Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Ecclesiastes: Admitting that life doesn't make sense

This book in the Old Testament (Hebrew Scriptures) that is called "Ecclesiastes" is a book that acknowledges that when you step back from life and reflect on it - well, it just doesn't make sense. The good don't necessarily get blessed, and the evil don't necessarily get cursed.

The only sense that Ecclesiastes finds in life is in the day to day living of it: "to eat, drink and find enjoyment in your toil."

To do a good day's work, to do a good job, to be able to say at the end of a project: "that was a job well done." To have given yourself to the task at hand and complete it. That is a good day. How it affects the rest of the world, you can't necessarily control. Nor can you control whether the man or woman who builds on what you have done does a good job and messes everything up.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Faith Against Religion

When I was in college I read Karl Barth's Commentary on Romans and, though that commentary was written in 1919, it read like the most contemporary comment I had ever read. Barth was interpreting Paul's Letter to the Romans and Christian faith through the lens of his present experience of God, which included Barth's dissatisfaction with the liberal Protestant theology of Germany, but which also included Barth's identification with Soren Kierkegaard's criticism of the Christianity of his day and some identification with the growing power of existentialism in 20th Century Europe.

Barth read Romans as God's resounding NO to all human religion, and, for Barth, that meant an attack on Christendom, particularly his own Protestant Christianity in Western Europe. Barth saw Christianity, both conservative and liberal, as co-opted by views of the world which had human beings and not God in the center. Maybe it is surprising to many of our present day liberals in the church that the liberal theologians in Germany saluted Hitler just as quickly, and, perhaps even more quickly than the conservatives. But, when the 1930's rolled around and the Nazis rose to power in Germany, Barth issued a holy "f. u." to Hitler and all his theology professors. Barth stood with the Jews, speaking in Berlin on public radio in an address: "Jesus, the Jew." Barth's criticism of human religion was so devastating and so Biblical that it caused an earthquake in Christian theology, an earthquake which hasn't been resolved. Barth found God's Word in the reckage of human thought, in the dissolution of human systems of philosophy and theology. And, he stood up with his Bible and preached in a way that nobody much had preached in a long while. And, Hitler hated his guts.

Thank God for Karl Barth. But, his influence was never too deep in the United States. His attack on the optimistic philosophies and theologies never really caught on in America. Theology students studied Barth in the 50's, 60's, 70's, and even 80's, but they didn't "get him." But, for those of us who really took Barth to heart, it has been hard to be Christians in the U.S.A., and it has been hard to keep up the fellowship with churches that seem to think that God takes marching orders from the church, and that the Bible is some book that is under the control of preachers and religious functionaries.

Barth's faith was about a radical reverence for God, and a radical criticism of all human authority. Barth thought that was what Jesus was about. And, as Liberation Theologians who understood Barth realized, faith inevitably gave rise to the criticism of human authority.

I preached today on "God's great NO to all humanity in Jesus Christ." This was Barth's great prophetic message that he proclaimed 90 years ago. But, as Barth would say, Paul proclaimed it almost 2000 years ago. I don't think most who were listening had ever heard the "cross" talked about as the criticism of all human authority and all human religion and all human ideology. But, Paul really puts this at the forefront of his interpretation of the death of Jesus. See 1 Corinthians 1!

Now, I said that the great NO is one with the great YES to all humanity in Christ. But, you can never hear the YES without hearing the NO, and you can't hear the NO without the radical hope of the YES in Christ from God. See Romans 5:15 to the end of the chapter.

Well, it's time to close. I close with one thought. How do I expect to have anyone who will listen to a preacher who criticizes the religion he is supposed to be propagating? All I can say is what Paul said long ago: "I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified."