Thursday, June 15, 2006

The Doctor of Ministry

Part of the reason why I've been so quiet recently has been my admission to the Doctor of Ministry (D.Min, pronounced "demon") at Abilene Christian University. The degree is designed for full-time practicing ministers who have had a Master of Divinity for at least three years. It's different from the Ph.D in that it is aimed at church leadership and practical theology in ministerial contexts. The degree is basically a series of 8 classes - all in the weeklong short-course format. That means reading 10-12 books before class, class from 8am to 5 pm Monday to Friday, and a fairly significant assignment once class gets out. I love this format. It's intense, but over quickly - kinda like ripping off a bandaid! After 24 hours of courses, the final 6 hours are a thesis. This week the class is "Theological Foundations of Ministry." The gist of the reading and discussions has been that ministers are not only skilled technical historical-critical interpreters of the Word in an intellectual vacuum, we are also interpreters of culture, we pass on folklore, we interpret and reinterpret symbols by shaping those symbols through liturgies and rituals, and we engage in pastoral care. For example, today we visisted 4 churches - 2 very different Churches of Christ, one Baptist, and Episcopal to take careful note of how each church uses "sacred space" and symbols to convey their understanding of God, worship, and community. This is a very sophisticated exercise, because even the austere free church buildings with no visible Christian symbols/icons are themselves symbols with theological significance. Part of the minister's task is to read and interpret every story, every narrative, every ritual, and every symbol.

Every teacher I have had in the Graduate School of Theology has been a godly Christian person dedicated to knowledge, truth, Christian community, and the process of shaping students and churches into the image of God. When you have a Ph.D from Harvard and you cry while teaching a doctoral-level class, your heart is probably in the right place. They are training us to minister to the church and our communities in postmodern, post-Christian, Seinfeld-watching America. The irony of this whole process is that you would think after 2 Masters degrees in religion and theology, and work on a doctorate, I may have a big head. Just the opposite is true. The more I learn, especially in theological disciplines, the more humble I am forced to become. God has done things and is doing things I cannot wrap my mind around - in English, Greek, or Hebrew!

Friday, June 09, 2006

Is it Okay to Rejoice at the Death of an Evil Person?

The death of Jordanian-born terrorist Al-Zarqawi raises an interesting and significant question: Is it morally and theologically acceptable to hope anyone goes to hell? All day yesterday we (Americans) have been “rejoicing” over the death of this monster. (If you take issue with my characterization of Zarqawi as a monster, then find and watch a video of him decapitating someone. Turn the sound up. WARNING: You won’t sleep tonight if you do this.)

It seems to me that there are two extremes to avoid. Gloating and cracking jokes about burying him in a “bacon wrapped ham helmet” seems no better than Muslims handing out cake and candy to their kids on 9/11. The other extreme is also asinine – mourning equally over the loss of every human life – as if this man’s death is just as tragic as the death of an innocent he murdered. I really have been struggling with my thoughts and feelings on this. I’ve thought about three things: First, is there a hell? Can rational people believe in such a thing? We already know that rational people can’t believe in the 72 virgins reward, but what about the opposite? And, if there is a hell, does Zarqawi deserve to go there? Can any of us make such a judgment? And third, if there is a hell, is it acceptable to hope someone goes there?

So, does hell exist? People who pride themselves in being “sophisticated” think the notion of hell is absurd. And, since the idea is associated with conservative Christians, they feel particularly compelled to reject the concept. The belief that those who commit evil are punished after death is hardly restricted to Christianity though. One of the Thirteen Principles of the Jewish Faith as laid down by the codifier of Jewish law, Maimonides, is that God rewards the good and punishes the bad. If God is just, it is inconceivable that those who do evil and those who do good have identical fates. A just God must care about justice, and since there is little justice in this world, there has to be in the next.

The second question is easily answered. Thousands of people have had their lives destroyed or shattered by Zarqawi. This man has made nihilistic acts of cruelty routine, even respectable among some. He tried to create a society based on new forms of religious hatred and new expressions of barbarity. This man was Hitler in a headscarf. If, then, there is a just God, and Zarqawi was the evil human being described here, the answer to the third question is obvious. Just as any decent human being would want good people to be rewarded in whatever existence there is after this life, they would want the cruelest of people to be punished. So, yes, I hope Zarqawi is punished. It means that a just God rules the universe. If you think that is hard-hearted, consider the alternative, that one of the most corrupt and cruel human beings is resting in peace. Whoever isn't bothered by that is the one with the hard heart.