In the more than a handful of conversations I’ve had as a civilian quasi-theologian–that is, away from any vocational ministry context–I have explained the nucleus of the gospel to people who otherwise aren’t fans of Christianity or Christians in a way that has, in each instance, resulted in not in an altar call, but in people sitting back and saying, essentially, ‘Huh. That makes sense. No one’s ever explained it in a way that makes sense before.’
We seem to have a fundamental problem with credibility, not merely in the sense that Christians are pompous hypocrites (and we are), or even in a hipster-chic ironic way of making sense because it doesn’t make sense. We have built a theology upon the foundation of the sky, detached from grounding or even rationale. We may as well put it thusly: This guy died and came back from the dead and disappeared and he’s coming back to kick you all in the balls after we get whisked away! So don’t look at porn!
[/intentional male gaze]
Tanakh can and does get explained away as myth because of the fantastic elements of the literature: talking serpents, God walking amongst creation, pillars of file and smoke, cataclysmic floods, cities annihilated, burning bushes and a nation springing from the ancient, shriveled loins of Abraham and Sarah (and another from a more-viable Hagar), groaning in anticipation for a ultimate redeemer, repeatedly botching their end of the covenant to their peril. While I no longer take a literal or verbal plenary view toward the scriptures, there is plenty of richness and value for spiritual life and present conduct, and it is more accurate than more people would probably care to admit.
The Christian contract between Christ and the colonies of believers who extend into the present day has taken on a similar pretext: we live in the age of the church, groaning for our redeemer, repeatedly botching our end of the covenant to our peril. Same sin, different day. And we construct our theology in the sky, making sense only to ourselves, and even then, losing many to the understandable attrition of not seeing how faith affects life and interaction with the world.
I grew up hearing about the ‘hall of faith’: Hebrews 11, a highlight reel of a chapter outlining a who’s-who of legends from the Hebrew Bible, those whose faith carried them through dire situations, inspired the prophets to call powers to repentance and enabled them to accomplish extraordinary things. It was always presented in the light of the start of chapter 12: good, obedient Christians fulfilling their duty as good, obedient Christians until Jesus comes back. After all, that’s what Barak and Jephthah did! (At which point, most of us wondered who the crap Barak and Jephthah were, only to shrug and proceed to glaze back over.) Our present state of affairs was always transposed onto the Old Testament HOFers; that they were doing their duty while faithfully expecting the Messiah to come on the scene and rescue them from their circumstances. Of course, that’s bad exegesis and worse interpretation, but that’s beside the point.
During a night with my students in our campus ministry going through Hebrews together, it occurred to me as we investigated Hebrews 11 that we may have missed what exactly the writer was trying to get across. And what the writer was trying to get across, as I thought about it this week over coffee with friends here at intensives, was precisely what I lament here: a theology built in the sky.
Three words: faith is over.
The phenomena of the Pentateuch can be explained away as fantastic origin myth, a fairly tale of God establishing a contract with the Hebrews, just like the aforementioned fantastic elements found therein. But the Christ-event is something fundamentally different, something earthy, historical. The power of the Christ-event for the early believers was not grounded in faith, but in reality. The Christ-event really happened, and because it really happened, it has ramifications for everyone. People can explain away fantastic stories, even if they happen to be true, it is not so with facts. (As a side note: why else do we have a Jesus Seminar eagerly hammering away at the gospels?)
Faith motivated the HOFers because they placed their trust in God, they were faithful to the agreement and hoped for the consummation of that trust. The consummation of the law and prophets came through Christ, who the writer of Hebrews rightly calls the ‘founder and perfecter of our faith’, ‘our’ being the shared faith of the writer and the dispersed, likely post-70 Jews. Jesus, as the fulfillment of the law and the prophets, sealed faith in his death and resurrection. This is not merely a tenet of faith, but fact, and if fact, it is of tremendous import and is truly good news: Jesus did not just establish a new agreement, but completed the original!
Faith is the substance of what is hoped for, the evidence of what is not seen. Christ was substance: seen, felt, heard. He is the one for for whom Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Issac, Jacob, Sarah waited. They died waiting, hoping. As did Joseph, Moses, Rahab, Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, David and Samuel and the prophets. They lived trusting God, they died trusting God. Jesus lived trusting God, Jesus died trusting God, Jesus was resurrected. Faith ended on that resurrection morning, supplanted by the reality of a victorious Christ and an empty tomb: theological truth grounded in a remarkable fact.
Therefore, since we are surrounded by these who never got to enjoy the fulfillment of their hope, what the crap are you doing? Living your mediocre and petty lives, twiddling thumbs, waiting for something? That something happened, go do something with your life!
Let’s start building a theology that emphasizes the reality of the resurrection, not in faith that wavers and beliefs that can be rationalized away.
Faith, like ether, is done.