Ask a Reformed Pastor...(Response)

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The Reformed tradition is much broader and more diverse than many of us realize, and since we’ve already featured the more conservative Justin Taylor for “Ask a Calvinist…” I thought it was time to interview someone from the progressive end of the Reformed spectrum for our “Ask a…” series. And I think we found the perfect interviewee. 

The Reverend Jes Kast-Keat is a Minister of Word and Sacrament in the Reformed Church in America. She currently serves as the Associate Pastor at West End Collegiate Church in Manhattan.  Jes is one of the twelve voices that writes for "The Twelve. Reformed. Done Daily" which is a collaborative project of diverse theologically Reformed voices. Her theological inspirations include John Calvin, Serene Jones, Oscar Romero, Teresa of Avila, and the countless everyday theologians who ask questions and "ponder anew what the Almighty can do". Preaching the grace of God and administering the sacraments is what gives life to Jes. You can follow her on Twitter here. 

You asked some fantastic questions, and Jes has responded with great thought and care. Enjoy! 

 

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From Jes: The grace and peace of the Triune God is yours!

Let’s rewind a few hundred years before we get to today’s questions, shall we? Imagine that it’s the year 1563 and we are living in a region of Germany called the Palatinate. The ruler of our land, Elector Frederick II, thanks to his wife, Princess Marie of Brandenburg-Kulmbach, is a new convert to the ideas of Calvin. He decides to gather a large group of ministers and commission them to write a Reformed confession in the form of 129 questions and answers that would serve the people as a devotional tool for preaching and teaching of Scripture. Little do we realize that some hundred years later this tool, called the Heidelberg Catechism, would be one of the most influential catechisms in the Reformed tradition.

Fast-forward to the year 2013 and let’s allow the Heidelberg Catechism to open up and frame our conversation for today:

Q 1. What is your only comfort in life and in death?
A. That I am not my own, but belong—body and soul, in life and in death—to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ.

He has fully paid for all my sins with his precious blood, and has set me free from the tyranny of the devil. He also watches over me in such a way that not a hair can fall from my head without the will of my Father in heaven; in fact, all things must work together for my salvation.

Because I belong to him, Christ, by his Holy Spirit, assures me of eternal life and makes me wholeheartedly willing and ready from now on to live for him.

Wandering pilgrim, resistant doubter, joy-filled believer – by the grace of Jesus, we belong to God. It is in that spirit that I offer my words.

 

From Ouisi:  “When you're doing pastoral care, you encounter suffering and sin in an upfront, here-and-now, personal and communal way. How does your Reformed faith impact your approach to human brokenness?”

Anytime I am in pastoral care with someone, I begin with the realization that I am sitting next to someone who is beloved of Christ. I am sitting next to someone who has the divine spark of God in them. Whatever suffering is brought into a pastoral care situations, I am reminded of Colossians 1:17, “In [Christ] all things hold together.” God is present; I am not God, but my role is to be keenly watching for where God is on the move, even (or especially) if that means God is crying with us in the immense pain that is present in our stories.

I am also not shocked by the ways things are not right.  Systematically and personally, goodness has been thwarted. This doesn’t mean that we aren’t capable of goodness and holiness; it just means that things are much more vulnerable than we like to realize. My job is to communicate the presence of God’s grace in the midst of things gone array. I’m constantly looking for the presence of God in unexpected moments and people.

 

RHE asks “So I guess my question is this: How do you understand election? Is it about individual salvation from hell or something else? And how is this compatible with the otherwise inclusive posture of so many progressive Reformed churches.”

Election is about mission. Election is about the type of people we are called to be in this world and not so much about the world after this. To be potentially cliché, election isn’t so much about what I’m saved from but what I’m saved for. Election is about being called to be lovers of the world. For God so loved the world, we are now to go and do likewise.

Or to directly link the two words from your question that everyone’s eyes immediately darted to (“election” and “hell”), election is about saving people from hell. But it’s not a furnace-in-the-future type of dystopia. The elect – that is, the people of God – are called to join God in working for the redemption of all things. This means quenching the thirst of those who spend every day on this earth in a hell without access to clean water and the myriad of other hell-on-earth realities that so many people are born into.

Election isn’t just Reformed fire-insurance. It’s a free gift of God’s grace for all the people of God. We don’t do anything to earn it or deserve it. But we receive it with gratitude. And it is from this gratitude, fueled by the grace of God, that we live lives as the called and chosen (but not frozen-chosen) and elect people of God in this world. 

This is why a progressive Reformed church will be so inclusive: our radical welcome is a reflection of God’s radical welcome. A God who lovingly welcomes all calls us to do the very same.

(Also, check out Nathan’s comments the first time you asked this. I don’t know who he is but his words are beautiful and accurately reflect how many of us in the Reformed tradition make sense of this!) 

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The following questions is from a colleague who I went to seminary with and is someone I recommend you all follow on twitter (@NatePyle79). He is a generous voice in the Reformed tradition.: What of the Reformed tradition do you struggle with most and how do you live with, and enter into, that struggle? What does the Reformed tradition uniquely offer the church and Christian thought?” 

I struggle when “Reformed” is past tense rather than present tense and we forget the living God is in our midst “doing a new thing” (Isaiah 43:19). My friend, Reverend Gretchen Schoon-Tanis, reminded me that our liturgy says, “I thirst for God for the living God, where shall I go?” I struggle when we forget this, when we disengage from the world, and when we forget that God is alive in our midst in places that some are quick to dismiss. The whole world is thick of the presence of the Holy.

I think we uniquely offer the marriage of the heart and head in worship, a unique liturgy and approach to scripture, and a sacramental worldview that implicitly cares for creation.

The marriage of the heart and head in worship: Reformed theology helped me realize I didn’t have to check my intellect at the door but it opened the door that all my questions/doubts/beliefs are held in grace.

Liturgy/Scripture: Our liturgical practices centralize around a rigorous engagement of Scripture. I’ve arrived to my progressive views in part because of Scripture, not in spite of it. The congregation I serve is welcoming and affirming of the LGBTQ community because of Scripture, we are involved in alleviating hunger because of Scripture, we think God calls all sorts of genders to preach because of Scripture, etc… I ask questions of the text and the text asks questions of my life; I love that.

Sacramental Worldview/Creation Care: Look, it’s the Reformed tradition where I was first introduced to a theological framework of creation care. In John Calvin’s Commentary on the Psalms he writes: “It is no small honour that God for our sake has so magnificently adorned the world, in order that we may not only be spectators of this beauteous theatre, but also enjoy the multiplied abundance and variety of good things which are presented to us in it.”

Put another way, the entire earth is full of the steadfast love of God (Psalm 33). The Reformed tradition provides a theological framework for caring for ground we walk upon!

 

From Aaron: I'll pickpocket Roger Olson and ask: "Do you believe God 'designed, ordained, and governs' sin and innocent suffering for his glory?"

Essentially this question is one of theodicy: why is there suffering and evil in this world? It’s a particularly fitting question for a Reformed theologian as our tradition is one that relishes in God’s sovereignty – all things are under God’s authority. 

Simply put, no, I do not believe that God ordains suffering. So what do I do with suffering? How do we make sense of it?  

The great Reformed theologian Karl Barth reminds us not to mistake God’s providence with an omnicausality, meaning that God is the cause of evil. There are so many theories on evil that I’m not sure always benefit us; there is a difficult mystery on this topic. Here’s what I do believe: I believe God suffers with us. I believe, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote in Letters and Papers from Prison, “The Bible directs us to God’s powerlessness and suffering; only the suffering God can help.” A God who suffers with us is a God who is intimately connected to our personal and systematic liberation. God is not a divine puppeteer removed from creation wishing us luck. God is with us and for us. A Reformed theologian I highly respect, the Reverend Carol Howard Merrit, has a fantastic little piece on this idea of God being for us that I encourage you to check out. 

