Sunday, May 31, 2009

From Substance to Subject

From Substance to Subject:
Rethinking Spirit in the Modern World
(Philip Clayton, Adventures in the Spirit, Chapter 9)

I've been working on my summation of this chapter for several days, but since it has to do with the Spirit, perhaps its appropriate that I release it on Pentecost Sunday!

Traditionally, when we think of Spirit, we think of the third member of the Trinity or maybe we think of that which is internal to the human person. That is, that which makes us, well, us. For Philip Clayton Spirit takes on a broader sense, and with this chapter we begin to understand the meaning of the title of the book still under consideration on this blog – Adventures in the Spirit: God, World, Divine Action (Fortress, 2008). I apologize for the lengthy time that this is taking! I started in March, and I’ve reviewed a number of books in the mean time. But, I’m plugging along because this is requiring more of me than I anticipated (not so much in time as in theological wrestling).

The chapter under consideration (chapter 9) forms the second chapter in part 4, which seeks to offer a definition of “panentheism.” Now, we’ve already discovered that panentheism is an alternative to classical theism – that understanding of the divine that is deeply rooted in Greek thought – more Platonic that Semitic. Clayton has suggested that what he’s attempting to do here is develop a “theology of the Spirit,” something I am very interested in (I’ve been working on a manuscript about spiritual gifts for more than a decade – speak of slowness). What is interesting here is that Clayton seeks to root this theology of the Spirit in philosophy. This should come as no surprise to those who have read Clayton – he is a deeply philosophical theologian. I’ll admit that sometimes the Barthian in me rebels, but I seek to listen and learn about how we might better understand both God and God’s relationship to the world. If panentheism is an effective way of not only understanding God, but putting the gospel in terms that make sense in our day, then there is value in this project. I think we who might be a bit more “traditional” in our approaches need to admit that our theological ancestors turned to Plato and Aristotle for the same reasons.

To get a hold of this concept of panenthism, if I understand Clayton correctly, we must pay attention to post-foundationalism, which is a very postmodern philosophical position. My sense has been that Whiteheadian Process Thought was very much part of the Modernist program, so this would be a major departure. In modernist thought we start with a premise that there is one foundational set of truths, and then you build from there. In this case we’re seeking truth that is “coherence-based.” What is important about this venture is that it might allow us to embrace theological language, even as we seek to engage other thought forms and perspectives (we need to remember that Clayton is interested in engaging science in theological conversation.). It also means that we don’t have to submit our theology to a “higher” neutral set of standards to judge our faith professions.

In this chapter, in which Clayton begins to develop his theology of the Spirit, he suggests that we must move from substantivalism to spirit. Once again we have in mind the questions of the infinite and the finite. The old adage is that two substances cannot be in the same place, so if God is a substance and the world is a substance, they can’t share the same space (especially if God is infinite, then there would be no room for us). Thus, how can God interact with the world (without somehow breaking natural law and becoming interventionist). Clayton doesn’t believe that God can or will break natural law (God isn’t an interventionist!), but he wants to retain the idea of divine agency. With that in mind, making use of modern philosophical developments, he suggests that we move from substantivalism to spirit. Then, God, who is infinite, can include within God’s self the finite, and thus because the world is within God, even though God transcends the worked, God is able to engage the world, essentially from within.

Although Clayton goes into some detail as to how the transition from substantivalism has occurred – a process that goes back to at least Aristotle was transformed and challenged by such philosophers as Spinoza (Spinoza assumed only one substance – monism) and beyond to Hegel and the German Idealists -- I’m not going to rehearse that part of the story (you may read it for yourself). But, from that discussion, it’s becoming clear that Clayton’s version of Process Theism is heavily influenced by Hegel and the German Idealists. He also takes something from Friedrich Schleiermacher’s theology, especially his suggestion that religion is the feeling of absolute dependence on the infinite. But, returning to Hegel, Clayton writes that Hegel’s theory of subjectivity, most ably synthesizes Greek, medieval, and early modern motifs, and thus “if the highest being (or Being itself) is a personal reality, full of self-consciousness and a sense of spiritual unity are precisely the features one would expect it to have” (p. 144). For Hegel, “Spirit becomes the ultimate principle of rationality,” and the real is the rational.

This being the “foundation,” we return to panentheism, which is our focus. Clayton’s go is to move us beyond dualist views of personhood, so that we move to one of “psycho-physical” unity. Personhood is more than the physical, but includes the physical. Indeed, we can’t understand consciousness or spirit apart from the body. This needs to be stated, lest we fall prey to reductionist views. From this he moves to defining the question of the “divine Spirit,” and there appears to be a psycho-physical unity to God. He writes:

“Just as spirit stands for the dimension of personal being that we only find in conjunction with highly complex physical systems such as the human body, so God can be introduced as that spiritual identity, presence, and agency that we come to know out of the physical world (the universe) taken as a whole” (p. 146).

