Sunday, March 20, 2011


When I was a teenager, I had a dream. The dream has stayed with me ever since. In the dream, I was alternately placed “on the ground” in the southern regions of Israel; specifically the Negev desert, and looking down from above at a symbolic representation of the entire Middle East. The dream progressed towards greater conflict, switching back and forth, from the immediate experience on the ground to the overhead view. In the initial stages of the dream, I was engaged in dialogue with those around me who represented opposing sides in the growing conflict. As to whether these were Israeli Jews and Palestinian Muslims, I’m not sure. Though it certainly would make the most sense, and at the time it’s what I understood the dream to be about. As I was pressed upon by the opposing sides, I was being asked to choose one over the other. Initially, I listened to their arguments, desiring to make the wisest choice.
As the dream progressed I would find myself looking down upon the region, as if I were situated hundreds of miles above, looking down upon the area as from a satellite. Yet in looking down upon the whole region, I saw it in a symbolic way. The whole area was symbolically represented by a wide swath of a very thin film. It was as if it represented a huge number of people, since it consisted of the vast majority of the Middle Eastern area, wide, but shallow, with only a few, small areas represented by a different symbolism. This other symbolism consisted of small isolated groupings that occupied only small areas, yet which were quite deep (or tall, depending upon the perspective).
In the dream, it was clear that these different images represented varying degrees of spiritual understanding. Thus, for the vast majority of the people in the region, the symbolism was of a spiritually shallow existence, not understanding the things of God. They were, as least symbolically, the most distant from God. Thus, those who were represented by the small, tall areas represented those who were deeper in their understanding of God.
Yet, even with this, I was not comfortable in the dream aligning myself with either side. As the dream progressed, I found myself being pressed from all sides to choose one side or another. On the ground I found the contesting sides becoming more vehement with each passing moment. They were also pressing in on me, becoming more insistent that I choose. As this scene played out, I would find myself looking down upon the scene from high above. Alternately, I would see, whether in my face or from high above, the contesting camps vying for my allegiance.
As the dream became more intense, with each side growing more violent, I was struggling with what choices I should make. As the vantage point shifted, I found myself wavering in my opinion. Initially, I was inclined towards those in the minority, since they represented those who were more spiritually mature and closer to God. These small groupings were spread out over the whole region, even if they only represented a very small percentage of the overall population. Some were in Iraq, more were in Lebanon; still others were in Syria and Egypt. More clusters of these “deeper” ones were situated in various parts of Israel. Yet, small clusters of these people were also spread out over the whole region, stretching out to Iraq and Iran in the east, south to Ethiopia, and west to Egypt and Libya. Yet most of this area was symbolically represented with the vast majority as geographically and numerically wide, yet spiritually shallow.
As the dream moved along, I found myself in the midst of the now warring parties, pulling at me to choose one or the other. My resolve was straining at its limits, trying my best to choose wisely. I began to wonder if it might be better to go with the majority, since they held the numerical advantage. But I knew that they were much farther away from God than the others were. Yet even the minority were not where they should be spiritually. As the dream wound to a close, I was being buffeted on all sides, with the warring parties each pulling at me to side with them. This dream, which had been interesting up to this point, was now becoming a nightmare. As I struggled with what choice to make, and was despairing of what to do, confused and uncertain of what was right or wrong, I cried out to God.
At this point in the dream, I was caught up to the same vantage point as before. But unlike the previous times during the dream, this time I wasn’t alone. I found myself amongst innumerable other people who had also been caught up to this heavenly vantage point. In the dream, what had up to this point become a nightmare, had now become a joyous experience of deliverance. Where I was situated, looking down upon the earth below, was not a disembodied state of floating on clouds, but was still quite physical, yet different than the state I was in below. Whereas before this being “caught up” I had been confused and fearful, I now felt safe and secure. I also now knew that I had been presented with a false choice during the conflict down below. Even during this trial, whether I was on the ground or was seeing it from above in symbolic form, I was not able to see clearly enough to remain steady.
While I was being accosted from all sides seeking my loyalty, I knew intuitively that neither side had an accurate understanding of the truth, even if one was in fact closer than the other. Yet as I became embroiled in the conflict, I began to waver in my own understanding as well. This inner sense told me that I could not in good conscience align myself with either side’s views or actions. Yet I found myself being tempted, both from the external pressures and my own desires; desires that were more concerned with being thought highly of by those around me, and the desire to be on the “winning” side.
In that sense then, I was delivered in at least two different ways; one, from the combatants surrounding me; two, from my own tendency to acquiesce to the impulses that are strongest at the moment. My deliverance then was both external and internal, and because of Who delivered me, my deliverance was also eternal!

This dream has stayed with me for many years now. It is obviously very symbolic, so it shouldn’t be interpreted in a literalistic fashion. Yet in its symbolism, it can be just as easy to leap to fantastic conjectures. Is the dream prophetic of events soon to come? Will the “final” battle in Israel occur in my lifetime? Because I had this dream when I was a teenager (around 1980), I struggled with these questions, especially because I grew up reading and listening to many end times teachers who often said that we were living in the final years of the present age. Is the dream merely the product of undigested food, doing its work while I sleep? Or is it the nocturnal expression of my day time stresses, only set in apocalyptic imagery, both because of my religious tradition, and my tendency, along with many other people, to see myself as being in the center of a great drama?
Any of these are certainly viable possibilities. Although I doubt it is primarily due to undigested food, I nonetheless have to fully acknowledge that it is an expression of my own inner workings. Yet even in saying this, I don’t discount the possibility that it may pertain to events beyond myself. And even if it does (or doesn’t) have to do with any eschatological issues per se, it still serves quite well as a dream parable of sorts of what Christians are to do when confronted by competing claims to allegiance. In this sense, no matter what other meaning(s) the dream may have, it can serve as a symbolic representation of universal principles that can keep us on track. Ultimately, staying on track means relying on God (and His word) through all trials and tribulations, and not giving in to the impulse to go along with the flow or jettison principled means in order to get to some supposedly “good” end. The final lesson I’ve come away with over the years from this dream is that we are always presented in this world with false dichotomies, choices that appear, at least initially, to be the only ones. Yet with discernment, and careful consideration, many, if not most times, we find that the right choice is one we’re not told about by those seeking our loyalty. This aspect of the dream I am certain is true. Don’t settle!

Friday, March 11, 2011

Which God Will It Be? (the Rob Bell, Greg Boyd, Tim Challies edition)

In recent weeks I've been reading the accounts of various theological debates, primarily between the Emergent crowd and what's often called the Neo-Reformed crowd. It all started when a pre-release video was put out to hawk Rob Bell's new book "God Wins" along with snippets from his soon to be released book. From these meager (though not to some) resources many deigned to presume that Rob had "proved" himself a "universalist" though the term never occurs in either the video blurb or in the parts of his book that have been released. That's not to say he doesn't hold to universalism. He may. But the evidence wasn't in yet. The book was released in "pre-publish" form to several people so that they could review it, both those who would be favorably disposed and those who differ deeply with Rob's views, whatever they may be. And now we're finally beginning to see reviews from those who have actually "read" the book. And for me, this is just as interesting.

Both Greg Boyd and Tim Challies were given pre-releases of Rob's new book and have posted their reviews. For those not in the know, these two guys are as theologically polar opposite as you can pretty much get, at least within the Protestant Christian world. Greg Boyd is extremely Arminian in this theology to the point that he advocates a view that's called "Open Theism" which posits that God may not "know" every detail of the future, all in order to preserve a view of human freedom called "libertarian free will." The idea behind this view is that in order for God to be "good" human agency must be uninterrupted, thus even God's perfect foreknowledge would impede that freedom. Therefore, since that "freedom" is essential to us being morally responsible, and in order to maintain God's goodness, his own knowledge must itself be contingent to our "free will" actions. (within Free-Will Theism or Open Theism there are degrees. Some are ontological Open Theists (God "cannot" know the future), which I consider to be open heresy, whereas others, such as Boyd, I consider to be excessively kenotic (God's self emptying prerogative seen in Christ's incarnation) but nonetheless within the pale of orthodoxy [barely])

Tim Challies, on the other hand is a well known figure among the Neo-Reformed. The vast  majority of the critiques of Rob's new book have come from this crowd, The Neo-Reformed are Calvinistic in their soteriology/salvation theology as well as in their anthropology/doctrine of humanity. By the way, as a confession of my own views, I'm quite Reformed and Augustinian about both the human condition and God's sovereignty. But what does it mean to be "Reformed" or "Calvinistic" or even "Augustinian" in our theology, whether about God Himself or about us as humans?

A quick definition of terms might help here. To "be" Reformed is to emphasize certain attributes of God as being preeminent, in particular his sovereignty and holiness, and among many Reformed folks, his wrath. It's also to emphasize the utter devastation to the human condition that occurred at the "fall," the event that forever changed us, not only in our natural state, but also in our relationship with a transcendent and holy God. Since I'm basically a Calvinist myself, I should make clear one thing that's often been misconstrued. To be "totally depraved" is not to be as bad as we can possibly be, but to be thoroughly and completely infected by sin in every part, even if only in the slightest way. I often use the illustration of a glass of water being  tainted by a drop of poison. Whether it's one drop or the whole glass, it's deadly either way. This is the conception of the holiness of God in this vision. In both reviews I noticed how their theological perspectives shaped and eventually determined their reading of Rob's words.

Yet.... Yet....

This little kerfuffle which has garnered so much attention amongst Evangelicals and has even reached the New York Times, betrays, at least for me, a certain theological myopia that has ignored a much larger and richer Christian picture. The "four great Christian traditions" of Christianity seen in Orthodoxy, Catholicism, Reformation Christianity, and Anabaptist/Independent Christianity (inclusive of the Pentecostal/Charismatic movements) each have a vision of God's character at their center driving their ethical impulses.

I look back to Paul's description of the divisiveness in the Corinthian church which Paul describes so vividly in chapter 1 of 1st Corinthians. He starts out by commending them, as he typically did to whatever church to which he wrote. But just after that he confronts them on their factionalism. Some of them were following after him. Some were following after Cephas, otherwise known as Peter. Others were siding with Apollos. And some were even saying that they just followed Jesus. Paul criticized "every one of these" factions as being untrue to the gospel message.

It seems that the Corinthians were as prone to seeing God "on our own terms" as we are now. I'll admit that my analysis if this passage may be as much eisegesis as exegetical, but when I see Paul's description, I can't help but notice this four-fold division that fits rather neatly with the divisions of church history.

The initial separation (1054AD)  was between East and West; between the Orthodox East with the Catholic West. As I see it, this represents the Petrine and Apolilnian split. This split was a combination of theology and ecclesiology combining with sinful impulses on both sides. Later we saw the split between Petrine and Pauline understandings of Christianity in the Protestant Reformation, also with sinful and holy impulses driving each side. But what's really surprising is that the followers of Jesus were criticized as well. In other words, each of these views was seen as being separatist, not allowing that God might speak through a slightly different voice.
It seems that Paul says that God speaks through through a multitude of voices, yet ultimately with one voice.

So in light of this dim light, can we see forward toward an ecumenical light? Can we be Christan in a ;large sense? Can we be Christians in that large sense and still be Christians?