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 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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That Business about Women Keeping Silent in Church – What if Someone Else Added It In?

0800637712hI’m reading through Eldon Jay Epp’s book Junia: The First Woman Apostle, which has succeeded in blowing my mind, and we haven’t even gotten to Junia yet.

Epp starts the book by talking about textual criticism, the means by which scholars look at the oldest texts we have and study their language and variations, and the problems such criticism poses for exegetical certainty. For example, everyone here is familiar with 1 Corinthians 14:34-35:

34 the women should be quiet during the meeting. They are not allowed to talk. Instead, they need to get under control, just as the Law says. 35 If they want to learn something, they should ask their husbands at home. It is disgraceful for a woman to talk during the meeting.

Pretty clear, right? But let’s zoom out a little and see what we find when we include it in context:

31 You can all prophesy one at a time so that everyone can learn and be encouraged. 32 The spirits of prophets are under the control of the prophets. 33 God isn’t a God of disorder but of peace.

(Like in all the churches of God’s people, 34 the women should be quiet during the meeting. They are not allowed to talk. Instead, they need to get under control, just as the Law says. 35 If they want to learn something, they should ask their husbands at home. It is disgraceful for a woman to talk during the meeting. 36 Did the word of God originate with you? Has it come only to you?)

37 If anyone thinks that they are prophets or “spiritual people,” then let them recognize that what I’m writing to you is the Lord’s command. 38 If someone doesn’t recognize this, they aren’t recognized. 39 So then, brothers and sisters, use your ambition to try to get the gift of prophecy, but don’t prevent speaking in tongues. 40 Everything should be done with dignity and in proper order.

The parentheses, which Epp includes in his treatment of these paragraphs, kind of give it away: One of these paragraphs is not like the other two. You could read from verse 33a to verse 37 without any trouble, as if verses 33b-36 didn’t exist. That’s interesting enough, but by itself doesn’t prove that verses 33b-35 or 36 are later additions to the text.

But Epp goes on to point out that not every text of 1 Corinthians place verses 34-35 between 33 and 36; some place it after verse 40. So this text is a little more mobile than your typical Pauline text. Also, though every text of 1 Corinthians 14 we have includes this passage, at least two of our earliest versions (Codex Fuldensis, dated to 547, and Codex Vaticanus, dated to the 300s) include scribal notations also found with such passages as John’s story of the woman caught in adultery, a well known case of textual variation. As Epp puts it:

This combination of literary analysis and text-critical assessment has moved a sizable group of scholars to view the passage on “silent women” as a later intrusion into 1 Corinthians and most likely one never written by Paul. (19)

So what does this mean? What do we do if one of the key passages governing gender roles in conservative and fundamentalist churches turns out to be a later, non-Pauline addition? After all, it’s still in our Bibles, and – at least theoretically – Paul is not of greater importance than any other biblical writer (though we Protestants certainly seem to prefer him to, say, James).

But the point is not to simply dismiss pieces of the Bible we don’t like; the point is to recognize that the Bible itself – not any particular passage but the very nature of the texts we have – rejects our attempts to flatten it into a cut-and-paste set of rules for 21st century life and worship.

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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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It’s OK to Be Gay – How Science, the Bible and the Love of God Convinced Me To Affirm Same-Sex Relationships

20130614-012013.jpgIn the end, it just hit me.

A single sentence, in an article not even about homosexuality or theology, not about Leviticus 18 or Romans 1, not about the Boy Scouts or the Southern Baptists.

In the end, what got me was a New Republic article by the magazine’s science editor, Judith Shulevitz.

“The Lethality of Loneliness” describes how psychobiologists “have proved that long-lasting loneliness not only makes you sick; it can kill you.” Loneliness is defined as “want of intimacy.”

The story is fascinating and well worth reading. Shulevitz reports that scientists rank emotional isolation as highly as smoking among risk factors for mortality, and those most likely to feel emotionally isolated are those who are most rejected – as Shulevitz puts it, “The outsiders: not just the elderly, but also the poor, the bullied, the different” (emphasis hers). The lonely experience higher levels of stress, which injects the hormone cortisol into the bloodstream, the chronic overdosing of which leads to numerous maladies, the most serious being heart disease.

Since those who are rejected feel lonely more often, we shouldn’t be surprised that some of the biggest studies into loneliness have occurred among those who are gay. Scientists studying HIV-infected gay men in the 1980s discovered this incredible fact: “The social experience that most reliably predicted whether an HIV-positive gay man would die quickly … was whether or not he was in the closet.”

Closeted men were more sensitive to rejection, more fearful of being outed, and therefore less intimate with those around them. Their lives were more stressful, and stress hormones feed the AIDS virus. And then came the sentence that stopped me cold:

[Researcher Steven] Cole mulled these results over for a long time, but couldn’t understand why we would have been built in such a way that loneliness would interfere with our ability to fend off disease: “Did God want us to die when we got stressed?”

The answer is no. What He wanted is for us not to be alone.

And there it is. Is it really that simple?

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Is Pope Francis a Universalist?

The-Pope_2514251bMy Facebook feed has been lighting up the past 24 hours with links to this Huffington Post article capturing excerpts from Pope Francis’  Wednesday homily. The key quote, as translated by Vatican Radio:

The Lord has redeemed all of us, all of us, with the Blood of Christ: all of us, not just Catholics. Everyone! ‘Father, the atheists?’ Even the atheists. Everyone! … We must meet one another doing good. ‘But I don’t believe, Father, I am an atheist!’ But do good: we will meet one another there.

It’s unclear what exactly Francis means here, although one explanation certainly is that Francis is advocating universalism “Do good because in the end we will all meet one another there.” Another is inclusivism, a la the end to C.S. Lewis’ The Last Battle, in which Francis essentially adopts Aslan’s statement that all good deeds are rendered in the name of Christ, regardless of whether the doer is a Christian. A final possibility, borne out by Reuters’ translation of the comments – “Just do good, and we’ll find a meeting point.” – is more traditional, that Francis is discussing the universal availability of the atonement, which not everyone ultimately will accept.

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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