Do you have an Easter, Christian Worldview?

By Joe LaGuardia

Over the last four weeks I have had the honor of being adjunct professor for a Thursday night class at Palm Beach Atlantic University.  The class, an eight-week required course for graduating seniors, asks students to think through how their education synchronizes with the rest of their life and projected fields of service.

It is a class about worldviews–and encouraging students to articulate, further define, or develop a Christian worldview that sees not as the world sees, but as Jesus sees.  It is a lens through which we interpret the world and our place in it whereby the Bible is true, God is real, and an ethic of God’s activity on earth determines the boundaries of our thoughts, behaviors, and actions.

You will be surprised to know how few Christians reflect on how they see their world and whether they see it as Christ sees.  Much of this depends on our values growing up, but it is also shaped and formed by our experiences of church, Bible study, and public engagement.

Here are a few thoughts I have pushed in my class:
†  Our worldview and our view of who we are in the world largely rests on our view of who God is and how we believe God relates to us.  For instance, if you believe that God is mean and judgmental, you will likely see the world as a hostile place only worthy of wrath and doom.  But if you see God as ever-loving and intimate Creator, than there is something to be said about the world that is worth saving.  If God gave Jesus to die on the cross for the whole world, then it is worth the Gospel message indeed.

How we treat others–from strangers to enemies–rests on how we see them as either beloved or alienated by God.  If you have a worldview that takes Genesis seriously, then it is logical to posit that all people–to the most depraved to the saints among us–are made in God’s image.  God knows each person well; and, because of that, each person has the potential to experience the saving love of Christ and find redemption at the foot of the cross.  But if we are too busy judging people or ignoring them or killing them, how will they ever have a chance to hear the Gospel or experience Christ’s love through us?

Our debates, whether theological or political or whatever, depends on where we stand and how we see the world.  If we grew up on the island of Guam, for instance, we may believe that there is a scarcity of land and an abundance of water in the world; whereas if we grew up in, say, the Gobi desert, we may believe the opposite.  Bring these two citizens together and two worlds collide: How will we shape public policy when we believe that two divergent resources are scarce?  Our debates must consider our worldviews.

We have assumptions and presuppositions that have never been tested and, in many cases, never scrutinized by the lordship of Christ and the authority of Scripture.  A large portion of my time in class is helping students figure out why they believe, talk, and act as they do.  One of their assignments is to present a 15-minute conversation on an ethical conundrum with which they struggle.  A majority of time is not spent on ethics, but their assumptions that have shaped their ethics on the subject.  We deal with what philosophers call “first-order beliefs,” which ultimately determine our actions (second-order and third-order beliefs).  It is amazing how little we think critically about our own convictions!

As we come upon the empty tomb of Easter and re-affirm our confession that the Lord is risen indeed, it might be worthwhile asking the hard question of how our Easter faith informs our life.  Is our faith so private that it has no bearing on our public life–can people even tell that we are Christians by our behaviors, words and deeds?

Is our faith so individualized, that it has become irrelevant in shaping both Christian community and our public witness in secular society?

These questions are important–we wrestle with them every Sunday, and its part of the work of the church.  But let us not avoid them just because they may frighten us.  Remember, “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.”

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The long and dangerous road of theological tradition

Members of the Westboro Baptist Church hold anti-gay signs at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia on Veterans Day, November 11, 2010. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque (UNITED STATES - Tags: POLITICS) - RTXUI58

REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque (UNITED STATES – Tags: POLITICS) – RTXUI58

By Joe LaGuardia

As a requirement for her Master of Divinity degree at the McAfee School of Theology, Atlanta, Georgia, the Reverend Karen Woods wrote a thesis on race relations in the local church.  In it, she argues that slavery, discrimination, and contemporary conflicts surrounding race did not suddenly appear out of nowhere.

Rather, the dysfunction of racism grew out of long theological traditions that manipulated the Bible to justify one race’s subjugation over another.  Sadly, although our ancestors were people of their time, this theological context sat squarely on a certain systemic interpretation of the Bible that dehumanized people.

Woods’ thesis reminded me that beliefs surrounding a variety of issues these days result not from spontaneous decisions or platitudes, but from long-held convictions and traditions that require (consciously or otherwise) theological gerrymandering and interpretative acrobats over a long period of time.

If we are still embroiled in the consequences of racism even today, then it should not surprise us that contemporary debates over other hotbed topics will last well into the next generation of Christendom.

Traditions and experience inform how we read the Bible (if we read the Bible at all), and shaping our reading of God’s Word according to such embedded ideologies threatens to undermine the authority of Scripture.

The worst part is when we declare that God agrees with our positions rather than change our minds when we know some things simply contradict Christ’s or the Bible’s teachings.

