The Bible takes words seriously. God uses words to create the universe. The Apostle John equates those words with the pre-immanent Christ:
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made.” (John 1:1-3)
The original Greek of this passage uses the Logos, which translates into the noun“word” in English, but in Latin and in modern Spanish Logos is translated as the “verb,” which emphasizes the action implied in the theology of this statement.
The seriousness of words is highlighted elsewhere in the Bible. In Genesis, Jacob tricks his father into giving him his brother’s blessing, but when his deception is discovered, his father refused to take back the blessing. (Gen 27:35) In Exodus, two of the Ten Commandments in the Mosaic covenant govern proper speech: taking the Lord’s name in vain and bearing false witness (Exod 20: 7, 16). Numerous times in the Gospels, Jesus heals and casts out demons with nothing other than verbal commands (e.g. Mark 5:13).
Pentecost Reverses the Curse of Babel
The importance of language in the formation of communities is highlighted in the Tower of Babel narrative, as we read:
“Now the whole earth had one language and the same words. And as people migrated from the east, they found a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there. And they said to one another, Come, let us make bricks, and burn them thoroughly. And they had brick for stone, and bitumen for mortar. Then they said, Come, let us build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be dispersed over the face of the whole earth.” (Gen. 11:1-4)
A couple of points need to be stressed about this account. First, having a unified language is explicitly related to the formation of community, in this case the city of Babel. Second, these people are proud, wanting to make a name for themselves, and they rebel, lest we be dispersed, explicitly against the divine commandment to: “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it.” (Gen 1:28) So God cursed them to be confused by language and thereby forced them to disperse as commanded earlier(Gen 11:7-9).
The giving of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost occurred in this way:
“When the day of Pentecost arrived, they [the disciples] were all together in one place. And suddenly there came from heaven a sound like a mighty rushing wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. And divided tongues as of fire appeared to them and rested on each one of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues [languages] as the Spirit gave them utterance.” (Acts 2:1-4)
Pentecost is celebrated today as the birth of the Christian church. Whereas language differences divided people in the Tower of Babel narrative, the gift of understanding and speaking different languages unite people through the gift of the Holy Spirit and the formation of the church.
Unlike other religions, Christianity does not assert that God prefers any particular language. The Bible is translated into more languages than you can name even though the Old Testament is written mostly in Hebrew and the New Testament is exclusively written in Greek. The “language of the church” is our understanding and worship of God, not the speaking of any particular language. This characteristic is a direct consequence of Pentecost and it is formative.
We know, for example, that many modern languages, such as English and German, evolved in response to translations of the Bible into local dialects and the support that the church has given to literacy and education over the centuries. Left to themselves, many languages fragment along class and ethnic lines leading to greater divisions and conflict. Likewise, national cultures fragment into sub-cultures and lose their cohesion as we have seen in recent years with the development of slang and music traditions more representative of generational and political divisions than of ethnic identities.
The idea that somehow postmodern culture is inherently superior to Christian culture because of new cultural insights suggests primarily a lack of insight into the history of the church. Because Christian culture is truly transnational, multicultural, multiethnic, and transracial, the Christian message need not be watered down or changed to accommodate a local culture so much as be expressed in culturally sensitive language. As at the original Pentecost, the church’s message should be heard by each in their own heart language.
The idea of progress arose out of the technological euphoria of the modern era and entered theology in the nineteenth century with the euphoria over the abolition of black slave trading and ownership. The idea that progress is an inevitable and irreversible force remains, however, economically and culturally tenuous.
While the specific reasons for economic and cultural backsliding will always be unique, the general reason to be suspicious of economic and cultural progress is that progress is a cultural artifact that changes with circumstances.
If cultural progress an historical anomaly, especially in view of the economic stagnation that many Americans face, what conditions support it?
Standards of living that were rising with the increasing rationalization of different industries and regions have come to an end with the construction of the interstate highway system, national media, national banking, and the internet. In this context, rationalization means the opening up of local markets to competition from outside firms and the destruction of the local cultures through universal education consisting of both new knowledge and indoctrination.
If science can tame the natural world and put it to work in the service of humanity, then standards of living should rise. However, diminishing returns to new investment will be reached at some point as the cost of implementing new ideas rises. From that point forward, additional growth can only come from demographic growth and technological innovation. Falling fertility rates and poor choices with respect to education and public expenditures suggests that we are not focused on making public policy choices consistent with growth.
In an environment of slower growth, social groups will compete increasingly for limited resources and opportunities—this can get nasty, as we have seen. Outside of deliberate policies to focus economic resources on the most productive investments and to maintain equal opportunities for all groups, standards of living will decline for all but favored groups able to maintain and expand their relative position. This competition makes it increasingly unlikely that everyone will share in economic progress.
The abolition of black slavery in the nineteenth century is a source of pride for many people. In my case, I am named for my great, great grandfather, Stephen DeKock, who as a young man volunteered to fight in the American Civil War. Success in abolishing slavery motivated latter efforts to expand voting rights to women and minorities, to prohibit alcohol consumption, and to extend rights more recently to homosexuals.
A byproduct of the Civil War seldom mentioned in this context was the development of large corporate firms that supplied Northern troops and major advances in weapons of mass destruction—iron clad ships, submarines, the gatling gun, and repeating rifles. Modern warfare (war on civilians) is said to have begun with Sherman’s march to the sea in Georgia that helped starve the Confederacy into submission. These innovations helped pave the way for the United States to become a super power (the American empire) over the decades that followed and, as a consequence, fueled the economic expansion that led to the economic and social progress than we enjoy as Americans.
The abolition of black slavery is unlikely to be reversed, but slavery itself has not so much gone away as been re-defined. Many former slaves in the rural South in American became share croppers who were technically free, but caught in debt to their former masters. During much of the twentieth century, American men were involuntarily drafted in the military and forced to fight in foreign wars from the First and Second World Wars to the wars in Korea and Vietnam. For women caught up in gangs, drugs, and prostitution, a different kind of slavery exists that never really went away.
While nasty institutions like slavery, debt-enslavement, and prostitution will probably continue to exist in the shadows of society, major reversals in the number of slaves occurred during the Second World War. Nazi Germany rounded up millions of Jews, political dissidents, and undesired groups and placed them in concentration camps where many were worked to death. Japan had similar policies and the U.S. had its own internment camps. Today such camps continue in communist countries, like North Korea.
The point of raising these examples is, not to throw salt in old wounds, but to highlight the tenuous nature historically of human rights and notions like progress. If progress is a cultural artifact and can be reversed by changing circumstances, it is not inevitable or irreversible. The key question is what foundation supports these rights and progress itself?
For those who believe in progress, the biblical support is slim because of original sin and our fallen nature both individually and collectively. The most apt metaphor for progress is found in the Book of Genesis with the story of the Tower of Babel (Gen 11:1-9), but other metaphors can be found.
Although we are created in the image of God, original sin polluted both our hearts and minds instilling in us a rebellious spirit. Cain, best known for murdering his brother Abel, started the first city mentioned in the Bible (Gen 4:8, 17). Human sin, after Adam and Eve left the Garden of Eden, grew to the point that God destroyed most of humanity with a flood (Gen 5:5). However, starting out fresh with a new family, Noah’s, proved not to improve the faithfulness of humanity after the original sin of Adam and Eve (Gen 3:6). Even Jacob’s sons, the fathers of the Nation of Israel, sinned in selling their brother, Joseph, as a slave to the Egyptians (Gen 37:28).
What should we conclude from the witness of Genesis? The idea of adding fallen human beings together in forming a community will somehow result in progress towards righteousness is not to be expected. The biblical expectation cited earlier is the Deuteronomic cycle: doing evil, angering YHWH enough to produce historical subjugation, crying to the Lord in need, and raising up a deliverer (Deut 30; Brueggemann 2016, 59). This is not an endorsement of cultural progress, but rather of divine intervention in spite of the proclivity of human beings to sin.
From my earlier model of culture, reversal of progress is expected when any culture comes under stress. The dying culture then takes on more attributes of a traditional culture. These reversals normally occur on the outbreak of war or during economic crises. However, large corporations that now dominate markets throughout the world frequently have traditional cultures that profoundly influence their employees from morning to night. Democratic rights such as free speech are routinely denied corporate employees and even legislatively mandated employee rights, such as unionization rights and whistler-blower protections, are dead-letter for employees unable to afford legal counsel. Consequently, the inevitable, irreversible cultural progress is not expected and the progress that we have witnessed should be seen as a gift from God, not a natural right.
The only glimmer of hope cited in the Bible is the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ that led to the giving of the Holy Spirit and the founding of the church (Act 2:1-4). Yet, outside of faith even the church is a fallen institution as we read in the first three chapters of Revelation.
The warning in Revelation of special concern to the postmodern church is the letter to the church at Laodicea. John writes:
“I know your works: you are neither cold nor hot. Would that you were either cold or hot! So, because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth. For you say, I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing, not realizing that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked.” (Rev 3:15-17)
We could imagine the postmodern church sharing in tribulations similar to those articulated in Deuteronomic cycle that applied earlier to the Nation of Israel. More generally, Revelation talks about a great tribulation (Rev 7:14) that will occur before the second coming of Christ. This tribulation has all the markings of a reversal of cultural progress and should serve as a reminder that our only hope is in Christ.
“Do you not know that in a race all the runners run,
but only one receives the prize?
So run that you may obtain it.” (1 Cor 9:24)
By Stephen W. Hiemstra
The Christian walk begins with spiritual rebirth (John 3:3). On the Day of Pentecost with the founding of the church, the Apostle Peter described rebirth in these terms: “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” (Acts 2:38) The Apostle Paul describes this rebirth differently, saying: “…if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” (Rom 10:9) Rebirth is a lifelong transition that starts with repentance, baptism, belief in the resurrection of Christ—our living role model—and proceeds under the mentorship of the Holy Spirit.
Every journey has a destination. As in the Parable of the Talents, Christians live in anticipation of Christ’s return and to hear the words: “Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your master.” (Matt 25:21) Success in this context requires that we use our talents to advance God’s Kingdom to the extent we are able. Christian ethics requires modeling ourselves after Christ, striving to undertake our duty to advance the Kingdom, and living in the hope of Christ’s return in glory. In Christ, we live joyfully knowing who we serve and how the story ends.
Although the tendency in our time is to interpret the Gospel as individuals, we live in a community modeled after a Triune God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—who live in perfect, eternal harmony. We are never alone in coming to faith, working out our gifts as we prosper in faith, and living in anticipation of Christ’s return. Being created in the image of a perfect and holy God, God himself models in Christ what it means to be good, be emotionally secure, and judge rightly. Our hearts and minds are wholly integrated and because we live in a community that values integration, we strive together to perfect our characters and our talents respecting spiritual boundaries provided by God himself.
Part of our own maturation process is learning to live responsibly in community and to offer leadership in our families and the community of faith, and within society, regardless of our talents and roles. Christian leadership is rooted in humility which leaves room in our personal and corporate lives for God’s intervention. For this reason, inner strength, not physical strength, exemplifies the Christian leader because self-confident people are the ones willing to take up the wash-basin and follow Christ (John 13:3-15).
Four Philosophical Questions
The ethics question is one of four questions typically posed in philosophy that must be addressed by any serious spirituality. These questions are:
1.Metaphysics—who is God?
2.Anthropology—who are we?
3.Epistemology—how do we know?
4.Ethics—what do we do about it? (Kreeft 2007, 6)
As an author, my first two books—A Christian Guide to Spirituality and Life in Tension—address the metaphysical question and my third book—Called Along the Way—explores the anthropological question in the first person. My fourth book, Simple Faith, examined the epistemological question. In this book, I explore the ethics question writing not as one with specialized training in philosophy but as one cognizant of the need, both as a Christian and an author interested in Christian spirituality, to have a reasonable answer to the question—how do we act out our faith, especially knowing that we are created in the image of God?
In examining the ethics question, I focus on ethics from a Christian perspective. Here I will not try to justify Christian ethics so much as explain them. At a time and in a place where people scoff at developing a theological understanding of their faith and refuse to teach Christian morality, ethics is almost a lost art in the church. At the heart of the ethical dilemma is the problem that theological principles are in tension with one another and always have been, something that is so obvious that it cannot be overlooked and requires serious discernment. For example, how do you love a sinner who refuses to confess their sin and forces you to pay their consequences? How do you practice forgiveness? Ethics training may not answer the question, but it will help you frame it appropriately for further reflection and future action.
Spirituality is Lived Theology
Ethics is never devoid of a context for acting out our faith, be it character formation within our own lives, being mentored within the community of faith, or learning to assume leadership. It is therefore useful to review case studies of each of these contexts both in scripture and in our present circumstances. If our spirituality is lived theology, then it is informed by our theology and, in turn, our life informs our theological reflection.
Kreeft, Peter. 2007. The Philosophy of Jesus. South Bend, IN: Saint Augustine Press.
The end of the modern era spells the end of the modern pretension that we can logically prove that objective truth is knowable and provable. It is not. Because it is not knowable and provable in the abstract, proof requires that truth be knowable and provable to a human audience. An argument must both make sense and feel right in the context of the human condition. In the context of a confusing and dangerous world, who has the best story, one that you can bet your life on?
The Gospel Story
The Gospel story is the story of Jesus’ birth, life and ministry, death, and resurrection. This story is the focus of the four Gospels—Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John—in the New Testament and of faith statements, like the Apostle’s Creed.
Christianity began in a graveyard with the resurrection. The resurrection could not have occurred without Jesus’ crucifixion and death which was, in turn, associated with his life and ministry. Because Jesus’ life and ministry was chronicled looking back from the resurrection, each sentence in the New Testament should be prefaced with these words: Jesus rose from the dead, therefore . . . Jesus’ life, ministry, suffering, death, and resurrection are the Gospel story.
Christians, like Mary Magdalene, are the ones running from the cemetery to tell the rest of the world that Jesus lives (Matt 28:8).
After the Gospels themselves, the story of Jesus is the subject of many New Testament sermons by both Peter (Acts 2:14–41; 10:34–43) and Paul (Acts 13:16–41).
Context for the Gospel
In Genesis 11:1-9 we read the story of how men schemed to build a tower up to heaven to force God to come down and bless their city. The God who created heaven and earth (Gen 1:1) looked down on this effort and just laughed. These devious and obviously stupid men thought that they could manipulate a god that stood outside of time and space having created both. To prevent further foolishness, God confused them with different languages so that they would not be able to scheme together any further.
Because God transcends the material world and time itself, no physical or metaphysical tower can reach up to heaven.Towers, temples, religions, philosophies, and sciences are all equally vain. God must come down to us; we cannot reach up to him. The story of God’s efforts to reach down to us is recorded in scripture; he himself came down in the person of Jesus of Nazareth (Matt 1; Luke 1). God reversed the curse of Babel on the day of Pentecost with the giving of his Holy Spirit and the founding of the church (Acts 2), the oldest, continuous institution known to humanity.
But this story is not over; the church is not a museum of the past. Jesus points to the future and promises to reunite with his disciples:
“And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also.” (John 14:3)
Because the future is in Christ and we worship a loving and all powerful God, we know that our future is secure. In the midst of the traumas and tribulations of life, our hope is assured.
Mubarak Mosque, Chantilly, Virginia on Religious Founders’ Day, October 15, 2017
Good afternoon. My name is Stephen W. Hiemstra. I am a volunteer pastor and a Christian writer. My volunteer work focuses on Hispanic ministry and I write about Christian spirituality. My wife, Maryam, hails from Iran and considers herself a Muslim. We have been married 33 years and have three grown children.
My comments today will focus on how Christians connect with God. Because today we are celebrating Religious Founders’ Day, I take the inspiration for my talk from a sermon by the Apostle Peter that he gave on the day that the Christian church was founded, which we call Pentecost.
Please join me in a word of prayer.
“Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O LORD, my rock and my redeemer.” (Psalm 19:14 ESV) In Jesus’ name, Amen.
How do Christians connect with God? (2X)
Let me start by asking, what do secular people think about connecting with God?
Basically, they say that if you talk to God, that’s prayer, but if God talks to you, that’s psychosis. While pastor’s often tell this story as a light-hearted joke, psychologist Sigmund Freud described God’s existence as an illusion. Karl Marx believed that religion (that is, God’s existence) was the opiate of the masses. In other words, if you believe in God, Freud tells us you must be nuts and Marx tells us that you must be on drugs.
In my recent memoir, Called Along the Way, published this last month, I write that anyone in this secular age who takes God seriously must be considered a brother or sister in the faith. In this spirit, I would like to thank the Mubarak Mosque for the invitation to speak this afternoon to address this important topic.
