Romans 08 – Universal Reconciliation

28 And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. 29 For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters. 30 And those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified. (Read the rest of the chapter here!)

Predestination and/or Universal Reconciliation?

Predestination! Volumes can (and have) been written on it.  Does God chose who gets saved, are they “predestined?”  Does God chose who gets saved and who goes to hell – apparently a different viewpoint than “predestination” with its own label of “double predestination.”  Or do we get to chose our own salvation, God just infallibly knowing what we’re going to do from the beginning, but not directing our actions?

I’ve written a whole post about destiny vs. free will already, and while it doesn’t mention “predestination” exactly, I think it gives a pretty good overview of my personal beliefs on the subject. (TLDR: I think we have free will within a set framework ordained by God.)  What I realized, as I prepared to write a whole new post on predestination, is that I’m a proponent of universal reconciliation. As Wikipedia so succinctly states, universal reconciliation “is the doctrine that all sinful and alienated human souls—because of divine love and mercy—will ultimately be reconciled to God.”  I guess in a way this is predestination. As in, I believe we are all predestined to the aforementioned reconciliation.

I believe, and indeed undertook this blog to prove, that God is above all else welcoming, accepting, forgiving, and loving.  If one believes in God as the ultimate form or source of love and forgiveness, Hell as a final destination – or any other eternal separation from the divine – simply doesn’t make sense.  And Paul, in building up his case around the word “predestination,” makes some excellent points to that effect in this chapter.

Paul points us towards universal reconciliation and God’s unending love

“Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit of life set me free from the law of sin and death,” opens this section of Paul’s letter.  Referencing ideas I explained more in depth in a past blog post: I believe that Christ anointed the whole world though his blood, making the whole world holy. Therefore everybody is, as Paul puts it, “in Christ Jesus.”  If you follow that logic – that everyone has been anointed through Jesus regardless of their personal beliefs or actions – then that means there is no condemnation for anyone anymore.  Through the faith of Jesus Christ, we are now saved in Christ Jesus.

A few verses later Paul says, “if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he does not belong to Christ. But if Christ is in you, your body is dead because of sin, yet your spirit is alive because of righteousness.”  It sounds like a separation of “us” from “them,” a traditional “saved” and “not saved” argument. Perhaps it was, at least in part.  I don’t know if even Paul grasped the full magnanimity of Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross (though he certainly came closest to it in the New Testament writers).  Again, if Christ anointed the entire world through his blood, that means everyone has the Spirit of Christ.  I think that this passage is another one of Paul’s careful comparisons of Jewish law pre- and post- Messiah.  Those who do not have the Spirit of Christ do not belong to Christ, because he had not yet come to fulfill the law.  But Christ is in us now, and we belong to Christ, and our spirit is alive because of it, fully ready for a future reconciliation with God.  As an aside, I don’t think it means God didn’t love the people that came before Jesus.  Perhaps they, too, having remains on Earth, are also anointed posthumously, they just weren’t alive to receive the good news.

Paul continues to talk about the Spirit, “The Spirit himself testifies that we are God’s children. And now, if we are his children, then we are heirs – heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ…” We are all God’s children.  We have been made in God’s likeness – one of the first things the Bible teaches us.  God loves us as Xyr children, something Jesus made very clear.  I don’t see any stipulations to these two truths.  The Bible does NOT say “God made man in his likeness, except for brown men and gay men, whom he hated.” Jesus does NOT say “suffer the children to come to me, except for the Muslim children or immigrant children, whom I despise.”  No, we are all God’s children.  And as Paul’s statement here illustrates, we will all inherit the kingdom.

Then we get to this:  “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.  For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among man brothers. And those he predestined, he also called, and those he called, he also justified, those he justified, he also glorified.” I agree with (one) scholarly consensus that Paul is most likely talking about collective society, and that followers of Jesus should devote themselves to living like Jesus, in a life of service and bringing people to God.  That, perhaps, is the true calling of Christians: to live an exemplary life of service to God and community that is so appealing it can’t help but attract more followers.  That would truly make Christianity a shining city upon the hill.  Unfortunately, it has been skewed beyond recognition over the centuries, often becoming an exclusionary and oppressive force.  Paul, I think, would be horrified.

