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Questions from a Comparative Religions Class

by on December 7, 2016
  1. What do you think of “ex cathedra” and are there any examples you don’t agree with?

“Ex cathedra” is Latin for “from the chair” and refers to doctrinal statements promulgated by the Pope as the Bishop of Rome. Such statements are considered infallible (perfectly conforming to God’s will). There are two such dogmas in the Roman Catholic Church, namely the Immaculate Conception of Mary and the bodily Assumption of Mary. These were promulgated in 1854 and 1950 respectively. The first refers to Mary’s having been conceived without sin. (It does NOT refer to Jesus’ having been conceived without human sexual intercourse—most people get this wrong.) Since Jesus received his human nature from Mary and was without sin, the Immaculate Conception of Mary explains how he did not inherit sin from her. The second has to do with Mary’s ascent to heaven completely intact as body and soul. It is left unstated whether she actually experienced physical death. The point here is that her earthly life is so meritorious that it is perfectly preserved in heaven.

These dogmas have a complicated history, and the simplest and most gracious way to approach them in faith is to appreciate what they intend to assert. From this perspective, I see them as attempting to preserve Jesus’ uniqueness as a completely faithful person, obedient to God without letting doubt derail his mission, and exalting Mary’s example of faith. Both are presented to us as models to emulate. To that extent, I am happy to affirm the dogmas.

As to whether the Pope (or anyone else) necessarily and perfectly expresses the will of God, I consider such an assertion to jeopardize God’s sovereignty and to be vulnerable to human hubris. I respect people’s prayerful and studied articulation of God’s will, especially when it’s done so in the context of a thoughtful and prayerful community of faith (which is a principle of my Presbyterian tradition). But to state that someone infallibly expresses God’s will crosses a line with which I am not comfortable.

  1. Do you think the interpretation of the Bible should change along with the changing times? For instance, the church’s stance on homosexuality and gay marriage?

The interpretation of the Bible necessarily changes with time because interpretation is by definition a contextual exercise. EVERYBODY interprets, and the people who say they do NOT interpret are the most dangerous commentators on scripture because they are blind to their own contexts, which include biases and ignorance. This does not mean that every and any interpretation is as valid as any other. It does mean that interpretations are subject to criticism and change. It also means that interpretations are necessarily subjective, and so each should be received with a degree of skepticism. Modern interpretations are not necessarily more accurate than ancient ones. Academic interpretations are not necessarily more faithful than those arising from uneducated circles. Interpreting the Bible or any text in community is perhaps the best safeguard against interpretations that are so far outside the intentions of the authors or texts that they could be deemed just wrong.

The issue of the churches teaching on same-sex relationships is the current hot issue. But the history of the church’s interpretation of the Bible is full of examples where it has changed with the times: With regards to the role of women, the legitimacy of slavery, how the church should relate to the state, the justification for war, whether divorced people can remarry, just to name a few.

  1. Why do you think you were called to be a pastor?

This is quite a personal question, fully subject to my experience but yet confirmed by a community of faith. Without that confirmation, I would be incapable of answering. It started with my desire to help people. I discovered this desire and some ability through a peer counseling program in high school. Next came the comfort and direction I received through my involvement with Christianity. My faith oriented my life. I enjoyed studying theology, history, and the Bible, so I went to seminary but did not intend to enter the ministry. At this juncture, the community of faith made its first significant contribution when a pastor advised me to enter the “becoming a pastor” process since it lasts three years (the same time required for seminary), and so I might as well go through it.

That process required me to answer questions in a prayerful and thoughtful way, and in conversation with others. My studies were life-giving to me, and all these factors led me (some would say “God led me”) to the ministry. As long as a community of faithful people entrust me to lead them, and as long as I have a desire to contribute to others and serve God in this way, I consider myself called to be a pastor.

  1. If Jesus was crucified for his “rebellious” ways, then why were people so accepting of Paul’s teachings?

To answer this question I have to make some assumptions, as the question is a little unclear to me. I agree that Jesus was crucified for his rebellious ways—teachings that contradicted the Jewish religion and Roman politics of his day. I assume that the question has to do with Paul’s accommodationist teaching with regards to these two forces—but with qualifications. Paul proclaimed the inclusion of the non-Jews (Gentiles) in the covenant promises of God, which scandalized his Jewish contemporaries. And he also was eager to die a Christian martyr bearing witness of Christ’s lordship to the “Caesar is Lord” Roman authorities of his day. But at the same time, he allowed Timothy to be circumcised (to appease his Jewish audience), and urged submission to the authorities. I think people were accepting of Paul’s teachings because of his authority as a religious scholar, his testimony as a convert, his ability as a teacher, and his authenticity. These are, as I write and think about it, great criteria by which anyone, myself included, should be judged.

  1. Do you find yourself questioning Christianity because of Paul’s will to convince the people about a man as fulfillment of prophecy, even though he never met Jesus?

Paul did meet Jesus, just not the historical Jesus. Paul’s testimony begins with meeting the resurrected Christ, probably best understood in terms of having had a transformative vision. But Paul’s experience with Jesus was also mediated through existing disciples of Jesus. In other words, Paul had some kind of ecstatic experience with Christ and some kind of personal experience with his disciples. When you think about it, this is all anyone who lives after the crucifixion can hope for, and is in fact what anyone should base their Christian faith upon. I think Paul may have gotten it wrong about Jesus sometimes and in some circumstances, but that is what question 2 above is all about. Paul has his interpretation—and it is perfectly valid in his day and in his circumstances—and it is helpful and authoritative for us today. But we have a responsibility to discern our own positions. So I welcome Paul as a fellow faithful interpreter, but one who is limited necessarily by context.

