Labels, Identity, and God

What comes to mind when you think of labels and how they define your identity?  Can your unique personality truly be captured by a series of simple labels?  Can anyone’s?

For better or worse, humans love to categorize things.  We can scarcely observe any phenomenon in the world without assigning some label or category to what we see.  But it is important to remember that labels are merely words.  They are tools which may be useful in certain situations, but which can also be extremely damaging in others.

Personal identity labels come in many forms.  Some of the most common types include*:

  • Race labels (e.g. “white”, “black”, etc.)
  • Gender labels (e.g. “man”, “woman”, etc.)
  • Age labels (e.g. “old”, “young”, etc.)
  • Sexual Orientation labels (e.g. “gay”, “straight”, etc.)
  • Ethnicity labels (e.g. “Jewish”, “European”, “Arab”, etc.)
  • Occupation labels (e.g. “doctor”, “mechanic”, etc.)
  • Religious labels (e.g. “Christian”, “Muslim”, “Evangelical”, etc.)

The way in which an individual responds to a given label is determined by numerous factors.  These may include: the type of label (e.g. Race, Gender, Age, etc.), who is giving them the label, and their personal experience.  Often, if a person is giving a label to themselves, they will react more positively than to a label that is thrust upon them by someone else.  If I proudly declare myself “gay”, I will likely not be offended if someone else labels me in the same way.  But, of course, context is also crucial.  In some cases, when an otherwise accepted label is used in a derisive or hurtful way, it will certainly not be well-received.  In contrast, if I do not label myself as “old”, but someone else uses it to label me, even though they may have the kindest of intentions, I may still become deeply offended.

The primary drawback of using labels to categorize people is that most labels come with a whole set of cultural and societal stereotypes, and these stereotypes may vary greatly between individuals using the label.  In one cultural context, for example, a person labeled as an “elderly” “female” “Christian” might be a target of harassment or even assault, while in another cultural context, the same labels may describe an individual to be respected and revered.

So why is this important?  How is this relevant to our discussions of spirituality and faith?

I believe that one of the most abused and misunderstood labels in use in society is the label “God”.  But why is “God” a label, you ask?  Because, on its own, “God” has no specific meaning.  Rather, the word assumes the meaning of the societal sub-group that uses it.  Worse, the meaning of the label assumed by people outside the societal sub-group almost never matches the meaning of those within it.  The problem, again, is the stereotypes at play.

There is an unfortunate tendency for humans to latch onto one specific narrative and doggedly assume that the narrative they have chosen (or in many cases, the one that has been chosen for them) is the one and only correct one.  This is especially evident in matters of faith, and can result in extremely volatile and harmful exchanges.  Many Evangelical Christians, for example, may assume that their own narrative describing the label “God” is the only correct interpretation, and that anyone else who uses the label “God” for something other than what the Evangelical believes it means, is using it incorrectly.  The Evangelical may hear a Muslim saying that they worship “God” (“Allah”, in Arabic), and assume, incorrectly, that they are blaspheming the Evangelical’s interpretation of that label.

Here is where we must remember what the label “God” actually is.  It is a word, a symbol; and as spiritual teacher Jiddu Krishnamurti would often say, “the word is not the thing”.  The word itself has no intrinsic meaning, only the meaning(s) society and culture have placed upon it.  In other words, the stereotypes that have been associated with it by different groups.  So, when a Christian hears a Muslim utter the word “Allah”, they should not immediately take offense and think they have to defend “their” God’s name from abuse.

After all, if there is truly only one God, does it really matter what labels are used to describe it?  Our words are wind, meaningless.  The essence of the divine cannot be named or confined by language.  The Jews may have had it right when they claimed that God’s true name is unutterable.  So why must we cling so adamently to these words and labels that attempt to constrain the Creator of all things to a single narrative?

