Is This Life All There Is?


Radically Free

There is something exciting about the notion that this life is all there is. You can experience it to the full. You can reinvent yourself as many times as you like. You can have all the sex you want. You can choose your own path and create your own destiny, unfettered, guaranteeing the maximal potential for pleasure, facing its pain and challenges with powerful realism and dignity. A life that is lived here and now, fully embracing the moment, taking it in for what it is and no more, can be an exciting life.

Many people live with what we might call the materialist assumption. Materialism is just as I have described it. There is nothing beyond this life, here and now. When you die, it’s like a blissful sleep. We don’t look for some distant meaning or fairy-tale heaven. Such notions are a coping mechanism for those who can’t embrace the responsibility of their lives as radically free. They are the ones pushing their provencal morality on the rest of us.

The Materialist Assumption

The materialist assumption is not morally empty. We live in human community, so we craft a kind of public morality. We all agree that things like murder, rape, incest, racism, slavery, greed, gluttony and intolerance are evil. They deprive another of her basic rights, they choke freedom, and thus they are evil. We don’t need religion or a god to follow the implications of the materialist assumption because we are not alone on this planet.

You may feel this description fairly portrays your convictions about this life. If not, perhaps I have been inaccurate, but I hope I haven’t been uncharitable. As a human living here and now, the materialist assumption is sometimes appealing to me. I do embrace responsibility for my life, my choices, and my living among others who deserve the same freedoms I have. Many times, eyes wide open, I look around and see good, altruistic materialists, living full, satisfying lives. I wonder, though, if they have followed the trajectory of their materialist assumption all the way down the road.

To me, there are things deeply troubling in the materialist assumption, things that persuade me to reject it as a faulty foundation, a melting wing of existential hubris.

For example, having all the sex you want sounds great, but inevitably, it leads to devastation. I’m not being dramatic. Think about it. Like any other human appetite, over-consumption leads to gluttony, addiction, and thereby a loss of freedom. Gluttons and addicts aren’t free. If sex is a fix for you, you are proving the limitation of a materialist assumption. Relationships are messy enough without the give-and-take of sexual involvement. Casual sex falls apart, as I have observed, but sex in a relationship without a deeper commitment (marriage) has nothing around it, no guardrails. When the sex gets boring, what happens to the relationship? When the relationship ends, so does the sex, and a relationship so entwined is excruciatingly painful to undo.

Over and over, I can think of examples of living on the materialist assumption which prove its rottenness at the core. For example, let’s remove the Cinderella lens from my description in the first two paragraphs. Often a life of radical freedom doesn’t turn out so good. Real human stories demonstrate that the path forward is never smooth. A diagnosis. A death. A government that exploits or enslaves. A dictator that divides his population into two races, master and slave, and exterminates the lesser. A promise from another is broken. Victimization results. You are the victim. You are the predator. Why me? Unanswered questions. Coping isn’t just for religious people.

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Facing the reality of the human condition demands, I would assert, an afterlife. Otherwise, the highest human notions of justice, freedom, and human potential are fictions.

A Counter-Assumption

I realize this assertion requires support, and you may choose to accept or reject it based on the support I can give. I feel the weight of that, and I am sure, whatever arguments I could offer would be insufficient for some, exhausting and irrelevant to others. Let me offer one solid counter-assumption, an assumption that is not unique or novel, and see where it goes.

My counter-assumption borrows from the Apostle Paul in his first of two biblical letters to the Christians at Corinth. In this section of chapter 15, towards the end of the letter, he takes on the materialist assumption:

12 But tell me this—since we preach that Christ rose from the dead, why are some of you saying there will be no resurrection of the dead? 13 For if there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised either. 14 And if Christ has not been raised, then all our preaching is useless, and your faith is useless. 15 And we apostles would all be lying about God—for we have said that God raised Christ from the grave. But that can’t be true if there is no resurrection of the dead. 16 And if there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised. 17 And if Christ has not been raised, then your faith is useless and you are still guilty of your sins. 18 In that case, all who have died believing in Christ are lost! 19 And if our hope in Christ is only for this life, we are more to be pitied than anyone in the world (1 Corinthians 15:12-19, NLT).

Notice the kind of argument Paul makes, Paul, a Jewish-Christian writing to Greeks: if there is no resurrection from the dead, then Christ has not been raised, and if Christ has not been raised, then your faith is useless. This is a contrary-to-fact conditional argument. Paul has just laid out the facts in verses 3-9: Jesus Christ has been raised from the dead. The tomb is empty. The guards were not paid off. Nobody stole the body and lied about it, or the ruse would have been uncovered. Instead, hundreds of people who were still alive at the time of Paul’s writing would give eyewitness testimony of encountering the resurrected Christ. (The New Testament records a few of those encounters in Luke 24 and John 21.) Eyewitness testimony of credible witnesses was received in the ancient world much like scientific evidence in our modern, materialist (skeptical) age. It is the fact of the resurrection of Christ that proves an afterlife, not the other way round.