While I struggle with the brutality of the cross, I find that this is the time and place to talk about the cross. For in this horrific moment we know a God who grieves. The cross shows us a God who suffers with us when the hands of humans enact injustice. 


From William: My question: How do you cope, as a female minister in the broadly "Reformed" spectrum, with the conservative-types in your tradition who neither value nor validate you as a genuine minister or even as being genuinely "Reformed"?

I’ve been baptized. I’ve known I’ve been called to ministry since I was a child and played pastor with my stuffed animals by giving them pieces of bread and grape juice enacting the Sacrament. The greater church confirmed that inward call when I was ordained as a Minister of Word and Sacrament. How do I cope? I remember my baptism and I dance in those waters of grace fiercely!

It sure as hell ain’t easy. I lean into the spiritual practice of lament, often. (Did you know that just fewer than 50% of the Psalms have lament themes in them?) Lament is a way we can honestly tell God how things are disappointing and how we long for the full reign of God in the midst of the brokenness we experience. I’m really good at honest and raw prayers (that whole “I love Jesus but I swear a little” is true in how I pray). I lament and find hope again and again each time.

When I was ordained my Pastor, the Reverend Jill Russell, charged me to remember my baptism on the days it was hard and remember I am from dust and to dust I shall return on the days my pride becomes my anthem. I live between water and dust.


From Ben: People outside the Reformed tradition often write about it as if it were synonymous with "Calvinism." (I've probably been guilty of this a time or two.) What do you wish the rest of us knew about Reformed theology that's bigger than just Calvin, Five Points, etc? (And conversely, what do you appreciate most about Calvin?)

I personally identify as a theologian and minister in the Reformed tradition and usually not just a Calvinist (though I do love much of Calvin). Why? Because there are so many voices between the Reformation and today that nuance this tradition so beautifully. I think the Reformed tradition is wide and deep. It was because of the book Feminist and Womanist Essays in Reformed Dogmatics that I first became a feminist theologian. I remember writing a paper on traditional views of atonement in light of feminist theology in seminary and thinking “I love this stuff!” (I got a 100% on that paper, still proud of that!) Imagine that, Reformed theology helped me become a feminist! I also suggest checking out Serene Jones’ book Feminist Theory and Christian Theology for a Reformed perspective. 

I think John Calvin was more of a mystic than what many know of him today. He writes about our mystical union with Christ, particularly in the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper. We are raised up to God and Christ meets us. Something mystical happens in the feast of grace. Wine and bread, these are the gifts of God for the people of God, Amen!

 

What do I hope I leave you with? 

1)    I am one voice in a large stream and do not represent the totality of progressive Reformed theology. 
2)    Bread, wine, water. Gifts of grace for you.
3)    Simply, Jesus loves you.

Thank you for your questions! I also want to thank Reverend’s Wayne Bowerman, Stacey Midge, and Jim Kast-Keat for their conversations with me in responding to your questions. I believe in the collective voice of the church! Know God is with each of you in your questions, thoughts, and beliefs. 

Joy,
Reverend Jes Kast-Keat

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Note: Kelly Youngblood is facilitating a conversation around the question, "What does it mean to be Reformed?" featuring a member of a church in the RCA, a CRC pastor, and a UMC pastor. Be sure to check that out! 

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Ask a (liberal) rabbi....Response

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Last week, you posed some excellent questions to Rabbi Rachel Barenblat as part of our ongoing "Ask a...." interview series, and Rabbi Rachel rose to the occasion with some really thoughtful and informative responses I'm thrilled to share with you today. 

 Rabbi Rachel was ordained by ALEPH: the Alliance for Jewish Renewal in 2011. She holds an MFA from the Bennington Writing Seminars and is author of three book-length collections of poetry: 70 faces: Torah poems (Phoenicia Publishing, 2011), Waiting to Unfold (Phoenicia, 2013), and the forthcoming Open My Lips (Ben Yehuda, 2014), as well as several chapbooks of poetry.  

A 2012 Rabbis Without Borders Fellow, she participated in a 2009 retreat for Emerging Jewish and Muslim Religious Leaders in 2009, and in 2014 will serve as faculty for that retreat. Rachel serves Congregation Beth Israel, a small Reform-affiliated congregation in western Massachusetts, where she lives with her husband Ethan Zuckerman and their son.  She blogs as The Velveteen Rabbi

 

We’ve already interviewed an Orthodox Jew. Since Rachel is a Jewish Renewal rabbi who serves a Reform congregation, she brings a different perspective. 

 

I hope you learn as much from this interview as I did! 

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From RHE: Are there any common assumptions that Christians tend to make about Jews that bug you?

I think the assumptions which bug me tend to be about Judaism writ large, not about Jews as individuals. For instance: the assumption that the Christian understanding of covenant has superceded and obviated the Jewish one, or that Judaism isn't a legitimate path to God in its own right. That Jesus rendered Judaism moot or obsolete. That Judaism is a tradition of dry, unforgiving legalism while Christianity is a religion of love. That last one probably frustrates me the most, not only because it's been used to justify some real unpleasantness toward Jews over the last two thousand years, but also because it's so antithetical to my experience of Judaism.

 

From Karl: Who do you feel you have more in common with, religiously - Christians who take a progressive/liberal theological approach to their faith similar to the way you approach Judaism, or Jews (conservative or Orthodox) who take a significantly more literal/conservative approach to the Jewish faith than you do?

I have a different kind of common ground with progressive/liberal Christians (or Muslims or Buddhists or Hindus or members of other religious traditions) than I do with Jews on the very-conservative end of the religious spectrum. Progressive religious folks of all stripes tend to share a post-triumphalism (a sense that it's time to move beyond the old triumphalist paradigm in which one religion is The Right Path to God and all the other paths are wrong), as well as an inclination toward reading our sacred texts through interpretive lenses which take into account changing social mores and changing understandings of justice. We experience God and revelation as perennially-unfolding, which means there's always room for new ways of understanding divinity and sacred text, especially when the old ways of understanding them (e.g. antiquated readings of Leviticus 18:22) turn out to be hurtful or to seem misguided.

My teacher Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi teaches that each religious tradition is an organ in the body of humanity. We need each one to be what it is and to bring its own unique gifts to the table. (If the heart tried to be the liver, the body would be in trouble.) But we also need each one to be in conversation with, connected with, the others. (If the heart stopped speaking to the liver, that would be a problem, too.) It's easier for me to connect with people of faith who share that kind of view -- who see all religious paths as legitimate paths to the One Who is beyond all of our imaginings -- than to connect with fundamentalists of any stripe.

That said, over my years of learning in rabbinic school, I've come to feel a deeper connection with Jews of all denominations. I believe in the ideal of klal Yisrael, the Jewish community as one family -- even though some members of that extended family do challenge me in a lot of ways! There's certain ground which I have in common with all Jews, even if our ways of being Jewish are very different.

 

From Keith: How do reformed Jewish clergy address the questions raised by the historicity of scripture? For example, the Exodus clearly plays a significant role in the scripture, yet no historical evidence exists that it actually happened.

To me, the question of whether or not the Exodus "really happened" is kind of beside the point. What matters to me is the fact that we keep telling this story. The telling and re-telling of this story is central to Jewish peoplehood.

The Exodus narrative -- that we were slaves to a Pharaoh in Egypt, and God brought us out of there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; that a mixed multitude left Egypt with us, which teaches us that freedom is not for us alone -- is central to Jewish identity. We retell this story each year during the Passover seder, of course, but there's more than that. We refer to it every day in our standard liturgy when we praise God Who redeems us from the narrow places which constrict our lives. (The Hebrew word   מצרים/ Mitzrayim, usually rendered as "Egypt," can also be read as "The Narrow Place" or "The Place of Constriction.") We refer to the Exodus every Friday night when we bless wine; the kiddush prayer which we sing over wine speaks both of God's resting on the seventh day of creation, and of our obligation to remember the Exodus from Egypt. And we do this regardless of whether or not we think it's historical truth.

