Thursday, March 31, 2011

Off to a convention, plus links

Today we'll be travelling to Cincinnati to attend our first homeschool convention. The drive involves at least two hours on a notoriously bad two-lane highway with a girl who doesn't travel well. My daughter isn't much better. But once we're there we're hoping to find a good reading and Spanish curriculum. We're also excited to hear one or two of Peter Enns' talks and check out his Bible study curriculum.

Some stuff to leave with you:
  • This is NOT the reason we're homeschooling (via MoJo):
  • Robin Parry asks if Rob Bell is really a universalist. I interpreted Bell's book in the same way.
  • Also check out Robin Parry's article debunking seven myths about univeralism.
  • There's a promising new blog on Catholic Moral Theology. I haven't read all their posts yet, but "Praying and Framing" (on how we are shaped by the liturgy) is great.
  • Finally, an excellent Al Jazeera interview with Cornel West, the prophet (via memoria dei). He is sharply critical of Obama.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Schillebeeckx: The threefold historical orientation of the sacraments

From all this we see that the sacraments, as "mediation" between Christ and ourselves, must be situated not immediately between the historical sacrifice of the Cross and our twentieth-century situation, but rather between the Christ who is living now and our earthly world. More precisely, what takes place in the sacraments is the immediate encounter in mutual availability between the living Kyrios and ourselves. The sacraments are this encounter. And it is this immediate encounter with Christ that explains the threefold historical orientation of the sacraments. For they are first of all an anamnesis or a commemoration of the past sacrifice of the Cross, because of the relation of the eternally actual redemptive act, present in the sacrament, to the historical moment in which Christ shed his blood. Secondly, they are a visible affirmation and bestowal of the actual gift of grace inasmuch as the recipient becomes concerned in the enduring redemptive act by which the Kyrios is reaching out to him here and now. In the third place, they are a pledge of eschatalogical salvation and a herald of the parousia, because the sacraments are the sacramental present of Christ the Eschaton, either because of a real transubstantiation (in the case of the Eucharist), or because of the sacramentalizing of his eternally actual redemptive act (in the case of the remaining six sacraments). Hence a visible intervention in our time of the Eschaton himself takes place in the sacraments. Sacramental encounter with the living Christ in the Church is therefore, in virtue of the historical mysteries of Christ's life, the actual beginning of eschatalogical salvation on earth.
E. Schillebeeckx, Christ the Sacrament of the Encounter with God, pp 62-63. Reading Dominican theologians certainly makes you feel your neglect of St. Thomas Aquinas.

Schillebeeckx: Sacraments are "the face of redemption turned visibly toward us"

Having shown that Christ is the primordial sacrament, Schillebeeckx then points out that "mutual human availability is possible only in and through man's bodiliness. ... Human encounter calls for mutual availability." We humans do not commune with each other except through our bodies.

The problem is that Jesus has gone from us. We can no longer encounter him in the way his contemporaries did. But we are not left with a mere "spiritual" communion:
Because God loves man and has a sovereign respect for our earthbound humanity - for our reality as persons who in their own bodiliness live in a world of people and of things, and thereby grow to spiritual maturity - God always offers us the kingdom of heaven in an earthly guise.
How are we to encounter Christ, then, since he has gone from us? Through the "separated sacraments".
If Christ does not show himself to us in his own flesh, then he can make himself visibly present to and for us earthbound men only by taking up earthly non-glorified realities into his glorified saving activity. This earthly element replaces for us the invisibility of his bodily life in heaven. This is precisely what the sacraments are: the face of redemption turned visibly towards us, so that in them we are truly able to encounter the living Christ. The heavenly saving activity, invisible to us, becomes visible in the sacraments.
Schillebeeckx illustrates this by saying that Jesus' twelve disciples were never baptized because they had personally encountered Christ the primordial sacrament. Yet St. Paul, the thirteenth apostle, was baptized, never having encountered Jesus in the flesh. "Sacramentality thus bridges the gap and solves the disproportion between the Christ of heaven and unglorified humanity."
From this account of the sacraments as the earthly prolongation of Christ's glorified bodiliness, it follows immediately that the Church's sacraments are not things but encounters of men on earth with the glorified man Jesus by way of a visible form. On the plane of history they are the visible and tangible embodiment of the heavenly saving action of Christ. They are this saving action itself in its availability to us; a personal act of the Lord in earthly visibility and open availability.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Comedian Lee Camp: "Evil people have plans"

I have discovered Lee Camp today. I'm not sure how much of him I could take, but this is pretty funny.

Rachel Held Evans on the future of Evangelicalism

Rachel Held Evans has a sharp post on the future of evangelicalism. I should note from the outset that I'm not heavily invested in evangelicalism, having never considered myself one of them. I have moved from fundamentalism to the LCMS to the Episcopal Church. So I'm not Rachel's intended audience. (I felt the same way about Rob Bell's and Michael Spencer's books. Good books, but not really addressed to me.) Nevertheless, some of what she says resonates with me.