Implications

If Paul is stating a credible fact, Paul who numbers himself with those who encountered the risen Christ, then we can understand his negative reasoning. What are the implications of the opposite condition: assuming there is no resurrection, no afterlife, but only (I would add) a materialist obliteration or perhaps conservation of the “energy” of human life? Paul enumerates the fallout: first, then Christ has not been raised. That implication necessitates the conclusion that hundreds of credible (unconnected) eyewitnesses were hallucinating; we must settle for a less intellectually satisfying explanation for the empty tomb; the apostles are all deceived or lying, which doesn’t fit the profile.

A second implication is that the preaching of the apostles is useless. And it wasn’t. It was creating new communities, demolishing prejudice, centering marriages on love not contract, raising the status 0f women, the poor and other marginalized groups. With the “useless” preaching comes vain faith. But faith wasn’t vain either. Faith was transforming murderers to martyrs, superstitious pagans to responsible citizens, greedy gluttons to generous philanthropists, and more.

Paul goes on a bit and then comes to this sad conclusion: If our hope in Christ is only for this life, we are more to be pitied than anyone in the world. Yep. Generic, garden-variety faith with no basis in historical fact and present, existential transformation is–just like the materialist assumption–worthless.

Conclusions

Where is this negative argument going? Paul is using it to support a greater, glorious conclusion:

Our earthly bodies are planted in the ground when we die, but they will be raised to live forever. 43 Our bodies are buried in brokenness, but they will be raised in glory. They are buried in weakness, but they will be raised in strength. 44 They are buried as natural human bodies, but they will be raised as spiritual bodies (1 Cor. 15:42-44).

On the assumption that there is an afterlife, specifically the kind of afterlife described in the New Testament, you get a more satisfying list of implications. Your brokenness will be buried, and you will be raised in glory. Your weakness (i.e. human limitations) will become strength. (Just imagine the full use of unfettered body and brain together at 100% efficiency.) And that elusive spirituality you’ve been groping for to try to fix the emptiness of the materialist assumption? Well, everything natural (material) about you will become truly, “naturally” spiritual! Further, Paul argues that such transformed individuals will be part of the Kingdom of God, a kingdom where justice, righteousness, mercy, peace and such things reign, addressing the failure of limited, imperfect justice, etc. in this life.

Finally, Paul concludes in verse 58 that rejecting the materialist assumption in favor of the biblical assertion of Christ’s resurrection adds supreme meaning and value to every moment of human life, giving purpose to us even in the daily grind (a condition you will never escape, no matter how objectivist, nihilist, existentialist, hedonist or spiritualist you become). For those who accept Christ’s death and resurrection not only as historical fact but also personally, existentially, as a faith assumption they build their lives on, Paul can say:

Always work enthusiastically for the Lord, for you know that nothing you do for the Lord is ever useless.

Please consider these contrasting trajectories. When I find myself drawn to the attractiveness of the radical freedom promised by the materialist assumption, a freedom which does not deliver its promises, I remember this. Everything I could want or hope for on my own, autonomous and free, I receive in Christ, enveloped by his life, death, and resurrection.

 

 

“The Bible” and Jesus(es)


DISCLAIMER: Normally, you read “what’s out there” before posting an opinion, in the interest of being more informed (or appearing so). This is an entirely personal reflection with only the sparsest research. Image

Watching The Bible, Episode 4: Mission last night with my sons engendered discussion much as the other three episodes have: “Dad, did Jesus pass out in the desert?. . .Was Pilate really mean?. . .Do you think Jesus was that calm when he cleansed the temple?” Of course, I don’t have informed answers to all their reading-between-the-lines questions. Nobody does. As with previous episodes, I found Mission delightfully insightful, provocative and, at points, pretty loose on the Bible’s particular narrative details.

One scene I really didn’t like was Jesus’ raising Lazarus from the dead. Don’t get me wrong; I have nothing against resurrection. It was a powerful scene, and it worked dramatically. But omitting the details of Jesus deliberately stalling after he found out Lazarus was sick (John 11:6), telling Martha, “I am the resurrection and the life” before he reached the tomb, then calling the dead man to rise publicly, for the sake of the crowd, changed the theological significance of the raising of Lazarus. I’m confident that tampering with theology was not the intent, but it was the consequence nonetheless

That brings me to the question of the portrayal of Jesus, a formidable challenge for any actor, I’d think.  Hollywood Jesuses come off as either spacey and aloof (he is divine, after all) or down-home comfy in their everybody-rides humanity. Diogo Morgado does an admirable job as Jesus in this miniseries, though he tends towards the latter extreme. I guess every actor has to answer the question for himself that Morgado’s Jesus asked his disciples, echoing Matthew 16: “Who do you say that I am?” (In the biblical account there were a few guesses before Peter “surprised” Jesus with the right answer.) Getting the answer right is the key not only to the persona of Jesus, but to the character of the most important person in the history of the world.

