Nicholas Kristof interview me

Not really, of course.  Why would he care how I answer his questions?  Still, he asks a lot of people these same questions, so I thought I might just take my turn.  And it is, after all, the day after Easter.

jones 2Nicholas Kristof, of Yamhill County, Oregon and the New York Times, drops in on prominent religious leaders from time to time and asks them news-worthy questions.  I don’t like the questions very much, but nearly always, I like them better than the answers.  I know that is not a fair judgment on my part.  Kristof is after news-worthy columns; the interviewees are after some public witness to their faith. [1]

I have read all Kristof’s interviews and I come away from each one feeling snarky and unsatisfied.  Today, I thought, “Hey.  I don’t have anything to lose.  Nobody’s publishing me.  Nobody’s going to fire me.  Why don’t I just have a go at these questions myself?”  If you don’t like my answers, you can check hers out at the hyperlink below or maybe you should try to formulate some of your own.

So…here are the questions with my “responses.”  They aren’t “answers” really, but they are what I would like to say if Kristof and I were to have a conversation over a beer.  Let’s pick a beer from the Allegory Brewing Company, named as one of Yamhill County’s finest.

Question 1. Do you think of Easter as a literal flesh and blood resurrection.  I have trouble with that.

My Response.  I don’t have any trouble with it; I just don’t understand it.  Something happened, certainly.  Something catalyzed the disciples and sent them out into the streets preaching.  What do you think that was?

By “resurrection,” you aren’t, by any chance, thinking of simple resuscitation?  Nobodyjones 1 argues that Jesus “came back” from death in the sense of coming back to the life he had  before.  The texts that treat the resurrection all picture Jesus not as coming back, but as going on.  There is another “kind” or “form” of life.  This is President Serene Jones.  I would want to interview her, too. 

Is “the trouble you have with that,” by any chance, a rejection of non-natural explanations?  None of the writers of our gospels believed in natural explanations at all.  You wouldn’t be looking for their accounts to be cast in modern scientific parlance, would you?  “Supernatural” is not even a category they used.

Question 2   But without a physical resurrection, isn’t there a risk that we are left with just the crucifixion?

My Response: No, I’m afraid it isn’t as easy as that.  The cross and the resurrection are the answer to a question about just how God “so loved the world that He [2] gave his only son.”  How did God do that?”  That’s the question.  Of all the answers, I think there are two principal kinds: the incarnational and the sacrificial.  The Incarnation holds that God came to live among us in the person of Jesus Christ and that event, itself, bridges the gap for anyone who accepts that it is true.  The sacrificial answers presuppose the Israelite practices of the remission of sins based on an unblemished sacrifice.  We are not committed, in understanding just how God chooses our redemption, to just the cross and the empty tomb.  It’s tempting to think so at Easter, but there are other answers worth considering.

Question 3 You alluded to child abuse. So how do we reconcile an omnipotent, omniscient God with evil and suffering?

My Response: I see that as two questions, really.  Evil is one thing; suffering is another.  Let’s look at the suffering that comes because we are mortal and live on a planet that will survive for only a finite period.  I don’t know how to deal with that kind.  God created humankind to be mortal—Adam and Eve were mortal—and created viruses and predators as well.  And God placed us on a rocky ball with a molten core and tectonic plates.  It’s not paradise.

But evil is something we choose.  When God created humans, he created free will.  Free will allows us to choose to worship idols and the persecute our fellow humans and we have done that.  God cannot prevent evil if He is to grant the gift of free will.  He does provide the means of redemption, however, as your first questions note.

Question 4 Isn’t a Christianity without a physical resurrection less powerful and awesome? When the message is about love, that’s less religion, more philosophy.

My Response: Well, you don’t find a physical resurrection powerful and awesome, do you?  Would Christianity be better if you did?  And is the alternative to resurrection, some disembodied notion that we should be nice to each other, as you seem to imagine it?  I don’t think so.

The heart of the Christian message is that we are not on our own.  God created us for fellowship, but we chose rebellion and independence instead.  But God keeps coming back, finding one way after another, to invite us back into a relationship of intimate trust.  With that trust, we give up independence, and become willing agents, going where we are told and doing what needs to be done.  That involves what looks like love sometimes, but also what looks like justice and what looks like judgment.

Questions 5—8 deal with the Virgin Birth, intercessory prayer, and some kind of specific site for our lives after we die.

My Responses: The Virgin Birth is, again, the answer to a question.  You have to ask the question first.  It is: how is it possible for Jesus, who inherits the same guilt every other human inherits, to be the “unblemished sacrifice.”  I just don’t ask the question.  That’s not how I see the crucifixion and resurrection affecting us.  It’s not about blood sacrifice for me. 

Intercessory prayer is a problem when we are telling God what to do.  You can say “pleading with God” if you don’t like “telling.”  But when we pray, as Jesus did, “Not my will but yours be done,” then we really have no basis for empirical conclusions about “what worked” and what did not.  So that question, too, is one I don’t ask.

Your third question is the “heaven and hell” question.  There are lots of different notions in our scriptures of “what happens next,” of which the most prominent is “nothing.”  About King David, for instance, they say “Then he died in a ripe old age, full of days, riches and honor.”  In the New Testament, there are several kinds of pictures—never more than snapshots—about some eternal “site” for the people who refuse God’s invitation to the party and those who accept.  I don’t put my faith in any of those snapshots.  I put my faith in God’s decision to be “with me” as long as there is any “me” at all.

Question 9 [Given that I am clearly heterodox] Dr. Hess, am I a Christian?

My Response: That depends on what you mean.  “Christianity” is a set of beliefs and your beliefs are not Christian.  So if your question is a doctrinal question, the answer is No.  But I don’t think that’s your question.  I think your question is whether God has found a way to declare you truly a member of His family.  It would be bizarre, I think, to imagine that God runs down a checklist, like Jiffy Lube, to see whether you match up.  Does that sound to you like the God who has relentlessly pursued us all these years?

So I think God knows whether you are one of His, whether you have accepted the invitation to the party or turned it down.  You may not know for sure.  I certainly don’t.  I do trust God to know, however, and if I am confident to leave the eternal destiny of my soul in God’s hands, I am confident to leave yours there as well.

[1]  I’m mot trying to be derogatory.  I am sure each person also wants more than that.  Kristof, for instance, seems to have a very personal interest in the questions he is asking and the fact that he publishes them in the New York Times doesn’t exclude that.  President Serene Jones may be coming as close to candor as her position, her training, and her faith will allow her to come.

[2]  I use what are now called “male” pronouns to refer to God.  It’s just a convenience.  I don’t attribute any gender at all to God, but our language doesn’t have a pronoun for personal non-gendered beings, so all the choices are flawed.

About hessd

Here is all you need to know to follow this blog. I am an old man and I love to think about why we say the things we do. I've taught at the elementary, secondary, collegiate, and doctoral levels. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. I have taught political science for a long time and have practiced politics in and around the Oregon Legislature. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. You'll be seeing a lot about my favorite topics here. There will be religious reflections (I'm a Christian) and political reflections (I'm a Democrat) and a good deal of whimsy. I'm a dilettante.
This entry was posted in A life of faith, Theology and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Nicholas Kristof interview me

  1. Bonnie Klein says:

    Does Kristof follow you? If not, would you consider sending this to him?

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