Friday, December 31, 2010

Top 9 List: My Favorite Music and Books for 2010

Why 9 and not 10? Because I'm only mildly clever (and top ten lists are way overdone).


1-"Go" by Jonsi
2-"The Suburbs" by Arcade Fire
3-"High Violet" by The National
4-"Age of Adz" by Sufjan Stevens
5-"The Daylights" by The Daylights
6-"So Runs the World Away" by Josh Ritter
7-"My Room in the Trees" by The Innocence Mission
8-"My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy" by Kanye West
9-"Invented" by Jimmy Eat World

1-"Sun of Righteousness, Arise!: God's Future for Humanity and the Earth" by Jurgen Moltmann
2-"A New Kind of Christianity" by Brian McLaren
3-"Constructing Jesus" by Dale Allison Jr.
4-"Did the First Christians Worship Jesus?" by James DG Dunn
5-"The Nature of Love" by Thomas Jay Oord
6-"God Is Not One" by Stephen Prothero
7-"Christianity: The First 3000 Years" by Diarmaid MacCulloch
8-"Making Sense of Evolution" by John F. Haught
9-"Jesus Wars" by Philip Jenkins

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Islam in a Post-9/11 Society: Moving From Fear and Intolerance to Respect and Friendship (Final - Pt. 5)

Although certain progressive hermeneutics of the Quran may be able to maintain a robust religious pluralism like Reza Aslan and Omid Safi do, the majority of traditional and moderate Muslims today remain concerned to preserve a stronger sense of particularity in the tradition. Still, Seyyed Hossein Nasr maintains that most Muslims in the contemporary context are quite interested in inter-religious dialogue to promote understanding between different religious faiths – though only under certain conditions. As Nasr writes, “They are interested as long as such a dialogue does not lead to that kind of ecumenism which reduces religions to the least common denominator and sacrifices Divine institutions and doctrines in the name of peace but ultimately for a banal humanism...’” Is this good enough to facilitate peace between faiths? Opinions of course vary on this, but I am convinced that it is. I do not accept the hard post-modernist assertion that to make actual metaphysical religious truth claims is to plant the seeds of religious violence. Religions as different as Islam and Christianity can coexist in a modern society and find common ground in areas of ethics and justice work. They need not surrender their central faith claims in the process.

The truth is, religions are not all the same, despite opposite affirmations of some religious leaders, mystics, and philosophers of religion. The vast majority of everyday religious persons around the world, including Muslims and Christians, care very much about the particularity of their faith. The world’s many religions offer different solutions to different problems, and the argument by some that the essentials of religion are all the same “is a lovely sentiment but it is dangerous, disrespectful and untrue...[they] do converge when it comes to ethics, but they diverge sharply on doctrine, ritual, mythology, experience, and law.” Even in our class trip to the mosque, we encountered a serious concern for the particularity of different religions from our Muslim hosts. When a member of our class asked if one could be simultaneously a Christian and a Muslim, the panel speaker politely replied that unless one were to give up the doctrine of the Trinity and the atoning death, resurrection, and divinity of Jesus, it was not possible. In no way did this seem judgmental or exclusive. It was an honest statement about differences in the beliefs of most Christians and Muslims. Despite religious differences with our Muslim hosts, this did not stop us from admiring them as sincere religious believers and respecting them as fellow human beings.

The future of Islam in Europe and America is uncertain for the time being. Islamophobia continues to be a rising problem in the West, while the sting of 9/11 has not yet ceased. Another issue worsening religious tolerance is radical atheism (the so-called “New Atheism”), which often calls for the abolishment of all religion, especially the Abrahamic traditions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. All three traditions are indeed guilty of violence throughout their histories, and they all continue to have their share of radical extremists who pose a threat to society. Although the critiques of religion by these atheists are sometimes correct, I believe they go too far, and in the process exacerbate religious conflicts. There is much to admire about all three of these great religious traditions, as different as they are and as problematic as they can be at times. As evangelical Christianity continues to explode in the Global South and Islam grows rapidly around the world, religious leaders and intellectuals will have to work diligently to build bridges between these two Abrahamic traditions. As a Christian who experienced a radical paradigm shift in my view of Islam, having moved from fear and intolerance to genuine respect and friendship, I choose to remain optimistic about the possibility of real cooperation between the Abrahamic traditions.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Islam in a Post-9/11 Society: Moving From Fear and Intolerance to Respect and Friendship (Pt. 4)

Beyond the large majority of more moderate Muslims is a growing progressive Muslim movement as well. Omid Safi, a famous progressive Muslim and author, describes progressive Islam as “striving to realize a just and pluralistic society through a critical engagement with Islam, a relentless pursuit of social justice, an emphasis on gender equality as a foundation of human rights, and a vision of religious and ethnic pluralism.” Thinkers outside the Islamic tradition, including Latin American liberation theologians, nonviolent resistance leaders, and secular humanists also influence these progressive Muslims. Some progressive Muslims, such as the famous scholar of religion Reza Aslan, even believe that Islam is currently in the midst of a reformation towards more broadly progressive ideals, analogous to the Protestant Reformation: “…the tide of reform cannot be stopped. The Islamic Reformation is already here. We are already living in it.”

Similar to the way in which progressive Christians have recently emphasized the anti-imperial, egalitarian social agenda of the historical Jesus, Aslan has made strong and convincing arguments in favor of looking at the origins of Islam and the earliest stages of Muhammad’s career in this way as well. Aslan argues that Muhammad was largely reacting against the economic corruption in Mecca, as wealth had become heavily concentrated in the hands of a small number of powerful families and the social egalitarian ideals of the tribes were abandoned. Muhammad’s primary concerns were to restore the tribal ethic, care for the orphans, free the slaves, and to assist those in need. Before Muhammad established a new religion, “he was calling for sweeping social reform. He was not yet preaching monotheism; he was demanding economic justice.” However, even after the birth of Islam as a religion, key practices such as zakat (paying of the alms for the care and protection of the poor) and the fast of Ramadan (which involves both remembrance of the poor and the feeding of the hungry) keep social justice at the center of this tradition, whether in progressive or traditional forms. As such, Aslan makes a very strong case that Islam is rooted in strong commitments to justice.

On the other hand, Aslan’s vigorous attempt to argue that Islam is rooted in firm principles of religious pluralism is certainly up for debate. While this perspective may convince some, it is a hard sell for other scholars who point out that the Quran is not clear on this issue. As Jane Dammen McAuliffe writes, “there is no single quranic attitude towards members of other religions.” Although a number of passages in the Quran do seem to provide grounds for religious pluralism, others seem to state that one is not obedient to God without explicit recognition of his messenger Muhammad (among other requirements). Although Jews and Christians are called “People of the Book” and should usually be protected as minorities, they are still not of the same high status as Muslims, according to the Quran. When living in Muslim lands, they are generally considered to be second-class citizens. The attitude of the Quran towards Jews and Christians seems to fluctuate, depending on the political and social situations at the time of a passage’s composition. While the overall attitude of the Quran towards other religions seems to be essentially negative, it does not in general permit religious violence or aggression towards those of other faiths. Most exegetes throughout Muslim history have not read the text in a way that justifies forcible conversion to Islam, as they seem to have accepted the fact that many would not convert and so needed to be tolerated as religious minorities.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Islam in a Post-9/11 Society: Moving From Fear and Intolerance to Respect and Friendship (pt.3)

A massive six-year study on the views of contemporary Muslims that was conducted by the Gallup Organization after 9/11 revealed some important facts about Islam around the world today. I have found this data useful in my personal bridge-building efforts between Christians and Muslims. The information was summarized in an important book by John L. Esposito, called Who Speaks For Islam. Some of the more interesting findings included the following: first, Muslims are just as likely as Americans to morally condemn attacks on civilians. Second, Muslims who support acts of terrorism are a small minority. Third, both Americans and Muslims give the same answer to the question of what they least admire about the West: the erosion of traditional moral values. Fourth, most Muslims say that they desire a future with better jobs and security, not conflict and violent jihad, as many Americans continue to believe about Muslims. Fifth, the majority of Muslims around the world do not desire the law of the land to be exclusively directed according to Sharia law. Sixth, most Muslim women desire both equal rights and religious freedom in their societies. Finally, Muslims generally admire many of the political freedoms of Westerners, including freedom of speech.

This frequently surprising study, accounting for 90% of the global Muslim population, reveals that there is clearly a silenced majority of moderate Muslims around the world who do not fit the stereotypes of many Americans and Europeans. It is a tragedy that the voices of the moderate Muslim majority are rarely given sufficient airtime in the media to make themselves more widely known. Instead, the most popular media outlets continue to reinforce stereotypes of Muslims by showing their most terrifying side (no doubt, often with the selfish motive of driving up their ratings). Despite the fact that within hours of the attacks on 9/11, around a dozen national Muslim organizations unanimously condemned the terrorists, too many Americans continue to ask why moderate Muslims do not speak up. As Muscati argues, this is in large part because “the Muslim community is still a fairly new and comparatively small and weak voice in the American mainstream.” As such, they are frequently unable to counter the unjustified accusations made against them, which usually paints Islam with a very broad brush.

In an effort to counter the popular claims that moderate Muslims have been silent in response to 9/11 (implying their quiet support of the attacks), a Muslim website at has assembled an impressive and growing database of condemnations of the 9/11 terrorist attacks from Muslim groups, scholars, leaders, and ordinary persons of faith. These kinds of efforts are extremely important for at least two reasons. First, as already mentioned, because the media outlets rarely give airtime to moderate Muslim voices. Second, because whenever moderate Muslims are given a public voice, people tend to dismiss them as exceptions to the rule. The strongly held stereotype of Muslims as evil frequently “withstands all evidence to the contrary, including the simple truth that the vast majority of Muslims living in societies of their accusers are decent, law-abiding citizens.”

Islam in a Post-9/11 Society: Moving From Fear and Intolerance to Respect and Friendship (pt.2)

Due in large part to my identity as a mainstream conservative evangelical at the time, I essentially agreed with the absolute moral dualism of then president George W. Bush: “you are either with us or you are with the terrorists.” Unfortunately, the simplistic partitioning off of “us” against “them”, “good” versus “evil” could be easily transformed in the minds of conservative Christians like me into “Christians” against “Muslims.” My church at the time was aligned with the Religious Right and projected much of the same kind of hostile rhetoric as Franklin Graham, who once said, “Islam is a very evil religion.” As a Pentecostal, convinced that America was a Christian nation, even the kind of apocalyptic words of charismatic leader Benny Hinn would have resonated with my instinctive response to 9/11: “We are on God’s side…[this war is] between God and the devil.” Fortunately, I did not explicitly voice these kinds of radical views in my class and instead decided to take seriously the positions of my more religiously tolerant classmates. In the process, my view of religion and politics underwent dramatic shifts.

I soon found myself fascinated enough with the topic of religion after 9/11 that I changed my major from computer science to religious studies and immediately enrolled in a course on Islam. Not long after this decision, I found myself unable to remain affiliated with the form of conservative Christianity that I had long been a part of, largely due to their (often literal) demonization of religions like Islam. As I came to see, Islam is not so easily categorized as an “evil religion”, while America, though good in many ways, was not the perfect beacon of goodness, hope and truth that I had long believed it was. Through my studies, I became convicted that, as Sina Ali Muscati argues, “…the self-deception practiced since September 11th – that this is good versus evil and that our enemy is none other than the devil incarnate is little different from the propaganda espoused by Bin Laden.” As I repented of my religiously intolerant views, made friends with American Muslims, and continued to learn about religion and politics in America, I have tried to be an ally to Muslims by learning about their history and beliefs in order to build bridges between my own Christian tradition and Islam. I have discovered that although there is plenty of ambiguity in the Islamic tradition about violence and religious tolerance (just as there is in Judaism and Christianity), the majority of Muslims today interpret their faith in a more moderate fashion.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Islam in a Post-9/11 Society: Moving From Fear and Intolerance to Respect and Friendship (pt.1)

Religious scholar Stephen Prothero rightly observes that “Most Europeans and North Americans…see Islam through a veil hung over their eyes centuries ago by Christian Crusaders intent on denouncing Islam as a religion of violence, its founder, Muhammad, as a man of the sword, and its holy book, the Quran, as a text of wrath.” Confirming this statement, a major survey conducted by The Pew Forum in 2007 reveals that when Americans think of Muslims, they frequently connect them with words like “fanatic”, “violent”, “terrorism”, and “strict.” My own personal experience also confirms this unfortunate fact in our society, which has seemed to grow increasingly Islamophobic since 9/11. Recent controversies in the United States over Islam have continued to reveal an intensifying fear: the national debate over plans for a mosque in New York, the fearful public comments about Muslims made by Juan Williams and Bill O’Reilly, and Oklahoma’s recent attempt to ban Sharia law. Similar fears are also rampant in Europe, as a growing Muslim population seems to many Europeans to point towards an Islamic takeover of European society. Because I continually find myself in conversation with people who are literally terrified of Muslims in the same way I once was as a young conservative Christian, I am committed to promoting religious intelligence and tolerance under the conviction that Islamophobia is largely rooted in ignorance and confusion.

It was not until I studied Islam in college that I began to see beyond the popular portrayals of Muslims in the media. Although I do not think Islam can be simply described as a “religion of peace”, I do believe that most Muslims in the world today are genuinely peaceful with strong commitments to justice. As such, my main goal for this essay is to highlight some of the beliefs, practices, and history of Islam as they relate to most Muslim’s commitments to justice and religious tolerance today. I will initially approach this through reflections on my own personal experiences as they relate to these issues. It is mainly because I can relate to those who are fearful of Islam that I feel a responsibility to help them see the larger truth of this religion as it exists in the present context.

In some ways, this final essay on Islam in a post-9/11 world is my most important of the semester. In part, this is because my entire undergraduate education was fueled by the tragic events of September 11th, 2001 – which also led me to study religion as a graduate student at CST. It was during my first semester in college that Islamic terrorists flew two planes into the towers of the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, changing the conversation about religion in America – and around the world – forever. Recalling the disturbing and immediate impact of these events, Diana Eck writes, “Within hours, an unprecedented rash of xenophobic incidents began – from low-level harassment, ethnic slurs, broken windows, and threatening calls to arson, beatings and murders.” Because I was in a philosophy course at the time, I was able to wrestle with the events of 9/11 in an academic environment and have my false assumptions about Muslims sufficiently challenged.

Friday, December 3, 2010

The Mythical Conquests of Canaan and Israelite Identity (pt.2 of 2)

As for the conquest narratives of Canaan by the early Israelites, these too are called into question by modern historians and archaeologists. First of all, it seems clear to most scholars that Israelites were always Canaanites. There is basic continuity between their cultures for centuries in the archaeological record. The traditional notion that they came from outside of Canaan and conquered it is heavily challenged by at least two other theories. First, Israel may have been ex-urbanite Canaanite revolutionaries who got fed up with their overlords who were serving the Egyptian empire and oppressing the lower class. Second, Israel may have originated as semi-nomadic desert nomads who settled in the highlands of Canaan, became agriculturalists, grew in population, developed a distinct culture, and spread out to the low -lying areas of Canaan. Once they entered the rest of Canaan, they would have possibly both peacefully and forcefully infused Canaanite identity and culture with Israelite identity and culture. Either way, it seems clear that Israel did not come forcefully (for the most part) from outside of Canaan in conquest of the land.

The second blow to the conquests come mainly from the results of Kathleen Kenyon, a British archaeologist in the 1950s. She re-excavated at Jericho and concluded that at the time of the supposed conquests, the city was insignificant and did not even have a wall. Thus, the stories of conquest at Jericho seem like later inventions of the "D" source. Furthermore, very few sites in Canaan show any signs of massive conquest for the time period. The final blow to the conquests comes from within the bible itself. Even after Israel supposedly wiped out the occupants of the land, the biblical narrative says that "the Canaanites were still in the land."

Sunday, November 28, 2010

The Mythical Conquests of Canaan and Israelite Identity (pt.1 of 2)

Modern archaeologists are quick to point out that no evidence exists for a mass exodus of people from Egypt around the purported time of the biblical event (c. 1200 BCE). Although this has difficult consequences for a traditional reading of the bible, the evidence seems hard to argue with. If over 600,000 persons made an exit from Egypt around this period, surely we would have found traces of it.

An important consideration here is the Merneptah Stele, an archaeological artifact that dates to around the period of when the Exodus was to have occurred. It has the first mention of the name "Israel" in history. A linguistic study shows that this mention links them not as an independent nation, but as a people group already living in the land of Canaan. We will discuss the various theories of how Israel over time emerged in Canaan as a distinct culture. But it's important to note that they almost certainly did not enter from outside by conquest as the biblical narrative suggests.

In one ancient reference in the Armanah Letters (another important archeological artifact), there is a mention of some people called "apiru" who are causing problems for the leaders in Canaan. This same title is given to some people in the archaeological record in Egypt, where "apiru" apparently also existed concurrently. Because of the Egyptian mention of "apiru", some scholars have wanted to claim "apiru" are really the Hebrew people pre-Exodus (get it? "apiru" rhymes with Hebrew).
Scholars have concluded however that these "apiru" are only references to lower-class trouble makers, not specifically the Hebrew people. The "apiru" were simply rebels who were giving the Egyptian and Canaanite leaders a headache. However, some of these "apiru" in Egypt might have had a very small exodus, joined the Israelites already in the Canaanite central highlands, and brought their story of liberation from the Egyptian empire. Either way, the biblical story of a mass Exodus of the Hebrews from Egypt in the 13th century BCE is a later creation of Israelite writers. It is a myth to explain the origin of Israelite identity - YHWH delivered them from bondage, led them to the promised land in Canaan, and helped them wipe out the Canaanites. None of this happened in history as the bible narrates it, scholars now assert.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Judaism: Diversity and Suffering in History and Tradition (pt.3 of 3)

One area of common ground between the three major branches of Judaism already discussed is in their observance of certain sacred events and holidays. The weekly Shabbat service (or the Sabbath) is a time of rest that recalls both God’s resting on the seventh day of creation and Israel’s liberation from slavery. How each branch practices this event varies considerably, with the Orthodox observing the day of rest much more strictly than either Conservative or Reform Jews do. Beyond this weekly event, there are many holy days in Judaism, of which the most widely observed is Passover. This is a day for Jews to remember the Exodus from Egypt when the Israelites were freed from slavery. Passover is named after the story of when the Angel of Death “passed over” the houses of the Israelites before the Exodus. Jewish families share in a sacred meal called the Seder, where they talk, sing, rejoice in freedom, and remember their past. As Jacob Neusner points out, contemporary Jews also connect Passover to individual experience in the present, and more particularly, the modern experience of remembering the Holocaust: “Passover is popular now because it speaks to a generation that knows what the Gentiles can do…” Once again, this illustrates the way the Holocaust has brought diverse Jews together by remembering a shared history of suffering and a constant struggle for survival. The impact of the Holocaust on modern Judaism is so intense that some theologians have seen it as a distinct religious phenomenon, calling it “Holocaustology.”

