Monday, May 21, 2012

Flames of Love Update

Scroll down about 10 lines and... boom! I have the manuscript almost ready to send in. If things go according to plan, it should be available on Amazon by Spring 2013.

This is a tentative version of the blurb that will be on the back of the book:

Is hell for real, or will all be saved? What if both are true?

In this work, Rev. Heath Bradley explores the current debate over the reality and purpose of hell. It is tempting to settle either for the liberal option of downplaying the judgment of God, or for the conservative option of letting dominant church tradition trump fresh understandings of Scripture. This book, however, will attempt to chart a different course that both respects the main impulses behind these reactions, while at the same time offering a clearer and more compelling response to the question of what hell could be for in a universe created and redeemed by a loving God.

The book seeks to articulate a distinctively Christian universalism that highlights the centrality of Christ, coheres with early church tradition and the Scriptures, affirms the reality of divine judgment and mercy, and offers motivational grounds for evangelism and holy living. Ultimately, this work is about the Christian struggle to envision the life of the world to come in a way that is faithful to the God in whom love and holiness are forever united. 

Monday, May 14, 2012

Obama, General Conference, and the Homosexuality Debate

It has been an interesting past couple of weeks. At the United Methodist General Conference, our nation's second-largest Protestant denomination voted to retain our position against all same-sex relationships, and yet our nation's President has come out as officially supporting gay marriage. These two events have spurred lots of discussions, articles, blog posts, etc. I have noticed several key popular arguments from folks on both sides of the great divide that I think are worth examining under a critical light.

First, many of the blog posts I have read have addressed the protest from the LGBT folks at General Conference. Many of you probably know that they engaged in a large disruptive protest during the proceedings of the conference that forced an early adjournment. It seems that the response of many people has been something like this: "Whether you are for or against changing our stance on the issue, we should all agree that this kind of protest is unloving and disrespectful." I must confess that I do not share this intuition. If one is really convinced that our current stance and policies are in fact a great injustice, then why exactly would it be wrong to protest in this way? I wonder what people who make this argument would say about Jesus' protest in the temple. As far as I know, the LGBT protesters did not come in with whips and run everyone out while throwing over tables. When Jesus was faced with systemic injustice legitimated by religion, he got angry, disruptive, and threw stuff around to make a point. So, I am not so sure that forcefully disruptive symbolic actions are not sometimes called for.

Second, I am somewhat troubled by a line of argument that many on the progressive side seem to be employing these days. After Obama made his statement, many have taken this as a sure sign that our culture is headed towards full acceptance of gay marriage. Given the accelerated increase of such acceptance over the last decade, this may not be an unreasonable prediction. It is probably true. However, some seem to rely too much on a line of reasoning that goes like this: "History is moving in the direction of full acceptance and affirmation of LGBT people and gay marriage, and so you can either move forward with the rest of us or get left behind." The problem with this line of reasoning, as I see it, is that it is dangerous to determine morality based on opinion polls. Just because a society is moving towards greater acceptance of x, that doesn't mean that x is actually a good thing. I believe our society is moving towards numerous things that are not good. (For example, in numerous ways the sexualization of children and youth is becoming much more mainstream in our culture.) In short, we shouldn't just assume that a large social shift is necessarily progress just because a lot of people are getting on board with it.

It seems to me that in employing this "get on board or get left behind" argument, progressives make an unwarranted move very similar to the way traditionalists on this issue often argue. Traditionalists often try to pressure conformity to the conservative stance by arguing that it would be unwise to disagree with a virtually unanimous consensus from past Christian tradition that all same-sex relationships are wrong. Progressives, on the other hand, often make the argument- similar in form, though opposite in content- that it would be unwise to disagree with a perceived virtual consensus in the future. So, traditionalists urge conformity with the past, while progressives urge conformity with the perceived future. Neither mode of argument is particularly helpful in my opinion. Truth is what it is regardless of how many people believe it. It seems to me that the debate would be better served by focusing on exactly what the reasons are for denouncing all same-sex unions, and subjecting those reasons to careful and critical scrutiny. For example, in the paper this morning there was a letter to the editor saying that gay marriage should be illegal because marriage is for having children and gay people can't (biologically) do this. But the intent or ability to have children is not a part of our legal definition of marriage for heterosexuals, so why set up a standard for gay couples that we don't even set up for straight couples? I think matters of logical consistency are much more important than a supposed consensus either in the past or in the future.

