Friday, September 14, 2012

Creation Restored

In order to understand our place in history, we must have a sense of identity. This sort of understanding is under much threat in the emerging postmodern world, but is of utmost importance. We are living in a culture that is beginning to tell us that life is meaningless, that we have no real identity. How dangerous! Do you recall the first movie of the Bourne franchise, “The Bourne Identity?” The franchise started with a trilogy about Jason Bourne, a special agent found adrift with amnesia. Some fishermen pick him up, and he begins to ask the questions, “Who am I?” and “Why am I here?” Can you imagine what would have happened to him if he had not asked those questions?

If you have not seen the movie, I won’t spoil too much, but I need to catch you up a little. The reason Jason has amnesia is because of a special operation that has gone wrong. He is injured and is left floating in the ocean. The agency that sent him is acting without approval from the government and wishes to cover up the botched mission. Thus, they are out to kill Jason. If Jason would have gotten on the boat and never worried to ask who he was, he would not have found out he was in trouble, and the powers that be would have found him unaware and unready to defend his self.

Each human finds his or her self in a very similar situation. We are born into the world lost, and unaware of our situation. If we allow the world to tell us that we have no real story, no real reason we are adrift, besides perhaps chance, we will unwittingly allow sin to consume us. We need to know where we come from.

So, what is our identity? What has been lost, and what is at stake?

The Genesis account of our creation and time in the garden does not simply tell us about the “good old days,” about the way things were, but have been forever lost. In fact, the Genesis account is very much about the future, what we will one day have. As such, we must look to it with warm tears in our eyes, the sort of tears that warm our eyes when we remember a loved one who has passed, a mixture of grief and joy. In this, we grieve, but we hope for the day in which what has been lost will be restored. Each time we lose a loved one to death, each time we see a hungry child, each time we see disease ravaging a friend’s body, we must long for the garden. Yet, it is not a longing for a home to which you cannot return. Our longing must be accompanied by hope.

The account of our time in Eden is a story of home meant to elicit more than an argument about “how God created us.” Relocating Eden merely to the past has severely damaged our view of our story by limiting our imaginations. Christians, I urge you, please don’t allow the naysayers to control your reading of Creation. Do not always and forever read it as a textbook of mere facts, as a science that must be always defended. The Bible will do just fine without your constant guard. The greatest proof for Eden is living in hope of seeing it again one day. Take a break from the constant apologetics and the worry of how you are going to defend this or that portion of the text. Apologetics have their place, but don’t just read the text for and against others, but for and against your self. The creation account and the retelling of our time in the garden is meant to elicit emotions of lament, to break your heart in that home sick sort of way. Allow your heart to bleed. Be vulnerable and cry out to your Father in your exile, because we get to go back.

Many readers of the Genesis account seem to peer into the garden and think to themselves, “Well, that would have been nice, but we gave that up and will never see Eden again.” Perhaps such lament should be our initial reaction: We need to feel a real sense of loss. We should certainly regret that we, as a race, have given up such a home, but the ability to lament is a revelation to the deepest reality. Lament gives us opportunity to realize and regret that the way we have done things are the wrong ways of doing things. Lamenting leads to repentance, an unlearning of the habits that have put us in our present, negative situation, and repentance, the turning away from bad habits and the adopting of new, healthy habits puts us on a path to recovery, to redemption, to reconciliation, to resurrection.

For some reason many Christian thinkers look at the beginning and the end of human history as two very separate realities. God’s original intent for humanity was to live happily in the garden, and there is this assumption that after the fall, God’s plan shifted. Now, according to this new way of thinking, the children of God are supposedly meant to inhabit another realm altogether, an ethereal place called heaven that is far removed from our present home. On earth we are physical beings. In heaven, apparently, we are spirits floating about. In the garden, we were to work the soil. In heaven, apparently, we simply and literally bow in worship forever and ever.

Is this the picture the Bible really paints, or are we confused by our Western idea of heaven as a place separate from our present reality? Yes, heaven is now separate from Earth, but not naturally so. Heaven represents the presence of God. Earth used to be a place where man fully experienced His presence. Sin tore the two apart and made a gulf between His presence and our reality. But Christ makes all things new.