Another example: when a Christian calls themselves a “Child of God”, or asserts the same of a non-Christian, what unintended consequences might this have?  As we have discovered, the label “God” means many different things to different people, and the stereotypes it carries may also depend on who is using the label, as well as who is being labelled.  Thus, the non-Christian may have an entirely different notion of “God” than the Christian attempting to apply the label to them.  They may consider it an affront to be associated with what they might view as a petty, vengeful, warmongering deity, or what they might believe does not exist at all.  Whereas, the Christian may have simply been trying to suggest that all of humanity shares a fundamental commonality that unites all of us.  They could be uttering an entirely true statement, but due to the stereotypes associated with certain labels, what they are trying to communicate gets “lost in translation”.

So, is there a practical solution?  Is there a way to use these labels in such a way that we do not risk offending others who disagree on the labels’ interpretation?  Sadly, there is no uniform mitigation for these potential misunderstandings.  We also cannot abandon labels entirely, due to their valuable utility in certain scenarios.  It would seem the only thing we can do is to be mindful of the various ways in which labels are interpreted, and be humble in our own interpretation, understanding that the narrative we choose to assign to words such as “black”, “old”, “elite”, “Christian”, or even “God”, is not the only narrative that exists.  We must learn to be accepting of other interpretations and be willing to learn more about the narratives of others if we are to live in a truly peaceful world.

 

* A more comprehensive table with additional examples is provided below.

Identity Label Type Examples
Race “white”, “black”, “east Asian”, “Middle-Eastern”, “Hispanic”
Gender “man”, “woman”, “transsexual”, “intersex”
Age “old”, “young”, “middle-aged”, “elderly”, “millennial”, “boomer”
Sexual Orientation “gay”, “straight”, “homosexual”, “bisexual”, “cis-gendered”
Ethnicity “Jewish”, “European”, “Arab”, “African-American”, “Indian”
Education “college-educated”, “smart”, “dumb”, “intellectual”, “uneducated”
Occupation “doctor”, “mechanic”, “professional”, “janitor”, “teacher”
Religion “Christian”, “Muslim”, “Jew”, “Hindu”, “Buddhist”, “Evangelical”, “Catholic”
Socioeconomic “rich”, “poor”, “well-to-do”, “elite”, “wealthy”, “rural”, “urban”

 

 

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Thoughts on Penal Substitutionary Atonement: Part 1 of 2

In this first part of a 2-part series, we’ll take a look at the Christian doctrine of Penal Substitutionary Atonement.  What is it?  How did it come about?  And what does it mean for our lives today?


Penal Substitutionary Atonement is the current prevailing interpretation of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, in Western Christianity.  This doctrine is based on several interdependent premises:

Premise 1:

Human beings are inherently sinful by nature.  Known as the “total depravity of man”, this is a belief originally popularized by St. Augustine of Hippo in the 4th century CE.  It is claimed that this sinful nature is the result of the so-called “original sin” of Adam & Eve, who disobeyed God and ate the forbidden fruit offered by the serpent in the Garden of Eden.

Premise 2:

Because of our sinful nature, human beings are entirely unworthy of being with God, and have thus been “cut off” from communion with Him.  With no way to justify ourselves morally, we can never earn our way back into God’s favor.  Unfortunately, the ultimate price of sin, which we are automatically guilty of from birth, is eternal damnation in a literal, burning Hell.  This last part may vary by denomination, but the end result is permanent exclusion from God’s presence.  This is the inescapable fate of every human being descended from Adam & Eve.  (Gee, thanks, guys!)

Premise 3:

Since God does not wish for all of humanity to be ultimately destroyed, he sent his “Son”, in the form of Jesus Christ, to live among mankind.  Although Jesus spent his life teaching a radical doctrine of love and acceptance, healing the sick and uplifting the marginalized, His ultimate purpose was to die on a cross by one of the most brutal execution methods ever invented.  This “blood sacrifice” was a fundamental requirement for any member of the human race to achieve “salvation”, and thereby be redeemed by God.

Premise 4:

This redemption is possible because the sins committed by every person, living or dead, past, present, and future, were somehow magically transferred “onto” Christ at his death, allowing his death to serve as an atoning sacrifice for mankind.  Thanks to this miraculous act of divine transference, God’s requirement of eternal damnation for any sin, even the smallest infraction, has now been met, and humans are eligible for reconciliation with their Creator.

