Pastoral Musings from Rain City

it's about 'what is church?' it's about whether 'emergent' is the latest Christian trend or something more substantial. it's musing on what it means to live the city, in America, in community, intergenerationally, at this time in history...

Thursday, July 07, 2005


One of the comments to an earlier posting indicated that 'relative truth' is the perceived enemy of many holding to a high view of Scripture. This has been a major point of discussion for the July 5th entry, and because of this I want to take a moment or two and unpack the 'moral relativism' discussion. This issue really centers around two questions. First, what is the source of my moral conviction (from what authority do I derive my ethic?). Second, there's the question of how I digest that authority and apply it to my life.

What is the source of my moral conviction?

A moral relativist is so called because there is no aboslute transcendent authority outside of him/herself. I may alternately make pleasure, economic expediency, a sense of justice, and the desires of the masses my 'highest authority' in any given moment. But in such a paradigm I, the one affirming or rejecting the authority source, become the authority. (This, incidentally, is part of the larger discussion in Romans 1. Paul is pointing out that when we reject the authority revealed to us in God the Father and in Christ, we are left to a self-derived ethic and authority).

Ultimately, it is unacceptable for anyone who claims to be a follower of Christ to also claim any authority other than Christ. We are under His Lordship. He and His Word are the absolute authorities in our lives.

How do I digest that authority and apply it to my life?

The difficulty that we face: all who claim this absolute authority don't agree on how we both interpret and apply it. And I think right here is where there is a real divide between modernity and post-modernity. The modernist is tempted to quickly come to fixed and conclusive interpretations/applications of God's revelation and fight for the protection of that interpretation.

The post-modernist resists such quick conclusions and dogmatic defenses, having seen the church be forced to change it's position too often (on matters ranging from service in the military, to whether Christians can act in plays, to slavery, to dietary laws, to whether an organ is an acceptable instrument for Christians to listen too, as it isn't listed in the Bible anywhere {and don't even think about getting that group started on the matter of drums!}). But the danger for the post-modernist is, I believe, a tendency towards holding convictions so loosely that they fail to act.

I would offer, as I stated on Sunday, a middle path. We need to consider our convictions carefully and hold them actively, being willing to both articulate and act on them, believing that Christ is teaching and shaping us and calling us not only to belief, but to action. Without action, we have no real beliefs. But we need to hold these convictions, particularly in divisive ethical matters, in the context of both love and humility, recognizing that while we are committed to the absolute authority of Christ, we are not omniscient, and therefore cannot claim to know with aboslute certainty, the mind of Christ on all matters. This will create an environment and community where there can be the safety of ongoing dialogue without the 'epistimological nihilism', or 'ethical squishiness' (choose your favorite term), that characterize deeper strands of post-modernism. And hopefully the arrogant certitude of modernity will also be lacking.

This will be, I believe and pray, the best environment for both truth and healthy conviction/certitude to rise to the surface, as was the case throughout the book of Acts where people wrestled with how to live out convictions as a community submitted to the Lordship of Christ.


At 7/7/05 15:23, Anonymous lee said...

Well put.

You could perhaps restate that the weakness of the post-modernist view is that it truly can remove the sense of authority granted to Christ and slip into relativism. E.g., once you look at the plurality of interpretations, it seems easy to say that they are all acceptable and leave it at that.

This position of the middle road appears to be the one of struggling, wrestling with Christ's revelation. Whether we fall to the side of picking a single absolute interpretation or to the side of allowing for many conflicting interpretations to be equally correct, once we cease engaging ourselves we cease allowing the Word to transform our lives.

How often did the apostles think as they walked with Christ that they had His life figured out, only to have Him reveal a new (and bountiful!) dimension to them?

I expect it is no accident that there seem to be parallels here between a humbly-but-firmly held interpretation and an absolute law that also abounds in grace.

At 11/7/05 16:06, Anonymous Kristin said...