God is, it seems, to be an embodied Spirit (or embodied subjectivity) – with the universe forming the body, and God as Spirit transcending/is more than this body. Thus, when God acts as divine agent, God doesn’t intervene (act from outside), but acts from within as Spirit. This is thus, “inner-worldly causality.” God is, thus acting within natural law, not contrary to it.

If Clayton is advocating for panentheism, he also believes that it needs correcting. One aspect of this correct is to affirm the personal survival after/in the body’s death. He’s suggesting that there is “life after death,” a new heavenly body. Furthermore, we need to re-envision the Spirit, so that we can envision God’s nature “from above” – that sense of the Spirit transcending the universe itself (p. 149). This God is necessary not contingent, eternal, infinite, and thus the “Ground of the world.” Thus, the infinite encompasses the finite, but also transcends it. He makes a suggestion here that the Trinity is the key to understanding all of this – something I’m eager to consider. He writes that God is “trans-personal,” and then suggests that in this way, “God consists of three divine persons,” rather than God simply being a personal being (p. 149).

All of this might become a bit confusing – at least it is at points for me – but I think I know what Clayton’s trying to do. Our tendency is to say – God is a mystery – and leave it there. God is, in Barthian terms, wholly other, and known only by way of revelation in Jesus Christ. Barth was known for his dislike of natural theology. Clayton, on the other hand, wants to go in a different direction. He believes that God has broken down the dividing wall (Eph. 1:9ff), so that we can understand the divine nature.

God is “the infinite Ground, the condition of the possibility of all finite or contingent things” (p. 151). God is infinite, encompassing all things. But, God is more than the finite – the world. The Scriptures make it clear that there is a difference – there is a Creator! The universe continues to exist – only because of “God’s concurring will at each new moment.” All of this is well known, but what we’ve missed, Clayton says, is the “non-otherness of God and God’s creation” (p. 151). It is this Immanent Spirit, which humanity and God share. There is, he suggests a pericoretic relationship, a mutual penetration of the divine and the finite. There is both immanence and transcendence – two halves of a dialectical whole.

Another idea to bring into this conversation is the imago dei (image of God). Is God simply a projection, ala Feuerbach. That is, is God simply a matter of using divine language to talk about humanity. Or is it something different. Does our God talk, as ones who are created in the image of God, speak of a reality that transcends humanity? Here Clayton turns to Jurgen Moltmann, whom I had asked him to speak about. We are, according to Moltmann, the image of God in the sense that “God recognizes the divine self in them as in a mirror” (p. 154 – quote from Moltmann and Wendell-Moltmann, Humanity in God). We know and experience God – something that is beyond proof – in our own human experience. We know God as God is present in the World, for the World is part of God.

Clayton concludes this discussion of the Spirit by making three points. First, this is a monistic perspective, for all that exists is part of God. It is also dualist, because there is a distinction between God and the universe – there is room for the other to exist. Finally, it’s Trinitarian, a sense of God’s identity that allows for the personal, so that God can be in relationship with the creation. This final point leads to the next chapter, where Clayton, will, it appears, develop his understanding of the Trinity. My hope is that all of this will become, at least for me, clearer, so that I might have a better sense of who God is in relationship to this creation, of which we’re a part.

This is my continuing contribution to the Transforming Theology -- theo-blogging project.

Praying with the Spirit

I'm re-posting my Pentecost Sunday sermon. Rather than focus on the traditional Acts 2 passage, I chose to work with another passage, one that also proclaims the message of the Spirit. I share this in the hope and prayer that the Spirit of Pentecost will empower your life, even in times of great difficulty.

Romans 8:22-27

Charles Spurgeon wrote that "any fool can sing in the day. When the cup is full, a person draws inspiration from it." But what happens when night falls and the cup is empty? Spurgeon wrote that when he experienced the "bliss of spiritual liberty," he could climb near the throne of God and "sing as sweet as seraphs."

But confine me, fetter my spirit, clip my wings, make me exceedingly sad, so that I become like the old eagle -- ah! then it is hard to sing.

In fact, it’s unnatural to sing during times of trouble, except perhaps to sing the blues. But, as Spurgeon wrote: "songs in the night come only from God; they are not in human power."1


Today is Pentecost Sunday, the day on which we celebrate the promise, presence, and power of the Holy Spirit. It’s this Spirit who empowers us to sing even during the darkest of nights.

