Are we better off without God and Christianity? Thoughts on healing the world

Ted Grimsrud—April 15, 2019

I believe that human beings do have a purpose in life. That purpose is to do what we can to help bring healing to the world. Another way of saying this is to say that what matters most in life is that we live in love and that we resist the idols that undermine love. A big question for me is: Does belief in God, and in particular the Christian God, aids or hinders fulfilling this purpose?

Where does this question come from?

Let me give a little background on how I come to this question. I grew up in an interestingly conservative area of the United States—rural southwestern Oregon. What is interesting about rural Oregon is that people tend to be conservative in values and lifestyle, but they also tend not to be religious. Oregon has traditionally been the least “churched” state in the country. While the urban areas are pretty liberal, the countryside tends not to be.

My parents were schoolteachers who moved to our small town from the outside. They lived pretty conservative lives in many ways, but they were well educated and open-minded about most things. So they were a bit different from their surrounding community. I grew up attending church until the church closed when I was eight years old. I can’t say that I was explicitly taught that my purpose in life was “to help bring healing to the world.” But I would say that the values I absorbed from my family provided the framework for me to affirm that sense of purpose when I got older.

As a teenager, due to the influence of a close friend, I had a conversion experience and became a fundamentalist Christian. As I look back now, I see the influence of that experience and its aftermath as being quite a mixed blessing. It did get me in the door, so to speak, to serious Christianity, which meant (in part) a serious engagement with the Bible, especially with the life and teaching of Jesus. In those initial years, while I was part of a fundamentalist church, I was not encouraged to think much about loving the world, though. I would say now that I experienced two sides to belief in the Christian God—both how such belief can encourage working for healing the world and how such belief can undermine such work.

My sense, for some years after my conversion, was that my primary loyalty was to Christianity and that only because of my Christian faith was I then also to care about healing the world. Two types of experience worked to complicate this sense of loyalty to Christianity. One was learning to know people (and about many other people) who weren’t Christians yet were deeply committed to loving their neighbors and healing the world. The second type of experience was to see how Christians could be quite unloving. What made this second phenomenon especially difficult for me was seeing that often the “unlovingness” was not in spite of Christian convictions but because of them. Continue reading “Are we better off without God and Christianity? Thoughts on healing the world”

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“Anabaptist” but not “Christian” (or “Mennonite”)? A Thought Experiment [Part one]

Ted Grimsrud—April 9, 2019

I have a good friend who is, shall I say, a little more conservative theologically than I am. We have some great conversations. Recently, he brought up the possibility of the two of us having a public conversation on the current state of Anabaptist theology. As we are both Americans, we recognize that we would be talking about Anabaptist theology in our context, acknowledging that there are many Anabaptist-oriented communities around the world with their own takes on Anabaptist theology.

My initial response was somewhat negative. Not that I would not enjoy having a friendly public “disputation” with my colleague, but I haven’t been thinking much about “Anabaptist theology” in any direct way for some time. However, after our talk I kept considering his suggestion. I doubt that we will have a public conversation (though it’s possible), but I have started thinking about Anabaptist theology again.

I realized that I am still interested in thinking about Anabaptism, though I look at it now from a bit of a different angle from when I wrote a book called Embodying the Way of Jesus: Anabaptist Convictions for the 21stCentury back in 2007. To frame it, as I do in the title of this blog post, as a question“Anabaptist” but not “Christian” (or “Mennonite”)?is to be intentionally provocative and a little facetious. However, carefully stated this is a genuine question for me.

So, I want to do a little thought experiment here, not make a profound pronouncement. Let’s reflect on hermeneutics—comparing an “Anabaptist” way of interpreting things, especially the Bible, with a “Christian” way and with a “Mennonite” way. When I pose them as alternatives (which they are not, literally, of course), I am asking about a basic way of interpretation that can be seen to contrast with other ways. What are the basic biases we wantto be a part of how we interpret?

Why “Not Christian”?

