Tuesday, March 31, 2009

America's Apocalypse

Did I get your attention?

No, I don't mean apocalypses of the Hal Lindsey variety, which involve armies fighting it out on the plains of Megiddo (don't know who the latest combatants are supposed to be), haven't been paying attention. And, I don't mean the kind of apocalyptic mumbo jumbo being spewed out by Glen Beck (who is now at Fox) or Sean Hannity.

No I mean an apocalypse of a different sort -- America's declining fortune. Now I don't think America is in dire straights, in fact, I think it can rebound, but there are some disturbing trends that need to be addressed.

There is a connection between the financial meltdown and the situation that the auto industry faces. America started its rise as a manufacturing base -- like China is today -- but in time we let the manufacturing sectors decline, and rose to power on the back of our financial systems (like Britain did in an earlier day). Now, two of the former Big 3 are on short life lines. Hopefully, they'll dig out of this -- and the government won't have to run them for long!

But there is another picture that needs to be seen -- it's a picture of the decline of Detroit the city. This week's Time Magazine runs a story about Detroit that needs to be looked at carefully. Detroit may be the tip of an iceberg coming to a city near you. Once Detroit was the 4th largest city in the nation (it's 11th now). It had nearly 2 million people and a strong manufacturing base. Today it is under 1 million and shrinking. One third of the city is abandoned -- the size of the city of San Francisco. The question facing this once great city is what to do. There are some who dream of filling it back in and becoming a city of 2 million. That's not likely to happen. Other options are to green the city, reforest parts, maybe even farm it. I like that idea.

I've lived in this area for a short time, and am only beginning to get a sense of things. I live in Oakland County, just to the north -- one of the wealthiest in the nation. Detroit's former wealth and grandeur can be found out here now. But people in Oakland Country are beginning to realize that Detroit's collapse could affect us.

I encourage you to take a look at the Time essay; it's enlightening.

Monday, March 30, 2009

I Want to Walk With Jesus --

For your listening pleasure -- Jazz singer Dennis Rowland sharing "I Want Jesus to Walk With Me"

We're going to use it for the closing hymn on Sunday! Love to have the backup band, but we'll make do!

The Decline of Denominational Publishing -- Sightings

Martin Marty reports that the recent Christian Book Expo in Dallas, expecting about 15000 customers drew in only 1500 -- and this was designed to attract conservative Christian/evangelical customers. I can say this -- regarding Christian books/bookstore situations. Most Christian bookstores (now Christian stores) are more about Jesus junk than books.

Anyway, he uses this report to draw our attention to a larger issue -- the decline of denominational publishers -- etc. My own denominational press, once published largely denominationally affiliated materials, but no more. Instead, to survive, it has sought partnerships that have saved it, for now, but things are changing, and who knows what this portends.

So, with these questions swirling in our minds, see what Marty has to say:


Sightings 3/30/09

The Decline of Denominational Publishing

-- Martin E. Marty

"Christian Book Expo Attracts Few Customers," headlines Marcia Z. Nelson in the March 23rd Publishers Weekly. This is overlookable news to most Americans who have little interest in Evangelicalism and its books, but it has portents for all kinds of citizens. One could call this the canary in the mines which chirps signals of danger before others sense it, except that in this case much of what was in the mine has exploded, and in many places the mine’s roof has already caved in. Consider this one more sign.

What is "this"? As Nelson tells it, the Christian Book Expo in the Dallas Convention Center, planned to attract fifteen thousand to twenty thousand attendees, drew only fifteen hundred in this "buckle of the Bible belt." Would there have been even fifteen Expo-goers in Boston or Seattle? As Nelson tells it, glum publishers stood around for three days, shadowed by mountains of unsold books. "We can’t afford these kinds of risks," grumbled one publisher. "These kinds" refer to what was a pioneering effort to link publishers and potential buyers.

While the risk-takers here were members of the Evangelical Christian Publishers Association, any number of similar signs of down-turns are evident. The Christian Bookseller Association has experienced more "downs" at conventions, and Catholic and mainline Protestant publishers don’t even try to attract as they used to. With few exceptions, denominations are closing their stores around the country, including even some in those last-bastions-of-books, seminary campuses. Wal-Mart may still display EPCA-linked books, but try to find them at Borders, if you can still find a Borders, or Barnes and Noble or other big-box places, which never did much with such books.

But cheer up: There still is still the on-line selling of books, and the internet market which also helped kill off bookstores has compensated by making books easily available to people who did not live near book stores, whether Catholic, Mainline, Evangelical, Jewish, or whatever. "Kindle" can or some day will have such books ready for your pocket-sized electronic "book." At the same time, something is lost with the dwindling and dying of expos, conventions, and denominational publishing houses and stores.

With self-imposed discipline, I am not allowed to be a Luddite (who rues technological change), a Whiner (who whines), or a Yearner for Good Old Days. But those of us who love books have to be allowed to be Lamenters, in the mood and mode of the biblical Book of Lamentations. A confession: I had no use for ninety-nine percent of the materials in these expos and book stores. Some reflected alien world views, or were strident Far Right blasts; and, while there were some valid devotional materials and self-improvement manuals, much of what sold was, to me and others who don’t like to think of ourselves as snobs, pious pap. For decades I was book-review editor of The Christian Century, across whose desk a new religious book landed every hour. Yet when I read the lists of "Christian Best-Sellers," almost all authors looked alien to me.

Give credit to the publishers and sellers, however, for having carved out a large niche in the publishing world that had otherwise generally slighted religious books. They at least aspired to remind publics, including religiously affiliated people, that churches had and still have, in the age of the internet and all things electronic, something at stake in the world of print and bound books. Maybe these will invent more compensatory mechanisms for getting the word out and building community. The Luddites and the Whiners have often been wrong. The Book of Lamentations does not have to be gospel.


Read Nelson's Publishers Weekly article online at http://www.publishersweekly.com/article/CA6645769.html?q=marcia+z%252E+nelsonon

Martin E. Marty's biography, current projects, upcoming events, publications, and contact information can be found at www.illuminos.com.


In conjunction with the upcoming conference, “Culturing Theologies, Theologizing Cultures: Exploring the Worlds of Religion,” April 22 and 23 at the Divinity School, this month’s Religion and Culture Web Forum features conference participant Alain Epp Weaver’s exploration of “how the arboreal imagination animates Israeli and Palestinian mappings of space and landscapes of return.” Trees are at once contested political and religious symbols and concrete means of claiming the land. Via a close reading of Palestinian theologian Elias Chacour’s writings, Weaver examines the rhetorical role and weight of trees in Israeli and Palestinian thought. “Is the arboreal imagination necessarily bound up with exclusivist mappings of erasure only, mappings which encode given spaces as either Palestinian or Israeli Jewish?” Weaver asks, or, “might the arboreal imagination animating the imagined landscapes of Palestinian refugees also produce cartographies of mutuality which accept, even embrace, the complex character of shared space?”

Visit the Religion and Culture Web Forum:


Sightings comes from the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School.

A Tribute to the Spartans (MSU that is)

One a day when more bad news was delivered to the people of Michigan (the Obama administration has laid down tough new terms for aiding the auto industry), the Michigan State Spartan men's basketball team overcame the odds and knocked off the overall number one seed Louisville Cardinals -- 64-52.

Although I'm a Pac10 guy -- today I stand with my adopted home and celebrate the MSU trip to the Final Four -- which will be held down the road at Ford Fieldhouse in Detroit!

So, in the midst of the bad news, there's a glimmer of hope!

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Priests and Marriage -- more stories

As a pastor who is married, I understand the stresses that ministry places on family. I also understand that if one is not married and doesn't have a family to be concerned with, may make one more available for service to the church. I think that's what Paul had in mind when speaking celibacy in 1 Corinthians 7. He also understood that celibacy is a gifting, and not all of us are called to that life. But, should that be a bar to the pastorate?

For Protestants that question was resolved at the very beginning. Martin Luther married early on, and other Reformers followed suit. As Diana Butler Bass points in her latest book, A People's History of Christianity, (Harper One, 2009), that decision not only changed the church but family life. She writes:

For early Protestant preachers marriage was both a pleasure and a way of defying Catholic authorities. But more than anything, clerical marriage embodied Christian freedom -- its right to choose to be celibate (if God had so gifted one) or to choose to be married. Martin Luther argued that priestly celibacy violated the "pact of freedom" God had entered into with believers upon baptism. According to him, vows of celibacy went against common sense/ he argued that only men over seventy could honestly take them. (People's History, p. 189)

I'm of the opinion that for most men and women, celibacy is not the norm and should be left to the choice of the individual, and thus not a barrier to ordination.

Although the Roman Catholic Church has not seen fit to follow my lead -- or that of Luther -- they have provided a loophole. If you're an Episcopal priest or a Lutheran pastor, and you convert to Roman Catholicism, it's quite possible that you can be ordained a Catholic priest. Today's Detroit Free Press offers an article that discusses the ministries of two Michigan priests, both of whom had been Episcopalian, but now serve Catholic churches. Interestingly enough, their congregations are quite happy with having married priests.

My sense is that most Catholic Churches would welcome married priests, especially at a time when the numbers of priests is in a sharp decline.

Will this change in policy be effected broadly? Probably not anytime soon. But, if you're interested in being a married priest, my suggestion is -- start as an Episcopalian and then transfer. They're waiting for you. As for me, I'll stay a Disciple. Oh, and I'm quite happy that I have the freedom to marry -- having been married for nearly 26 years!

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Afghanistan -- Remembered too late?

It's hard to believe that it's been seven years ago that the US entered Afghanistan. I was in my early 40s back then -- serving as pastor of First Christian Church of Santa Barbara and my son, now in college, was still in elementary school. We went into Afghanistan to deal with Al Qaeda and the Taliban. We did manage, with the help of allies and Afghan rebel groups, to push the Taliban out of power, killed some of their leaders, but both groups -- who helped plan and support the 2001 World Trade Center attacks -- remain alive and seem to have restructured themselves. Afghanistan remains much as it had been -- a failed state. There is a government but it is holed up in Kabul and is corrupt.

Yesterday, Barack Obama took on this issue and proposed a sweeping new strategy that involves not only military options, but also diplomatic and development support. Afghanistan is a not a modern state. It is tribal and riven with rivalries that not only lead to corruption but make good government difficult. Although radical Islam plays a role, culture is more important. Obama also made clear that a solution would involve not just Afghanistan, but also Pakistan and other neighboring states. Here is where diplomacy comes in -- these issues won't be resolved in isolation. That is, the ability of Pakistan to effectively deal with the militants in the region bordering Afghanistan is dependent on lessening tensions on the border with India and in Kashmir.

As the NY Times op-ed piece points out, the new President has a lot on his plate. But he seems to have gotten it in proper focus. We don't know if this will work, but it is a major issue for us and we need to re-engage in a way that's different from previous attempts. We let Afghanistan slip from sight in our foolhardy adventure in Iraq. Let's hope it's not too late to rectify the situation. What is important to note is that Obama has no illusions that we can create a modern democracy there. Ours is not to dictate their government or future, but simply give it the stability to create its own future. In time it could overcome its handicaps and become a thriving nation. At home, our difficulty is that we are in an economic crisis and people are tired of war. Let us pray for success and for peace in that region.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Academic Theology for the Populace?

Tony Jones, former leader of Emergent Village and participant in the recent Transforming Theology event in Claremont, has written a post wrestling with the question: "Are Academic Theologians Useless?

He tells of a statement made at that conference, which had drawn together a number of progressive theologians.

Last week, Jonathan L. Walton blogged here on RD about a conference that he and I recently attended at Claremont School of Theology. He mentioned my charge, to the collection of two score “progressive” theologians, that they be more savvy about how they market themselves.

More specifically, I accused those theologians of falling asleep at the wheel, of giving up the populist agenda bequeathed to them by William Jennings Bryan, and of caring more about tenure and academic guilds than about changing the minds of the people in the checkout line at Walmart.

Now, I've read enough Tony's stuff and listened/watched others, to know that he can be exaggerate things just a bit, but I think he's on to something. Just before this quote he noted that years ago people would have turned to a Reinhold Niebuhr or maybe a young Harvey Cox to debate someone like a Bill Maher, and defend progressive Christianity. There simply aren't those kinds of known folks willing to mix it up in the public square. You've got plenty of right wing folks out there, but who besides Marcus Borg and a few others are out there speaking not just to the unconverted, but to the progressive Christians? I know I'm going to get some flack for this, but don't say John Spong. Spong is, in my mind, nothing more than a bomb thrower -- at Christians.

But there are good theologians out there who, as Tony suggests, write a lot of material for the academic community, but little for either clergy or more importantly the lay person. So, where does the educated Christian layperson go? Why to Bart Ehrman and John Spong, neither of whom provides the kind of material that will stir the soul of a progressive Christian soul. Indeed, much of what I read from progressive Christians seems intent on attacking the church.

But there is good theology out there that could be transformative. And a good example is the stuff that Philip Clayton is doing - except his written materials are highly specialized and very dense. I'm reading his Adventures in the Spirit, but I've only made it through four chapters and although trained in theology, I find it difficult sledding. But, in his videos -- many of which are posted here on this blog, I find an engaged, committed, personable, gracious, theologian. I'd love it if he would, take what he's doing in these more academic works and brings it down to the level of the lay person -- the kind of book that a Marcus Borg might write (and publish with HarperOne).

So, I think Tony is right. Progressives need to be creating spirit lifting, intellectually stimulating, but understandable books for the Christian populace!

Thursday, March 26, 2009

A Plan for Peace

Middle East Peace, specifically Israeli-Palestinian peace, seems to be a Utopian vision. We've been talking about since long before I was born. We've seen wars of words and missiles, but no real resolution. The United States has been involved more or less in this process from the beginning, but for a variety of reasons we've not been able to broker a true and lasting peace.

Richard Cohen speaks today in an op-ed piece entitled "The Fierce Urgency of Peace," about a plan drafted by a group of eminent American leaders and given to President Obama late last year by Paul Volker, a senior economic advisor. It was developed by such figures as Brent Scowcroft (a Bush senior adviser that Bush junior ignored), along with "Zbigniew Brzezinski, former Senator Chuck Hagel, former World Bank President James Wolfensohn, former U.S. Trade Representative Carla Hills, former Congressman Lee Hamilton and former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Thomas Pickering."

It is a four point plan, which you can read about in the article, but a center piece of it is a change in perspective on Hamas. By dealing with it as we have, requiring it to go on record with a de jure recognition of Israel's right to exist, we've accomplished nothing except undermine and weaken Fatah. The suggestion is that we work with and strengthen the hand of the moderate elements of Hamas, who may not be willing to give Israel de jure recognition, but would work with and honor a peace deal with Israel -- a de facto recognition. Cohen reminds us that Israeli governments have endorsed a two-state solution, even though parties in that government weren't willing to endorse Palestinian statehood. Is this any different.