Although Judaism has always emphasized the importance of questioning, arguing, and wrestling with God (the name “Israel” suggests the action of “struggling with God”), Jews have rarely engaged so deeply in this activity as much as they have since the Holocaust. As Catholic theologian Hans Kung writes, “[The Holocaust] remains an event far surpassing all previous history of suffering, an event of an unspeakable suffering of the people of the Jews which cannot be ‘understood’ theoretically.” As a young freshman in college, I encountered this Jewish struggle first-hand and it has had a lasting impact on my own Christian theology. I enrolled in a philosophy course that was taught by a Jewish Rabbi, who I discovered late in the semester was also an atheist. I remember the shock I felt when he explained how his reflection on the Holocaust caused him to lose his faith in God. Though he still valued the Jewish tradition, he could no longer believe in God because of the theological problem of suffering. “Where was the God of the Hebrew Bible, the active God of history, when a third of the world’s Jews were murdered? If God once chose Israel as his people, acting in history on their behalf, he has since lost interest in such matters – and I have lost interest in him,” my professor said to the class.

Moving ahead to my senior year in college, I enrolled in a class on the Jewish mystical tradition that was taught by another Jewish Rabbi. Though she was still a theist, she had embraced Isaac Luria’s mystical notion of zimzum and given up on divine omnipotence in her struggle earlier in life for an adequate theology after Auschwitz. The combined impact of these two Jewish Rabbis on my own faith has caused me to take the problem of suffering much more seriously than before. Despite the objections of Hans Kung, I have taken Protestant theologian Jurgen Moltmann’s idea of ‘the crucified God’ who suffers with the victims of oppression very seriously. Moltmann developed this theology from theological considerations after the Holocaust. Additionally, the way that John Cobb’s process theology discusses the problem of suffering has also been a fruitful tool in my theological reflections – though I by no means feel as though I have “resolved” the problem of suffering for myself.

Though my Christian faith is continually enriched by studying all the world’s religions, no tradition other than my own has influenced me as much as Judaism. In addition to hearing Jewish voices struggling with theodicy, other aspects of the tradition have also provoked my thinking. Some of these challenges have come about as I have gained a new awareness of the history of ancient Israel while trying to see the Hebrew Bible through a Jewish lens, not just a Christian one. In college, I found inspiration in Jewish mystics like Isaac Luria and the philosopher Moses Maimonides. I have also had opportunities to participate in Shabbat services at a Reform synagogue, where I admired their passionate, honest, and open-ended style of wrestling with the Torah, as well as their deep sense of community. Many Christians, such as myself, have recently gained an appreciation for the Jewish emphasis on practice over dogma, reflecting a deep concern for transforming life here-and-now. Judaism continues to fascinate me in so many ways, regularly challenging me from a different context to rethink my assumptions about theology, culture, and history.

Judaism: Diversity and Suffering in History and Tradition (pt.2 of 3)

Just as defining Judaism as an ethnicity is nearly impossible, the religious ingredient of Judaism can be difficult to pin down. Perhaps the most logical place to begin an attempt to understand Judaism is through a historical perspective. As Huston Smith points out, “To the Jews, history was of towering significance,” in part because of the value generally placed on human social action and God’s action within history. For most of Jewish history, pivotal events such as the Exodus, where God liberated the Israelites from oppression, as well as the giving of the Torah to Moses on Mount Sinai, have usually been understood to be historical – and deeply meaningful as such. The future is also of great importance, as traditional Jews wait on the Messiah figure. But even amongst today’s more liberal Jews who reject the historical factuality of much of the Torah, there is still a great importance placed on remembering the history of the Jewish people – a history of survival against oppression and genocide, as well as a deep concern for embodied, human action in history. The guiding narrative of “exile and return” may be seen as mythological, but it remains central for liberal Jews. A historical perspective of Judaism reveals a complex early history that develops into a tradition that is diverse enough to contain a wide spectrum of conservative and liberal Jewish views.

The historical roots of Judaism, going back to ancient Israel, reveal a process of evolution towards the Judaism of today. Just as Christianity evolved out of the 1st century CE to become increasingly diverse, so a diverse Judaism evolved out of the 1st millennium BCE. While it is true that the core of Jewish theology is monotheism (reflected by the Shema), the ancient Israelites, in whom contemporary Judaism is rooted in, evolved from polytheism to monolatry to monotheism over the course of many centuries. The sacred Torah itself reveals this process of theological evolution. Even after becoming firmly monotheistic around the time of the Hebrew prophets, the Jewish community evolved significantly and split into different groups in the post-exilic period.

Within this long process of development, what we know as Judaism today is rooted in rabbinic Judaism, which began developing in the exilic and post-exilic period between 586 BCE and 70 CE when the tradition slowly moved from being centered on Temple sacrifice to sacred texts. In the 2nd century BCE, there were splits within the Jewish community that resulted in three different sects: the Pharisees, Sadducees, and Essenes. While these sects represented a minority of the Jewish community at the time, the Pharisees were responsible for the development of rabbinic Judaism. In the six centuries that followed the destruction of the 2nd temple in 70CE until the completion of the Talmud, a Judaism of the dual-Torah (one written, one oral) developed through the work of many Jewish rabbis. The Talmud alone is testament to the diversity that is Judaism, which is essentially a collection of rabbinic opinions and fights over interpretations of a variety of things, including Jewish law.

Despite its inherent diversity, what made the basic form of rabbinic Judaism last through the 19th century was largely an ability to address urgent questions of politics. With the more recent emergence of the nation-state in a capitalistic context, new Judaisms were born out of traditional rabbinic Judaism that were all in conflict in various ways with parts of the traditional Judaism of the dual-Torah. From the 19th century down to the present 21st century, contemporary Judaism includes multiple branches that differ significantly in their understanding of the tradition, though all are basically united with varying degrees of respect for the Torah. Beyond this shared respect for their sacred text, the similarities between the various Judaisms largely break down. Here we can compare three important branches.

The first significant subset of contemporary Judaism is the more traditional Orthodox branch. They maintain strict observance of the commandments (or mitzvot) in the Torah, expect a literal return of the Messiah, and only ordain male rabbis. Even the Orthodox branch then splits off into other versions of Judaism, including Modern Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox Hasidism. The second major branch of Judaism is the liberal Reform branch which accounts for a majority of American Jews. Reform Judaism emphasizes the social justice element of the Hebrew prophets, understands the Torah to be much less authoritative than the Orthodox, and ordains female rabbis. They are very open to the results of modern science, embrace historical-critical studies of the Torah, and reject the literal expectation for a Messiah figure. The third major subset of contemporary Judaism is the Conservative branch, the moderate path of contemporary Judaism. They join the Reform branch in their openness to modern thought and the ordination of female rabbis, but their observance of the law (which respects both the ethical and ritual as halakha) is closer to the Orthodox branch. Beyond these three major branches are many other versions of the Jewish religion, including mystical and more humanistic branches.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Judaism: Diversity and Suffering in History and Tradition (pt.1)

Amongst the world’s major enduring religions, Judaism is easily the smallest with only 14 million adherents worldwide. At the same time, they are unquestionably one of the most important influences in the history of Western culture. Historian Thomas Cahill boldly proclaims that in the West, “The Jews started it all…without the Jews, we would see the world through different eyes, hear with different ears, even feel with different feelings.” It has also been frequently noted that some of the most significant figures in the West have been Jewish: Henry Kissinger, Albert Einstein, Irving Berlin, Bob Dylan, Mel Brooks, and Stephen Spielberg. In North America alone, Jews have a huge influence in politics and business that far outweighs their numbers, which makes up less than 2% of the overall population. What is often underappreciated (especially by Christians), is how Judaism provided much of the theological tools for the development of both Christianity and Islam – the world’s two largest religions. One may justifiably ask: where would the world be without the many “gifts of the Jews?” As a Christian who has been fortunate enough to be brought up with a partial understanding of the invaluable contributions of Judaism, I have always felt a strong sense of reverence for this faith, but also a sense of shame for the way in which my religious ancestors have treated them. With this in mind, I will explain my understanding of Judaism as both an ethnicity and a religion, as well as highlighting how I believe Judaism contributes to and challenges my own Christian context.

In the academic study of religion, few traditions are as difficult to categorize as Judaism. The complex relationship between ethnicity and religion in Judaism is usually considered to be the first major challenge in understanding this great faith. Throughout most of their history, ethnicity and religion in Judaism were essentially inseparable from one another. However, as religion scholar Catherine Albanese explains, post-Enlightenment modernity brought about a division between “Jewishness, an ethnic and cultural identity, from Judaism, a religion.” This is not to imply that Judaism was one monolithic entity until modernity – indeed, there have always been many Judaisms – but that with the arrival of modernity, the question of who qualifies as a Jew was significantly heightened. This question only became more challenging to answer with the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948, which highlighted a third category of nationality in Jewish identity that had been minimized for centuries. The state of Israel has even gotten involved in the debate over who is technically Jewish by siding with the Orthodox branch of the faith. It can be observed that in every period of Jewish history, ethnicity, religion, and nationality provide the basic ingredients for Jewish identity. It must therefore be recognized that what Judaism means in a given context depends greatly on the order of priority given to these three ingredients.

An important question one must ask in regards to these three ingredients is what is meant by Jewish ethnicity when there seems to be such ethnic diversity amongst Jews. While distinct Jewish ethnic groups certainly exist in the sense of common ancestry (Ashkenazi Jews, Sephardic Jews, African Jews, etc.), some scholars argue that Jewish ethnic identity should be focused more on a shared sense of community. Community life is reinforced through rituals and holidays for the observant, while the long history of Jewish suffering and oppression has developed an even wider umbrella to unite the Jewish community, both observant and unobservant. Tragic events such as the pogroms in medieval times, and especially the Holocaust of the 20th century, have promoted an important sense of Jewish community, particularly in the present context. In addition to a shared memory of the Holocaust, the majority of modern Jews unite around the state of Israel, further reinforcing a sense of Jewish communal identity.

Jews sometimes seem to share common patterns of living that distinguish them as a unique community – but is this just a stereotype or is it verifiable data? Some sociologists have pointed out that Jews often live together in neighborhoods and frequently share particular kinds of occupations. But even this observation does not do justice to the incredible diversity of the Jewish community. As Jacob Neusner argues, Jews “do not share a common set of ethnic or social or economic or political traits…” So who is a Jew then? On this issue, there seem to be as many opinions as there are Jews. Perhaps all the impartial observer can say is that a Jew is whoever claims to be one, and at least in the contemporary context, this also generally involves a great concern for the memory of the Holocaust and the state of Israel. Whatever brings this diverse group of people together under one big tent, it seems clear that this varies throughout history. While religion may have been at the center of Jewish identity for most of their history, it is certainly not the most important ingredient today. Within the contemporary context from a scholarly perspective, it may be stated that while not all ethnic Jews are religious Jews, all religious Jews are automatically considered ethnic Jews (when ethnicity is broadly understood as communal identity).

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Moderate Muslims and Violence in Sacred Texts

Were moderate Muslims silent after the 9/11 attacks? Nope. Not even close. Take a look at this database cataloguing specific individuals and groups of moderate Muslims who have publicly spoken out against the 9/11 attacks. Click on the many links to read extensive statements from news/journal sources and websites. It's time to get behind our moderate Muslim sisters and brothers in support. I have known good Muslims in recent years that truly don't deserve the treatment they receive from religiously ill-informed, prejudiced, Islamophobic Americans. Our country can do so much better than this. Christians, especially, can do better than this:

My intentions here are only to encourage understanding and awareness. Too many news/media outlets - with Fox News at the top - have shallow, Hollywood motives to provoke fear amongst the American people because it's how they win the most viewers. As a result, Muslims are truly feared, shunned, stereotyped, and even hated by millions of Americans. Religious freedom is being lost as a result. Meanwhile, the Quran is demonized, verses are taken out of context to show how supposedly dangerous Islam is, and meanwhile the American public (with people like Franklin Graham on the frontline) gives their own sacred Christian Bible the time to sensitively interpret the passages where God demands people rape women, murder babies, and commit all-out genocide. Do we not owe Muslims the same opportunity to sensitively interpret their book in places where there seems to be violence and intolerance? My own opinion is that both books (and most especially the Christian and Jewish Bible) contain inexcusable moments of violence that provides revelation by way of negative example. On the other hand, many Christians and Muslims have interpretations of the Bible and Quran that tries to explain the sacred violence in more reasonable ways. My point is this: just because there is violence in a sacred text does not immediately invalidate that religion as inherently dangerous. We all interpret, the challenge is to interpret well, and moderate Muslims can do this with the Quran as well as Christians and Jews can with the Hebrew and Christian Bible.

Take a quick look at this great blog post about this important issue:

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Irenaeus against Gnosticism

The first four centuries of Christianity were filled with heated debates about how to think of Jesus’ relationship to God. Although the most important of these Christological debates occurred in the 4th and 5th centuries at the councils of Nicaea and Chalcedon, many earlier controversies led up to these more decisive councils. Perhaps the most well known of these controversies occurred in the 2nd century when various Gnostic sects began challenging the teachings of the proto-orthodox Christian church. Most of these Gnostics held to a Docetic Christology, which denies the humanity of Jesus and his bodily resurrection. The influential Bishop Irenaeus saw the inherent danger that these ideas posed to the Christian church and wrote a series of books called “Against Heresies” that challenged the entire Gnostic system of belief. Of particular interest to Irenaeus was to refute Gnostic Docetism and assert a doctrine of the Incarnation grounded in an understanding of recapitulation – the “summing up” or “making new” of creation through Jesus. With the doctrine of recapitulation, Irenaeus embraces the entire Old Testament by tying the Incarnation to the narrative history of Israel. Unlike the competing Greek-influenced Gnostic ideas, recapitulation is in impressive continuity with the creation-affirming covenantal Judaism of Jesus and therefore maintains a strong sense of ethical grounding for present material existence.

Irenaeus initially hints at his formulation of recapitulation in the first book of “Against Heresies.” This explanation comes in 10.1 as he is unpacking the orthodox faith that he argues was given to the apostles by Jesus himself and accurately passed down to the bishops. He asserts that the Holy Spirit inspired the Jewish prophets of the Old Testament to predict not only the first coming of Jesus, but his second coming in order “…to ‘recapitulate all things’ (Eph. 1.10) and raise up all flesh of the human race.” While this orthodox understanding of the still-future and complete recapitulation of all things in Jesus explicitly affirms the value of physical flesh, the Docetic Christology of the Gnostics implicitly denies the value of physical flesh by claiming that Jesus only appeared to be physical, and therefore the “resurrection” is only a metaphor for attainment of spiritual Gnosis. Irenaeus thus explains that the Gnostics believe that “the prison is the body”, and some of them go so far as to assert that in order for the soul to permanently escape into eternal bliss, they must not only learn secret Gnosis, but they must also live in every possible way. Indeed, Irenaeus charges these Gnostics with relativism when he claims, “Good and evil, they say, are merely matters of opinion.”

The finer details of the doctrine of recapitulation begin to come into focus in the third book of “Against Heresies” when Irenaeus somewhat creatively relates it to God’s covenants with Israel. While the apostle Paul understood Jesus fulfilling a single older covenant that God made with Israel, Irenaeus sees Jesus as fulfilling three other historical covenants made with Adam, Noah, and Moses. Although this interpretation is motivated by a polemic against the Gnostic gospels, the theological point is clear: the Incarnation in some way climatically summarizes and completes the previous covenants, thereby uniting creation with God. If God’s purposes were truly progressively working themselves out through the nation of Israel, then Jesus, who was believed to have been predicted all throughout the Old Testament, is the one who brings God’s covenantal purposes to completion. This covenantal interpretation of Jesus shows Irenaeus’ commitment to retaining continuity with the creation-affirming Judaism of Jesus. On the Gnostic reading of the Old Testament, they often assert that a lesser god speaks through the patriarchs and prophets rather than the one true God. The higher, more powerful God is not involved in history for the Gnostics, and an imperfect lower god created the world. Christ came into the world in order to save humanity from ignorance through the impartation of secret Gnosis. As Irenaeus forcefully argues, this reading of the Old Testament is both selective in its scope and degrading to material existence.

As he slowly becomes more explicit about his doctrine of Incarnation in book three, Irenaeus first critiques the Gnostics by showing how they fragment Jesus into separate emanated substances: Christ, Only-Begotten, Word, and Savior. For the Gnostics then, Jesus is ultimately only divine and only appeared to be physical. This Gnostic “Christ from above” will not suffice for Irenaeus, so he attempts to make the case for a more earthy Jesus, calling him “Emmanuel who is from the Virgin, who ate butter and honey” and adding that “Paul knew no Christ but the one who suffered and was buried and rose again, who was born, whom he called ‘man’.” For Irenaeus, Jesus was both God and human, and to subtract from either of these would eliminate the power of the intermingling of the divine and physical substances. Although the later church councils would eventually clarify the philosophical categories, it seems clear that for Irenaeus all things in heaven and earth are recapitulated by the intermingling of divine and physical substances in the person of Jesus.