It was on the Day of Pentecost that the Holy Spirit fell on an uncertain and powerless community. But, just as Jesus had promised, the Spirit of God transformed that body into a powerful witness to God's gracious love and healing presence. On that day God connected the church to the power of the resurrection. It’s as biblical scholar Beverly Gaventa writes: just as the resurrection is the “first fruits of God’s triumph, the Spirit is the ‘first fruits’ of the appropriation of that triumph by believers.”2 So, just as Jesus has risen from the dead, the Spirit comes to us as the sign of God’s triumph over death.


Our text this morning doesn’t speak of Pentecost, but the same Spirit that came powerfully upon the church that day is at work in our lives, empowering us and sustaining us, even in the darkest of moments. That is the message of Romans 8. As Spurgeon pointed out, prayer and song don't come naturally to us, especially when we suffer physical or emotional pain. As I hear these words of Paul, my mind and heart go to my friend, and former teaching assistant, Eric.

Eric is in his mid-30s, has a wife and kids. He’s a beloved youth pastor, and will do anything and everything for you. But now, a stage four cancer has taken hold in his abdomen and in his brain. Stricken by this cancer, he’s experiencing constant pain, and I expect that death is a likely possibility – though they’ve not yet given up hope. I am greatly saddened by this, but at the same time my faith is encouraged by the reports that I’ve been getting. Oh, he’s not getting any better, but despite all of this pain and suffering, he’s still singing praises to God and encouraging others. I wonder: How does he do this? I mean, Eric is a naturally joyful person, but at this point being joy isn’t in his own power. And that’s the point that Paul is making – we can’t sing out to God unless we allow the Spirit to pray with and for us, even when we have no words to share.

Everything we know about Paul suggests that he understood the meaning of suffering. He experienced shipwreck, imprisonment, beatings, and a thorn in the flesh. While all of this could overwhelm even the strongest person, he found strength in the midst of his suffering. In Romans 8 Paul acknowledges that "we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words." Yes, when we experience that dark night of the soul, when we can’t find the words to speak to God, the Spirit is there interceding for us. Indeed, the Spirit knows our hearts and hears our cries and groans, and shares them with God who is always listening for the voice of his children.

I really don't know how this works. I don't know the mechanics of this kind of prayer, so I can’t teach it to you. I would if I could, but it’s not in my power. All I can do is say that when such a prayer is needed, the Spirit will provide the means. I know that some people think that when Paul talks about groans too deep for words, he’s talking here about praying in tongues. He may. I don't know. Indeed, I don’t think this is true. What I do believe is that when the moment arises, God will hear my cries, just as God heard the cries of the Hebrews in Egypt and the cry of Jesus from the cross. So, even if I can't speak for myself, I know that God still hears what is in my heart. Indeed, he hears the cries of all God’s children!


One reason why I take comfort in the promise that God hears my cries, is that this promise is set in the context of other promises. Indeed, if we continue to read through Romans 8, we’ll will find some of the most powerful and hopeful promises in all of scripture. Listen to verse 28: "All things work together for good to those who love God." Then, in verse 31, Paul writes: "If God is for us, who can be against us?" Again in verse 35, he writes: "who will separate us from the love of Christ?" And then in verse 37 Paul writes: "In all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us."

As I listen to these promises and draw strength from them, I also know that there’s a question that troubles so many in our world: Why do bad things happen to good people?

As I stand here today, I can't explain why some people suffer and others don't. I'm mystified by Parkinsons, AIDS, and Alzheimers. Good people lose their jobs and their homes. Tornadoes and hurricanes destroy churches. But, as I listen to these promises, I’m reminded that God is present and active in our lives, even during times of darkness; when sadness and grief, pain and suffering, threaten to overwhelm us. And so I draw strength from the promise that when words fail, the Spirit is there to intercede for us.

And when the darkness falls, and words seem absent, perhaps we can heed the example of Paul and Silas. Finding themselves beaten and jailed at Philippi, at midnight they began to sing out in praise to God. As Luke tells the story, while they sang, an earthquake shook the jail and freed them from their chains. They could have escaped, but they didn't. And because they stayed in the cell, they had an opportunity to share their faith with the jailer. Luke writes that by morning that jailer and his whole family had been baptized, all because Paul and Silas sang praises to God in the night (Acts 16:16-40).

