Does Reinhold Niebuhr believe in God?

Around the middle of the twentieth century, Reinhold Niebuhr was the most prominent Protestant theologian in America.  He was on the cover of Time magazine (March 8, 1948).  More recently, Barack Obama called Niebuhr his favorite philosopher (Brooks). Niebuhr is author of the well-known serenity prayer. 

God give us the grace to accept things that cannot be changed.

Courage to change the things that should be changed.

And the wisdom to distinguish one from the other.

While many readers admire Niebuhr’s wisdom, fewer have been able to discern his theology.  Some find none at all.  Arthur Schlesinger Jr. spoke for many agnostics in wondering whether Niebuhr’s wisdom on human nature had anything to do with his Christian theology (Crouter, p 96).  He was wrong.  Niebuhr’s theology is deep, sophisticated, and informs the two concepts by which he understands the day-to-day world: idolatry and sin.  Yet about one of the most terrible issues of our age, annihilatory evil, Niebuhr is led astray by his own theology.

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Do you have soul?

Do you have soul? 

I imagine that most Christians believe they have a soul.  I imagine most believers of all faiths believe in the soul, though what they mean by the term “soul” varies considerably.  Surprising then is how unclear the concept of the soul is within Christianity itself.  The Bible has two different accounts of the fate of the soul, and attempts to reconcile them are clumsy.

Some passages of the Bible suggest that when you die, your soul goes immediately to heaven.  Jesus promised this to the thief hanging on the cross beside him when he says “Truly, I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” (Luke 23:43)  At other times, Jesus referred to resurrection as ῇ ἀναστάσει, which most likely refers to the raising up of the dead at the end of the present age (Matthew. 22:29-33). 

Other books of the Bible emphasize the resurrection of the body. 

It is the same way with the resurrection of the dead. Our earthly bodies are planted in the ground when we die, but they will be raised to live forever. (1 Corinthians 15:42-43) 

The resurrection of the body at the end of days is so central to Christianity that it is included in the Apostles Creed and the Nicene Creed. 

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Bultmann and Barth: Not your Sunday school Christianity

Bultmann and Barth: Not your Sunday school Christianity

The standard Christian view of sin and salvation is not a pretty one.  Salvation is being saved from the righteous judgment of God. Salvation doesn’t mean being saved from yourself or the devil.  Salvation is being saved from God’s wrath, which condemns to hell all who have broken his law.

All of us have sinned against God and deserve judgment.  But Jesus never sinned.  He lived the Law of God perfectly.  Jesus is perfectly righteous.  “He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.” (2 Corinthians 5:21)  Through his crucifixion, Jesus bore our sins in His body and suffered in our place.  

Escaping the judgment of God means having faith in Jesus Christ.  It has nothing to do with doing good works.  “Through grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God.” (Ephesians 2:8)  You are saved by grace through faith. 

When you have faith in Christ, then Christ’s righteousness is given to you, and you give your sins to Jesus.  “It’s like a trade.  He gets your sin.  You get His righteousness.”  (https://carm.org/what-is-salvation)  It sounds more like blackmail to me.  Be righteous because God will send you to hell forever if you aren’t. 

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A Christmas message, or does it matter if the Bible is myth?

A Christmas message, or does it matter if the Bible is  myth?  Ask Rudolf Bultmann.

We cannot use electric lights and radios and, in the event of illness, avail ourselves of modern medical and clinical means and at the same time believe in the spirit and wonder world of the New Testament. 

Who wrote this about the wonder world of the New Testament?  One of the many aggressive atheists who contend with religion these days?  No, one of the most distinguished theologians of the twentieth-century, Rudolf Bultmann (1984, p 4).  The mythological world of the New Testament was the everyday world of men and women over two thousand years ago.  Demons were everywhere, and heaven and hell were real places.  Many Christians no longer believe in this magical world. The result is to question the relevance of the gospel.  Needed, says Bultmann (1984), is a demythologizing interpretation that retains the truth of the kerygma.  

What sense does it make to confess today ‘he descended into hell’ or ‘he ascended into heaven,’ if the confessor no longer shares the underlying mythical world picture of a three-story world?  (p 4)

What’s kerygma

Kerygma (κῆρυγμα) means preaching, and it refers to the message of the gospels.  Whatever that is, it’s not the Apostle’s Creed or Nicene Creed; both refer to the three-story world.  For Bultmann (1984, p 12), the kerygma refers to God’s decisive act in Christ, above all his death and resurrection.  The question of course is why isn’t this just as mythical as a three-story world filled with angels and demons?

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Christ: vindicator or lamb of God?

Christ: vindicator or lamb of God?  

If Jesus Christ is the Lord’s vindicator, how can he be at the same time the Lamb of God?  In trying to understand this and more, I’m going to follow the lead of a marvelous work of scholarly imagination by Jack Miles, Christ: A Crisis in the Life of God.  This does not mean that I agree with it.

