All posts in Theology

  • The Sign That Saves The World

    FraAngelico

    The Sign That Saves The World
    Brian Zahnd

    Look to me and be saved,
    All you ends of the earth!
    –Isaiah 45:22

    Peri and I are on our way to speak at the Christ at the Checkpoint conference in Bethlehem and we’re spending a few days in Florence, Italy exploring the cradle of the Renaissance. Visiting the museums and art galleries, I’ve seen hundreds of crucifixion paintings, and I’ve tried to view each one with a reverent eye. I never look at depictions of Christ crucified with a jaundiced eye. Their religious nature and ubiquitous presence may illicit a yawn from the secular cynic, but not from me — I’m an incorrigible Christian. I believe the cross is where Christ saves the world. Looking at the cross with the right eye, the reverent eye of humble faith, is the locus of salvation. The cross is the sign that saves the world.

    Ten years ago when I first began to connect Fyodor Dostoevsky’s enigmatic phrase “beauty will save the world” with the cross — it is at Golgotha that the ugliness of human sin is overcome by the beauty of divine love — the image of the cross as saving beauty that I most often referred to was Fra Angelico’s fresco. Today when we visited the San Marco Monastery I was able to see this fresco painted by the monk-artist Beato Angelico in 1441. As I lingered in contemplation of Fra Angelico’s Crucifixion, it prompted me to once again ask — what does this mean? Take a moment and ponder this question with me.
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  • The Middle Way of Erasmus

    Holbein-erasmus

    The Middle Way of Erasmus
    Brian Zahnd

    Ever since becoming familiar with the Renaissance theologian and Christian humanist Erasmus of Rotterdam (1466–1536) some ten or twelve years ago, I have often wished that Erasmus could have won the day during the theological tumults of the 16th century. By which I mean, I wish that the Renaissance-era Church in the West could have experienced reform without the divorce and subsequent Protestant fragmentation. (Recently I wrote some thoughts on the Reformation in a piece I called “Beyond the Wittenberg Door.”)

    This month Ron Dart published a collection of essays on Erasmus under the title Erasmus: Wild Bird. Ron Dart is a Canadian professor, scholar, and theologian with considerable expertise in Church History, Patristics, George Grant, and Thomas Merton. Dart has written 35 books and is an accomplished mountaineer. He’s also a personal friend and there are few people for whom I have as much respect as I do Ron Dart. He is an inspiring example of a wise and contemplative academic.

    In his latest book Dart asks, “What would the Christian Church be like today if the guidance and wisdom of Erasmus in the early 16th century had been followed rather than the reactionary Protestant thinking of Luther or Calvin or the equally brittle response of the Roman Catholic stance at the Treaty of Trent?” Throughout this collection of essays Dart makes these points about Erasmus:
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  • Ascended, Not Absent

    ascension

    Ascended, Not Absent
    Brian Zahnd

    Ascension Day. It’s the most obscure of all the major holy days on the Christian calendar. Coming forty days after Easter, it commemorates the Ascension of Christ. The Christian calendar is designed to tell the gospel story from Advent to Pentecost. But most Protestants think the gospel story can be told with Christmas, Good Friday, and Easter alone. It’s safe to say that Ascension Day (Thursday, May 25) will come and go unnoticed and uncelebrated by most American Christians. (It may have a bit more recognition in Europe where it remains a public holiday.) That Ascension day for most American Christians is just another Thursday in Spring is telling. It tells of a deficient gospel and reveals a central problem in our political theology.

    Too often we seem to regard the Ascension of Christ as a kind of awkward explanation for the absence of Christ. Well, after his resurrection, Jesus lifted off for outer space and is now hanging out with God in heaven until he comes back.

    No. The Ascension is not about the absence of Christ, but about the ascendancy of Christ. The ascension of Christ to the right hand of God is the ascendency, the rise, the elevation, the promotion of Christ to the position of all authority in heaven and on earth. The right hand of God is not a cosmological location, but a poetic way of saying that God has now given all authority to Christ. The ascension of Christ does not lead to the absence of Christ, but to his cosmic presence everywhere. This is why the risen Christ says, “Behold, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” In the Ascension Christ now “fills all things everywhere with himself.” There is now no place where Christ is not, and there is no domain over which Jesus is not Lord.

    But that is not how most Christians have thought about the Ascension over the years. And this has had a detrimental effect upon our theology — especially our political theology. Let me explain.
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  • What Does This Mean? (Five Hundred Miles of Crucifixes)

    San_Martin_Fromista_cristo
    What Does This Mean? (Five Hundred Miles of Crucifixes)
    Brian Zahnd

    Six months ago Peri and I walked five hundred miles across Spain on the Camino de Santiago. It was quite simply the most wonderful, most spiritual, most healing thing we’ve ever done. The Camino changed both of us. This morning as I prayed I thanked God in tears for the gift of the Camino. Until today I’ve not written about it, mostly because I’m still absorbing it. But Holy Week seems like the right time to share one aspect of my experience.

    We began the Camino on September 14, 2016 ( Holy Cross Day). After a long trek across the Pyrenees mountains from St.-Jean-Pied-de-Port, France we arrived in Roncesvalles, Spain. In Roncesvalles I spent some time alone in a thirteenth century chapel gazing on a medieval crucifix. While sitting in this dimly lit sanctuary the Holy Spirit seemed to give me four instructions for my five hundred mile walk:
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  • The Sermon on the Mount and Caesar’s Sword

    Constantine

    The Sermon On the Mount and Caesar’s Sword
    Brian Zahnd

    As I call Christians to the practices of radical forgiveness and nonviolent peacemaking that Jesus embodied and most clearly sets forth in the Sermon on the Mount, I often encounter Christians using Romans 13:1–7 as a kind of rebuttal. (Though whom they’re rebutting — me or Jesus — isn’t always clear.) Their argument goes something like this:

    “God has ordained the government and has given it the sword to execute vengeance; therefore we cannot be opposed to war because Romans 13 sanctions ‘Just War.’”