Finally, this debate is at its worst when instead of real people talking to real people, we have people throwing rhetorical bombs at stereotypes. Both sides are doing this. Conservatives often accuse gays of being inherently promiscuous, excessively hedonistic, etc. Progressives often accuse conservatives of "hating" gay people. Neither stereotype is true. Yes, some gay people are promiscuous, just as some straight people are. Yes, tragically, some people do hate gay people just because they are gay. But many gay people want monogamous marriage, and most people who do not personally approve of same-sex relationships at the same time are glad to consider those folks family and friends. Many people who do not affirm the moral goodness of same-sex relationships harbor no loathing, fear, or hatred of gay and lesbian people. They are just convinced that to be faithful to God one must not approve of such relationships, even though one can (and should) accept and love gay people as one would love and accept any other person. The discussion is not advanced by accusing all people who hold a traditional view of being prejudiced or hateful. Some are, but most are not. As I said earlier, I think our time is much better spent evaluating reasons rather than assigning motives.

On that note, I would encourage you to read this blog post from Justin Lee (especially if you consider yourself "progressive" on this issue):

Monday, May 7, 2012

Reason and the Bible

Here's a great question I was asked and my brief response to it:

On several of your sermons, with topics including homosexual relationships and on whether everyone eventually ends up in heaven, a main thread that runs through your argument is that it just doesn't make sense to think otherwise. For example, it doesn't make sense that an all loving God would send some people to heaven, and some to hell; thus the 'love wins' argument has more credence. I have found that I don't understand God a lot of the time; His thoughts are really higher than mine. Yet at the same time, God has given us a mind to reason and to think. How do we draw the line, or have the balance, to reason things out, or to come to the point where we say, "it doesn't make sense to me, but I trust what God says in his Word plainly?"

I think this question is such an important one. It is one that I think about and struggle with a great deal, and I am not sure I have a great answer, but I'll do my best. The relationship between reason and revelation is one of those perennial theological debates that requires every generation to struggle with it. My own view (and this is pretty mainstream in our tradition) is that since God is the source of all truth, reason and revelation never contradict. I believe that truths of revelation go beyond what can be rationally understood, but truths of revelation never go against truths of reason. 

We should certainly make room for a lot of mystery in our faith (beyond reason), but we should not make room for nonsense (against reason). Granted, there will be debate on what qualifies as mystery and what constitutes nonsense. As an example of mystery, I would put miracles in that category. I don't understand how resurrection, for example, can happen, but I believe Christ was raised from the dead and that I will be too. As an example of nonsense, I would put the Calvinist claim that a perfectly good God can make some people for the express purpose of torturing them in hell for an eternity. If perfect divine goodness can coincide with the plan to torture people with maximal and unending pain, then "goodness" is emptied of any meaningful content. John Wesley once said in a sermon that Calvinism makes God worse than the devil, and I agree. Of course, committed Calvinists would claim this is mystery, but I think it is manifest nonsense.

Regarding the specific issues of homosexuality and the possibility of universal salvation, I would qualify your statement that I have made primary appeals to reason. What I have attempted to do in the talks I have given on these subjects is to use my reason as best I can in interpreting what the Scriptures actually teach. I am not at all accusing you of doing this, but in my experience in talking about and debating these issues with folks over the years, when someone tells me they will just stick with what "the Bible plainly teaches," that often means, "I am not willing to question traditional interpretations of the Bible." The problem is that when it comes to many tough issues such as the two you mentioned, the Bible really isn't abundantly clear and obvious as to what it teaches. The reason that most people think that the Bible plainly teaches that non-Christians go to an everlasting hell is because that has been the most popular interpretation of the Bible over the centuries. Popularity, though, is not perfect guide to truth. I think we must use reason as much as we can to try to discern what the Scriptures teach, and not always be content with traditional interpretations. 
I think that part of maturing, spiritually and theologically, is coming to an awareness of the relativity of what strikes a person as "plain." A couple centuries ago it seemed "plain" to many people that slavery is ordained by God. The examples, of course, could be multiplied.

There is, in short, no easy way to resolve the tension between using our minds to the best of our abilities and at the same time living with a posture of reverence towards the transcendent mystery of God. I think it is a tension we just learn to live with. We don't respect God, though, with sloppy thinking or uncritical adherence to tradition. We think through things the best we can, including issues of biblical interpretation, all the while acknowledging our own perspective is limited in so many ways. 

One more thing: using our reason in interpreting Scripture is practically unavoidable. The issue isn't: do we just accept what God's Word says, or do we use our reason to interpret it? Our understanding of "what God's Word says" is indelibly and unavoidably influenced by our own reason and our own experience. I think this is why Christian fellowship and conversations are so important because we become more aware of our own biases and see things through other people's eyes. God's truth is absolute and objective, but our understanding of it is always partial and subjective.