The Misplaced Magi

Photo by Zachary Moore. A typical nativity display.

One of the frequent scenes of the Christmas season is the mounting of nativity displays, both in macro scale out in public (often with live actors and animals), as well as in micro scale in one’s own home. In the United States, such displays on public property have often prompted legal challenges, leading to Supreme Court decisions that restrict such spectacles unless other traditions are given equal time and opportunity in the commons. This has led to various and questionable outcomes, such as the perennial display of the Winter Solstice plaque by the Freedom From Religion Foundation, as well as the “Merry Christmas Bill” which was signed into law here in Texas last year by outgoing Governor Rick Perry.

These nativity scenes are typically popular among Christian congregations; it’s not too difficult to find one or more churches in any neighborhood that have one up on their property. And it’s not difficult to see why; some of the best nativity scenes I’ve ever visited have been like a mini-fair, with hot cocoa and peppermint candies for the kids, lots of live animals to visit and pet, and throngs of the faithful singing Christmas hymns. As a young Christian, this was a wonderful and faith-affirming part of the holiday season, second only to midnight candlelight services on Christmas Eve.

But from the time when I was in high school, it had occurred to me that there was an odd peculiarity about these nativity scenes that I just couldn’t shake.

The concept itself was fundamentally flawed.

That’s not to say that I viewed the entire nativity narrative as false, but as I studied the Bible, I noticed something that had not caught my attention when I was younger. Namely, that the narratives of Jesus’ birth in Matthew and Luke (the only two Gospels that attempt to report on this aspect of his biography) are significantly different. In particular, there was one critical detail that stuck out to me as an irritating inconsistency.

The Magi shouldn’t be there.

In the Gospel attributed to Matthew, the first chapter presents a long genealogy of Jesus, after which follows a short pericope describing his birth, but with virtually no description of the event at all. There is no census, no pregnant woman on a donkey, no overstuffed inn. There’s not even a mention of where this is supposed to be happening. The account simply says that “[Joseph] knew [Mary] not until she had given birth to a son. And he called his name Jesus.”

The next chapter begins with a new pericope, placing the birth of Jesus in Bethlemen in the days of Herod the king (information that was omitted previously), and brings “wise men from the east” onto the stage. In the Greek, these are recorded as μάγος ἀπό ἀνατολή (magos apo anatolē), or literally “magicians from the [place of the] rising of the sun.” There is no more information provided about their countries of origin, or indeed if they came from the same or different countries. Surprisingly, there is also no number given to describe how many of these “Magi” arrived in Jerusalem, meaning that the concept that there were three of them is but the first of many unsupported inferences that have been incorporated into their substantial legendarium.

According to later myths and traditions, these three Magi are named: Caspar, Melchior, and Balthazar. An interpolation from Psalm 72 suggests that these three originated from Tarshish, Sheba, and Seba (ancient cities whose actual locations are under dispute, but could refer to Southern Arabia, East Africa, or Asia Minor). Some traditions identify Caspar as the oldest and Balthazar as the youngest, while others say that Melchior was the oldest, and Caspar was the youngest. Some traditions have Balthazar originating from Ethiopia, and depict him with black skin. Of course, outside the Western traditions, the names change significantly: the Syriac Church knows them as Larvandad, Hormisdas, and Gushnasaph; the Armenian Church knows them as Kagba, Badadilma, and Badadakharida; the Ethiopian Church knows them as Hor, Karsudan, and Basanater.

With so many names to choose from, why pick just three?

In fact, the number of the Magi in the Western tradition is normally set at three to correspond with the three gifts that are mentioned in Matthew’s Gospel (and referencing in part Isaiah 60): gold, frankincense, and myrrh. But aside from the expediency of myth (and adaptability for religious iconography), there’s no reason to assume that each Magus brought a single gift. And indeed, in the Eastern tradition the number of Magi is held to be twelve, such as in the apocryphal Syriac text “Revelation of the Magi.”

In this version of the Magi myth, they arrive in Jerusalem from the legendary country of “Shir,” transported magically with supernatural speed from one to the other. The “star” they report seeing is no ordinary astronomical body, but is in fact the celestial body of Christ himself in luminous display, a kind of “star-child.” (This astral Christ is also identified by Adam’s son Seth as having been positioned over the Tree of Life in the Garden of Eden, which had disappeared once Adam fell into sin.) After arriving in Bethlehem, the Magi find that the star-child descends into a cave, where he blesses them as apostles of the Gospel before sending them magically back to their homeland to evangelize their people.

Needless to say, Matthew’s story is far less exciting; after visiting the child Jesus at home in Bethlehem with his mother Mary, the Magi “departed to their own country,” avoiding Herod’s wrath and exiting the canon altogether.

So why do I say that the Magi have no place in the nativity scene? They’re clearly a part of the narrative, right? Well, they are, but the nativity scene as we know it doesn’t come to us from Matthew’s Gospel, it comes from Luke’s.

Luke’s Gospel has the most to tell us about the circumstances surrounding the birth of Jesus, going as far back as including the nativity of his cousin, John the Baptist. (Though if the other Gospel writers were aware of Jesus’ familial relationship with John, they don’t mention it.) In this story, Mary is visited by an angel (in Matthew’s story it’s Joseph who received an angelic message), a census decree is issued, and the Holy Family packs their things for the town of Bethlehem. In Luke’s account, Joseph and Mary live originally in Nazareth, and are only on their way to Bethlehem because of the requirement of the census (which makes very poor historical sense), rather than in Matthew’s account, in which Jesus is born in Bethlehem apparently because that’s where his parents lived.

This is a crucial point, because in Luke’s Gospel, Mary and Joseph are foreigners to the little town of Bethlehem, which is why they were dependent on hotel accommodations at the end of their journey. It’s precisely because they didn’t have a place of their own, and because there was “no room at the inn,” that Jesus is born in a manger. It’s also in this version of the story that we have the heavenly hosts breaking forth into praise for God, to the fear and amazement of the “shepherds out in the field.” This is where St. Linus finds his monologue to assuage the doubts of Charlie Brown:

And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid. And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger. And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.”

Luke 2:8-14, KJV

It’s marvelous stuff, and the shepherds immediately rush into Bethlehem to find this child, bringing us the classic nativity scene of the Holy Family, adoring shepherds, and the announcing angel clustered cozily in a barn-like diorama. But notice what ISN’T present in the scene: any indication of the visit of the Magi. Luke’s story moves immediately to Jesus’ circumcision, his presentation at the Temple in Jerusalem (no concern that he would be discovered by the bloodthirsty Herod, and likewise no terrified sojourn in Egypt!), and then finally a happy return to Nazareth.

Clearly, these two nativity accounts are at odds with each other. Even taken at face value, it seems impossible to reconcile the two: Matthew’s narrative is one of connected prophecies, in which every plot point is referenced back to some part of scripture (e.g., Mary being a virgin, Jesus being born in Bethlehem, the sojourn in Egypt, and the return to Nazareth). But in Luke’s narrative, we have a plot of connected proclamations, beginning with the angelic announcement of John’s birth, Jesus’ birth, the acknowledgement by the fetal John in the womb, followed by the massive celebration of the heavenly host and the modest recognition by the shepherds at the manger. In Matthew’s account, Jesus’ secretive birth echoes that of the Hebrew hero Moses (or possibly the Roman founder Romulus) who is an outlaw from birth, but in Luke’s account, Jesus is publicly acclaimed and comes from a law-abiding family that regularly participates in the religious establishment. In both versions, Jesus is the heir of David (legally or spiritually if not biologically) and a Galilean, born in Bethlehem and raised in Nazareth.

So why, then, does it matter if the nativity scenes we commonly see during the holiday season aren’t faithful to a literal reading of the Christian scriptures?

I would say that it doesn’t.

The nativity scene as we know it is flawed, to be sure. But the flaw itself is part of the beauty of the work, indeed, it’s the flaw that gives it the beauty. Rather than insist upon consistency for its own sake, I quite like the asymmetry of narrative elements from two competing stories crowding together, shoulder-to-shoulder, in a kind of posed, wabi-sabi display. Or, to put it another way, it’s the comfort of rusted gold in a reversal of the intent Chaucer’s parson gives his maxim:

To his sheep did he give this noble example, which he first set into action and afterward taught; these words he took out of the gospel, and this similitude he added also, that if gold will rust, what shall iron do?

Geoffrey Chaucer,  The Canterbury Tales, “The Prologue”

C2014Q2_Lovejoy_by_Paul_Stewart

Photo by Paul Stewart. https://www.flickr.com/photos/astrostew/15497693653/

That the grand and glorious traditions of the Church have managed to harmonize and synthesize two stories which are quite obviously at odds with each other on close inspection is itself a magnificent example of humanity’s capacity to find meaning in the mundane. Passing overhead as I write is the green comet Lovejoy, which will come closest to Earth tomorrow night (January 7th), not to return (if at all) for another 622 years. On the one hand, this is just another of many comets currently orbiting the Sun, a rather routine occurrence in our solar system. And yet this celestial traveller is also a reminder that there is more orbiting our moderately-sized star than just our own little rock, and indeed there is more to the Cosmos than we could ever hope to learn in our short lifetimes.

Like the “star-child” in “Revelation of the Magi,” this is also an ancient decoration on our tree of life, linked to the family of comets which supplied our ancient planet with the water necessary for biological development and evolution. There is magic in this, as what is simply and literally a frozen rock hissing steam into the vacuum becomes an emblem of our Cosmic inheritance pointing ahead into our future. This is not just a story of what has happened in the past, this is a story of what is happening and what will continue to happen to humanity. The Magi, misplaced though they may be in space and time, yet are a valuable reminder that the important events in our lives are all inexorably linked in the mythological tapestry common to all humanity; we look for signs in the stars because we see in them both our past and future.

So of course the Magi had to be there in the humble manger of David’s city; no matter where the individual storyteller places them, the myth demands that they be present to acknowledge the connection between Human and Cosmos. Indeed, the story is not meaningful to us despite the fluid mythology of its telling, it is meaningful to us because of it.

O Star of wonder, star of night
Star with royal beauty bright
Westward leading, still proceeding
Guide us to thy Perfect Light

John Henry Hopkins, Jr. “The Quest of the Magi”

A Universalist Prolegomena

Intellectual honesty offers little comfort when faced with the possibility of estrangement from the vast majority of people one knows. To consider the marginal theologies of Christian history viable means to challenge the popular opinion, the “traditional” view, the “biblical” or “orthodox” position. One’s church options shrink, particularly in the Bible Belt where conservative perspectives rule, and the last comment on “liberal theologies” is laughter—the marginal is also the joke. If one has been trained at an evangelical seminary, the move into adopting a different theology relegates one to the number of graduates who have either abandoned the faith or, at least doctrinally speaking, “gone astray”.

The climate continues to change, of course. Many I know are sympathetic to various theological niches, and most have lightheartedly entertained my willingness to bend, flex, and change. My move from angry Arminianism to compassionate Calvinism proved moderately difficult. Then came a more drastic change: abandoning the traditional view of eternal conscious torment for the Conditionalist/Annihilationist view, which states that, after allowing for some period of conscious punishment, those who do not belong to Christ will be completely destroyed—the utter elimination of opposition to God’s redemptive, restorative purposes. This view draws a fair amount of criticism, with some even considering the view heretical. Our family’s movement away from an Anabaptist understanding of baptism to a Presbyterian (paedobaptist) one raised a few eyebrows, but did not cause much of a stir otherwise.

My most recent exploration is quite different. Evangelical Universalism is the doctrine that all will eventually be saved, will enter into God’s kingdom because Christ paid the price for all people, every individual. Not to be confused with religious pluralism (any and all religious paths lead to God), in Evangelical Universalism there is still no salvation apart from Christ—He took on the sins of the world by dying on a cross, and was raised to life three days later, which conquered death in our place and secured the salvation of the entire world. The major difference between this and traditional belief is that Hell is a place where punishment still takes place, but for the Universalist it is restorative, corrective, purposeful; not ultimate and final. Hell still exists, but those who go there eventually see the full impact of their sin and are able to repent, praising Christ, and rejecting opposition to Him.

The doctrine of Hell is what makes this brand of Universalism evangelical: there is still reason to preach repentance here and now because Hell is not a place anyone wants to go. The objection that Universalism removes the urgency to preach the Gospel is false: if my wife is using a chainsaw in such a way that, though she won’t kill herself with it, she will cut off an arm, I would still warn her and help her use the chainsaw correctly. Just because Hell will not last forever does not mean we should cannonball into the Lake of Fire. The punishment is not the ultimate point anyway. Christ is. If our humanity functions at its best when it properly worships and obeys its Creator, then that is our task and our song regardless of whether or not punishment will result from disobedience. This objections runs the risk of making avoidance of Hell, instead of the beauty of Christ, the reason why someone should repent—the very reason why Jonathan Edwards threw away his famous sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” after only a few preachings. He was no Universalist, but he knew the dangers of emphasizing Hell in quickening sermons instead of emphasizing Christ.

This exploration of mine has several movements that I will develop in the posts to come. Feel free to interact and ask questions as much as you wish. I have not finished this exploration, and much is at stake, but I am looking forward to the rest of the journey.

Apologetics Now, Redux

Two outstanding Texas treasures.

Two outstanding Texas treasures.

As I mentioned last year when I visited an apologetics conference at Watermark Church in Dallas, the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life’s report on the rise of the “Nones” in America was just another in a long series of warnings to the American Christian Church. Society, the Church has said for decades, is slouching into secularity; now the data suggest that more and more people are not even interested in the pretense of a religious label.

This pronounced rejection of religious affiliation has a strikingly demographic bent. While 90% of those 65 and older still consider themselves affiliated with a religious organization, only two-thirds of those younger than 30 are similarly labeled. And trends in the data over the past decade indicate that this disparity is only going to grow wider.

Among American Christendom, the hardest hit are Protestant denominations, both evangelical and otherwise. Since the 1970’s, the percentage of American Protestants has declined from almost two-thirds of the population to now just barely half, while the percentage of Catholics has remained the same (presumably due to immigration) and the percentage of “Nones” has more than doubled.

In response to this inevitable sociologic trend, Dallas Theological Seminary has expanded the scope of their Hendricks Center for Christian Leadership which since 1986 has existed to support pastoral leadership development. In December of 2012, DTS announced that Dr. Darrell Bock, a world-class New Testament scholar and expert in the theology of Luke-Acts and the Historical Jesus Quests, would be appointed the new Executive Director of Cultural Engagement at the Hendricks Center alongside Dr. Andy Seidel.

In this new role, Bock has sought to reach out beyond the ivory tower to connect with the public through a series of podcasts. The literally-named “The Table Podcast” features Bock with a rotating selection of Christian guests discussing issues seated around a bare table, adorned only with state-of-the-art recording equipment. Available in both studio quality video and audio versions, the goal of these podcasts is to “help Christians think biblically and theologically about issues and how to engage them in a gracious and forthright manner.”

In this, they succeed amazingly well. Podcasts produced thus far are clear, respectful discussions among people who have interesting things to say about how Christians can interact with homosexuality, the media and the arts, and other religious traditions in the context of a changing American culture. Unfortunately, these discussions have been manifested thus far as mutual confirmation sessions (i.e., Christians agreeing with Christians), designed apparently to provide questions for answers, and not the other way around.

Dr. Bock in his element.

Dr. Bock in his element.

I saw the same phenomenon repeated at the first “Table Conference,” held on a warm spring weekend in Dallas and given the theme, “Presenting God to Those Who See Christianity Differently.” As one of the rapidly growing number of people in Dallas who does, in fact, “see Christianity differently,” I couldn’t keep myself away. Bock, the architect of the conference, had assembled a small number of highly-respected New Testament scholars for the event. These included Dr. Daniel Wallace, a fellow DTS faculty member, one of two worldwide masters of New Testament textual criticism and most likely the world’s foremost expert on Biblical Greek; Dr. Craig Blomberg of Denver Seminary, an expert in parables and Historical Jesus studies; Dr. Charles Hill of Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando, who is an expert in John’s Gospel and the early canon; and finally Dr. Michael Svigel also of DTS, a junior faculty member there who specializes in study of the history and theology of the early Christian Church. To open the conference, Bock had invited Lee Strobel to speak, the bestselling author of several pop-apologetics books cast in the same mold as his original “The Case for Christ.”

Though the conference was obviously Bock’s baby, that Strobel had been chosen to set the tone for the weekend spoke volumes; this was not to be an event where Christians could grapple with real-world issues and criticisms, be asked to think critically about their faith, or even to seriously consider a different point of view. Rather than actually “engage” with the perspective of the “Nones,” much less that of the explicit apostates that are also captured in that designation, the only atheism on display were Bock’s recollections of being a (somewhat boring) middle-school agnostic, and Strobel’s dramatic testimony where his life as an atheist included routine inebriation, domestic violence, and self-loathing. Such a caricature is painfully unfamiliar to me in my travels among atheists, and I know of far too many instances of troubled Christians for this emotional appeal to resonate with me. But I can see the value of having Strobel’s participation, aside from his celebrity in the pop-Christian circuit; in addition to his loudly trumpeted intellectual bona fides as a legal journalist, he really does seem to reflect the earnestness that apologetic-minded American Christians routinely demonstrate.

Following his testimony, Strobel was interviewed by Bock onstage at the eponymous table. He relayed a story which I found quite fascinating: although his wife’s conversion precipitated his own, neither of them were able to make any headway towards converting her father to Christianity. A lifelong skeptic (presented as a bit of a curmudgeon by Strobel), he was tolerant of their religious revolution but didn’t want any part of it for himself. That is, until the end of his life when, afflicted by multiple strokes, he was virtually on his deathbed, watched over by his son-in-law. Strobel recounted how he hounded and harassed the man to consider converting, a process that took several of his father-in-law’s final hours. At long last, he agreed to accept Jesus as Savior, and the family celebrated until that evening when another stroke occurred, and his wife’s father was whisked away by ambulance to the hospital where he finally passed. His last words to Strobel were given indirectly through his wife, “Tell Lee I said ‘thank you’.”

For Strobel, this was a triumphant vindication of several decades worth of prayer and evangelism. Mere moments from Death’s grasp, he was able to save his father-in-law from eternal torment.

But I wonder.

Told from Strobel’s perspective, to a Christian audience, that’s no doubt the most plausible explanation, but I heard a story about a long-suffering atheist who was able to tolerate and love a son-in-law who went from being a rational thinker to a faith-driven evangelist and apologist, and who spent an entire afternoon pleading with him to accept his worldview under the approaching specter of death. Perhaps Strobel’s father-in-law felt sorry for him and his daughter, knew the pain that they would feel if they thought that he died without Christ. Perhaps he chose to show one more kindness to a man who would soon need it much more than him, and simply pretended to assent. I don’t know. It’s possible, and there are several atheists I know who would do the same in that kind of situation.

Including atheists who’ve been exposed to so-called “faithbuster” classes, as Bock mentioned several times during his tenure at the podium. The unstated thesis of the weekend seemed to be that there is bad information being presented to our culture about religion in general and Christianity specifically, and if Christians simply became better educated with good information (as taught by DTS, natch), they’d be better able to resist the faithbusting influences in their lives, and potentially be able to win over their skeptical family and friends to Christ. This promise was tempting, and as someone whose faith had been “busted” about a decade earlier, in no small measure due to textual and critical analysis of the Bible, I was hopeful that there would be a plethora of new information that would prompt me to rethink at least some of my previous conclusions.

Although the weekend was enjoyable and informational, it was not as educational as I had hoped, at least not for me. Though the gathered scholars were clearly able to expound with much more sophistication and subtlety in other company, the introductory-level material they shared with the lay audience was known already to me. Oddly enough, an ongoing theme became apparent as Bock and his colleagues repeatedly dragged out the still-living ghost of Bart Ehrman, who through archived video clips savaged the worldview of the gathered Christian attendees. Indeed, so often was the straw beaten out of Ehrman over the course of the conference that I wondered eventually whether it should rather have been titled “The Bend Bart Ehrman Over A Table Conference.” I suppose it makes sense to target so much of their criticism towards Ehrman; the books he’s written for a popular audience are seeming to have as much of a cultural impact as Bock’s own. And as a highly-respected New Testament scholar with a deconversion testimony from Christian to agnostic, Ehrman is something of a mirror-image of the scholar archetype that DTS seeks to elevate. An “Antibock,” if you will.

I was of two minds during the lectures: on the one hand, these were the highest-level Bible scholars with which one could hope to spend time, but on the other hand, their presentations were awash with warmed-over apologetic tropes the likes of which had been hammered to death within the first year of my apostasy. Things like Lewis’ Trilemma, the analogy of multiple witnesses at a car wreck, implicit trust of Eusebius, heavy-handed harmonizations, defining early alternative Christianities as deviations, and interpreting possibilities as strong probabilities. In this last instance, Wallace, also Executive Director of the Center for the Study of New Testament Manuscripts (which itself had held its first conference a few weeks earlier and a few miles away, with Bock as a speaker), argued that since there is insufficient evidence to show that Greek was spoken in the region of Galilee during the first century C.E., there is thus insufficient evidence to show that it wasn’t spoken, therefore it probably was! And thus of course we can assume that Jesus himself spoke Greek, and thus of course we can assume that his disciples did as well, and thus of course we can assume that fully half of them could write Greek, and thus of course we can assume they wrote the autographs of the Gospels.

The other conference speakers took similar liberties with logic at various points during the weekend. Blomberg had no trouble claiming that since Luke’s version of Jesus’ anointing is so different from the other Gospels’ it’s possible that it happened twice, therefore it must have happened that way. Svigel noted that without a historical resurrection, the Diversity and Conflict model of the early Church development is most likely, but since we all know the resurrection had to happen, it’s not a viable option. And Hill suggested that the early canon was assembled because the early Christians were able to “recognize” authentic books from inauthentic the same way that one might recognize one’s mother in a crowded room.

The best thing by far that I experienced at the conference was the suggestion by Bock that Christians should be seeking out conversations with religious skeptics, approaching these with patience and kindness, and leaving the onus of conversion to the Holy Spirit and the skeptic herself. This was underlined at the end of the conference with a short skit by some of the DTS students helping to run the event. One pretended to be a religious skeptic, while the other acted out the Christian side of the conversation that Bock had earlier recommended. It was a little silly and ham-handed (as skits tend to be), but I couldn’t help but feel the irony of being an atheist seeking conversation with Christians in the middle of a conference where the only example of that on display required a Christian to play-act at being a nonbeliever.

Interestingly enough, this conference was held across the street from the massive Prestonwood Baptist Church where Christopher Hitchens had been invited years ago to provide students there with an actual atheist to listen to and engage with. That event, whatever the motivation of the Prestonwood organizers, presented students with a fair assessment of atheist objections, with Hitchens in his own words and in real-time, able to defend himself and mount his own attacks. Perhaps next year’s Table Conference will take that much-needed step of inviting Ehrman to speak on his own behalf, rather than quoted conveniently to play counterpoint to seminary professors.

Or even better, perhaps the Executive Director for Cultural Engagement would be interested in actually engaging with the cultural force of atheism in his own community that claims more and more Christians like me each year. It’s possible that Bock and his colleagues are still under the impression that the godless among them are little more than village atheists, opposed to Christianity for no better reason than a preacher looked at them crossways. To the contrary, we are more likely to come from Christian backgrounds than ever before, we’ve done our theological homework, and we tend to be better-informed about Christianity and other religions than their own adherents. We are a new breed of atheist, and we aren’t just in need of a kind Christian to patiently talk with us.

Dr. Bock answers questions from Christian students.

Dr. Bock answers questions from Christian students.

I don’t mean to sound too critical of Bock and his inaugural Table Conference; I very much enjoyed the lectures and helping with their photo booth during the breaks. And I agree that far too few Christians are aware of the information about the Bible and the early Church that one might learn at DTS or other seminaries. The weekend was, essentially, a series of 101-level lectures that all Christians (and atheists) should climb over each other to attend. But I do find it problematic that the information is presented with the conclusion already determined. As a Christian seminary, DTS is not actually interested in exploring other religious possibilities, it’s interested in providing intellectual support to a particular set of doctrine. I’ve met several former DTS students who’ve told me that in order to matriculate there, they had to sign assent to the Core Beliefs* of the DTS Doctrinal Statement, and they had to re-sign it in order to graduate. More than one have admitted that it was difficult to sign it a second time, and one individual flat-out refused to sign it, gave up his degree, and transferred to a secular university instead. He noted the irony of having to waive assent to a list of doctrines due to the education he’d received at the very institution which taught them.

If Christians are to remain relevant in American culture, they don’t just need to get smarter about the doctrines their pastors tell them they believe in. They don’t even need to become intellectually confident about their doctrines to the point where they’re comfortable discussing them with other Christians and religious skeptics. It really doesn’t matter how many proof texts you can provide for your belief in dispensationalism or eternal security when you’re talking with an atheist in line at a coffee shop. For both Watermark’s and this conference, I didn’t leave with a sense that my fellow attendees were well-prepared to have a casual conversation with me about the real issues that matter. Nor that they had any sense of what modern religious skeptics’ actual objections are to Christianity and other faiths. Being able to critique a handful of Ehrman sound bytes is a far distance from being able to engage with an real live atheist, especially a well-educated former Christian, right in one’s own hometown.

I’m hopeful that next year’s Table Conference takes its mission to engage with “those who see Christianity differently” a bit more seriously. Otherwise, Bock and his colleagues, for all their best intentions and highest expectations, are just play-acting.

*edited to specify “Core Beliefs of”, 5/8/2013

The Death of God

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When the sixth hour came, darkness fell over the whole land until the ninth hour. At the ninth hour Jesus cried out with a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?” which is translated, “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?” When some of the bystanders heard it, they began saying, “Behold, He is calling for Elijah.” Someone ran and filled a sponge with sour wine, put it on a reed, and gave Him a drink, saying, “Let us see whether Elijah will come to take Him down.” And Jesus uttered a loud cry, and breathed His last. And the veil of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. When the centurion, who was standing right in front of Him, saw the way He breathed His last, he said, “Truly this man was the Son of God!”

-Mark, Chapter 15

For a religion that purports to bring joy to the world, Christianity seems preternaturally focused on death. Indeed, without the death of Jesus as God, atonement within Christian theology would be impossible. So great is this event, that Christians around the world commemorate it as “Good Friday.”

On this point, we can hopefully find no small level of agreement.

The death of God is of incredible significance for those who have moved beyond traditional religious beliefs and practices, and seek now to advance a humanistic ethic in a world where we have no benevolent deities to beg for blessings, nor tyrant gods to blame for miseries.

Humans have been commemorating the deaths of gods as far back as the Mesopotamian culture, in which the goddess Ishtar dies and ventures into the underworld, only to return days later in triumph. In the ancient Greek and Roman cultures, the goddess Persephone goes below and her return marks the beginning of Spring, as celebrated by the Eleusinian mystery cult during the time of Jesus. Among the Old English tribes, the goddess Ëastre (also called Ôstara by the Germans) represented rebirth and new life; the Christian scholar Bede noted that her name had been appropriated by Christians to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus, the latest god to seek death for the benefit of humans.

Is_God_DeadThomas J. J. Altizer, writing in The Gospel of Christian Atheism, acknowledges that “the death of God is a Christian confession of faith.” However, unlike traditional Christian orthodox views of atonement, Altizer suggests that “through the events that faith knows as the Incarnation and the Crucifixion, God empties himself of his sovereignty and transcendence, and not only does this kenotic sacrifice effect the dissolution of the opposition between Father and Son in the new epiphany of God as universal Spirit, but so likewise vanishes the opposition between God and the world.” In other words, God (as Christ) actually died on Good Friday, emptying Himself into the world and collapsing any division between them. Thus, rather than viewing the world as a dark place still in rebellion against God, Altizer sees the world as filled with God, following the self-negation of His transcendence.

Though the theology of Christian atheism is not resonant for me, I appreciate its directional tack. The America we live in is increasingly hostile to God – not only explicitly, through the rise of the New Atheist movement and encroaching secularism in government, but also implicitly, through the rise of the Nones and diminishing interest in religious institutions. To be an evangelical Christian in 21st-century America is to be always on the defensive, but to be a Christian atheist in the Altizer mold is to revel in the many permutations of divine manifestations in our art, literature, and scientific achievements. The Humanist in me recognizes that, whether we realize it or not, we have become the Gods of our own overlapping Universes, and that it is incumbent on us to rise to the responsibilities we face with such a title.

In Mark 16, the followers of Christ seek his dead body, but it is gone. In the original version of the story, there is nothing more to tell; confronted by supernatural visitors, the earliest Christians disobey their directives and flee from the truth. I wonder at times if the Easter season doesn’t suffer from the typical fast-forward from Good Friday to Easter Sunday. Although trumpeting the resurrection of the god does put the Spring back in one’s step, it also resets the clock for the next iteration of the cycle, another repetition of the death and rebirth of the deity next year. Perhaps if Good Friday were punctuated, at least with a comma, but hopefully with a semicolon, Christians might reflect on the significance of the death of God in their lives, and in the lives of their Humanist friends and neighbors.

Regardless, it is my sincere hope that we all can celebrate together during this season of death and rebirth; while my Christian brothers and sisters are able to find joy in the sacrifice of the figure of Christ Jesus, my Humanist siblings are likewise jubilant at the death of God, and we embrace the necessity of sacrifice from one for each other, in the interest of advancing a human-centered ethic that benefits us all.

A very Good Friday to you, and a very happy Easter to all your friends and family that celebrate it.

After the Advent

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“So come down from your mountain and stand where we’ve been

You know our breath is weak and our body thin.”

–Mumford and Sons, “Babel”

The Advent

Even if not embraced as historical event—the abdication of the ultimate power; the willing subjection of the self to conquer evil in a way that creates love—the Advent provides a sublime picture of the response to what ails us.