“If God is for us, who can be against us?” Paul asks.  Indeed, many things can be against us, as Paul acknowledges in the verses following the initial question. But in the long run, none of it matters. He concludes: “I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Let me just repeat that for you: Nothing in all of creation will be able to separate us from the love of God.  Nothing.  No sin, no shortcoming of our own or others can keep us from God.  Divine beings such as angels cannot keep us from God.  Death itself cannot keep us from God.  If nothing can keep us from God, what conclusion can we draw but one of universal reconciliation?  God loves us as beloved children, each and every one of us.  Praise God for Xyr mercy, praise God for Xyr love, and praise God for the future we have with Xyr.

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Romans 07 – Sin as Animal Instinct

22 For in my inner being I delight in God’s law; 23 but I see another law at work in me, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within me. (Read the rest of the chapter here!)

Making Sense of Paul’s Writing

Paul has dense, rhetorical arguments.  I find them hard to follow sometimes.  If you, too, find Paul a little hard to follow sometimes, remember this: According to historians, these letters were supposed to be read out-loud in dramatic fashion, almost like a one-man play.  They also would have been delivered with a messenger, who, after the first reading, would be asked to clarify Paul’s point.  The letter would be read and discussed several times by the congregation. We don’t get to ask Paul (or his envoy) any questions directly, but we can read these letters multiple times, and read supporting material – of which there is tons on Paul and his letters – to help us understand better. I’ve got two books about Paul on my nightstand right now to get me through Romans.

This chapter is one of those dense passages, with back and forth reference to the law and sin, life and death, doing what he does not want to do but not doing what he does want – I don’t know if it is a problem with the translation or what, but it was thick.  In a nutshell, Paul is putting forth the argument that the law (found in the Torah) was important because it showed God’s chosen people the difference between moral and sinful living. “I would not have known what sin was,” writes Paul,  “had it not been for the law.”  However, in doing so it also condemned them.  The way I understand it, it’s kind of like a restrictive diet: You cold turkey all junk food: no cake, no chips, no soda. You are healthy, yay! But, even knowing those things are bad for you, you can’t stop thinking about them, and many people will give in to temptation and eat them again at some point anyway.  (This diet analogy is not a judgement call on anyone’s eating habits, just an oversimplified analogy to get us through Paul’s writing.)

So what’s to be done?  Are we just condemned by the very thing that saves us?  That’s where the good news of Jesus comes in, which Paul explores in later chapters, as will we.  For now, let’s push through this theme of law and sin and death.  This heavy focus on the law of the Torah, and highly analytical argument about it’s pro’s and con’s from Paul, is put forth because he was speaking to a largely Jewish and Jewish-sympathizing audience.  Their whole way of life – not just in the Synagogue but out of it – is built around the Torah.  The law was given to Moses from God Most High, a sacred and central part of their being a chosen people set apart and loved by God.  So yeah, they got mad when Paul started attacking it, saying that Jesus had nullified the law.  In an effort to make his audience more likely to accept Jesus as the Messiah, Paul had to tread very carefully: showing his respect for the law (because he did respect it), and slowly building a case around said law that exposes how Jesus is its ultimate fulfillment.

I hope that helps clarify this chapter, and indeed the ones surrounding it, a little bit.  But what I really want to talk about today is sin. The word “sin” appears nineteen times in this 25-verse chapter.  It’s a loaded word.  Of course it’s about our shortcomings, but it’s been made, over the centuries, to mean a nearly irrecoverable character flaw.  Sin damns us to hell, sin makes us the evil, sin makes us the lowest of beasts.

Sin as Animal Instinct

And actually, I agree with that last analogy, the lowest of beasts.  For what I think Paul was most describing here is our reptilian brains – our animal instincts.  Paul just lacked the terminology that we have today. What pet owner hasn’t seen one dog “covet” another’s toy or treat? Greedy squirrels hoard so many acorns they literally cannot remember all of them (to our benefit, because then new oak trees grow).  Don’t even get me started on the ecological havoc pigs can wreck: you could film lunar sequences in our pigs’ grow-out paddock, with its five-foot deep craters and being completely denuded of plant life.  Animals steal, rape, and kill – and not just for food.  Lions have been documented killing zebras and not eating the carcass, the same sort of behavior domestic cats exhibit when they sport-hunt songbirds. It even has an official name: surplus killing.

So, when Paul talks about the law teaching him what sin is, I think it is essentially this: learning that we have the capability for nobler actions than our first basic instincts. It may be natural to covet our neighbor’s big house, but we won’t let that covetousness build rancor in our hearts.  We may be naturally greedy, but we will overcome that base greed by practicing sharing on large and small scales.  We have more capacity than any animal (even pigs) to damage the planet, but we can start living lighter, both individually and collectively.  We can recognize, and hopefully then curb our worst impulses, especially the three most harmful ones: stealing, raping and killing.

As I said in my first post about sin, the greatest sin is to act out of not-love.  Animal instincts are all about protecting your own skin, hoarding resources for yourself.  And that is not loving.  Natural, yes, but not loving.  God must know this about us, that we have these less-than-noble animal instincts. So would God really condemn us for them?

Grace is overcoming our baser instincts.

I don’t think so, but that doesn’t get us off the hook.  I know my girls are going to fight, that doesn’t mean I just let it happen.  I know they would only eat cookies if given the choice, but I make sure that that doesn’t happen, either.  God wants us to do better, and will help us do so.  We have been given the higher intelligence to reason this through, guides (such as the Bible) to help show us the way, and grace through Jesus for the mistakes we will make.  Because we will make mistakes.  But making mistakes is not an irredeemable character flaw, nor will it necessarily damn us to hell (a place I’m not sure actually exists, but that’s for another time and another post).  God has given us so much grace, grace beyond the stain of any sin.  All we need to do to be washed clean is turn our hearts towards Xyr.  Listen for God’s message with open hearts and open minds: because those messages rarely come from a booming voice in the clouds, but most often from quiet and unexpected places.  If we do that, we are already on the right path.  Will we stumble and fall occasionally? Yes, after all, we’re only human (and humans are animals). But grace will always be ready to turn back and offer us a hand.

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Romans 06 – 36 Minority Writers for you to Add to Your Reading List

12 Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body so that you obey its evil desires. 13 Do not offer any part of yourself to sin as an instrument of wickedness, but rather offer yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life; and offer every part of yourself to him as an instrument of righteousness. 

16 Don’t you know that when you offer yourselves to someone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one you obey—whether you are slaves to sin, which leads to death, or to obedience, which leads to righteousness? 17 But thanks be to God that, though you used to be slaves to sin, you have come to obey from your heart the pattern of teaching that has now claimed your allegiance. (Read the rest of the chapter here!)

This chapter is actually a chapter about freedom and redemption, but I specifically pulled these two quotes out because I imagine it’s also a chapter that has been used to chastise women and validate slavery.

I see why those in power didn’t want the laity reading the Bible.  I see why they fought so hard to keep it to themselves, not have it translated into native languages, and literally burn people at the stake for trying to expand access to the Bible.  They knew, they knew that if the laity could study the Bible on their own, they would see that the very verses used to oppress the people were written to uplift the people.

What makes me so mad is that we’ve had an English Bible since the sixteenth century. Since then, English-language Bibles have just gotten more prolific and commonplace.  And yet, we still have church leaders using it to uphold white supremacy and other racist notions, oppress women, and deny the sanctity of anyone who doesn’t fit in their tiny little box of “normal.”  The sick genius of it is, they’ve also made it so the majority of Christians either don’t want to read the Bible (believing that it’s too boring or dense), or they’re so indoctrinated that they read it through the same narrow slant as the narrow-minded people who taught it to them.

The Bible is a book about radical love and radical freedom.  Even if you just know the big stories that becomes apparent. Yes, Adam and Eve were expelled from the Garden of Eden, but even with their transgressions they are spared worse punishments, such as death.  Noah is spared from the flood through God’s love. Abraham receives a divine covenant because God loves him. Moses leads his people in revolt from Egypt because God is with them.  David is beloved by God.  Jesus is sent to Earth to disrupt the whole existing power hierarchy because God so loves us all. God is anti-hate, anti-oppression.

There are lots of wonderful, straight white guys out there sharing wonderful things about God, Jesus, and the Bible.  I love the podcasts Almost Heretical and The Bible for Normal People, both hosted by white guys.  I also love Richard Rohr and appreciate the work of John Shelby Spong.  But they aren’t the only voices in theology.  This year, I’m going to start focusing on theologians of color, female theologians, and any other minority voices I can find.  From my small corner of the internet, I’m going to do my part to open up the discussion to voices from other experiences.

That being said, I’m only one person with very finite time, so I’m not sure how long it will take to get to all of them.  I want to share a (very incomplete) list with you of some of the authors/theologians/books I’m looking at.  It’s a dense list (WordPress editing only lets me do so many things for readability), but please read through it.  Bookmark it and come back to it several times if need be.  If something or someone on this list speaks to you, I encourage you to beat me to it and start reading.  My hope is two-fold: that we can promote these minority voices in a way that they deserve, and also that you, dear reader, may find something that has been missing from your own spiritual journey. Perhaps you haven’t seen yourself fully reflected in Christianity yet, or perhaps you are missing a perspective you didn’t even think was possible.  Even if you are not a woman, or black, or gay, it’s still important to read these experiences because understanding leads to empathy leads to acceptance leads to love.  Finally, one more big thank you to Marla of @whitegirllearning who seriously recommended almost half these books/authors to me. Follow her if these aren’t enough book recommendations for you, she touches on a much broader subject base than I do. Enough preamble, here is my list:

1. Thabiti Anyabwile-A pastor right up the street from me in Washington, DC!  His books include Finding Faithful Elders and Deacons and Reviving the Black Church. He also has a blog that I’m looking forward to reading.

2. Karen Armstrong-Armstrong’s book The Evolution of God is the book that got me started on thinking critically about faith.  I just finished (and loved) her book St Paul: The Apostle We Love To Hate and am looking forward to reading more of her works, particularly The Gospel According to Woman: Christianity’s Creation of the Sex War in the West and The End of Silence: Women and the Priesthood.

3. Anthony Bradley-professor, author, and director of  Center for the Study of Human Flourishing at The King’s College.  His book Black Scholars in White Space caught my eye, and he’s published several other that look good, too.

4. Sarah Bessey– Co-organizer of the Evolving Faith Conference, contributor to a number of publications, author of Jesus Feminist and also has an archive of essays, here.

5. Nadia Bolz-Weber-Lutheran Pastor, former stand-up comic, and three-time New York Bestseller list. Her latest book, Shameless, “offers a full-blown overhaul of our harmful and antiquated ideas about sex, gender, and our bodies,” to quote the blurb.

6. Steven Charlston-A Choctaw elder and retired Episcopalian bishop.  I’ve always loved the duality of faith that Indigenous believers often have, and am excited to include several of them on this list.  The Four Vision Quests of Jesus was the book recommended to me.

7. Patrick Cheng-I do love my Episcopalians.  Cheng has written several books on Queer Theology.  His first book, Radical Love: An Introduction to Queer Theology was the book recommended to me.

8. Christena Cleveland-I’m excited to follow her most recent project, the Center for Justice + Renewal.  She has also written the book Disunity in Christ.

9. James Cone (1938-2018) – Cone is often called the father of black theology.  He has been critiqued, especially by Womanist theologians (several are further down this list, too), but his historical influence remains.  He has written many books, with 1969’s Black Theology and Black Power being the most often referenced in my quick research on him.