As we ponder the message of Pentecost, I pray that we will find strength in the knowledge that if God is for us then no one and no thing can be against us and succeed. Indeed, filled with God’s Holy Spirit, let us remember that we’re more than conquerors. But, as we celebrate, may that celebration be tempered by the knowledge that Jesus found glory in the cross. Therefore, let us sing joyfully, boldly, and heartily before God, giving thanks for God's overflowing presence, keeping in mind and heart the message of the cross.

Pentecost is a reminder that the Spirit of God has fallen abundantly on the world. Walking in that Spirit, we can live lives of joy and thanksgiving, even when darkness falls, for when we can’t find the words, the Spirit will speak, bearing witness to the healing grace of God.

1. Charles Spurgeon quote in Hannah Ward and Jennifer Wild, eds., Westminster Collection of Christian Meditations, (Westminster/John Knox Press, 1998), 386-87.

2. Beverly Gaventa, in Walter Brueggemann, et al., Texts for Preaching, B, (Westminster/John Knox Press, 1993), 352.

Preached by:
Dr. Robert Cornwall
Central Woodward Christian Church

Troy, Michigan
Pentecost Sunday

May 31, 2009

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Pentecost's Future Orientation

We stand at the edge, just before the blessings of Pentecost are with us again. On the day of Pentecost, according to Luke, the people of God gathered in an upper room. I expect they were a bit apprehensive, not knowing what would happen to them. They lived with a promise of the coming of the Spirit so that they might go forth into the world and bear witness to God's grace and peace. They waited in anticipation, but did they know where this would lead? I don't expect that they did.

Then, on the day of Pentecost, as they gathered, hiding behind the doors of their room, the Spirit fell, breaking open their hiding place, so that the world might hear the gracious words of God's kingdom. But even then, it would take crisis and persecution to move them out of their very narrow sense of God' purpose.

Pentecost is a reminder that God is ever at work, always out front of us, setting the table.

Jurgen Moltmann writes:

The messianic concept represents a categorical mediation between the kingdom of God and history. It is Christian when, and to the extent in which, its mediations take their bearings from the history of Jesus and his mission. The first mediating category which must be mentioned in the messianic sphere is anticipation. An anticipation is not yet a fulfillment. But it is already the presence of the future in the conditions of history. It is a fragment of the coming whole. It is a payment made in advance of complete fulfillment and part-possession of what is still to come. (Moltmann, The Church in the Power of the Spirit: A Contribution to Messianic Ecclesiology Harper & Row, 1977, p. 193).

Pentecost was the down payment of God's promise to be with us as we live out God's future -- the Kingdom of God. May we experience the full blessing of God's Pentecost grace!

A word about the graphic -- it represents the Disciples of Christ Pentecost offering -- which supports new church development. I use it because I love the image!

See other Pentecost postings from the CCBlog Network:

When Love Comes to Town - "Pentecost, Peace, and Grace."

Theolog - Donna Schaper writes about a double miracle.

I-YOUniverse - John Hamilton confesses that the Holy Spirit resides in his heart but not in his mouth.

Reflectionary - Martha Hoverson is asked to do a funeral the week before Pentecost .

Don't Eat Alone - Milton Brasher-Cunningham offers us a Pentecost poem .

Welcoming Spirit - Paula Jenkins struggles to understand the nature of the Holy Spirit.

Just Words - Ed Sunday-Winters reflects on the age of the Church. Almost 2000 years old, and yet Pentecost reminds us that the present experience of the Spirit is the locus of our power.

Unorthodoxology - David Henson: "I wonder if they still continue to speak in the tongues of men and of angels, because that is the only language they now understand."

Life and Faith - Ernesto Tinajero remembers a seminary professor who called the Holy Spirit, "Holy Breath."

Everyday Liturgy - Thomas Turner: "The Holy Spirit is more than a placeholder to complete the Trinity."

Where the Wind - Fiction by Adam Thomas: Davies writes a paper on the Holy Spirit.

Grounded and Rooted in Love - A Pentecost sermon.

Seeking Authentic Voice - Terri Pilarski reflects on Pentecost having grown up in a non-liturgical tradition.

Eclectic Faith - Christopher Keel reflects on Pentecost having been raised a Pentecostal.

Faith in Community - Diane Roth: Remembering Azusa Street.

I Thirst - Mark Hogg remembers Pentecost 2001.

Dancing on Saturday - Chad Holtz: Pentecost and the Ethiopian gospel choir."

Friday, May 29, 2009

Thinking about the Future of the Church

I spent the day at a Western Theological Seminary sponsored continuing education event led by Diana Butler Bass. I must say that it was a most helpful session. Now, I've read most of Diana's material, had numerous conversations about these issues, and now the back story of some of her material (we both spent time in Santa Barbara). I won't give you a complete breakdown on things, but Diana opened by quoting from the galley proofs of a new book by Harvey Cox (due out this fall).

The question is: what does the future hold for religion and Christianity, and the answer may surprise you. While there is a greatly unanticipated resurgence in religion, and fundamentalism is in its death throes (doesn't mean its going away quickly, just that its impact and reach is contracting), the most important word is that we are entering a period of profound change in religion itself. While Phyllis Tickle (The Great Emergence) talks about every 500 year transition points, Cox talks here about an even more epochal change, the greatest in approximately 1600 years.

In this period we will see the rediscovery of the sacred in the midst of the immanent and the secular. We'll move from a focus on belief and afterlife, to a more this worldly, practical focus, one that moves from a focus on institution to practices that enable people to live effectively now, in this life. But, living in this important transitional point, we really don't know what the future looks like. In the 4th century Christianity went from outsider status to insider status. That changed everything -- we're in much the same place now. But like then, like in the 16th century we don't know what this will look like. Modernity may be ending but postmodernity is simply a place holder for what comes next.

So, what does this mean for us? Well, it means that its no longer business as usual. We can't go back to what was. Nostalgia will get us no where. We can't try to simply fix things, so that it will work a bit better, for a bit longer. We can't wish for a different age. We must deal with the age we're given. We talked a bit today about the attempts to be retro -- to go back to premodern days, when things were simpler, but you know, while there are great resources in the past, from every era, we can't simply stick our heads in the sand and think that the 18th and 19th centuries never happened. My own tradition has referred to itself as a Restoration Movement, and for some that has meant returning to an earlier, more pristine time (1st Century), but we can't (and I don't think that was a golden age either, at least not from what I read in Paul's letters). Yes, the world has moved on, and we must adapt or we'll die a death of irrelevancy. We need to step up, and take our place in history.

Now, this is my rambling reflection on some of the ideas that came streaming forth today. (and this just from the first 30 minutes or so this morning). Now, don't apply all of this back to Diana. These are my thoughts -- But I do think that this is a new day. It's scary and maybe at times dangerous, but, hey, we have an opportunity to do something important, to take our place in history. As Diana suggested, perhaps 500 years from now our descendants will look back and consider that we were brave souls, doing important things, and a most important point in history.

Are your ready for the ride?

Thursday, May 28, 2009

More on the Humorous and the Biblical

I had forgotten about Doug Adams' The Prostitute in the Family Tree: Discovering Humor and Irony in the Bible (WJK,1997) -- it was in the shelf at the office. Doug was prior to his death Professor of Christianity and the Arts at Pacific School of Religion. He writes:

Biblical stories are like grandparent stories. Jesus, Paul, and the Hebrew scriptures tell stories that include rough edges -- unethical or ambiguous characters, unresolved or surprising, endings -- and so we laugh and know that we and others may live through the rough times in our lives, too. Biblical stories present patriarchs, matriarchs, and disciples not as perfectly faithful and persons whom we could not hope to emulate but, rather, as person who are often immoral, unfaithful, and thickheaded. Therefore, in spite of our own failings, we too, can hope to be disciples. Persons who think the early church was perfect are often in despair concerning the state of the contemporary church and no longer attend when ministers and people quarrel. In light of Paul's descriptions of the divisiveness in the early churches, however, even our present churches look good. (p. 1).

Is there humor in the bible? Oh, yes, lots of it, but we have to be aware that its there. If we read scripture as a bunch of disconnected propositions, and not as story, we'll miss what's going on. Adams offers a nice introduction to this! I mean, the title gives us a pretty good indication of what's to be found inside the book and inside the Bible!

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

And the Nominee is . . . Sonia Sotomayor

President Obama has made his first Supreme Court nomination, the first for a Democrat in fifteen years. Indeed, of the nine sitting justices, only two Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer were nominated by Democrats. When Republicans complain about how liberal the courts are, I kind of laugh, because most of them have been Republican appointments.

So, with his first pick, Obama has chosen Sonia Sotomayor, a 54 year old Latina woman of Puerto Rican descent, a child of immigrants who grew up in the Bronx, went to Princeton and then to Yale. She's been a Federal Judge since 1992, having been appointed the first time by George H.W. Bush. From what I've read she's a distinguished jurist, thoughtful, competent, but not flashy. She's not ruled on some of the more controversial issues before us, so there's no paper trail. Oh, and if confirmed she would be the sixth Roman Catholic on the High Court.

