Thursday, January 26, 2012

Kingdom? What kingdom?

Not long ago, I was asked to read a piece of scripture for my seminary's spring convocation service. At this service, my wife and the rest of the students in her MDiv cohort will be commissioned as they prepare to travel on a pilgrimage to Burma, where they will be spend some of their time visiting a Burmese refugee camp.

The verses I was asked to read are from Luke 17:20-21:

Once Jesus was asked by the Pharisees when the Kingdom of God was coming, and he answered, ‘The Kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed; nor will they say, “Look, here it is!” or “There it is!” For, in fact, the Kingdom of God is among you.’

There are lots of translational eccentricities with this text-segment. For instance, we have all heard it translated as "The Kingdom of God is among you," as well as the way in which it is picked up in Tolstoy's Christian anarchist manifesto, The Kingdom of God is Within You.  Since I was going to be reading this out loud to a large gathering of people, I felt it was important to get this right. I quickly shot a question back to the seminary: Should I say that the Kingdom of God is among you, or the Kingdom of God is within you? That one word makes all the difference: among implies that the Kingdom is physically present within the crowd (perhaps in the person of Jesus of Nazareth?), while within suggests that the Kingdom lives within the hearts and minds of those gathered.

Came the reply from the seminary: "You should use "The Reign of God is among you."

This brings up a completely different translational issue: what do we do about the word "Kingdom"?

The Greek word is βασιλεια (basileia), literally, "kingdom." But there are problems with translating this word literally—I'll get to that in a minute. Yesterday, while discussing this issue over coffee with friends, I began to develop a few possible answers (or, at least, conversational perspectives):

1. We should translate βασιλεια as "Kingdom." Two of my friends said that it's a good thing to leave well enough alone—the word kingdom is a good, accurate translation.

2. We should translate it as "Reign." This is understandable. The word kingdom has obvious bias based in a patriarchal society. Why not "Queendom of God"?

3. My friend Mark says that words like kingdom can have negative connotations within oppressed cultures, and suggests that "Dream of God" might be a better way to communicate the idea behind βασιλεια. This holds special meaning among societies who have gone through such economic and social hardship that they have let go of dreaming of future possibilities.

4. Still others say that we should leave the word in its Greek form. If we don't have an adequate translation, we should let the word speak for itself.

These are all good answers. The difficulty is that words like kingdom and reign have lost their meaning in the global culture of the 21st century. You don't see too many true blue kingdoms in the world anymore, and the word reign doesn't mean much within a democratic context. And the word dream (while certainly beautiful) fails to communicate the deeply political dichotomy between the Basileia of God and the Empire of Caesar in first-century Judea. I also think that leaving the word as it stands in Greek is difficult, as well, as Basileia doesn't adequately convey the passage's spiritual context to the normal, everyday (non-Greek speaking) person in the church pew.

I don't have a solid answer as to how this verse should be translated. I just know that 1) it should be appropriately political, 2) it should be deeply spiritual, and 3) it must be approachable from the perspective of "the least of these."
I'm interested in what you think. You can post your opinions in the comments below.

Friday, January 6, 2012

Why I Am Still A Christian

I am not a Christian.

At least, not by the standard definition espoused by most Christians in America (and perhaps around the world) today. I don't believe in the so-called virgin birth. I believe that scripture should play second fiddle to experience. I'm not completely convinced of the bodily resurrection of the crucified Jesus. At this point in my spiritual life, I think that the apostle Paul of Tarsus was a hack (although I have openly declared my willingness to have my mind changed about him). I'm a Quaker, which pretty much knocks me off the Christian shelf for most other denominations.

But I still cling to the Christian faith.

My extreme suspicion of the institutional Church and my lack of belief in most things orthodox have led many of my friends to ask me: So just why do you still associate with that bunch? Why do you still call yourself a Christian?