Rob Bell's book, she says, points to the divide within evangelicalism between the "young, restless, and Reformed" and the emerging evangelicals. The former are organized and have clear denominational affiliations. The latter are less organized and don't like labels. Can these two groups stay together in evangelicalism? Rachel has her doubts:
The problem, as I see it, can be summarized in the now infamous tweet issued from John Piper: "Farewell Rob Bell."

Those three words triggered a profound reaction within a lot of young evangelicals because many of us have heard them, in some shape or form, before. ... Piper wasn’t simply bidding "farewell" to Rob Bell, he was bidding "farewell" to any of us who agree with Rob Bell, or ask the same questions as Rob Bell, or at the very least wish to stay in fellowship with Rob Bell. It is no longer enough that we too want to love and follow Jesus Christ, or that we too can affirm the creeds of historic Christianity.
This is exactly right. John Piper was one of several theologians and preachers who helped lead me out of legalistic fundamentalism - but that tweet infuriated me. He perfectly illustrated with it the very way of Christianity he helped me leave behind. Rachel goes on to say something I've been feeling for some time now:
But the problem is that after ten years, I’m getting tired of trying to convince fellow Christians that I am, in fact, a Christian, even though I may vote a little differently than they vote, interpret the Bible differently than they interpret it, engage with science a little differently than they engage with it, and understand sovereignty and choice a little differently than they understand those things.
For my part I've decided to disengage with people who aren't interested in a truly open conversation. One thing I've learned from signing off Facebook and Twitter during Lent is how much noise and useless antagonism I've had in my life recently. I'm going to try to move on and do something constructive.

Rachel's predictions:
So my first prediction is that in the next few years the evangelical community will engage in a serious conversation about the Bible. And I suspect that that will be the tipping point McKnight asks about. Let’s pray that this conversation will be as civil and as loving as possible.

My second prediction is that the so-called “new evangelicals” will in large part drop the evangelical label. We don’t like labels to begin with, and evangelicalism already carries a lot of political and theological baggage. Some will head to mainline churches, others will rediscover the rich history of the Catholic and Orthodox traditions, and some will leave Christianity altogether. Still others will remain evangelical in spirit, but without the label—opting instead for “non-denominational” or simply “follower of Jesus.”

My third prediction is that the word “evangelical” will go the way of “fundamentalism” as its adherents become increasingly homogonous and as the word becomes associated with dogmatism regarding politics, science, women’s roles, homosexuality, salvation, and biblical literalism.

THAT IS UNLESS my generation—both Reformed and emerging/progressive evangelicals—decide to intentionally preserve the diversity of our tradition, stop launching personal attacks, and move forward together.
As I said before, I don't really have a dog in this fight. I pray, however, that those who do may find peace.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Like it or not, we're fighting a war.

Kevin Drum:
In case it wasn't already clear, the Western coalition is now providing close air support to one side in a civil war. I'm OK with that — though I'd be more OK if I knew more about the rebels we were supporting — but this is a very far cry from merely enforcing a no-fly zone. We're fighting a war in Libya, and anyone who tries to pretend otherwise is just trying to distract you from the truth.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Recommended documentary on the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki



Today Rachel and I watched "White Light, Black Rain", a documentary about the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and I highly recommend it. I am utterly horrified by what we did there. I can't think of a greater crime against humanity than the one we committed in the name of a quick end to the war. (UPDATE: I clearly got caught up in my reaction to the documentary and lost perspective with that last sentence. See Bronson's comment below to see what I mean.)

Friday, March 25, 2011

The Bible and the Word of God

Steve Douglas takes a shot at the frequently heard statement: "We might not like it, but it's in the Bible, so ...":
I’m very much disturbed to see how often it is that Christians are so devoutly interested in upholding their scriptures that they don’t mind if either God or neighbor gets black and blue in the process.

The trick to being an evangelical these days seems to be the willingness to maintain that evil is not necessarily evil when it comes to God. Besmirching His character under the ironic cover of defending God, what passes for good Christian apologetics is actually much more of a defense of prized doctrines such as inerrancy or Augustinian/Reformed soteriology than the only thing worth defending, viz. God’s character. Defending both our carefully constructed doctrines and God’s character cannot always be done simultaneously because they are often at loggerheads (or else many popular apologists would be without a job). Slick, ear-tickling apologetics serve the much-in-demand function of reassuring people that the Bible is everything they think it needs to be in order for their faith to remain comfortable and unquestionable.
I have heard variations on the statement Steve is criticizing, usually from people who are clearly uncomfortable with what the Bible says on a particular subject, but because of their commitment to inerrancy do not feel like they can question it. I thought I'd add to what Steve has said by describing how I think of the Bible. My view has been cobbled together from my interaction with many sources, so it's not original.

The proclamation of the Gospel in word and sacrament constitutes the Church. This is the foundation on which I base my understanding of the Bible's role.

God has always spoken to God's people - to Abraham, to Moses, to Israel through Moses' law, to Israel through the prophets. And now in these last days God has spoken to us in the Son (Hebrews 1:1-2). The Apostles were sent by Jesus to tell the world of what God has accomplished through Jesus' ministry.

The Bible is the record of the way in which they set about this mission. The Old Testament was retained because it spoke of the Messiah to come. The early church followed the example of Jesus himself in reinterpreting the Old Testament in light of what they had experienced. The gospels are didactic recollections of the life and ministry of Jesus. The epistles teach and shape the Church in its mission. And so on.