This pick is hailed by some, jeered by others. One of the areas of critique has to do with what is being called the "empathy" criteria, something President Obama has suggested is important. This is called the basis of judicial activism. Now, I'm not a legal scholar, but I think that some of the basic principles of hermeneutics applies here just as it does to Scripture. I find the arguments about the need for strict constructionism to be specious. Some of you might disagree, with this assessment, but what modern biblical hermeneutics has taught us is that everyone brings their own context and views to the table. Now, you have to sometimes, perhaps often, set them aside, but to say that one's background plays no part in interpreting Scripture or the law is simply untrue. To pretend otherwise is to blind one's self to one's own perspective. By owning one's perspective, one can better deal with it.

Judge Sotomayor is being called a liberal -- well, what do you expect? President Obama is a liberal, so why would he select a conservative of the John Roberts or Sam Alito stripe? This fear that the Court is somehow going to take a leftward tilt is again bizarre. Unless the 4 primary conservative judges are planning to retire soon, then things are going to be pretty much the same for some time. Had the Republicans gotten the nomination, then we might looking at a long term right wing court. But we'll still have some balance. But back to the political angle. I read recently that if you look at John Roberts' rulings they are almost down the line conservative Republican -- pro-business, pro-Administration (GOP that is), pro-police, etc. As for defendants, consumers, legislatures, not so good.

Now, as for background. I think it's appropriate when making an appointment of this magnitude to consider the make up of the court. Having only one woman is problematic. Having only one minority is also problematic. In this appointment, the President has broadened the spectrum in two ways, in terms of gender and in terms of ethnicity. Of course, gender and ethnicity are by themselves insufficient factors for selection, but if qualified and competent, then why not?

So, I commend the President for his choice. I think its a bold step forward. I think it will be good for the Court because it adds depth and diversity to the conversations. I think that rulings will take on a new flavor, because a different set of experiences will be brought to bear. Now stay tuned, because I doubt this will be the last appointment!

Picture from NY Times

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

The Humorous and the Biblical

I think that we take life a bit too seriously. Indeed, I think we often take our religion much too seriously. By that I mean, we leave little room for humor in our religion. The preacher cracks a joke and no one laughs -- because you don't do such things in church.

The question has been asked about humor in the bible. Why isn't there any? Or if there is, how do we know? I think biblical humor is a bit like British humor; you have to understand the way it works. Once you do, well you love it.

The problem for us is that humor is culturally relative and conditioned. What may seem to us quite unhumorous, could be to an ancient quite humorous. Indeed, Jesus' parables are full of humor. Years ago Elton Trueblood wrote a book called The Humor of Christ (Harper & Row, 1964), which helps us understand that humor (don't have a copy with me, unfortunately).

So, it may be a bit like "you had to have been there," but there is humor present-- maybe not of the Monte Python variety, but if we're willing to look for it. Indeed, once we start laughing, we might realize that the joke's on us! At least that's usually the way it worked back then.

Monday, May 25, 2009

A Prayer for Memorial Day

Gracious God,
Creator of every good and perfect thing,
provider of every gift and calling,
we come today to remember.

We come to remember those who have died,
whether in the year past or before,
loved ones, friends, and family;
those who serve country;
those who seek peace,
and those who seek justice.

We remember too,
those who are left behind:
wives and husbands,
mothers and fathers,
brothers and sisters,

We grieve our loss
and remember the gifts imparted.
Grant us wisdom and clarity of vision
as we walk forward into the future.

Yes, let us remember and give thanks,
for the blessings of friendship and family,
even when death disrupts the joys
of relationship.


Sunday, May 24, 2009

Called to Leadership

Reposted from Words of Welcome (sermon blog)

Acts 1:15-17, 21-26

There are many kinds of leaders, some gentle, some tyrannical, some fun and some not so fun. Some are honest and others are crooks. When you think of a leader, maybe you think of Donald Trump or George Steinbrenner, both of whom are well know for saying: “You’re Fired!” Barack Obama, like Ronald Reagan, is known for his charisma, while Abraham Lincoln was known for his strategic vision. Some leaders are known for being micro-managers, while others take a more hands-off approach. You may have noticed, that everyone I’ve mentioned is male, which may derive from the fact that the glass ceiling remains in place. It may have, as Hillary Clinton suggested, begun to crack, but we’re still waiting to see how or if women will change our leadership styles. One of the issues that women wrestle with, in ways men have not, is how to balance work and family. We’ve just assumed that men will put work first, family second. But for women, the choices have always been more complicated – especially for younger women.