I’m stopped at a Buc-ee’s near Austin on my way to an early Christmas celebration with family in San Antonio. My wife is inside grabbing consumable essentials. I’m on my phone checking the Facebook news feed for social consumables. My chest tightens and my brain begins the long division that deciphers unimaginable atrocities through my wavering theological filter when I read that a town I had never heard of has experienced a pain I hope to always avoid. I latch onto the idea that children have been gunned down. My toddler is asleep in the back seat, blissfully unaware of the horror glowing from my screen. When I hear about things like this, my reaction is, Really, God? Selfishly, I don’t immediately pray for survivors, for friends, for neighbors, for those who have suffered inexplicable loss. I immediately pray for what I feel I’m losing in those times—my faith. And then it starts. I check the back seat again. My boy is safe. I had better park closer to the building. Probably need to face the storefront. I need to go to the bathroom so I’ll pull right up to the door, then when my wife gets in I’ll lock her and my son inside the car and set the alarm. I wish the key fob had some kind of alert on it. I’ll have my phone and she’ll have hers. God, please don’t let anything happen to them while I’m in the Buc-ee’s bathroom. It hits me: in order to pray, I need to trust the God I don’t trust right now. This terrible tension robs me of joy and of hope. God, please protect my family. Did those families pray the same thing that morning? Why did you not protect them? Are you able? Are you indifferent? How can I trust that this prayer will reach attentive ears? That it will reach willing ears? That my prayer makes any kind of difference to the God that watched this from afar? 

He came down from his mountain and stood where we’ve been. He embodied youthful innocence cut down by insanity. His family and friends shook and sat devastated at the news. His story was not over. And neither is the story of Newtown. Nor the story of our broken world, replete with Newtownian physics. Our answer to the tragedy is love. It provides no “answer”—no satisfying logical conclusion, no scientific demonstration, no psychological evaluation, no retribution. It provides the direction, the power to move forward, the plan for continuing to create our world anew. Love moves into the destructive present and quells its acidic drip into weakened hearts. It promises to carry on and stand as the balm for roughened skins. Love moves into the disorder. Love takes steps, makes progress, comforts, and provides. It goes. It runs. The significance of the advent does not stand or fall with its historicity. I am not promoting demythologization here; if historically true, the advent is even grander than its ethical fodder. But the story of Christ’s coming into the world climaxes at the resurrection—the defeat of death, the ensuing outpouring of the Holy Spirit, the reinstatement of God’s people to reflect his loving image into the rest of the world. Precisely because people are infused with this love, and are commanded to love others, this message is historical here and now. It is the fact of loving people working together, creating, moving, going. The mobilization of an abdicating, sacrificing love cannot solve the logical problem of evil. It is not a “because” to any “why?” We may never receive or concoct a “because;” but we can always choose to respond in love—the perfect counter to any evil set on utter destruction.

The terrible event in Newtown has brought destruction; in its aftermath love can slow the spread and encourage us to build again.

A Conversation With A Gay Christian

This last Friday night afforded me the opportunity to hang out with my best friend and his co-workers at The Dubliner on Greenville. I had the pleasure of meeting some cool new people, including a married lesbian couple. I don’t get this opportunity very often so I wanted to not only get to know my friend’s co-workers, but also see what I could learn and put some of my recent thinking on this subject to the test.

I had a brief conversation with one of the girls in which I minced no words explaining that I needed a better understanding of the issue of homosexuality and marriage, particularly regarding its relationship to Christianity. I did not lay it on too thick since I don’t ever want to “use” anyone just to get information and, since we had just met, I didn’t want to be a tool. We saw eye-to-eye on several things and didn’t take the conversation very far. I made a friend and was happy with that (she also let me check out her new iPhone 5 since mine had not arrived yet.)

Later on that evening, I had a chance to talk for quite a while with her spouse. I could not have anticipated this kind of discussion in all my life. This girl was raised Christian and still wanted to follow Jesus with all her heart, soul, and mind. I admitted my ambivalence but made it clear that judgement is not my thing and that I would rather communicate love in areas that aren’t as clear as many of us think than to alienate anyone. What I did not expect was that she empathized with my ambivalence. She didn’t know what to think, either.

So there we were—two people trying to figure out how to best follow Jesus. Both of us more repentant in some areas than others. Both of us ruminating on the mercy of God extending to every Christian who is not now and never will be fully repentant (at least not enough to stop sinning.) I told her many things that night, but the last thing I said to her was, “Don’t give up.” I hope that even an atheist having a conversation with her, seeing how much she loves Jesus, would tell her the same thing. That a Christian, who isn’t sure about what Scripture teaches on the subject (which we discussed for a while—anyone who thinks it’s as clear as many say it is has not done their exegetical or historical homework, or stopped when enough evangelical writers confirmed what they already wanted to think) would tell her the same thing.

Why do we feel the need to “win” this battle? Why do we want to levy political help to force our point? It pains me to think that another believer (who, in all fairness, is highly likely to be much more faithful than I in so many other areas) would do anything less than communicate God’s mercy, love, and grace toward us all. How repentant does someone need to be before you judge them worthy of your reiteration of God’s love for them? Does the cross fail to be an example at that point? Jesus said, “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do” about the people who knowingly put him to death. Yet we assume that those who cannot imagine being anything other than gay somehow have a fuller knowledge and “know what they do” to the point where we’d rather win some apologetical battle than communicate the depth of the mercy and love of Christ as shown on the cross.

I can’t take that pill anymore. I’ve done my homework. I’ve weighed these issues carefully. I keep listening with the knowledge that I could very well be wrong. But until I have some face-to-face with God about the less-clear issues wherein He blesses my hermeneutic, I think I’ll go with what all Christians know is crystal clear: that Christ’s sacrifice is sufficient, and that it shows God’s love to every one of us who is not fully repentant, and that it’s our responsibility to God and to others to communicate that.

Christians and Homosexuality—Part II

Historically, Christians have lost in the public arena. That is how it all began, in fact, with the greatest loss, the death of Jesus of Nazareth. His policies were not forced or voted upon to be implemented. He did not rally like-minded people for His cause. He gave up, lost, humbled himself. He loved while still proclaiming his message.

What would it cost a Christian to love without pretense? We hear of our offenses against those whom we invited to this or that social function if only to “witness” to them. Our message is so great we belie its patience and humility through our forced “boiling down” of the message and trickery. What if we gave up this battle against homosexual unions? What would it really cost us?

We tire of “the left” preaching tolerance when it seems to have tolerance only with its like-minded constituents, which is agreement, not tolerance. Yet we pretend to accept everyone with our gospel message while declaring war on them. Are we afraid that we don’t possess enough love? That God can’t love people despite their sin? Are we so sin-free that complete repentance is demanded of everyone else before we will give them an opportunity?

I want to take things a step further. What do we lose even if homosexuality is merely a preference? What battle are we really fighting? When did the gospel—allegedly our greatest responsibility—take a backseat to the issue of American citizens’ rights to homosexual civil unions? I ask because I don’t see the stand against intoxication, which is already legal. I don’t see the stand against obesity, which is already legal.