Cohen suggests that Obama is open to meeting with the group of 10 who developed the plan, and Cohen suggests it should quickly become the new road map! May peace become reality and not simply a Utopian dream!

Irenaeus and the Covenant with Christ

The Covenant with Christ

The culmination of Irenaeus’s system was the revelation of Christ, the second Adam, the one who restored what had been lost by Adam, but “recapitulating” human life. By being born, living sinlessly, and dying, Jesus undid what Adam had done, and by rising from the dead conquered death for all. While we needn’t buy into Irenaeus’s system in its entirety, it does offer us a different way of looking at the life and death and resurrection of Jesus. What is interesting also is that he finds a way of including Mary in this system – for Mary recapitulates the story of Eve.

Christ, the second Adam

Christ, as the second Adam, summed up all history since the Fall, thereby reversing the effects of the fall of the first man, Adam (I Cor. 15:45-49; Rom. 5:17-19). As we have seen Irenaeus believed that Christ, the last Adam, was the founder of a new human race. While Adam's disobedience brought destruction, Christ's obedience brings salvation. While Adam yielded to temptation and became subject to the dominion of Satan, Christ overcame temptation and therefore defeated the power of the tempter. The result is the birth of a new humanity. Christ perfects what Adam defiled. While Adam's fall interrupted the progression toward maturity, in Christ, humanity again moves toward perfection.1

Doctrine of Recapitulation

To push this definition further, we must look more closely at Irenaeus' doctrine of Recapitulation. Christ's mission is to restore what Adam destroyed. Again, Irenaeus sees humanity mystically united in Christ as the second Adam. Irenaeus traced human history back to its original fountainhead, with Christ's life undoing each stage of humanity's fall. Thus, even as Adam was born of the virgin earth, so Christ was born of the Virgin Mary. Next, even as all humanity was present seminally in Adam, so Christ recapitulated the lives of these dispersed descendants back to Adam. As Jesus was born and grew and finally died, he went through each stage of human life, restoring or sanctifying what was lost or made unholy at each stage of life. This extends to every stage of human life. This led Irenaeus to believe that Christ lived to be fifty years of age. Christ identifies with us in our complete humanity. The Cross itself serves as part of this process of restoration or recapitulation.

“So the Lord manifestly came to his own, and, born by his own created order which he himself bears, he by his obedience on the tree renewed [and reversed] what has done by disobedience in [connection with] a tree; and [the power of] that seduction by which the virgin Eve, already betrothed to a man, had been wickedly seduced was broken when the angel in truth brought good tidings to the Virgin Mary, who already [by here betrothal belonged to a man . . . Then indeed the sin of the first-formed man was amended by the chastisement of the First-begotten, the wisdom of the serpent was conquered by the simplicity of the dove, and the chains were broken by which we were in bondage to death.” [Irenaeus, Adv. Haer., 5:19.1].2

Irenaeus affirmed that in the life, death and resurrection of Christ, God dealt Satan an impressive defeat. But the true means of victory was the incarnation itself, not simply the cross and resurrection. The result is a new, redeemed humanity. 3

The Role of Mary

One sees in this doctrine an incipient Mariology. Not only does Christ recapitulate and therefore reverse the effects of Adam's sins, but Mary does the same for Eve. Mary's life served to recapitulate that of Eve.

To continue with the previous quotation, remember that Mary reversed the seduction of Eve through her obedience.

“For as Eve was seduced by the word of an angel to flee from God, having rebelled against his Word, so Mary by the Word of an angel received the glad tidings that she would bear God by obeying his Word. The former was seduced to disobey God [and so fell], but the latter was persuaded to obey God, so that the Virgin Mary might become the advocate of the virgin Eve. As the human race was subjected to death through [the act of] a virgin, so was it saved by a virgin, and thus the disobedience of one virgin was precisely balanced by the obedience of another.” [Irenaeus, Adv. Haer. 5:19].

Irenaeus doesn't minimize the importance of the cross, but he does believe that Jesus' life (and Mary's as well) have significant importance in the road to salvation. Did Irenaeus believe that Adam and Eve were historical figures -- most likely -- but one can understand these two figures as being metaphorical models while affirming the historical character of the lives of both Jesus and Mary. Adam and Eve can be seen as composite figures, representing all of humanity, while the historic figures of Jesus and Mary incorporate into their lives all of human experience.

1. Bengt Hagglund, History of Theology, (Concordia 1968), 48-49.

2. Irenaeus, "Against Heresies," in Early Christian Fathers, Cyril Richardson, ed., (Macmillan, 1970), 389.

3. JND Kelley, Early Christian Doctrines, (Harper-Collins), 172-173.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Irenaeus, the Law and Salvation

Irenaeus believed that humanity had come under the dominion of sin, because it had rejected the Law that God had written on the hearts of humanity at the beginning. Therefore, God decided to make a new covenant with humanity. By making the covenant with Moses, God provided a way of discipling humanity.

3. Why, then, did the Lord not form the covenant for the fathers? Because “the law was not established for righteous men.”39943994 1 Tim. i. 9. But the righteous fathers had the meaning of the Decalogue written in their hearts and souls,39953995 [Hearts and souls; i.e., moral and mental natures. For a correct view of the patristic conceptions of the Gentiles before the law, this is valuable.] that is, they loved the God who made them, and did no injury to their neighbour. There was therefore no occasion that they should be cautioned by prohibitory mandates (correptoriis literis),39963996 i.e., the letters of the Decalogue on the two tables of stone. because they had the righteousness of the law in themselves. But when this righteousness and love to God had passed into oblivion, and became extinct in Egypt, God did necessarily, because of His great goodwill to men, reveal Himself by a voice, and led the people with power out of Egypt, in order that man might again become the disciple and follower of God; and He afflicted those who were disobedient, that they should not contemn their Creator; and He fed them with manna, that they might receive food for their souls (uti rationalem acciperent escam); as also Moses says in Deuteronomy: “And fed thee with manna, which thy fathers did not know, that thou mightest know that man doth not live by bread alone; but by every word of God proceeding out of His mouth doth man live.”39973997 Deut. viii. 3. And it enjoined love to God, and taught just dealing towards our neighbour, that we should neither be unjust nor unworthy of God, who prepares man for His friendship through the medium of the Decalogue, and likewise for agreement with his neighbour,—matters which did certainly profit man himself; God, however, standing in no need of anything from man. (Against Heresies, Book 4, chapter 16)

God also used the same means to reveal the extent of human sin and also keep it in check.In essence God provided the law as a loving way of restraining sin.Through the law God could maintain order until Christ was revealed.

In Irenaeus’ view God did not intend for the Mosaic Law to be the final means of salvation. Instead, the Mosaic law was a temporary and mediating covenant. Christ, when he came, abrogated this temporary law and restored the original law, the one written on the hearts of the people.


1. Bengt Hägglund, History of Theology, (St. Louis, Concordia Publ. House, 1968), 47-48.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Irenaeus, Creation and Salvation

Creation and the Covenant of Adam.

Irenaeus speaks of three covenants – one made with Adam, one with Moses, and one with Christ. As for the first of these covenants, that with Adam, he begins by noting that God created humanity in the "image and likeness” of God. Remember that when writing this, Irenaeus is writing with a 2nd century science and psychology in mind. In this act of creation, God created Adam with free will and endowed him with reason. However, Irenaeus did not believe that Adam, being a creature, was endowed with divine perfection. Instead of perfection, Irenaeus suggested that God created the first humans in a state of innocence. That is, God created Adam as a child, morally, spiritually, and intellectually. While, in Irenaeus’s estimation, God could have created a perfect human being from the start – after all God can do whatever God wants – God chose to create the first humans in this way because God's creations needed to be of a lesser level because they, unlike God, had a beginning.

“Because they [humanity] come later, they are immature; as such they are inexperienced and not trained to perfect understanding. A mother, for example, can provide perfect food for a child, but at that point he cannot digest food which is suitable for someone older. Similarly, God himself certainly could have provided humanity with perfection from the beginning. Humanity, however, was immature and unable to lay hold of it.” [Irenaeus, Adv. Haeresies, 4:38.1].

Innocent and not fully formed intellectually, it was the intention of God, that Adam would through time, by the grace of God, freely choose to move toward a greater resemblance with the creator. For Irenaeus, God created Adam and Eve with the potential to grow into the fullness of his image.

“Through this system, such arrangement, and this kind of governance, humanity was created according to the image and established in the likeness of the uncreated God. The Father decided and commanded; the Son molded and shaped; the Spirit nourished and developed. Humanity slowly progresses, approaches perfection, and draws near to the uncreated God. The perfect is the uncreated, God. It was therefore appropriate for humanity first to be made, being made to grow, and having grown to be strengthened, being stronger to multiply, having multiplied to recover from illness, having recovered to be glorified, and once glorified to see its Lord. God is the one who is going to be seen; the vision of God produces incorruptibility; incorruptibility makes a person approach God.” [Irenaeus, Adv. Haeresies, 4:38.3]1

Though God intended the immature Adam and Eve to grow into maturity, this process was interrupted by the Fall. Because Adam was not yet mature, in his weakness and inexperience, Adam chose to listen to Satan and disobey God. Thus, humanity lost the divine likeness, that is, the endowment of the Spirit, and fell into the grasp of Satan. Adam's sin was disobedience to God, but this disobedience held important consequences for Adam's progeny. This first instance of disobedience led to the sinfulness of the whole race. He also believed that all of humanity shares in Adam's deed and therefore they also share in his guilt. Though Irenaeus never defines how this takes place, he must hold that there is some kind of mystical solidarity within the human race.2

1. Selection found in J. Patout Burns, Theological Anthropology, (Fortress Press), 23, 25.

2. J.N.D. Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines, 171-72.

Christian Faith and theories of Atonement

As a Disciple, I am a member of a non-creedal tradition. Our statement of faith is simple -- Peter's confession in Matthew 16:16. No more, no less.

Since I'm engaging in this conversation about the atonement, I thought I might put out something that would explain the "position" of our people. In that regard, I pulled out a a little book by British Disciples theologian William Robinson. Robinson has had an important influence on our movement, and continues to do so even though he's been dead for a half century. In this little book written for the British Churches of Christ and published in 1946, he writes:

So far as the work of Jesus Christ, accomplished through the Incarnation and the Cross, is concerned, emphasis has always been placed on His redeeming work. But Churches of Christ have refused to make theories of the Atonement part of the Faith. The fact that Jesus died for our sins has been accepted by all, but no theories have been advanced. (Robinson, What Churches of Christ Stand For, Berean Press, 1946, pp. 90-91).

In a foot note he points out that this is consistent with the practice of the first 4 centuries of church history, "for none of the three ancient creeds contains any theory of the Atonement, largely due to the fact that controversy in this period was centred solely in the doctrines of God and the person of Christ." (p. 91).

If one wants to affirm penal substitution, one may. But one is not required to do so, for such a position is an interpretation of the text. It's a legitimate interpretation, but not the only interpretation. That the earliest Christian interpreters didn't go that direction is suggestive to me that they didn't understand Paul as teaching that Jesus satisfied God's demand for blood sacrifice.

Irenaeus and Salvation -- Introductory Comments


Irenaeus laid out his theory of salvation in the way he did in large part because of the threat he perceived coming from Gnosticism, a philosophical position that in his mind denigrated the material world and with it the incarnation. In the course of several postings I will lay out something of his understanding of salvation (soteriology) as a way of showing how the early church wrestled with its biblical inheritance.

He strongly opposed the Gnostic claim that the world, as originally created, was the work of the demiurge (a secondary god) and that this world as created was less than perfect.Through his doctrine of creation and then through the doctrine of recapitulation, Irenaeus affirmed the goodness of God's creation. He insisted that the reason humanity is less than perfect now was not the result of a failure in the creation of humanity or because of a failure of God's love. Although humanity is caught in sin, God has provided a way of salvation, which is defined as the doctrine of recapitulation. Recapitulation is, in reality, a very interesting way of dealing with the incarnation and the cross.

Although a fully defined New Testament was not yet in existence, Irenaeus knew and used much of what became the New Testament – especially the letters of Paul. In his writings, he provided a detailed conception of salvation that saw in Christ the inauguration of a new humanity. Through this order of salvation, God seeks to free humanity from Satan's grasp.1 Such an understanding of Christ’s work is often described in terms of the ransom theory of the atonement.

It is interesting that Irenaeus' view of humanity and salvation provided the foundation for John Hick's important work, Evil and the God of Love. Revised Edition, (Harper and Row, 1978). Hick found an effective model for understanding human life and for constructing a theodicy – a defense of God in the light of existence of evil.

In a series of posts over the next few days I’ll lay out Irenaeus’s position and invite you to consider whether this is a useful model for understanding the Christian doctrine of salvation.


1. J. Patout Burns, ed., Theological Anthropology, in Sources of Early Christian Thought, (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1981), 2-3. J.N.D. Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines, 170-71. Bengt Hägglund, History of Theology, (St. Louis, Concordia Publ. House, 1968), 46-47.

Living With the Cross of Jesus

In a couple of recent posts I've raised the question of the meaning of the cross. This is due in part to my response to Daniel Bell's essay "God Does Not Demand Blood." I'm in agreement with Bell, but his essay raises the question in the minds of many, what does the cross mean. I've posted a quote from Irenaeus, who offers a picture of Jesus' living and dying for humanity, recapitulating and hallowing each dimension of human life as he lived and died with and for us.

I'd like to offer a piece from another 2nd Century Christian, Melito of Sardis. This is a Passover Homily that links Moses and Jesus. There is, in this early Christian sermon, no sense of Jesus satisfying God's wrath. Instead, there is at most a description of a ransom theory. I invite your reflections on this paragraph or two.

He is the Passover of our salvation. He is the one who in many folk bore many things. He is the one who was murdered in the person of Abel, bound in the person of Isaac, exiled in the person of Jacob, sold in the person of Joseph, exposed in the person of Moses, sacrificed in the person of the lamb, persecuted in the person of David, dishonored in the person of the prophets. Thi is the one who was made flesh in a virgin, hanged upon the wood, entombed in the earth, raised from the dead, lifted up to the heights of the heavens. He is the speechless lamb. He is the lamb who was slaughtered. He is the one born of Mary the beuatifyl ewe. He is the one who was taken from the flock and dragged to slaughter and killed at evening and buried at night, who was not crushed on the cross, was not dissolved into the earth, who rose from the dead and raised humanity from the grave below. (Melito of Sardis, in The Christological Controversy, Edited and Translated by Richard A. Norris, Fortress Press, 1980, p. 42).

