Saturday Night Theologian
1 May 2005

Acts 17:22-31

James Dobson, at a rally called "Justice Sunday" last week, said that Democrats were out to get people of faith. He's sure that he knows what God wants and what God doesn't want in the world of U.S. politics. David Koresh knew what the mind of God was, too. So do many religious leaders, and many laypeople, of all political stripes. Some Muslims know God implicitly. So do some Jews. I don't know God as well as any of these people, and I'm the first to admit it. I have my opinions about who God is, what God wants, and what God wants me to do. In fact, I have pretty strong opinions sometimes. But deep down inside, I know for certain that I don't know for certain, because if I could know God to the extent that some people claim to know God, God wouldn't be much of a God. Paul saw a statue in Athens dedicated to an unknown god. "I've come to tell you who that God is!" Paul proclaimed. God is the creator of the universe, he said. More than that, God is the ground of all being, for "in him we live and move and have our being." I doubt that Paul looked at God in the same way that Paul Tillich looked at God, but I think that's a good thing. Paul had had a real, transformational encounter with the risen Christ on the road to Damascus, and that encounter altered his picture of God. Tillich had a different experience with God, but his encounter with God was just as real to Tillich as Paul's was to Paul. My encounters with God have been different than those of either Paul of Tarsus or Paul Tillich, but they've been real, too. I don't doubt that James Dobson has had real encounters with God, and David Koresh may have, too. Having an encounter with God is good. The problem is when we try to make our own encounter normative for everyone else, or, by extension, when we insist that others experience God or understand God in the same way we do. Paul was right to try to share his experience with the Athenians, but the Athenians were right, too. No matter how well we think we know God, God always remains unknown. A first grader may know how to add and subtract, but you can't say that she knows math, because she doesn't know about harmonic series or conic sections or hyperbolic trigonometric functions or Riemannian integration or Diophantine equations or the topology of discrete manifolds. Even an advanced mathematician would have to admit having only a very limited understanding of the subject. In fact, that's one way that you can identify an expert in the field, because he has some idea of how little he knows. I think I know something about God, but what I don't know about God is so great that to me, God remains largely unknown, but that's part of what makes life in God so exciting. There's always more to learn and to experience. I used to think that the way to learn about God was to study hard and think hard about theological matters. I'm now convinced that getting to know the unknown God is better accomplished by doing God's work, as I understand it, and experiencing God in a multitude of ways. As a Christian, my key to understanding God, of course, is the life of Jesus, but Albert Schweitzer reminds us that Jesus, too, is largely unknown, in the beautiful concluding passage to his Quest of the Historical Jesus.

He comes to us as One unknown, without a name, as of old, by the lake-side, He came to those men who knew Him not. He speaks to us the same word: "Follow thou me!" and sets us to the tasks which He has to fulfil for our time. He commands. And to those who obey Him, whether they be wise or simple, He will reveal Himself in the toils, the conflicts, the sufferings which they shall pass through in His fellowship, and, as an ineffable mystery, they shall learn in their own experience Who He is.
May we all get to know the unknown God better.

Psalm 66:8-20

May 1 is the day set aside around the world for the celebration of work and to honor the worker. In most countries it is celebrated as International Worker's Day. Ironically, it was an event in the United States, the Haymarket Massacre of 1886, that led to the choice of May 1 as the day to celebrate the worker, yet the U.S. is one of the few countries not to recognize International Worker's Day. The church as an institution has had ambiguous attitudes toward labor throughout the centuries. On the one hand, the church has always been composed primarily of laborers: farmers, day laborers, teachers, craftsmen--many of the first Christians were fishermen! On the other hand, the hierarchy of the church, at least since the time of Constantine, has been made up largely of the middle and upper classes. In the Middle Ages, a career in the church was a pathway to riches and power. Today many ministers retain a great deal of clout in the community and in society as a whole. In predominantly Catholic countries, priests and bishops wield great influence among the faithful, and in predominantly Protestant countries, well-known ministers, particularly those associated with large, wealthy congregations, also hold sway among many people who are not their parishioners. While there are many pastors, especially parish priests and Protestant ministers in predominantly non-White churches, who advocate for the working class, Catholic bishops and more prominent Protestant ministers often oppose political measures (e.g., abolition of regressive taxes) and theological movements (e.g., liberation theology) that are largely favorable toward the average worker. Both sides in labor-management or union-"open shop" debates frequently claim divine sanction for their position; does the Bible offer any insight into the question of work and the rights of workers? In today's reading from the Psalms, the psalmist recounts his people's history of suffering under harsh taskmasters. "You brought us into the net; you laid burdens on our backs; you let people ride over our heads; we went through fire and through water; yet you have brought us out to a spacious place." God is praised as the one who delivered the people from slavery, the harshest of working conditions, and brought them out of bondage into a spacious place. The picture here is of a people who have been weighed down with burden so heavy that they cannot even lift their heads to look around them. They are surrounded on all sides by fire and water, and they can see no way of escape. Suddenly they emerge into a wide plain. Their burdens are removed, the dangers disappear, and they are able to look around and get their bearings for the first time in a long time. People who work under oppressive conditions--sweat shops, child slavery, excessively low-wage jobs--experience what the psalmist described firsthand. They need to hear from the church that God is concerned about their practical, everyday situations. God wants their oppressive burdens removed, and God wants people of faith to stand in solidarity with workers against oppression, whether it come from the left (the Solidarity Movement's opposition to Soviet-style oppression in Poland) or the right (labor unions that have won such rights as eight-hour workdays or paid health insurance from grudging business owners). Our God is a God who sides with the oppressed. Happy International Worker's Day!