This is definitely something that I hope we continue to discuss. It is not an easy topic, it is one that makes us face our own deepest prejudices and reveal the true source of our beliefs. So often we sit in a pew on a Sunday, or in a doctor's office, or infront of our televisions for that matter; and we form our beliefs based simply on what we are told. It is the wonderful irony in Richard's messeges that I love so much. That these ethical topics are "taught" about, and yet no firm answers are given. I continue to respect that we are encouraged to seek out Truth from the one source who holds it all in His hands, our heavenly father. And we know that He does in fact work in mysterious ways, that the "answers" are not always clear or easy to digest. I myself have struggled hugely with this idea of relativism in the face or two issues in my own life. One being the close friends that I have that are gay, and that ask me about whether or not they are "welcome" at our church. I still don't know what exactly to tell them. And two, as a friend of mine passed away from cancer this week at age 28, not being a believer, I could not bring myself to believe that this amazing, compassionate person was in Hell. Yet as a christian, I feel as though there are concrete things that need to be faced. That I need to believe in Heaven and Hell and sin. And somehow balance that with the grace and compassion I also believe my God to have. It is confusing, heart wrenching at times, and I believe that I will continue to grow and change in my understanding of who God is, and yet I also find myself wondering when it fails to be godly struggles and becomes that "moral squishiness."
An old instructor used to quote the following from C.S. Lewis, and it has come to mind many times in recent days:
"If you have to choose between truth and God, choose truth. Because you can't go very far without falling into His arms."

At 14/7/05 16:45, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Very good post, Kristen!

You mentioned 'no firm answers are given...'. As far as Richard's sermons are concerned, I believe there are firm answers there, but it's easy for some to miss them because he's presenting the 'firm answers' in such a diplomatic, almost hidden way. So those who wouldn't agree with a definate Biblical view against homosexuality, for instance, may easily miss it and continue with their idea that God is an all-loving God who really doesn't have a stance on this and doesn't care one way or the other how you live your life as long as you're a 'good' person and love others. Which is not true. He hates sin of any kind. And He is a God of Judgement, along with being a God of love. Why else would He have sent His Son to die a cruel death on the cross? And remember, He told the woman at the well...'go and sin no more'.

So as a Christian, if I'm lying, stealing, gossiping, or living in a homosexual relationship...and not repenting of this ('go and sin no more') and basically flaunting this in His face...then I should expect His judgement. Many times all we want to talk about is God's love...not his wrath, which the Bible also talks about and is evident throughout scripture.

And you are so right...It IS confusing and heart wrenching at times. Therefore, our quest should be to continue to seek the Truth from the Scriptures and learn more about God and His Son Jesus.

At 15/7/05 13:59, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Please read the last anonymous post under the Homosexuality blog. And then read the quote from Kristi Dahlstrom's latest blog about having a rigid understanding of God's will.

'Anonymous' below states that "...I believe there are firm answers there..." Is this the same 'firm' that secular astronomers faced when trying to convince others that the earth was round or not the center of the universe? Is this the same 'firm' that the Church of Christ follow that states playing instrumentation is sinful? Is this the same 'firm' that the United Pentecost follow which says women can't cut their hair? Is this the same 'firm' that I grew up with that stated Catholics are going to hell because they don't believe the same way as the church I attended?

It seems that nothing is learned throughout human history where "Truth" is determined by majority, or by who has the loudest voice or the most power. The prevailing opinion by most Christians during the first half of the 20th century was that black folks did not need, nor deserve, equal rights. Isn't it ironic how the Southern Baptists are now for equal rights based on color, but not for gay people? Did they learn nothing? I grew up believing the dinosaurs were a made-up conspiracy by scientists because science didn't match my parents' literal interpretation of the Bible (the world was created in 6 days, and then Adam and Eve started the human population...oh, about 6-10,000 years ago). Talk about a confused kid. Going to Disney movies at a theater is a sin. Dancing is a sin. Disagreeing with your parents' 'truth' is a sin.