The Jesus of Scripture barely fit the values and status of his own culture, much less ours. He healed the sick with genuine compassion, yet his rebukes of the Pharisees were as comfortless as Old Testament prophets’ devastating judgements. He was clearly the friend of sinners, but he cleansed sin out of the temple more than once, as if he owned the place. The biblical Jesus is full of such paradox.

And rightly so. Because the Jesus of Scripture is both human and divine, fully so, simultaneously. Two natures; one person. No confusing the two. He who wept over his friend Lazarus (another omission in Mission) took absolute authority over death and brought a stinking-dead human being back, to live out the rest of his natural life. Death didn’t even have a chance, because the Author of life, the human-making, soul-breather-into-dust God of eternity was standing outside the tomb, effortlessly flicking death away like a pesky gnat. Who-the-freak is this guy?

The Jesus of Scripture is God the Son, pre-existing in eternal community with the Father and the Spirit, one God in three persons. Before the world was, He is. When he uttered those words to the officials who came to arrest him, John 18 says, “they drew back and fell to the ground.” Were he not fully God and fully man, Jesus could not have taken the penalty for the debt we owed and paid for it eternally by laying down his human life. His role as our substitute, the lamb of God sacrificed for you and me for all-time, motivated God himself to provide by taking on human flesh and suffer so we could be saved by his one act of righteousness, undoing the one act that plunged the whole race into guilt and sin.

How do you portray that multi-dimensionality in a two-dimensional world of movies or television? You try to come close, and you leave it to aware or curious viewers to make up for deficiencies. That is exactly what Mission’s Jesus did, with admirable results. Some (I’ve heard) have worried about the implicit Christology of The Bible miniseries. I can understand why. The question, “Who do you say that I am” is the most important of all. But I don’t fault the imperfect portrayal of the perfect God-man for our failing to get the right answer. The purpose of The Bible, Mark Burnett and Roma Downey told us, is to raise questions that will drive viewers to the real Bible.

So, who do you say he is? To benefit from the sacrifice he made objectively, historically, one must invest a personal, subjective faith. I do think the miniseries does a good job of emphasizing trust in God as a major theme (though at times it appears nationalism or religious lawkeeping substituted for faith, which neither ever did.) Eternal salvation is offered as a free gift to whoever will believe, trust, subjectively receive the objective Jesus as the way, truth, life and only way to restoring a favorable relationship with God, His father and ours. When he is Lord, not only objectively (which he is) but of your life, you become connected with the eternal, triune God, eternally.

That change in eternal life is the consequence of getting the “Who am I” question right. Granting a charitable verdict to The Bible’s Jesus, we will all be judged by what we do with the Scriptural, historical Jesus. Martha’s confession outside the tomb of Lazarus gives us the only correct answer: “I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God.” It was enough to superintend the miracle of resurrection that day. And it is still the efficient cause of resurrection for everyone who utters it in genuine faith today.

Promising Reads for 2012


Each year I set out to read books from a variety of categories. 2012 is no different, with an ambitious goal (for me, given the life I lead) of FINISHING at least a dozen books. Last year, it was eight, cover to cover, along with plenty of partial reads for research, study and teaching. A couple of my hope-to titles this year include Eat This Book: A Conversation in the Art of Spiritual Reading by Eugene Peterson and Poets Thinking: Pope, Whitman, Dickinson, Yeats by Helen Vendler. Both are loaded on the Kindle and sampled. But I can’t devour them until I finish this:

I ran across this book, All Things Shining: Reading the Western Classics to Find Meaning in a Secular Age by Hubert Dreyfus (Berkeley) and Sean Dorrance Kelly (Harvard), while browsing the philosophy section at Barnes & Noble. It grabbed my attention by quickly calling out the exhausting meaninglessness of modern life and the hopelessness of nihilism. Admitting that a loss of the sacred is the source of both maladies, the authors propose. . .ahem!. . .a re-appropriation of polytheism, based in the ancient Greeks’ openness to the world as a gift of the gods. The central source for the re-sacralization of postmodern life is Homer, whose attributed writings provide, admittedly, a fountain for Western culture. So far, I have found the Dreyfus-Kelly analysis of the emptiness of existentialism and its legacy to be incisive. Their narrative analysis of decline since the Enlightenment resonates with what I learned under the best seminary profs. Of course, their prescription is no cure, in my view. Neo-paganism provides no more of a moral compass for the future than did paganism in the ancient past.

