clearly and reliably known to humanity in the life, teaching, death, and resurrection of Jesus. My affirmation of God’s nonviolence finds its strongest grounding in my affirmation of Jesus’s nonviolence. Just as it is unthinkable to me that Jesus would punish, hate, exploit, or violently coerce, so is it unthinkable that God would.

Continue reading “How should we think about the violence in the Old Testament? [Questioning Faith #19]”

Is there a case for Christian pantheism? [Questioning faith #18]

Ted Grimsrud—April 4, 2023

When I first heard of pantheism some 50 years ago, I was taught that it was incompatible with Christianity. I was taught a pantheist believes the world is God; a Christian believes the world is separate from God. That was my view until recently when I started to wonder if my emerging convictions about God as reflected in this series of posts on “Questioning Faith” should make me rethink this sense of incompatibility. I will not argue in favor of pantheism here, but rather I will reflect on what it is that I am coming to believe about God and then ask the question if this belief is moving in a pantheist direction.

All God-talk is human talk

One of the first steps in my rethinking my understanding of God was to realize that all of our thinking about God is human thinking. We can talk about what we think God is like, however we can never describe God precisely as God is. Whatever we say is also based on our human perceptions and opinions and expressed in our human languages. I would say now that this insight means that “pantheism” and “Christian theism” are both labels we create as we think about God—useful and appropriate, but still limited since they are human constructs. So, we should recognize that they are at best approximations and not mistake them for simple descriptions of reality.

We, thus, consider what we think God is like based on the various factors that influence us—personal experience, religious teaching (including the Bible and our faith traditions), scientific evidence, and other factors. Ideally, we factor in the evidence carefully and in conversations with others. We hope that our convictions are as well-grounded, evidence based, and coherent as possible. We want our convictions to be truthful (recognizing that they will never be perfectly truthful because they are always going to be human constructs). I would add that I believe all of our theological convictions should also be as life-giving as possible; that is a major test for truthfulness.

So, what does God seem to be like?

Let me mention several of the other ways my thinking about God has changed over the years and then return to the question of pantheism. To signal where this will be going, though, let me state here that after taking inventory of my emerging convictions about God, I realize that once I stop and think about it, my views may be somewhat close to at least some of the elements of what is often considered pantheistic beliefs. To recognize that all of our labels need to be worn lightly and viewed as fallible ways to try to order our thoughts (not as exact statements about reality), may make affirming some pantheistic ideas less “heretical.”

Continue reading “Is there a case for Christian pantheism? [Questioning faith #18]”

Can we trust in a good God in a world full of evil? [Questioning faith #17]

Ted Grimsrud—March 31, 2023

I still remember the intensity of one of my college Philosophy of Religion class sessions from nearly 50 years ago. We were reading the novel, The Blood of the Lamb, by Peter DeVries. It tells of the impact of the tragic death of his daughter on the ex-Christian protagonist. It was an agonizing book and elicited some agonized questions from our professor. How can one believe in God in the midst of such suffering? I only learned many years later when I read his obituary, that our professor, a man named Arnulf Zweig, was a Holocaust survivor. As a child in the 1930s, he had escaped the Nazis, though almost all of his extended family had not. No wonder he was so intense in raising these issues.

I think of Professor Zweig’s agony now as I reflect on what we may call “the problem of evil.” How do we understand the reality of evil in our world—and how does this reality fit with our belief in God? These are not simply brain teasers; they are for many people matters at the very heart of human existence.

Good but weak God?

Rabbi Harold Kushner in his famous book, When Bad Things Happen to Good People, sets up the problem in this way: We have three possibilities—God is good, God is all-powerful, and evil is real (bad things do happen to good people). He suggests that only two of these three affirmations can be true. Logically, it could be any combination, but all three cannot be true. He goes on to say that based on the evidence of the world we live in; we can’t deny the reality of evil. So, we must choose between “God is good” and “God is all-powerful”. Kushner believes that we should choose the former. He believes that God is not all-powerful. To insist that God is all-powerful in a world where evil is real, would require us to believe that God is evil (or at least allows evil while also having the power to stop it). In other words, Kushner’s is a weak God.

As I have made clear in my earlier posts in my Questioning Faith series, I agree with Kushner. While I recognize the reality of evil in our world, I also affirm that we have a lot of good in the world as well. This kind of world, I think, is what we should expect in a world where God is love. Love is weak; it is non-controlling, non-coercive, and non-interventionist. But it is also powerful; it is creative, healing, and pervasive.

The idea of God as good but weak is not simply a concession to the logical difficulty of Kushner’s dilemma. Nor is it simply a desperate attempt to salvage some kind of (admittedly anemic) faith. I suggest it is the logical result of recognizing that God is love. If we start with a quite optimistic and positive sense of God’s reality in the world, we will see God at work all around us, God the go-between-God who empowers connections of love and creativity and beauty. We may find strong evidence to support such an optimistic and positive view. But let’s think through how this kind of God would be present in the world. If God loves everyone and love is non-controlling and non-coercive, would not that mean that God does not exert power-over in a controlling or coercive way toward anyone? That is to say, does it not seem that a God of love will by definition be a weak God (or should we say, “a weakly powerful God?” or “a powerfully weak God?”—or, if we don’t like the term “weak,” a “profoundly vulnerable God?”)?

Continue reading “Can we trust in a good God in a world full of evil? [Questioning faith #17]”