Most Christians have been taught that the Bible is unerring and the exhaustive truth of God's word. Really? Wasn't it a bunch of white guys who got together about 400 AD and went through and sorted texts and decided which ones would be included in the "Holy Word" and which ones would not? Gospel of Matthew is IN...Gospel of Thomas is OUT--not 'Holy' enough. And who said it was "unerring"? How can a text be unerring when it contradicts itself repeatedly? How can a text be unerring when Paul the Apostle advocates and endorses slavery? How can a text be unerring when Levitus states that eating shellfish is an abomination? When I call myself a 'Christian,' it means that I am trying to follow the example that Christ provided in the gospels. Even Jesus distanced himself from the Old Testament and those that taught it...he basically was killed because folks wanted to squelch the truth.

Anonymous below also states that "...those who wouldn't agree with a [definate] Biblical view against homosexuality...may easily miss it and continue with their idea that God is an all-loving God." Easily miss it? Ideally, the author of this sentence has read opposing opinions to thoroughly educate him/herself on this subject to 'easily' state such a black & white opinion. How many gay Christians has this person talked to? How can a person form a truth by only looking at one side of an issue?

Why do you suppose the Christian church is even debating this issue, denomination by denomination? If everyone agrees that homosexuality is a sin, why even discuss it? You know why? People don't agree. Back in the day, a few people decided that there was something wrong with the 'gay=sin' theology. And then as folks started delving further, the premises that have served as "truth" began to unravel. 30 years ago, most people agreed that homosexuality is a sin--in any form. Now, even the more conservative view is more like, having homosexual tendencies/thoughts isn't particularly a sin, but to engage in homosexual sex makes it a sin. Now, we are at a place where churches such as yours are beginning to take a look at opposing viewpoints and question long-held assumptions about homosexuality. How long before members of your church no longer take for granted that homosexuality = sin? It will happen. How soon before Pastor Richard embraces what I believe he already suspects?

I pray that this conversation continues and that these seeds fall upon fertile ground. "If any [hu]man has ears to hear, let [them] hear."

At 16/7/05 07:27, Anonymous Dan Tegman said...

To the last anonymous writer here…in an attempt to answer just one of your many questions: to include the (Gnostic) gospel of Thomas (or any of the Gnostic gospels) in the Canon of Scripture, would be tantamount to including Gandhi’s writings about Jesus in the Christian Bible. Books were included and excluded based on their “Canonicity”—that is, their corroboration with the true, revealed character of God and Jesus. If God is big enough and powerful enough to create the world, He certainly has the power to get His book written and compiled as He desired. Exactly as He desired. Look at Isaiah. Written hundreds of years before Christ, Isaiah prophesied to the smallest detail about Christ—even to the fact that he would be crucified and not a bone in His body would be broken. Was that a mystical guess that Isaiah happened to get right, or was it so accurate because God inspired him and showed him what was to come? I think the latter is the only conceivable answer. Therefore, if God inspired men through prophesy (which, again, I think He’s powerful enough to do if He is the author and creator of the universe) He can also certainly get His book compiled with the RIGHT books, that He ordains, through divine inspiration. Look at the following verse from the Gnostic gospel of Thomas:
‘Simon Peter said to them, "Make Mary leave us, for females don’t deserve life." Jesus said, "Look, I will guide her to make her male, so that she too may become a living spirit resembling you males. For every female who makes herself male will enter the domain of Heaven."
I believe the exclusion of a book such as Thomas from the Canon is self explanatory, and divinely excluded.

At 16/7/05 08:07, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The 2nd anonymous poster said: "How long before members of your church no longer take for granted that homosexuality = sin? It will happen."

No doubt that will happen, as more and more people dismiss the idea that we are accountable to a Creator for our actions and will face a judgement for them.

According to the Bible, we will ALL stand before God to be judged for our actions. None will escape. ‘But I say to you that every idle word, whatever men may speak, they shall give account of it in the day of judgment’ (Matthew 12:36).

As a society, we are spiraling downward at warp speed, trying to justify everything we do in light of what we WANT to do. To pull from Ken Ham's Answers in Genesis website: 'If there is no Creator who has made us and set the rules, then all our morals and ideas of what is right or wrong are simply subjective—what we ourselves decide.'


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