10. Kaitlin B Curtice-Potawatomi and Christian, Curtice’s first book is Glory Happening, but I’m really looking forward to her May 2020 release of Native: Identity, Belonging, and Rediscovering God.  She also has a blog.

11. Kelly Brown Douglas-An Episcopalian and Womanist Theologian.  I’m super excited to read her books Stand Your Ground: Black Bodies and the Justice of God and Sexuality in the Black Church: A Womanist Perspective.

12. Mary Douglas (1921-2007)- Mary Douglas is actually more of an anthropologist than a theologian, but she’s written about Levitical law, mostly in academic papers, which I’m hoping to access through JSTOR.

13. Rachel Held Evans (1981-2019)-I am embarrassed to admit I’ve never read any of her books, but look to rectify that this year. Evans moved from an evangelical faith of certainty to a faith of questioning and doubt, which is scary and takes guts, especially to write about.  She died tragically young, but her work seems to show no signs of losing traction with today’s audience.  You can also read her blog, which looks like it’s being intermittently maintained by somebody else posthumously.

14. Stacy M. Floyd-Thomas-The book that grabbed my attention was Deeper Shades of Purple: Womanism in Religion and Society but I’m also interested to read some of the works she co-authored with her husband, Juan Floyd Thomas, The Altars Where We Worship: The Religious Significance of Popular Culture.

15. Karen Gonzalez-As her website says, “I am a Christian, but I have not ceased to be Latina, Guatemalan, an immigrant, and a woman.”  As someone deeply concerned about the treatment of refugees and immigrants arriving in this country, I am eager to read her book The God Who Sees: Immigrants, the Bible, and the Journey to BelongShe also does a podcast called Dovetail intermittently, which explores the intersection of faith, justice, and culture.

16. Dominque DuBois Gilliard-recognized as a young leader of the Black Church at large, Gilliard has published Rethinking Incarceration: Advocating for Justice that Restores, writes a blog, and is the Director of Racial Righteousness and Reconciliation for the Love Mercy Do Justice initiative.

17. Lisa Sharon Harper-I love how many of these authors are also organizers, and Harper is one of those, speaking and consulting with churches and other organizations about how to mobilize people of faith to a more just world.  Her latest book is The Very Good Gospel and I also want to read Forgive Us, which was co-authored by Soon-Chang Rah, who is further down this list.

18. Drew G.I. Hart-Hart is a WordPress guy, so fellow WordPress-ers, he’s easy to follow.  His book is called Trouble I’ve Seen: Changing the Way the Church Views Racism.

19. Austen Hartke-It’s hard to find a lot of specifically transgender perspectives on Christianity, but Austen Hartke has written the book Transforming: The Bible and the Lives of Transgender Christians and also has a youTube series called “Transgender and Christian.”

20. Ada Maria Isasi-Diaz (1943-2012) – Isasi-Diaz coined the term “Mujerista,” a specifically Latina liberation theology (and also the word used for it’s proponents). She has three books on Mujerista philosophy, the first one being Mujerista Theology: A Theology for the 21st Century.

21. Nyasha Junior-Associate Professor in the Department of Religion at Temple University.  The book first recommended to me was An Introduction to Womanist Biblical Interpretationwhich looks like a great start. But I’m even more excited about her other book, Reimagining Hagar because I love to see how people study women in the Bible.

22. Kathy Kang-Her blog is warm and personable and as someone thinking more and more about “but what can we actually do” when confronted with whatever injustice there is, I’m looking forward to reading her book Raise Your Voice: Why We Stay Silent and How to Speak Up.

23. Mihee Kim Kort-Kort is a wife, mom, presbyterian minister…and queer. (Look, all those things can exist at once!  Sorry, couldn’t resist the little jab at some less accepting eyes…)  Her book, Outside the Lines: How Embracing Queerness Will Transform Your Faith is the one that was recommended to me.