Before I explain what “Anabaptist” means in this conversation, I will say a little about why I would say “not Christian” and “not Mennonite.” By “Christian” here (noting that in trying to be a bit provocative I will make some big generalizations) I have in mind the mainstream Christian theological tradition dating back to the fourth century. This is the tradition that I would call “doctrine-oriented” (see my essay, “Practice-oriented vs. doctrine-oriented theology: An Anabaptist proposal”) in the sense that it places creeds, confessions, and formal doctrines at the heart of its construal of Christian faith. Continue reading ““Anabaptist” but not “Christian” (or “Mennonite”)? A Thought Experiment [Part one]”

An authentic witness: Remembering Norman Kraus

Ted Grimsrud—April 29, 2018

As I appreciatively joined in the memorial service yesterday (April 28) for my friend Norman Kraus, who died on April 6 at the age of 94, I reflected on my first encounter with his writing. Back in the Spring of 1976, if I had imagined that 42 years later I would be sitting in a Mennonite church in Virginia grieving the loss of the author of The Community of the Spirit as one who had been my good friend for over 20 years I would have been pretty shocked.

My final term attending the University of Oregon, Spring 1976, was when I decided not to pursue journalism as a career. I went ahead and graduated that term, but with no intent to stay with journalism. I had gotten intensely involved in a small evangelical congregation, gotten bitten by the theology bug, and read with great attention writings by Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Jacques Ellul among others.

I took to browsing the shelves at Northwest Christian College, next door to the UO, looking for books to help me deepen my theological understanding. I happened upon a small volume written by a man named C. Norman Kraus who was identified as a Mennonite professor at a college in Indiana. Not only did the name Goshen College mean nothing to me, the term Mennonite also meant nothing to me.

However, when I started looking at the book, I quickly was hooked. Kraus spoke a language I understood—”discipleship,” “community,” “the gospel of peace.” I read the book thoroughly a couple of times and began to look for other Mennonite writings. That lead to Guy Hershberger, John Howard Yoder, and Millard Lind. It also led us to going to hear Myron Augsburger when my wife Kathleen and I visited her family in Arizona. One thing led to another, we visited the Mennonite congregation in Eugene, headed for Elkhart, Indiana, to attend the Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminaries, and by 1981 we joined the Mennonite church and embarked on a long surprisingly fraught journey.

The writings of Norman Kraus were the starting point for all this. For better or worse, he played a foundational role in my life as a Mennonite. I personally would say absolutely for the “better.” I am deeply grateful for the role Norman played in my theological development, and in more recent years in my remaining in good standing as a college professor and pastor in the Mennonite world. Some who do not appreciate his theological journey (or mine) might say for the “worse.” Continue reading “An authentic witness: Remembering Norman Kraus”

More on salvation: Responding to responses (Part 2)

Ted Grimsrud

Here are some more thoughts as I reflect on the numerous responses to my two recent posts on salvation, “The Bible’s salvation story” and “A message to President Obama about salvation.” The first part of my responding to the responses is here.

Covenant and atonement

Ryan Harker, drawing on N.T. Wright’s early book, The New Testament and the People of God, asks about my sense of how the biblical emphasis on covenant might fit in this discussion. I actually haven’t read this book of Wright’s. It’s the first of what has now been three immense and crucial volumes on New Testament theology, the second being on the historical Jesus and the third on the resurrection. Those latter two were both important resources for my book, and from them I think I have a fairly good sense of what Ryan is asking about.

I really like Wright’s work a great deal, but I am not quite sure I would follow him all the way on his thoughts about the covenant—at least in the way Ryan seems to use them. My difference may be subtle, but still quite important. Indeed, I do think God makes a covenant (or commitment) to Israel that involves demands for Israel’s faithful response to God’s mercy that created them as a people and gave them the vocation to bless all the families of the earth. Torah is the central embodiment of the meaning of this covenant. And there are big problems that arise when the Israelites violate the covenant and turn toward idols and empires and injustice.