Far more interesting, to me, than scripture's historicity (or lack thereof) is the way we interact with scripture devotionally, and what our continued attachment to this story can teach us. I've written on this subject before; my 2005 post, "Story and truth", is all about this question, and my 2008 post, "The historicity of revelation" may be relevant to your interests, too. The short version is: I don't think the Exodus did happen in historical time, but that doesn't at all detract from its powerful spiritual truth, or from the ways we've constituted our community through telling this story in the first person plural, and through embracing the teaching that the Exodus didn't just happen then but unfolds even now.

Of course, I've just answered this question on a personal level and you asked about the views of Reform clergy in general. Here's one Reform answer: "Were the Jews Slaves in Egypt?" by S. David Sperling. But one of the principles of Reform Judaism is that revelation is a continuous process, which means that it's perfectly "kosher" for our understandings of scripture to continue evolving and changing -- and also means that it's incumbent on each of us to learn enough to determine how to understand this story for ourselves.

For a Jewish Renewal perspective on the Exodus, you can't do better than Freedom Journeys, co-authored by Rabbi Arthur Waskow and Rabbi Phyllis Berman, which I reviewed for Zeek a while back. If you check out that review, you'll see that they begin with this very question ("Did the Exodus really happen?") and that their answer is really beautiful (and has informed my own.)

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From Hannah: I'm interested in reading about the Bible from a Jewish perspective but don't know where to start. I love the idea of Midrash, but the literature seems so vast and I feel overwhelmed. What would you recommend for a Christian who wants to try reading some Midrash?

The first text I'd recommend is Bereshit Rabbah, which has been widely-translated into English. (I don't own this Jacob Neusner edition but I trust his work and I expect it's both solid and true to the original.) Bereshit is the first word in the Torah; it means "In the beginning" (or "as God was beginning" or "in a beginning"), and it's also the name we use for the book known in English as Genesis. Bereshit Rabbah is midrash arising out of the Book of Genesis, and it's full of fascinating stuff.

I also recommend Hammer on the Rock, edited by Nahum Glazer, which is an anthology of short teachings from Midrash. And Barry Holtz's Back to the Sources: Reading the Classic Jewish Texts offers useful context, though it can be a bit dry at times. I put this question out to some of my Rabbis Without Borders colleagues, and in addition to seconding the Bereshit Rabbah idea, they recommended Searching for Meaning in Midrash: Lessons for Everyday Living by Michael Katz and Gershon Schwartz and Reading the Book: Making the Bible a Timeless Text by Rabbi Burt Visotzky.

If you're interested in contemporary / feminist midrash, don't miss The Five Books of Miriam: A Woman's Commentary on the Torah, edited by Ellen Frankel, which offers creative contemporary womens' response to Torah. I also love Rabbi Jill Hammer's Sisters at Sinai: New Tales of Biblical Women; Rabbi Shefa Gold's Torah Journeys, which exemplifies her personal midrashic way of relating to Torah; and Alicia Ostriker's The Nakedness of the Fathers: Biblical Visions and Re-Visions.

And let me mention as a meta-point: before you dive in, find someone who wants to study with you! The classical Jewish mode of study is never solitary; we learn in hevruta, which means a study-pair-of-friends. That way you can talk about what you're reading, and puzzle over it together. If there's something which confuses one of you, the other might see it clearly. Two minds really are better than one. And in the interplay between your two understandings arises the potential for learning a lot more -- and for deepening your relationship with each other and with God as you deepen your relationship with the text.

 

From HT: How do you interpret the passages where God seems to command things that are immoral? As God-inspired for a point in time? Or purely human writing? (i.e. Kill unruly children, Deut 21:18-21; Kill people who work on the sabbath, Ex 35.)

The classical Jewish answer is that these rules were never intended to be taken literally, and were in fact never followed at all. For instance, in the case of the commandment to stone an unruly child, our sages placed so many conditions and qualifications on that commandment that it could never have been carried-out. (You can see some of this back-and-forth in the Talmud, Tractate Sanhedrin, chapter 8, which is summarized for non-Aramaic-readers in the post, "Rebellious Son", at Jewish Virtual Library.)

Why am I talking about Talmud when you asked about Torah? In Jewish tradition, we frequently speak in terms of "Written Torah" (the text of the Hebrew Scriptures as they have come down to us) and "Oral Torah" (the ensuing centuries of conversations and interpretations of our sages and rabbis, which are also considered to be holy.) We always read Torah in the context of generations of commentators and interpreters, Rashi, Talmud, Midrash, all the way to new interpretations in the modern age.

We also frequently speak in terms of finding four levels of meaning in Torah: the simple / surface meaning, the hinted-at or allegorical meaning, the midrashic meaning, and the deepest secrets of the text at its root. (The acronym for those four levels of interpretation, in Hebrew, is פרדס / Pardes, which means Paradise. Any time we delve deep into the meanings of Torah, we get a taste of paradise!) So when we encounter a commandment which is problematic or immoral to our modern sensibilities (like stoning a disobedient child), we have a lot of hermeneutical tools at our disposal. The God to Whom I relate doesn't command the stoning of a disobedient child (nor the other "texts of terror" in Torah.) So either we need to accept that those texts are mired in the moment when they were written down, or we need to find a new way to read them.

My own belief is that Torah is a document written by human hands, which reflects the human sensibilities of those who wrote and codified it -- and that it is also a reflection of our encounter with God, both then and now. I see Torah as a mirror for our own spiritual development, a roadmap for our spiritual journey, a repository of our tradition's wisdom teachings. Jewish tradition holds that Torah has 70 faces, which tells me that Torah has many facets and can be understood in a variety of different ways -- indeed, it's that very richness and multiplicity which allows us to continue to experience it as holy. It's incumbent on us to find ways of reading it which are consonant with our most deeply-held morals and values. That is our obligation and our joy. As our sages say, "Turn it and turn it, for everything is in it."

(On that note, I recommend Alicia Ostriker's For the Love of God: the Bible as an Open Book.)

 

From Josh: Hi! I was wondering your thoughts on the eschatological views on Israel and the Middle East held by many Christian Evangelicals. How do they compare with your own views about the end times, and how it relates to present-day Israel/Palestine?

Thanks for asking. I'm troubled by the Christian Evangelical understandings of Israel to which you refer. First and foremost, those understandings arise out of a theology that's incompatible with my own. What I mean by y'mei moshiach, "the days of the Messiah" or "the messianic age," is not the same as what Evangelical Christians mean by that. (Here's an excellent article about the Messianic Concept in Reform Judaism, which articulates a Reform Jewish understanding of what messiah / messianic age mean. There's emphasis on tikkun olam, healing the world, and on our partnership with God in bringing about the day when the work of perfecting creation is complete.) I'm also affiliated with the Jewish Renewal movement, and in Renewal, we frequently use Hasidic metaphors -- which in turn draw on kabbalistic metaphors -- of raising up the sparks of divinity in creation in order to heal creation's brokenness. Again: very different from the Evangelical sense of eschaton as I understand it.

I also don't like the sense that for those Evangelicals, we're a means to an apocalyptic end. They value us, and our presence in the Middle East, not on our own merits but as a stepping-stone to bringing the end times. As Jay Michaelson wrote in his recent article, "George W. Bush Embraces Jews for Jesus", published in the Jewish Daily Forward earlier this month, "To make a rapture omelet, you’ve got to break some human eggs." Thanks, but no thanks. (That also relates back to my answer to Rachel's first question, about Christian misconceptions of Judaism. I suppose another one of those misconceptions would be "Jews exist on this earth for the purpose of moving to Israel and bringing on Armageddon.")

