Hell Has Indeed, Apparently, Frozen Over

Eugene Peterson.  Screenshot from Youtube

Eugene Peterson, perhaps wistfully wishing he’d never granted that recent interview.

At least, I suspect it must have, because I find myself in the extremely rare position of agreeing with Albert Mohler.

Well, kind of.

Mohler is the current president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary here in Louisville, and a high-powered bullhorn for conservative Evangelical Christian theology. Without giving a list of particulars – it would be long – let’s just say that it would be hard to find someone whose understanding of Christianity differs more from my own.

Still, I will give Mohler credit for at least one statement that he made that I think is absolutely spot-on, even while I disagree strongly with his ultimate conclusion.

In recent days, the best-selling Evangelical author/retired pastor Eugene Peterson created a stir in religious and some broader social circles when he gave an interview to Jonathan Merritt of Religion News Service. Peterson has recently announced that he’s leaving the lecture circuit, slowing down, and taking life easy from this point on. And at 84 years old, why not? The man has clearly earned it.

Given that, and his long string of best-selling books, this interview should have been a fluff ball – a victory lap of sorts for Peterson; a nice, feel-good piece that offered no big news or controversy. What actually transpired, though, was something else entirely.

Merritt asked Peterson about his views on homosexuality in general, and same-sex marriage in particular from the context of the Christian faith, and whether his views on these issues had changed at all over time. Even though Peterson’s popularity has largely been within conservative Evangelical circles, he was actually a long-time pastor and is a member of the Presbyterian Church (USA), one of the most progressive of mainline denominations and one that, thanks be to God, has affirmed LGBTQ individuals’ place in the full life of the church – including ordained positions, and the appropriateness of church-blessed same-sex marriages.

Merritt’s question arose out of comments that Peterson had made in recent years that he’d changed his mind and had become affirming of LGBTQ people – including in this appearance at Western Seminary in 2014.

To be honest, I thought Peterson’s answers to Merrit’s questions in the interview were a bit lukewarm in their support. His comments were couched in phrases like “I didn’t have much experience with that,” or referring to a lesbian couple in his congregation that “didn’t make a big deal out if it,” and so on. I could almost imagine him saying that he could accept LGBTQ parishioners as long as they “didn’t shove it down my throat;” that great cliche that seems to mean “It’s OK if you’re gay; just don’t do anything that might publicly show that you are. Don’t say or do anything, either as an individual or as a couple, that straight people do with regard to their lives and relationships without any problem. Don’t talk about your significant other, don’t hold their hand, and certainly don’t kiss them where anyone else could see you.” That was the sort of tepid support I heard in most of Peterson’s answers. Still, they were several steps ahead of the typical conservative Evangelical party line. And he did, simply but clearly, say that he’d officiate a same-sex wedding if asked.

Of course, to have someone as influential as Peterson come out (sorry) and say these things was big news for conservative and progressive Christians alike, for obvious and opposing reasons.

Within 24 hours, though, Peterson felt forced to release a clarification and retraction of what he’d said in the interview. People across the full spectrum of American Christianity were confused by this bizarre flip-flop, what had led to it, and whether it was a good or bad development. Had an 84-year old man simply gotten confused in the moment and said some things that he didn’t really believe? Had conservative backlash – he was blowtorched by conservative Evangelical mouthpieces within hours –  and threats to book sales (LifeWay, the largest U.S. retailer of Christian publications, and an affiliate of the Southern Baptist Convention, threatened to stop sales of all of Peterson’s books) led to his overnight reversal?

In the wake of this bit of theological whiplash, many people have offered their thoughts about the issue. And here’s where Albert Mohler enters the picture.

As would be expected, Mohler firmly occupies the conservative, traditional, exclusivist, non-LGBTQ-affirming understanding of the Christian faith. Mohler himself would define his views as the “biblical” position. I refuse to grant him that semantic bit of theological high ground, since it incorrectly assumes that the Bible “quite clearly” calls for anti-LGBTQ theology; and that those who have reached LGBTQ-affirming understandings of the faith have done so without, or in spite of, the scriptures, a position that is categorically false.

But I digress.

In an article he wrote about the Peterson kerfuffle, Mohler criticizes Peterson for what he sees as indecisiveness – not offering clear-cut, definitive, conservative Evangelical answers to LGBTQ questions, and sticking to them. Perhaps Mohler sees Peterson’s initial answers as having been an attempt to curry public favor by adopting more socially acceptable positions; a situation of society inappropriately influencing one’s understanding of the faith. Maybe he sees it as a legitimate theological struggle within Peterson’s heart and mind. Or maybe he sees it as something else. Whatever the explanation, Mohler says that indecision is a problem, and not only for Peterson. He writes:

“First, there is nowhere to hide. Every pastor, every Christian leader, every author  — even every believer — will have to answer the question. The question cannot simply be about same-sex marriage,” he says; at its core, the real issue is having a decisive understanding of what one believes to be the will and purpose of God with regard to human sexuality and gender, based on sound scriptural interpretation.

“Second, you had better have your answer ready. Evasive, wandering, and inconclusive answers will be seen for what they are. Those who have fled for security to the house of evasion must know that the structure has crumbled. It always does.”

And on this score, he’s absolutely right.

Mohler and I would clearly disagree on what “sound scriptural interpretation” would be. In fact, I couldn’t even agree with some of his wording in the quote above; hence my partial paraphrasing. But we both agree that we need to have studied and prayed about the question of LGBTQ individuals in the life of the church, and we need to reach a solid, scripturally consistent answer to the question, and then be willing to stick with it. Of course, Mohler and I diverge radically from that point on, but on this, we agree.

This isn’t a question about which a person can be ambivalent, ambiguous, both/and. You can’t be a little bit pregnant, and you can’t be a little bit affirming (or non-affirming). Affirming theology hinges on a person’s core beliefs about God, creation, human anthropology, and the nature of the divine-human relationship. In order to work out where you are regarding LGBTQ people, you need to have first determined in your heart and mind whether homosexuality is a sin. If it is sin, is it a sin of choice, or a part of so-called “original sin” and therefore, impossible to eliminate from human existence? If it is a type of unavoidable “original sin” as a result of “the fall,” what is the proper response of God and humanity to that? Or, is homosexuality merely a normal variation within the full spectrum of what it means to be human, and therefore of having been created in God’s image? And if this is the case, is refusing to be accepting and affirming toward LGBTQ people refusing to accept and affirm the One in whose image they were created? If you believe that homosexuality is a sinful choice, is it possible to affirm same-sex marriage? How about if it is part of “original sin;” can same-sex marriage be accepted and affirmed as the best possible “option B” for people who don’t have opposite-sex marriage as an option to still have loving, committed, sacrificial unions that are blessed by God? And if you believe that homosexuality is just another variation in human creation, can you somehow not accept and affirm same-sex marriage?

There is no meaningful way that individuals or faith communities can accept these divergent theologies as equally valid options for believers. Each one inherently negates the possible validity of the others. Just as it is impossible for a person, or a faith community, to claim that it’s equally valid and acceptable to both accept and reject slavery, or segregation, or the subjugation of women, so it is also with this issue. It goes to the fundamental way that we understand God and human creation, and whichever way you believe, logically, it’s a package deal – you’re either all in, across the board, or you aren’t in at all.

There really is no middle ground with regard to affirming LGBTQ people, except as a transitional place while moving to a final position. For virtually everyone who has adopted affirming theology, myself included, the process has been a journey with several interim stages.  That’s understandable. But to be partly affirming of LGBTQ people, accepting this part of them – whether in the life of the church or society in general – but not some other part, just isn’t viable long-term theology. On this score, Mohler is absolutely correct.

He’s also correct in saying that a person needs to be ready, when asked, to give a decisive, consistent , cohesive explanation of what they believe about LGBTQ people – because if you try to voice some waffling middle-of-the-road theological stance in order to try to please everyone, it will be immediately obvious to everyone, and you will end up being rejected by those on both sides of the issue.

