Friday, July 22, 2011

C.S. Lewis and the Delay of Parousia

C.S. Lewis
I ran across this surprising quote in a blog post recently, and honestly, I did not believe it was really C.S. Lewis - the famous evangelical apologist - when I first read it.  Indeed, it comes from an old essay of his entitled "The World's Last Night."  Without a doubt, this view that Lewis took on the delay of parousia is not something that his more conservative admirers would be fond of noting:

“…'the apocalyptic beliefs of the first Christians have been proven to be false. It is clear from the New Testament that they all expected the Second Coming in their own lifetime…[Jesus] shared, and indeed created, their delusion. He said in so many words, ‘this generation shall not pass till all these things be done.’ And he was wrong. He clearly knew no more about the end of the world than anyone else.' It is certainly the most embarrassing verse in the Bible...The facts, then, are these: that Jesus professed himself (in some sense) ignorant, and within a moment showed that he really was so.”

Albert Schweitzer
You can read the essay here in full context.  Lewis goes on immediately to explain how to understand this theologically without giving up belief in the incarnation or eschaton.  He also firmly (and rightly, in my own view) rejects the well-known 'thoroughgoing apocalypticism' perspective of Albert Schweitzer, which reduces everything Jesus did and taught to being rooted in a failed apocalyptic view - and thus virtually irrelevant.  Even so, I find it to be quite incredible that he held to the more general view of the delay of parousia that some contemporary biblical scholars like N.T. Wright (who has essentially been branded as the new C.S. Lewis) work hard to reinterpret in order to get Jesus off the hook.  I think Lewis is right here, actually.  Some of the most important biblical scholars of recent years have continued to affirm in their own ways this general view on the delay of parousia that Lewis admits here: James D.G. Dunn, E.P. Sanders, Dale Allison, and Plus, a large number of major Christian theologians have also had no trouble affirming that Jesus was wrong about the timing of the eschaton and then integrating this perspective into their overall theological vision - Wolfhart Pannenberg, Reinhold Niebuhr, and John Cobb come to mind.  But then again, these are not exactly popular evangelical apologists like C.S. Lewis is known as today.

This is yet another challenge it seems to me for the already tense evangelical relationship with Lewis.  First, they realized that he affirmed theistic evolution.  Then it's become more widely known that he is not too far from Rob Bell's currently popular, controversial, and inclusivist - or perhaps hopeful universalist - view on salvation: that even after death, one is still able to choose heaven and leave hell behind. Now he says Jesus was wrong about the timing of the eschaton.  Ouch.

On a related note, a friend at CGU recently told me that there was a major survey taken amongst a large number biblical scholars on the historical Jesus within the last few years and a strong majority affirms that Jesus was an apocalypticist, while the non-apocalyptic view of the Jesus Seminar is apparently in the minority these days.  So when Bart Ehrman argues in his popular books that the general information about the apocalyptic Jesus he is providing is rooted in the dominant views of the academy, he's not lying.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Relational Theology For the Emergent Church: Moltmann & Cobb

I'm writing my master's thesis on the ecological theologies of the German Reformed theologian Jürgen Moltmann and the American Methodist process theologian John Cobb.  These two widely influential theologians are about the same age (Cobb is 86, Moltmann is 85), have some very interesting overlapping emphases in their 'relational' theological programs (despite important differences), and converge even closer in their progressive politics.  I'm convinced that they are two of the most important theologians today for the wildly diverse emergent church.  Now, before you protest that the last thing we need is to exclusively concentrate on more white male Western theologians, let me agree with you wholeheartedly.  But that's part of my point in highlighting these two theologians from an older generation - they have been at the forefront of encouraging a more diverse theological conversation, engaging with feminist, Latin American, African, and Korean theologies.  To highlight these two theologians is then to also provide positive examples for what is often criticized as a mostly white emergent church movement talking amongst themselves, while at the same time showing that a lot of what we are 'emerging' into has been pioneered by an older generation of theologians.  Now, indulge me if you will as I explain my reasoning for pointing out these two classic thinkers.

But first, what is the emergent church?  In a nutshell, it's a young and growing post-modern, post-evangelical, post-liberal, even post-denominational movement that started in the 1990s.  Some of the emergent movement today is rooted in deconstructive postmodernism (especially influenced by the negative/apophatic theologies of Peter Rollins and John Caputo), some are post-liberal/Hauerwasians/anabaptists, while perhaps a very small minority are engaged in Radical Orthodoxy.  I am not attracted to any of these options myself, though I continue to learn a great deal from all of them.  I have a hunch that many persons in the emergent church today are moving (or have already moved) in yet other directions.

By my lights, the emergent church today is primarily under the philosophical influence of either deconstructive or constructive postmodernism.  True, the beginnings of 'the great emergence' was characterized by a lot of deconstruction in its first decade, but it seems to me that in the last few years we've seen a lot more constructive approaches growing in the movement (many have remarked that Brian McLaren's latest book is his most constructive to date).  While it was a necessary phase, some of us got tired of the constant wrecking balls of Derrida and started rebuilding...some of us traded our deconstructive 'hermeneutic of suspicion' and moved on to a constructive 'hermeneutic of humility.'  I would argue that for those in the constructive postmodern stream of emergence (I count myself here), there are two standout older theologians that we should be listening to alongside other younger emerging voices.  In short, these two theologians matter for emergent Christians because they both manage to move beyond the simplistic evangelical/liberal divide.

Jürgen Moltmann
Moltmann is what you might call a neo-Barthian - basically confessional and creedal, but radical and progressive in ways that one doesn't expect to see in orthodox theology.  It would not be fair to call Moltmann an evangelical in my opinion (indeed, even relatively moderate evangelicals like Roger Olson and Stanley Grenz have accused Moltmann of heresy for the various moves he makes in his panentheistic relational theology), but neither is he a liberal.  His stance on scripture is much more critical than the dominant evangelical position; he advocates for LGBT inclusion in the church; is a panentheist; affirms a great deal of feminist theology (his wife Elisabeth is a feminist theologian); has influenced and been influenced by Latin American liberation theology; is deeply ecological in focus; he's developed a theology of mysticism; affirms theistic evolution; is a universalist (though not a religious pluralist); and his politics are leftist.  But unlike liberal theology, Moltmann holds to orthodox ideas like the divinity, bodily resurrection, and parousia of Christ, the centrality of the cross, and the doctrine of the Trinity.  In a neo-Barthian fashion, he presupposes God's self-revelation in Israel and the Christ-event and thus only engages in natural theology in the light of these core biblical events - as he says, "Christian theology is the true natural theology."  Even so, he feels free to criticize certain parts of the bible for failing to describe the image of God revealed in Jesus.  He is remarkably open to discovering truth in other religions, emphasizes the importance of inter-religious dialogue, calls for religions to work together for the sake of justice, but nevertheless holds to the ultimate universal salvation of all through Christ alone.  For many progressive post-evangelicals in the emergent church movement, Moltmann's program is ideal in that it holds to many core convictions of their evangelical/orthodox background while moving in a more progressive, open, inclusive direction.  Key for Moltmann is that his theology is always in process, "on the way", and partial - mere "contributions" to a wider, global conversation.  Both Tony Jones and Danielle Shroyer, leaders in the emergent church, are self-described 'Moltmanniacs' (though I know at least Jones parts ways here and there with Moltmann).  As helpful as the currently popular N.T. Wright is in many ways, Moltmann seems to me to be more in line with the ideals of post-evangelical emergent Christians.  Emergents may want to modify some of Moltmann's thought in the light of other similar theologians like Wolfhart Pannenberg, Elizabeth Johnson, and Jon Sobrino, but he nevertheless provides an incredible conversation partner.  For starters, check out either his recent "Sun of Righteousness, Arise!" or his mini-Christology, "Jesus Christ for Today's World."

John B. Cobb, Jr.
John Cobb on the other hand is a liberal theologian, but like Moltmann, he is not so easily categorized.  In my view, he transcends most liberal theologies while preserving their basic intuitions much like Moltmann transcends orthodox/evangelical theologies.  He is certainly not a Barthian, but engages in a form of natural theology called process theology (which like Moltmann's trinitarian vision, is panentheistic and relational).  With liberals, he affirms that the Christian faith must be evaluated based on the best knowledge of our day.  He does not presuppose God's uniquely special revelation in Israel and the Christ-event like Moltmann or Barth does (Christianity should not involve that kind of "special pleading", Cobb argues), but still seeks to demonstrate on the basis of history and philosophy why the Christ-event and history of Israel are objectively important and worth committing one's life to.  In this sense, Cobb remains 'confessional.'  But the doctrine of the trinity, Jesus' divinity, resurrection, or any other belief about him must still be evaluated on the basis of the best historical-critical scholarship, philosophical, and scientific thinking of our day. At the same time, Cobb's theology is different from other liberals in that it remains christocentric.  While most liberals are theocentric, Cobb keeps Jesus central even as a committed religious pluralist.  Unlike some liberals, Cobb affirms that God is an actual reality, is in some sense personal ('not-less-than-personal'), and is constantly involved in the world to bring about the greater good in history through persuasive power.  Cobb's process vision of God is neither a purely apophatic or deistic God, to be sure.  For all of his liberal inclinations, Cobb manages to be open to the real possibility of an afterlife, emphasizes the importance of prayer, and affirms that Jesus most likely really healed people (process theology rejects divine intervention, but God's persuasive power is nevertheless sometimes capable of bringing about some kinds of physical healing).  His process logos/wisdom Christology affirms that Jesus was much more than a mere prophet or good teacher, coming close to the intuitions of the Chalcedonian definition (even as he rejects the Trinity as an unnecessary philosophical speculation).  He takes sin seriously, is deeply concerned with renewing the church for today, and seeks to keep his theology closely rooted in the bible (he's even written a commentary on Romans). For emergent Christians who truly lean liberal rather than post-evangelical, John Cobb offers a powerful version of liberal Christianity that in my view is a great improvement on the more popular versions offered by Marcus Borg and John Shelby Spong.  Emergent Christians may want to modify Cobb's thinking in dialogue with other similar thinkers like Marjorie Suchocki, Joseph Bracken, Philip Clayton, or Bruce Epperly, but like Moltmann he is a powerful dialogue partner on our quest for a new kind of Christianity.  I would also like to point out here that emergent leader Doug Pagitt recently blogged about his appreciation for process theology, while Tripp Fuller at Homebrewed Christianity has been working out his own style of process theology for a while now. Check Cobb's Christology in "Christ in a Pluralistic Age," his more philosophical interaction with Whitehead in "A Christian Natural Theology," or for an intro to process see his classic book co-written with David Ray Griffin "Process Theology."  Lay persons might want to first read his two little books "The Process Perspective, I & II" for a really easy intro to Cobb's thinking.

I have argued that while the emergent conversation obviously won't find all their answers in Cobb or Moltmann, they will indeed discover deep wisdom in these two experienced thinkers (and as I argue in my thesis, deep wisdom for the ecological crisis in particular).  I myself can't get on board with everything either one of these thinkers say, but I consider them to be key theological dialogue partners for my own evolving theological vision.  While many have been looking to biblical scholars like N.T. Wright and Marcus Borg as the contrasting options for progressive/emergent thinking Christians today ("Are you with Wright or with Borg?" some Christians tend to ask), I think that we need to turn to theologians like Moltmann and Cobb as well - in fact, I think these theologians have better options than the Wright/Borg (false) dichotomy offers.  Again, we absolutely need more diverse voices in a post-modern age, but both Moltmann and Cobb have been emphasizing this point for decades.

Thinking About Atonement w/Andrew Sung Park (pt.3)

[Picking up an older series about Park's "Triune Atonement" book that I never finished blogging about here.  Click here for the first one introducing the basics of the book, and here for the second post I wrote up back in May about Park's analysis of four older atonement theories.  Here I'll blog about the last three atonement theories]

5) Penal Substitution: This is probably the most common version of atonement theory post-Reformation, popular especially today amongst evangelicals.  Unlike Anslem, John Calvin sees Jesus not just as a satisfaction but as a substitute for the punishment humans deserved for their sins.  Until Jesus' death, we sinners were God's enemies, deserving only of death.  But out of love, God sent his son to die in our place to appease his need for justice.

  • Strengths: Possibly supported by several biblical passages; emphasizes the importance of resurrection.
  • Weaknesses: Promotes violence in the name of salvation - even potentially justifying child abuse and/or spousal abuse through glorifying redemptive suffering; unclear why God needs to punish in order to forgive (even Jesus taught before his death of a forgiving God); punishing an innocent person in place of the guilty is immoral. 
6) The Last Scapegoat Theory: This one's a bit more complicated.  Arising out of the work of 20th century Christian anthropologist Rene Girard, here we need to understand 'mimesis' - basically the idea that humans tend to mimic each other's behavior. Mimesis tends to spiral towards competitive relationships in society, then to severe social tension, conflict, & even violence.  In order to avoid total social destruction, tension is released by turning to a single person and blaming them for all the uproar - a 'scapegoat.'  This person is already socially a marginalized member of the community.  The community kills the person and social peace & order are largely reinstated as it (re)generates a wide sense of social camaraderie.  This is the 'scapegoating mechanism' - sacrificial rituals to alleviate the social and cultural pressures of violence due to mimetic conflict.  Jesus' death is meant to end this whole process of scapegoating that has occured throughout history - he's the 'last scapegoat' to end all sacrifices because of his absolute innocence.  The superior power of his resurrection overcomes the weaker power of scapegoating, unmasking the powers that reinforce the scapegoat mechanism (imperialism, 'satan', etc.) for their evil and injustice.  This is a nonviolent atonement theory.

  • Strengths: Recognizes that it was human violence, not God that is responsible for Jesus' death; biblical support; highlights importance of the resurrection.
  • Weaknesses: His mimetic theory that human nature, culture, and civilization are built on conflict, rivalry, and violence needs more support; despite Christ being the last scapegoat in this theory, the cycle of mimetic violence and injustice continues in history - in fact, violence has only escalated in history; does not emphasize the importance of transforming human hearts - one could say that our 'mimetic nature' needs to be transformed, not just our practice of violence.
7) The Nonviolent Narrative Christus Victor Theory: This newer and thoroughly nonviolent atonement theory arises from the work of Mennonite theologian J. Denny Weaver. Weaver defines violence as not just physical harm of another, but also damaging a person's dignity or self-esteem. Atonement must be nonviolent, in harmony with the biblical narrative of the nonviolent Jesus. Jesus' mission was not to die, but to proclaim the nonviolent Reign of God and to show that God deals with evil nonviolently.  But Jesus' mission was threatening to the powers of this world, so they crucified him.  The powers of this world are what is meant by the biblical symbol of the "devil" - any system or individual that opposes the Reign of God.  We all play a role in Jesus' death whenever we sinfully side with the powers (e.g. the 'devil'), but God forgives us with a costly grace when we join in faith in following Jesus - entering and embodying the Christ narrative.  Jesus' death does not satisfy God's need for justice, but reveals the evil of the powers that be to convict the oppressors.  His resurrection defeats the powers for us, but until the end of history, evil is present but nevertheless limited.

Strengths: Rightly emphasizes Jesus' nonviolent resistance against injustice and oppression as a part of atonement; includes both oppressed and oppressors in salvation equation; integrates theology and ethics - to tell this story of Jesus is to follow him; emphasizes not Jesus death, but his life and resurrection as well.

Weaknesses: Does not explain why we must live with evil until the eschaton if in fact Jesus already defeated it in his resurrection; does not fully recognize the power of the risen Christ and Paraclete/Holy Spirit for ongoing atonement work; wrongly equates salvation with liberation when salvation is for the oppressors and liberation is for the oppressed.

The final blog posts on this great book will outline Park's own proposal for atonement theology.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Rethinking the Omni-God

[This post concentrates mainly on rethinking our view of God by pointing out the differences between traditional theism and biblical theism.  Biblical theism has a tendency to seem particularly anthropomorphic, but I think it is a much less problematic view than traditional theism.  In another post, I will show how process theology deals with the anthropomorphism of Biblical theism while retaining its basic intuitions much better than traditional theism.]

It's time we all shed our notion of a Greek male deity that we have inherited from the Christian tradition (heavily influenced by Greek philosophy in the early centuries of the church) and reclaim a more Hebrew image of God like that of Jesus.  The traditional view of God that prevails amongst Christians today is the omni-view of God - you know what I'm talking about: omnipotent, omnipresent, omniscient.  The omni's tend to imply stereotypically masculine and static ideas about God like impassibility, meaning that God is not affected by the world, and immutability, meaning that nothing about God ever changes.  The ideal male for ancient and modern sensibilities was detached, unaffected, controlling, and exercising significant power over others. Never mind the biblical picture of a genderless God who nevertheless shows motherly qualities alongside of fatherly ones; never mind the biblical picture of a God who experiences all sorts of emotions and feelings in response to the world; and never mind the equally biblical picture of a God who changes 'his' mind in response to what are apparently surprising events in the world for God's own experience of it.  Seriously, just re-read the Old Testament and you will see this more dynamic picture of the motherly-fatherly God all over the place!