It is worth noting that, although Penal Substitutionary Atonement is a widely accepted doctrine in the Western Church today, that was not always the case.  During the first few centuries of the Common Era, several alternative positions were held by different groups within the church.  The idea of “Christus Victor” was perhaps chief among these, and was embraced by the early church father, Irenaeus, in the 2nd century.  This interpretation viewed Jesus’ death and resurrection as a symbolic triumph over the forces of sin and death in the world, not as an atoning sacrifice required by God to pay for the sins of mankind.  Other, more radical positions, such as Universal Salvation, whereby all are saved through Christ, universally and unconditionally, were also taken up by other groups within the church.

A careful examination of Church history reveals that it was likely Constantine’s desire to make Christianity more palatable to the largely Pagan Roman population, that eventually influenced the Church to settle on Penal Substitutionary Atonement as the “official” interpretation of Christ’s life, death and resurrection.  Human sacrifice was a practice familiar and well-understood by the people of the Empire.  The citizens of Rome were more likely to accept a religion they could relate to, than the unfamiliar theme of universal brotherhood that Jesus actually taught and practiced.

There are two chief arguments against the Penal Substitutionary Atonement doctrine:

1. First, it implies a limitation on God. It suggests that He is incapable of forgiving people just because He wants to, that there is some sort of “cosmic condition” that even God Himself is subject to. It suggests that God must receive a literal blood sacrifice to pay for sin before He will deign to forgive a single human soul.

This argument is perhaps best conveyed by an analogy.  What would you do if your teenage son took your new car out for a spin and totaled it?  Now, you might be tempted to get retribution; perhaps demand that he buy you a new car with his meager $6.50 an hour job delivering pizza, or turn over part of his college fund to pay for the damage he caused.  But would you?  He is your son, after all, and you love him.  You may, in fact, forgive him.  With no strings attached.  Without condition or retribution.  Might you?  So, are we saying that we love our son more than our Father loves us, that we are capable of greater mercy and forgiveness than the Holy God of the Universe?  But wait a minute; that can’t be right!  God IS Love… isn’t He?

2. And second, Penal Substitutionary Atonement is cruel and self-contradictory. When taken in conjunction with Trinitarianism, the argument basically goes that: “God was angry with mankind, so God sent Himself to pay the price that He Himself demanded, in order to save mankind from His own eternal wrath.”  This seems a rather circuitous route for the all-powerful God of the Universe to take, just to get to a point where he can commune with his Creation again.

There is also debate over the merit of sacrifices in general.  In Isaiah 1:11, we are told: “What are your multiplied sacrifices to Me?” says the Lord.  “I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams and the fat of fed cattle; And I take no pleasure in the blood of bulls, lambs or goats.” Are we to believe that God takes no pleasure in the blood of livestock, yet demands that of His Son as an atoning sacrifice for mankind?

The doctrine of Penal Substitutionary Atonement also leads to what could be considered an unhealthy preoccupation with blood.  Christians have possibly the greatest fascination with a person’s blood of any modern people group (besides vampires, of course!).  Christians talk and sing continually about: spilling it, shedding it, bathing in it, and yes, even drinking it, through the phenomenon of transubstantiation.  In any other context, this emphasis on someone’s, anyone’s, blood, would be considered gruesome at best, or downright psychopathic, at worst.

It seems that, despite our denunciation of the ancient practice of ritual animal sacrifice as barbaric, and the practice of human sacrifice as downright evil, we insist upon glorifying one particular example of it.  The fact is that the Roman practice of crucifixion was barbaric.  It was supposed to be.  It was the worst possible way the Romans could come up with to torture and, frequently only after days of agony, rid themselves of those guilty of the most capital offenses.  Among these capital offenses was, of course, sedition and challenging the will of the Empire.


In Part 2 of this series, we’ll look at an alternative view of the Cross, in light of the true meaning of the Law of Moses, as revealed by Jesus and the Apostle Paul.

