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 For instance: the assumption that the Christian understanding of covenant has superceded and obviated the Jewish one, or that Judaism isn't a legitimate path to God in its own right.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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Faith, Doubt and the Idol of Certainty: An Interview with Greg Boyd

“The quest to feel certain becomes an idol when a person’s sense of significance to God and security before God is anchored not in their simple trust of God’s character, as revealed on the cross, but in how certain they feel about the rightness of their beliefs.” – Greg Boyd 

Today I am just thrilled to share an interview with theologian and teacher Greg Boyd, whose new book, Benefit of the Doubt, releases this week.  Greg is the co-founder of Woodland Hills Church in St. Paul, Minnesota where he serves as Senior Pastor, speaking to thousands each week. He has authored or co-authored 18 books and numerous academic articles, including his best-selling and award-winning Letters From a Skeptic and his recent books Repenting of Religion and The Myth of a Christian Nation. Greg has also been featured on the front page of The New York Times, The Charlie Rose Show, CNN, National Public Radio, the BBC and numerous other television and radio venues. 

What I love about Greg’s work is his commitment to both intellectual integrity and faithful obedience. His books always challenge me to not only think, but to act. And his latest, Benefit of the Doubt, is right up my alley…and likely many of yours too…for it tackles issues related to faith, doubt, certainty, and obedience. I think you will find many of Greg’s thoughts here helpful and profound. Enjoy! 

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Rachel: First of all, thank you so much for this book.  I really related to your personal experience with doubt and found myself underlining paragraph after paragraph of Benefit of the Doubt, praying your words would reach those who need it the most.  To start off, tell us a little of your own story. What triggered your first doubts about your faith?

Greg: Thanks Rachel, I appreciate the opportunity to talk.  I don’t know if I can say when I first had doubts about my faith, because my faith has pretty much always been accompanied by doubt.  But it was a prayer meeting I attended twenty-some years ago that first got me questioning the very concept of faith that most Christians embrace today.  A dozen or so other people and I had gathered to pray for a young man who had been diagnosed with brain cancer.  At the beginning of the meeting the lady who owned the house we were in stood up and read Jesus’ statement, “according to your faith it will be done to you.”  She then told us that if our faith was free of doubt, this young man would be healed. The implication was that if we doubted, he would not be healed. 

As we entered into prayer for this young man, everyone in the room felt pressure to try to make ourselves certain that this man was in fact going to be healed. As I share in my book, after a couple of minutes of praying the image of the Lion on the Wizard of Oz suddenly popped into my mind and I saw him saying, “I do believe, I do believe, I do, I do, I DO believe!” just as he does in the movie.  It occurred to me that this was exactly what we were doing. We were trying to talk ourselves into becoming certain, as if faith was a sort of psychological gimmick.  And it made me wonder what kind of God would leverage the life of a young man on how well we were to perform this psychological gimmickry, and about a matter that, if we’re honest with ourselves, we can’t be certain of.  It seemed like we were caught in a cruel, twisted joke! 

This motivated me to begin to seriously question whether the notion that our faith is as strong as we are free of doubt is really an accurate understanding of faith. The Benefit of the Doubt is really the outcome of that line of questioning that began in that prayer meeting so many years ago.  

 Can you explain what “certainty-seeking faith” is and why you claim that it's a problem today? 

 “Certain-seeking faith” is the sort of faith that people were trying to exercise in the prayer meeting I just talked about.  It’s the assumption that a person’s faith is as strong as they are free of doubt and that striving to have a “strong” (viz. doubt-free) faith somehow pleases God. I’ve found that this is how most Christians today think about faith, and it causes far more damage than most people realize (I spend two chapters in my book fleshing out these problems).  In fact, I argue that this misguided model of faith is at the root of most of the struggles believers have with the Christian faith and behind most of the negative things non-believers associate with the Christian faith. 

Among other things, as I stated earlier, this model reduces faith to a psychological gimmick in which people try to convince themselves that their beliefs are true beyond what the evidence warrants.  Thoughtful people legitimately wonder why God would consider this ability virtuous, to the point of leveraging people’s eternal welfare on it!  So too, this model makes thoughtful people who have perfectly reasonable doubts feel guilty and rewards people who either lack the concern or the intellectual curiosity to question their beliefs by making them feel like they have “strong” faith.  

On top of this, those who embrace “certainty-seeking faith” tend to become narrow-minded, for honestly trying to see things from other peoples’ point of view might lead them to question their faith and thereby jeopardize their “salvation.“ In fact, this model can easily lead people to develop learning phobias, for if you dare to read broadly and learn to see things from other people’s point of view, you might uncovering facts that could shake your certainty and thus displease God. I’m convinced this explains why Christians, especially conservative Christians, have a well-deserved reputation in the broader culture for being narrow-minded.