But wait a minute...if God changes God's mind in response to genuinely new events in the world, doesn't that call into question God's omniscience? Yes it does, at least in the traditional sense of a God who exists outside of time and therefore sees all times simultaneously.  The biblical view of God is of one who journey's in history with 'her' people, experiencing their joys and sufferings in solidarity.  Because God's mind sometimes changes in response to events in the bible, we see a picture of a God who does not know the future exhaustively.  As such, we need to qualify omnipresence too: even though God is truly present everywhere in the world, God is not simultaneously present to all the times of history (past, present, and future).  Rather, God perfectly remembers the entire past, is fully aware of everything that happens in the present, but does not know the future because it does not yet exist even for God.  So is God eternal?  That depends on what you mean by eternal.  Most people understand that to mean that God is outside of time, unaffected by history.  In this sense, no, God is not eternal.  While eternal can (and should) be redefined, for the sake of present purposes we can say that God is everlasting.  God will certainly never die, forget the past, or stop being loving - but God is temporally affected and involved in the processes of history.

As for the idea omnipotence, that God can do whatever God wants in the world, I think this needs to be called into question as well for two reasons: first, it goes against God's nature as love; second, because omnipotence creates impossible problems for evil in the world (what philosophers call "theodicy").  I will discuss these below: 

1) If God's essence is really love, as 1 John 4 most explicitly claims, then God must always provide freedom for his creation and must not act coercively on it.  To ever deny freedom to creation or coerce it in any way would be a denial of God's nature as love - something God, by definition, cannot actually do.  Biblical love in the fullest sense means that God loves the world in spite of its poor decisions to go against God's call (agape), that God loves the world by enhancing its already existing value that the world has brought forth (eros), and that God loves the world by cooperating alongside of it to promote overall well-being (philia).  This all adds up to a God who acts persuasively in the world, not coercively intervening from outside, interrupting the freedom of the world at any point to do as God so desires.  God patiently and always works in, with, and alongside of the world to achieve the divine vision for the future (the kingdom of God).  I will flesh out the fuller implications of that another time, but note that I do not think this rules out the possibility of surprising things happening in the world through persuasive divine action, such as the historical likelihood that Jesus really healed some people.  Yes, the bible envisions a God who is quite powerful, I agree (although I admit to being skeptical of many of the more fantastical stories in the bible, particularly on historical grounds).  But I do not think the God we see in the bible is really all powerful. With a closer reading, the God of the bible is limited by history, human freedom, and 'his' own nature as love.

2) If my previous argument is correct, then we should be thankful that God is not really omnipotent.  The classic philosophical problem that omnipotence raises (theodicy) is the following: if God is all powerful and truly good, why is there so much senseless evil in the world?  Unless God's goodness has no actual parallel to what humans mean by good - which would mean we should stop saying that God is in fact good because it is meaningless for us to say so - then God's failure to use his absolute power to stop what are clearly senseless and horrific evils (rape, genocide, etc) makes God actually complicit in evil. Many argue that everything in world history is part of God's plan and will. We have already seen that God does not know the future exhaustively, so no, everything that happens is not part of God's plan.  Additionally, to argue that things like rape or genocide are ever willed by God is morally unacceptable (to put it mildly).  The God revealed by the crucified Jesus is apparently a suffering God, one who redemptively suffers in solidarity with every victim of history's disasters.

Now, I turn my case of arguing against omnipotence over to one of my favorite theologians John Cobb, who points out that coercive power is not really powerful at all.  We need to re-think power in relational terms as persuasive rather than coercive.