Yes we lament the loss of Eden, but life goes on precisely because God wishes for us to repent and turn from our ways, the ways of sin and death. Just as Israel repentance always led backwards, back home, so too does our repentance take us back. Eden is not simply at the beginning of the Bible because it is the chronological starting point. Instead, the Eden account is reporting to us what is at stake in the complex drama of human history. If Eden, which represents life and peace with God, is what we lost, for their to be a happy ending to the story, Eden is what must be restored, and Christ serves as the champion of this story of reconciliation.  When we repent and turn around, we are facing Eden, our home, our promise land.

In order to understand the story God has given us, we must understand its scope. Often persons tell the story of the Bible beginning at the fall and ending at the resurrection. It is as if the binding has fallen off our Bibles and has taken a few pages from the beginning and the end along with it. The story starts and ends with, “We have died, but, in Christ, we have risen.” But died to what, and risen to what? Unwittingly, many jump into the part all about our problems and our solution. But that focus is to center upon humanity, and we do not see God’s big picture. The drama of Scripture runs from creation to new creation. To borrow from the title of Sandra Richter’s book, the whole story we are given in the Bible is “The Epic of Eden.” Eden has certainly been lost, but not forever. We are going back. We stand in exile, but Eden is our ultimate promised land.

The idea of being lost is quite vague until we understand what was lost. To say of humanity that we are lost does not begin to bring about the sort of anguish that should be brought about in light of our fall and depravity. The real question is this: What are we lost from? For it is not just life that we lost, but a sort of life, a way of being that is difficult if not impossible to grasp by the sinful heart, but, if only glimpsed at, will create a deep and devastating longing that can last a life time. That our God is a God that would will our happiness forever is a concept that has been lost on humanity and even some Christians. But that is why we were created, and that is exactly what we threw back into God’s face when our own selfishness led to a desire for what was not ours to take.

The tree and its fruit represents more than mere disobedience; they represent a whole shift in being, a gaining of a perspective, the knowledge of good and evil, which was not really a gain at all, but a loss. We try and make the story of the tree a Sunday School, color book story, that simply suggests we did bad when we disobeyed and ate an apple that we were told not to eat. But, that is a child’s version of the true horror story. The tree represents knowledge of right and wrong. Man’s eating of the fruit is his declaration to God, “I do not trust you with guiding me into what is best for me.” I want control over my destiny. I want to decide for myself. Give me my life, Father. I won’t to live it my way.” Does that ring a bell? Does that not remind you of the prodigal? We will return to this thought momentarily.

This tree represents division between man and God. It represents a division within man himself, man who was created to desire God now, through disobedience, has taken on a new desire, a desire that leads to death, a desire for self, because God is the source of life. So, to turn from God is to turn from life. The tree represents the desire of self over God. But who is capable of lifting himself up? Strong as one may be, no one can pull himself up by his own bootstraps. We were made to be carried by God, but we chose the fruit of selfishness, which created and revealed in man a division between good, outward focused reality and evil, inward focused reality.

If the fall of man, demonstrated in the selfish act of choosing from the one tree that man was to ignore, created a division, a break in the human nature, what is the nature that we lost? We lost our inherent reflective nature of God, being made fully in His image, and this being demonstrated in the separation of man from God. And what is the nature of God, the image, which we lost? God is love. We lost love. To make our fall anything less than the loss of love is to downplay the sheer horror of what was truly given up by our transgression. This is not to say that God stopped loving us, but something even worse.

While God continues to love, we chose to set up a barrier so that His love cannot reach us and fulfill us as it once did. If God would have just given up, it might not sting so badly, but in His persistence we see the horrible reality of what sort of love we transgressed. We have tried various theologies to numb and downplay the issue. In anguish, some have suggested we really did not lose much. Some say we are merely pawns in God’s game. We shift the blame or make it trivial. But, we must face reality. We threw love back in Love’s face. How retched? But, hear the good news. We are called to return. We all are called. While love was lost, while love was stripped from Love, Love never stopped searching for the objects of His desire. While we did not want to have anything to do with Love, Love never changed. He still desires us.

In order to turn from the sin that we fell into, we must turn from self, and this is done by the grace of Love. Our own broken nature longs for redemption, a move back to Love, but we cannot tear down the barrier we set in place. All we now have is a plea to Love. Thank Love that it is the nature of love to return to the lost, to even those who have betrayed Love for spite. There is no other motive for Love, but love.