Monday, August 23, 2010

A Culture of Pluralism in Southern California

Pluralism is not just an abstract idea in Southern California, but has become the defining characteristic of the culture itself. Why Southern California? Why is it that this region out of all of the many possible locations in the entire country had already become by the mid-19th century such a powerful epicenter (or “theological equator”) for religious pluralism? Professor Wade Clark Roof’s (of UC Santa Barbara) main thesis in his article “Pluralism as a Culture” is that the reasons are three-fold, but interrelated:

1) The region’s history is one of constant encounters with global religious and cultural alternatives to Anglo-Protestant-White America. In addition to wide religious diversity, this includes a large population of non-religious groups, which are now in the majority at +40%. Religious communities were always essentially minorities because there was so much diversity from the start, and thus there has never really been a painful transition to secular society, or religious disestablishment. Transplanted religions always undergo a change in consciousness, status, and influence, and this fact has helped the growth of real pluralism in Southern California.
2) The region has never had a dominant/dominating religious establishment, such as the Baptists and Methodists in the south, or Lutherans and Catholics in the upper mid-west. While Roman Catholics have had a strong presence (still claming a third of the population), and make up a third of the population still, their influence has not matched their numbers. Religious traditions in Southern California have always been voluntary associations. Additionally, California has always been a more truly democratic society than the vast majority of the country. The secular principles of democracy, divorced from any “core spirituality or religion”, are important to maintain, as it is only through democracy that religious groups can maintain their own differing beliefs in such a diverse society. Religious pluralism is an obvious expression of American democracy. Rather than calling this simply individualism or secular indifference, California pluralism is a vibrant expression of American optimism.
3) The people in the region have always maintained a fluid sense of identity. California’s statehood began after modernity had already begun, so urbanization was a reality from the beginning. This brought diverse groups of people together into shared spaces, and forced them to learn to work together in a rapidly modernizing world. Multiple citizenships are quite common today in Southern California, as are mixed racial and ethnic marriages. As many waves of immigrants came into California during modernity, there was never really time for the population to develop prejudice against them before yet another group of immigrants showed up. Southern California has always been fast-paced, and thus modernity and pluralism reinforced each other, thus bringing about a deep pluralism quicker than any other area of the country. Even the Mediterranean climate and natural beauty of Southern California has had the effect of encouraging harmony and attunement in religious attitudes, and encouraged optimistic views of human beings in general (as opposed to Puritan Calvinism). New metaphysical, new age religions were born, no doubt influenced by the regions environment. Another element that has developed fluid identities is the lack of pressure for total assimilation. Assimilation is now viewed as a two-way process where both immigrants and the existing population and culture are transformed by each other. Immigrant religious congregations are important locations for the development of multicultural identities. Church growth theorists now believe that multiethnic communities are the way to grow communities of faith – a change in perspective from homogenous views on church growth only a few decades ago. With increased ethnic diversity in Southern California, religious labels become the primary markers for individual and group identity. This has heightened the sense of religious differences in the region, and thus effective religious leaders who appreciate diversity and tolerance are essential to be religious interpreters for the media and public at large. They must be able to accurately interpret theological ideas and teachings in order to promote diversity through understanding. Special purpose groups can do similar things, such as the Muslim Public Affairs Council in LA. But in a global world, what happens overseas is often just as important for religious interpreters to deal with as what happens locally.

Other important themes that are touched on include the difference between multiculturalism and pluralism. While multiculturalism would encourage public religious freedom, it also asks religious adherents to keep their religious practices confined to their own private spaces, in a rather separatist manner. In contrast, pluralism encourages religious adherents to hold an even greater view of religious freedom through validating openness and acceptance of other faiths as viable alternatives to their own. Religious pluralism encourages mutual religious respect in open public spaces, thereby bringing religious expression to occur side-by-side, rather than only in each religious tradition’s private spaces. The difference is crucial, for while multiculturalism holds to an abstract idea of religious tolerance and respect, there is no real opportunity to interact and therefore take good abstract ideas and put them into practice. Pluralism, on the other hand, encourages a practical engagement with other religious traditions. In a rapidly globalizing world, this is an essential expression of our 21st century reality. We can no longer merely say that we believe in democratic and egalitarian ideals when we have Muslims, Buddhists, and Atheists all joining the local neighborhoods and public schools – we must act as if we truly believe in those ideals by encouraging an open and accepting pluralism. This is called the “performance of pluralism”, and it takes us beyond our particular religious beliefs to embracing an additional set of values. We must go beyond mere tolerance and towards legitimizing the alternative religious traditions.

Because there is important common ground amongst the world’s major religions on issues of morality and ethics, a truly religiously pluralistic society is possible without dissolving all faiths into one global religion. A culture of pluralism tends to pull religious communities toward the prevailing ideals of acceptance and openness. This beautiful optimism and inherent diversity of Southern California encourages respect and openness to other faiths, tolerance of differing views, and cooperation in every area possible. Fundamentalism and sectarianism cannot be tolerated though, for the stability of society depends on a real pluralism that publicly performs what it claims to hold true. Religious communities have an important job to perform that is nothing less than sustaining a culture of diversity: by teaching respect for “the Other”, condemning radical sectarian groups in their own traditions, and intelligently interpreting their faith for the uninitiated public. Religious groups must embrace the paradox of pluralism: sensitivity to group-particularities, but a strong commitment to a social unity-in-diversity.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Series on Homosexuality and the Bible

Here is my series on homosexuality and the bible in which I show how the various "clobber passages" are widely misused by conservatives:

1) Arsenokoites
2) Malakos
3) Genesis
4) Leviticus
5) Romans

-Sex and the Single Savior by Dale B. Martin
-Jesus, The Bible, and Homosexuality by Jack Rogers
-Homosexuality and the Christian Faith by Walter Wink
-The Good Book by Peter J. Gomes
-Paul Was Not A Christian by Pamela Eisenbaum
-What Would Jesus Deconstruct by John D. Caputo

Saturday, August 14, 2010

7 Mini Book Reviews (my recent reads)

“Evolving in Monkey Town” by Rachel Held Evans: A fantastic memoir, and actually better than Blue Like Jazz. Evans (who is only 27) writes beautifully, and often humorously, taking her readers on a fascinating journey that many post-evangelicals will resonate with. She grew up in the Bible-belt as a fiery conservative fundamentalist, and eventually found herself voting for Obama in 2008. She chronicles her struggle to maintain faith, wrestling with all of the same doubts as the rest of her post-modern, pluralistic generation. She ultimately reconstructs her faith, but in a more open and honest way than in her fundamentalist past. An important voice for emerging Christianity.

“Contemporary Christologies: A Fortress Introduction” by Don Schweitzer: This is a fun read, but also an important one for any Christian wrestling with how to articulate the relationship of Jesus to God, as well as the meaning of atonement. The book is relatively short, and well written. A highly stimulating survey of modern theological takes on the person and “work” of Jesus.

“The Big Questions In Science and Religion” by Keith Ward: Ward is a brilliant British philosopher and Anglican theologian. This book helpfully moves through the biggest questions that contribute to the tension between science and religion today: the beginning and end of the universe, claims about the afterlife, consciousness and the soul, morality and religion, miracles. Ward uses the physical sciences, philosophy, and religious studies to evaluate the claims of religion against the claims of science. Not polemical in the slightest, and calmly rational from beginning to end.

“Sun of Righteousness, Arise!” by Jurgen Moltmann: This latest release from Moltmann is a brilliant collection of essays on everything from the Trinity, to ecology, to resurrection theology. Moltmann is concerned with how these Christian ideas are relevant to a progressive faith with commitments to social justice and a hopeful future for the earth. In many ways, quite similar to Wright’s theology of resurrection in Surprised By Hope, but even more challenging and provocative as Moltmann dares to incorporate liberation and feminist theologies in his writings.

“An Altar In the World” by Barbara Brown Taylor: One of the most refreshing books I have ever read! I love Taylor’s writing style, and her approach to spiritual practice in this book. Taylor definitely has a mystical approach, but never gets lost in mystical obfuscation. She asks her readers to find the divine in all of life’s (super)ordinary experiences – from gardening, to walking, to eating, to bathing, to grocery shopping, and even doing the laundry. Don’t be fooled though: this book is anything but trite and simplistic. A gorgeous and inspiring spiritual handbook for ordinary mystics.

“Jesus and Empire: The Kingdom of God and the New World Disorder” by Richard Horsley: Not for the faint of heart, but an important scholarly and theological work. Horsley brilliantly explains the state of the Roman Empire and the plight of the Jewish people around the time of Jesus. He evaluates the purpose of Jesus’ message of the kingdom against a Jewish and Greco-Roman matrix, emphasizing the importance of social background for understand the message of Jesus. He paints a pretty accurate picture in my view, if incomplete at times and in need of adjustment here and there. The last chapter is gold, where he compares American foreign policy to the Roman Empire. A bit dry at times, but short enough that it really is worth reading all the way through.

