On ‘Doomism’, Sentimentality and the Cross

The April – June 2021 50th Edition of VOX magazine is out in a nifty new smaller printed format designed to make it easier to read on tablet, phone or computer.

You can read it online or download a PDF for free – can’t getter a better deal than that for what is an excellent magazine.

This edition has a particular focus on Ireland’s past, specifically the legacy of abuse formally made public via recent reports in the Mother and Baby homes. I’ll come back to articles on this in later blog posts. It also continues a series on racism in Ireland as well as an excellent article by Karen Huber on the Ravi Zacharias scandal and how it should

“light a fire under all Christians to hold our teachers, our church, and even our doctrines accountable. We should test the actions of those in authority against the standards set in Scripture, and we must pay heed to the spirit of discernment.”

My musings column had an Easter theme and is below. It raises questions, especially in light of the injustices and evil just mentioned above. Questions like:

  • What does it look like to be people of hope in a broken world?
  • What is our response to injustice and suffering?
  • How is the church to embody a different way – a way of justice and mercy for the oppressed and marginalised?

Doomism, Sentimentality and the Cross

Information Overload

The age of Information Technology has certainly lived up to its name; we have instantaneous access to information about pretty well anything we care to think of. Despite lockdown the world remains at our fingertips – there’s no 5km limit if you have a broadband connection. One thing I’ve discovered over the last few months is joining live safaris in the African bush. It’s been a wonderful way to ‘travel’, immerse yourself in another world and learn lots all at the same time. (I’m watching a leopard hunt impalas as I write this!)

But the net is also the gateway to all sorts of other information. There is little that we can’t read or see for ourselves about what’s going on in the world. Because billions of people now carry smartphones, photographs and videos are being taken daily on a vast scale. Even events that authoritarian governments try to hide tend to hit the news. Two examples as I’m writing are the abduction, imprisonment and now disappearance of Princess Latifa in Dubai (only made known through secret videos she took) and ethnic cleansing being carried out by the Chinese government against the Uighur population in Xinjiang (despite denials satellite pictures and videos are damning). But to these we could add countless others.

And then there’s information hidden away for so long, but now exposed to the light of day. In this edition of VOX are stories about injustices experienced by children in an Irish mother and baby home and revelations about Ravi Zacharias exploiting and using women for his own sexual gratification. And this is even before mentioning social media and billions of individuals sharing their lives and opinions on everything from funny cat videos to #FreeBritney to saving the planet from environmental destruction.

Such a vast amount of information has never been available to any human beings before. I wonder sometimes do we know too much? We’ve always known that the world was broken, but now we can watch it unfold livestreamed.

I’ve been musing about this new world – what it does to us and how are disciples of Jesus best to navigate its unfamiliar terrain. It seems to me that there are at least two dead-ends we can go down.

Two Dead Ends

One is ‘doomism’. All too easily, we can become news junkies, overwhelmed with bad news and in a constant state of fear or depression about our world and where it’s going.

Another is ‘see no evil, hear no evil’ – we literally switch off, close our eyes and ears and pretend the world isn’t like it is. We just retreat into a safe bubble of sentimental optimism. A Christian form of this sort of denial is to celebrate the love, forgiveness and presence of God while rarely, if ever, talking about the reality and power of sin and evil (including our own).

Hopeful Realism

But Easter speaks of a third, deeper, and more mysterious way of understanding our world. The way of the cross is neither ‘doomism’ nor optimistic sentimentality, it is, rather, the way of ‘hopeful realism’.

By ‘realism’ I mean that Christians should be the last people to be surprised by bad news, even the bad news of a Christian leader being unmasked. This is because the Bible has a stark diagnosis of what’s wrong with this world. It is Sin with a capital ‘S’. This is not just your wrong actions and mine (personal sins), though it includes them for sure. But Sin as a malign, destructive power that leads to death. A power that we have no way of overcoming on our own: not through better education, or self-esteem, or economics, or human ingenuity, or scientific progress or more information, or good life choices. Humanly speaking, we have absolutely no grounds for optimism about ourselves or our world.

By ‘hopeful’ I mean that our hope is God alone – and that is a great, big, wondrous sort of hope. This is the mystery of Easter. The stronger our understanding of Sin, the deeper is the good news of the cross. The cross

“is the scene of God’s climatic battle against the power of a malignant and implacable Enemy” (Fleming Rutledge).

No human has the ability to break the power of Sin and death – only God can. And, out of love, he has done just that.

Christus ist auferstanden!

This is an Easter reflection I did for our church a year ago. Re-posting it this Easter day. A ‘Coronavirus year’ has passed. The resurrection of Jesus continues to proclaim the victory of God over the powers of Sin and Death.

Christus ist auferstanden!

If we were physically in church this morning, retired German teacher Ian Stanton, with a mischievous smile on his face, would likely come my way and say “Christus ist auferstanden!” (Christ is risen!). I say ‘mischievous’ because he knows I will be panicking trying to remember the few words of German that he expects me to know one day a year. For the record they are “Er ist wahrhaftig auferstanden!” (He is risen indeed!).

