Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Christmas reflection: What is it like to be 'truly human'?

Sight Magazine has published an article I wrote recently. It can be found here.

Gorman: Faith, church...

More from Michael Gorman's Reading Paul.

"Faith is a complex human experience, and [the apostle] Paul preserves this complexity while giving it a unique twist. While affirming its character as trust and conviction, Paul connects faith to the experience of Jesus as God's faithful Son. Faith is more than trust; it is also fidelity, or loyalty."

"The church, therefore, is a visible, even a 'political' reality, rather than just a group with invisible 'spiritual' bonds, whose mission it is to be a living commentary on the gospel it professes, the story of the Lord (Jesus) in whom the church exists..."

Hope: The trust-filled conviction...

"Hope, as the future tense of faith, is the trust-filled conviction that God will soon fulfill all promises and vindicate the faithful; this conviction enables a life of dedication to God (faith) and to others (love) in spite of having to share in the cross of Christ now." (From Michael Gorman's Reading Paul, page 166)

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Doctrinal superiority?

Recently I visited a church of a particular denomination. It's a lovely church, with very sound teaching in the sermon. After the service one of the ministers chatted with me. In our conversation we discovered that we both liked the teaching of certain well-known Bible teachers. It was a good conversation... so far...

As the conversation continued, this minister started to tell me the differences between the belief of his denomination and that of others. In one case he said that one particular pastor of a church in another denomination was "liberal" (meaning "dangerous", I assume). In another case he said that his doctrine was very similar to a particular group of people in another denomination (which is known to be very conservative, and hence "safe" for this minister, I assume).

But this minister was eager to point out that there were still differences between the doctrine of this group and his denomination. And then he went on to say that people in this group would prefer to go to a church in his denomination when they were away on holidays.

At the end of the conversation I felt that what he was really saying was that the doctrine of his church/denomination was superior to that of everyone else.

I hope I am not misrepresenting his view here. (To be fair to him I won't name his church or his denomination, just in case I misrepresent him somehow.)

After the conversation I was glad that I had not told him which church I normally attended. And now, when I think about it, I am not sure whether I want to see him again, in case he asks me what church I belong to and despise me - and my church - as a result. Of course I am not ashamed of my belief, but I am not sure whether we can have a pleasant conversation if there is a sense of perceived superiority in the mind of one party.

As I read the New Testament I find that church division is something that God doesn't desire at all. It is true that Bible-based "healthy teaching" is absolutely important (as it is emphasised in 1 and 2 Timothy and Titus). But equally Paul teaches us to receive one another with love, allowing diversity in the church. We are to be united as one people in the body of Christ. One has to accept that, as church history tells us, respected Christians do hold somewhat different doctrines. I respect both Calvin and Wesley, for instance, although there are differences between their doctrines. I believe that we need to study the Scriptures carefully and diligently. But at the same time I believe that we need to remain humble and learn to hear each other's voice and opinions. We need to be more gracious.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Gorman on Ethics, the Church's Mission, Cruciformity

More quotes from Michael Gorman's Reading Paul. Personally, I like Gorman's idea of story. That is, our life is shaped by Christ's story, and our life is to be a living story for the world to see. These stories all centre on the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.

Christian ethics is the resurrection power of the justifying, cruciform, three-in-one God expressing itself as the sign of the cross in daily life. (p. 130)

[The church's] mission... is to be a living commentary on the gospel it professes, the story of the Lord (Jesus) in whom the church exists and who lives within the assembly. (See especially Phil 2:1-15.)... This countercultural community is not produced by human effort, nor does it occur to perfection overnight; it is a process of divine activity and communal and personal transformation (e.g. Rom 12:1-2; 1 Thess 3:11-13; 5:23-28). To be holy is to be different, different from those outside the church and different from the way we used to be, changed from what was "then" to what is "now" (Gal 4:8-9;1 Cor 6:9-11; Eph 2:1-6; Col 3:1-7). (p. 134)