You go so far as to claim that certainty-seeking faith is “idolatrous.”  That is a huge claim, especially since this is the kind of faith most Christians today embrace! Can you explain it further? And how can we break free from it?

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In the book I make the case that we are created with a core need to feel fully alive, unconditionally loved and worthwhile, and ultimately secure, and God created us with this need because he wants to meet it, and is the only one who can actually meet it.  An idol, I argue, is anything we use in place of God to meet this core need. While many people try to meet this need with the idols of wealth, power, success, sex and other such things, many Christians try to meet it with the idol of certainty-seeking faith. The quest to feel certain becomes an idol when a person’s sense of significance to God and security before God is anchored not in their simple trust of God’s character, as revealed on the cross, but in how certain they feel about the rightness of their beliefs. This form of idolatry is a danger whenever people assume (rightly) that they are saved by faith while also (mistakenly) equating faith with their sense of certainty.  For it means they now feel “saved” – uniquely significant and secure before God – on the basis of their psychological certainty. 

As I show in Benefit of the Doubt, the only way to get free from this without falling into some other form of idolatry is to realize that biblical faith isn’t about feeling certain, but about a willingness to commit to living for God in the face of uncertainty.  We need to accept that uncertainty is simply part of what it means to be human and to trust that God’s love for us, revealed most perfectly on Calvary, isn’t dependent on how certain or uncertain we feel.  The God revealed on Calvary isn’t a God who is impressed with people’s ability to make themselves feel certain that their beliefs are right.  He’s rather a God who simply wants us to trust him, in the face of uncertainty, by lovingly laying down our lives for him in response the way he has lovingly laid down his life for us. 

What difference do you see between ‘faith’ and ‘belief’?  And why do you believe this distinction is important?

 As I define them, “belief “ is an opinion about something or someone, while “faith” is a willingness to commit to a course of action on the basis of that opinion.  When I married Shelley, my wife, I had to first believe a number of things about her, but I only became married to her when I demonstrated faith by being willing to commit to living the rest of my life as her husband. 

The most important thing for people to realize about this is that salvation is not merely about beliefs that people hold.  James tells us the demons “believe,” but it does them absolutely no good (Ja 2:19).  Salvation is rather about entering into a marriage-like, covenantal, relationship with God through Jesus Christ by exercising faith. And whereas one might measure beliefs in terms of how certain or uncertain a person feels, the measure of faith is simply about how willing one is to trust God’s character and how faithful a person is in living out the covenantal relationship they have with the Lord, despite the uncertainties they may have.  

Sadly, many today think that people are “saved” simply because they espouse certain beliefs, apart from any consideration of how they live.  This is why research demonstrates that the vast majority of Americans admit to believing in Jesus (and a host of other “Christian” things) while also demonstrating that this belief has very little impact on how they actually live.   It also explains why so many mistakenly think God is impressed with our level of certainty over our beliefs, when in fact the only thing that means anything to God is how faithful his people are in trusting his character and in living in relationship with him, regardless of whatever level of certainty they have, or don’t have.

In the book you write that, “God enters covenants, not contracts, with people.” Could you share a little about how the court-of-law framework of theology has affected how we read the Bible? 

This is a very important point that I spend a lot of time on in my book. Whereas a “contract” is a deal between parties, a “covenant” is a commitment that involves the parties themselves.  Contracts involve exchanging money, work or possessions, while covenants involve a commitment of our life. And while covenants are rooted in people trusting one another, contracts are only necessary when people don’t trust one another. So too, while contracts are about what different parties can get from one another, covenants are about what different parties pledge to give of themselves toward one another.   Buying a car or house involves a contract: getting married involves a covenant.  

Unfortunately, while covenants permeated the lives of people in biblical times, western culture is entirely contractual. Indeed, marriage is the only remaining covenant we have, and people today are unfortunately increasingly viewing even this in terms of a contract.  Because of this, most contemporary western Christians interpret Scripture’s covenantal concepts as if they were contractual, and as I show in Benefit of the Doubt, this has fundamentally screwed up our understanding of a number of theological concepts in Scripture. 

Can you give us an example? 

Sure. Consider the way most Christians think about “salvation.” They think of it primarily in legal and contractual ways. God the Father is the judge, we are the guilty defendants, and Jesus is our lawyer.  In this view, the Father was going to send us to eternal prison (hell), which we deserved, until Jesus stepped in and worked out a strange deal with the Father in which he somehow takes on our guilt and our punishment, while we are acquitted, assuming we can believe these things are true with a requisite degree of certainty. 