  1. What makes Christianity so appealing that it is the world’s largest religion?

Good question. Lots of factors. Here’s a listing in no particular order. We’ve been at it a long time. We inherited a great foundational story in Judaism. We value the body because we believe in the resurrection, so when others fled the sick and needy, we served (and continue to serve) them. It is adaptable to culture because truth is independent of culture. At its core, the story of Christianity—that light prevails over darkness, good over evil, life over death, hope over despair, redemption over loss, community over alienation—is a really good story. It shares the ethic of love with all faithful religions and thoughtful non-religionists.

  1. Where in the Bible does it say homosexuality is a sin?

I don’t believe the Bible teaches that homosexuality as we understand it today is a sin. The Bible condemns same-sex activity as a violent, xenophobic tactic, and as an exploitive, hedonistic pursuit. Monogamous, loving, committed, same-sex relationships as we witness today—these are inconceivable in the cultures of the Bible’s texts, so whatever verses (and there are 6-7 of them) people might cite against homosexuality actually address something quite different.

  1. Will Christianity ever reform into something more progressive?

Yes. It is right now, and some have and will evolve with it, and others will marginalize themselves with the traditional form. To find the progressives who will survive and thrive, read Marcus Borg and Brian McLaren. To participate in a live attempt to bridge tradition and contemporary/future faith, come to Faith Presbyterian Church.

  1. Since there are a lot of religions, do you think others have pieces of truth that can be applied to Christian’s lives?

Absolutely. Thanks to our world having been shrunk into a 10 minute internet search, I have learned from the other great religions (Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Native Religions, Taoism, Confucianism) and their MANY sub divisions. I encourage every curious soul to search. The truth is not threatened by questions. I caution against the despair of “well, nothing matters” which sometimes concludes the search of some people. Of course it matters. The search is, some argue, what matters most! The Dalai Lama is reputed to have said, “Pick a religion and practice it faithfully.” OK by me! It’s the practice that matters.

  1. What is the hardest thing to convince non-Christians is true about the Bible?

The hardest thing to convince non-Christian and other thinking people about the Bible is the literal facticity of absurd verses of the Bible. You can’t convince me, a Christian, of these statements, either. But facticity and truth are two different things. The Bible conveys truth, even when it is factually impossible. A beginning list: 7 day creation, geocentric universe, worldwide flood, sun standing still, raising dead people to life, virgin births.

  1. What are your views on other religions?

I wish I had more lives to live them. My life is as a Christian, so I start and end there. But I appreciate, enjoy, and borrow from the other religions as often as they are helpful. I hope I do so respectfully and faithfully.

  1. Do you think the decline of Christianity in modern times is wholly negative?

Not at all. The decline of Christianity as defined by privilege and presumption is positive and should be welcomed. It is uncomfortable and disorienting, full of fear and anxiety. But it will lead the faithful to greater faithfulness.

  1. Who are your favorite women of the Bible?

I like Sarai who laughed at God’s revelation. And Mary who submitted herself to it in faith. I like Jael who nailed a dude in a tent. I like Junia who was an apostle and whose praise by Paul causes patriarchal people of the past and present to try to rewrite the Bible. I like Ester who got a bad guy hanged, and Lydia who was successful in business. I appreciate the balance of Martha who took care of details and her sister Mary who prayed deeply. Eve deserves way more respect than she gets, and I wish I knew more about Noah’s wife. I’m unwholesomely attracted to Delilah and Bathsheba. I deeply respect the Woman at the Well and all the women in Jesus’ parables.

  1. What is your view of the spiritual experience inside other religions? Do you believe that this is God speaking to people in a way that speaks to their experience?

I do, with the same skepticism and qualifications as I do such testimonies within my own tradition. Just because someone says, “God told me,” or “I felt the Spirit,” doesn’t mean it’s real. If it doesn’t pass the test of love, I have serious reservations. I do believe that God tailors (in my tradition, John Calvin says God “condescends”) God’s communications to our situations. But I also believe we can delude ourselves.

  1. There are thousands of denominations of Protestantism. Are they wrong or just different?

Both wrong and different. But that’s true of all religious and philosophical credos. And there are not thousands—that’s an overstatement. MAYBE over 100, but certainly not 200. To be gracious, each has something to contribute to the puzzle. But I would say those who are less thoughtful, prayerful, and communal, have less valuable things to offer. And I would venture that some are just plain wrong and can be ignored without consequence.

  1. What is your favorite portion of the Bible?

Hard question. I like the prophet Isaiah beginning especially with chapter 40. These chapters deal with a people whose faith has been so severely challenged as to lose all hope. I go there a lot. I love the Psalms, but especially when I’ve run out of words to sustain my faith or articulate my heart in prayer. Jesus in the Gospels always challenges me, and Paul’s theology intrigues my mind in ways no one else does. When I take the time, the great narratives, especially of Genesis, yield much to think about. Ecclesiastes is my go-to when my cynicism takes command, and Job is a close friend when I take issue with God. I have more books I dislike than I like. . .

  1. Why is the “Word of Faith” movement considered cultish?

I don’t know much about this, except that any “name it, claim it,” prosperity, “health and wealth,” happy/clappy gospel proclamation is unfaithful to the Bible and is idolatrous. If you’re not challenged to “lose your life in order to find it,” “experience greatness by becoming the servant of all,” “let your good works shine before others,” “do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” “sacrifice yourself in love for the benefit of others,” then you’re not going to be as faithful a Christian as you’re called to be.

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