Friday, 20 April 2018

History repeats itself (#1)

Are we approaching Jesus backwards? Do we hope our souls will go to heaven? Why did the church forget about caring for creation? And what’s behind our thinking?

Some great minds have pondered these questions. But chronological snobbery makes it easy to forget all the hard work they did, and leaves us prone to mistakes that were dealt with a long time ago.

History repeats itself. It has to. Nobody listens!

Behind these questions lies the age-old problem of Gnosticism – a way of thinking about life, the universe and everything which dominated society in the years after Jesus’s resurrection. And it still keeps infiltrating ideas today. If we’re not careful it even shapes the way we think about Christian faith, having a bigger influence than the Bible. Yes, really!

I’ll save the theological language for the end. But first…

Are we approaching Jesus backwards?

Ask your average Christian who Jesus is and you’ll likely get the response: “He’s God.” Which is only partly true. From our 21st century vantage point we look back through time and see his life backwards. We start with the resurrection, which demonstrates that he is God (according to Romans 1:4), and then try to understand his life with that fact already lodged in our minds: he can get into the upper room without using the door because he’s God. Everything about him becomes too-easily spiritualised, his humanity hidden by his supernaturalness (I just made up the word). Perhaps he only appeared to be human and wasn’t really moved, hungry, pained, pierced, killed.

Approach him forwards – travel with him through time, just like the first Christians did – and the picture looks so different. The Scriptures anticipated a special man who would make an impact, a descendant of king David. The baby was slippery with amniotic fluid. The boy (and man) went to the toilet (not recorded in the Bible, but how could he not?). His friends struggled to make sense of him, asking: “What kind of man is this?”. He sweat blood in anguish. Meet the man first. And only then, in making sense of everything him, do we also have to wrestle with the fact that incredibly, mysteriously, wonderfully, this is both man and God.

This man-God / God-man merges human and divine, material and spiritual. Both/and, not either/or. This way of thinking avoids the danger of inventing a Christ who is a little bit human, but mostly divine. It keeps us true to the Bible, and saves us from a mythical spirit-Jesus who deceived us a bit by pretending to be human.

Do we hope our souls will go to heaven?

And whatever do we think happens to the ‘rest’ of us? Talk to people whose beloved friend or family member has died and sooner or later you’ll likely hear the sentiment that the person is now enjoying some kind of disembodied angelic or spirit existence (with or without harps, wings and clouds), sweetly looking down on us. The soul’s sorted, the ‘shell’ is left behind. The divine spark in the person is reunited with the big divine flame.

But it’s just not what happened to Jesus. Crucified. Died. Buried. Raised. Raised, as in: body-not-in-tomb. Raised, as in: don’t-cling-onto-me. Raised, as in: poke-the-holes-in-my-hands. Raised, as in: let-me-eat-fish. And, somehow, what happened to Jesus is what happens to us. It’s not disembodied souls that are saved – it’s the ‘wholeness’ of us: heart, mind, soul and strength. Certainly there is change. Mortality is clothed with immortality.

Why did the church forget about caring for creation?

Quite simply – because often our thinking became influenced by Gnosticism. It’s complicated. But one big factor is the idea that the material world is less-than-good, and definitely was not created by God (how could a perfect Being create something so messed-up and malfunctioning?). So there’s a big divide between the spiritual (which is good) and the material, which isn’t good and, frankly, can be ignored. Add onto this the idea that God’s going to sort out a whole fresh place for us to live, and it’s not long before motivation has gone AWOL. Who needs to bother caring for creation?

This same Gnosticism simply could not handle the idea that God would become incarnate.  How could a perfect spirit-being risk becoming contaminated by an imperfect and, essentially, irrelevant material creation? How could heaven be occupied by the (gasp!) human body of Jesus? How could flesh-and-blood people possibly enjoy eternity with God?

And so Gnosticism tempts us again and again to divorce the spiritual from the material. It reduces our thinking about Jesus and makes him dispassionate, ‘other’ and ‘distant’. It reduces our hope and expectations about resurrection. It reduces our care for the natural world.

Ultimately, it moulds our faith so that we are no-longer Biblical. Instead our thinking is moulded and shaped by a worldview that is different from that of the Bible, and we are sold short. Irenaeus of Lyon tackled all of this in his writings, and then died in 202AD. If these mistaken ideas keep swilling around in the church it’s because we’ve forgotten our heritage. And so history repeats itself…


I’ve loved reading Matthew Knell’s book “Defenders of the Faith”, and these are some of the thoughts and ideas that emerged from his first major chapter (but with my own twist on writing about them).