Note how Melito identifies the Christ -- the Logos -- with all those figures of Jewish history, back to Abel, who died or suffered. The Christ suffered in and with them, and then on the cross emerged victorious. This looks very much like the Christus Victor model of the atonement. God is not pictured as the one doing the killing or extracting retribution. Indeed, Melito writes that the reason he was killed was "because he cured their lame and cleansed their lepers and led their blind to sight and raised up their dead." That is the responded to the good with evil. As for penal substitution, they weren't making the connection in the second century.

Monday, March 23, 2009

The Decline of the Culture Wars -- Sightings

Could it be? Could we be moving on to other things besides constant debates about abortion and homosexuality (and teaching creation in the schools)? Is the religious right in decline?

Well it's too early to tell, but as Martin Marty points out, Frank Rich seems to believe that this is true. Rich believes that economic issues have taken center stage and so we're less focused on the other issues. I think he's probably correct, but the question is -- will they heat up when the economy begins to settle down (after all today the Dow went up nearly 500 points). These debates are cyclical and likely will come back, but in our economic doldrums we get a respite! Take a look, add a comment.


Sightings 3/23/09

The Decline of the Culture Wars

-- Martin E. Marty

Eight days ago columnist Frank Rich in the New York Times joined the company of those who note, as his headline says, that “The Culture Warriors Get Laid Off.” He wrote of the “upside to the economic meltdown,” one which allows citizens to get serious now about drastic issues and render secondary the no-win/no-lose fights over what get called “cultural” as opposed to “political” or “economic” conflicts. Rich reported on the strangely muted response by legislators to news that seasons ago would have led them to, yes, outrage: Rich pictured that when the Administration shelves the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy about gays in the military, it “will be greeted with more yawns than yowls.”

In his view, the old New Right has lost credibility, as when “the two top candidates for leader of the post-Bush G.O.P., Rush and Newt, have six marriages between them,” and a roll call including Mark Foley, Larry Craig, David Vitter, and “the irrepressible Palins” render talk of “family values” idle. “The religious right is even more in denial than the Republicans,” Rich adds, reacting as it does with non-apoplectic responses to the appointment of Kathleen Sebelius, who supports abortion rights, to the Health and Human Services post. Similarly, Congressional Republicans made tepid response or ignored it. Reaction to new action on governmental support for stem cell research lacked its old fire. “The family-values dinosaurs that once stalked the earth—Falwell, Robertson, Dodson and Reed—are now either dead, retired or disgraced.” Et cetera.

Rich went on with a chancier comment on how seriously to take the polls, which show that “nones”—people with no religious attachment or interest—is a fast-growing camp in America. That’s a different topic for a different day. For now, it’s advisable to keep fingers crossed. Culture wars, like other wars, can get heated up after cooling, but they are not likely to take the forms they did, nor keep media over-awed again.

Similarly, non-culture-warring phenomena tabbed ‘Evangelical” are also meeting changed fates, as a spate of books proclaims the decline, if not the fall, of the churchly evangelical empire in America. Those within the evangelical camp do show some signs of worry, but those outside it are grossly inaccurate in their visions of drastic decline.

The one issue in the culture wars that still has energy is “gay marriage”—“same-sex unions,” and the like. While most public attention goes to its political and judicial fronts, as with Proposition 8 in California, less notice is given, except to members of some church bodies, to the battlefields in the churches. Episcopalians, Presbyterians, Lutherans, Methodists and other Protestants of many sorts seem bent on policies of self-destruction at their assemblies and conventions; so say those who anticipate with dread their denominational conventions this summer. We recall “good old days,” when church leaders debated doctrines of the Trinity, Christology, and not just sex-sex-sex.

Listen to those close to the scene and you will hear of ironies. Thus, the power people and convention voters tend to be older people, and they will decide on issues that—ask any campus pastor, for example—are seen as only old peoples’ issues, not part of the world younger generations inhabit. Another irony: Most of those caught in the middle of these battles know that there will not be any winners—just wearied conventioners who trudge home, confident that they have served God, ready to take up more important church work with those who are left, and necessarily girding up for battle on the same issues in 2010. Maybe the economic crisis will distract them.

Martin E. Marty's biography, current projects, upcoming events, publications, and contact information can be found at www.illuminos.com.


In conjunction with the upcoming conference, “Culturing Theologies, Theologizing Cultures: Exploring the Worlds of Religion,” April 22 and 23 at the Divinity School, this month’s Religion and Culture Web Forum features conference participant Alain Epp Weaver’s exploration of “how the arboreal imagination animates Israeli and Palestinian mappings of space and landscapes of return.” Trees are at once contested political and religious symbols and concrete means of claiming the land. Via a close reading of Palestinian theologian Elias Chacour’s writings, Weaver examines the rhetorical role and weight of trees in Israeli and Palestinian thought. “Is the arboreal imagination necessarily bound up with exclusivist mappings of erasure only, mappings which encode given spaces as either Palestinian or Israeli Jewish?” Weaver asks, or, “might the arboreal imagination animating the imagined landscapes of Palestinian refugees also produce cartographies of mutuality which accept, even embrace, the complex character of shared space?”

Visit the Religion and Culture Web Forum:

Sightings comes from the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School.

Now the Green Glad Rises

A song for Spring and for Easter --words by John M.C. Crum, tune Noel Nouvelet
Played by Brian Sondahl

Now the green blade rises from the buried grain,
wheat that in dark earth many days has lain;
love lives again, that with the dead has been;
Love is come again like wheat arising green.

In the grave they laid the love by hatred slain,
thinking that Jesus would not wake again,
laid in the earth like grain that seeps unseen;
Love is come again like wheat a rising green.

Christ come forth at Easter, like the risen grain,
who that for three days in the grave had lain;
raised from the dead, the risen Christ is seen;
Love is come again like wheat arising green.

When our hearts are wintry, grieving, or in pain,
your touch can call us back to life again,
fields of our hearts that dead and bare have been;
Love is come again like wheat arising green.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Why Emergence Matters -- Transforming Theology

Why Emergence Matters:
A New Paradigm for Relating the Sciences.

We hear a lot about emergent and emergence. We have evangelicals using such language and non-evangelicals as well. Phyllis Tickle speaks of the Great Emergence, that paradigm shifting event that happens every half-millennium or so when the way we think and practice our faith changes dramatically. Of course, nothing happens that quickly – it’s something that happens over time – building on what came before, but then perhaps in the twinkling of the eye everything appears to have changed.

As I pick up the Second Section of Philip Clayton's book Adventures in the Spirit (Fortress, 2008), for the Transforming Theology project, the book moves into a more specific area of exploration, a new paradigm for doing science called "emergence." Clayton believes this new paradigm has the potential to be transformative for theology and for the practice of Christian faith.

We are told by the New Atheists, such as Richard Dawkins, that Darwin and evolutionary biology has done away with God. We’re now free from the constraints of superstition. While Dawkins seems to have little time for theologians – whether or not they teach at Oxford along with him – theologians, such as Clayton, wish to continue the dialogue with science. In this fourth chapter of Clayton’s Adventures in the Spirit, we are introduced to emergence of the scientific kind. Emergence is a new paradigm for doing science, one that contrasts with the reductionism of Neo-Darwinism. Whereas Dawkins reduces everything to genes, with genes controlling everything, this new paradigm suggests that systems help shape and define evolution.