However, I don’t think ultimately that the story indicates that God is so offended and alienated by these violations that God then requires a human being (even if God-in-the-flesh) to die as a means of taking upon himself the consequences of the failure. Ryan suggests that God’s “nonviolence” towards God’s people leads God to create this alternative possibility, where the punishment falls on God-in-the-flesh instead of God’s people. This is an attractive idea in some ways, but I think it leaves us with the same problems that other versions of satisfaction atonement do. That is, God remains punitive and we project onto God a retaliatory disposition that must response to sin with punitive consequences.

Certainly, the story does give us instances where God seems to respond the way Ryan suggests, but the overall story makes clear, I believe, that God never requires punishment as a prerequisite for mercy. The mercy is always free and unearned. The role of the covenant (which is closely related to the role of Torah according to Jesus and Paul) is to be an asset in helping people who accept God’s mercy to live faithfully and is best seen in the call to love the neighbor. This was the case throughout the story and does not change with Jesus and the New Testament. As always, the problems arise when people of God get things backwards—be it with sacrifices, Torah, and the land or with the sacraments and doctrines. All these elements of the covenant are meant to serve human beings not human beings serve them.

This is to day, that God’s nonviolence toward God’s people (and the world)—that Ryan, like me, affirms—means that God simply forgives the covenant unfaithfulness and then pulls out all stops to help the people understand and live in response to this forgiveness. It doesn’t mean that God must create some mechanism to punish that would leave God’s people unscathed. It’s mercy all the way down. Continue reading “More on salvation: Responding to responses (Part 2)”

More on salvation: Responding to responses (Part 1)

Ted Grimsrud

I appreciate the numerous responses to my two recent posts on salvation, “The Bible’s salvation story” and “A message to President Obama about salvation.” It has taken longer than I would have hoped, but I want to reflect further on the issues raised by these responses. [Here is part 2 of these reflections.]

Why did Jesus “have to” die?

I appreciate “Tommy’s” affirmative comments about the “Bible’s salvation story” post. He raises a good question. In light of my suggesting that the core content of the salvation story is established at the very beginning and remains in effect throughout (i.e., salvation through God’s mercy in a way that does not require humans offering sacrifices to satisfy God’s requirements), then why does Jesus seem to say that he “had” to die? Thus, “the death obviously holds some significance.”

I strongly affirm that Jesus’ death “holds some significance.” In fact, in my forthcoming book, I devote five long chapters to the significance of Jesus’ death. The issue is what is this significance. I would ask what “had to” means. And, even more, why did he “have to” die? This all comes back, then, to the basic issue—did God need Jesus’ death in order to make salvation possible in a way that it wasn’t otherwise? Did Jesus “have to” die in order to make salvation possible on God’s side—or did Jesus “have to” die in order to make God’s already present (and fully sufficient) mercy sufficiently visible to encourage of response on the human side?

I am uncomfortable with the deterministic connotations of using “had to” in this discussion. However, I would be comfortable saying that Jesus’ death was inevitable given the way he undermined the Domination System of empire, temple, and legalistic cultural boundary maintenance. Because the Powers are so set on opposing agents of the true God, such an agent who embodied God’s will for humanity as thoroughly as Jesus did “had to” die should the Powers not be overthrown. The power of the true God, though, was that this death (that was intended to defeat the will of the true God) actually boomeranged on the Powers. Not only did Jesus not stay dead, but his resurrection underscores how the Powers are hostile toward the true God, and it thus undermines the potential of the Powers to hold sway.

The tragedy is that Jesus’ death came to be misinterpreted. Instead of being seen as a denial of the idea that God is retributive it came to be interpreted in a way that makes God so retributive that God’s will to punish leads to God endorsing the necessity of Jesus’ death for the establishment of salvation.

One can reject the idea of understanding Jesus’ death in terms of satisfaction atonement and still affirm that this death was significant for salvation. Not as something that enables God to forgive but as something that underscores that God’s forgiveness is our starting point and that we need to see and turn away from the Powers that usurp God and keep us from trusting in God as merciful. Continue reading “More on salvation: Responding to responses (Part 1)”