These are days of deep uncertainty and loss. Walking around Maynooth it’s heart-breaking to read sign after sign of businesses closed. Behind those notices are stories of lost jobs, debt and fear for the future. One talks honestly about the owner’s ‘trepidation’ over the ‘big and scary’ decision to shut. I find myself praying for her and make a promise that, hopefully, when that café reopens, I’ll go and give her some business.

Walking along the canal parallel to the railway, empty trains go past. I wonder how long this is going to go on, aware there is no easy fix and multiple lockdowns could come and go for over a year or more. I think of health-care workers in MCC like Andy and Susanne on the front-line. I think of friends who have suddenly no work and no income. I wonder how many in MCC are in a similar situation. I think of other friends at high risk and pray they can stay free of infection. I think of my dad in his 90s and living at home alone and find myself strangely grateful that my mother died over a year ago and is not now stuck in a nursing home, confused, with no-one able to visit her. And if I’m honest, I also wonder about my own job.

And yet, as I enjoy the Spring air and blue sky, I know I’m deeply privileged. I have health, family, a home to live in, access to technology and food to eat. I wonder if this pandemic has caused such angst because it has hit the rich West. It has shown us to be far less safe and in control than we thought. It has made us face the possibility of sudden death. Yet millions of people in the world are only all too familiar with disease, famine and war. In Sub-Saharan Africa alone there are over 400,000 deaths annually of malaria and over 2 million new infections.

And so I think of countless Christians in the past and today who have never known the safety nets of stable employment, fair pay, a home, access to health care, physical security, food and clean water or the expectation of a long life.

And I start to wonder if this pandemic, awful as it is, is bringing more sharply into focus just how relevant and important it is that Christus ist auferstanden.

For if Christ is raised, then we can trust that our futures are in the hands of the risen Lord.

If Christ is raised, then, those in Christ through faith already have resurrection life.

If Christ is raised, then God has already won the victory over death and evil powers and that therefore Christians can rest assured that

“… neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 8:38-39).

And if Christ is raised, we can have a sure and certain hope that, regardless of when we die, we will share one day in Christ’s resurrection to a new life within a renewed world – one that will be gloriously free of viruses, disease and death itself.

Tenebrae 2021

Tenebrae is Latin for ‘darkness’. Each year our church holds a Tenebrae service. It is simple in form – a mixture of Bible readings, songs, and poetry. There is no sermon.

The songs, readings and music are all performed by members of the church.

After each reading a candle is extingushed and the service ends in total darkness. People leave in silence. It is a service of lament and reflection on the death of our Lord Jesus Christ.

This year’s service was ‘held’ on You Tube. Thanks to the readers, singers and tech-person who worked out the candles. It lasts about 40 minutes and I found it profoundly moving.

LENT 2021. The Crucifixion. Fleming Rutledge. Justice and Judgement (4)

We continue our Lenten series on Fleming Rutledge’s outstanding book, The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ (2015).

In this post we finish chapter 3 on ‘The Question of Justice’.

The question in view here is the relationship between the righteousness of God (justice, justification) and judgement (condemnation, destruction).

Rutledge moves on in the final section of this chapter to discuss justice / righteousness.

You may be aware that these two very different English words come from the same Greek word group. Justify, justification, righteousness, just, justice, righteous are all derived from the same root in Greek

So justice and righteousness are effectively, in the NT, the same thing. But we do not read them that way in English. We tend to think of the ‘righteousness of God’ as his holiness often in contrast to our unrighteousness / unholiness (pre-conversion Luther)

But the crucial thing to grasp here is that God’s righteousness is best understood as a VERB not a noun. It refers to the power of God to make things right. He acts ‘rightly’ to ‘rightify’ we may say.

This is why Rutledge prefers ‘rectification’ instead of ‘justification’ – it better captures this sense of God putting things right.

So, what difference does this make? Well, two aspects of God’s righteousness are brought out

  1. God’s Righteousness as loving pursuit

Rutledge gives the example of Hosea 11 – Yahweh pursuing his Bride in order to restore their relationship. So we can think of God’s righteousness in more relational and restorative terms than that of the law court.

The righteousness of God is not a static, remorseless attribute against which human beings fling themselves in vain. Nor is it like that of a judge who dispenses impersonal justice according to some legal norm. (136)

  1. God’s righteousness as ‘aggressive action’

But the other side of God’s loving pursuit is what Rutledge calls his ‘aggressive action’ to restore righteousness. The example of Isaiah 1:24-27 is given, but Rutledge could have stayed in Hosea. It perfectly captures the double-sided nature of God’s righteousness. It tells the story of God’s astonishing love for his unfaithful people, but also contains more warnings of awful judgement than practically any other prophetic book.