And, this whole conversation renders Palestinians and their love of/rootedness in that land invisible, which troubles me greatly. How can one seek to create peace with another people when one doesn't even acknowledge that they're there? I yearn for a future in which Jews and Palestinians can live side-by-side in respect and peace. But I fear that those who seek to bring about Armageddon by shipping all of the world's Jews to Israel and/or rebuilding the Temple on the Temple Mount don't care about peace in this lifetime. (For a glimpse of one Jewish Renewal teaching about the Third Temple, try my post, "Reb Zalman on Chanukah, the Third Temple, and God's Broadcast." I really like his teaching that the Third Temple will not be built of bricks and stone, but already exists as a beacon of compassion, and our task is to attune our hearts to that compassion.)

Instead, I'm invested in the work of continuing to create a strong and vibrant Jewish Diaspora as well as working for peace, justice, and harmony in the Middle East.

 

From RHE: I'd love to hear more about Emerging Jewish and Muslim Leaders. What did you learn about interfaith dialog from that experience? What strategies for productive conversation around religious differences proved most effective from your perspective?

I participated in a retreat for Emerging Jewish and Muslim Leaders when I was in rabbinic school, and it was amazing. (I wrote an essay about it which opens up some of what I found so meaningful and beautiful -- "Allah is the Light: Prayer in Ramadan and Elul.") A group of ten Jewish rabbinic students (from across the denominations) and a group of ten emerging Muslim leaders spent three days together on retreat. During that time, we studied the story of Joseph as it appears in both of our traditions -- in holy text (Torah and Qur'an) and in commentary (midrash and tafsir) -- and also learned a lot about each other. I'm looking really forward to helping to facilitate a similar retreat in 2014, this time just for women. Jews and Muslims have a tremendous amount in common, though that's often overlooked or ignored in both of our communities.

Some of what I learned about interfaith dialogue: we need to speak to each other face to face. It's good to break bread together. We need to be ready to hear truths which may discomfit us. We need to be able to de-center our own experience in order to hear someone else's perspective wholly. There's a kind of sharing and intellectual / spiritual intimacy which is only possible after a few days of dining together, learning together, studying our sacred texts together. We frequently carry the same stereotypes about each other without knowing it. It's incumbent on all parties to try to recognize their own prejudices and assumptions, and to be willing to set them aside. We have more in common than we think.

 

From Sarah: As a clergywoman in a Christian denomination, I wonder what your journey was like – were you always accepted because you were in Reform congregations, or were there still struggles over gender issues?

I am delighted to be able to say that this was never an issue for me. The first woman rabbi was actually ordained in 1935, though no others followed her until some decades later. But the Reform movement has been ordaining women since 1972, and I grew up knowing that women could be rabbis if we wanted to. My teacher Reb Zalman ordained the first woman in Jewish Renewal in 1981 when he ordained Rabbi Lynn Gottlieb. (For more information: A History of Women's Ordination at the Jewish Virtual Library is decent, though a bit dated; it doesn't speak, for example, of happenings in the contemporary Orthodox world such as the ordination of women under the new title Maharat. For more on that, try the Forward's The Maharat Movement.) The Reform movement and the Jewish Renewal community have also been ordaining members of the GLBT community for many years. I'm humbled and honored to be part of this chain of learning and teaching.

I hope these answers are helpful and satisfying. Thanks for inviting me!

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So great, right?  

Be sure to thank Rachel on Twitter. And you definitely want to check out her blog. (Her latest post is about Dinah and rape culture!)  

Check out the rest of our "Ask a..." series.  

 

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Ask an Interfaith Couple…Response

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Our latest “Ask a…” installment generated quite a bit of interest, and today I’m pleased to share Dana and Fred’s responses to your questions about being an interfaith couple. 

Dana is an ordained in the Southern Baptist tradition and writes about the joys and challenges of her Christian-Hindu marriage in Saffron Cross: The Unlikely Story of How a Christian Minister Married a Hindu Monk. She blogs and tweets on interfaith topics; you can also find her on Facebook. 

Fred is a devout Hindu in the Gaudiya Vaishnava tradition who lived as a monk and priest for five years. He blogs on Hinduism and philosophy and works in IT at NC State University. 

Dana and Fred were matched on eHarmony in December 2008. Since then, their Christian-Hindu interfaith adventure has included a sex-free Indian ashram honeymoon, austere religious pilgrimages, dietary compromises, deciding when and where to worship, and fights about prayer.

Dana did an excellent job responding to your questions and I hope you enjoy hearing from her as much as I did. Enjoy!

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From Dana and Fred: Thanks, everyone, for your thoughtful questions. We are grateful for your interest in this topic and hope the conversations will continue. Our prayer has always been that the Saffron Cross story will foster awareness for interfaith discussion and understanding. And thanks, Lydia, Kylie, Alyson, Veronica, Christina, Amanda, and Kat R. for your questions! 

 

From Lydia: Are there perhaps certain ways in which your relationship and marriage is strengthened by your differences in belief/faith, which other same-faith couples do not enjoy?

Our intrinsically different faith traditions have strengthened both our marriage and personal, individual relationships with God in several ways.

To embark on this interfaith adventure, Fred and I both had to step out of the confines and comforts of our individual religious paths.  Most of us tend to operate solely within the isolation of our faith communities (this is totally normal and understandable). But in that isolation we tend not to ask tough questions of ourselves, our beliefs, and our traditions. Getting to know someone for whom faith looks differently helps us take the first step out of the comfort zones of the faith communities and the traditions we know and cherish. It’s along these edges that we can most experience spiritual growth, because we’re doing the hard work of asking ourselves, what do I believe? What does my religion espouse? What does my scripture actually say? When we are surrounded by people who, at least on the surface, believe the same things we believe, there’s often no impetus for wonder—no cause to dig deeper and get to the roots of our tenets. 

When we first began dating, we had tough questions for each other. Some examples: “Dana, what do Baptists believe?” “Dana, why are you not integrating Christ’s teachings into your daily life?” “Fred, what’s the purpose of deity worship? Why do Hindus need gurus?”

Our wonderings forced me to ask: What do I believe? How has scripture and my tradition informed me? How has my relationship with Jesus affected my life? Has it changed? Am I doing the same things I’ve always done? 

I had to return to my Bible, to my seminary books, to the elders and history of my Baptist tradition, and most of all—to my own heart. I had to dig deep, and this resulted in a reignited fire for Christ again. 

Fred’s eastern path and our marriage has encouraged me to apply a more Christ-like approach to my lifestyle: what I eat, buy, how I speak and treat others. Fred’s Hinduism has offered me an eastern approach to God: What can I do for God today? As opposed to what the posture I’d always practiced: God, what will you do for me today?

Same-faith couples may take it for granted (or not) that they believe the same things as their partners. Maybe they don’t even discuss Jesus anymore. Maybe they do? 

Because Fred and I are ordained within intrinsically different traditions, our constant questions about the other person’s tradition fueled perpetual interest in God. This new energy pulled me from my Christian complacency. (Alise Wright expresses a similar season of examination during her husband’s deconversion, in their “Ask a Mixed-Faith Couple” response). 

Fred and I challenge one another to live fully into what our traditions and sacred scriptures have taught us—and as a result, we’re growing together. 

 

From Kylie:  To what degree do each of you integrate the nuances of the other's faith into your own practice (if at all?)

We are actually quite intentional about integrating the nuances of both Christianity and Hinduism into our spiritual practices. This stems from our interfaith marriage mantra:  “we always worship together.”

We decided on this rule after lengthy discussions on how we’d handle sabbath-keeping. It started with concern: where would we worship? When would we worship? How would we worship? 

Instead of choosing to attend church/temple separately, we opted to attend together. This means we go to Baptist church and the temple/ashram together—without fail. On the rides home from worship, we discuss sermons, scripture, rituals, liturgy—you name it! God is always in the center, and the lines are beautifully messy.  

Here are some specifics on how this “always worship together rule” has now infiltrated our lives: Fred occasionally teaches Sunday School at my Baptist Church; I fully participation in his faith community’s services and rituals during Hindu festival weekends. I’ve adopted vegetarianism and food offering rituals; Fred’s adopted participation in Baptist’s extemporaneous prayer tradition. We have an altar in our home (an eastern practice) that holds an icon of Christ Pantocrator, photos of Gaura-Nitai deities, Fred’s guru, as well as Christian and Hindu volumes of Scripture and commentaries. 