The Bible: An Honest Look

It is a well-established fact in secular academia that the Bible contains much that is more similar to mythology and legend, than to objective reality.  Creation of the world in six twenty-four hour days, an idyllic primordial garden with a talking snake and trees whose fruit can grant Life and Knowledge, a global deluge that covered the entire planet, leaving only eight survivors to re-populate the human race, among many others.  It is unfortunate that many in the religious community find this so threatening to their faith.  Biblical inerrancy has not always been the norm within the Christian church, and still isn’t in the Catholic and mainline Protestant denominations.  Being able to interpret spiritual truths from Scripture, while granting its authors the leeway to understand the world on their own terms, rather than ours, is a valuable ability.  And for those who are able, the objective reality discovered by Science, Archaeology, and Paleontology does nothing to diminish the power and significance of the Bible in their lives.

To understand the value of the Bible on its own terms, we must start at the beginning…  Firstly, we should acknowledge the debt of gratitude we owe to the Jewish people for holding the Old Testament together for so long; this is an astonishing feat, regardless of the text preserved. However, the best biblical scholars, both secular & religious, suggest that the various books of the Jewish Scriptures were first written down and compiled into something similar to their present form around the time of the return of the Israelites from Babylonian captivity, around 500 BCE. This is actually the first time we are able to start corroborating the biblical narrative with other primary sources (e.g. Persian & Assyrian writings of the same time, etc.)  No doubt, the Jews had a rich oral tradition that may have been written down in fragments prior to this point, but all evidence suggests that it was mostly oral until post-exilic times.

There is a marked lack of archaeological evidence to support biblical stories earlier than this period. The Exodus account, for example, which would have amounted to nearly half of the population of Egypt packing up and leaving at once, right after every single firstborn in the country died on the same night, is never mentioned in the meticulous Egyptian records we have from that time period. There is some evidence for a much smaller group of foreigners picking up stakes and heading to Canaan around that time, but nothing remotely near the scope of the biblical story. The “conquest” of Canaan is also unsupported by archaeology – we just don’t see evidence of the rampant, wholesale destruction depicted in the book of Joshua, etc.  One theory suggests that the stories we see in the early part of the Old Testament were traditional “folklore”, for lack of a better term, common during and after the post-exilic period, that gave the Jews a cohesive narrative for why they were in Israel in the first place: their God rescued them from Egypt and gave it to them – a possible exaggeration of what may have actually occurred with the smaller group of Hebrews, and why they had a right to the land: their God was so enthusiastic about them having it that He’d helped them completely wipe out the original residents.  Evidence suggests, however, that the original residents were less “wiped out” and more “integrated into” the Israelite nation, once they settled in the area. This integration is also alluded to in the biblical text by all the troubles the Israelites had resisting the temptation to worship the Canaanite gods, such as Ba’al.

Based on these arguments, the Old Testament was likely assembled in written form over a much shorter period of time than the events it records, based primarily on oral tradition. We can also see some evidence of this “cohesiveness by hindsight” in the way historical situations are “set up” to support the “present” (post-exilic) reality. One example that stands out prominently is the story of Noah’s son, Ham, who saw his father naked, resulting in God cursing Ham’s son, Canaan, “for all time”. What a marvelous setup for the later destruction of Canaan by God’s hand.  When one realizes that the stories themselves were created to explain the present, rather than to record the past, they become much easier to understand.  There are many other examples of this phenomenon throughout the Old Testament scriptures.

The New Testament is even trickier. Here, we have what starts as a sort of “underground” Jewish movement that was unsupported by the mainstream scribes responsible for copying/maintaining the Old Testament text. Most of the followers of Jesus, who maintained the early manuscripts prior to the time of Constantine, were not professionals, and it shows in the inconsistencies between the manuscripts we have available. The issues of historical legitimacy is certainly less concerning in the New Testament, because there actually is corroboration for much of the New Testament narrative in non-Biblical sources. Plus, we have countless more extant manuscripts of the Bible, including the New Testament, than any other ancient documents, such as those by Plato, Homer, and other classical writers of the time. It is thus quite probable that Jesus of Nazareth was indeed a real person who lived around the time the New Testament says he did, and it is likely that the gospels provide a relatively accurate picture of his teachings. But even the gospels were written in the late first and early second centuries (most of Paul’s letters pre-date the gospels); these were not first-hand accounts and likely include embellishments customized by the particular author for their particular audience, and for the particular objective they were trying to achieve. Regardless of technical accuracy, though, the teachings found in these pages are fantastic, powerful, and still relevant today.

