Saturday Night Theologian
6 May 2007

Acts 11:1-18

Last Tuesday, May 1, saw several large, pro-immigrant marches held around the country in places such as Los Angeles and Chicago. Though not as big as last year's rallies, the marchers represented a much larger segment of the population that agrees with their basic premise: all immigrants, documented or undocumented, have the right to live and work peacefully and legally. If jobs are not available in their countries of origin, or if the social situation there does not permit a life of peace and security, they have the right to emigrate to other countries, just as most of our ancestors did. I'm always amazed by those who are the most outspoken critics of undocumented immigrants to the U.S., because they apparently have no understanding of their own family histories. Or if they do, they're simply being hypocritical in their bigotry against today's generation of immigrants. Peter was a bigot himself, at least originally, because he was raised in a culture that taught him that Gentiles were unclean and thus inherently inferior to Jews. He eventually came to realize, however, that no group of people is inferior to any other, and all are recipients of God's love. Furthermore, and perhaps more importantly as a practical matter, all are worthy of respect from other people. The Jewish Christians who looked upon the Gentiles as unworthy to join the church have been mirrored throughout history by "orthodox" Christians who persecuted "heretics," by Catholics who persecuted Protestants, by Protestants who persecuted Anabaptists, and by Christians of all sorts who persecuted Jews. Today the tradition is carried on by whites who look down on people of color, and even by people of color, who may themselves be only first or second generation Americans, who despise more recent immigrants. That racism, bigotry, and xenophobia are present in the world is not a shock, but it is a disgrace and harmful to the cause of Christ when people who claim the name Christian rank racial purity, linguistic exclusivity, or nationalism as more important than their commitment to Christ. For true Christians, nothing is more important than our commitment to Christ, and our consequent obligation to love all our fellow citizens of the world.

Psalm 148 (first published 9 May 2004)

The May 2004 issue of Scientific American contains an article that proposes that the earliest point in time might not have been the Big Bang some 13 to 15 billion years ago. The author suggests that string theory provides an alternative history of the universe, one that goes back beyond the Big Bang in possibly measurable ways. As science expands our knowledge of the universe, exhortations to the natural world to praise God may seem quaint to some people. Where are the heavens, where the angels dwell? Where are the highest heavens, which contain the sun, moon, and starts? Where are the waters above the heavens? What do we in the modern world mean when we talk about God as creator? It is true that many have abandoned the idea of God, preferring to think of a universe based entirely on measurable scientific principles and observable data. A corollary of abandoning the idea of God is that the world no longer has any real meaning; it only has meaning that humans may arbitrarily assign to it. Other modern inhabitants of the world reject scientific principles such as the Big Bang theory and evolution, believing them to be contradictory to belief in God. These are not stupid people, any more than Galileo's antagonists, who refused to believe that the earth revolved around the sun, were stupid. The problem is not that they don't understand science; many don't, though the same can be said of many believers who accept the findings of modern science. No, the real problem is that they don't understand God. I believe in the scientific principle that has given rise in the past century and a half to theories such as evolution, general relativity, quantum mechanics, and the Big Bang. I also believe in a God who somehow exists beyond the universe yet at the same time infuses the universe. My idea of God may not be the same as that of my more conservative brothers and sisters, but it is just as real. I don't reject scientific theories because they conflict with my theology. Instead, I hold a theology that is big enough to embrace science--all fields of science, whether biology, cosmology, physics, or whatever other area--while at the same time continuing to accept the existence, indeed the praiseworthiness, of God. When many Christians during the Middle Ages were wallowing in ignorance, Muslims were making great strides in mathematics and science, yet they continued to hold a strong belief in God. Modern Christians can be full citizens of the scientific, postmodern world, while at the same time joining with our Muslim neighbors in proclaiming Allahu Akhbar: God is great! We can also join the psalmist the psalmist, who says, "Let them praise the name of the Lord, for his name alone is exalted; his glory is above earth and heaven."

Revelation 21:1-6 (first published 9 May 2004)

My daughter is reading the book Alas, Babylon in her high school English class, so we've been talking a little bit about various representations of the postapocalyptic world in literature and movies. In this book, nuclear war breaks out between the U.S. and the Soviet Union (the book was written in 1959), and the book chronicles the efforts of a small Florida town to survive the aftermath. Most postapocalyptic books portray a world that has been decimated by human warfare or foolishness (e.g., the environmental destruction of the planet). They offer a bleak picture of the future, with hope--if there is any--only in the distant future. The earliest Christian portrayal of a postapocalyptic world is the book of Revelation. Like most modern books touching on the same theme, the devastation of the world is caused largely by humans, though Revelation also offers plenty of examples of divine judgment as well. Unlike modern tales, however, Revelation offers a decidedly rosy picture of the time beyond the apocalypse. In today's reading, the author describes a new heaven and a new earth that God sends down from heaven to replace the old, damaged copies. It is a world of beauty and perfection, where God dwells with people, and sorrow and death are exterminated. "See, I am making all things new," says God from the throne. This is such a beautiful picture of the future that many Christians anxiously long for the end of the world, which they assume will be brutal (but only for those who are "left behind"). Imagining a blessed time in the future where life is better can be a good thing, as long as it doesn't cause those of us living in the present world to neglect our present circumstances or--much worse--hope for the violent destruction of the present world as a prelude to the new world. If we can dream of a better world, we can work toward shaping our present world in that direction. If our idealized future world is one without violence, we should reject violence as a tool of international diplomacy now. If our idealized future world is one in which no one lacks any basic necessity, we should support policies, and policymakers, that offer plans that alleviate poverty and inequality in the distribution of wealth, access to health care, and so forth. If our idealized future world is a world of beauty and majesty, we should stand against exploitation of the planet for economic gain on the part of the few, and we should take measures to protect our fragile environment. The new heaven and new earth of Revelation 21 are idealized representations of the way we think the earth should be. Let us commit ourselves to moving our present earth in that direction.

John 13:31-35 (first published 9 May 2004)

If you try to nail down what Buddhists believe in a series of simple, straightforward propositions, you will have a hard time. The same is true for Hindus, Taoists, and even modern Jews. Of course there are general principles to which the vast majority of adherents to a particular faith assent, but a systemized list of beliefs is another matter. A good example of a simple set of core beliefs is present in Islam, which requires every believer to assert: "There is no other God but God, and Muhammad is his prophet." In contrast to the followers of many other religions, many Christians see their religion as based on a set of fundamental assumptions, whether they are the Fundamentals of the Faith that gave rise to the name Fundamentalism, various creeds with which members of certain churches are expected to agree, or pronouncements of ecumenical councils and papal decrees. Members of the Christian Right distribute flyers that rate political candidates on the basis of their beliefs in relation to a fixed set of "orthodox" views. Catholic bishops proclaim that politicians who disagree with certain church teachings should be refused communion (though the bishops are often quite arbitrary in deciding which violations of the Catholic faith justify excommunication and which do not). Is Christianity, then, such a complicated religion that its most basic tenets cannot be summarized in a simple manner? In fact, the early church had two simple standards, one doctrinal and the other ethical: it confessed Jesus as Lord (Romans 10:9), and it advocated love (John 13:35). Although Jesus was well-known as a teacher, he is never pictured as teaching anything like a fixed set of doctrines to his disciples. He simply asks them, like he asks us, to love one another.