Spectators may observe that one tradition has blurred into the other—and that is purposeful. We still call ourselves Christian and Hindu, but we’ve taken each tradition’s rich, valuable practices, and adopted them for our mutual spiritual path. 

 

From Alyson: Dana, how do you reconcile your church's teachings on heaven, hell, and the afterlife with your husband's very different beliefs? Do you hope/pray for his conversion to Christianity? (Hope this doesn't sound judgmental - I'm honestly curious about his).

My honest disclosure is that I am unabashedly Christian. I fully believe in the birth, life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. I have accepted Jesus as my personal savior and Christianity as my individual spiritual path. But I have also learned—in the most humble of ways—through mistakes, seminary, program ministries, chaplain and nonprofit work—that Jesus is not everyone’s chosen savior.  

I think it’s essential that we all approach spirituality and religion with humility. We must admit that we are not God and we do not fully know God’s heart. We must recognize that Christianity is a teenager when compared with our ancient brothers and sisters of (e.g., Hinduism and Buddhism, among others). It’s imperative that we are respectful of all the world’s traditions and seek first to understand. 

(OK, confession time!) All that said, I bristled early in our courtship when I imagined that Fred was not going to Heaven. In Chapter Three of Saffron Cross, I recount a crisis by which I wanted to baptize Fred (gasp!). So yes, at one point in time I did wish for his conversion—but not for his sake. It was because I was uncomfortable. 

We can all treat our chosen scripture, doctrine, and dogma with thoughtfulness. We must exegete carefully—with open hearts, open minds, and compassion. I think we should admit what we do know—and that is that God is infinitely merciful—perhaps so merciful that God comes to us in many forms over many cultures and time periods. And, that is something to celebrate! Praise God that we are the beneficiaries of such grace! 

 

From Veronica: Dana, how do you deal with the idea of being "unequally yoked" and the criticism you must get for that?

This is a frequent question! Thanks for asking, Veronica. 

Interfaith and interdenominational courtships are sprinkled with “unequally yoked” arguments from the skeptics. 2 Corinthians 6:14 is used to dissuade would-be interfaith/interdenominational couples. Do not be mismatched with unbelievers. For what partnership is there between righteousness and lawlessness? Or what fellowship is there between light and darkness? (NRSV)

But what does this verse actually mean?

If we approach this verse (and all scripture passages) with careful exegesis we should consider the cultural context and language. As the commenter named “Anand,” described, the context of “yoked” is about work (i.e., two oxen “yoked” together to complete a task). Marriage is not actually addressed in this passage.   

Perhaps a more thoughtful translation would be for us to understand that Paul did not want believers of the first century partnering with unbelievers who would impair the work of spreading the “good news” to build the early church. 

Here’s another question to consider: who is a believer? If we call ourselves Christian “believers,” but do not intend for “belief” to be a verb, are we truly followers of Christ? Have we been so moved by Jesus’ teachings (and our “belief” in him) that we have been propelled to change our lives, what we buy, how we talk to others, and to serve the poor? Or, are we doing the same things we’ve always done? In a recent Ethics Daily post, Dennis Atwood wrote that the “ongoing process of ‘knowing’ God should make a real difference in the way we live, make decisions, and treat other people.” 

In this context, it’s easy to see what Paul didn’t want us working with “unbelievers” for whom God had not impacted their lives. His sense was that this would impede our “work” of sharing Jesus. 

Does his devout Hinduism and his monastic service impede my sharing of the Gospel?

Let’s examine the evidence: I am more focused on serving Jesus now that I have ever been in my life. I am conscious of what I do and say and how it is a reflection of the Body of Christ. This is all thanks to Fred, whose encouragement has motivated me to draw closer to Jesus.  

Last week, Fred gifted me an icon of Christ Pantocrator for our altar. These “windows to Heaven” can open our hearts to love in Christ. Through this gesture, was Fred impeding my ability to share the Gospel? Absolutely not. 

It is my sense that Paul was warning the early church not to be “yoked” with folks who didn’t allow God to make a real difference in their lives—inside and out. Fred and I have determined that the equally yoked question should not be about us having the same faith, but rather, deep faith. 

 

From Christina: I've heard it said that people should not enter into interfaith marriages because then their spouse wouldn't be able to understand and share one of the deepest and most important parts of their life: their faith. That is to say, for a Christian who finds their identity in Christ, their spouse would never really "get" that about them in the way that someone who shares the same faith would. What is your response to this way of thinking?

It’s important to note that Fred has a keen sense of Jesus’ divinity; his tradition of Hinduism (Gaudiya Vaishnavaism) is monotheistic and inclusive of Christianity. Fred had early exposure to Christianity—through which he accepted an altar call, but was never baptized. He eventually left the church because he was frustrated by what he perceived to be Christianity’s hypocrisy (e.g., Christians accepting Jesus, but their lives are not changed in such a way that reflects Jesus’ teachings). 

The prejudice many of us bring to the table is that getting to know someone who has not accepted Christ as their personal savior will somehow erode or derail our spiritual paths. Our partners or friends wouldn’t “get” our Christianity, and therefore, being close with them would be impossible. 

Fred and I have worked hard to discover and bridge universal principles between Christianity and Hinduism that help us share the deepest parts of us: our faith. Fred is a Hindu who gets Jesus—this means it’s difficult for me to imagine not being able to share Christ with him, because I do each day. 

Perhaps we should trust the Holy Spirit and lose ourselves in the process of cultivating love for God—and not necessarily expect someone to “get” it. 

This is an important part to cultivating interfaith friendships: trusting the Spirit and taking a leap. Just because we assume someone wouldn’t understand our love of Jesus doesn’t mean we shouldn’t seek to build a friendship and understand their point of view. Imagine what a peaceful world we’d have we truly sought to truly understand one another? 

 

From Amanda: Deciding how to raise one's children is a very personal decision...how do you both decide what to teach your children regarding your very different belief systems?

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Indeed! Parenting is the toughest job this side of heaven, and because we are not parents, we won’t pretend to be experts! No one wants parenting advice from people who do not have children. 

But we do know interfaith families whose practices we would hope to emanate. Susan Katz Miller, whose book Being Both carefully outlines the successful practices of interfaith families, has raised her own children in both Jewish and Christian practices and understanding. For Susan and many other families, it’s a “both/and” life, not an “either/or.” They’ve found that their experiences as a family are enriched when they practice both religions. 

We can only image children’s lives being better for knowing there is a God who loves them so very much that God comes to us in many ways and circumstances.

 

From Kat R: This is not so much about interfaith marriage, but how does a woman become ordained in the Southern Baptist tradition? I thought they were pretty ix-nay on the whole women talking thing.

Great question!  Some of you have already offered your responses, and I’ll offer my personal experience.

I was ordained by First Baptist Church in Reidsville, NC, the parish of my youth. At the time (2002), First Baptist Church had both affiliations with the Southern Baptist Convention and Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.

I attended First Baptist Reidsville for ten years before I was ordained; I was loved and formed by this community in ways I could have never imagined (see Chapter Four of Saffron Cross). The First Baptist community saw budding spiritual gifts far before I realized my call. 

Baptists are an autonomous people. In our tradition, authority remains at the local church level. Unlike our connectional brothers and sisters, Baptists can make decisions without having to answer to a larger body or authority—a district, diocese, or Bishop. There is both beauty and challenge in a system like this.

For Baptists, ordination is a “setting apart” for the ministry of the Gospel of Jesus Christ that recognizes the ordained’s gifts for this ministry. In my case, it accepted that those gifts would never translate into my serving as a full-time senior pastor of an SBC church (those are not my gifts and it’s likely the Southern Baptist Convention wouldn’t fully accept/recognize my ordination at this time).