Rutledge contends that even God’s judgement is restorative – the overriding goal is renewal and justice – and that means ‘smelting away impurities and the removal of alloy’ (137)

God’s Righteousness as apocalyptic intervention

Rutledge goes to lengths to make the point that by the end of the OT, this longing for justice – of restoration and renewal – had effectively come to a dead end. Post-exile Israel could only hope for divine intervention. Righteousness could only come from God, not from within

Justice and righteousness are not human possibilities. And this brings us to Jesus, the arrival of the Kingdom of God and his death on the cross.

In the final analysis, the crucifixion of Christ for the sin of the world reveals that it is not only the victims of oppression of injustice who are in need of God’s deliverance, but also the victimizers. (141)

… all are under the Power of Sin. In the sight of God, everyone is need of deliverance .. (142)

This means that God’s action at the cross is the unique and shocking place where loving pursuit and aggressive action against Sin come together.

Nothing else, no other method of execution, no other death, could achieve such justice.

The wrath of God, which plays such a large role in both Old and New Testaments, can be embraced because it comes wrapped in God’s mercy.

The wrath of God falls upon God himself, by God’s own choice, out of God’s own love.

God, in Christ on the cross has become one with those who are despised and outcast in the world. No other method of execution that the world has ever known could have established this so conclusively. (143)

[Note: This is a re-post from a daily series I ran during Lent a couple of years ago on Rutledge’s book. This Lent I will do some re-posts from that series].

Lent 2021. Fleming Rutledge. Justice and Judgement (3)

We continue our Lenten series on Fleming Rutledge’s outstanding book, The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ (2015).

In this post we continue in chapter 3 on ‘The Question of Justice’. The question in view here is the relationship between the righteousness of God (justice, justification) and judgement (condemnation, destruction).

A couple of discussion questions:  If you have suffered a grave injustice, what reactions and emotions went with it? What place did anger and a desire for justice have? 

Christians are called to forgiveness. But what is forgiveness? How does it work? And how is it connected to justice?

How much should we expect or seek justice in this world? Or is justice to be left to the next?

We’re going to focus on where Rutledge returns to the connection between forgiveness and justice. In the light of the horrors that stalk our world,

Forgiveness is not enough. There must be justice too …. ‘The cross is not forgiveness pure and simple, but God’s setting aright the world of injustice and deception’ [quoting Volf]. This setting right is called rectification. [also called justification]  (126)

When we speak of setting right, we are not talking of a little rearrangement here and a little improvement there … From beginning to end, the Holy Scriptures testify that the fallen predicament of humanity is so serious, so grave, so irredeemable from within, that nothing short of divine intervention can rectify it. (126)

When it comes to injustice, Rutledge argues that we humans have a deep sense that

  1. there should be some accountability
  2. a just resolution of the offence should have some sense of proportionality.

However, most of the time our outrage is directed at others who infringe our rights. We pursue justice for ourselves –  ‘The public is outraged all over cyberspace about the things that annoy us personally’ (129) but much less often about injustices that affect others.

Rutledge moves here to the ‘outrage of God’ or the wrath of God.  If ever there is a theological idea that is ‘out of step’ with the culture of the Western church it is this one (my comment).

Quick aside – in writing about love, I found myself talking much of the wrath of God. The two cannot be detached. The same is true with justice and forgiveness.

To try to have love without wrath, or forgiveness without justice, is to deny the cross.

If we think of Christian theology and ethics purely in terms of forgiveness, we will have neglected a central aspect of God’s own character and will be in no position to understand the cross in its fullest dimension. (131)

Rutledge tells several stories of terrible injustice and the victims’ desire for justice. See this link for the story of Sister Dianna Ortiz and the American Govt involvement in supporting Guatemalan security forces that kidnapped, raped and tortured her, their crimes aided by American stonewalling of the truth.

Outrage is sparked when perpetrators like this act with a sense of impunity – few things are worse that having no hope of justice and that the guilty, the powerful, the exploiters and oppressors will ‘get away with it’.

The consistent message of Scripture, OT and NT, is that those who act unjustly do not do so with impunity. Rutledge quotes Volf again,

A non-indignant God would be an accomplice in injustice, deception and violence. (131)

So if our blood does not boil at injustice, can we said to be serving the God of the Bible?

But here is where God’s wrath at justice takes a revolutionary turn. What Rutledge calls ‘a shockingly immoral and unreligious idea’ (132)

No one could have imagined, however, that he would ultimately intervene by interposing himself. By becoming one of the poor who was deprived of his rights, by dying as one of those robbed of justice, God’s Son submitted to the utmost extremity of humiliation, entering into total solidarity with those who are without help …

Even more astonishingly, however, he underwent helplessness and humiliation not only for the victimized but also for the perpetrators … Who would have thought the same God who passed judgement … would come under his own judgement and woe? … the crucifixion reveals God placing himself under his own sentence. The wrath of God has lodged in God’s own self.

In the next post, we will finish chapter 3 with further discussion of the justice and righteousness of God.

[Note: This is a re-post from a daily series I ran during Lent a couple of years ago on Rutledge’s book. This Lent I will do some re-posts from that series].