The price that Eugene Peterson has paid in the last week shows how fraught with risk the transitional, middle places of such a journey toward LGBTQ affirmation can be, and how important it is to  move toward the final destination as quickly as possible. Ironically, I don’t think Peterson himself is still in the process of making that journey at all – I think that in his own way, he’s already completed the journey to full affirmation, despite his written retraction. If Eugene Peterson has indeed retired from the public eye, and if this was his last interview, the final lesson he seems to have inadvertently offered the faithful is just how important it is to have the courage of  one’s convictions, and of standing up and voicing them clearly, boldly, and publicly even in the face of opposition.  It’s an important lesson for all of us. I hope we don’t have to wait for hell to freeze over again before Peterson learns it for himself.

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Where the Wind Blows

(sermon 3/12/17)

glowing embers

Now the Lord said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”

So Abram went, as the Lord had told him; and Lot went with him. Abram was seventy-five years old when he departed from Haran.  – Genesis 12:1-4

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Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. He came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’ The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things? “Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him”  – John 3:1-17

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He drove past the house as slowly as he could without drawing attention to himself, paying close attention to where the door was, but not just that, also taking in the other buildings around the house – where their doors were, and especially their windows, where people might glance out and see him. At the next corner he turned, then turned again, doubling back toward the house and finally parking his car two blocks away. If anyone saw his car where it was parked, and recognized it as his, there would be plausible deniability – they’d assume that he was in one of the nearby restaurants enjoying dinner. He got out of the car and started to walk toward the house, nervously paying attention to the cars and people on the sidewalk, watching for anyone he might recognize, or more importantly, who might recognize him in the glow of the streetlights. As he got closer to the house, he adjusted his pace, a little slower, a little faster, trying to time his arrival so there wouldn’t be anyone walking or driving by when he got there. As it happened, he timed it right, but still, as he reached the house, he kept his pace until it almost looked like he was going to pass it by, and at the last second, and looking over his shoulder, he quickly darted inside the door. He had to be careful. He had a reputation to keep. A lot of people knew who he was – a well-known religious mucky muck, and it wouldn’t look good at all, it wouldn’t go well for him, if people saw him in a place like this, talking to a person like this.

Still, there was just something inside him that drew him here. He’d seen Jesus around town in recent days, and he’d heard about him for a good while longer. Almost in spite of himself and his religious position and education, Jesus’ words stirred something deep inside him; so much that he took this personal risk to meet him and talk with him personally on this particular night.

He sat there with Jesus in the back room of the house, far from the noise from the street, as the cool of the evening gradually settled in. He was caught in that uncomfortable place where he wasn’t sure which of the two of them was going to have the upper hand, if he were the teacher or the student in their discussion. It didn’t take long for him to realize which was the case, as Jesus told him that no one can see, no one can comprehend the kingdom of God unless they’ve been born from above. Nicodemus’ brain went into overdrive at this point, so he started asking questions: what does that even mean? We’ve all come into this world the same way; how can a person be born in some new, different way? And just what do you base that claim on, anyway? Where in the scriptures do you find that?

In imagining this scene in his own way, Frederick Buechner wrote that at this point, a strong breeze blew down the chimney, fanning all the embers in the fireplace into a hot, bright red, and they burst into flame again. Being born from above was just like that, Jesus said. It wasn’t anything you did. The wind did it. The Spirit did it. It was something done by God, and for God, and where, and when, and why, and to whomever God wants. And just as the wind doesn’t stop at the city limits, or the synagogue door; God’s Spirit trespasses across all artificially set human boundaries and limits.

Nicodemus battled sensory and intellectual overload at this idea; it was more than he could process all at once. But bit by bit, he started to tease out the implications of what Jesus had said. And the more he thought about it, the more he recognized how radical, how heretical – how dangerous – Jesus’ words were to the established order of things; certainly the religious order but also the political order. He kept asking questions: So… the kingdom of God is for any and all people that the wind, God’s Spirit, blows on? Yep. But… the Spirit doesn’t blow on everyone, surely. Surely there are some limits to this, right? Well, I don’t know; what do you think? The Spirit is like the wind; are there people out there who have never felt the wind on their face? Personally, I don’t think so, but if there are, I can’t imagine there are very many of them. So… God is stirring up the lives, birthing them from above, all over the place? All over the place. Even the Samaritans; even the Romans? Even them. Even people from other religions, or from nor religion, people who have never heard of the God of the Israelites, or the Law and the Prophets, or frankly, who have never heard of *you*? What am I supposed to make of what you’re saying?