The winnowing fork

Consider the image of the winnowing fork, which Christ uses to separate the wheat from the chaff, burning the chaff in an endless fire.  Attributed to John the Baptist by Matthew (3:12), the image captures perfectly Christ’s self-description of his mission: to bring hope to the pious and powerless, and punishment to the rich, who have had their reward in this world (Luke: 6:23-24).  But the statement I will never understand is Christ’s explanation of why he speaks in parables.

And when he was alone, those who were about him with the twelve asked him concerning the parables.  And he said to them, “To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside everything is in parables; so that they may indeed see but not perceive, and may indeed hear but not understand; lest they should turn again, and be forgiven.” (Mark 4.10-12)

No matter how many times it is explained to me in terms of Christ’s regret and understandable anger at those who will never understand (Young 1998, pp 263-264), I cannot make sense of Christ’s claim.  Why would he speak in code?  Are there no second chances?  This is not the statement of a loving God.  Christ’s statement has been explained as “the wistful longing of frustrated love,” but it doesn’t sound very wistful to me. 

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What’s so great about faith?

What’s so great about faith?  It depends on what you mean.  Most people today seem to regard faith as a so-called “leap of faith,”  in which we simply choose to believe something that can’t be demonstrated or proven.  Society, or one’s own needy self, says that I need to believe, and I do, keeping quiet about my doubts, if I even let myself have any.

Real faith is given by the grace of God.  We don’t choose faith; faith chooses us.  Nevertheless, there are things we can do to receive it.  Prime among these is humility, and living as Christ would have us live, as though we were men or women who deserve grace.

But how do I know if I have received grace?

There are two answers.  If you have to ask, you haven’t.  If you think you have received grace, you haven’t.  Just continue to live as though you were worthy of grace.  In the end perhaps this is the most we can hope for.  What’s more important: to know that you have grace, or to be worthy of it?

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Blogging about God has created a problem for me

Blogging about God has created a problem for me.  I realize that I pray to an interventionist God while I believe in a distant God.  Since I blog about God to help me figure out what I believe, this is good.  It just doesn’t bring me peace.

Most of my posts are about what other people believe about God.  Since they are smarter than I am that seems a good start.  None seem to believe in God quite like I do, but that’s OK too.   

I believe in a creator God, one who has stepped back from his handiwork.  Why is there something rather than nothing?  Philosophers ask this question, and they are serious.  People, zebras, bugs, the earth, the cosmos: everything there is has no need to exist.  It just does, and I can see no other ultimate answer than God.  Alfred North Whitehead believed something like this.    

This works on a less cosmic level as well.  Every night I thank God for the gift of my life that day, and for the wonder and beauty that exists in this world.  I pray for those I love and care about.  And I pray for desperate, afflicted people, such as the Rohingya Muslims.  That’s about it. 

I try not to pray for myself.  That seems too much like asking God for a bicycle for Christmas.  But, what would I pray for if I were seriously ill?  That I be open to God’s presence.  I’d pray for the same thing for my wife, and others whom I love.

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Can one man change history? Martin Luther

Can one man change history? Martin Luther?  Hitler?

October is the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s posting of his 95 theses on the door of the Wittenberg church. Or so the story goes.  It might even be true, but there is no need to be overly dramatic.  The church door served as a kind of community bulletin board. 

An angry man

Luther was an angry, troubled man, who brought not just the church, but the medieval world, to the threshold of the modern.  In 2000, Life magazine ranked Martin Luther third among the one hundred most important figures of the millennium (Kolb, p 1).  I don’t think many people pay that much attention to Luther any more, but he was a big deal.

What I can’t figure out is the relationship between Luther’s life and the transformation he wrought, brought, heralded, or led.  Or perhaps it was time for these changes to happen anyway, and Luther just happened to be there.  In any case, the transformation of the world that began in Luther’s era made our world possible. 

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Martin Buber: I and Thou, dialogue or touch?

Martin Buber: I and Thou, dialogue or touch?  I and Thou is Martin Buber’s most well-known book, originally published in German in 1923.  Its aim is to make everyday life a sacred experience.  I’m not sure that anyone has fully understood the book; perhaps that explains its hold after so many years.  In many places it reads more like poetry than theology or philosophy.    

We don’t exist in any important human way except as part of a relationship.  “In the beginning is the relationship,” says Buber (p 69).  Trees and animals can be part of a I-thou pair, and a human can be a part of an I-it pair.  Buber would perhaps reject the term “pair.”  It’s just I-thou, or I-you, more than one, less than two as the Tao puts it.  

Buber’s horse

Buber’s childhood encounter with his favorite horse best explains the I-thou relationship for me.  Horses can be thou’s, and as anyone who has been around horses knows, they are big, even massive, animals.  As such the horse is intensely other: other than me, other than human.

 

When I stroked the mighty mane, sometimes marvelously smooth-combed, at other times just as astonishingly wild, and felt the life beneath my hand, it was as though the element of vitality itself bordered on my skin, something that was not I, was certainly not akin to me, palpably the other, not just another, really the Other itself; and yet it let me approach, confided itself to me, placed itself elementally in the relation of Thou and Thou with me. (Buber, Between Man and Man, p 11)

 

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