Instead, I’ve taken the route of ministry/service through chaplaincy, nonprofit organizations, and teaching. My ordination has served me well—particularly in the hospital setting where I was able to provide sacraments (or ordinances, as Baptists would prefer) for patients. 

I’m grateful for the tradition of my youth and my ordination. I am currently a member of a progressive Baptist church whose affiliations include: American Baptist Churches USA, Alliance of Baptist, Association of Welcoming and Affirming Baptists, Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America, as well as the North Carolina Council of Churches. Come see worship with us anytime. All are welcome! 

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Be sure to check out Dana's book, Saffron Cross. 

And you can browse other installments of our "Ask a..." series here.  

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Hell Series: Ask a traditionalist 1 (free will, postmortem repentance)….response

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We’re taking advantage of our “Ask a…” series to talk with some of today’s leading theologians about the difficult topic of hell.  Earlier this month, Edward Fudge responded to your questions about conditionalism (sometimes called annihilationism)—the view that immortality is conditional upon belief in Jesus Christ, so the unsaved will ultimately be destroyed and cease to exist rather than suffer eternally in hell. Later, Robin Parry responded via video to your questions about Christian universalism—the view that one day God will reconcile all people to himself through Jesus Christ.  

As I began exploring options for the view typically referred to as “traditionalism”— that hell is a place of eternal torment—I realized there are a variety of perspectives to consider. For example, a Calvinist will likely view hell much differently than an Arminian….as would someone who identifies as an inclusivist as opposed to an exclusivist. Some, like today’s guest, believe in postmortem repentance, while others do not.  So our interview today will not be the last entry in our hell-themed series! I’d like to also include a Calvinist, and perhaps a rabbi, as several of you suggested. 

That said, today’s guest is a perfect fit for the series, and I think you will be delighted with how thoughtfully and thoroughly he responded to your questions. Jerry L. Walls was born and raised in Knockemstiff, Ohio.  He has a PhD in philosophy from Notre Dame, and is the author of over eighty articles and reviews, and a dozen books, including Why I am not a Calvinst (with Joseph Dongell, IVP, 2004) and a trilogy on the afterlife: Hell: The Logic of Damnation (Notre Dame, 1992); Heaven: The Logic of Eternal Joy (Oxford, 2002); and Purgatory: The Logic of Total Transformation (Oxford, 2012).   He is also the editor of The Oxford Handbook of Eschatology (Oxford, 2004). His co-authored book (with David Baggett) Good God: The Theistic Foundations of Morality (Oxford, 2011) was named the outstanding book in apologetics and evangelism by Christianity Today in their annual book awards.  He has appeared on numerous radio shows including NPR’s “Talk of the Nation” and was interviewed for the documentary “Hellbound?”  Before coming to Houston Baptist in 2011, where he is Scholar in Residence, he was a Research Fellow for two years in the Center for Philosophy of Religion at Notre Dame.

Jerry holds a traditional view of hell in the sense that he believes hell is a place of conscious, eternal misery. But he says he agrees with C.S. Lewis’ famous line that "the doors of hell are locked on the inside."  His view is a modification of the traditional view in the sense that he believes God always welcomes sincere repentance, even after death.  Unfortunately, he says, some will never exercise that option.

You asked. Jerry answered. 

Enjoy! 

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 From David: Given the possibility for postmortem salvation, your view, in principle at least, doesn't preclude universal reconciliation, does it? Would it be fair to call yourself a "hopeful universalist"? Or is the logic of your position at least compatible with (hopeful) universalism?

Indeed, in principle my view does not preclude universal salvation.  In fact, that is exactly what I believe God desires (I Tim 2:4; 2 Peter 3:9). He is the God who does not rest content with having  99 sheep in the fold, but continues to seek the one who is lost, and rejoices when he is saved (Luke 15:3-7).  So in view of this, eternal hell is an entirely contingent reality.  There is nothing necessary about it.  God does not need to damn some people forever in order fully to glorify himself, in order fully to be God, as some Calvinists would have it.  To the contrary, God would prefer it if hell were empty.

Eternal hell only exists on the condition that some of God’s free creatures reject God’s love and grace and persist in doing so.  So the reason I believe in eternal hell is because I believe some, unfortunately, will in fact persist in refusing grace, and be lost forever, and that this sad truth has been revealed to us.

I find myself in the ironic situation that I would be delighted if one of the things I have been defending throughout my career turns out to be wrong.  It is at least conceivable, and perhaps possible as well, that the traditional interpretation of those texts that have been taken to teach that that some will in fact be lost is a mistaken interpretation.  I hope it is, and that my universalist friends like Marilyn Adams, Robin Parry and Tom Talbott turn out to be right.  I am not convinced by their interpretations although I do think they are at least plausible.  But I want to be first in line to celebrate if I am wrong.

(For a defense of postmortem grace, see Purgatory: The Logic of Total Transformation, chapter 5; see also Kyle Blanchette and Jerry L. Walls, “God and Hell Reconciled,” in God and Evil, ed Paul Copan, et al.) 

From Matt: Revelation 14:9-11 portrays the eternal torment of the condemned as taking place "in the presence of the holy angels and in the presence of the Lamb" (14:10). What does this mean? And how should we understand this portrayal in relation to other traditional images of hell as banishment from the presence of Christ?

Well, I’d start here with Paul’s sermon at Mars Hill, where he observes that God is “not far from each one of us.  For in him we live, and move and have our being” (Acts 17:27-28).  In this passage, Paul is applying this point to people who may be seeking God, but have not yet found him.  So the point here is that even people who may be “far” from God in terms of meaningful, loving relationship are still “close” to him in the sense that he continually sustains them in existence.

So the unhappy creatures in this text in Revelation are in the presence of the Lamb by virtue of the fact that he sustains them in existence, and they may even be aware of this fact.  However, they are utterly separated from him by their sinful rebellion.

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Indeed, the paradoxical nature of this observation may illumine why fire is used as an image of the torments of hell.  Fire in the Bible is a common image for the presence of God, not his absence (cf Deut. 4:24; 5:24-5; Psalm 50:3; Hebrews 12:29).   But his presence is experienced very differently by those who are rightly related to him, as opposed to those who are not.

David Hart has noted that there is a long theological tradition, particularly in Eastern Orthodoxy, that “makes no distinction, essentially, between the fire of hell and the light of God’s glory, and that interprets damnation as the soul’s resistance to the beauty of God’s glory, its refusal to open itself before the divine love, which causes divine love to seem an exterior chastisement” (The Beauty of the Infinite, 399).  

As the Psalmist noted, there is no place where we can successfully flee from God’s presence (Psalm 139:7ff).  The God of love is everywhere, and we cannot exist a millisecond without his sustaining grace and power.  But our freedom does allow us to refuse his love and go our own way, even as it remains true that “in him we live and move and have our being.”  If that is our choice, his glorious love will be experienced like a burning fire rather than “the spring of the water of life” that will deeply quench our thirst (Revelation 21:6).

 Can you explain what you mean when you talk about "optimal grace"? And how does the doctrine of election, as understood by some Calvinists, provide an unsatisfactory or incomplete view of God’s grace as it relates to hell? 

This idea is central to my view of hell, and also to purgatory, so I will try to make this clear in a reasonably concise way.

Let me begin my explanation by saying what is involved in choosing hell.  People do not choose to go to hell as a direct choice.   It’s not like anyone says, “hey, I really want to go to hell”!  Rather, they choose to go to hell by resisting grace and choosing evil.  And not just choosing evil initially or partially.  After all, we all choose evil initially by virtue of being fallen.  What defines the choice of hell is that God and his love are decisively rejected and evil is decisively chosen instead.

Here is where optimal grace comes in.   In short, optimal grace is whatever form and measure of grace is best suited to elicit a positive response from us, without overriding our freedom.  Because we are all different, the exact nature of this will vary from person to person.  But the important idea is that if God truly loves each one of us, and truly desires our salvation, he will offer his love and grace to each of us in the way that is optimal to elicit a positive response.