Emergence theory splits the difference between reductionism and dualism – the latter being the belief that minds and bodies are of a different order from each other. Emergence grants “the downward dependence of the reductionists, but they challenge the achievability of downward explanatory reduction. Rather, they maintain that it is a contingent fact of natural history that new levels of organization emerge, which because they are novel, are not predictable or explainable in terms of any lower-level laws, forces, or particles. Emergence does not justify talk of souls and spirits, but it does help one make sense of the real causal (and hence explanatory) role of psychological and religious qualities” (Adventures in the Spirit, p. 65).

I’m not going to go into detail into the science that’s present in this chapter – in part because it’s a bit beyond my level of understanding, but I want to underscore the importance of this discovery – that systems act on the parts, and thus drive evolution. We can’t separate body and mind, for instance, but we can assume that we’re not simply random developments. There is some ordering principle, even if it’s not necessary divine. But, this new direction in science, does offer a fruitful point of contact between theology and biology.

In contrast to both reductionism and dualism, emergence theory allows for both continuity and discontinuity. Continuity suggests that “everything in the natural world is composed of the same ‘stuff’ of matter and energy, and no new substances are added along the way” (Adventures in the Spirit, 74). Thus, there’s no room for adding souls and spirits into the equation. If I understand this correctly, Clayton seems to be saying that we can’t have our cake and eat it too. We can’t have a materialistic evolution going on, with God infusing at certain points spirit or soul into the equation. Now, this has been the Catholic view of evolution. Evolution produces the product (the body) and God infuses the body with the Spirit/Soul creating a human being. Now, I’ve found that perspective attractive, but Clayton suggests that as helpful as it may seem, it lacks scientific value.

If there is continuity, there is also a place for discontinuity. That is, there is a place for competing explanatory frameworks – that which best explains the phenomenon wins the day. Here, he believes that rather than choose the reductionist way, we can embrace a more open emergent way, one that invites us to consider how the systems influence the evolutionary development. Believing that this is the direction that science is taking today, he believes that it offers theology a much more compatible conversation partner – but we must wait to see how this plays out. That said, we are invited to consider how “emergence” has the potential to transform theology and the church.

So, we wait to see how this will work out! If this new paradigm is a fruitful explanation for reality, we may have to adapt to it, but it may offer a place for theology in the conversation.

Good Friday Resource

Good Friday is on the horizon, and whether you're a preacher or not, you may wish to reflect on the cross and its meaning. Last year I published a book of sermons on the Seven Last Words of Christ -- the traditional texts for Good Friday. This is a relatively brief book, but it reflects my own sense of the cross and of Good Friday.

I invite you to pick up one through Amazon.com.

What is atonement?

The definition of this word in the Westminster Dictionary of Theology (Westminster Press, 1983) begins:

The English word "atonement" originally signified the condition of being "at-one" after two parties had been estranged from one another. Soon a secondary meaning emerged: "atonement" denoted the means, an act or a payment, through which harmony was restored." (p. 50).

The author of this definition notes that the word for atonement -- katallage -- is translated in the KJV as atonement only once (Romans 5:11), and elsewhere is translated as reconciliation (2 Corinthians 5:18ff). The author notes too that in the OT the Hebrew word translated atonement "frequently occurs in a ceremonial context" and speaks of actions taken to remove guilt (Leviticus 23:26ff) -- a ceremony that is reflected upon in Hebrews 9. The issue here is removal of guilt -- perhaps by satisfying a divine requirement. The question before us, however, has to do with the way in which the cross brings reconciliation between God and humanity.

The traditional Reformed position -- penal substitution -- suggests that Christ died to satisfy God's penalty for sin. As Paul puts it -- "the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord" (Romans 6:23). That free gift, is defined further in Romans 3:24ff, where Jesus is described as being the sacrifice of atonement, so as to demonstrate his righteousness.

I want to quote from Daniel Bell, who attempts to redefine this traditional doctrine in a way that removes the sense of blood sacrifice to appease God.

The word of atonement is God in Christ bearing human rejection and extending the offer of grace again, thereby opening a path for humanity to recover blessedness. In this sense, Christ's faithfulness even to the point of death on the cross marks not a divine demand for retribution, but a divine refusal to hold our rebellion against us. God offers us life and we reject it. God continues to offer it, in the form of love incarnate, and we crucify him. Yet even now, God will not lash out against us but instead raises Jesus up and sends him back with the same offer of life. Christ is God bearing offense, even the offense of the cross, without holding it against us, without giving up on us, without exacting compensation or inflicting retribution, instead continuing to extend the offer of communion. Christ's work of atonement, including the cross, is nothing less than God refusing our refusal; Christi is God rejecting our rejection and instead continuing to offer us the gift of life and love. Even after we crucified him. (Daniel Bell, "God Does Not Demand Blood," in God Does Not . . . Edited by D. Brent Laytham, Brazos, 2009, p. 55).

Perhaps this is where the Parable of the Prodigal Son comes in -- God continuing to hold out hope for the son's return, even as the son treats the father with derision -- but in time the son discerns the reality of his situation and returns to God, who is standing there ready to welcome the son back into the community. But, no matter what the son does, the Father continues to love the son. God is reconciling us in the one whom we continually reject, the one who demonstrates to us God's love for humanity (John 3:16).

Friday, March 20, 2009

Jesus's Mission -- Irenaeus's View

In reviewing the book God Does Not . . . I commented on Daniel Bell's attempt to deal with the atonement. His point is that God doesn't demand blood -- that is Jesus didn't die so as to appease God's wrath or satisfy some need for blood to resolve legal issues. It is a challenge to traditional penal substitutionary atonement theology. I applaud him for the attempt, but feel it needs more work!

As we contemplate the biblical understanding of the Cross -- something that we will be doing soon on Good Friday (see my reflections in my book A Cry from the Cross) -- it is proper to remember that in the early years of the church there were a number of attempts to understand the cross and Jesus' life and death and resurrection. One of the most important early theologians was Irenaeus, whose Adversus Haereses (Against Heresies) attempted to refute Gnostic attempts to separate Jesus Christ from his body. In developing his defense of Christianity, he described Jesus' life in terms of "recapitulation" -- that is, in his life and death and resurrection, Jesus lived a human life so as to undo that which was lost by Adam in the fall. It was not merely Jesus' death that saves us, but the entirety of his life that overcame sin and death.

I will try to lay out some of what Irenaeus had to say (and let me say too that Elaine Pagels has given Irenaeus an undeserved bad rap!), because I think it's helpful. Consider this statement by Ireneaus about Jesus' words of forgiveness from the cross:

By the fact that on the cross the Lord said, "Father let them go, for they do not know what they are doing," the long -suffering and patience and mercy and goodness of Christ are shown, so that the very one who suffers is the one who forgives his persecutors. The word of God which he spoke to us -- "Love your enemies and pray for those who hate you" [Matt. 5:44 -- he enacted on the cross. He loved the human race so much that he interceded for those who were doing him to death.

If three is anyone who thinks that there were two Christs and passes judgment on them, he will discover that the Christ who, in spite of his own wounds and stripes and the other things they did to him, was beneficent and willing to forget the evil done him, was much better and more patient and truly good than the Christ who "flew away" and did not suffer injury or opprobrium. (Irenaeus, from The Christological Controversy, edited and translated by Richard A. Norris, Fortress, 1980, p. 53).

This one who suffered for us -- really suffered (unlike what the Gnostics were saying) -- has shown us a way of living before God. And as our teacher, we can become like him, but before that he has undone what has caused us pain.