“The Nature of Love: A Theology” by Thomas Jay Oord: A graduate at Claremont who is now a professor of theology at Northwest Nazarene University in Idaho, this is one of the best books on theology I have read in a while. Oord’s task is simple: holistically define love (since it is utterly central to Torah, Jesus, and Paul) and reshape our conception of God in light of it. What does it mean to say God is love? What are the implications? Oord truly impressed and inspired me with this book.

Monday, July 12, 2010

"How God Acts: Creation, Redemption, and Special Divine Action" by Denis Edwards (Pt. 7)

In chapter 6 of Denis Edwards book “How God Acts”, he dives into a noninterventionist theology of resurrection. He does not diminish the significance of the event though: “I will maintain…the resurrection as the central act of God that shapes the history of the universe but will suggest, tentatively, that here too, God can be thought of as acting in a noninterventionist way, in the sense of acting in and through created causes.” Edwards does not see the resurrection of Jesus as a subjective event, but one that is powerfully objective enough to ontologically transform reality. Edwards is committed to an eschatological vision alongside of a noninterventionist vision. Without eschatological hope, the costs of evolution are simply too great.

The resurrection of the crucified Jesus as the central expression of God’s one act of divine self-bestowal, as the culmination of an evolutionary Christology, and as the sacrament of salvation to the world is vital to a robust Christian eschatology. The creation of the world had as its purpose the Christ-event, which is itself directed towards eschatology. God is the one who enables the self-transcendence of the universe from material existence, to life, and finally to human consciousness. In this context, Jesus is the most radical product of self-transcendence within the universe – which is enabled by God, but through the human Jesus. Jesus dies after a self-sacrificial life in a radical act of love for God, and is raised up and transformed by the Spirit: “In this paschal event [the entire Christ-event], part of evolutionary history gives itself completely into God and is taken up and transformed in God, as the beginning of the reconciliation and transformation of all things.” This Christ-event is also the sacrament, or real symbol, of the divine initiative to redeem creation – the sacrament of salvation. That is to say, the Christ-event expresses most fully God’s desire for creation and action within it that has been present all along. Although “God has been present in self-offering love from the very-beginning”, the Christ-event is the fullest manifestation of this eternal divine desire – and the resurrection is the center of the Christ-event. Edwards believes, in line with the Eastern church, that the resurrection is the beginning of the “adoption and divinizing transformation of all things.” The resurrection is an ontological event. In this context, Jesus’ transformed body is taken up into God and able to be present to all things. The “return” of Jesus will be the “disclosure of this new relation to creation that is attained by his resurrection.” The resurrected Jesus radically unites creation to God.

But doesn’t the resurrection of Jesus bypass the laws of nature? How can this possibly be seen as noninterventionist? Edwards is cautious in his claim that the resurrection can be seen as interventionist, but he persists. Because we do not have direct access to the actual act by which God raises up and transforms Christ crucified, Edwards focuses on the proclamations of resurrection, the appearances of the resurrected Christ, and the empty tomb stories. First, when we mystically experience the risen Christ in community, it is always mediated through secondary causes – whether this is through Eucharist or nature. What about the appearance stories in the gospels? Edwards suggests that the disciples really experienced the risen and radically transformed Jesus, yet only through the creaturely mediation of things like community, the breaking of bread, the natural world, the love of another human, and prayer. These experiences are neither imaginary visions nor the same as ordinary sense experience. They transcend both as the unique manifestation of the meaning of creation. There is no exact analogy for these experiences.

Edwards quotes Robert John Russell to bolster his claim that the universe was created to be transformable. As such, the eschatological transformation of the entire universe that the resurrection promises should also be understood as noninterventionist. There is no need for God to introduce a new law into nature at the resurrection as Russell proposes. Creation is made to be transformed. This is what the resurrection points us to.

"How God Acts: Creation, Redemption, and Special Divine Action" by Denis Edwards (Pt. 6)

In this truly fascinating chapter of “How God Acts”, Denis Edwards explores a noninterventionist theology of miracles through a discussion of the laws of nature. He asks, “Is a miracle an instance where God overturns or bypasses the laws of nature? If so, then why would God intervene in the natural order at some times and not at others? Why would God save some from harm not others?” Edwards is proposing an alternative natural theology of miracles, which take place through purely natural causes, not through God breaking in to the natural order. Importantly, “natural causes” includes not just the laws of nature we already know, but also as yet un-modeled and mysterious aspects of our universe.

First, Edwards uses the work of scholar John Meier to show the historical probability that Jesus was known to be a miracle-worker, and understood them as partial manifestations of the reign of God. He quotes Meier: “If the miracle tradition from Jesus’ public ministry were to be rejected in toto as unhistorical, so should every other Gospel tradition about him.” Although not all of Jesus’ miracles in the Gospel tradition are describing historical events (some, like Jesus’ walking on water, are parables), others probably are.

Second, Edwards uses the writings of Thomas Aquinas to discuss primary/secondary causality. Edwards agrees with much of Aquinas on his understanding of divine action. God desires creation to have autonomy (it’s own cause and effect) and God enables creation to have genuine autonomous causes (secondary causes) instead of being controlled by God (primary cause). God acts in a causal way within secondary causes by conferring existence on all things and enabling them to be, to act, and to become. But “God so loves and respects the dignity of creatures that God wants them to be fully causal.” Edwards parts company with Aquinas over miracles. For Aquinas, a miracle occurs when God’s action replaces a secondary cause, as “exceptions to the pattern of nature…a miracle occurs only because of what is not present – namely, a secondary cause.” Edwards believes that miracles occur through secondary causes. God never breaks or replaces secondary causes.

Third, Edwards again uses the work of Stoeger to dissect our understanding of the laws of nature. For a variety of reasons, much of reality observed in science is inevitably missed. The quantum level provides all kinds of mystery, for instance. But that is not all – patterns of relationship between different levels of emergence are largely mysterious to us at this point. The important point in all of this is that every field of study describes reality as it is observed, but certainly does not prescribe it. Natural laws are human descriptions of observed regularities – even good descriptions and models of reality – but they are not the “cause of the regularity that is observed.” They are not discovered as something that exists in and of themselves, but are imaginatively constructed through rigorous observation of phenomena. “The laws of nature as we know them are provisional…and not well equipped to deal with important areas of life, including not only the metaphysical, but also the mental, the ethical, the interpersonal, the aesthetic, and the religious.” The consequences of this realization is that something less abstract like an occurence of physical healing may defy explanation within our current models of reality, but that does not mean that we will never be able to model them well: “…miracles may occur through a whole range of secondary causes that our current science cannot yet model or cannot yet model well.”

For Edwards, a miracle is a manifestation of the grace of God, and this requires ‘eyes to see and ears to hear’ – faith is important. Miracles are not just brute facts detached from their meaning and individual subject within history – indeed, we see this with Jesus’ own understanding of his miracles as partial manifestations of the kingdom. A biological healing for one person might be simply an anomaly, while for another it might be an act of God. God communicates this grace-as-miracle through the natural world, and this looks like everything from personal providence and guidance (see chapter 4) to biological healing. But just because miracles occur only through natural causes (even if we do not understand those causes at present time) does not mean that God is not also acting through those natural causes. It is not natural cause or divine cause for miracles, but God working in and through natural causes. So Edwards writes, “It may be that science will one day understand more clearly how prayer, human solidarity, love, or faith can contribute to biological healing. Some other miracles may occur in ways that are consistent with contemporary science. A person who is cured from illness in a way that science can explain, and who finds God providentially at work in this cure, so that it becomes for her a call and address by God, might well see this as a miracle, a wonderful manifestation and sign of the Spirit of God.”

Up next, chapter 6 with the Resurrection.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

"How God Acts: Creation, Redemption, and Special Divine Action" by Denis Edwards (Pt. 5)

In chapter 4 of “How God Acts”, Denis Edwards discusses “special” divine acts within Christianity – particularly the experience of personal providence and the life and ministry of Jesus. Once again, divine action is both one and diverse. One in that it is actually a single act of divine self-giving love. Diverse in that this one act of self-bestowal is experienced in a plurality of ways throughout history. Divine action is also noninterventionist – it works in a through natural processes and laws.

Edwards traces five different approaches that have developed over the last few decades to special divine action: 1) process theology (Barbour, Cobb) 2) God acts within the indeterminacy of quantum events to bring about particular outcomes (Murphy, Russell) 3) God acts in the openness of nature, in chaotic and complex systems, through top-down imparting of information to bring about particular outcomes (Polkinghorne) 4) God acts in and through and under every aspect of nature, acting on the system as a whole (Peacocke) 5) God acts consistently through secondary causes in nature (Stoeger). While acknowledging the value of all of these positions, Edwards represents the fifth view: “God acts in the whole of the natural world, by God’s immanent and differentiated presence to all things, not only through the laws of nature of which we have a partial understanding, but also through those processes and regularities of nature that are still unknown to us.” Take special note of that last part. In this vision, God freely accepts limitations imposed by created processes, but continues to work through them with loving patience. This effectively limits the problem of suffering, since even God is limited to work within the natural processes and laws of the universe. Edwards makes an important point, that we cannot know how God acts, but can discern its effects around us. He takes an apophatic approach: “I do not think we can comprehend the nature of God’s act any more than we can comprehend the divine essence.” While empirical study cannot tell us how God acts, theological reflection on the Christ-event can help us describe it.

