Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Apologetics 101-2 -- The three transendentals

     God is the source of all reality, the ground of being and the creator and sustainer of life. Therefore, in order to properly understand what is real, what is (i.e. what has being and existence), and what is alive, we must begin with the bedrock beneath it all -- God, our Father. We must know that he exists and that he lives and loves. He must be at the beginning and at the end of our quest for belief. Without God, we are adrift in an empty sea.
      From God come the three transcendentals, or fundamentals, or absolutes that form the foundation for a proper worldview. They are truth, goodness and beauty. If we do not understand them (even if we know God) we will be shortsighted in the way we perceive life, especially in the way we make connections between Christianity and the world around us. For many years I knew of truth, goodness and beauty only as abstract terms; I did not grasp their reality and importance. I knew that these were godly qualities, but I did not realize that they are manifestations of God. God is truth. God is good. God is beautiful. Any created thing that transmits these things is touched by God -- it is revelatory of God. In Phil. 4, Paul tells us not only to consider "whatever is true...whatever is right and whatever is lovely," but to "put it into practice" as well. Then the "God of peace" will be present with us. We will live in the contentment that the interrelationship of these three outpourings of God brings into our lives.
      The first thing to understand about the three transendentals is that they exist as real things in their own right. They are not merely add-ons to other things. We may say that the Bible is true, but we must realize that the truth conveyed by the words of Scripture is far greater than the book itself. We may say that a saint was good, but the goodness came from their connection to the heart of God. We may say that a cathedral is beautiful, but, in the humility built into it, it only captures a glimmer of the glory of God. We are humanly inclined to think of them as descriptive of physical things, but because the three are so intimately connected with God -- indeed they are who he is -- they are as real as he is and transcend this material world.
     Truth, goodness and beauty come into our lives as gifts from God. James phrased it this way: "Every good and perfect (beautiful) gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change (truth) like shifting shadows." (James 1:17) We pick up on these things because we have been made in the image of God. He is truth, goodness and beauty; we know them through him. When the image of God is corrupted by sin, the perception of them is darkened as well. Those who do not know God know very little of the three absolutes. Either they do not recognize them at all, or they fashion them in distorted ways. Without God, truth is relative and lies are truth, good is personal and selfish, and beauty is disfigured or ignored. Anyone who wishes to appreciate them must have his soul reoriented to God as the source of truth, goodness and beauty. Even Christians need to stop periodically and check our position; it is easy to get carried away by the banalities of this world.
     Because truth, goodness and beauty are real and since they come from God, mankind has always known about them to a greater or lesser degree. They are known to all cultures, in all places and at all times. Even if they are not known, or if they are dismissed, or even corrupted, a feeling that they do exist remains. Depending on one's position in the world, this causes conflicting emotions to arise in the soul. Those who have cast them aside may feel angry, disillusioned or conflicted. People who have not really thought about them may feel empty or confused. And people (like I once was) who don't understand them, feel as if they are missing out or unfulfilled. Truth, goodness and beauty were designed by God to be guideposts for the spiritual life of the soul. But, in our fallen world, great tension exists between these ideals in their true intent and their corruptions that are so common to our everyday lives. We will only be able experience the benefits of truth, goodness and beauty by fostering our relationship with God, and allowing him to reveal them to us.
     The three transendentals have great value for this life by opening doors into the true spirituality that nourishes the life of the soul. But because they are spiritual, godly and real, they are eternal. They have always existed, for they exist in and through God. They exist now, seen through the eyes of faith, hope and love. They will exist forever in their true forms, for God will re-create all things. In heaven, truth becomes real, for all communion will be genuine and understood by the wisdom of God. Good will overcome all evil and falsity to the extent that we will experience it so fully that good will be the ground of all existence and anything else will be imperceptible. Beauty will be lasting; it will have lost its capacity to fade away. It will be eclipsed into glory as it brings healing to our ransomed souls.
     Imagining this kind of reality gives us great hope, but living into their reality, as we are called to do, gives us great insight. Paul wrote, "'No eye has seen (beauty), no ear has heard (goodness), no mind has conceived (truth) what God has prepared for those who love him' -- but God has revealed it to us by his Spirit." In order to experience the three transendentals -- to see them and know them and practice them -- is to live in tune with the Spirit of God, living in our souls, who teaches us all that is true, gives us all that is good and shows us all that is beautiful.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