The reason we care about the Bible is because it tells us about Jesus, in one way or another. It is a witness, not a divine book sent from heaven with authority in and of itself. It it authoritative insofar as it conveys the Word of God - that is, Jesus himself. The Bible is subservient to the Word of God.

Understood in this way the Bible is sacramental. It is, like the sacraments, first and foremost encountered in the ministry of the Church. It is a means of the performative proclamation of the Gospel. It conveys heavenly grace (the Word of God) through earthly, physical means (the Bible).

The problem with those who say "we might not like it but it's in the Bible" is that they are placing the Bible over the Word of God. Jesus is God's perfect revelation, not the Bible. If the Bible doesn't jive with what we learn of God in the life and ministry of Jesus then the problem is with either our interpretation of the text or the Bible itself. I believe that people are usually too quick to conclude the problem is with the Bible. On the other hand, sometimes they're right.

We must not hold so firmly to our idea of biblical inspiration or authority that we end up portraying God as a monster. To do so is to undermine the revelation of God in Jesus.

Of course, the fact that something makes us uncomfortable does not mean it is untrue. God should makes us uncomfortable in some ways. It is also true that God's thoughts are not our thoughts. But these facts have too often been used in ways that end up discrediting the Gospel.

It's all about Jesus. The proclamation of God's action in his life and ministry is the sine qua non of the Church. Nothing - not even the Bible - has authority over that.

---

After writing this I saw this post from Arni Zachariassen and thought I'd append it. John Piper is at it again:
God has a good and all-wise purpose for the heart-rending calamity in Japan on March 11, 2011 that appears to have cost tens of thousands of lives. ... The power felt in an earthquake reveals the fearful magnificence of God. This is a great gift since “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” (Psalm 111:10). Most of the world does not fear the Lord and therefore lacks saving wisdom. The thunder-clap summons to fear God is a mercy to those who live.
Arni replies that this sort of theology strips language of its coherence. Killing thousands of people is not good - yet when God does it it becomes good:
I have difficulty seeing how we can go on at all saying anything about God after such a radical redefinition and relativising of the concept of goodness. What difference would it make here if we decided to call God evil instead of good? By the rules of Piper's game, we can logically call God anything we want, regardless of his alleged works. God is good, even when he does what in all other circumstances would be regarded as evil.

It is not the place of humans to test and judge God. But it's imperative and absolutely so that we judge God-narratives. If God is truly good - and as a follower of the crucified Christ I believe absolutely that that's the case -, then we must reject narratives that portray God as evil.
The text I bolded neatly captures one of the things I was trying to say above.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Thirty-one years after Romero, the poor are still being shafted

There is one rule by which to judge if God is near us
or is far away –
the rule that God’s word is giving us today:
everyone concerned for the hungry, the naked, the poor,
for those who have vanished in police custody,
for the tortured,
for prisoners,
for all flesh that suffers,
has God close at hand. (The Violence of Love)
Thirty-one years ago today, Oscar Romero, bishop and martyr, was shot while celebrating the Eucharist. Yesterday President Obama visited Archbishop Romero's tomb - a remarkable thing, given Romero's criticism of the United States and his embrace of liberation theology. (Beck, et al, will be foaming at the mouth over this one.) Both Michelle Gonzalez Maldonado's and Daniel Horan's comments are worth reading.

Romero was a strong advocate for the preferential option for the poor. You can understand, then, why I'm so angry after reading today that House Republicans are considering cutting food stamps and other anti-poverty programs in their 2012 budget, while at the same time proposing a tax holiday for corporations' overseas profits. The cut in food stamps is supposed to encourage those "stuck in the system" to find "gainful employment" - which might be a problem given that there are so few jobs available right now. The corporate tax holiday is meant to spur job growth.

So let me get this straight: We're going to get America back to work by cutting welfare programs for the poor and increasing corporate welfare. The idea, I suppose, is that tax breaks for corporations and the wealthy will eventually help the poor. That's a convenient bit of logic. More likely, though, is that the rich have political clout and the poor do not. Politicians have fits of conscience about this and dream up Orwellian fables meant to justify their neglect of the poor. "Rising tides lift all boats" and such. Economic development is good for everyone, they say - but, as Archbishop Romero said:
What good are beautiful highways and airports,
beautiful buildings full of spacious apartments,
if they are only put together with the blood of the poor,
who are not going to enjoy them?

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Speaking of Peter Enns ....

Here is Dr. Enns lecturing on the problem of reconciling St. Paul's belief in a historical Adam with what we have learned about human evolution:

Midweek links

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Is homosexual desire a manifestation of original sin?

A common argument employed by traditionalists is that homosexuality is a manifestation of original sin, just like the desire to be promiscuous. Just as one person may "naturally" desire to be promiscuous so may another person "naturally" desire someone of the same sex. These desires are natural because human nature is fallen, not because God intended us to be this way. (Interestingly enough, some traditionalists go so far as to say that even if it is ever proven that homosexuals are in fact "born that way" that would have no bearing on the moral status of homosexual behavior. After all, we're all born with sinful desires.) Therefore sanctification involves for one person the fight against the desire to be promiscuous and for the other person the desire for someone of the same sex.

I disagree with this - and here is why.

The origin of all love, including sexual love, is the interpersonal love of the Holy Trinity. Love at its best models the Trinity as a reciprocal, self-giving relationship.

Luther defined sin as being curved in on the self. Sin destroys loving relationships. In fact, one of the best ways to determine the sinfulness of a given action is to determine whether it destroys love.

A relationship is truly loving when it is reciprocal, self-giving, focused on the other. A relationship is not loving when it is focused on the self and selfish desires.

Everyone agrees that heterosexual desire is capable of leading to genuinely loving relationships. It is also capable of leading to destructive relationships. In fact, heterosexual desire is a neutral fact of nature. It is the actions arising out of heterosexual desire that are either loving or sinful.

Let's look at a couple of manifestations of heterosexual desire that everyone agrees are sinful, that is, destructive of love. Promiscuity does not lead to genuinely loving relationships because
  • it is concerned with fulfilling selfish desires rather than the desires of others
  • it actually harms others by intentionally ignoring their desires, e.g., the desire for a committed relationship
To take another example, pedophilia does not lead to genuinely loving relationships because
  • it is incapable of the mutual consent that is a foundational requirement in modern sexual relationships, i.e., it lacks real reciprocity
  • it may in fact be a desire rooted less in sexual desire and more in the lust for power, i.e., again, it lacks real reciprocity
While I've only looked at two examples I am sure that every example of sinful behavior can be shown to be destructive of love. It seems to me to be a workable definition of sin.

Homosexual desire, according to the traditionalists, is the same sort of thing. According to God's plan, homosexuals are really heterosexuals but because of sin their sexual desire is so defective that they actually desire someone of the same sex. They perceive this to be natural but it actually is not.

Let's apply the loving relationships test to homosexual desire. Does homosexual desire lead to relationships destructive of love? In some cases it obviously can. But it is also clear that it also leads to genuinely loving relationships. It seems indisputable that there are large numbers of fully committed, perfectly normal, genuinely loving homosexual couples.

So is homosexual desire like the desire for promiscuity which always and everywhere destroys genuine love? It does not appear to be. Homosexual desire appears to be more like heterosexual desire - a morally neutral fact of nature. Again, sin arises out of what a person does with that desire.

Monday, March 21, 2011

The problem with humanitarian interventions

Ross Douthat is clearly right when he calls the action in Libya "a clinic in the liberal way of war":
In its opening phase, at least, our war in Libya looks like the beau ideal of a liberal internationalist intervention. It was blessed by the United Nations Security Council. It was endorsed by the Arab League. It was pushed by the diplomats at Hillary Clinton’s State Department, rather than the military men at Robert Gates’s Pentagon. Its humanitarian purpose is much clearer than its connection to American national security. And it was initiated not by the U.S. Marines or the Air Force, but by the fighter jets of the French Republic.
This way has its advantages. It "spreads the burden of military action, sustains rather than weakens our alliances, and takes the edge off the world’s instinctive anti-Americanism." It also has its disadvantages:
Because liberal wars depend on constant consensus-building within the (so-called) international community, they tend to be fought by committee, at a glacial pace, and with a caution that shades into tactical incompetence. And because their connection to the national interest is often tangential at best, they’re often fought with one hand behind our back and an eye on the exits, rather than with the full commitment that victory can require.
But it's not even clear that this is a genuine coalition effort. In "The Coalition Has No Clothes", Justin Elliot posts this report of NBC's Pentagon correspondent Jim Miklaszewski:

Visit msnbc.com for breaking news, world news, and news about the economy

I am utterly conflicted about this. I despise Qaddafi's actions. On the other hand, though we are bombing Libya in the name of protecting civilians, bombing itself is notorious for causing much of the civilian deaths in modern warfare. I wonder, in fact, if bombing can in any way be justified as a method of war in light of classic just war theory. Bombing campaigns seem mainly to be used as a way of waging war with minimum loss of American lives. Obviously, the fewer lives lost the better. It also, incidentally, is a good way of maintaining popular support of the war effort. But bombing does always increase civilian deaths.

This is intended to be a humanitarian intervention. Nevertheless, violence always leads to more violence. There are Libyan children today who have lost their fathers. How much hatred are we fertilizing in those little hearts? I know. I know. War is hell. Justice is sometimes a very messy business. I also know these words of Jesus:
Jesus said to his disciples, "Occasions for stumbling are bound to come, but woe to anyone by whom they come! It would be better for you if a millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea than for you to cause one of these little ones to stumble." (Luke 17:1-2)

Recognizing God's work in LGBT Christians

"And as I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell upon them just as it had upon us at the beginning. And I remembered the word of the Lord, how he had said, 'John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.' If then God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?" When they heard this, they were silenced. And they praised God, saying, "Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life." (Acts 11:15-18)
Here St Peter is recounting his mission to the house of Cornelius, a Gentile. In a vision prior to his mission God revealed to Peter that "what God has made clean, you must not call profane", which Peter came to understand meant that the Gentiles would be included in God's redeemed community. Some of the circumcised believers in Jerusalem criticized Peter for eating with and ministering to uncircumcised Gentiles. But when they heard that the Holy Spirit fell upon Cornelius and his household "just as it had upon us at the beginning", they realized that God was indeed acting in a new way and their response must be to recognize that action and embrace it.