Lent 2021: Fleming Rutledge, The Crucifixion. Justice and Judgement (2)

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We continue our Lenten series on Fleming Rutledge’s outstanding book, The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ (2015).

In this post we continue within chapter 3 on ‘The Question of Justice’.

The question in view here is the relationship between the righteousness of God (justice, justification) and judgement (condemnation, destruction).

If the OT ends with hopes of a coming kingdom of justice (Jer. 23:5; Isa. 9:6-7), the NT begins with dramatic announcements that that kingdom of justice has arrived.

First Mary: Luke 1:46-48a, 51b-53

The Messiah himself: Luke 4:16-21

Rutledge’s observation

God’s justice will involve a dramatic reversal, however, which will not necessarily be received as good news by those presently on top of the heap (reader, that means us). (113)

So God’s justice is a deeply disturbing idea – it challenges the status quo, it up-ends the powerful, rich and well-connected, it liberates the poor and oppressed.

And this means that the idea of justice can often be side-lined – it is just too threatening and difficult to face.

Justice and Forgiveness

Rutledge explores this neglect of justice in relationship to forgiveness.

Let me give an Irish example – I grew up during the Troubles in Northern Ireland. A school friend’s father was shot dead. A university lecturer and politician was executed outside our lecture room at College, another student was murdered as he waited to go into an exam. No one in ‘the North’ was untouched by violence, either directly or indirectly.

Decades later, after a long ‘Peace Process’, deep wounds remain, mainly, I think, because there has been huge political effort to reach a compromise settlement (The Good Friday Agreement, 1998) but little progress in facing the much harder questions of justice and forgiveness.

Or, to put it another way, a political settlement was reached largely at the expense of justice and forgiveness. A pragmatic political process intentionally left justice and forgiveness to one side in the hope that an absence of violence (not genuine peace) would ‘normalise’ society to such a degree that it would become unimaginable for violence to be ‘justified’ in the future.

To a large degree this political approach has ‘worked’ – but in these days of Brexit and political instability, the return of violence is a very real possibility. Divisions are perhaps as deep as ever.

The ‘hole’ at the heart of the Northern Ireland ‘Peace’ Process is the failure to make progress on justice and forgiveness. This is not to say that major efforts were not made – they were. But (and some who were involved on the ground may want to correct me) deep hurts have not been healed.

There has been a lack of forgiveness and subsequent reconciliation because there is little sense of justice.

Rutledge warns against ‘easy’ or automatic forgiveness where a victim is asked, while a loved one’s body is barely in the grave, ‘Do you forgive?’. Authentic forgiveness is hard work, it is costly and difficult. It does not exist in isolation from justice, as if deep wrongs can just be swept away under the carpet.

What do you think of this statement?

Forgiveness in and of itself is not the essence of Christianity, though many believe it to be so. Forgiveness must be understood in its relationship to justice if the Christian gospel is to be allowed its full scope. (115)

But what does ‘justice’ look like? Is it simply that the offenders pay for their crimes and end up behind bars for a proportionate length of time?

Here’s the thing – while such legal punishment for crimes may help, no legal system of law will ever bring about reconciliation of enemies. In the North, each side pursuing ‘justice’ on its own for past wrongs just perpetuates conflict.

So justice is essential, but it can also be a weapon against the other. So some deeper understanding of justice is needed than mere punishment for wrong.

Rutledge offers a clear-eyed assessment of the South Africa Truth and Reconciliation Commission. While it had many flaws – not least that people who did horrific violence to others benefitted from an amnesty – the profound achievement of the TRC was that Truth was publically spoken. Indeed, such truth would not have emerged without the ‘injustice’ of the amnesty.

Rutledge’s argument is that, however imperfect, the public acknowledgement of truth, compassion and lament for victims and public affirmation of their suffering is a form of justice in and of itself.

Rutledge quotes Michael Ignatieff

We recognise the past can’t be remade through punishment. Instead – since we know that memories will persist for a long time – we aim to acknowledge those memories [that] … something seriously evil happened to you. And the nation believes you. (120)

This sort of justice recognises something true and important

‘the impossibility of administering human justice that is proportionate to the offense.’ (121)

A Christian form of justice recognises this. Relentless pursuit of human justice will disappoint. As someone wisely said to me, in court you get the law, not justice.

Christian justice is not primarily interested in punishment but in new creation. In transforming situations of horror, not by denying that evil, but by acknowledging it while not continuing in the cycle of violence and hatred.

So then, what is the relationship between justice and forgiveness in Christian understanding?

We’ll come back to this in the next post.

[Note: This is a re-post from a daily series I ran during Lent a couple of years ago on Rutledge’s book. This Lent I will do some re-posts from that series].

Lent 2021: Fleming Rutledge, The Crucifixion. Justice and Judgement

PatrickM1 Comment

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We continue our Lenten series on Fleming Rutledge’s outstanding book, The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ (2015).

In this post we begin chapter 3 on ‘The Question of Justice’.

