The Trouble with Unity

D&A.B.CoverChristian unity is a big deal. It was Jesus’ closing prayer before going to the cross, as recorded in John 17:

I pray they will be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. I pray that they also will be in us, so that the world will believe that you sent me. I’ve given them the glory that you gave me so that they can be one just as we are one. I’m in them and you are in me so that they will be made perfectly one. Then the world will know that you sent me and that you have loved them just as you loved me.

Yet unity has perhaps been the hardest thing for Christians to achieve.

I’m in Restoration History this semester, a class studying the history of the Restoration Movement, also known as the Stone-Campbell Movement. Its beginnings are as remarkable as its story is tragically ironic.

Two separate movements on the American frontier – one founded by Barton W. Stone and the other by Thomas Campbell and his son, Alexander – spontaneously decided to unify in the 1830s. They had some similarities, specifically they both had seceded (or been kicked out) of other denominations because of their commitment to seeking unity around only the items found in the “plain text” of the New Testament. Hurt by the excesses of their former denominations and suspicious of councils, creeds and enforced doctrine from appointed human leaders, they sought to restore the simplicity of the apostolic church, and though they didn’t agree on everything, they saw as paramount the New Testament call for unity.

They called themselves by different names – Disciples of Christ, Churches of Christ, Christian Churches – but they considered themselves part of one movement, a movement not incidentally that would usher in Jesus’ millennial reign within the political borders of America.

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What If Julian of Eclanum Had Beaten Augustine?

safe_image.phpWe all know St. Augustine of Hippo, the theological genius of the fourth and fifth centuries who influenced the medieval church more than any other bishop and continues to have significant influence today – particularly thanks to what I would say is the toxic doctrine of original sin, which has warped our view of human nature and sexuality so that we think of these things negatively rather than positively.

We don’t know as much about the people who opposed Augustine’s beliefs, those ill-fated objectors who raised objections to the doctrines he formulated. One of those was Julian of Eclanum, a southern Italian bishop who was deposed and excommunicated because he refused to sign Pope Zosimus’ edict against Pelagius. Julian was a second-generation Pelagian, the group against whom Augustine fought often in his career. Pelagians held an exalted view of human nature and held strongly to the notion of free will, contra Augustine’s leanings toward predestination, but did so to such an extent that they thought humans capable of achieving perfection in this life.

So of course these battles, as they often do, came down to two sides advocating the extremes of an issue, the one with a decidedly pessimistic view of humanity and its sexual proclivities, the other a decidedly optimistic, if not naive, view of the same.

Yet when we look at what Julian wrote – such as we know it, mostly through Augustine’s rebuttals – it’s hard not to get the sense that he was quite well ahead of his time, by about 1,500 years or so.

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How a Little Deceit Could Rescue the Atonement from Christian Violence

WEST-WING-ZIEGLER_458In Season 4 of the West Wing, White House communication director Toby Ziegler is rehashing the circumstances that led to the defeat – and subsequent unconfirmability – of a Democratic ally in Congress, Karen Kroft. In his conversation with the former congresswoman, he admits he knew a gas-tax bill she championed was doomed to fail, making her unpopular both with her constituents and the Republicans who would block her potential nomination to a parks service position.

“It was a loser,” he tells Kroft, “and I pushed to have you introduce it anyway.”

Kroft smiles at him warmly and reassures him: “That doesn’t make any difference.”

“I came out for the gas tax because someone from Michigan had to,” she goes on to explain. “Gas prices are too low. It’s why the air is polluted. It’s why no one wants alternative fuels.”

Toby gives that little smirk of his and retorts: “And clearly that argument took the nation by storm.”

And here’s where the conversation gets interesting:

“In my religion,” Kroft says, “the whole symbol of the religion ended in crucifixion and condemnation. That wasn’t the measure of the experience. It’s just the way it ended.

“But I’m the Romans,” Toby remarks.

“It’s in the living, Kroft replies. “It’s in the campaigning that you make your mark.”

It’s a fascinating exchange, filled with deep theological meaning – perhaps deeper than even writer Aaron Sorkin intended. Setting aside the notion that the Jesus experience ended with the crucifixion and not the resurrection, what is perhaps most striking about this conversation is how Kroft, a Christian, de-emphasizes the cross in favor of Jesus’ life. The crucifixion is “just the way it ended,” she says. “It’s in the living … that you make your mark.”

deceiving-the-devilThe statement struck me because the night before I saw this episode I had just finished tearing through Darby Kathleen Ray’s amazing Deceiving the Devil: Atonement, Abuse and Ransom (1998). In it, Ray argues the crucifixion has been misrepresented, misappropriated and misused for too long. The violence-filled atonement theories accepted by the church as “traditional” have been used to perpetrate, justify and ignore abuse and exploitation of women, children, the poor and the environment; their fruits are so toxic, these theories must be jettisoned for Christianity to recover its mission in the world, and a new one must be formed if the cross is to retain any meaning not just for the holders of power but for the oppressed and powerless, as well.