How do we lead in the church? Do we follow the models from corporate America? Is the pastor the CEO, with the Council functioning as a sort of Board of Directors? Or should we look at other models? Several years ago people began to talk about the Servant Leader. There was a famous book by that title, and Robert Greenleaf pointed to Jesus, suggesting that he was a good model of leadership. Ultimately, however, I’m not sure how influential that model really was or is on the church. My sense is that Peter Drucker has been more influential than Robert Greenleaf.


Today is, in the church year, Ascension Sunday, and our attention is drawn to the first chapter of Acts. In the first eleven verses, which we didn’t read, Jesus gives the gathered Disciples one last word. We might even call this word, the church’s marching orders. He tells them that they will receive the Spirit and then they’ll go and “be my witnesses to the ends of the earth.” These words were given not just to that original gathering, but as we’ve learned in our Bible study on Acts, these words were meant for the church in every age.

As a Missional people, Jesus has commissioned us to be his witnesses to the ends of the earth, beginning here in this place. Now, according to Luke, Jesus told the Disciples to wait for the Spirit to come and empower them for service. But while they waited for this empowerment, they continued to pray and worship, and consider the life and teachings of Jesus. It was during this interim period that Peter stood up in their midst and pointed out that the church’s leadership team was short a person.

Peter told them that while Jesus had called twelve apostles, Judas’ betrayal of Jesus, and Judas’ tragic death at his own hands, had reduced the apostolic band to just eleven. Surely they must raise that number, so there could be balance, and so Peter asked that the church put forward a candidate to fill this important office.

If you continue reading, you will discover how they made this choice. With our own congregational meeting just two weeks away, it might be worth looking at a different model, one that we might find a bit odd. That’s because their model was something like flipping a coin. Luke says that after the community put forward several candidates, all of whom fit the criteria for the office, they cast lots and the lot fell on Matthias. From then on, Matthias would be the twelfth apostle. Of course, we never hear anything about him, ever again, at least not in Scripture. Tradition says that he went to Ethiopia and preached the gospel, dying a martyr for his faith. But we really don’t know what happened to Matthias.


While I’d love to speculate about Matthias’ fate, what I’d really like to talk about this morning is what this passage says about Christian leadership. Before we go to Luke’s list of qualifications for Christian leadership, I thought it might be helpful to offer some definitions. Robert Banks and Bernice Ledbetter, people I know from my days at Fuller, point out that leadership and management skills are needed in the church, but they’re different. Management, they write, has to do with “coping with complexity,” while leadership involves coping change. Leadership, they suggest, is more proactive than management. Of course, church leaders do both, but very often we end up doing more management than leadership.1

Max DePree, the former CEO of the Herman Miller Company, suggests that the primary job of a leader is to define reality. In choosing Matthias, Peter told the church, our reality is defined by the resurrection of Jesus. That’s our message. Because Jesus is alive, we're alive!2

William Willimon says that while not every church member is a leader, everyone has "a stake in leadership, all of us have a responsibility to follow the leading of the Holy Spirit, all of the church needs leaders who help us to meet the challenges of discipleship in our time and place." Although we may not all be leaders in the usual sense of the word, each of us is called to bear witness to Jesus in what we do and in what we say. So, in that sense we all help define reality! 3


With this background and set of definitions in mind, as we consider our own calling to live and work in and through the church, in the service of the kingdom of God, especially as we prepare to choose new leaders for the congregation, Peter’s message offers us some interesting suggestions as to the qualifications for Christian leadership.


Peter’s list of qualifications includes two spiritual characteristics. Judas' replacement had to be a witness to the resurrection and had to have walked with Jesus from the beginning of his ministry. Although none of us can fulfill these requirements, I think there are some modern equivalents. Both of these requirements speak about a relationship with Jesus Christ. Those who lead and serve in the church, Peter says, are to be people who have a living relationship with Jesus Christ. Of course, since we're all different, we’ll live out this relationship differently. Some of us are loud and demonstrative, like Peter, but others of us are quiet and reserved – maybe Matthias was that kind of person. We need both in the church, because the key here is not style but what goes on in the heart.


You can't lead if people don't accept your leadership. Although the church in Acts 1 used an interesting form of decision making, they recognized Matthias's calling, invested him with the authority to lead, and then released him to witness to Jesus. Is this not what we’re called to do as a church? Whether we use elections, appointments, installations, or ordinations, what we’re called upon to do is recognize each others gifts and callings, and then enable each other to bear witness to Christ in our lives.


Peter knew that leadership is a team effort, which is why he asked the church to find a twelfth apostle. This congregation is no different. We are a team of witnesses to God’s work in the world. Each of us has different gifts and callings, and we need each other if we’re to achieve God’s purpose for our congregation. As pastor, I have certain roles to fill as a leader in the church, but the ministry of the church is much bigger than what I do. Indeed, the letter to the Ephesians suggests that God gives pastors and teachers to the church to equip the body for the work of the ministry, not to do the ministry others are called to share in (Eph. 4:11). So, while some of us have very visible roles and others work often behind the scenes, each of us is necessary for the work of the ministry of this church.