"Thy kingdom come"

     In Matt. 6, Jesus instructed his disciples (and, through them, us, as well) to pray that his kingdom would come. Jesus is our king; he has a kingdom, but the kingdom is in flux. In one way, it has come, but in another, it has not. His rule and reign have been long established, yet we know so little of what this means.
     I used to dismiss the paradox of the kingdom by thinking that it was all in the future. Whatever it was that God was planning had something to do with the Jewish nation and something called the "millennium." But that never felt quite right. Jesus seemed to be teaching his followers that the kingdom is all encompassing -- it is "within you," it is coming, it is "not of this world," it "fills the whole earth."
     Generally defined, the kingdom of God denotes the rule and reign of Christ over all things. His rule is his authority; what keeps us on the straight and narrow, as it were. It provides our guidelines for living, writes the laws of nature, and speaks through the voice of natural law. The reign of Christ is the overall atmosphere of leadership and relationship that we find when we are (or will be) brought into the reality of the kingdom. It is the spirit of living a fulfilled life in peace, holiness and justice. As Christians, aka kingdom-citizens, we have been called to experience the governance of God in three ways: the kingdom within, the kingdom that comes, and the kingdom that will be.
      First, the kingdom within is our experience of salvation from sin that comes by grace through faith in Christ. Jesus, when pressed by the Pharisees to explain the nature of his kingdom, said, "...the kingdom of God is within you." (Luke 17:21) He told Nicodemus one-on-one that "...no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again." (John 3:3) This kingdom is necessitated by need, founded on faith and forged by a love so powerful that it nailed Christ to the cross, only to resurrect him from the grave. When we, as aliens, are given access into this inner kingdom, we receive a birth certificate sealed in blood, our citizenship papers, which will one day grant us entrance into heaven itself. It all begins in the heart. It starts now in our physical being, where our eternal soul abides. The kingdom within is the territory of pilgrimage, for all is not what it shall be, so we must walk by faith, overcoming obstacles as we go. In Eph.3:16 and 17,Paul prayed that the Spirit of God would strengthen us in our "inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith." Jesus must establish his rule and reign in our hearts, and we must allow him to do what is best for us.
      Second, the kingdom that comes is the life and love of God being lived out in the world through the church. Jesus said that as the church is being built as his kingdom in the world, the gates of hell, that kingdom of darkness and evil, will not overcome it. There may be war between Christ's righteous kingdom and the forces of sin, but the church will go out into the world in every age and in every place as conquerors. Jesus said, "This gospel of the kingdom will be preached in the whole world as a testimony to the nations, and then the end will come." (Matt. 24:14) The first priority of the church is to preach the message of salvation, to bring the kingdom of God into individual lives. Next, believers must be instructed in the fundamentals and practice of the faith. And the church must stand for truth against all the evil forces that are trying to tear it down. In many ways, the activities of the church pursue an unseen end -- as the Christmas carol reminds us: "for hate is strong, and mocks the song of peace on earth, goodwill to men." But she is called to be faithful to Christ in every dark hour. The deeds of justice and righteousness done here will remain forever.
     Finally, the kingdom that will be is the restoration of all things in Christ. We commonly think that this kingdom will be in heaven or just heaven itself. But it is far more than that. It is what will be when Christ makes everything new, and this includes all energy, matter, time, space, our physical bodies, as well as what is "now" heaven. All things will be united or fused into one great, eternal reality. This reality will be, of course, quite different from the reality we now experience, in either the physical or the spiritual sense. It will be greater, bigger, truer and far more beautiful than anything we can ever know or experience in this life, for it will find its source in the infinite love of God.
     The apostle John wrote, "...now we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when he appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is." (1John 3:2) He perfectly captures the "now and not yet" tension inherent in the kingdom of God. Even though we have received the love of God in all its fullness, we are not fit to enter heaven's door. We must be remade in order to enter in. And that fact gives us our greatest clue as to what heaven will be like. It is a never-ending remaking, restoration and redemption of all things, and when the kingdom finally comes, we will be called by God to participate in that great work of reconciliation. We will be given, one by one, all of the incomplete stories of this life, and with Jesus by our side, we will write the happy endings, as the kingdom, forever, comes.