24. Deborah Jian Lee-as a journalist and radio producer she has a slightly different background than many on this list, but that just makes me more excited to include her.  Her book, Rescuing Jesus: How People of Color, Women and Queer Christians are Reclaiming Evangelicalism, was the one recommended to me.

25. James Earl Massey (1930-2018)-Massey was an influential voice in and out of the Church of God denomination.  His work is prolific, the book I’m starting with is The Burdensome Joy of Preaching.

26. Brenda Salter McNeil-Dr. Brenda (her designation) focuses on reconciliation and has been for over 30 years.  Roadmap to Reconciliation is her most recent book.

27. Osheta Moore-I was immediately intrigued as in her website menu there is a tab “Dear White Peacemakers.” Turns out, she has a series specifically tailored for (potentially) helpful white people on her podcast, Shalom Sistas (it looks like it’s on any platform you may use).  She also has a book is Shalom Sistas: Living Wholeheartedly in a Brokenhearted World.

28. Soong-Chang Rah-Co-author of the aforementioned Forgive Us. Much of his work centers around the harm that colonial attitudes continue to do to the church and how the church can move forward into a more racially, ethnically, and culturally diverse way.  The two books I’m most looking forward to reading are Unsettling Truths: The Ongoing, Dehumanizing Legacy of the Doctrine of Discovery and The Next Evangelicalism: Freeing the Church from Western Cultural Captivity.

29. Alexia Salvatierra-I heard Salvatierra interviewed on the podcast Can I Say This At Church.  Predominantly a working activist and organizer focused on issues pertaining to immigration and poverty, she has made time to co-author the book Faith-Rooted Organizing: Mobilizing the Church in Service to the World.

30. D. Danyelle Thomas-no books out (yet!), but Thomas is the creator of Unfit Christian, which strives to be the “digital voice of Black Millennial Faith & Spirituality.”  You can also find her on Twitter, IG, and youTube.

31. Jemar Tisby – A Christian, historian, writer, and speaker, according to his website.  His first book, The Color of Compromise: The Truth about the American Church’s Complicity in Racism, was released January of 2019.

 32. Richard Twiss (1954-2013)-Lakota, politically active in his youth with the American Indian Movement and later becoming a Christian minister, his book Rescuing the Gospel from the Cowboys: A Native American Expression of the Jesus Way was recommended to me, and he has several others.

33. Alice Walker – famed poet and novelist of The Color Purple is said to have coined the term “Womanist.” In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens: Womanist Prose is one of her non-fiction collections.

34. Johnathan L. Walton-Dean of the Divinity School at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, he does have two books, but I’m most interested in some of his articles and book contributions that deal with megachurches and Christian consumerism.  He looks at them mainly through the Black Church, but I think it’s a topic that should interest the broader Christian community as well.

34. Tracy C. West-A Methodist working within the church for inclusivity, West is also a scholar and author of several books dealing with race and gender in the context of religion.  I’ll be starting with her book Disruptive Christian Ethics: When Racism and Women’s Lives Matter, though they all look like good reads.

35. Dolores Williams-a first wave Womanist, Dolores Williams has been talking about how white feminism has excluded black women for a while now.  Sisters in the Wilderness: The Challenge of Womanist God-Talk is the book she is most famous for, but she has made other contributions through journals and the like.

36. Jarvis J. WilliamsRemoving the Stain of Racism from the Southern Baptist Convention, For Whom Did Christ Die? is a book I’m adding to my reading list.  Also, because I am in the thick of reading Romans (and a lot of background reading on Paul) Williams’ books The Extent of the Atonement in Paul’s Theology and One New Man: The Cross and Racial Reconciliation in Pauline Theology have also caught my eye.

Did I miss your favorite author? Please add them in the comments!  Also, if you are enjoying what you read here, please follow the blog for more.  Click the folder icon in the upper left corner of the menu, and you can follow via WordPress or email.  And don’t forget to check us out on Instagram and Twitter, too!