Try as we might to shift the story, we will eventually have to accept the truth that what we lost was God, what we have lost is Love. Love is at stake, not mere life, but life abundant with Love. What is at stake is God, the God of our fulfillment. He seeks us all in Love, for Love does not discriminate or show favoritism. Oh how lost we would be if Love was not loving. Praise Him.

And because God is love, He does not change His love for us. Many theologians have the faith of a servant. They are as the prodigal, perhaps my favorite retelling of the story of human history. They assume our life once back home will be different than the life we had before, just as the prodigal assumed. These people assume we no longer inherit the garden. The prodigal imagined in his mind that the father would not take him back into the home, but would give him a lesser life of service, but what did the father do, he fully restored the child. We did not forever lose Eden. Our Father calls us home, to full restoration.

Let’s look at the end of the story:

And he showed me a pure river of water of life, clear as crystal, proceeding out of the throne of God and of the Lamb. In the midst of the street of it, and on either side of the river, was there the tree of life, which bare twelve manner of fruits, and yielded her fruit every month: and the leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations. And there shall be no more curse: but the throne of God and of the Lamb shall be in it; and his servants shall serve him: And they shall see his face; and his name shall be in their foreheads. And there shall be no night there; and they need no candle, neither light of the sun; for the Lord God gives them light: and they shall reign for ever and ever. (Revelation 22:1-5)
Do you recognize this place at the center of New Jerusalem, our future home? There is the river. There is the Tree of Life. And God is once again with His people in the midst of a physical reality. This is the garden. Our home. God’s plan never changed. We were to live in the garden and work with God in creation. We gave that up, but look! God continued to develop Eden. Now the garden is a city, and when all is said and done, after Earth is resurrected. What is now in heaven, the home God is preparing for us, will be brought down to Earth once more. Our home. 

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Playing Catch Up With Unbelievers…

            Or simply playing the wrong game altogether…

There is a growing opinion within some scholarly Christian circles concerning the phenomenon of persons leaving the faith, and I tend to agree with the assessment. Considering the “why” of American Church decline, most sociologically minded, Christian scholars would suggest:

[V]ery few [persons who have abandoned the Christian faith] stopped believing in Christ because of intellectual problems with the Bible or because they were seduced by some other worldview or belief system. Rather, they tend to abandon Christian faith because of the irrelevance, judgmentalism, internal dissension, and lack of compassion they experience within the Christian community. Rather than finding the church to be the community that most deeply encouraged them in their struggles, they lost heart in their discouragement and lost their faith in the process. (Walsh and Keesmaat)*

To expound upon this assessment, I would caution against a misunderstanding. Many agnostic, ignostic, and atheistic thinkers that were once Christian might suggest that “intellectual problems” certainly were great factors in their decision to exit the church community. In fact, they might suggest that it was most certainly the intellectual issues that gave them the courage to step out. There is no question that this is certainly the case. However, the above evaluation concerns the catalyst. The question perhaps is not what was the straw that broke the camel's back, but what initiated and perpetuated the doubt that resulted in an intellectual questioning of the faith. People begin their descent into apostasy not when they begin to evaluate intellectual claims, but when they realize that they see no real power in what their community espouses.

Why would a person that sees real results from the practices of the community wish to doubt? As it is, however, the Christian community’s espoused beliefs do not align with their actions. The question then becomes, “Why would a person that sees no real results from the practices of the community wish to believe?” Now, the apostate might not even readily recall the spark of doubt. Instead, they might speak of the multitude of considerations afterward that led to doubt becoming unbelief. These considerations are more often than not intellectual in nature. While many of these persons would argue that they argue from a more unbiased stance than religious communities, could it be that their search that led them to unbelief, even while being a Christian, albeit a doubting Christian, was marked by confirmation bias. Is it not natural to wish to find an out of a community that inflicts pain and exhibits “irrelevance, judgmentalism, internal dissension and lack of compassion”?

So, the church ends up playing a game we, for the most part, should have avoided playing altogether. Our highest witness is embodiment; however, since we have not done this well, we instead spend an overly exorbitant amount of time in intellectual apologetics with those acquaintances we wish to bring back from unbelief. We are trying to treat a symptom of the real issue, which is distrust in the church. I am a philosopher at heart, and I love apologetics, but we need balance in witness, and we often are fighting the wrong battle.


*Brian Walsh and Sylvia C. Keesmaat, Colossians Remixed: Subverting the Empire, (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2004), 130.