The impact of this man named Jesus is undeniable, historically.  At the very least, he is the central figure of a tradition that has lasted over two thousand years and has grown into the largest religion on the planet! Certainly, this is nothing to sneeze at, regardless of who or what he was. There is little reason to doubt that St. Paul, also, was a very real, early proselyte for Christianity, who founded a number of churches in the region, and to many of which he wrote letters from prison.

All that said, it should be noted that the canonization process these books underwent is of fascinating and somewhat arbitrary design, so it becomes hard to believe that the texts, as organized, were “inspired” to be there, since it was clearly human decision-making that established which ones were and weren’t included. There were significant voices that did not want Revelation included, for example. Other books were “almost” included, but rejected in the final cut, e.g. the Shepherd of Hermas, and the Gospel of Thomas. The Gnostic gospels are another topic altogether. Written during the same period, these books were later deemed “heresy” by the official catholic church; but who’s to say? Why couldn’t one make the same “inspiration” argument for those books as for the canonized books?

The bottom line is that it is quite possible to respect the Bible, and believe that it is exceptional and valuable, without expecting more of it than it’s capable of delivering.  By holding to a strict doctrine of inerrancy, many Christians are not only ignoring a wealth of scientific discoveries made in recent centuries in the disciplines of Archaeology, Geology and Paleontology, but are also missing out on the true richness of this compelling library of ancient books, which has changed countless lives for the better, and, indeed, has changed the world.


For More on the Bible:

  • “Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why”, Bart Ehrman
  • “The Bible Tells Me So: Why Defending Scripture Has Made Us Unable to Read It”, Peter Enns
  • “Lost Books of the Bible”, William Hone
  • “Finding God in the Waves: How I Lost My Faith and Found It Again Through Science”, Mike McHargue (ch. 14 “The Good Book” )
  • “Big Questions”, Walt Groff & Mike Speegle (Week 2 – “Is the Bible Really God’s Word?”)
  • “The Bible for Normal People” podcast, Peter Enns & Jared Byas (multiple episodes)

For More on Jesus:

  • “The Case for Christ”, Lee Strobel
  • “Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth”, Reza Aslan
  •  “Big Questions”, Walt Groff & Mike Speegle (Week 1 – “Is There a God?”, “Where Does Jesus Fit In?”)
  • “Finding God in the Waves: How I Lost My Faith and Found It Again Through Science”, Mike McHargue (ch. 12 “Jesus”)

Kids & Church

A few thoughts in response to the following article from ChurchPlants.com: https://churchplants.com/articles/12421-how-skipping-church-affects-your-children-micah-anglo.html

While I agree with the sentiment behind this article, I think it’s important to consider which “church” the author is referring to, and the age of the children in question. Citing irregular attendance of church (the building) as a -cause- of young people leaving the Church (the community of believers) may be an oversimplification.

In my personal study over the last couple of years, I’ve come to believe that typical American Evangelical churches do much more to push young people away than to keep them “in the fold”, so to speak. Obviously, this is not true of -all- Evangelical churches, and I’m certainly not faulting their motivations, but I believe that offering children a broad perspective on faith and allowing them to express doubt and ask questions without casting judgment is more important than demanding their attendance at a particular church. Parents should set the example, yes, but, in the end, these kids will have to make their own choices, and the more choices (i.e. perspectives) they are exposed to, the more opportunity they have for spiritual growth once they get older.

Some may disagree with this, and I respect that, but this is coming from someone who felt “pushed away” by Evangelicalism as a young adult, but has discovered more about the nature, scope, and history of Christianity in the past 2 years than in the previous 36. There is a far more beautiful and tolerant tradition there, than what I was led (forced) to believe growing up… Just a thought.