The issue in view here is the relationship between the righteousness of God (justice, justification) and judgement (condemnation, destruction).

To anticipate a possible objection:

All this talk of judgement and righteousness sounds like a heavy-duty abstract theological discussion – let’s just focus on more spiritually important things like loving one another.

To which I would say at least four things:

i. What could be better than some important theology?! My tongue is not in my cheek here. God himself seems to see fit to give his people plenty to profound theology to wrestle over in the Bible. When it comes to understanding justice and judgement, he has given the book of Romans let alone the whole Old Testament to his people. Dare we say, actually, can we have something else please?

ii. The hypothetical objection above also assumes a disconnect between theology and ‘real life’. Few things are more disheartening to a Bible teacher than this false antithesis. Everything a Christian does and thinks and says is ‘theological’. To say ‘theology’ is optional or for professionals only is to say God’s Word and God’s truth does not matter, we can figure things out ourselves thanks. It’s a form of passive arrogance, not a sign of ‘spirituality’.

iii. Disinterest in theological issues like justice and judgement is actually symptomatic of a faith that is becoming irrelevant, not staying relevant. It will be so shaped by the world and its beliefs and values, that it will have noting distinct to say to ‘real life’. Understanding justice and judgement takes us to the heartbeat of Christianity because it takes us to the cross.

iv. Few things are less ‘abstract’ or ‘theoretical’ than thinking Christianly about issues of justice and judgement.

Are you concerned about injustice?

Do you ask at times ‘Where you are God?

Are you concerned about the mess the world is in?’

How do you respond when someone treats you unfairly?

What do you get angry about when you listen to the news?

These are the sort of everyday issues that a theology of justice addresses.

OK, that mini-rant come introduction over, let’s get back to Rutledge and see where the conversation goes.

It starts off with an important reminder – those that suffer most from injustice are the ones least likely to be reading Rutledge’s book (or a theological blog for that matter).

It is the poor, the marginalised and least educated who suffer most from injustice and have least resources to do something about it. Therefore,

Trying to understand someone else’s predicament lies at the very heart of what it means to be a Christian (107)

How would you describe God? With what adjectives?  What lies at the ‘essence’ of God’s character?

Rutledge suggests this is how the average churchgoing American might answer.

he or she will almost certainly call God “loving”. God is also commonly described as compassionate, merciful, welcoming, accepting, and inclusive. Very few white Americans will volunteer that God is just. (107)

Yet the justice of God dominates the Old Testament. Rutledge unpacks this story in detail and we can only touch on it here.

As God is just – and ‘holy’ and ‘righteous’ are virtually synonyms for just – so Israel is to be a community of justice. Injustice is the powerful or rich exploiting the poor – in Israel there were to be no poor. Where injustice exists, so God’s judgment follows.

Justice on earth is a foretaste of the future Day of the Lord which will usher in a realm of perfect justice.

Take Psalm 146 – look for how realism about the temporary nature of human justice leads to a future-orientated hope in the perfect justice of God.

1 Praise the Lord.
Praise the Lord, my soul.
2 I will praise the  Lord all my life;
I will sing praise to my God as long as I live.
3 Do not put your trust in princes,
in human beings, who cannot save.
4 When their spirit departs, they return to the ground;
on that very day their plans come to nothing.
5 Blessed are those whose help is the God of Jacob,
whose hope is in the  Lord their God.
6 He is the Maker of heaven and earth,
the sea, and everything in them –
he remains faithful for ever.
7 He upholds the cause of the oppressed
and gives food to the hungry.
The Lord sets prisoners free,
8 the Lord gives sight to the blind,
the Lord lifts up those who are bowed down,
the Lord loves the righteous.
9 The Lord watches over the foreigner
and sustains the fatherless and the widow,
but he frustrates the ways of the wicked.
10 The Lord reigns for ever,
your God, O Zion, for all generations.

And so the OT leads to the Messianic hopes of a coming kingdom of justice – we return to this in the next post.

[Note: This is a re-post from a daily series I ran during Lent a couple of years ago on Rutledge’s book. This Lent I will do some re-posts from that series].

Love in Paul (11) Love for one another as imitation of Jesus

We’re continuing a series about the apostle Paul’s theology of love. To recap, there are three great strands of love in the OT that also continue, now Christologically framed, into the NT (and Paul in particular).

1) The elective and saving love of Yahweh for his chosen people.

2) The responsive love of Israel (God’s people) to God’s prior redemptive action.

3) Inter-communal love: the love God’s people are to have for one another

This is the second post in strand 3. If strands 1 and 2 were ‘vertical love’ (love of God for humanity; human love for God in response), this strand is ‘horizontal love’ – at a human to human level. It is also the strand about which the Apostle Paul has by far the most to say.

In the last post we looked at love as central to Paul’s mission to see communities of believers ‘shining like stars’ within an immoral world as they lived according to the cruciform way of Jesus. Exhortations and encouragement to live such a life worthy of the gospel abound in Paul’s letters.

The Purpose of the Christian Life: being formed into the image of Jesus

In this post we look at how love for Paul the Jewish rabbi is reconfigured Christologically. In other words, the Christ-event leads him to a new understanding of what a life pleasing to God looks like. It is not Torah observance, but a life in whom Christ is formed.

Let’s look at some texts to illustrate that claim:

Galatians 4:19 “My dear children, for whom I am again in the pains of childbirth until Christ is formed in you”

Take a moment to read that verse again. See how it reveals how Paul understands the ultimate purpose of his mission – that Christ is formed in the lives of believers. [How well I wonder do we keep this ultimate goal front and centre of all church life and ministry?]

This isn’t an isolated example – other texts speak similarly of transformation into the image of Christ:

Rom 8:29, “For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters.”

1 Cor 15:49 “And just as we have borne the image of the earthly man, so shall we bear the image of the heavenly man.”

2 Cor 3:18 “And we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.”

Col 3:9-10 “Do not lie to each other, since you have taken off your old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator.”

It’s easy after 2000 years of church history to miss just how extraordinary this is. Paul the Jewish monotheist sees his God-given mission as preaching the death and resurrection of the Messiah, Jesus of Nazareth, Mary’s son so that all who have faith in him are transformed into his likeness.

But what does being formed into the likeness of Jesus mean? Quite simply the answer is love.

Love Reimagined: imitating the way of Jesus

Imitate me as I imitate Jesus

In these days of (justified) scepticism about the integrity of too many high-profile church leaders, I guess many would hesitate to say what Paul sometimes does – namely to ‘imitate me as I imitate Christ’

1 Thes 1:6 “You became imitators of us and of the Lord ..”

1 Cor 4:16; “Therefore I urge you to imitate me.”

2 Thes 3:7, 9; “For you yourselves know how you ought to follow our example … We did this … in order to offer ourselves as a model for you to imitate.”

Phil 4:9. “Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me—put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you.”

1 Cor 11:1 “Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ.”

Phil 3:17 “Join together in following my example, brothers and sisters, and just as you have us as a model, keep your eyes on those who live as we do.”

The last text is significant. Paul outlines his own narrative of giving up previous status and identity for the sake of the Philippians (Phil 3:2-16), an example he calls them to imitate (3:17).

Similarly in 1 Corinthians 9:14-15 (giving up of rights) is based on how Paul has given up his own apostolic rights.

Imitate Christ

Other examples of imitating Jesus are peppered through the apostle’s letters.

  • Sometimes the imitation is to copy God’s self-giving love as demonstrated by Christ’s sacrificial death (Eph 5:1-2).
  • Or of churches to imitate the willingness of Christ to endure suffering (1 Thes 2:14-15).
  • In Romans 15:1-3 pleasing one’s neighbour is based on Christ’s refusal to please himself.
  • In Romans 15:7 acceptance of one another is grounded in the imitation of Christ’s acceptance of believers
  • Within marriage, husbands are to love their wives ‘just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her’ (Eph.5:25; cf Col.3:19).
  • Most important of all is Philippians 2:5-11 where Paul’s encouragement to humble other-regard is rooted in the story of Christ’s voluntary self-giving death and giving up his own rights and glory

Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.

In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:

Phil 2:3-5

1 Corinthians 13 as the Imitation of Jesus

Paul’s famous description of love does not specifically mention the imitation of Jesus but it describes perfectly the way of Jesus.

  • verse 3 – giving all of one self at great cost for the good of others
  • the description of love that follows clearly describes a life imitating that of Jesus. He is the one who demonstrates such love in action. The Gospels give story after story of what such a life of love looks like
  • such love is unlimited and without end.

_____________________

This is what Christianity is all about

This is God’s ‘end game’. Love is greater than faith and hope because it characterises the new creation to come.

The purpose of justification is to be transformed into the image of Christ.

Being transformed into the image of Christ means living a Jesus-like life.

Living a Jesus-like life means loving others.

Loving others is difficult, costly and will be at times deeply self-sacrificial.

But that is the way of cruciform love.

No-one said being a Christian is easy.

But it is life-affirming and joyful.

For it is in losing our lives that we find them.

A Word From Saint Patrick (on slavery)

It would be comfortable to think of slavery as something belonging to the ancient world of Greece or Rome. But of course such comfort would be illusionary.

The global slavery Index says this

An estimated 40.3 million men, women, and children were victims of modern slavery on any given day in 2016. Of these, 24.9 million people were in forced labour and 15.4 million people were living in a forced marriage. Women and girls are vastly over-represented, making up 71 percent of victims. Modern slavery is most prevalent in Africa, followed by the Asia and the Pacific region.

Although these are the most reliable estimates of modern slavery to date, we know they are conservative as significant gaps in data remain. The current Global Estimates do not cover all forms of modern slavery; for example, organ trafficking, child soldiers, or child marriage that could also constitute forced marriage are not able to be adequately measured at this time. Further, at a broad regional level there is high confidence in the estimates in all but one of the five regions. Estimates of modern slavery in the Arab States are affected by substantial gaps in the available data. Given this is a region that hosts 17.6 million migrant workers, representing more than one-tenth of all migrant workers in the world and one in three workers in the Arab States, and one in which forced marriage is reportedly widespread, the current estimate is undoubtedly a significant underestimate.