I am hardly the first to draw upon this story when making the case for the full inclusion of LGBT people in God's Church - but it is, for me, a powerful and fitting analogy. Peter (and subsequently the church in Jerusalem) had plenty of reasons for believing the "unclean" Gentiles had no place in the redeemed community. They had Scripture and tradition backing them up. Nevertheless, God surprised them.

The LGBT situation is shockingly similar. We have in our midst numerous baptized Christians (that is to say, recipients of the gift of the Holy Spirit) whose lives indicate the fruit of the Spirit. At the same time they understand themselves to have a fundamental sexual orientation that is different from the majority. They understand themselves to be (and in many cases to have always been) attracted to the same or both sexes, or to have a different understanding of their gender altogether. Yet these are people who by all evidence are graced by the Spirit.

This, in turn, drives us to reconsider what we believe to be clean and unclean in the eyes of God, to re-examine our interpretation of Scripture and tradition - just as we have in the case of Gentiles, women, slaves, etc. We must not call profane what God has called clean.

The obvious objection is that we do not accept the self-understanding of those who, perhaps through self-deception, consider themselves to be at the same time Christians and adulterers, pedophiles, drunkards, or habitual liars. The difference, it seems to me, is that those latter cases are all cases of clearly identifiable moral or psychological defects. The person who is fundamentally unable to remain faithful to marital vows or refrain from raping children or resist alcohol or tell the truth is a person whom everyone knows to have something objectively wrong with them. In all of these cases there is very likely an underlying psychological cause. (Remember we are talking about people who are not merely tempted to do these things, but understand themselves to be fundamentally oriented in this way. This is a crucial distinction.) Psychologists, however, have long ceased considering LGBT people, as such, as mentally unsound in any way.

This story also illustrates why talk about "inclusion" of LGBT Christians is a misnomer. When we fully include LGBT Christians in the life of the Church we are not granting them a favor - we are submitting to and recognizing the prior work of God in them.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Schillebeeckx: Christ is the primordial sacrament

Precisely because these human deeds of Jesus are divine deeds, personal acts of the Son of God, divine acts in visible human form, they possess of their nature a divine saving power, and consequently they bring salvation; they are the "cause of grace." Although this is true of every specifically human act of Christ it is nevertheless especially true of those actions which, though enacted in human form, are according to their nature exclusively acts of God: the miracles and the redemption. Considered against the background of the whole earthly life of Jesus, this truth is realized in a most particular way in the great mysteries of his life: his passion, death, resurrection, and exaltation to the side of the Father.

That is not all. Because the saving acts of the man Jesus are performed by a divine person, they have a divine power to save, but because this divine power to save appears to us in visible form, the saving activity of Jesus is sacramental. For a sacrament is a divine bestowal of salvation in an outwardly perceptible form which makes the bestowal manifest; a bestowal of salvation in historical visibility.

...

Consequently if the human love and all the human acts of Jesus possess a divine saving power, then the realization in human shape of this saving power necessarily includes as one of its aspects the manifestation of salvation: includes, in other words, sacramentality. The man Jesus, as the personal visible realization of the divine grace of redemption is the sacrament, the primordial sacrament, because this man, the Son of God himself, is intended by the Father to be in his humanity the only way to the actuality of redemption. "For there is one God, and one mediator of God and men, the man Christ Jesus." Personally to be approached by the man Jesus was, for his contemporaries, an invitation to a personal encounter with the life-giving God, because personally that man was the Son of God. Human encounter with Jesus is therefore the sacrament of the encounter with God.
E. Schillebeeckx OP, Christ the Sacrament of the Encounter with God, pp 14-15.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

The class struggle and the life of the age to come

What is wrong with capitalism is simply that it is based on human antagonism, and it is precisely here that it comes in conflict with Christianity. Capitalism is a state of war, but not just a state of war between equivalent forces; it involves a war between those who believe in and prosecute war as a way of life, as an economy, and those who do not.

...

Christianity is deeply subversive of capitalism precisely because it announces the improbable possibility that men might live together without war; neither by domination nor by antagonism but by unity in love. It announces this, of course, primarily as a future and nearly miraculous possibility and certainly not as an established fact; Christians are not under the illusion that mankind is sinless or that sin is easily overcome, but they believe that it will be overcome. It was for this reason that Jesus was executed - as a political threat. Not because he was a political activist; he was not. ... Certainly Jesus was not any kind of socialist - how could anyone be a socialist before capitalism had come into existence? But he was nonetheless executed as a political threat because the gospel he preached - that the Father loves us and therefore, in spite of all the evidence to the contrary, we are able to love one another and stake the meaning of our lives on this - cut at the root of the antagonistic society in which he still lives.

Christianity is not an ideal theory, it is a praxis, a particular kind of challenge to the world.
Herbert McCabe OP, "The class struggle and Christian love", God Matters, p. 193.