Explore these ideas further:

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Changing My Mind

Change is hard.  I know I generally tend to resist it as much as the next person.  I recently discovered a couple of gray hairs on my head, and as insignificant as this may seem to my more mature readers, it's got me thinking about some things.  No, I wasn't freaked out about the gray showing up.  Not at all.  But being a generally thoughtful, introverted person - one who lives in his head most of the time, for better or worse - I started reflecting on all sorts of things in the light of yet another sign of my aging process.  I won't go into all of what I've been thinking about, but I do want to share one thing here on the blog.  That is, I want to tell you all about how I have changed as a Christian.  And indeed, I have changed...a lot.  These reflections are going to seem largely negative.  I believe these negative realizations are deeply important, but I realize it's frustrating to some.  Later, I will post on my positive affirmations: what I do believe, not merely what I reject.

Being an undergraduate religious studies major and then attending graduate school to study theology is a sure way to guarantee that you will experience some paradigm shifts in your faith.  I'm sure I will have more over my last year of studies, but this blog is where I process some of my ideas and occasionally share where I am at - so this is a 'confessional' blog post today.  As difficult - even painful - as this process of rethinking my faith has been for me at times, I also find it exciting and extremely important. The older I get, the harder it will be to deal with these paradigm shifts, so I want to take them seriously while I am young.

So how I have I changed?  To be blunt, I've gotten much more theologically liberal than my pentecostal upbringing.  There are many reasons for this, but I will list a couple important ones below.  I admit, there are smart people out there who disagree with me here, but hey - this is the best I can do with what I now know.  These are just my honest responses:

1) Biblical scholarship: Thanks to biblical scholarship, the bible I continue to read today is just not the same bible I grew up with, and there is simply no going back to the good old days.  I really have grown weary of the obfuscations of my well-meaning evangelical and emergent friends on this issue.  For instance, we work hard to explain away the clear patriarchal biases in the Bible to justify (rightly!) having women in leadership.  We engage in some seriously fancy 'hermeneutical gymnastics' (again, rightly) to get around the passages on slavery, racism, imperialism, and genocide that are so very obvious to even our most sympathetic non-Christian observers.  We (usually wrongly) try to develop coherent but conservative sexual moral codes based on a socio-cultural & pre-scientific context that we have very little in common with anymore.  I could go on.  The point is, we need to stop obfuscating about the bible, making special and rigid claims about authority on nothing but blind faith, and wrestle with it like the rabbis and even being willing to disagree with it when it just doesn't line up with our experiences and reason today.  And yes, that makes me liberal. So be it. I know there are problems with that position, I really do, but I'm convinced there are greater problems with the alternative.  I'm not giving up on scripture - far from it.  Inspired, yes - infallibly, inerrantly so - definitely not. 

2) Religious pluralism: I know this could be a cliche thing to point out, but the truth is, religious pluralism has changed my Christian faith.  I have spent a good deal of time with people from other traditions, learned new things from them, admired them, disagreed and agreed with them, and participated in their religious rituals.  I do not think all religious are the same, but I also cannot affirm the absolute superiority of Christianity either.  Christianity is one historical movement amongst others, and it has to continue to prove itself in a world of other distinct movements and ideas in an ever-changing world.  Many of these movements are deeply problematic, but others are quite powerful and transforming.  Christianity WILL be changed by these other traditions, and they will be changed by Christianity.  My hope is that we can begin to see a more complementary relationship between the traditions, even as they are mutually transformed.  As a result of this change in perspective, I am more interested in working with other religions on issues of justice and learning with each other through dialogue than trying to convert the religious other.  I am of course not opposed to conversion - I am a big fan of Jesus and love it when people discover this too - but it is not a priority today.

3) Postmodernism: As you might have noticed in another blog post, I reject a strong deconstructive postmodernism in favor of constructive postmodernism/critical realism.  But that still means that I am keenly aware that my own perspective and biases inescapably impact my discernment of truth.  I reject a relativism that says we cannot know truth, but I embrace a humility that says we are quite limited in what we can know.  As such, I take a much more humble stance in regards to my own Christian faith and am much more open to the different views of others - whether that 'other' be of another class, gender, religion, etc.  I assume they know something about truth that I do not.