On those last few sentences about the Arab States see this related post.

Which brings us to Saint Patrick’s remarkable, courageous and still relevant words against the great moral wrong of slavery in his Letter to Coroticus. He was a soldier whose men had kidnapped Christians from Ireland. His crimes and those of his men are described In Patrick’s words

I cannot say that they are my fellow-citizens, nor fellow-citizens of the saints of Rome, but fellow-citizens of demons, because of their evil works. By their hostile ways they live in death, allies of the apostate Scots and Picts. They are blood-stained: blood-stained with the blood of innocent Christians, whose numbers I have given birth to in God and confirmed in Christ …

… the evil-minded Coroticus. He is far from the love of God, who betrays Christians into the hands of Scots and Picts.

… The newly baptised and anointed were dressed in white robes; the anointing was still to be seen clearly on their foreheads when they were cruelly slain and sacrificed by the sword of the ones I referred to above.

… father-slayers, brother-slayers, they are savage wolves devouring the people of God as they would bread for food

… Riches, says Scripture, which a person gathers unjustly, will be vomited out of that person’s stomach … And: ‘What does it profit a person to gain the whole world and yet suffer the loss of his or her soul?

Avarice is a deadly crime … How much more guilty is the one who stained his hands in the blood of the children of God, who God only lately acquired in the most distant parts of the earth through the encouragement of one as unimportant as I am!

… They have filled their homes with what they stole from dead Christians; they live on what they plundered. These wretched people don’t realise that they offer deadly poison as food to their friends and children.

You [soldiers of Coroticus] … kill them, and sell them to foreign peoples who have no knowledge of God. You hand over the members of Christ as it were to a brothel

… those who divide out defenceless baptised women as prizes, all for the sake of a miserable temporal kingdom

Patrick’s letter brims over with tears of grief. He was a pastor who deeply loved his flock.

Patrick’s stance against the evils of slavery is founded on his Christian faith. If all men and women are made in the image of God, then no person has a right to enslave another. Life is a gift from God, not a product to be used for personal or financial gain.

That stance was not just detached sermonising. He and his flock were in personal danger. He had no fear of confronting evil. At the end of his letter he says this about his letter:

let it be read before all the people, especially in the presence of Coroticus himself. If this takes place, God may inspire them to come back to their right senses before God.

In his love for the vulnerable, in his fearless confrontation of the evils of slavery, in his diagnosis of slavery as greed, in his theological revulsion against using a fellow human being as a tool to be stolen, sold or mistreated, and in his personal courage to say what needed to be said, Patrick’s is a voice that continues to speak powerfully to one of the great moral wrongs of the 21st century world.

Is it possible to think any more?

This post is prompted by four things

1. Reading an interview with a guy called Cal Newport who’s just published a book Reimagining Work in an Age of Communication Overload.

2. Re-reading parts of The Shallows by Nicholas Carr. It was published back in ancient history (2010) but remains, I think, an important exploration of what the digital age is doing to us. It remains remarkably current.

3. Trying to find space to be creative: to think about a new writing idea: to clarify the concept; to identify the audience; to articulate a compelling rationale; to plan a structure; and – finally – to begin the writing process from the starting point of a blank (yes) screen. I’m reasonably disciplined and am used to writing, but I’ve found this way harder to do than usual. Of course there could be many explanations for my brain fog (isn’t much going on in there / haven’t got much to say / add your own insult) but I wonder if its connected to Lockdown and more enforced screen time, more time indoors etc?

4. Supervising an MA dissertation on church and the digital age

Both authors above, from different angles, are saying things probably most of us are experiencing. The all-encompassing encroachment of the digital age into every area of our existence has some serious downsides. The digitalisation of life is negatively impacting our thinking, creativity, work patterns and imaginations, amongst other things.

So, yes of course we can think, but are we thinking less well, less creatively, and less imaginatively than if we were not in a state of constant distraction and information overload?

Here’s a flavour of Newport’s argument

Modern knowledge workers communicate constantly. Their days are defined by a relentless barrage of incoming messages and back-and-forth digital conversations–a state of constant, anxious chatter in which nobody can disconnect, and so nobody has the cognitive bandwidth to perform substantive work. There was a time when tools like email felt cutting edge, but a thorough review of current evidence reveals that the “hyperactive hive mind” workflow they helped create has become a productivity disaster, reducing profitability and perhaps even slowing overall economic growth. Equally worrisome, it makes us miserable. Humans are simply not wired for constant digital communication.

His book is about freedom from the tyranny of email – relegating it to be a servant of effective work practices rather than the master. He argues that a solution has to go beyond the lone individual battling against a tide of haphazard communication – there needs to be a fundamental shift in workplace culture to put email in its place.

