Book Review: The Friendship of God

933721I finished 2017 by reading Metaphorical Theology: Models of God in Religious Language by Sallie McFague. That title is terrible; it obscures and deadens what is easily one of the most compelling and thought-provoking theological works I’ve read in a long time.

I probably used up most of a highlighter on this book’s 194 pages. Published in 1982, it feels as relevant as ever. Here are some highlights:

  • McFague starts by exploring the importance of metaphors for human learning. We tend to think of metaphors as poetic and rhetorical – “your eyes are deep pools” – when in fact they are essential building blocks in the creation of our respective worlds.
  • She uses the intentionally absurd example of a chair. How do you know a chair is a chair? Because it has the same characteristics as things you identify as chairs. That’s a metaphorical move. Just as you use “deep pools” as the reference for describing “eyes,” you use “chairs” as the reference for this new object you’ve never seen before. This new object is both like and unlike “chair.”
  • Thus metaphors are inherently relational: They forge connections and enhance learning by describing relationships between understood concepts and new ones.
  • Metaphors are also inherently uncertain and filled with tension: They are incomplete and even inaccurate to some degree. Eyes are not actually deep pools. This chair is not identical to previous chair examples. God is not actually our father.

Oops. I gave it away. McFague uses this argument about the essentiality of metaphors to build what she calls a metaphorical theology – a way of talking about God that understands and relies on the importance and tension inherent in metaphors. Continue reading

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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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“All Shall Be Well,” Chapter 6: James Relly

jamesrellyLast time, we talked about how universalism and Calvinism, seemingly opposites in their views of God, judgment and salvation, are actually two sides of the same coin, each believing in the sovereignty of a God saving whom he wants. Although Peter Sterry and Jeremiah White postulated their universalism in opposition to Calvinism, we now turn to James Relly, one of the most influential universalists ever to live, primarily because he converted John Murray, who is sometimes called the Father of Universalism. I guess that makes Relly the Grandfather of Universalism? Regardless, Relly came to universalism through Calvinism.

In his essay “Union with Christ: The Calvinist Universalism of James Relly (1722-1778),” Wayne K. Clymer says Relly’s “bizarre theology represents one of the most extreme modifications of Calvinism in either the seventeenth or eighteenth centuries.”

Relly was a disciple of the famed British evangelist George Whitefield, and began working with him about 1741 in Wales as a preacher doing missionary work there. As a good Calvinist, Relly believed fully in the “inherent and ineradicable sinfulness of man.” In a particularly telling passage, Clymer describes what modifying Calvinism to become a universalist must have cost Relly:

His debt to Whitefield is great. To make the break must have caused him much concern, for universalism was a common foe of both the Calvinists and the Arminians – and religious hatred knows no mercy. That he took the step reveals his honesty and conviction. (121)

How much did people hate universalists in the 18th century? Murray, who was of course a friend and follower of Relly, recalled later in his life the first time he heard one of Relly’s preachers. Referring to Relly himself, he would have been “highly favored to have been an instrument of the hand of God, for the taking the life of a man whom I had never seen; and in destroying him I should have nothing doubted, that I had rendered an essential service both to the Creator and the created” (122). Yikes!

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Why Genesis 2:24 Is Not Trying To Defend a Certain God-Ordained Picture of Marriage

9780802827562_p0_v1_s260x420Everyone knows Genesis 2:24 –

This is the reason that a man leaves his father and mother and embraces his wife, and they become one flesh.

It’s cited widely elsewhere in the Bible – in all three of the synoptic gospel’s portrayals of Jesus’ divorce teachings, in 1 Corinthians 6 and in Ephesians 5. And it’s lately become the crux in what I call the template argument, in which this verse provides the proof that God designed marriage to be between one man and one woman.

This verse came back to my attention while reading the short – though quite dense – book The Septuagint, Sexuality and the New Testament by William Loader, professor of New Testament at Murdoch University in Perth, Australia. Loader is looking for ways in which the Septuagint translators changed the Hebrew text of certain Old Testament passages dealing with sexuality, and how those changes influenced the arguments of Greco-Roman Jews relying on the Septuagint, particularly Philo of Alexandria and Paul of Tarsus.

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“All Shall Be Well,” Chapter 5: Peter Sterry and Jeremiah White

2012-03-28_22-41-12_2621At first blush, it’s hard to think of two more opposite approaches to God, sin and judgment than Calvinism and universalism. Calvinism is all wrathful, while universalism is all cuddly. In universalism, God saves everyone from hell; in Calvinism he predestines most people to it.

Yet modern universalism – that is, universalism as expressed in the modernist era, as opposed to the previous three examples of universalism expressed in the ancient and medieval era – actually grew out of Calvinism. In fact, as expressed by the 17th century ministers Peter Sterry and Jeremiah White, universalism is simply the other side of Calvinism’s coin.

In the previous chapters of “All Shall Be Well,” we saw how Greek philosophy, Christian mysticism and meditation on the nature of God combined to produce a “minority report” of universal salvation rather than the more widely assumed doctrine of eternal conscious torment in hell.

With the dominance of Augustine and Aquinas, however, universalism all but disappeared from the conversation until the Protestant Reformation, which democratized scripture reading and interpretation. Not surprising, it didn’t take much more than a century for universal restoration to return as an alternative to the dominant eschatological assumptions of the church.

Louise Hickman, in her essay “Love Is All and God Is Love: Universalism in Peter Sterry (1613-1672) and Jeremiah White (1630-1707),” also points to England’s move toward less censorship and freer discourse in the mid 1600s as a contributing factor to the dissemination of “many unorthodox and sometimes eccentric theological views” and “an atmosphere of increasing tolerance and debate.” As a result, universalism was more popular than ever by 1700.

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“All Shall Be Well,” Chapter 4: Julian of Norwich

julian-of-norwich-and-her-cat“We know very little about her,” Robert Sweetman writes about Julian of Norwich in his entry, but we know quite a bit about the revelations she received – or, as she called them, her “showings.”

Julian of Norwich is not even the woman’s name – it’s the name of the church where she lived, St. Julian’s in Norwich, England. But in his essay – “Sin Has Its Place, but All Shall Be Well: The Universalism of Hope in Julian of Norwich (c. 1342-c. 1416),” Sweetman describes what we can discern from Julian’s thoughts about sin, soteriology and the nature of God. Although not ultimately a subscriber to universal salvation, Julian’s showings led her to get as close as she could to such a belief without crossing the consensus of the church she loved.

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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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