    Usually this argument is given to me in the context of advocating that the United States government should wage total war on ISIS and other enemies of America, and that the church should celebrate this.

    But this is an egregious misinterpretation and misapplication of what Paul is talking about. Let me explain.
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  • The Faceless White Giant

    Faceless

    The Faceless White Giant
    Brian Zahnd

    The seeds of an Angry God theology were sown early in my life and they came in the form of cartoons — the infamous gospel tracts by J.T. Chick. With titles like This Was Your Life, Somebody Goofed, The Awful Truth, and Are Roman Catholics Christians?, Chick tracts usually end with everyone but fundamentalist Christians being hurled into what looks like the fires of Mount Doom by a merciless God depicted as a faceless white giant.

    A well-meaning but unhelpful Sunday School teacher gave me a Chick tract when I was twelve and those garish images with their ludicrous theology burned their way into my adolescent imagination. I had met the Angry God! And I was afraid of this God. Who wouldn’t be? Think about it. In the Gospel According to J.T. Chick, if you don’t believe just right, an omnipotent giant will consign you to eternal torture!

    Fortunately I could believe in Jesus and be saved from his Father — the Angry God. But then I heard a revival preacher ask a disturbing question: “Do you believe in Jesus in your heart or just in your head?” He went on to say that if we believed in Jesus in our head but not our heart we would miss heaven by eighteen inches and wind up in hell forever! More anxiety-inducing theology! Now I had to decide if I had faith in my heart or if I was on my way to hell because I only believed in Jesus with my head. That’s a lot of pressure for a twelve-year-old…or anyone.
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  • Armageddon

    tel-megiddo 7.09.47 PM

    Armageddon
    Brian Zahnd

    The second Sunday after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, I preached a sermon entitled “The Road To Armageddon.” During those days of grief and rage when I should have preached the gospel of peace and forgiveness, I instead resorted to the hackneyed trope of dispensationalism that claims a mega-war in the Middle East must occur before Jesus can return.

    I’ve repented and made amends for that pastoral failure, but the fact remains that my mistake was made possible by the terrible eschatology I had inherited. The Late Great Planet Earth and the Left Behind series are only the best known of countless books that have popularized the worst possible reading of Revelation.
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  • Good Friday: A World Indicted

    Cristo_en_la_Cruz (1)

    Good Friday: A World Indicted
    Brian Zahnd

    Good Friday offers humanity a genuinely new and previously unimagined way of understanding both the character of God and the nature of human civilization. As Jürgen Moltmann writes in The Crucified God, “the cross is the test of everything.” But to understand Good Friday we need to be clear on who did the accusing, condemning, and killing of Jesus of Nazareth.

    As we read the passion narratives in the Gospels it’s obvious that it isn’t God who insists on the execution of Jesus. Mark tells us, “the chief priests accused him of many crimes.” (Mark 15:3) Jesus’ jealous rivals accused him of heresy, blasphemy, and sedition because they were possessed by the satanic spirit of rivalry and blame. It wasn’t God who charged Jesus with capital crimes. It wasn’t God who shouted, “Crucify him!” It wasn’t God who ordered Jesus flogged with a lead-tipped whip. The work of accusation, condemnation, and torture is the work of human civilization under the sway of the satan. The spirit of God is not heard in the crowd’s bloodlust cries of “crucify him,” but in Christ’s merciful plea, “Father, forgive them.” We must not imagine the machinations of the devil as the handiwork of God!

    When Jesus arrived in Jerusalem on Palm Sunday the principalities and powers of Caiaphas, Herod, and Pilate and their constituent institutions of religious, economic, and political power were at enmity with one another. These power brokers were bitter rivals locked in a fatal embrace. But when they took their rivalry-induced fear and hate, and projected it onto Jesus as their chosen scapegoat on Good Friday, they achieved a demonic unity. Luke precisely tells us this. “That same day [Good Friday] Herod and Pilate became friends with each other; before this they had been enemies.” (Luke 23:12)
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  • The Crucified God

    RedChrist

    The Crucified God
    Brian Zahnd

    Here’s a big question. What is God like? I suppose this is the biggest question theology can ask. And we don’t need to be a theologian to ask this question. It’s one of the most basic questions facing anyone who attempts to worship or even just think about God. But how shall we answer the question?

    Our capacity for imagining God seems virtually limitless. Is God like Zeus whose incited anger results in hurled thunderbolts? Is God like Ganesh, the lovable elephant-headed god of prosperity from the Hindu pantheon whose idol I’ve seen in hotel lobbies across India? Is God like the comic white-bearded old man sitting behind a computer from a Far Side cartoon? Does God bear any resemblance to the primitive tribal deities who lead their people in waging war on other people? Is God totalized Will-To-Power whose omnipotence controls every event in the universe? Is God the aloof and absent clockmaker of Thomas Jefferson and the eighteenth-century deists? Is God the amorphous everything and nothing of New Age spirituality? And so on.

    To even venture an attempt to answer the question of what God is like seems to court idolatry. How can mere mortals possibly try to answer the question about God’s nature without being guilty of not only theological error, but outrageous hubris?
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