That master-servant analogy also applies to Carr’s book, indeed he uses it early on;

The computer screen bulldozes our doubts with its bounties and conveniences. It is so much our servant that it would seem churlish to notice that it is also our master. p. 4.

He means by this that the net is doing something to our brains. Its fragmented, hyperlinked and confetti-type nature is fundamentally alien to the way human thinking and culture have been developed and sustained. It has pulled us into the shallows, where we are mired in distracted thought.

Add on to this other unplanned consequences of the digital age that Carr discusses:

– vast amounts of available information does not necessarily make research and writing any better or any easier

– every time we follow suggested links we follows scripts written by others, limiting intuition, creativity and accidental discovery

– long hours in the electronic world keeps us, in effect, in an ‘urban’, busy, high-stimulus environment. Overwhelming research shows that our brains relax in natural environments. Spending time in nature leads to better cognitive functioning.

– a calm, attentive mind is also more empathetic. Human relationships are complex interactions of verbal and non-verbal communication. Take out the physical leads to a loss of empathy and a dehumanisation of those we engage with online. Since 2010 when Carr wrote this, the toxicity of the internet has poisoned public debate and polarised politics.

But my main focus is distraction so I’d better get back to that! Carr writes,

I’m not thinking the way I used to think. I feel it most strongly when I’m reading. I used to find it easy to immerse myself in a book or a lengthy article. My mind would get caught up in the twists of the narrative or the turns of the argument, and I’d spend hours strolling through long stretches of prose. That’s rarely the case anymore. Now my concentration starts to drift after a page or two. I get fidgety, lost the thread, begin looking for something else to do. p.5

Which describes just about how I’m feeling at the moment. How about you? Does the following describe your experience?:

  • constantly connected
  • distracted
  • having multiple conversations on multiple platforms at the same time
  • spending most of the day looking at one sort of screen or another
  • feeling bombarded by images, texts, messages – many unsolicited and trivial
  • never feeling you have enough time
  • anxious if you misplace your phone and can’t rest until you have found it
  • struggling to concentrate
  • endlessly flicking over to email, news, netflix, whatsapp, FB or Twitter or Instagram
  • checking your social media accounts obsessively
  • at work feeling like you spend most of the time reacting, especially to haphazard emails
  • struggling to maintain boundaries of work and the rest of our life
  • used to read books but now find either little time or inclination to do so
  • used to read your Bible but now find either little time or inclination to do so
  • physically less active than you used to be?

If so, then you don’t need me to say there is a problem.

I’m old enough to be a digital migrant rather than a digital native. College studies and PhD research were all done ‘long-hand’. For the latter I had to travel 100 miles to the nearest university library to photocopy articles and hand write notes. I wrote it up in WordPerfect on a 386 running on MSDOS with (I think) a 256kb hard-drive and saved files on floppy disks. The internet hardly existed in any useful form. We lived in the country and had a terrible dial-up connection. No mobile phones, certainly no smartphone, no social media, no whatsapp – and not that much email.

So I had to smile reading Carr talking about what he had to do to actually write The Shallows. It’s an irony that, despite all the technological progress since the 1990s, he essentially retreated backwards to our lives in the Irish countryside pre the Web.

If I’m finding it so hard to concentrate, to stay focused on a line of thought, how in the world did I manage to write a few hundred pages of at least semicoherent thought? It wasn’t easy. When I began writing The Shallows … I struggled in vain to keep my mind fixed on the task. The Net provided, as always, a bounty of useful information and research tools, but its constant interruptions scattered my thoughts and words … It was clear big changes were in order … I moved with my wife from a highly connected suburb of Boston to the mountains of Colorado. There was no cell phone service .. the internet arrived through a relatively poky DSL connection. I cancelled my Twitter account, put my Facebook membership on hiatus, and mothballed my blog. Most important, I throttled back on my email application … I began to keep the program closed for most of the day.

The dismantling of my online life was far from painless. For months my synapses howled for the Net fix … But in time the cravings subsided, and I found myself able to type at my keyboard for hours on end or to read through a dense academic paper without my mind wandering. Some old disused neural circuits were springing back to life … I started to feel generally calmer and more in control of my thoughts – less like a lab rat pressing a lever and more like, well, a human being. My brain could breathe again. pp.198-99.

So what to do? I could suggest to my wife that we move back to the hills of Tipperary. She may like the idea but I suspect that the internet connections are a lot better than they used to be. Smartphones ain’t going away. And Carr’s move to the wilderness isn’t the most practical solution for 99.9% of people.

To start with, on a study day I’m starting to turn off email and phone. I’m prioritising reading physical books and articles rather than a screen. I get out for a walk, preferably along or near water. And if writing, to turn off wifi so it would take a bit more of an intentional decision to open up a web browser and check the news or something else irrelevant. It’s not a quick fix but it helps. And if Lockdown eases and I get the chance, I hope to get away to a cottage for a few days and disconnect from all distractions.

How about you?