4) Science: I've become engaged in process theology, largely as a result of my interactions with science.  Evolution has changed things and has put enormous pressure on evangelical theology.  Divine intervention and generally supernatural views are hard to maintain today.  For instance, it seems plain that there was no historical Adam and Eve who caused the fall of humans into sin and brought death into the world - death is a part of the creative process itself.  We were not created perfect only to sin and become subject to death afterwards.  Futhermore, nothing is static, everything is in process - this is the essence of reality that we now know thanks to Darwin. As such, there is good reason to doubt that there is such a thing as an unchanging essence of humans (a soul, at least in the traditional sense) or an essence of religion that we all need to discover and 'get back to.'  The essence of reality is change - to resist this is to go against the grain of the cosmos...which brings me back to my original point:

Change might be hard, but it's both good and essential to our well-being.  The common good, I believe, depends on our openness to change.  With process theologians, I believe that when we are open to being creatively transformed in the light of new information and experiences in history, we are participating with the God of Jesus Christ in the ongoing salvation of the world.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

"What do I love when I love God?"

In response to Augustine's classic discussion of this question, Jurgen Moltmann writes profoundly of what love of God means and urges us towards a more embodied, holistic, and socially-oriented spirituality:

    "When I love God I love the beauty of bodies, the rhythm of movements, the shining of eyes, the embraces, the feelings, the scents, the sounds of all this protean creation.  When I love you, my God, I want to embrace it all, for I love you with all my senses in the creations of your love.  In all the things that encounter me, you are waiting for me.
    For a long time I looked for you within myself, and crept into the shell of my soul, protecting myself with an armour of unapproachability.  But you were outside - outside myself - and enticed me out of the narrowness of my heart into the broad place of love for life. So i came out of myself and found my soul in my senses, and my own self in others.
    The experience of God deepens the experiences of life. It does not reduce them, for it awakens the unconditional Yes to life. The more I love God the more gladly I exist. The more immediately and wholly I exist, the more I sense the living God, the inexhaustible well of life, and life's eternity."

Saturday, July 2, 2011

The Way of Jesus: Poverty, Ecology, and Community

[This is a short 500 word meditation that I wrote about justice and community to submit to a journal.]

Five years ago, my wife and I joined a group of young emerging church planters who moved to northern California from Orange County to start a faith community. We united in our passion for working for justice together, especially poverty and environmental issues, as well as developing deep relationships within the church and our community. While our reading of the bible shaped our vision for the church, we primarily concentrated on trying to follow in the way of Jesus. But a surprising thing happened when we did this: we found ourselves agreeing with groups of Christians outside our original evangelical context.

Gustavo Gutiérrez
On poverty, our community discovered with Latin American liberation theologians that in Jesus, we see that God has a ‘preferential option for the poor.’ As Gustavo Gutiérrez points out, Jesus in Matthew 25 proclaims a shocking identity “between a deed of love in behalf of the poor and a deed done in behalf of the Son of Man…to give one’s life for justice is to give it for Christ himself.” As such, the gospel of the kingdom that Jesus proclaimed made a demand on us to work on behalf of the poor and marginalized in our area, opposing ways of life that did not benefit them.

On ecology, we realized that if God, out of love for the world was incarnate in the human Jesus, and if God raised him as a further sign of love for creation, then matter – and not just human bodies – really matters to God, and should matter to us too. With our liberal Christian neighbors then, our community made the environment a priority and found ourselves agreeing with ecological theologians like John Cobb, who in commenting on the words of Jesus in Matthew 6:26 and 10:31 writes, “if a man is worth many sparrows then a sparrow’s worth is not zero.”

On community, we noticed that Jesus’ 1st century movement of men and women disciples was grounded in the proclamation of the basileia tou theou, perhaps best translated as ‘commonweal of God.’ This politically subversive hope was based on a vision of God’s future for the world, bringing freedom from domination at every level of society. In response, we sought to shape our faith community on the commonweal vision of Jesus as a sign of this hopeful future – a scandalizing alternative to Caesar, emphasizing equality, mutuality, and inclusiveness. We found ourselves embracing what feminist theologians like Elizabeth Johnson called Jesus’ ‘inclusive table community’, which “widens the circle of friends of God to include the most disvalued people, even tax collectors, sinners, prostitutes.”

Sometimes following Jesus gets you into trouble, which our church experienced at times when we started to look ‘liberal.’ But this is no surprise to those of us who try to faithfully follow the crucified one. There is nothing easy about this way of justice and community, but it is right if we believe that as the incarnation of the Word, Jesus reveals the inner logic of things, the grain of the cosmos itself.