But as our Lord is the only true teacher, he is also the true Son of God, who is good and who suffers in patience -- the Logos of God the Father become Son of man. He struggled and conquered. He was a human being, fighting on behalf of his fathers. Through his obedience he dissolved disobedience, for he tied up the strong man and set free the weak. He gave salvation to the being he had shaped by destroying sin. He is the most faithful and merciful Lord and the lover of the human race. (p. 53).

Nothing here is said about propitiating the wrath of God, or satisfying God's legal claims, but he does speak of Jesus expressing God's love for humanity.

Condoms, AIDS, and a Papal Misstatement

Pope Benedict XVI made comments that strain the margins of credibility. Beginning a trip to Africa, a continent ravaged by AIDS (most of which coming through heterosexual contact), he made a pronouncement on the use of condoms that stands in stark contrast to the facts. He suggests that condoms, rather than helping to alleviate the situation, encourage and expand the problem. Now it's true that condoms aren't perfect, and they can break, but this isn't why the Pope is against the use of condoms. He's against them because they are a form of birth control. Now, had he said, that condoms are a form of birth control and we don't allow for any form of birth control, even if it will help prevent the spread of an epidemic that might kill millions, then I'd disagree with him, but at least he would be honest. But, from the standpoint of being "pro-life," how ironic it is that the prevention of pregnancy is worse than preventing an illness that could kill millions. And, it's important to remember that many of those being infected with AIDS are the innocent -- wives at home, being infected by unfaithful husbands. Now, should these women bear the consequences of their husbands' actions?

The Pope is welcome to his opinion, but this is irresponsible and could hinder, indeed, likely will hinder efforts to stem the tide of a disease that could depopulate the continent of Africa. It is unfortunate that he has made this statement, one that overshadows much of the rest of his message that is so supportive of the poor and the marginalized of the region. I pray he will recognize this error and rectify the situation, so that the rest of the message can be heard.

A Time to Rejoice -- Lenten Reflections

Friday, March 20, 2009
1 Thessalonians 5:16-22

16 Rejoice always, 17 pray without ceasing, 18 give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. 19 Do not quench the Spirit. 20 Do not despise the words of prophets, 21 but test everything; hold fast to what is good; 22 abstain from every form of evil.

A Time to Rejoice

“Rejoice always!” That is a difficult command to obey. There are indeed times to rejoice: The birth of a child, the graduation of that same child. A Wedding Day, surely that is a day to rejoice. But can we rejoice always? Even as he presents this request, which seems so unrealistic, Paul goes on to suggest that we pray without ceasing and give thanks in all circumstances. Surely, these are difficult commands to hear and to abide.

The life of faith is not always easy. It can be full of challenges, as Paul himself knew. Even as he wrote these words, he would have had in the recesses of his mind memories of beatings, shipwrecks, imprisonments. And yet, he could say: “Rejoice always” and “give thanks in all circumstances.”

The key is, I would suspect, that encouragement to keep on praying, no matter what happens. And as you pray, know that God is there with you, even as you walk through the times and places of shadows. Paul's advice – don’t ignore the Spirit and the words of the prophets. Keep testing; keep pushing the envelope, knowing that God is there. Yes, know that the God who was in Christ, while on the cross, has reconciled all things (2 Cor. 5:16-19).

As we live lives of joy and thanksgiving, having experienced that grace that comes through God’s reconciling love, we can go forth as ambassadors of that message of reconciliation – and in that there is joy indescribable! (2 Cor. 5:21).

Pastor Bob Cornwall

Devotion taken from the 2009 Lenten Devotional of Central Woodward Christian Church of Troy, MI

Thursday, March 19, 2009

A Crackdown on Miracles? -- Sightings

As a Protestant, especially as one who is ordained and ministers in a denomination long known for its rationalism, articles about Vatican difficulties dealing with claims of the miraculous can stir up a bit of a chuckle. But, then again, I must remember from whence I've come. I was once a Pentecostal -- member of the church founded by none other than Aimee Semple McPherson. Aimee was a healing evangelist, whose fame centered not just upon her stirring preaching, but also on the basis of her healing ministry.

We Progressive Christians struggle with the biblical miracle stories -- we try to find rational answers, though sometimes we just have to stop and say -- not sure how that happened. As a Progressive, with an Evangelical streak I give some credence to the unexplained, believing that God can act, even in ways I can't explain. Anyway, in today's edition of Sightings, Dr. Heather Hartel explores the Vatican's attempt to control reports of the miraculous in the age of the Internet!


Sightings 3/19/09

A Crackdown on Miracles?

-- Heather A. Hartel

There has been a recent flood of speculation that silence will be considered golden by the Vatican in cases of apparitions, revelations, visions, and miraculous happenings such as weeping statues and stigmata, at least until officials conduct a formal investigation and give permission for the claim to go public if it passes muster. According to reports, a Vatican spokesperson for the Congregation on the Doctrine of Faith denied that the 1978 “vademecum” handbook is being revised to mandate silence as a first test of authenticity; but rumors of a Vatican crackdown on miraculous claims appeared in a number of media sources – from FoxNews TV to the Irish Catholic Times – in mid-January, and continue to reappear in many other sources without mention of the Vatican's denial.

These rumors originated from more conservative elements of the Church, specifically those who publish Petrus, the online Italian periodical in which the news first appeared. Writers of the original report fervidly view unapproved extraordinary events as hazardous to the faith and risky for the faithful. However, the wide spread of the news might be driven by other forces, such as public anxiety about the Church's slowness to declare the final word on some of the more popular Marian visions of the late twentieth century, most notably those at Medjugorje. The jury is still out on the validity of the visions there in 1981, yet pilgrims have been visiting the site for more than two decades, and there is little evidence of the movement waning.

The speculations and the Vatican's denial also represent tensions that can arise between popular and official forces in cases of miraculous happenings. Extraordinary incidents can become deeply contested and reveal power struggles between popular devotional practices and official regulation. The enthused faithful often have different ideas about the meaning of the miraculous than Church authorities have; and the authorities, in turn, feel an urgent obligation to prevent the laity from being misled. The norm is for authorities to try to redirect or reign in popular devotion until investigations have concluded, sometimes without much success.

A good question to pose, then, is whether the devotional life of the Catholic Church should happen from the top down or from the bottom up, or whether its development should continue to be the result of an ongoing negotiation between the people and the hierarchy. New stricter regulations would tip the scales in favor of Church authorities, something that would certainly appeal to authors of the Petrus article, but that might cause fear and anxiety for those whose spiritual lives have come to depend upon alleged miraculous happenings.

When people are permitted to recognize miraculous events before an official decision, devotional fires are fueled by the hope that a connection with the divine exists. But if the Church were to require silence, these happenings would be prevented from entering devotional networks in the first place, and popular movements would stand little chance of participating in the dynamic dialectic with the hierarchy that characterizes these kinds of events and helps maintain a lively culture of Catholic devotion.

The claims of Petrus bring up another issue as well. Because innovative technologies can spread news of Marian apparitions, visions, and miracles with lighting speed, devotional culture has taken on its own virtual life in the twenty-first century. Thus, the need to reduce the number of suspect miracles must seem all the more pressing to some factions within the Church. But if the Vatican were to actually start cracking down on false claims and demanding silence, it would also have to contend effectively with today's and tomorrow's technology. It seems unlikely that the Vatican, which has only had its own Youtube channel for a few months, would be up to such a task anytime soon.