1 Peter 3:13-22

One of the classical disciplines that many theology students study is called apologetics. The term comes from the Greek word apologia, or "defense," and it refers to a defense of the Christian faith from outside attack. It is the word that appears in today's reading from 1 Peter: "Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you." Too many Christian apologists stop here, but the author continues: "Yet do it with gentleness and reverence." If you do a Google search for "Christian apologetics," you will get a list of about 817,000 Web sites (as of this week--it will undoubtedly grow). Looking at the first page of matches will give you an idea of the way in which many Christians in cyberspace view apologetics. One apologetics Web site that I saw billed itself as "the hardest-hitting Christian apologetics Web site on the Net." Several dealt with numerous different categories of "attacks" on Christianity, including Islam, evolution, philosophy, liberal theology, etc. My favorite one, though, was the page that called itself "Guerilla Apologetics." I find this title revealing when I consider that the word guerilla comes from the Spanish word guerra, or "war." Few of the Web sites I looked at approached the subject of apologetics with anything like the "gentleness and reverence" advocated by 1 Peter. Of course, they find support in early Christian apologists, many of whom (but not all) take a decidedly polemical approach to their rhetorical opponents. Most of us enjoy watching movies in which the good guys triumph over the bad guys, and if the good guys give a good old-fashioned beating to the bad guys, so much the better. We all like the idea of good (i.e., our beliefs, preferences, nationality, culture, worldview, etc.) mopping the floor with evil (i.e., the beliefs, preferences, nationalities, cultures, and worldviews of other people). There are at least three things wrong with carrying this attitude over into apologetics, however. First, we should never be so arrogant as to assume that what we believe is one hundred percent correct. We must approach apologetics with humility. Second, we shouldn't imagine that an attitude of self-satisfied superiority will win any converts to our position. We need to be gracious to our opponents and carefully consider their points of view as well. Third, we need to remember that the root of the word "apologetics" is the idea of defense, not attack. "Guerilla apologetics" is an oxymoron. The best definition that I have run across is Paul Tillich's description of apologetics, in the third volume of his Systematic Theology, as "the art of answering."

John 14:15-21

Viruses are able to jump from infecting one species to infecting another, usually closely related species, when they experience certain types of evolutionary changes that make them able to enter the cell membrane of the new species. Slight changes in the amino acid sequence in the virus's RNA cause the shape of some of the protein molecules to change, in a phenomenon know as molecular folding. If the newly refolded virus molecule fits the contours of some of the cell's molecules, the virus is ready to invade, like a key turning in a lock. Jesus says of the Helper, the Spirit of truth, that "the world cannot receive him, because it neither sees him nor knows him." For the disciples, though it is a different story. "You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you." Why are some people able to receive the Spirit of truth, while others are not? Some people do not want to give up their pursuit of pleasure, so they are not yet ready to receive the Spirit. Others want to dictate the terms on which they will come to God, so they are not yet ready to receive the Spirit. Still others have never seen the life of the Spirit effectively modeled before their eyes, so they are not yet ready to receive the Spirit. The good news is that, with a little "molecular folding" of their lives, all people can receive the Spirit of truth. It is the job of us who have encountered the Spirit in our own lives to live our lives in such a way that others will see the effects of the Spirit in us and want the same thing for themselves.