Sunday, November 28, 2010

After the ascension

What happened to Jesus after he ascended?

Luke (Acts) describes him leaving in bodily form, and Revelation pictures his eventual return in bodily form, and various other places talk of him being 'seated at the right hand of the Father' - which suggests wherever he is right now, he is in bodily form (although, it also suggests the Father is in bodily form too).

But Paul (e.g. Ephesians 4v10: "He who descended is the very one who ascended higher than all the heavens, in order to fill the whole universe") talks in language that suggests that Jesus does not remain in bodily form.

Which is it?

Why does it matter?

Well, the former option has a few problems for me, specifically where exactly Jesus is, but more importantly, what he can do. In the gospels, even in resurrection appearances, Jesus appears to be limited in capabilities by his physical form - sure he can appear in locked rooms, but he can only interact with small numbers of people at any given time. Today literally millions of people pray to him on a daily basis, if he's constrained in any way by humanity, I kind of doubt that he can actually deal with all that.

If, however, he has returned to his pre-incarnation form, then will he have to re-incarnate for the second coming? (and then de-incarnate again at some time after that in order to interact with all his people?) - That all starts to get a bit messy.

The more I think about it, the more I find myself thinking that the former option (remaining in the body) is more consistent with the faith I was raised with, but is less consistent with reality and practicality - in other words, I can't see how it would actually work - while the latter option (returning to spirit) might make more spiritual sense, but starts raising questions about some doctrines like the second coming.

Anyone got any insights here? I have to say I'm really struggling with this one - the ascension seems pretty mythical to me, but if it is a myth, then either the story ended a different way, or a lot more of it is myth...

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Agnostic Christian

Being a Christian does not mean having all the answers. It does not mean that you have no doubts. It means seeking to follow Jesus wherever he leads.

One of the things I find myself considering and re-considering at the moment is the Bible. What is it? What is its role in the life of the Christian? Here's what I'm thinking:

The bible is not a book of answers, rather, it is a guide book - containing a pattern of how to live or what to do, rather than actually answering the big questions in life. In fact, I'd go further than that and say that it isn't so much a guide book as a record of what believers in the past did and believed. Sometimes the stories are there as a warning rather than as a guide.

Amazingly, its now over four years since I wrote this post about the role of the Bible and this post about 2 Timothy 3:16-17. I was basically thinking the same stuff back then, although I'm probably about to be a little bit more heretical now than I was then...

You see, I don't think I can consider the Bible as, in any way, a proof of anything anymore. I'm not sure I was ever of the opinion: "The Bible says it, I believe it, that settles it", but I'm now a bit further from that opinion. I'm now more like: "The Bible says it, that shows us something of what the person who wrote that bit of the bible believed, that opens up a whole heap of interesting questions..."

You see, for many years I read the Bible, and occasional books by apologists about the Bible, and occasional 'sound' commentaries on the Bible, but all stuff written from the perspective that the Bible is the inspired Word (with a capital 'W') of God.

More recently (and I guess this goes back to about 1994, when I read Robin Lane Fox's "The Unauthorised Version", if you call that 'recently') I've been reading some books which take a more 'liberal' or 'critical' look at the Bible and the more I read, the more layers of interesting (yet 'heretical') stuff I begin to see in the Bible. Stuff that's always been there but that I was prevented in seeing from my 'Evangelical' perspective.

The problem is, the more you read, the less sure of the Bible you become. Take, for example, the first couple of chapters of Genesis. I was taught to read this as one continuous creation story, and yet when you look at it closely, there are two different stories which are completely irreconcilable. In one, God creates everything, with man being the pinnacle of creation - made in the very image of God - to rule over creation. In the other, God creates the world and sees that it needs a caretaker, so he creates man to work in the garden, and gives strict commands to the man to work and stay in his place. Basically, God has not created a ruler, but a slave. And its into this situation that the Prometheus character comes, offering the man the chance to break his chains and become free. Not a devil, but the one who frees mankind from slavery. These are two conflicting and contradictory versions of the character of God. The weird thing is that most modern Christians believe that God has the character from the first story, but that we originated in the second...

Here, viewed 'critically', it is clear that there were (at least) two different ancient stories, which some later editor lumped together into one edited work. As far as I can tell, based on some of the things I have read, this editor lived in the time of the Babylonian exile, possibly later than that. That is, several thousand years after the events he's compiling a book about. I wonder what stories he left out? Presumably ones that didn't fit with his world view?

But if this is an edited work, representing the beliefs of the editors, that means that quite a lot of information may be missing, and the 'facts' may be nothing of the sort.

So where does that leave us now?


That means I have to be agnostic on many issues. Many, many issues. Almost everything, if we're honest.

Lets go for a biggie... Did God create the universe?

I dunno. The bible says that he created 'the heavens and the earth' (Genesis) or 'the worlds' (Hebrews), but as the bible doesn't count as proof, and nothing I can experience of God now can tell me about events thousands or millions of years ago, I have to remain agnostic on this one. God might have created utterly everything, or he might be part of that everything and only have created a little bit of it, or he might not be the creator, but still be God. (I said I was going to get heretical, didn't I?)

While I'm not denying the actual reality of God, through his Spirit, in the here and now, I'm beginning to perceive a fairly large chasm between our current experience and the written word. No current experience can count as evidence for any historical claim.

The problem with that statement above is that all we know about the relationship between 'God' and 'his Spirit' comes from the book that I've just said we can't be sure about.

Hmmm. Seems like I don't know anything anymore. I am agnostic.

Sunday, November 14, 2010


Portofino is a seaside resort in northern Italy, and is the setting for a novel by Frank Schaeffer - the son of the well known Presbyterian missionary, writer and preacher Francis Schaeffer. The book claims to be fiction, but apparently (if you read Frank Schaeffer's autobiography 'Crazy for God') it is largely based on Frank's real life experiences as a child.

The family presented in the book are fairly extreme, fundamentalist, Presbyterian types. The book is from the point of view of the youngest son - Calvin - who isn't quite as extreme in his views as the rest of his family. (This very much mirrors Frank Schaeffer's own life, as he rejected the fundamentalism of his upbringing and is now part of an Orthodox church).

As someone who grew up in a 'Conservative Evangelical Presbyterian' church, an awful lot of this book is frighteningly familiar. The characters are slightly (but only slightly!) exaggerated versions of people I grew up around. All the attitudes and opinions are real.

And the book shows just how ridiculous and unrealistic some of the attitudes and opinions are, in the context of the real world. The book also shows the hypocrisy of the main family and the tensions within the family, all of which rung very true.

If you want a (not very flattering) look into the minds of Conservative Evangelicals in the 60s (and not much had changed by the 70s, when I came along) then this is the book for you. The opinions regarding the 'lost', trying to out-pray each other to show who was more pious, praying extended graces over meals in public places as 'witness', all this was frighteningly accurate. I particularly loved the ongoing joke about the Presbyterian church the family were part of, which kept on splitting into factions, and so the PCUSA became the PCCUSA and later the PCCCUSA.

Anyway, if your upbringing was anything like mine, you'll find this an entertaining, if cringeworthy, read.