Given virtual devotional culture, cases like Garabandal (a site to which pilgrims continue to flock despite official statements that the occurrences there were not supernatural), and publications like Mary's Message to the World (1991, 2005) by self-proclaimed Texas visionary Annie Kirkwood (which remains an underground bestseller), it is unlikely that Church authority will be able to completely control either the story of a compelling miraculous event or vision or the power behind it, even if new stricter policies are enacted. At least for now, it appears that the dialectical development of devotional Catholicism will continue, despite efforts to award the Vatican with a home field advantage.





Heather A. Hartel holds a Ph.D. in Religious Studies from the University of Iowa and works as an online adjunct professor for St. Leo University and the University of Maryland University College.

In conjunction with the upcoming conference, “Culturing Theologies, Theologizing Cultures: Exploring the Worlds of Religion,” April 22 and 23 at the Divinity School, this month’s Religion and Culture Web Forum features conference participant Alain Epp Weaver’s exploration of “how the arboreal imagination animates Israeli and Palestinian mappings of space and landscapes of return.” Trees are at once contested political and religious symbols and concrete means of claiming the land. Via a close reading of Palestinian theologian Elias Chacour’s writings, Weaver examines the rhetorical role and weight of trees in Israeli and Palestinian thought. “Is the arboreal imagination necessarily bound up with exclusivist mappings of erasure only, mappings which encode given spaces as either Palestinian or Israeli Jewish?” Weaver asks, or, “might the arboreal imagination animating the imagined landscapes of Palestinian refugees also produce cartographies of mutuality which accept, even embrace, the complex character of shared space?”

Visit the Religion and Culture Web Forum:


Sightings comes from the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School.

The Science of Emergence -- Transforming Theology Project

Could science and theology have a mutually beneficial conversation? That's the question we have long been pondering, since too often we hear only that science and religion are at war. From the religious side we often hear about alternative views of science, from Creationism to Intelligent Design. My review of Karl Giberson's Saving Darwin deals with some of that discussion.

Philip Clayton, a theology professor at Claremont School of Theology, is deeply engaged in a conversation with science as a theologian. I'm reading, as I've pointed out earlier, his Adventures in the Spirit (Fortress 2008), as part of the Transforming Theology project. Clayton speaks of emergence -- a term that is similar in nature to that used by Tony Jones, Doug Pagitt, and others. In some ways they mean something different, but in others, they are closing in on similar understandings.

The clip below introduces the content of the second section of Adventures in the Spirit. I'll be posting as I'm able my thoughts on these chapters in the days to come, but let this video get you started in your thinking about emergence and emergent Christianity.

What Clayton is doing is bringing a scientific view into the conversation -- a view of biology that he believes is cutting edge, and one that is much more amenable to faith than the Neo-Darwinism of Richard Dawkins. As you watch this clip you'll hear him suggest that Dawkins's view is way out of date. Now I'm not as well versed in the intricacies of scientific theory to know exactly how this works, but if Clayton is correct, then something quite amazing is happening. And as you'll see he believes that faith/religion plays a part in all of this (or at least there's the possibility). Take a look and leave your thoughts.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

I believe in Christ

I opened up a volume of sermons written and preached by the founder of this congregation that I'm privileged to serve as pastor. Dr. Edgar Dewitt Jones was a man of his day, and likely very different from me (so say those who knew him). He retired decades ago and yet his shadow continues to rest upon the congregation -- though it has receded some in recent years. Still, as his successor, I'm cognizant of the tradition he set forth. I expect that on many points we would agree theologically and politically, and differ at others. The sermon I opened up was his "Personal Confession of Faith," and in it he sets out what he personally believed. I'd like to put out her his first paragraph and then comment on it.

I believe in Christ! You would expect me to say this, Christ is the center of the Christian faith, and it would indeed be strange and sad if a teacher of the Christian religion disbelieved in the Founder of the faith. I cannot recall a time when I did not think of Christ as the Savior of the world and the lover of mankind. I was brought up on the old, old story as related in the Four Gospels. Very early the mystic communion of the Lord's Supper drew my interest and fed my imagination, as I sat in awe while all about me partook of the loaf and the cup. There are many speculations about Jesus which may or may not be true. The theologians and the creed makers have been busy attempting to explain the two natures that were his, human and divine. I believe in Christ even when I'm mystified, believe where I cannot prove. He was in some unique sense the Son of God and Son of Man. He lived in such harmony with the eternal Spirit that he came to know a joy, a power, and a peace that can be accounted for only by his relationship with this eternal Spirit. For nineteen hundred years we have been calling him Lord and leaving undone many of the things he asked us to do. We have worshiped him, yet have failed to follow him in the wondrous way of life he taught and over which his own ministering feet went before us. I believe in Christ, his mind, the principles that he taught, the ideals for which he lived and died. I believe that his death was as unique as his life, that by his death he did not change the will of God toward humanity, rather he revealed that will. By the way he died he has changed myriad lives. (Edgar DeWitt Jones, A Man Stood up to Preach, Bethany Press, 1943, pp. 182-183).

The issue of Christ's death has come up recently on this blog-- what was its meaning and purpose. Edgar Dewitt Jones briefly takes it up here, and I do think that Jones is right that Jesus' death didn't change God's mind about us -- God loved us both before and after the fact. But in his death, Jesus shared God's love for us, demonstrating his willingness to bear our anger and hatred and overwhelm it with sacrificial love. Some, even much of what I learn about Jesus may continue to mystify me, but like Dr. Jones, I will continue to believe and continue to follow (even when I need to be lifted up by the Spirit).

Don't Be Afraid -- I'm With You -- A Lenten Reflection

Posted below is a reflection for today as published in Central Woodward Christian Church's 2009 Lenten Devotional


Wednesday, March 18, 2009
Isaiah 43:1-7

1 But now thus says the LORD, he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel: Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. 2 W hen you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you. 3 For I am the LORD your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior. I give Egypt as your ransom, Ethiopia and Seba in exchange for you. 4 Because you are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you, I give people in return for you, nations in exchange for your life. 5 Do not fear, for I am with you; I will bring your offspring from the east, and from the west I will gather you; 6 I will say to the north, "Give them up," and to the south, "Do not withhold; bring my sons from far away and my daughters from the end of the earth--

Don’t Be Afraid – I’m With You

These are difficult times. There are wars and rumors of wars. There is that economic downturn. Houses are being foreclosed, jobs cut, and “quality affordable health care” seems to be an oxymoronic idea. It is easy to feel left out and on the sidelines. The exiles in Babylon felt that way. They felt scattered and alone. They didn’t feel that there was much hope for the future.

Into this context, the word of the prophet comes. The one who created you says: Do not fear! W hy? Because “I have redeemed you; I have called you by name.” The prophet says to Israel, and to us, I created you and named you, so I will reclaim you for my use. So, don’t be afraid. Indeed, not only will I reclaim you from your captors, whoever they may be, but I promise that because “you are precious in my sight” I will be with you and with your offspring. How can we be afraid, when God is walking with us, gathering our offspring from the far corners of the earth?

When we know and understand that God is with us, walking with us, in the midst of our own difficulties, then we can go out into the world with confidence. Having been redeemed and love, we can tell that story to the neighborhood, so that they too might share in the love that God pours out on us. None of this takes away from the realities of life, but it does give us hope. Don’t be afraid! God is with us – Emmanuel!

Pastor Bob Cornwall