In addition to reaffirming God’s creation of the universe through creaturely processes, Edwards discusses God’s action in our personal lives – our experience of the Holy Spirit, who he believes addresses us, calls us, challenges us, invites us, and loves us on a daily basis. Importantly, Edwards insists that all of our experiences of the Holy Spirit will always be interpreted through culture, psychological factors, imagination, etc. This experience of the Spirit is not like any other experience of a created object, but an experience of mystery that occurs with our encounters with others in the world. This can occur through nature, friendship, intellectual activity, birth, and death. But these experiences of grace, of the Spirit, are always mediated through secondary causes in the world.

God cares for us on a day-to-day basis in a personal manner: “God really comes to us, responds to us, and provides for us through secondary causes.” Edwards uses an example of someone having a good idea that proves to be successful, which is then interpreted by someone as a gift from God. Is this right? Edwards thinks so, if one actually experiences the idea as a place of encounter with God – even if there is a possible natural explanation for this good idea, it can still be appropriately interpreted as an act of God. At the same time, while God always works through secondary causes for our well being, God is not free to intervene and overturn those same causes to keep us from all pain and suffering. God did not intervene to save Jesus from death, but suffered with Jesus, and transformed his death into resurrection life (this will be addressed later on in my blog). Importantly, God never sends suffering upon creatures, except in the broad sense that God has created and sustains a universe where suffering is a reality. In summary, “God engages with us in the day-to-day, inviting, luring, challenging, loving responding to our choices, concerns, moods, failures, and hopes...through the mediation of creatures.”

God’s action is not another cause within the empirical world, but yet has always been constantly working within all of creation through secondary causes to achieve the divine purposes. The historical revelations within the Christian faith are unique historical expressions of the love that has been embedded within all entities, processes, and persons in the universe. God works, and has always worked from the inside-out (rather than from the outside-in) as the deepest energy of the world. Jesus is thus the human face – and the most radical expression – of this divine love that has always been at work within all of creation. Jesus is the sacrament of God and salvation for the world. As such, divine action is sacramental in nature, and Jesus is our lens of discernment for other kinds of sacramental divine action in the world. Finally, even though the Christ-event is the most central special divine act of God, it is not special because God has intervened more strongly in the Christ-event. It is special because of the nature of the mediation – the humanity of Jesus as totally and wholly open to God invited this ultimate special divine act.

"How God Acts: Creation, Redemption, and Special Divine Action" by Denis Edwards (Pt. 4)

In chapter 3 of Denis Edward’s new book “How God Acts”, we are presented with a fascinating doctrine of creation that builds on Raher’s theology of divine self-bestowal – that God chooses to give God’s self in love to what is not divine, and so creation comes to be. In this theology of creation, it is the divine self-bestowing love that enables evolutionary emergence, creates through natural processes, and enables and respects creaturely autonomy. Key to this theology of creation is the assertion that although we experience God’s actions in creation (limited by time and place) as differentiated and specific, they are all actually part of one divine act, “…an act of faithful, creating, and redeeming love.” Also key to this theology is that the incarnation has always been the central purpose in creation. The incarnation was not “plan B” to deal with sin, but with Duns Scotus, the incarnation is understood as the giving of God’s self to creation in love. So creation is intimately bound up with incarnation as one act of self-bestowal. Additionally, final fulfillment (eschatology) is also part of this one divine act. God is the core of the world’s reality, directing all of creation from within towards final fulfillment – which is itself the same act by which all of creation is being directed. I found this quote to be quite stimulating: “The Creator not only enables things to exist and act, but also enables them to become something radically new, as when life first appears in a lifeless universe. The immanent presence and ‘pressure’ of the divine being enables creation to become more than it is in itself.” In this context, the entire Christ-event is the “radical self-transcendence of the created universe into God.” Jesus is understood as part of evolutionary history – truly human. But he is uniquely and completely open to God. This is Christology from below. From above, Jesus is God’s radical self-bestowal on creation: “Jesus, in his life, death, and resurrection, is the culmination of the process of evolutionary emergence, although one that has not yet reached fulfillment.”

Edwards then moves into a discussion of noninterventionist divine action. First, God does not occasionally intervene from outside, but is constantly present within all of creation, enabling and empowering creaturely processes and existence itself. God never violates the laws of nature, but works through them within them. Additionally, because of the revelation of the cross, God puts Godself at risk by sharing in the joys and pains of creation by being present within all of creation – closer to creation than it is to itself. The resurrection offers the hope that God will ultimately achieve God’s purposes with creation. Still, God has freely accepted limitations by creating in love. God respect the autonomy of creation: “It appears from the Christ-event that God’s way is that of being committed to allowing events to unfold, even when they are radically opposed to the divine will, and to bring healing and liberation in and through them.” Like a jazz musician, God improvises and responds to creation as events unfold. God has inscribed chance and randomness in the universe to “ensure variety, resilience, novelty, and freedom in the universe, right up to humanity itself.” (quoting Elizabeth Johnson). Once again, God takes risks because randomness is real. It is, in fact, an expression of divine creativity. So God is not a rigid God bound by natural laws, but does work through them as well to achieve his purposes. God also works through chance to bring out the potentialities of creation, “enabling the new to emerge.”

"How God Acts: Creation, Redemption, and Special Divine Action" by Denis Edwards (Pt. 3)

In chapter 2 of Denis Edward’s exciting new book “How God Acts”, he sets the foundation for his theology of divine action upon the “Christ-event” – the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit amongst the early Christians. He discusses two interrelated questions in the chapter: first, what did Jesus think about the nature of divine action? Second, what else can we learn about divine action from analyzing the death, resurrection, and outpouring of the Spirit?

Jesus’ life and ministry revolved entirely around his announcement – and enactment(s) – of the kingdom of God. What does this mean? Edwards dives into this question via the parables, healing, table fellowship, and community of Jesus. In all four of these aspects of the life of Jesus, he is not only calling for participation in the kingdom that is in some way present now, but also acting out the kingdom in anticipation of it’s future arriving fullness. The key insights are Jesus’ call, through words and deeds, to inclusive, nonviolent, loving communities of healing and liberation. As Edward’s writes, “I see Jesus’ actions as ‘fragmentary,’ ‘historical,’ ‘limited,’ and ‘finite’ anticipations of salvation to come.” That is, the kingdom is both present and future, and we are called to participate in it now. God is not a remote God, but one who constantly participates with humans within history. Quoting Marcus Borg, Denis Edward’s proposes a “participatory eschatology,” where God needs our participation to bring about his purposes. The choice between God does it or we do it is a false dichotomy. God chooses to respect our autonomy and the integrity of the natural world, and work through entirely natural processes to bring about his purposes. God waits lovingly upon creation to respond, to repent, to participate in the coming kingdom.

In light of this understanding of the life and ministry of Jesus as participatory-kingdom oriented, what do we make of the cross? Jesus dies as a result of his radical life message – his passion. Edwards believes that Jesus ponders the significance of his death, and sees it as meaningful in some way, but does not believe God willed the death of Jesus. Despite the rejection and murder of God’s bearer of good news by human beings, God transforms the unexpected tragedy of the cross into a means of liberation and redemption. Over against traditional evangelical dogma, “Jesus’ mission was to form a community of mutual love and forgiveness instead of domination, and it proved to be a failure…[but] Jesus accepts his failure and death and entrusts all to God to bring God’s purposes to fulfillment through his death.” This act of self-giving love is answered in resurrection and Pentecost – God’s self-bestowal upon creation. The kingdom is made present through Jesus death, resurrection, and the Spirit-formed community of followers of the Way. God thus waits on natural processes and human freedom to accomplish his will. In the cross, God also enters into and embraces the suffering of the world (costs of evolution). Here we have a theology of kenosis (Moltmann) and divine self-bestowal (Rahner). The cross thus becomes a self-definition of God, revealing a divine power that respects the autonomy of human freedom and natural processes, but the resurrection reveals that God will keep his promise of justice and redemption for creation.

"How God Acts: Creation, Redemption, and Special Divine Action" by Denis Edwards (Pt. 2)

In Chapter 1 of Denis Edward’s new book “How God Acts”, he outlines his scientific understandings that will guide his attempts to construct a noninterventionist theology of divine action. He begins by telling the awesome story of the emergence of the universe 13.7 billion years ago in purely scientific terms. The emergence of biological life and consciousness took a lot of time, and was very costly. Yet God not only enabled all of these processes, but waited patiently throughout the process – always working in and through the processes of evolution. God is a God who creates “in an emergent and evolutionary way.” Edwards outlines the basic idea of emergent complexity. Everything in the universe is interrelated and in a dependent relationship with other elements and entities: “We human beings depend upon many different systems both inside and outside ourselves. Atoms that make up the neurons of our brains were formed in long-dead stars. We are dependent upon and interrelated with the universe. Closer to home, we become who we are in relationship to families, communities, and the land to which we belong, with its animals, birds, trees, flowers, insects, and bacteria.” However, theologically speaking, the most important relationship of all in this complex hierarchy of relationships is not accessible to science, and that is the indwelling Creator Spirit in all things that enables everything to exist. All of creation participates in the Trinitarian, communal life of God. This is the beginning of Edward’s formulation of his version of panentheism.

