Thinking Like a Christian

1 06 2009
Close shot of Rodin's The Thinker at the Musée...
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I have been reading Arrian’s Discourses of Epictetus” (don’t stop reading… its gets better!). Epictetus was a slave of Nero and a Stoic philosopher. These two things together are very important –given that Nero was a great persecutor of Christians and that many of us today think like Stoics! We rely on rationalizing a bad situation into a good one as a way of coping with life’s difficulties, which is exactly what Stoicism was all about. What is interesting is that Epictetus doesn’t interpret the mindset of Christians in his own day this way!

Speaking about “Freedom from Fear(4.7.1), he rationalizes that if a person doesn’t really set his heart on living or dying he may come into the presence of a tyrant (Nero?) and not be afraid of what he might do. He then goes on to speak about two kinds of people who don’t rely on the power of reason to get them through such a situation. The first is the madman who for some reason doesn’t care about losing children or wife and thus won’t mind losing themselves.

The second is “the Galileans” which all scholars believe is a reference to Christians. He says they are able to make face death because of “custom / practice” (Grk: ethous). This is tantalizing as to what he might mean. My best take is that it is pack mentality. Its was seen as “the thing to do” among Christians to die under the tyrant – part of what had become the custom or the thing to do. This would make sense that he would think of categorizing Christians this way. But what’s interesting to me is what he doesn’t lump Christians in with Stoics who rationalize it like this: “cannot reason and demonstration teach a man that God has made all things in the universe and the whole universe itself, to be free from hinderance, and to contain its end in itself, and the parts of it to serve the needs of the whole.”

For Epictetus the secret to happiness is to rationalize your own misfortune in terms of some greater good. And isn’t this what we who are Christians do as well? I’m not at all sure that being transformed by the renewing of your mind (Rom 12) means quite what we think it means. In the context of Romans 11, the will of God is not easy to understand, it is mysterious (11:30-33), it is not at all what you expect. And after we have been transformed by the renewing of our minds it is only then that we understand this (strange) will of God (Rom 12:2b). I think we think that the transformed mind is the mind that can rationalizing things better and better. But this is Stoicism. In the entire context of Romans 11 and 12:1 having a transformed mind seems to have more to do with responding to God’s mercy aright, and submitting your will and lack of understanding to him whose mind is greater (see again 11:30-33). Like Job who never knew why it all happened… but in the end put his hand over his mouth, the transformed Christian mind is a mind which has reconciled itself to not knowing a great deal of the time.

Do we worship the mind, as Christians today? Are we a closet Stoic, thinking this is actually Christianity?

Posted by Bruce Lowe

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Can the Prodigal Son be an Evangelistic Talk? 03

10 05 2009
Rembrandt's The Return of the Prodigal Son
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I don’t want to drag this out into too many posts, so let me just cut to the chase – Most authors today agree that Luke is writing to help his readers see why Christianity is the real fulfillment of God’s history for his people. It is written to Gentile Christians who are a bit worried that they might be riding the wrong horse (see Luke 1:1-4).

So what is the role of these three parables? On the one hand they exposes Jewish exclusiveness. On the other they affirms that God loves those who apparently have no right to be included among his people. If we look to chapter 16 and discussion about using worldly mammon to get people into the kingdom, there seems to be a message in the lost parables, for Christians – don’t forget God has a heart for those who are yet to come in, just as he had a heart for you! Don’t be like the elder brother and the religious leaders who are exclusive and have no thought for lost ones.

Yes these parables are meant to challenge an elitist attitude. But this doesn’t mean they don’t have a secondary word to the lost. The Christian audience themselves would be reminded that they were once lost and God was pleased to seek them out. This reminder (I think) can be used directly with non-Christians when preaching these parables to them.

So should we preach about the older brother or the younger brother? It can and should be preached in terms of exclusivism – both Jesus’ setting and Luke’s setting seem to make this reasonable. But I also think Jesus’ setting and Luke’s setting make it reasonable to focus on “the Lost.” In so far as he reminds his Gentile audience of the way God loved and sought them  this can be well applied to people who aren’t Christians yet. IN NOTICING THE IMPORTANT PLACE OF THE OLDER BROTHER THEREFORE, WE SHOULDN’T FALL TO AN EXTREME AND FORGET THAT LOTS OF DETAILS ABOUT THE FATHER’S LOVE FOR THE YOUNGER BROTHER (not to mention the sheep and the coin) ARE INCLUDED! This chapter is still a great resource for evangelistic preaching.