Below I have tried to list a few answers that very question. By no means is it an exhaustive list, but feel free to peruse it and post any further questions below. This is (essentially) why I am still a Christian:

1) Because my great-grandfather was a carpenter. I think.
Around the time I graduated high school, my Granddad passed down to me a substantial amount of his father's possessions. My great-grandfather, whose nickname became my birth name, was a seminary-educated United Methodist pastor, a homesteader, an all-around tinkerer, and—I'm told—quite the carpenter. He was a boldly human man, who couldn't relate a decent joke without cracking up halfway through telling it, and once tried to convince the workers at the local senior nutrition center that a cherry pit found in a slice of pie meant that he got to kiss the cook. He loved his family and—I'm told—was a good person. However, he died when I was very young, after a series of strokes and a descent into dementia which left him a fragment of the person he once was. Among his possessions handed down to me were his small theological library (including the original copy of his BDiv thesis from Eden Theological Seminary), and a small, darkly stained wooden lectern which—I'm told—he crafted with his own hands, and frequently used to hold his sermons as he preached in rooms without pulpits.
It recently occurred to me, however, that I'm not really sure that my great-grandfather actually made that lectern. I didn't know him extremely well; I never personally saw him working in his shop, never saw him slathering stain on carefully sanded and assembled pieces of wood. In fact, the only reason I have to believe that he actually built the little makeshift pulpit is based upon the uncertain suppositions ("I think your great-grandfather made that...") of my mother and grandfather.
It then occurred to me that ultimately, I don't really care whether or not he actually made it—I will treat it as such. I treasure that little lectern as one of my most prized possessions, because it has great personal meaning for me, and because—regardless of whether he built it or not—it most certainly belonged to my great-grandfather.
I believe in God because I have experienced a profound longing in my heart for a greater purpose for not just humanity, but for this insignificant little verdant planet we call Earth. And though I may not believe in the virgin birth, or that Jonah was actually swallowed by a big fish (ask me about my beliefs on the book of Jonah sometime), that doesn't mean that those stories do not hold great significance for me. Quite the opposite, actually.

2) Maybe I was born with it; maybe it's Maybelline.
No bones about it; I was born into a culture that gave primacy to a Christian ideology/worldview. Had I been born into a Muslim culture, this post may very well have been entitled Why I Am Still a Muslim, or Buddhist, or Hindu, or Baha'i, or Scientologist. Well, maybe not that last one. Some people view this as a reason for rejecting one's worldview—after all, we tend to either love or hate the niche in which we were raised. Instead, I embrace it. It's my culture. I was born into it. I find meaning in it. I will embrace it and make it my own.

3) Because I have a hard time fully dismissing something that I don't fully understand.
Granted, this is not a satisfactory argument—I don't need to kill someone to dismiss the act of killing. And I will fully admit that I have given up on ideas and practices in the past that I did not fully understand. However, most of the people I know who have rejected the entirety of Christianity have not stuck with it long enough to learn about it in depth, essentially throwing the baby out with the proverbial bathwater. The Christian tradition is so multi-faceted that one could spend their whole life trying to nail down a systematic worldview, and would never succeed at it. This fascinates me.

4) Because I am madly in love with Jesus of Nazareth.
I have read the gospels. I have seen in the person of Jesus not the doom and gloom caricature offered by much of fundamentalist theology, but instead the radical, wild-eyed prophet of Love, who emerged out of the ancient Judean wilderness and who speaks to us today even as he spoke to the oppressed peasant farmers who gathered at his feet to hear stories of nonviolent revolution, of the unleashing of the Kingdom of God on earth in the here-and-now. And while it can be said of many—if not most—theologians, philosophers, writers, prophets, and troubadours that they are merely products of their time, I firmly believe that the words, Love one another; if someone strikes you on the left cheek, turn to them the other also; blessed are the poor, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven; and blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God, will never quite lose their gravity or usefulness to the hearts of people. Jesus tapped into the common bond of what it means to be human, and asserted this with his claim, Who are my mother and brothers? THESE are my mother and brothers, indicating the kinship of all who were gathered to hear him speak.

Such teachings and insights will never lose their beauty or their allure for me.