McCabe's mention of the possibility of living together in love as a "future and nearly miraculous possibility" brought to mind Rob Bell's discussion of heaven. (Not that Rob Bell and Herbert McCabe agree politically. McCabe is a socialist. I'd be surprised if Bell is. Though don't tell John Piper or Justin Taylor about this post or that'll be the next controversy.) Eternal life is the life of the age to come. That age that is often described by the prophets in this-wordly ways using words like justice and peace. We are called to live the life of the age to come in this present age, to pull the future into the present. In this way we are to be imitators of Jesus, who not only exemplified this but brought about its possibility by his ministry.

I do not mean to imply that the life of the age to come means participating in the class struggle. Neither do I mean to deny it. I just made the connection as I read McCabe this morning and thought I'd pass it on.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Thich Nhat Hanh on the Eucharist

The practice of the Eucharist is a practice of awareness. When Jesus broke the bread and shared it with his disciples, he said, "Eat this. This is my flesh." He knew that if his disciples would eat one piece of bread with mindfulness, they would have real life. In their daily lives, they may have eaten their bread in forgetfulness, so the bread was not bread at all; it was a ghost. In our daily lives, we may see the people around us, but if we lack mindfulness, they are just phantoms, not real people, and we ourselves are also ghosts. Practicing mindfulness enables us to become a real person. When we are a real person, we see real people around us, and life is present in all its richness. The practice of eating bread, a tangerine, or a cookie is the same.

When we breathe, when we are mindful, when we look deeply at our food, life becomes real at that very moment. To me, the rite of the Eucharist is a wonderful practice of mindfulness. In a drastic way, Jesus tried to wake up his disciples.
Thich Nhat Hanh, Peace is Every Step, pp. 22-23. Worth considering. I see that he has also written a couple of books on Jesus and Buddha.

Book Review: Love Wins by Rob Bell

I was right.

Bell has been reading Capon.

I suspected this early on in the book and, sure enough, in the "Further Reading" section he recommends Capon's The Mystery of Christ ... and Why We Don't Get It to learn more about "Jesus in every square inch of creation".

In fact, the book makes more sense if you look at some of the books he recommends, e.g., Lewis' The Great Divorce and Wright's Surprised by Hope. (It may be true of his other recommendations also, but I'm not familiar with them.) What we have in Bell is someone who strongly believes in grace and yet is willing to question many of the assumptions of evangelicalism.

To answer the big question: He is not a universalist, at least not in any direct way. Actually, I think Bell's view is very close to Capon's (from The Romance of the Word, p. 9):
I am and I am not a universalist. I am one if you are talking about what God in Christ has done to save the world. The Lamb of God has not taken away the sins of some — of only the good, or the cooperative, or the select few who can manage to get their act together and die as perfect peaches. He has taken away the sins of the world — of every last being in it — and he has dropped them down the black hole of Jesus’ death. On the cross, he has shut up forever on the subject of guilt: "There is therefore now no condemnation...." All human beings, at all times and places, are home free whether they know it or not, feel it or not, believe it or not.

But I am not a universalist if you are talking about what people may do about accepting that happy-go-lucky gift of God’s grace. I take with utter seriousness everything that Jesus had to say about hell, including the eternal torment that such a foolish non-acceptance of his already-given acceptance must entail. All theologians who hold Scripture to be the Word of God must inevitably include in their work a tractate on hell. But I will not — because Jesus did not — locate hell outside the realm of grace. Grace is forever sovereign, even in Jesus’ parables of judgment. No one is ever kicked out at the end of those parables who wasn’t included in at the beginning.
For Bell, love requires freedom. This freedom must include the ability to reject the offered love. True love respects that rejection. So Bell maintains a tension:
  • God loves everyone and desires reconciliation with all creatures
  • Some people reject that invitation. They may, in fact, continually and forever reject it, thus creating their own hell
He believes we shouldn't try to resolve this tension - "because we can't, and so we simply respect [it], creating space for the freedom that love requires."

He is also not an exclusivist who believes explicit profession of faith in Jesus as Savior is necessary for salvation, though he is clear that Jesus is indeed the only way to God. This will be controversial with some, but it's a pretty widely held belief among Christians, even "conservative" ones.

Bell's hell is rejection of the eternal ("of the age to come") life God offers. This rejection creates all kinds of hell, including the kind on earth. Hell is a word "that refers to the big, wide, terrible evil that comes from the secrets hidden deep within our hearts all the way to the massive, society-wide collapse and chaos that comes when we fail to live in God's world God's way." Hell is punishment, to be sure, but punishment directed toward reconciliation, not retribution. The gates to the New Jerusalem are always open (Rev 21:25).

But God never changes God's nature. That is, God does not move from loving agent of reconciliation to wrathful, fiery tormenter. Bell seems to hold to something like an Orthodox view of hell. God's love is a fire, perceived as bliss by the reconciled but anguish by the rebels. St Isaac of Syria:
I also maintain that those who are punished in Gehenna, are scourged by the scourge of love. Nay, what is so bitter and vehement as the torment of love? ... It would be improper for a man to think that sinners in Gehenna are deprived of the love of God ... The power of love works in two ways: it torments sinners... Thus I say that this is the torment of Gehenna: bitter regret. But love inebriates the souls of the sons of Heaven by its delectability. (Ascetical Homilies 28, Page 141)
Bell's view of heaven is also quite good. It's very much a this-worldly view, similar to N.T. Wright's in Surprised by Hope, if I recall correctly. I'll give it short shrift, though, in order to close up this review.