M. Craig Barnes, writing for The Christian Century, wrote of the dangers associated with biased interpretations of scripture.  He recalled Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address delivered on March 4, 1865, in which Lincoln lamented the toxicity that imbues any theology that forces ideology on humanity’s understanding of God.

According to Lincoln, “Both [the North and the South] read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes [God’s]aid against the other . . . The prayers of both could not be answered.  That of neither has been answered fully.  The Almighty has His own purposes.”

Lincoln went on to declare that the institution of slavery–250 years in the making–will not come untangled as easily as many people in the Union had hoped.  Yet, it was imperative to “finish the work we are in” so as to bring about harmony to a nation divided by political ideology.

Lincoln hit the problem squarely on the head.  Our debates surrounding the most pressing issues of the day such as gun control, environmental stewardship, war, immigration and refugee policy, and federal budgets must indeed play out in the philosophical and political arenas, but must avoid any declaration that God is taking one side over another.  Otherwise, we too will be embroiled in divisions that rend the very fabric of our nation.

Ultimately, when a Christian surrenders to God, she surrenders her “rights” in this world in order to become a fully-recognized citizen in God’s kingdom.  It is to sacred Scripture that a citizen of the Kingdom submits, not to any man-made document or system of government.

God’s call is a singular mission to march towards the cause of the cross.  This results from self-denial and, sometimes, death, if not physically, then of those embedded convictions that conflict with Christ’s values.

Most significantly, submitting to Christ’s lordship means divesting our theologies about God and social politics that perpetuate some of the more hostile elements of faith that play out in our places of worship, politics, and the public square.  Without this important reformation in our churches, we remain steadfast in the very bigotry that our faith condemns.

Without analyzing the long-held beliefs that shape our worldview, we fail to “be transformed in the renewal of our mind,” as Paul so aptly commands in Romans 12:1-2.

My prayer for the New Year is that we will have robust debates in an otherwise uncommon election season, but that we will not use religion as a weapon to wield rather than a balm to heal, and that we will use Scripture to transform our thinking rather than support our myopic opinions about so many issues we face today.  May Christ, not the fascination with our own interpretations of Him, be Lord over our lives.

 

 

 

Happy 400th Birthday, Baptists!

When I meet people and tell them I am in the ministry, they assume that I am a Catholic priest. My dark complexion and Italian name do not necessarily yell “Baptist,” so when I correct people as to my religious background, they seem taken aback.

For me, being Baptist is a mark of honor. The first Baptist church I ever stepped foot in was the same church in which I made a profession of faith. I was 12 at the time and, after attending the youth group for several months, I felt that familiar tug on my heart to ask Jesus into my life.

It was in the context of Baptist collegiate life that I also heard God’s call to ministry. I studied under Baptist professors who instilled in me a love of the Bible and theology, as well as the Baptist heritage of which they were so fond. Attending a Baptist seminary — one at Mercer University, in fact — was the eventual next step.

Although you may not hear it often in the news, the Baptists, among other denominations in the religious scene, have much to be proud of. This past year marked the 400th birthday of the Baptist movement. Its two founders, Thomas Helwys and John Smyth, established the first First Baptist Churches in Holland and England between the years of 1609 to 1611.

At that time, the Baptists were affiliated with the Mennonites. They had a reputation for being separatists who advocated for literacy, the separation of church and state, and the priesthood of all believers. They were pacifists that avoided public office; they were persecuted often, especially during the reign of King James I.  Yet, many of their founding, core values remained benchmark standards in the Protestant cause, and still do to this day.

The priesthood of believers is one of the values that caught my attention in my youth. Baptists believe that every person is a minister unto God in the service of others. The denomination is a participatory one, so much so that Baptists have always avoided creeds that excluded individuals from roles in leadership and missions.

There are a diverse set of leaders throughout history to prove it — leaders from the likes of liberal Walter Rauschenbusch to conservative, missionary pioneer Lottie Moon. We who call ourselves Baptists stand on the shoulders of giants, that’s for sure.

The Baptist understanding of the separation of church and state also attracted me to the movement. Although it seems that not a few Christians have abandoned this principle in order to push for legislation that discriminates against others, many Baptists know that political power is something not to be wielded lightly.

Baptists are keenly aware that nations that marry the church with the state prove to be oppressive time and again.

This conviction does not mean that Baptists are apolitical. Every person who engages in public policy and dialogue brings to the table an entire worldview, and Baptists are no exception. It is just that Baptists fulfill their civic duty with a sense of critical skepticism and suspicion.

There is a growing animosity toward religious denominations in our culture; we are living in what some have coined a “post-denominational age.” This has surely eroded the influence that Baptists have on culture: The Southern Baptist Convention has noted on more than one occasion that both financial giving and baptisms are down, and many Baptist churches are in steep decline.

With 400 years behind the Baptist movement, however, Christians can rest assured that we Baptists will be around for a long time to come, that is, if the denomination remains true to its past and continues to join God in bringing about His redemptive future.