Cruciformity is cross-shaped existence in Christ. It is letting the cross be the shape, as well as the source, of life in Christ. It is participating in and embodying the cross. It may also be described, more technically, as non-identical repetition, by the power of the Spirit, of the narrative of Christ's self-giving faith and love that was quintessentially expressed in his incarnation and death on the cross. It is, therefore, a narrative spirituality, a spirituality that tells a story, the story of Christ crucified. (pp. 146-7)

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Multi-faith world: East and West

One challenge for Christians today is that we live in a multi-faith world. But I see differences between the East and the West. I have lived in the West (English-speaking) for over 20 years, and I grew up in an Asian city. In the following I want to share some of my observations. I admit that my observations are somewhat subjective, but I hope it can be helpful to those interested in this topic.

In Australia I see roughly two responses to our increasingly multi-faith society. (Of course these two do not represent everyone's response, but I hope these rough categorisation can help to facilitate the discussion.)

(1) On the one hand, there are Christians who don't feel comfortable with it. They are concerned that it will dilute our "Christian heritage". (Whether we can still speak of a "Christian heritage" today is, of course, debatable, because our society is very secular nowadays.) Some of them (hopefully the minority) are not keen for Australia to accept too many migrants and/or asylum seekers because most likely they come from non-Christian faith backgrounds. (From the perspective of the gospel, I think that it is in fact a good thing to have people of other faiths come to Australia, for this creates the opportunities for us to share the love of Christ with them.)

(2) On the other hand, increasingly I meet Christians who think that other religions can lead people to God (ie. the Creator God in the Bible). These Christians are sick and tired of the aggressive type of evangelism done by certain churches. They are aware that ours is a multi-faith society, and people of other faiths are good people. They think that Christians should not judge these non-Christians and there is a good chance that they are saved (ie. will have eternal life) anyway - because other religions can lead people to the Creator God.

As someone who used to have a non-Christian faith background (a mix of Confucianism, Taoism, Buddhism and ancestral worship), I wonder whether the above are "Western" responses. I wonder whether the above two responses are very much conditioned by our historical background of a society shaped by a Christian culture - ie. whether people go to church or not, most believe that there is a God and that God is the God of the Bible.

Many feel that Christianity in Australia has been historically a majority religion. As our society gradually changes to a multi-faith one, we either resist the change (as in (1) above), or we change our previous concept of Christianity to find a new meaning to our way of life (as in (2) above).

In the East, however, historically and in reality today, Christians are often the minority. I suggest that this is very similar to the situation of the earliest church in the Bible. In Acts and in Paul's letters, we find Christians living in a multi-faith society, where the majority of people in the society worshipped other gods.

When I became a Christian, most of the people around me worshipped other gods and/or belonged to a particular Asian tradition. Many of my Christian friends experienced some form of rejection - sometimes persecution - because they had chosen to follow Jesus.

In my case I do not reject people of other faiths - because I was one of them before, and my heart is to let them know the love of Christ rather than reject them.

At the same time, personally, I find it hard to think that other religions can lead people to Christ. I was there before. My former religious background was a mix of polytheism, pantheism and a cultural tradition that went back thousands of years. If there is anything from other religions that can lead me to the amazing grace and love of God as revealed in Christ, it would have been something my previous faith background. (I admit that this is quite subjective.) True, there are many elements of that faith that are noble and indeed similar to Christianity. But there are unique aspects of Christ's life, death and resurrection that I cannot find in my previous religion. I tend to think that it might be possible that very good people from non-Christian backgrounds may be saved by God's grace. But the reality is that all of us are sinners and it is hard to break free from our sins. I did try to be a good person for many years in my previous religion and tradition, yet I found myself a sinner and yearned for a freedom that I could not find anywhere except in Christ. I would think that many of us from a similar religious background and tradition would share a similar experience.

So, I hope this post will be helpful to my friends in Australia who are trying to understand our worldview (ie. one that is shaped by a historically dominant Christian presence), how that worldview influences the way we think (as in (1) or (2) above, or in other ways), and how that understanding can help us find our place in a multi-faith world.