Jesus smiled and got up from where they were sitting, and put a compassionate hand on Nicodemus’ shoulder as he walked over and put another log on the dying fire, because they’d been talking or some time now, and the coolness of the night was settling in more deeply. And as Nicodemus sat there trying to sort out the implications of their conversation, Jesus added fuel to both the fire in the fireplace and the one in Nicodemus’ mind, as he told him that he’d come into the world so that everyone who believes in him, in what he was saying, would be part of that kingdom of God – that that it was God’s intention that Jesus’ message, his mission, his purpose, wasn’t to condemn, wasn’t to keep people out of that kingdom, but instead, to bring the whole world – the cosmos, the whole chaotic, good-bad-and-in-between, sometimes God-denying, sometimes even God-hating world – everyone – into that kingdom of God. Nicodemus wondered to himself, if that’s God’s intention, is there anything or anyone who could thwart God’s plan?

He started to ask more questions. But… but… what does that mean? You’re talking in mysteries. How can anyone save the whole world? How would you save the whole world? How do you do that, specifically?

As his mind was racing, though, Nicodemus noticed the time on his watch. It was much later than he’d thought, and he knew he had to go. He’d told his wife that he was going to a committee meeting at the synagogue, and if he got home too late, she’d know he must have been somewhere else. So with all those unanswered questions – or maybe they really had been answered – still bouncing around in his head, he quickly said his goodbyes, peeked out the side of the curtain in the front window, and when the coast was clear he quickly slipped back out in to the night, and down the street, and into history by virtue of his story becoming part of John’s gospel.

“For God so loved the world as to give the Son, so that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life. Indeed, god did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”

During this season of Lent, while we take time to refocus on just what exactly God’s good news for the world really is, on just what it is that we believe, we can listen to these familiar words again, and maybe wrestle with them as much as Nicodemus did. Hearing them as if we’d only now heard them for the first time, without all the historical and cultural baggage that’s gotten attached to them over time like barnacles on the bottom of a boat. From the earliest days of the faith, people have debated exactly what Jesus was saying in this conversation. And everyone from the early church father Origen, to St. Augustine, to John Calvin, to the great 20th-century Swiss theologian Karl Barth, to Southern Baptist Albert Mohler, to John Shelby Spong, have all offered up their opinions of what Jesus meant – how Jesus reconciles human beings and God; and determining who’s supposedly in, and who’s out, of that eternal club. In other words, is the kingdom of God for a select number of people, or in some mysterious way, just as the wind eventually brushes across everyone’s face, will everyone eventually become part of God’s kingdom? Has that been God’s plan all along?

For my own part, I believe somewhere along the lines of Karl Barth. When someone asked him if he were a universalist – if he believed that everyone would ultimately be part of the kingdom of God, and no one would end up in hell, Barth famously answered that he couldn’t categorically say that everyone was going to be saved and be part of God’s eternal kingdom, but that if hell existed, he suspected it was very sparsely populated. And to be honest, the older I get, the more I see, and the more I think about whether God’s will could ever be thwarted; the more I think about the nature of God’s grace and mercy and love, I’ve started to wonder if hell is actually less populated than even Barth thought.

Jesus’ words stuck with Nicodemus. The scriptures tell us that after Jesus had died and was pried off the cross – at a time when it would have been the most potentially dangerous to identify as a follower or even friend of Jesus, Nicodemus came out of the closet, as it were, with his trust and faith and love for Jesus. Along with Joseph of Arimathea, the scriptures say, he laid Jesus in his tomb, affording him all the dignity that he was denied in his death. In the end, what conclusions did Nicodemus reach regarding Jesus’ words that night? We don’t know. But hearing these words again today, and given all that people have written and said since then, and adding considering current events as an underlay to the question, what conclusions about Jesus’ words do you reach? Who’s in, who’s out? I anyone out? Is Hitler in heaven? Is Ghandi in hell? And what effect do your beliefs have on how you live your life? On how you view the world? On how you view the full spectrum of humanity, whether it’s someone you encounter in this congregation, or this city, or on the other side of the planet? What do Jesus’ words mean to you?

Thanks be to God.