In a way, Ray is addressing the same questions that have been circling in my mind for several months: If a given doctrine contributes substantially to a toxic view of God, don’t we as Christians have a duty to renounce and remove that doctrine? If so, how do we determine which of these doctrines should be eliminated and which should be reworked? And who determines whether a given view of God is toxic anyway?

I’m not sure there are any good answers to these questions. Nevertheless, Ray’s approach is a challenging one to this white male who is surely oblivious of many of the issues Ray raises in her book. Some of these atonement doctrines are entrenched, and many – including myself – see them as crucial to the notions of redemption and salvation. Yet, as Ray hammers home again and again, the point is not that those of us western white males do not find certain passages or theories abusive; the point is that the abusive fruit is there for women, children, minorities, the developing world, indigenous cultures and the nonhuman creation.

This doctrine is based on assumptions about the nature of sin, God and salvation that together actually create and sustain what many today recognize as evil. Ironically, the very doctrine whose job it is to attempt to understand and articulate God’s response to evil perpetuates evil in the lives of many women, men and children. … This revered discourse on evil has come to mirror its subject matter and hence should be rejected.

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Class Day 2 – Athanasius and Gregory: God Is Not a Monster

AthanasiusMy wife has subscribed to Facebook updates from Nancy Leigh DeMoss, and while most of them are perfectly fine, every so often DeMoss posts something like this:

Did you notice who killed the firstborns? The Lord (Ex. 12:29). And years later, God Himself put to death His own beloved Son so we might be set free from slavery.

Back away slowly.

It’s worth remembering that even as the early church fathers explicitly focused on the notion of theoprepes, what is fitting for the divine, we do this, too. Everyone puts God in a box. Can God sin? If your answer is no, then you have decided it is not fitting for God to sin. Can we describe God with feminine pronouns? If your answer is no, again you have used theoprepes. 

For Origen and his successors, theoprepes was important because it was a significant criticism from the Greek pagans, who largely agreed with Plato’s conception that the soul had sinned and fallen into the body. Therefore, the body was something like a contaminant, and unfitting to house God. The incarnation thus was a major stumbling block, and the early fathers needed to explain why theoprepes  allowed for God to take on flesh.

Athanasius of Alexandria followed Origen in this vein with his work On the Incarnation of the Word. In answering the question of the fittingness of the incarnation, he argued it was not only for the liberation of humanity from sin and death, but to restore humanity its dignity. Further, it was not the annulment of creation, but its culmination. The world was renewed by the same Word who created it.

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Class, Day 1 – Origen: Your God Is Absurd

origenFollowing is a summary of a lecture given yesterday by my professor in Patristic and Medieval Theology.

To understand Origen of Alexandria – or Gregory of Nyssa or almost any other Greek-speaking early church father – you have to understand the concept of theoprepes. Plato introduced the concept of theoprepes when he went after Homer’s depictions of the gods. Because the gods/god are/is the ultimate Good, Plato has a big problem with the way Homer makes them act, but because Homer’s poetry is foundational for Greek culture, Plato can’t just dismiss it outright.

So he metaphorizes it. He maintains the truth of the moral lessons but rejects the historicity of the depiction, which he considered blasphemous because the gods did not act in a fitting manner. And that is theoprepes, the concept of what is fitting for the divine.

Origen is faced with a similar dilemma.

He believes in the inspiration of Scripture, which for him writing about 200 C.E. is still just the Old Testament, but he recoils at the anthropomorphism of God found there. And with good reason, from his perspective. When Celsus writes the criticism of Christianity to which Origen responds in Against Celsus, one of his prime concerns is the anthropomorphism of God – it’s just not fitting, in Greek thought, for God to act this way, and a literal reading of Scripture was a huge stumbling block to those educated Greeks to whom Origen was reaching out.

Not only that, he finds numerous places where the text contradicts itself or describes absurdities. So he argues for a metaphorical-allegorical reading of those pieces of scripture where theopedes is violated. Continue reading

Gregory of Nyssa and the Salvation of Satan

220px-Gregory_of_NyssaI’m speed-reading through some works by the church fathers for an upcoming short course called Patristic and Medieval Theology, and in the early going it’s very Eastern-oriented: Origen, Athanasius, Gregory of Nyssa, Basil of Ceasarea. They’re all Greek-speaking Christians from the eastern half of the Roman world – Alexandria and Asia Minor.

Origen is probably the most famous of those names. Based in Alexandria, Egypt, his notions of asceticism and spirituality were hugely influential, and he’s considered one of the – if not the – most brilliant theologian before Augustine, who came around about 200 years later. He’s also famously odd, not only thanks to his idea that humanity could, through ascetic practice, achieve perfection (and thus transcend the physical body into some sort of spiritual state) in this life, but also because he’s essentially Christianity’s first outspoken universalist, arguing that eventually all things would be restored to God.

