Can “lack” exist in the World to Come? Un-doing Platonic assumptions…

Ever since I was a young buck in my earliest days of theological education, I figured any theology which winded up necessitating evil in order for good to exist (by comparison) was a flawed system. Likewise, any construct where the only way we could grow spiritually was for us to have to go through pain and suffering was also flawed, as it necessitated evil in order for good to develop. I haven’t changed my mind on that, but I have started to wonder about how we equate “lack” and “evil.” A Jewish friend of mine, who is a part of our church family and a follower of Jesus, got me thinking about this by some things he said this fall while we walked the Rails-to-Trails conversion between Ship and Newville. (Walking with Richard is a delight for numerous reasons, including that he looks just like pictures of Jesus, so you look really holy being seen with him).

Many, if not most, of us equate a lack of something in Creation with evil. It’s easy to see why we do this, as a lack of food in places of famine equals people starving to death, and we’ve seen many skeletal photographs of them suffering. We also tend to equate danger with evil present  in Creation,  like a Great White Shark biting you in half. We jump from this to assuming even the laws of physics – like gravity – are somehow affected, as if jumping off a five story building and breaking your leg as a result, is somehow  a manifestation of sin which wouldn’t occur in pre-sin Eden.  But my rabbinically-trained friend Richard said to me ‘there was lack in the Garden, before sin entered the world; Adam says in Hebrew “At last – this one!” when he sees Eve – the rabbis point out that this means even the ‘perfect’ world of Eden included lack. Struggle – such as to overcome lack or deficiency or scarcity – is not evil – none of those things are.’

Richard’s words set off a chain reaction in my mind which caused all sorts of things that had been swirling around to start to coalesce into some thoughts that dovetailed with his comment. If, in the Age to Come, “the leaves of the trees are for the healing of the nations” (Rev 22:2) and “those who have been faithful with a few things will be entrusted with being in charge of many things” (Mt 25:21), it seems there is still work to do in the World to Come, and work typically entails effort, struggle, overcoming a lack or deficiency – all things we tend to associate with sin or ripple effects of evil. Do limits still exist in the Age to Come? Are there still consequences for ignoring danger implicit in the way the Universe is created?  Are our ideas about the future world so colored by Greek and Platonic ideas about perfection that we have confused categories like effort, deficiency, and lack, with evil? I wonder if process theology can help us think through some things in this area?

Our best, their worst

This is sort of part two to How do you judge a denomination?

One of the things we need to beware of is comparing our best to someone else’s  worst. We do this all the time. A family member of mine once remarked “Man, those Catholics are really screwed up.”  Having read the gigantic 1994 Catechism, and knowing he hadn’t, I asked “What do you mean?” He went on to describe some Catholics he knew. Of course the ones he was describing were folks who went to Mass once or twice a year, considered themselves Catholic, and didn’t practice the Christian religion at all. I said something like, Are you kidding me? Of course comparing a lapsed, non-practicing Catholic to the best Nazarenes you know makes it look like we are way better than them – how about comparing apples to apples? You don’t think I can show you people who attend a Nazarene church once in a blue moon, who if asked would say “yeah, I’m Nazarene” whose lives are a wreck ? They’re all over the landscape! You can’t think of one group’s worst representatives on the one hand, and think of your group’s best representatives on the other, and call that a fair comparison. This should go without saying, but we do it all the time.

If we are in a group we esteem, we tend to conceptualize that group by its best results. When we aren’t part of a group, or don’t like their theology, etc., we tend to think of the bad examples of why we don’t think they are all that great. Want to compare Catholics to Nazarenes? Put one of our best up against Mother  Teresa or Francis. Want to look down on Pentecostals? Try comparing your life to my great, great Aunt Evelyn. I have “sort-of” “former”’ “non-practicing” “lapsed” Nazarenes all over this town whose fractured, messed up lives would give any lapsed Catholic a run for their money! We don’t accomplish any valuable evaluation of a religious group’s health or end-results by comparing our best to their worst.

How do you judge a denomination?

After two glorious weeks of doing something more important than thinking theology – deer hunting in the Pennsylvania mountains with every bit of my spare time – I am back. Here’s a thought: how do you judge, “size up,” or evaluate a denomination, church, tradition, or even other religion?

I get asked this all the time. Someone will say to me “what do you think about the _______ (fill in the blank) – Methodists? Mormons? River Brethren? Episcopalians? Catholics ? You get the idea. And that usually evokes something like the following musings.

How do you “judge” a group? Do you evaluate them by their official, published theology? Or do you evaluate them by what their current working theologians actually believe (which is often different than their published ‘official’ line on a subject. Those kinds of official changes take time).  Or do you evaluate them by what their top-tier leader(s) believe? Or, do you evaluate them by what the majority of their members believe? (This is often different than what their published theology says, what their theologians currently think, AND what their leaders say!) Alternately, do you drop all of those tests-for-orthodoxy, and come at it from a different approach – evaluate a group by the kind of Christians they produce? Churches, denominations, etc. often produce better Christians than their theology would logically lead to! Or, to put it another way, their theology may be wide of where yours is, but the quality of the Christians they develop is nevertheless fantastic.

A couple thoughts about this: contrary to what we would assume, poor theology doesn’t necessarily result in poor following of Jesus. It doesn’t necessarily result in low returns in love, joy, peace, patience, goodness, kindness, gentleness, humility and self-control.  Weird doctrines and strange practices don’t stop people from loving Jesus and living how he says. Said another way,  strange ideas are not able to keep the Spirit of  Jesus out of the room. And they can’t stop Jesus from working in someone’s life. This is axiomatic. Just as high prices do not actually mean high profits, poor theology doesn’t actually mean people follow Jesus poorly. Obviously by the existence of this blog, I am deeply interested in theology. However, we need to recognize that judging a group by its theology, at whatever level, does not give us a picture of something even more important: how its members follow Jesus, and how their hearts reflect the characteristics His Spirit develops in us.