Thankfully, Edwards rejects Intelligent Design and “god of the gaps” theological reflection in general. Science is rightly committed to methodological naturalism. Just because science cannot explain certain natural phenomena does not necessarily mean that it will never be able to. On the other hand, science is still somewhat limited. It can’t tell us why there is anything at all, why there is order in the universe, what the meaning of our lives and deaths are, the significance of the universe, or the endless human search for meaning. This is where theology and philosophy comes in, and Christian theology can help provide answers to these questions in ways that science cannot. Edwards wants to give science it’s proper place, and allow theology to go where science cannot take us. This means totally respecting the integrity and autonomy of natural science as God-given.

While being careful not to suppose an idea of “progress” in evolution, Edwards does agree with recent work in convergent evolution suggesting overall directionality that moves towards greater complexity, and that something like humanity was bound to emerge eventually. While Edwards doesn’t suggest natural evidence for a cosmic blueprint, purpose, or design, he believes that science is still open-ended on this (not ruling them out, but not proving it either). The “fine-tuning” of the universe, while not proving a designer, still fits naturally with the idea of a God who has acted and continues to act purposefully in the universe. But he is very careful to admit this is a Christian theological interpretation of the data. This is a humble proposal that fits with the idea of a God who is achieving his purposes, through randomness and natural laws, that ultimately brings about life and higher consciousness in the universe.

Embracing the results of science entails rethinking pain and death, not entirely as the result of human sin, but as intrinsic to the process of evolution. Without them, the beauty and diversity of the world would not exist: “Death is the price we pay for a world in which there are wings, eyes, and brains.” Furthermore, consciousness would not exist without pain and suffering through evolution. So death is a thermodynamic necessity. Still, evolution is a costly process. Pain, suffering, and loss must be dealt with theologically.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

"How God Acts: Creation, Redemption, and Special Divine Action" by Denis Edwards (Pt. 1 - Preface)

I noticed this new and exciting book by Denis Edwards a few months ago on Amazon and found it to be very intriguing. After reading Philip Clayton's "Adventures in the Spirit", I have been very interested in the theology of divine action. I also recently finished LeRon Shults' "Christology and Science" and am in the middle of reading Keith Ward's "The Big Questions in Science and Religion", both of which address this same issue of divine action. This is a very complex discussion that stretches my intellect and imagination, but I recognize that it is absolutely vital for the development of a robust Christian theology. For those of us who find eschatology and even the "bodily" resurrection of Jesus at the center of our theological imaginations, developing a better theology of divine action in dialogue with late modern science and philosophy is deeply important to the overall impact of our faith.

I will be blogging through this book as I can over the coming weeks, starting today with Edwards' Preface to the book. First of all, Edwards is a Senior Lecturer in Systematic Theology in the School of Theology of Flinders University in Australia ( Edwards' is apparently very influenced by Karl Rahner's idea of creation as divine self-bestowal, and he uses Rahner frequently throughout the book. He also credits Ted Peters and Robert John Russell at GTU in Berkeley for helping him develop many of the ideas in this book.

The struggle for a Christian theology of divine action is in dealing with special divine acts - the incarnation, resurrection, miracles, and God's answering of prayer. Can we think about these ideas in a way that doesn't put forth a God who micromanages and aggravates the problem of evil? Edwards believes that we can at least do better than we have done in the past, and he is setting out to develop a theology of divine action that is deeply relational and also noninterventionist. In fact, he thinks that it is due to our limited perspective of scientific knowledge, and impoverished concepts of God that makes us interpret special divine acts as "interventionist." At the same time, Edwards issues a strong caution against believing that we can ever develop a satisfactory theodicy, or that even his integrated model of divine action will remove or explain "the intractable theological problem of suffering, [although] it may remove something that exacerbates the problem." Edwards later issues a similar caution: "The title of this book could be a little misleading. It will become evident to readers that there is a sense in which I believe we cannot say how God acts. We cannot describe the inner nature of divine action any more than we can know or describe the divine nature." Still, Edwards believes that we can do better in our articulation of these special divine acts.

Edwards sets up three requirements for a theology of divine action that properly responds to the costs of evolution: 1) It must be "noninterventionist that sees God working in a through the world, rather than as arbitrarily intervening to send suffering to some and not others." 2) God's act of creating the universe needs to be understood in light of the resurrection and eschatological hope 3) It understands God as "actively waiting upon finite creaturely processes, living with the constraints of these processes, accompanying each creature in love, rejoicing in every emergence, suffering with every suffering creature, and promising to bring all to healing and fullness of life."

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Book Review: "The Nature of Love" by Thomas Jay Oord

Thomas Jay Oord has written a theological gem with this one. Having read about this book on his blog, I picked it up and read it within a few days of receiving it in the mail. First of all, the writing is accessible and clear, and Oord never wanders far from his main thesis that a robust theology of love must be at the center of the Christian faith. In fact, Oord could easily have written a longer book on this topic, but instead packed his ideas into a concise 157 pages. What emerges is, first of all, a holistic definition of love (see the product description). After making a convincing case to return love to the center of Christian theology on biblical and philosophical grounds, Oord defines love around "agape", "eros", and "philia" and offers an excellent critique of Augustinian love theology. He then moves into a chapter length discussion of Open Theism, offering a brief history, overview, and critiques/modifications in light of difficult questions of theodicy. The final chapter is where he puts everything in place for his version of open/relational theology. Calling it "essential kenosis" (a kind of panentheism), it occupies a middle ground between Clark Pinnock's version of Open Theism and Process Theology. He maintains that essential kenosis is not only more philosophically satisfying for questions of love and theodicy than usual forms of process theology, but also more biblical than Pinnock's Open Theism. In what will surely be one of the most discussed sections of this book, Oord holds to a traditional orthodox (bodily/physical) view of the resurrection of Jesus, but explains its occurrence as participation between non-coercive divine resurrecting activity and the creaturely and divine aspect of the person of Jesus. Oord argues that even dead bodies retain a measure of agency and responsiveness to stimuli, and that it is thus conceivable to maintain that God never coerces, while also believing in a bodily resurrection of Jesus. He argues in similar ways for actual miracles and eschatology. His view of eschatology will certainly spark debate, as he asserts that belief in a non-coercive God requires us to hold to a participatory eschatology. This is a logical step in his theology of essential kenosis, because if God never coerces but always requires creaturely participation, a guaranteed final victory at the end is out of the question. In other words, Oord believes that the end does not justify the means. We cannot be absolutely certain of a final glorious outcome, but instead must put our hope in "the steadfast, kenotic, and noncoercive love of God." Overall, this is a fantastic contribution to contemporary Christian theology. Highly recommended.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Lecture by Keith Ward on Divine Action

I've been getting into Keith Ward lately. Brilliant professor from Oxford. I found this lecture on divine action very interesting. Have a look:

Keith Ward: "Does Science Allow for Revelation and Divine Action?" from Metanexus Institute on Vimeo.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

The End Is Near!: The Apocalyptic Revelation of a Jewish Mystical Prophet (BIBLIOGRAPHY)

The posts took up 5 parts, so scroll through the last week to find parts 1-5. I can't get my footnotes to show on the blog, but here is my bibliography.

Allison, Dale C. Jesus of Nazareth: Millenarian Prophet. Minneapolis: Augsburg
Fortress, 1998.

Allison, Dale. Resurrecting Jesus. New York: T&T Clark, 2005.

Allison, Dale C. The Historical Christ and the Theological Jesus. Grand Rapids: Wm. B.
Eerdmans Publishing, 2009.

Bokser, Ben Zion. The Jewish Mystical Tradition. New Jersey: Jason Aronson, 1993.

Borg, Marcus and N.T. Wright. The Meaning of Jesus: Two Visions. New York:
HarperOne, 1999.

Collins, Adela Yarbro and John J. Collins. King and Messiah as Son of God: Divine,
Human, and Angelic Messianic Figures. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing,

Collins, John J. The Apocalyptic Imagination. New York: The Crossroad Publishing
Company, 1984.

Dunn, James D.G. The Evidence For Jesus. Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1985.

Ehrman, Bart D. Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium. New York: Oxford
University Press, 1999.

Ehrman, Bart D. Jesus Interrupted. New York: HarperCollins, 2009.

Fredriksen, Paula. Jesus of Nazareth: King of the Jews. New York: Vintage Books, 1999.

Meir, John P. A Marginal Jew, Vol. II: Mentor, Message, and Miracles. New York:
Double Day, 1994.

Miller, Robert J. The Apocalyptic Jesus: A Debate. Santa Rosa: Polebridge Press, 2001.

Sanders, E.P. The Historical Figure of Jesus. London: Allen Lane The Penguin Press,

Sanders, E.P. Jesus and Judaism. UK: Fortress Press, 1985.

Vermes, Geza. Jesus the Jew. New York: MacMillan Publishing, 1973.