I say Christianity’s first outspoken universalist, but of course, one could argue that in fact that title belongs to Luke or Paul of Tarsus; after all, they’re the ones who use the language of all things being restored (Acts 3:21) and every knee bowing and every tongue confessing. Nevertheless, Origen, writing around 200 C.E., gets credit for first explicating a full-on concept of universal reconciliation.

He wasn’t alone, however. Gregory of Nyssa, himself no slouch intellectually, followed Origen’s footsteps around 380 C.E. In his Address on Religious Instruction (also known as The Great Catechism), Gregory put forth the notion of universal reconciliation as part of his theory of atonement.

Gregory’s notions of atonement, judgment and reconciliation all stem from this formulation of evil: It doesn’t exist.

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God to Job: Humans Are So Overrated

9780674025974_p0_v1_s260x420When it comes to humanity’s place in creation, we have our scripture down pat: Genesis 1:27-28.

God created humanity in God’s own image,
in the divine image God created them,
male and female God created them.

God blessed them and said to them, “Be fertile and multiply; fill the earth and master it. Take charge of the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, and everything crawling on the ground.”

“Master” the earth, “take charge” of its animals. Or, in the famous words of more traditional translations: We have “dominion” over this world. Throw in Psalm 8 for good measure:

You’ve made [humanity] only slightly less than divine,
crowning them with glory and grandeur.
You’ve let them rule over your handiwork,
putting everything under their feet—
all sheep and all cattle,
the wild animals too,
the birds in the sky,
the fish of the ocean,
everything that travels the pathways of the sea.

Cut and dried, right?

Not so fast.

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Jed Bartlet’s Job Moment

bartletOne of the themes on this blog lately has been the propriety – or not – of railing against God in times of distress. I tend to (surprise!) take a liberal view on this topic, that God not only can handle our complaints and frustrations but wants us to bring them to him. He made us to be emotional beings, and stifling our emotions is neither healthy nor productive.

Many Christians disagree, and I confess it’s difficult to listen when someone truly “goes off” on God – as happens in the Season 2 finale of The West Wing, which my wife and I are working through on Netflix.

Below the jump, I’ll post the speech in its entirety; most Christians, I suspect, will wince multiple times. You might even be offended. But the question we need to ask is this: Are we offended because God is, or are we offended because we have been taught to be?

[This paragraph contains spoilers] The speech occurs in the National Cathedral, after a funeral for President Jeb Bartlet’s longtime assistant, Mrs. Landingham, who had died in a car wreck. The death occurred after a string of crises and tragedies – including an assassination attempt that nearly killed his deputy chief of staff, Josh Lyman – that, let’s be honest, serve to make the show interesting, but would lead a normal person to consider whether she had been singled out to play Job in some sort of modern-day heavenly remake. [End spoilers]

Bartlett asks the Secret Service to close the cathedral so he can spend some time alone, and after some unnecessarily loud and echoey door slamming to let us know the cathedral has been closed, Bartlett begins walking up the aisle toward the vestibule.

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When God Abuses

images-2Does the Old Testament portray God as abusive?

In our Old Testament Theology class, we must give two presentations about the topics covered over a given week’s reading in our textbook, Walter Brueggemann’s Theology of the Old Testament: Testimony. Dispute. Advocacy. My first presentation was on the topic of Yahweh as hidden, abusive and inconsistent. The next week’s assignment was covering the topic of Yahweh as unresponsive, unreliable and unjust.

These are Brueggemann’s categories, and they end up being pretty redundant. The same verses used for describing Yahweh has hidden are equally applicable for describing him as unresponsive, and vice versa. Further, his hiddenness and unresponsiveness clearly make him unreliable, as does his inconsistency. In which case, Brueggemann could have saved a lot of space and simply focused on Yahweh as abusive, unreliable and unjust. But to the extent Yahweh is unreliable and unjust, doesn’t this also make him abusive?

I’d argue yes. In fact, I’d argue the primary counter-testimony of Israel in the Old Testament, whether the authors intended this or not, is that Yahweh is abusive. Abuse is God’s defining action in the texts that push back against the central portrayal of God as loving, just, merciful parent and partner.

There are a number of reasons why I argue this.

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Every Day Is Saturday

theology-old-testament-walter-brueggemann-cd-rom-cover-art

A friend of mine has been going through some tough times, and as he was telling me about them, he mentioned being angry at God, then being embarrassed for being angry at God. Embarrassment strikes me as wholly unnecessary – but a natural and understandable outgrowth of our American culture, which moralizes success and makes failure in any sense a matter of character rather than circumstance or dumb luck.

It so happened that I had finished reading the counter-testimony section in Theology of the Old Testament where Walter Brueggemann discusses the counter-testimony of Israel. And much of what Brueggemann had to say about the difficult passages that make up that counter-testimony seemed appropriate for my friend’s feelings – and I suspect the feelings of many of this blog’s readers, who seem to be questioning, doubting types. So here’s what I said, and I hope it blesses you today: Continue reading