Pretty clearly, not everyone has such grace in this life, and that is one of the reasons I believe in postmortem grace and repentance.  What this means is that in the long run, everyone has an equal opportunity to be saved.  In the afterlife, God can find ways in his infinitely creative wisdom to give everyone the best opportunity to respond to the gospel.

What this underscores is that no one goes to hell because of ignorance or lack of opportunity to be saved.  Nor does anyone go to hell for rejecting a distorted or garbled view of Jesus and his amazing love.  No, emphatically not!  You go to hell for rejecting Jesus, not a caricature of Jesus.  You go to hell for spurning the amazing grace he showed us in the cross and resurrection, not for being ignorant of it. 

But in order for that to happen, you have to be properly and truly aware of who he is and the truth and beauty of his love.  Only when you are properly informed of the truth can you freely, deliberately and decisively reject it.  In other words: a decisive choice of evil is only possible given optimal grace. 

So that is what is amazing and even perplexing about the idea of hell.  A lot of people assume that if optimal grace were true, universal salvation would automatically follow.  But again, I would insist that eternal hell is not in any way due to some having less opportunity to be saved than others.   I believe some people will decisively reject God’s love and be lost, even though he gave them every opportunity to repent and be saved.

And thanks for raising the Calvinist connection because this is something I am always happy to talk about.  Actually, however, the problem with the Calvinist view of election is much worse than being merely unsatisfactory or incomplete.  As Calvinists see it, some people get irresistible grace by which they will inevitably be saved, and others are completely passed over with respect to saving grace, and are inevitably damned.  The unequal distribution of grace here is poses insurmountable problems for God’s goodness. 

Indeed, Calvinism and eternal hell are a lethal combination that is biblically, logically and morally indefensible.  It can only be defended by forthrightly admitting that God does not love everyone (which Calvinists are often loath to do, for good reason), or by engaging in misleading rhetoric, which is the far more common strategy.  If you want to be a Calvinist, you should be a universalist.  I do not have the space to defend those claims here, but I have done so elsewhere.  See my You Tube videos entitled “What’s Wrong with Calvinism” as well as my co-authored book, Why I am not a Calvinist.

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Now what I find interesting, however, is that many people who are not Calvinists believe that God gives everybody at least some chance to be saved, but not optimal grace.  They hold that at least some ray of light has come into every life, or that everyone has heard the gospel at least one time.  They affirm that everyone is given at least what we might call “minimal grace.”

And why do they insist on this?  Because they want to be able to say that God is fully just in damning such people.  In other words, it is important that everyone have enough grace or opportunity for salvation that God can be just in sending to hell those who die without faith.   But optimal grace is not required for this. 

Now here is the question: If God can make sure everybody has at least some real opportunity to be saved, why could he not make sure that everyone has optimal grace?  Does he lack the creativity, the wisdom, or the means to do this?  And more importantly, if he could do this, is it not the case that he would do so?   Why would he not?

So here is one of the most fundamental issues in how we conceive of God, one that will profoundly shape not only our view of hell, but our entire theology.  Does God genuinely, deeply, love all persons and desire to save them?  Or is his only concern to give them enough revelation and grace that he can justly damn them if they die without faith?

There is far more to say, of course, but this answer is already rather long.  If you want to explore this further see Hell: The Logic of Damnation, chapter 4; Purgatory: The Logic of Total Transformation, chapter 5, and the essay “God and Hell Reconciled, cited above.   If you want just a bit more on the last point, see this video.

 From Tanya: I'm having a hard time wrapping my head around this position. While it makes beautiful, logical sense --(you get to keep Hell, and a merciful picture of God to boot) what would this look like? Who in their right mind would sit in hell, "in conscious, eternal misery" and simply refuse to repent? At that point, believing in the existence of God doesn't seem tough, I mean, somebody is responsible for the hell you are in -- so who would sit and stew for eternity "on principle?" Can you paint me a believable picture of a specimen of humanity who might do this?

Let me begin here by saying I am with you in thinking there is something absurd in the idea of someone freely choosing eternal hell.  I wrote a defense of eternal damnation for my PhD dissertation at Notre Dame several years ago, and my biggest challenge was trying to make sense of how anyone could freely choose the misery of hell.  I am currently writing a popular level book tentatively entitled Heaven, Hell and Purgatory: Life as Comedy, Life as Tragedy, Life as Story.  I just finished the chapter on hell, and I am still struck by how crazy this can seem.  And yet, the decisive choice of evil does have a certain logic and we can make at least some sense of it.

What is clear is that people who do this are not altogether “in their right minds.”  That is, they are not thinking clearly, they are not embracing the truth about themselves and about God.  They are deceived at a deep level.  And yet, they are not deceived in the sense that they are innocent victims.  Rather, they are self-deceived.

If you want a believable picture of this, read CS Lewis’s book, The Great Divorce. In case you have never read it, the premise of the book is that a group of people (“ghosts”) from hell take a bus ride to heaven and are invited, indeed, implored to stay.  Common sense, of course, assumes that they would jump at the chance.  But what Lewis depicts, with remarkable psychological and emotional plausibility, is how almost all of them spurn the offer and return to hell.   

As Lewis famously remarked in another book, “the doors of hell are locked on the inside.”  It is not that God locks them in against their will, but they are not willing to come out.  Lewis went on to comment: “I do not  mean that the ghosts may not wish to come out of hell, in the vague fashion wherein an envious man ‘wishes’ to be happy: but they certainly do not will even the first preliminary stages of that self-abandonment through which alone the soul can reach any good.”

One of the more memorable of the characters that illustrate this truth is a “Big Ghost” who takes the trip to heaven bent on getting his “rights.”  When he gets there, he is greeted by a man who was one of his employees in this life.  He is outraged at this because the employee had murdered someone, and he cannot fathom how the employee can be in heaven, while he has been in hell.  What he simply cannot (will not) understand is that he too, needs grace, that he too needs to be forgiven for his own sins and transformed before he is fit for heaven.  When he realizes this, and that his former employee is the very person sent to instruct him, he decides to return to hell.

“So that’s the trick, is it?” shouted the Ghost, outwardly bitter, and yet I thought there was a kind of triumph in its voice.  It had been entreated: it could make a refusal: and this seemed to it a kind of advantage. “I thought there’d be some damned nonsense.  It’s all a clique, all a bloody clique.  Tell them I’m not coming, see?  I’d rather be damned than go along with you….” It was almost happy now that it could, in a sense, threaten.

Notice particularly that the Ghost is “almost happy.”  What this points out is that hell has its pleasures, and its own version of “happiness.”  

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I’m sure all of us can relate to the pleasures of resentment, bitterness, self-righteousness and so on.  It is not hard to see that anyone who is resentful is not truly happy, indeed, they are miserable. But those who choose to hold on to their resentment do enjoy a perverse sort of pleasure and a distorted sense of satisfaction.  To anyone who urges them to repent and give it up, they may well give the bird and insist they are doing just fine, thank you.

I have tried to make philosophical sense out of this in chapter 5 of Hell: The Logic of Damnation, as well as in the popular book I am currently writing.  Also, keep your eyes open for Kevin Timpe’s forthcoming book Free Will in Philosophical Theology, which has a very insightful discussion of the logic of choosing evil, including damnation.  But again, I’d start with Lewis.

Similarly, Nate asked: First, what is the nature of the "conscious, eternal misery?" Is it physical (fire, pain, etc.), is it emotional/spiritual (loss, separation, despair, etc.), or is it both? Second, if there is opportunity for repentance upon experiencing conscious misery, why would some not choose it? This seems to go against the human instinct for survival and comfort.