Love Wins is not a rigorous theological work. It is, in the best sense, an inspirational book informed by theology. Dogmatic types will be completely frustrated by Bell's lack of clear, propositional statements. But he is clearly not writing for them. In fact, he seems to be ignoring them completely and focusing on those who have been turned off or discouraged by Christianity as they have encountered it. This could be a very effective book for those people. I'm hoping that those people represent a large part of its astounding sales figures.
If we crave light,
we're drawn to truth,
we're desperate for grace,
we've come to the end of our plots and schemes
and we want someone else's path,
God gives us what we want.

If we have this sense
that we've wandered far from home,
and we want to return,
God is there,
standing in the driveway,
arms open,
ready to invite us in.

If we thirst for shalom,
and we long for the peace that transcends
all understanding,
God doesn't just give,
they're poured out on us,
lavished,
heaped,
until we're overwhelmed.
It's like a feast where the food and wine do not run out.

These desires can start with the planting of an infinitesimally small seed deep in our heart, or a yearning for life to be better, or a gnawing sense that we're missing out, or an awareness that beyond the routine and grind of life there's something more, or the quiet hunch that this isn't all there is. It often has its birth in the most unexpected ways, arising out of our need for something we know we do not have, for someone we know we are not.

And to that,
that impulse, craving, yearning, longing, desire -
God says yes.
Yes, there is water for that thirst,
food for that hunger,
light for that darkness,
relief for that burden.
If we want hell,
if we want heaven,
they are ours.

That's how love works. It can't be forced, manipulated, or coerced.
It always leaves room for the other to decide.
God says yes,
we can have what we want,
because love wins.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Exorcising Chase Bank

I don't know if these people are acting on the theology of the powers found in Stringfellow, Wink, Yoder, et al, but I certainly support their action:

Clergy Perform Exorcism On Chase Bank To Banish 'Demons Of Selfishness, Avarice' from New York Communities for Change on Vimeo.

via Fred Clark

Wherein I, like everyone else, talk about Rob Bell and universalism

So I bought and began reading Rob Bell's book yesterday. I'm in the middle of his chapter on heaven, which sounds (if I recall correctly) very much like N.T. Wright's Surprised by Hope. It's certainly a this-worldly conception of heaven and, consequently, is very different from much of what you hear in blandly evangelical churches. It does not, however, strike me as "dangerous". Of course, the controversy centers on his view of hell, which I'll read about in the next chapter.

The most troubling thing I've encountered in his book so far is his tendency to format paragraphs
Like verse.
(Versically?)
Apparently in order to
Emphasize,
Call out,
Draw attention to,
His points.
And he loves him some adjectives.

But until I make my way through the entire book I thought I'd link to some of the better blog posts addressing universalism. First, Eric Reitan addresses some of the "pat responses" to universalism. I've not followed much of the debate (I'm not on Facebook or Twitter during Lent) but some of the statements made by critics of universalism show that they have no interest in really engaging in a debate (ahem, ahem). It's useless to talk with people who insist caricatures are reality.

Tony Jones says this article by Kevin DeYoung is what you NEED to read about universalism. Though I haven't read it yet.

I say what you NEED to read is Richard Beck's series. The posts to date are:
  1. Universalism and the Open Wound of Life
  2. What C.S. Lewis, N.T. Wright, and (Maybe) Rob Bell Get Wrong
  3. Volitional Integrity and Hell as Groundhog Day
  4. God Damn It
  5. Why I Rejected Annihilationism
  6. Rejecting Death-Centered Christianity
  7. Why Universalism is More Biblical
The most essential posts, for me, are numbers 3 and 6, where he addresses prophetic/apocalyptic language and the meaning of "eternal". He discusses Matthew 25:31-46 and concludes that Jesus is using prophetic language which reveals to us God's view of the present situation. Those guilty of not visiting the sick, prisoners, etc, are under God's judgment and will be punished. (Beck does not believe God is too nice to punish sinners. He just doesn't think it will be unending punishment. This is pretty typical of the universalists I've read, proving that those who think all universalists believe in a teddy bear God are simply wrong.) This prophetic message is and must remain "the leading edge of gospel proclamation". Jesus confronted his hearers with God's judgment on their behavior and we must do the same. "Consequently, a universalist can and should scream hellfire and brimstone with the best of them."

The difference between the universalist and the traditionalist comes down the road - after the punishment. The traditionalist doesn't believe there is anything after the punishment because it is unending. Beck-style universalism believes that the punishment is educative, not retributive, and all will eventually repent of their sin and turn to God. To summarize:
And so this is why 99% of the New Testament reads the way it does. The language of God's pathos, the language of judgment, heaven and hell, dominates. As it should. What we need, right now, is the Divine perspective, the view of heaven. And that is what the New Testament is preoccupied with communicating.