It’s of course true the Bible uses some legal metaphors to describe salvation, but as I demonstrate in my book, the primary framework, and the framework in which even the legal metaphors should be understood, is covenantal.  This dramatically changes everything! Understood as a covenantal concept, salvation, isn’t about a deal that takes place between us and God. It’s rather about entering into a marriage-like relationship with God – a relationship that involves us pledging ourselves to him in response to the pledge of himself he offered us on Calvary. So too, whereas the legal model was focused on belief and therefore didn’t involve our character transformation as a central consideration, the covenant model is all about character, for its anchored in faith, and as I’ve said, covenantal faith is about our willingness to trust another and to live in a trustworthy way in relation to another. 

You can also see the significant difference between these two models of salvation by the sorts of questions they inspire. If a person is thinking in terms of the contractual model, there are all sorts of legal-type questions that need to be addressed. For example, since salvation is a legal deal, it makes sense to wonder if the deal can be “undone” (the debate about eternal security)?  If it can’t be “undone,” it makes sense to wonder what, if any, are the negative consequences for living in ways we know God disapproves of?  

On the other hand, if the “salvation-deal” can be undone, it makes sense to wonder what are the precise legal conditions that would undo it? Is the “salvation-deal” undone if a person fornicates, for example, and dies before they can repent? And (here’s one I’ve found Christian engaged couples ask frequently), what exactly does it mean to “fornicate”?  How close to “vaginal penetration” can you get before you “cross the line?  In the contractual framework, it naturally makes sense to want to get away with as much as you can without “crossing the line,” for contracts, recall, are predicated on a lack of trust and are about what individuals can get from one another. 

The mindset behind these questions makes perfect sense in a contractual, court-of-law framework, but that make no sense whatsoever in a covenantal framework. No one in a remotely healthy marriage would ever wonder about how much they could get away with before their spouse would divorce them, for example.  And if a spouse ever did wonder about this, it would simply reveal that he or she was already dishonoring their covenant.  For one only resorts to contractual thinking when the covenantal pledge to give of oneself to another and to trust and be trustworthy toward another is absent. 

In this light, and in light of how pervasive the legal paradigm is in contemporary Christ thinking, is it any wonder we see so live covenantal trust and trustworthiness in the lives of professing Christians today?  

You acknowledge that one of the greatest challenges confronting people who believe the Bible is “God’s Word” concerns the violent portraits of God in the Bible. and you spend a whole chapter on this topic. What advice do you have for people who are deeply troubled by these portraits?

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There are three things I share in Benefit of the Doubt about this incredibly important topic.  The first is that I attempt to show that the revelation of God in Jesus Christ isn’t just one revelation among many others in Scripture. He is rather depicted as the supreme revelation that culminates and surpasses all others. God spoke in many different ways in the past, the author of Hebrews tells us, but in these “last days” he has spoken “through the Son.”  And in contrast to all that came before, the Son is “the radiance of his glory” and “the exact representation of his being (hupostasis, meaning “essence,” Heb. 1:1-3).  This is why Jesus could say such radical things as; “If you see me, you see the Father” (Jn.14:9) and could claim that all Scripture points to him (Jn 5:39-45; Lk 24: 25-7; 44-7). What this implies, I contend, is that, whether we can explain the violent portraits of God in the OT or not,   it would be unfaithful for us to ever allow anything we find in the OT to compromise what we learn about God in him. 

Second, I argue that as the NT depicts it, the cross sums up and supremely expresses everything Jesus was about.   This is why John said, on the basis of what he learned about God from Jesus, that “God is love” (I Jn,.4:8) and then defined the kind of “love” that God is by pointing us to the cross (I Jn 3:16). God’s very essence, in other words, is cross-like love. On the one hand, this increases the problem of the OT’s violent portraits of God, for the cross reveals a God who would rather did for his enemies than use his power to crush them.  So we have to wonder, how do portraits of God commanding genocide or causing mothers to cannibalize their babies point to the enemy-loving, non-violent God revealed on the cross?!  On the other hand, however, I argue that the cross itself holds the key to solving this problem, which leads to my third point. 

The cross reveals that, out of his covenantal faithfulness and unfathomable love, God is willing to stoop to bear the sin of his people and thereby take on an appearance that reflects the ugliness of their sin. Yet, in doing this, God reveals his true nature, for as we look upon the God-forsaken, guilty-appearing criminal on the cross, we know that it was God who voluntarily stooped an infinite distance to become this for us.  Now, if the cross reveals what God is really like, then it reveals what God has always been like. And this means we should read Scripture with the awareness that God has always been willing to stoop to bear the sin of his people and take on appearances that reflect the ugliness of their sin.  