The point is not to give up and allow anything and everything. The point is to pick our battles against the right things. We are battling sin; not homosexuals. How much greater would our message of hope and love be if we conceded all the ground we feel entitled to in order to present a humble, weakened, compassionate, understanding Gospel? What impact has the gospel had in our lives that we attribute to Jesus campaigning and dividing the country on political issues? None—we proclaim his humility, his love, his willingness to die with the sinners and become one himself.

Can we still point sinful people toward the gospel? I certainly hope so. The world is sick and Jesus is its healer. Sinful people need to be pointed toward Jesus. We don’t need any more people being pointed toward homosexuals and pretending they are the enemy. We don’t need any more bad logic that says allowing homosexual unions means not preaching truthfully about sin. Do we really need to identify everyone’s individual sins before we can feel good about preaching the gospel? We are all born into sin, into a broken system. Suppose you do “fix” that gay girl or guy, what about their pride? What about their lust? What about their anger? What about their idolatry? What about their greed? Do you also need to beat them over the head about those things? Or can you stand firm in the truth of the Gospel that all are under the power of sin and all need freedom from it?

Picture this: you support homosexual unions and can tell a gay couple that you fought for their civil rights because you believe in their humanity and dignity as such; not as trickery or a “foot in the door,” but as a true display of humble love. You then let them know that you have tried to love as Jesus did, by humbling yourself even where you weren’t sure or disagreed; not to add another church-goer but because such a message of love ought to be proclaimed. You refused to dehumanize them because you love them. That is tolerance. You might have been sure that homosexual activity was sinful, but how sure were you that you needed to oppose it like you did? How sure were you that it was “the” issue it has become? How sure were you that you spent as much time sharing the gospel or sending money to impoverished people?

How much time did Jesus spend condemning people and fighting against their public rights?

How much time did Jesus spend welcoming outcasts, feeding the hungry, proclaiming hope despite sinfulness?

Christians and Homosexuality—Part I

I say “Christians and Homosexuality” instead of “Christianity and Homosexuality” or “Christ and Homosexuality” because I cannot speak on behalf of the latter two with any real confidence. I can suppose, derive, conclude, and assume; but none of those things would prove official enough. I can, however, speak on behalf of myself—a Christian—as well as on behalf of those Christians with whom I have spoken. Perhaps “Some” should go at the front of the title, but I’d like to retain enough gravity without the presumption.

Talking Past One Another

Christians who understand homosexuality as a personal preference do not understand why such a thing should carry so much weight. Of all the personal preferences humans have, why should this one make the headlines, alter legislature, or assume civil rights status?

Others, including some Christians, who understand homosexuality as equal to race or color do not understand why opponents would cite an ancient text in defense of limiting the civil rights of a group of human beings.

Do you see where we talk past one another? Both sides have a responsibility that each too infrequently assumes.

For Christians opposed to homosexual practice (as opposed to attraction without practice only) there needs to be a realization that, throughout its history, Christianity has been willing to bend and flex with science without risking biblical authority. With six years of formal exegetical training under my belt, I am fully aware of the limits within which the exegete must work. In other words, the Bible can only say so much and we can only make so much room for interpretation before we run out of textual warrant for the various interpretations we make. This does not mean that anything goes, or that anything is possible, nor that we cannot be fairly firm in our convictions about what the Bible teaches. It does mean, however, that we cannot be as reactionary. If patience is a fruit of the Spirit, our public presence should reflect that. If we are truly confident that God’s authority is behind the Bible, then we need not worry.

We need to decide what is really at stake in this discussion. I have yet to hear of such phobia, anger, outrage, and push for legislation over divorce—an infinitely more devastating problem than homosexuality could ever pose to traditional marriage. Two gay guys getting married has absolutely nothing to do with the sanctity of my marriage. It just doesn’t. Me not loving my wife like Christ loves the church? Me feeding sexual urges outside of my marriage? Where are the picketers for that? Where’s the presidential statement against that? Until I see people lined up outside of court houses protesting another divorce between two church-goers, I’ll not take seriously anyone’s “defense” of the sanctity of marriage or arguments against homosexual unions outside of those same court houses.

For others, including some Christians, defending homosexuality as a civil rights issue, please exercise patience and good judgment and take the time to actually explain things. Emotional outbursts and marches and parades certainly bring awareness and have their place; but they seldom teach anything to anyone who doesn’t already support the cause. They serve as public debates wherein the opposition hears no real argument and is given no opportunity to offer a real rebuttal. I know countless Christians, including myself, who are all-ears on this issue, waiting for good reason to overturn what was nearly universal opinion until relatively recently—that homosexuality was a merely a preference. Why? Because we strive to be people marked by love. Jesus was infinitely patient with the social outcasts of His day and we want to be just like Jesus. He also stood for things. Many things. So, we will stand where we need to while still being loving.

Christians are not bigots or homophobes for trying to be faithful to the God of the universe. If you believe that such a god exists, and act in accordance with what you think that god expects, then you are acting consistently as well as intelligently. No, really, if you think a god is “out there” and its opinion is the ultimate one and that there are consequences for siding against that god, anyone expecting you to be hypocritical about that is a fool. Granted, being faithful to God often takes forms that are anything but faithful and indeed bring shame and disgrace to the name of Jesus. But on what planet could you really lump together Billy Graham and the hateful punks of that “church” in Kansas?

That said, the argument against limiting freedom to a group of people because of their sexuality is a solid one, if indeed that sexuality is not a simple preference. If it is a simple preference, like ice cream or shoes, then it does not deserve the impact it’s having. If it does, then NAMBLA actually has a point (God forbid.) But be more proactive in educating people about the issue. Do you have solid scientific evidence that supports your view? Great! Then act consistently within the worldview to which you adhere and present your case on your terms. Holding on to what you know to be solid evidence while expecting others to bend to your emotional whims is not only irrational but ineffective. There are many who will listen, but not to nonsensical ravings. The Christian worldview has quite a history of being compatible with various philosophical systems, scientific theories, and sociological data. What would a truly “humanist” worldview look like if it promoted true tolerance and found solutions for bringing the myriad facets of humanity under one umbrella without the destructive hand-waving anger of a Richard Dawkins or Christopher Hitchens? Anyone can be angry and exclude others; but true peacemakers appreciate the mess for what it is and work to bring the messy into the fold of the allegedly neat, which is what Jesus did.