But in the remaining 1% of the New Testament we do get a glimpse of The End of the story. The story after the story in Matthew 25. ... There are places in the New Testament where The End is glimpsed, if only fleetingly. And when The End is glimpsed you see the universalist vision, that in The End "God will be all in all" (1 Cor. 15.28). That the fullness of Creation--all things seen and unseen--will be reconciled to God in Christ (Col. 1.19-20). That God "will have mercy on all," on everyone He bound over to a prior disobedience (Rom. 11.32). That through Adam all have died, but through Christ all shall live (1 Cor. 15.22). That in the end everyone will confess that Jesus is Lord (Philippians 2.11).
This is for me a profoundly satisfying way of reconciling the difficulties surrounding this issue. The threats of punishment are real. At the same time, the glimpses of a fully reconciled creation are also real and do not require explaining away. This doesn't mean universalism is the slam-bang obvious position. There are difficulties. But there are difficulties (much difficulter difficulties, I'd say) with the traditional doctrine. Thank God for Rob Bell opening up this conversation for us.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

An exercise in lazy blogging

One of my goals for Lent is to reduce the time I spend online in order to get a better idea of what is truly essential and what is just a distraction. One thing is sure: I've had more time to read through all those "starred items" in Google Reader. Here are a few I thought I'd pass on to you:

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Lent is a time for solidarity

If you are anything like me, Lenten discipline (of whatever sort) is difficult. I begin to ask myself why I should bother with it. "I need to be self-disciplined" weakens as a motivation as the forty days wear on.

A more outwardly focused motivation occurred to me last week - solidarity. Take fasting, for example. Instead of focusing only on self-denial as the reason for fasting, consider also that millions around the world are going without food through no choice of their own. Regard your relatively insignificant suffering as a joining in with the genuine suffering of the world's hungry. When you are stricken with hunger pangs, pray for those who endure that pain daily:
God of the hungry, so many are hungry.
Rescue your hungry children,
fill their stomachs with food
and their hearts with gladness.
Send your Spirit to the hungry and to the unhungry,
until all feast with Jesus in the new age.
Amen.
(Adapted from this pdf.)
Yet remember the warning of James 2:15-16. Don't just pray. Find some way to feed the hungry yourself.

Solidarity gives an outward focus to Lenten discipline. Lent is, after all, preparation for Holy Week and Easter, the time in which Jesus put aside his own comfort for the sake of others.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Living humanly in the time of the Fall.

Christians ethics, according to William Stringfellow, is the attempt to live humanly in the time of the Fall. Faced with dilemmas, we have no direct access to the judgment or opinion of God. To attempt to determine and then enact God's judgment dehumanizes us. It disrepects both our vocation as humans and God's vocation as final judge.

Some might reply that we do, in fact, have access to the opinion of God - in the Bible. There are several problems with this, but I'll focus on one that Stringfellow notes. The Word is event: not a dead letter but a living testament. The reason the Bible is important isn't because it is Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth or a magic book (thank you, Michael Spencer). It is important because it is the instrument through which the Spirit teaches us about both Jesus and ourselves. It is closely associated with the sacraments. The Spirit works on us through it - and demands our response. To use N.T. Wright's analogy, the Bible is like the first acts of an unfinished play. It gives us our starting point, sets our trajectory, and then calls us to finish it.

A limited view of the Bible - one that sees it as an inerrant holy book to be interpreted (to use that horrible word) literally - denies this dynamic relationship. It puts us in a straightjacket, rather than liberating us to live it out in our own context, to join in the ongoing conversation. Here's Stringfellow:

Any literalistic interpretations of the Bible are a false pretense - a substitute for rather than a type of exegesis - which violates by their verbatim mechanics the Bible's generic virtue as a living testament. They devalue the humanity of the reader of listener by assigning the person a narrow and passive role depleted of the dignity of participation in encounter with the biblical Word which the vitality of the Word itself at once invites and teaches.

Or, as Thom Stark says, inerrancy stunts your growth as a moral being. All sorts of evils are justified in the name of inerrancy. Genocide, for example, is excused because the Bible says God ordered it. "God's ways are not our ways". Well, yes, but God's ways are not evil either. If I have to choose between 1. The Bible is inerrant and therefore God ordered genocide or 2. The Bible is wrong about God ordering genocide, then I will unhesitatingly choose #2. No view of the inspiration and authority of the Bible is worth the price of #1.

So we do not have in the Bible as book of God's opinions. What we do have is a book used, in conjunction with the sacraments, as an instrument of God's action in our lives. There is no need, in the name of biblical authority and inspiration, to use the Bible to justify believing or doing things that either dehumanize us or monstracize God.

Rather than attempting to peek into the mind of God we should attempt to live as Jesus lived - in love, prayer, and self-sacrifice. He was not afraid to overturn what was previously understood to be the clear will of God if it meant living in a more fully human way. It is our duty to live in humble imitation of him, always with the "kyrie eleison" on our lips.

About Me

I'm Rachel's husband and Darcy's daddy. I'm a Hoosier, an accountant, and an Episcopalian. Politically, I'm a progressive who believes in the preferential option for the poor. I use the blog as a sort of journal - to interact with my reading and sketch out ideas.