I’m only about 30 percent in to All Things Shining, but I am committed to finishing it before I pick up something else. . .except for this book: Wayfaring: Essays Pleasant and UnpleasantWayfaring: Essays Pleasant and UnpleasantIn a recent post, I admitted my newfound-old-love for the essay. Alan Jacobs has provided a collection of thoughtful short pieces that muse on such subjects as “the usefulness and dangers of blogging, the art of dictionary making, the world of Harry Potter, and an appreciation of trees” (Amazon.com). I hope to follow Alan’s Christian mind on a journey that will help me organize my own thought life and writing.

I have a few other books I absolutely want to read in various categories: science fiction (The Mote in God’s Eye by Larry Niven); theology (Heresy: A History of Defending the Truth by Alister McGrath) and biography (Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy by Eric Metaxas). But by far, the best find of 2011 and most promising read of 2012 is a tome by newly-appointed professor of New Testament and Biblical Theology at Westminster Theological Seminary, G.K. Beale.

Beale: A New Testament Biblical Theology

One thousand pages of pure fun! And a bit of redundancy.

I pre-ordered the hardcover premier of A New Testament Biblical Theology: The Unfolding of the Old Testament in the New based on my prior exposure to Dr. Beale’s teaching. I knew this would be his magnum opus. I was not disappointed. Two of his previously published works, We Become What We Worship: A Biblical Theology of Idolatry and The Temple and the Church’s Mission are substantially summarized, applied and/or reproduced in this book, along with more of his writings including scholarly articles, and lectures. The groundbreaking (and painstaking) work of bringing the disciplines of biblical studies and biblical theology together with previously uncharted territory in New Testament theology makes this book the ONE that people with my bent–a love of the Bible-as-canon and dissatisfaction with the logical categories and proof-texting of systematic theology–absolutely must acquire and devour.

I plan to literally (figuratively) soak in this book all year long, hauling it along as a companion for Bible devotion and teaching prep as well as carefully reading key chapters and summarizing them. I’m about 80 pages in, with several other relevant sections highlighted and cross-referenced.  I could gush more–about Dr. Beale’s unassuming style, his love for the biblical text and its Author, his plain-spoken weaving of eschatalogical themes into a practical reading and application of the New Testament–but I’d better shut up until I’ve read more. If you want a better idea of the scope and significance of this book, check out the synopsis and comments at Reformation Heritage Books, where you can still get the pre-order price, I think. One critical observation: there is quite a bit of redundancy in this thousand page monster, but I’m choosing to view it as reiteration. Repetition is pedagogically (and theologically) sound, even if stylistically annoying.


The Christ of Christmas


Like Ricky Bobby, many people prefer the Jesus of Christmas to other, more mature versions of the incarnate Son of God revealed in the Scriptures. But the “8 pound, 6 ounce newborn infant Jesus” of Christmas grew up. So, when we think of Christmas, we should remember the Jesus who:

  • LIVED a sinless life, a life that was free of not only impurity, but also false piety and Phariseeism;
  • DIED at the hands of a corrupt government and religious institution, willingly, for us, as our substitute;
  • ROSE from death on the third day, reversing the fall and its curse, granting us eternal life with him;
  • REIGNS over heaven and earth, establishing his kingdom both now and in the consummate future.

This Jesus, now resurrected, reigning and returning to finally redeem and judge the world, is the Christ of Christmas. Please don’t separate the person of Christ from the work of Christ, either in your thinking or your worship. The point of the incarnation is death and resurrection, and the point of resurrection is redemption for a lost and sinful world, for all who follow him as Lord by faith.

Hebrews 7:26 – He is the kind of high priest we need because he is holy and blameless, unstained by sin.
 Matthew 16:6 – “Watch out!” Jesus warned them. “Beware of the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees.”
John 10:18 – No one can take my life from me. I sacrifice it voluntarily.
Romans 5:6 – When we were utterly helpless, Christ came at just the right time and died for us sinners.
2 Corinthians 5:21 – For God made Christ, who never sinned, to be the offering for our sin, so that we could be made right with God through Christ.
Romans 8:11 – Just as God raised Christ Jesus from the dead, he will give life to your mortal bodies
1 Corinthians 15:45 – The Scriptures tell us, “The first man, Adam, became a living person.” But the last Adam—that is, Christ—is a life-giving Spirit.
Colossians 1:13 – For he has rescued us from the kingdom of darkness and transferred us into the Kingdom of his dear Son
2 Timothy 4:1 – Christ Jesus, who will someday judge the living and the dead when he appears to set up his Kingdom