Posted by Bruce Lowe

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Conversation with an Atheist Friend (06)

30 04 2009
The repute and reality of being a Roman emperor
Image by howard_riches via Flickr

And further….

Me: give me some references

Friend: isn’t that your job?

Me: Nothing like this comes to mind.

Friend: but my point is that he was supposedly performing lots of miracles, and had crowds.

Me: We have the discovery at Oxyrhynchus of thousands of letter if this is what you mean but that’s in Egypt. I don’t know of such records for Judea. Besides the letters were pretty sporadic. The guys who wrote these records down almost certainly wrote at a time when people who were there were alive. Your point is also a good one about the Romans. What they were obsessive about was good history. SO… if four (and possibly more) different records are circulated to people who are still alive and then the movement gains momentum to the point where the empire is Christianized, this says something. How does it take root in a history obsessed society if it is historically crappy?

Friend: but it didn’t take root until the 4th or 5th century!

Me: Rome wasn’t built in the day.

Friend: it just looks like a political movement.

Me: We know for sure that several Roman Emperors tried to kill people off on mass – that’s got to slow things down a little. Nero for one. There must have been a significant number of Christians to feed the hungry lions. And still regroup after. The problem in all this – and I’m not trying to be smart in saying this – is that the Kuhnian discussion I began with about enlightenment optimism is very important. I am not anti-science in the least. There just has to be level headed realization that no one is objective as they think and questions must be asked like this – if God really wanted to prove he existed what might he do? Put his fingerprints all over the world in terms of order… yes but this will be dismissed as rubbish… no proof at all… you just think this because you have an un-evolved sense of complexity and probability. But why does evidence look good to one person and bad to another? It is because they are functioning within a paradigm to look for what fits and to discard what doesn’t – you and me both. Like the broad generality about religion being evil and causing evil. The evidence doesn’t stack up. I heard a statistic the other day (from an official source) that conservative Christians give more money to the poor than their counterparts and that if everyone in the US gave as much blood as these people they’d be turning people away. Sure when it becomes an ideology in the hands of divisive or greedy people it gets distorted, but the same could be said of any ideology throughout history – whether political systems or football supporters, or whatever. All this proves is that we have evolved follow a pack mentality – Kuhn again!

Friend: I find it hilarious that evangelicals are now in bed with post-modernists. You are so far out on a subjectivist limb, that you can’t climb down. You know, it’s fine to admit that you can’t ARGUE about this stuff. You can just throw your hands up and say, “You just gotta believe me, because I just believe it, OK?” And I can say, “Huh?” As Dennett says, there are many reasons why people SAY they are christian.

Posted by Bruce Lowe

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Understanding Faith (04)

24 11 2008
Julius Caesar Bust

Image by iirraa via Flickr

Today’s entry is where I put in a plug for knowing something about the culture behind the NT. Here is where I mention that many Christians feel really comfortable with the current Scholarly focus on Judaism. And why not? Those who read the Bible are familiar with Judaism through the OT and the controversies of the NT. Jesus, Peter, Paul… they were all Jews. So of course we’ll feel at home with this! But there is another context, which we don’t feel so at home in… i.e. the Graeco-Roman world. But let’s not forget that Paul (at least) was also very connected to this world. He had to be if he was going to be a missionary. So the Graeco-Roman world is relevant to the context into which Paul was writing. Therfore it must be of some importance for us who read the NT today! This will be something I will come back to in future entries. For now though, we need a quick lesson into the fabric of Romans society in the first century. The Roman world was literally held together by relational exchange A ↔  B. As Richard Saller says in his exceptional little book Patronage in the Early Empire, “The Romans could hardly conceive of friendship apart from reciprocal exchange.” In fact from the Emperor all the way down to the lowest citizen it was reciprocal exchange which held everything together. And so fides (the Latin word for faith) has been defined as “”confidence” (fides) and, especially (in a more derivative sense of fides), the “good faith” or “trustworthiness” that inspires confidence.” Whenever the Romans thought about a relationship they thought in terms of two way exchange (A ↔ B). When we talk then about “faith” or “grace” as exchange words because they are used in relationships, this is therefore not a big jump. Rather, the culture of the day confirmed that this was a logical way for people to see things. Now we are ready to tackle pistis Christou which we’ll do next entry.

Bruce Lowe

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