In conclusion, each side talks past the other and both are too seldom willing to sit and listen, to actually consider the other viewpoints and maybe give a little ground here and there. Are we so committed to the “grey” areas that the only means of arriving there are “black-and-white” battles? And what if the evidence points the other way, for either side? Will that side be willing to admit a mistake? If you’re reading this and are already convinced that homosexuality is not a preference, that this is a civil rights issue, that Christians not on your side are dead wrong, how willing are you to back down if the evidence points the other way? Are you hanging your hat on evidence or on something else? As a Christian who believes in the authority of the God who somehow inspired the original words of Scripture, I’m willing to let some things go. I’m willing to admit wrong and to let God be God where I cannot be. I’m willing to let two gay guys have a wedding and get tax breaks and visit each other in the hospital. But don’t expect me to simply take your word for things, and I won’t expect you to believe the things I do.

An Atheist in Heaven

John’s post about Universal Salvation got me thinking about Heaven. And that even if I were to hope that all people are ultimately saved, maybe I don’t really want to be if Heaven is the destination.

“Heaven” is one of the most ubiquitous religious concepts, yet remains nearly as nebulous as the concept of “Hell.” In the Western tradition, Heaven served simply as the domain of the deities, which mortals were unable to access unless they were particularly pious or virtuous (e.g., Elijah, Herakles, the Mahdi). As an optional (positive) destination within the afterlife, Heaven was linked more closely with the underworld than the mystery beyond the clouds, such as the Greek concept of the Elysian Fields. Eastern versions of Heaven were mysterious realms full of supernatural agents, the spirits of ancestors, and the source of divine rule.

The Bible mentions Heaven infrequently, and provides the only clear description in the 21st chapter of the Revelation of John. There, Heaven is presented as a new version of the city of Jerusalem, except constructed almost entirely of gold and jewels. The Revelator further describes the New Jerusalem as being centered on worship of Jesus Christ:

I saw no temple in it, for the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb are its temple. And the city has no need of the sun or of the moon to shine on it, for the glory of God has illumined it, and its lamp is the Lamb. The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it. In the daytime (for there will be no night there) its gates will never be closed; and they will bring the glory and the honor of the nations into it; and nothing unclean, and no one who practices abomination and lying, shall ever come into it, but only those whose names are written in the Lamb’s book of life.

The conception of Heaven that most appeals to me is what C.S. Lewis imagined for the completion of his Narnia series, “The Last Battle.” Lewis’ Heaven is really nothing more than a rebooted version of the world we already know, minus all pain and suffering.

And that sounds nice to me, admittedly. I suppose that if there is a God who exercises his prerogative to extend universal salvation, that’s the best possible outcome that I could imagine. But I doubt that I could extend my appreciation, least of all my worship. For if a version of the world we know now without pain and suffering is within the control of a God, why not just reboot the system now and install the upgrade? If universal salvation is truly a viable option, then any delay is unnecessary cruelty.

As an atheist in Heaven, I can imagine my shock and surprise giving way not to a deep and abiding sense of gratitude, but rather to a bitter disappointment. Perhaps the more humane option really is something like Annihilationism, which would at least spare virtuous atheists the agony of an unending moral despondency.

Wanting Universal Salvation To Be True

Too many of us professing to be Christians get caught up in discussions over who will and will not end up in heaven. To some degree this is warranted: the Bible does have a lot to say about salvation. Jesus drew a bunch of lines and had people on both sides of those lines. My purpose here isn’t to argue for Universal Salvation. Nor is it to argue with John Piper fan-boys who want to make the issue irrelevant without first exegeting as much as possible using a redemptive-historical hermeneutic. I care about the text, but I care more about something else right now: who we think we are and what warrant we think we have to play Duck-Duck-Damned.

Christians—all Christians—should want the doctrine of Universal Salvation to be true. That want is not irrelevant, nor is it a distinct issue from “what the text actually says.” To want such a thing is to hope that Love indeed conquers all, that evil does not win out in any way, that we can still preach a specific Gospel of repentance and necessary faith in Christ while leaving eschatological issues aside. We tend too often to blend in our “non-essentials” with our “essentials.” I think it’s true that apart from Christ mankind is hopeless—the text is clear on that point. What is not as clear is whether Christ’s atonement extends past the end of people’s lives now. Indeed, the Israelites who died before Christ died without an explicit faith in Christ are not lost. God’s people are God’s people regardless of when.

What I’ve just said is not an argument for Universal Salvation. It is an argument for relaxing a bit and realizing that we are not as sure as we think we are. I paid my seminary dues and I get to talk with guys who have just started seminary. Many sound as sure as I sounded when I started. After four years I’m much less sure about a lot of issues where grey areas exist, where Scripture is either not so clear or textually suspect. I don’t care if I can create a nice, coherent systematic theology. I don’t have anything against that; I just don’t care to go that route. I’d rather be heterodox but consistent in how I approach and interpret the text without having to gerrymander Scripture to get my interpretation to fit into the fabled “historical faith.”

So what do I do with these grey areas and unclear texts? I keep searching. But I also keep thinking about how to love people and love God. If I want any person to receive my love wholeheartedly it’s God. What that means is that I’m willing to give God the benefit of the doubt and preach a Gospel of repentance because that much is very clear. But to speculate on who is saved and who isn’t is playing God. Playing God doesn’t seem like a very loving thing to do to God. Adam and Eve learned that the hard way (didn’t we all?)

“So we can’t talk about who’s saved and who isn’t?” No, we can’t. Our business is to proclaim Christ and to love. “But how will we know who to preach to?” Easy: don’t pick and choose but be authentic with everyone you meet. Leave the rest up to the only One who actually knows what he’s talking about. We don’t do God or people any justice by deciding for God or them what their destiny is. We also expose the nastiness of our heart when we respond so negatively to the idea of Universal Salvation. We should pray that it is the case. Why? Because if you believe you’ve been saved by God from something terrible, then you are a cold-hearted person to want anything less than the same for anyone and everyone whom you (ought to) believe is in the same sinful boat you were and are. Reformata et semper reformanda.