How do Christians connect with God? (2X)
The basic path to connecting with God is outlined by the Apostle Peter on the Day of Pentecost. Hear Peter’s words:
“And Peter said to them, Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” (Acts 2:38 ESV)
Elsewhere, the Apostle Paul writes to the church at Rome about 30 years after Jesus’ death and resurrection, some 2,000 years ago:
“…if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” (Roman 10:9 ESV)
Rome at the time of Paul’s writing was the capital of the Western world much like Washington DC is today.
Because most of you here today are not Christians, you may be asking yourself why Peter and Paul are so adamant about two things mentioned in these two passages: confession of sins and belief in Jesus Christ (2X).
Transcendent and Holy
To understand the focus here, you need to understand the Christian understanding of God. Christians believe in a personal God who is both transcendent and Holy (2X).
God’s transcendence arises because he created the known universe. The first verse of the Bible in the Book of Genesis says:
“In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” (Genesis 1:1 ESV)
As creator, God had to exist before the universe that he created and he had to have been set apart from it. Time, as we know it, is part of the created universe. Consequently, God stands outside of time and space (2X). Because we exist inside time and space, we cannot approach God on our own. He has to reveal himself to us (2X).
Likewise, we cannot approach a Holy God, because we are sinful beings, not Holy beings. Our sin separates us from a Holy God.
To summarize, we cannot approach God on our own because he transcends time and space and because he is holy. Only God can initiate connection with unholy, created beings such as we are. There is no path up the mountain to God; God must come down (2X). As Christians, we believe that God came down in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, whose coming was prophesied from the earliest days of scripture. For example, the Prophet Job wrote (slide 5):
“I know that my redeemer lives, and that in the end he will stand on the earth. And after my skin has been destroyed, yet in my flesh I will see God; I myself will see him with my own eyes—I, and not another. How my heart yearns within me!” (Job 19:25-27 NIV)
The Book of Job is thought by some to have been written by Moses before any other book in the Bible and before he returned to Egypt, which makes the anticipation of a redeemer all the more stunning. Moses himself lived about 1,500 years before Christ.
So who is this transcendent God that loves us enough to initiate connection with us in spite of our sin?
Later, after giving Moses the Ten Commandments for a second time on Mount Sinai, God reveals himself to Moses with these words:
“The LORD passed before him and proclaimed, The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation.” (Exodus 34:6-7 ESV)
Notice that God describes himself first as merciful. As Christians, we believe that God love is shown to us through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Because God himself has provided the ultimate sacrifice of his son on the cross, Christians do not need to offer animal sacrifices—in Christ, our debt to God for sin has already been paid. This is real mercy, real love.
Listen to the confession given by the Apostle Paul in his first letter to the church in Corinth:
“For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas [that is Peter’s nickname], then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep.” (1 Corinth 15:3-6 ESV)
Jesus, as the perfect son of God, is the bridge that God has given us to connect with himself through the Holy Spirit, as Peter said on the Day of Pentecost:
“And Peter said to them, Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” (Acts 2:38 ESV)
Through the Holy Spirit, we are able to pray to God with the assurance that we will be heard; we are able to read the Bible with the confidence that God will speak to us; and we are able to live our daily lives knowing that God walks with us each step of the way. In this way, as Christians we are always connected with God in Jesus Christ and through the Holy Spirit.
Will you pray with me?
Oh dear Lord, thank you for the gift of your presence through the person of Jesus. Forgive our sin and draw us closer to you day by day. In Jesus’ name, Amen.
Before I turn over the podium, let me read a few words from the acknowledgment section of my book, Life in Tension.
“In the fall of 2014, I was invited to speak at a local mosque about my book, A Christian Guide to Spirituality. Speaking at a mosque was new to me and anticipating this visit I spent three days fasting and praying for guidance. Instead of guidance on the mosque visit, God inspired me to write this book.” (xvii)
The reference here is to the Mubarak Mosque where we now stand. Consequently, I would like to present you with a copy of the book, Life in Tension. Thank you.
 Sigmund Freud. 1961. The Future of an Illusion. Translated by James Strachey. New York: W.W. Norton and Company.