I think the essence of the misery of hell is the natural unhappiness that results from resisting the love of God and having a character decisively formed by evil, with all that that entails.  For instance, such a character cannot enjoy meaningful relationships, which are essential to human happiness.  The nature of such misery is not hard to understand, indeed, there is a profound continuity between such misery and the misery evil naturally produces in this life.  John Wesley put it like this:

For it is not possible in the nature of things that a man should be happy who is not holy….The reason is plain: all unholy tempers are uneasy tempers.  Not only malice, hatred, envy, jealousy, revenge, create a present hell in the breast; but even the softer passions, if not kept within due bounds, give a thousand times more pain than pleasure.

However, I also believe that the misery of hell includes a physical dimension for the simple reason that human beings are embodied beings by nature, and the damned will be resurrected in their bodies.  I do not believe the fire is literal but rather an image, just as I think “the worm that does not die” is an image or a metaphor (Mark 9:48).  As has often been pointed out, hell is also pictured as darkness (eg Matthew 22:13), and literal fire and darkness are incompatible.  This does not mean that the realities imaged by fire, undying worms and darkness are not terrible because that language is metaphorical rather than literal.  After all, a metaphor communicates because it the reality it depicts is similar to the image that is used.   

I discuss my view of the misery of hell in detail in chapter 6 of Hell: The Logic of Damnation.

 From Rachel: So the most common Bible passage cited by those who oppose the possibility of postmortem salvation is probably Hebrews 9:27-28: "And inasmuch as it is appointed for men to die once and after this comes judgment, so Christ also, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time for salvation without reference to sin, to those who eagerly await Him." How do you interpret these words from Priscilla and Aquilla? (Okay, so that last bit is a personal theory about the authorship of Hebrews, but the question still stands!) 

Well, I think this text is way overrated by those who cite it against the possibility of postmortem conversion.  Not the text itself, because it’s pretty hard to overrate Biblical texts, but rather the way the text is interpreted.  In short, those who cite this text for that reason are trying to squeeze more out of it than it actually says.  So what does it say?  We die once. Well, I certainly agree with that, and I would guess most proponents of postmortem salvation do not posit that we die multiple deaths.

Next, it says that after we die, there is judgment.  And of course I agree with this.  But notice: it does not say judgment is immediately after death, nor does it say, (if there is an immediate judgment) that it is final.  Indeed, most traditional theology holds that the final judgment is yet to come.  So there could well be a preliminary judgment immediately after death that would judge one’s life to that point, but that judgment could still allow for repentance.

The text goes on to compare and contrast the first and second comings of Christ, but again, I see nothing there that rules out postmortem repentance.  

It is also worth emphasizing that God’s word of judgment often leads to repentance and ends in mercy and redemption.  For just one example, consider Jonah’s word of judgment to Nineveh: in forty days, Ninevah will be overthrown (Jonah 3:4).  Of course, as the story turns out the Ninevites repented and their city was not overthrown.  Did God change his mind?  No, he did not.  Implicit in the word of judgment was an invitation to repent.  The Ninevites, however, did change their minds, which is what repentance literally means, a change of mind.  Had they remained impenitent, the judgment would surely have fallen.

From Chris, and the community at rethinkinghell.com:  Proponents of the eternal conscious torment view typically hold to the biblical teaching that the unsaved are likewise resurrected and that both body and soul are subject to hell. However, they believe that these resurrected bodies of the lost will live forever, albeit separated and isolated from God. Yet the Bible explicitly says that only God has immortality inherently and that immortality is brought to light through the gospel and granted to the glorified saints who persevered in the faith to the end, whereas it does not appear to say anywhere that immortality is granted to the unsaved. So when eternal conscious torment is the very question at hand, what biblical evidence would you point to as teaching that the resurrected bodies of the lost will likewise be made immortal?

Immortality, like eternal life, is far more than ongoing conscious survival, or even the resurrection of our bodies.    Or to use a distinction philosophers often employ, continued survival is necessary but not sufficient for immortality.  Scripture of course speaks of a resurrection of both the just and the unjust (John 5:28-9; Acts 24:15). Immortality properly speaking is the resurrection to the fullness of life in relation to God and others for which we were created.  It is the glory that comes from having the character and likeness of Christ (2 Cor 3:18; 4:4-7).

It does not follow, however, that to fall short of glory, as sin inevitably causes us to do (Romans 3:23), is to lose existence altogether. The resurrection of the unjust can be a resurrection to ongoing existence even though it is not resurrection to the immortality of life with God.  I believe that texts like the one from Revelation 14 cited above give us reason to believe that even those who reject God’s gift of salvation and the glorification that entails still remain in conscious, embodied existence.  Indeed, they remain in relationship to God even though it is a relationship of sin and rebellion.   

I will grant you the biblical data on this matter is debatable.  But if hell is freely chosen, as I have argued, and is not the torture chamber sometimes depicted, the conditionalist view loses a lot of its motivation.  God’s perfect love and goodness is perfectly compatible with those persons who refuse the gift of salvation and immortality, but whose ongoing existence is defined by an ongoing rejection of the very God of love in whom they continue to “live and move and have their being.”

From Preston Sprinkle: Are there degrees of punishment in Hell? And if so, could those who receive a "lesser" sentence ultimately be annihilated? For instance, a 15 year old Saudi girl has been raped her whole life, and has just met a Christian on the streets who gave her a 5 min gospel presentation (in Arabic), making her now accountable, but seconds later she gets hit by a bus: will she be kept alive by Jesus so that she will consciously feel the most tormenting pain for ten trillion years. And more? And will she sit alongside Hitler in his misery? I ask not facetiously or rhetorically (assuming a right answer), but because I've been faced with the same question ad nauseum.

Yes, I do think scripture gives us reason to think the misery of hell varies in quality as well as intensity, depending on the patterns and kinds of sin committed.  A person consumed with hatred, for instance, likely experiences a different sort of misery than one who simply let his life and character be formed by following his lusts and desires.  The different forms of suffering Dante depicts, as well as Lewis in The Great Divorce, is very suggestive in that regard.

As for the scenario with the 15 year old girl, well, that is the very picture of “minimal grace” and the very sort of thing that would be ruled out by my view of optimal grace.  Given this story, we have no reason to think this girl has really understood the gospel, let alone well enough to reject it decisively.   The assumption that she would be lost forever simply because she heard one garbled sermon makes the doctrine of hell as often defended a moral and theological absurdity.

From Eric: Whoa, whoa, whoa. This is not directly related to the post, but there's seriously a place called Knock 'em stiff, Ohio?

Not only is there really a place named Knockemstiff, Ohio, but it has also achieved notoriety fairly recently in literary circles.   This is due to my friend and high school classmate (though he dropped out his Jr. year and did not graduate with our class) Donald Ray Pollock, who lived up the road from me in Knockemstiff, and has used it for the setting in his critically acclaimed fiction.  Don burst on the literary scene in 2008 after working 32 years as a truck driver in a paper mill when he published an extraordinary short story collection entitled Knockemstiff.  He followed that up a couple years later with a novel, The Devil all the Time, which won several awards including “Badass Book of the Month” from GQ.  He is currently finishing his third book, another novel, on a Guggenheim fellowship.  

walls-Knockem 0.jpg

Before he published his collection of short stories, I arguably had the title of “Greatest Writer from Knockemstiff.”  Now I have to content myself with the thought that I am likely the most accomplished writer in my high school graduating class.

Don’s books are a bracing read, but be forewarned that they are on the far end of “raw and gritty.” In fact, it is not too much of a stretch, given our current discussion, to suggest that his books provide some vivid glimpses of hell.   Here, by the way, is my review of The Devil all the Time.

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Thanks again for your questions! You can check out every installment of our interview series—which includes “Ask an atheist,” “Ask a nun,” “Ask a pacifist,” “Ask a Calvinist,” “Ask a Muslim,” “Ask a gay Christian,” “Ask a Pentecostal” “Ask an environmentalist,” “Ask a funeral director,” "Ask a Liberation Theologian,"  "Ask Shane Claiborne," "Ask Jennifer Knapp," "Ask N.T. Wright and  many more— here

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