Friday, July 17, 2009

Friday Paul: Born at a Time and Place 2

And now, a draft of part 2 of chapter 1 of Life Reflections on Paul's Life and Letters. By the way, I'm detoxing from my email addiction these next 24 hours. IWU is upgrading its systems so all I have is my backdoor gmail no one even knows exists. I'm curled up in the fetal position, shaking, and sweating profusely.
We are all born in a particular place at a particular time. We have no choice in the matter. In some parts of the world, particularly the West, we like to think we are free to be anything we want to be or do anything we want to do. But at least the situation of our birth is not of this sort. Our most formative years are a kind of slavery to the contexts into which we are born. We are slaves to the forces at work on us, the genes we inherit from our parents and the influences of our environment.

We cannot help whether we are born into poverty or wealth. We cannot help it if we are surrounded by peace or war. We cannot help if we are raised in a Christian or Muslim family. Our most fundamental desires seem to be something we inherit from one place or another, long before anyone begins to reflect on whether we should have them or might have different ones.

As we grow up, we become freer to do the things we want, but most of us probably continue largely as slaves to our desires. We come to think of ourselves as free, but we mostly live out the desires and whims set in cement in our formative years. Education can help. We can learn about other ways of seeing things. Life can hold up a mirror to ourselves and show us how others see us. When we truly see the other options, then we are freer to be or do something different from the enslavement of our childhood... or we can now more freely choose to be what we already are.

But most humans seem content to live on in ignorance of the forces at work on them. We assume that the way we have grown up thinking is the only way to think. We have a built in tendency to think that those who think or act differently are either ignorant or evil. To the extent that we are not self-reflective in this way, we behave different from the other animals around us, pushed around by the world around them.

Christians disagree over the extent to which God empowers us to choose Him or not. Some believe God orchestrates everything in our lives, so that we have no real choice whether to choose or not to choose Him. I come from a tradition that cannot reconcile this view of God with the fundamental affirmation that He is love. We believe that God, at some point of everyone’s life, gives them a chance to move in His direction. And the more we take that opportunity, the more power He gives us to keep moving toward Him.

Paul was also born in a particular time and place. On the one hand, he was privileged to be born a Jew, which meant he was born with the Scriptures. In one sense, he started out on his journey to God farther along than those who were not born within Israel. Assuming that Christianity is true, those of us who are born in a Christian context today are born even farther along on that journey than Paul started out.

But Christians believe it is ultimately a journey I must take, regardless of where I am born. If I am born into a devout Christian home, perhaps even baptized as a child, then I start out potentially far along in the way. But my parents and church cannot ultimately go on the journey for me. I must take the journey. I must move beyond the givens of my birth and become "free" in my choice of God.

What of those who have never heard? What of those who were born into a different set of religious beliefs? It is hard to see a person born in the most fundamentalist of Muslim circles coming to believe on Christ, given his or her environment! Miracles, signs, and wonders have always helped to convince, but how many of these does the average individual in the world see even in a lifetime?

Christian tradition has often had a sense that God will judge people "according to the light they have." The Quakers used to speak of an "inner light" within everyone. Many Christians believe that those who have never heard will be judged by how they responded to the light God gave them, not by whether they confessed faith in a name they never heard. Still others take the thought experiment further and suggest there may be "anonymous Christians" who have faith in God and are saved through Jesus even though with their conscious minds they reject him. If you had been told that Jesus was a certain way all your life, how difficult it would be to accept him in wrapping paper you had been raised to despise!

In the end, God is the one who decides eternal destinies. In one sense, it is foolish for any of us to think we know the answer to these questions. The righteous Judge will act justly. That we know for certain. We had best leave the rest to Him.

John Wesley had a lovely concept we refer to today as "prevenient grace," the grace of God that comes to us before we even can come to Him. It can bring us to God in the most beautiful way if we allow it. Although it is God's business, I like to think that no matter who you are, no matter what the circumstances of your origins--your gender, geography, and geneaology--God will be there, drawing you to Himself. It is not where we start that is important but where we end up.

The biblical worlds remind us that our identity is more than just a matter of me, what I want and what I like. At the same time, some of the basic principles of Christianity require us to move well beyond the "group mentality" of the ancient world. The gospel has made it clear that "in Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, neither slave nor free; there is no male and female" (Gal. 3:28).

A person is not more valuable to God simply because they are a man or a Jew. Everyone is equally loved by God. One of the great insights of the modern world--one we are in danger of losing--is that you simply cannot assume a person is a certain way because they are a woman or a certain color or from a certain place. It is beyond dispute that all men are not better leaders or more insightful or even stronger than all women. If the gospel really required us to believe such things, it would be false.

The principles of the gospel thus require us to let each individual, regardless of their gender, race or social status, tell us who they are, what they believe, and how they will act. Christianity is no excuse for bad thinking or unloving behavior. It is absurd even to have to remind ourselves of such things. And yet some Christians do use the Bible as an excuse to turn their brains off or to treat certain groups of people hatefully. Here we remember the words of Jesus to such people in Matthew 7:23, "I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!" (TNIV).

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