I thus suggest that we should read all Scripture “through the lens of the cross,” and when we do this, we can begin to see how even the most horrendous portraits of God in the OT bear witness to the God revealed on the cross.  The cross reveals God to us only when we look past the surface appearance that reflects the ugliness of our sin and discern in its depth our gracious God stooping to bear our sin and take on this ugly appearance for us.  In this light, I suggest we should read Scripture always asking, where else might we find that God is revealed not by how he appears on the surface, but by what faith can discern as we look past the surface to discern God humbly stooping to bear the sin of his people? 

My short answer to this question is that, whenever we come upon portraits of God that, to one degree or another, fall beneath the beautiful, non-violent portrait we are given in the crucified Christ, we should assume that the revelatory content of these portraits is, to this degree, not found on the surface of the portrait itself, but in what faith can discern happening beneath the surface as it beholds God stooping to bear the sin if his people.  Hence, I submit that the ugliness of portraits such as the one of Yahweh commanding his people to slaughter “everything that breathes” or of causing mothers to cannibalize their children reflects the ugly, fallen, culturally conditioned hearts of his people, not God himself. What rather reveals God is that, out of his covenantal faithfulness and unfathomable love, he was willing to stoop to bear the sin of his people by being willing to take on this literary appearance in the inspired record of his covenantal activity (viz. the biblical narrative). 

You are such a prolific writer and theologian, and you’ve written about everything from open theism, to Satan and demons, to politics (The Myth of a Christian Nation is among my most often recommend books), to the problem of suffering. What’s next on the horizon for you? What are you feeling most passionate about right now? 

Right now I’m in the final stages of a massive research project I’ve been working on for five years that develops and defends the thesis I just outlined in response to your previous question.  It’s entitled The Crucifixion of the Warrior God: Reinterpreting the Old Testament’s Violent Portraits of God in Light of the Cross. To say I’m “passionate” about this topic  is a massive understatement! I’ve been absolutely obsessed with this Scripture’s’ violent portraits of God, for I believe these portraits constitute one of the biggest reasons why many abandon the faith while many others refuse to take the Bible as God’s Word seriously. It’s also the primary reason why most Christians today refuse to accept that God is altogether as beautiful as he’s revealed to be on the cross and/or that God is unconditionally opposed to all violence.  

Because I’m proposing a new hermeneutic, I needed to make my case as airtight and as comprehensive as possible, which is why the book has taken me five years to research and write and has now evolved to over 600 pages! But non-academics need not worry, because I plan on following it quickly with a much shorter work that will capture the gist of my argument, but without all the scholarly material that’s packed into the larger academic book. I hope to have both finished by the beginning of 2014 which means they should be published (by InterVarsity Press) by the end of 2014. 

 When it comes to theology, you seem to have a curious mind and an explorer’s heart. How do you handle the inevitable criticism that comes along with that? 

I make it my primary goal of every day to get all of my “life” – my core need to be loved, to feel worthwhile, and to feel ultimate secure – from what God thinks about me as revealed on the cross.  I believe this is the most fundamental objective for disciples of Jesus.  To the extent that Christ is our “life,” we don’t need to be trying to get “life” from what people think about us, or from any other potential idol I might latch onto.  But to the degree we don’t get all our “life” from Christ, we can’t help but try to get it from what people think about us, or from some other idol.  This is sheer bondage.  Only to the degree that all our “life” is from Christ can we live in true freedom.  And only to this degree can we “die to ourselves” and live out the radical call of the kingdom to imitate Jesus by lovingly sacrificing ourselves for all others, including those who would identify themselves as our “enemy.”

Thanks so much for asking such great questions Rachel! Keep up your great Kingdom work! 

Thanks for this profound and thought-provoking responses, Greg. You are ALWAYS welcome here! 

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Be sure to check out Greg’s new book, Benefit of the Doubt. And if you haven’t found Greg’s ReKnew site, you’re missing out; there are tons of great resources, articles, and discussions there. And if you’re interested in hearing Greg speak on the topics covered in this interview, consider participating in the upcoming ReKnew conference on Faith, Doubt, and the Idol of Certainty, September 27-28 at Wooldand Hills Church in St. Paul, MN. 


 

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Comment Policy: Please stay positive with your comments. If your comment is rude, it gets deleted. If it is critical, please make it constructive. If you are constantly negative or a general ass, troll, or hater, you will get banned. The definition of terms is left solely up to us.