I want to reinforce that last statement about the importance of those who work behind the scenes. Now I don’t know whether Matthias was an upfront leader or a behind the scenes one, but the very fact that we never again hear from him reminds us that not everyone gets recognized for their contributions. Many servants of the church disappear into the fabric, and we need to lift them up. We need to be reminded that the unsung heroes are the foundation of the church’s ministry. Each in his or her own way, helps the church grow, mature, expand, and serve God’s kingdom, whether inside or outside the walls of the church.

Max DePree says that if defining reality is the first task of leadership, the second task is saying thank you. So, as we near that point where we change leadership teams, I’d like to stop and say thanks to everyone, whether serving out in front or behind the scenes, who has contributed to the work of the ministry this past year. Well done, good and faithful servants of God.

1. Robert Banks and Bernice Ledbetter, Reviewing Leadership, (Baker Books, 2004), pp. 16-17.
2. Max DePree,
Leadership Is an Art, (Currency, 2004).
3. William Willimon, quote from
Pulpit Resource – exact reference unknown.

Preached by:
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall
Pastor, Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, MI
Ascension Sunday
May 24, 2009

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Atonement -- Theories in Conflict

If you read through the New Testament, especially the letters of Paul, but the others as well, you will come across the word atonement. We can run from it, eliminate it from our lectionary readings, redefine it, etc., but it's still there. I've raised the issue of penal substitutionary atonement in the context of the issue of torture, wondering if the broad acceptance of that theory of atonement has influenced the overwhelming numbers of church going Americans (not just evangelicals) to embrace torture in the defense of national security. By doing this, I do not want to be seen as suggesting that such a connection is inevitable. I know many people who embrace penal substitutionary atonement who would never condone torture, nor would they see what happens on the cross constituting torture. Instead, I believe that they would take their cue from Anselm's "satisfaction" theory. We are a sinful people, and justice requires that a penalty be paid. We should pay it, but we're incapable of doing so, and thus Jesus has stepped forward to take our penalty.

One of the reasons why substitution has so many adherents is that in terms of simplicity, there are few options as simple as this one. It's easily explained, even if its not always easy to accept. The principle is simple -- we owe a debt we cannot pay, and Jesus, being both divine and human, though owing nothing, is able to pay our debt. Anselm's doctrine, put forward about 1000 years ago, expressed in his classic treatise "Why the God-Man?" says that we have dishonored God, and that God's honor needs to be restored. Only a human being owes this honor, but no human being is capable. Thus, the God-Man.

Within a century of this, Abelard, stepped forward, complained about its unjustness, and offered an alternative. Jesus, he said, died this way, in order to show us first God's deep love and also to show us a different way of living, one that is sacrificial. Where as Anselm's theory proposed a way to change God's attitude toward us, Abelard's focused on changing our attitudes toward God and humanity. The only problem is that this moral influence theory seems just as punitive (why does Jesus have to die in such a way to show us God's love, and it also seems to suggest that to love God requires suffering on our part), and its not especially effective. 2000 years later, we're just as abusive and sinful as ever. So what God did this do for us?

There are other solutions, some ancient and some new. One of the preferred options goes well back into history, but had renewed emphasis after its "rediscovery" by Gustav Aulen. In this theory, called Christus Victor, Jesus essentially tricked Satan and achieved victory because Satan couldn't hold on to Jesus, thus freeing us. As William Placher points out in an important essay in this most recent issue of the Christian Century, (this essay is not yet posted on line -- title is "How does Jesus save?" -- Christian Century, June 2, 2009, pp. 23ff). Anselm was aware of this theory and didn't find the cunning God any more useful than the one needing honor restored. Another theory that has gotten a lot of play recently was developed by Rene Girard, and it makes use of the scapegoat idea. But again, despite its seeming usefulness, it doesn't seem to offer a real way forward.

Placher, recently deceased, suggests we take a look at another theory, one that has great ancestry to it. It's one that I personally have found useful, even if I've not been able to fully work it out, and that is Irenaeus' doctrine of recapitulation. This doctrine is even more ancient that Christus Victor. It reflects a view that John Calvin himself suggested, that the entirety of Christ's life, his obedience to God in all things, has saved us. Placher doesn't believe has finally resolved the seemingly unresolvable question, but I think he's on to something important.

In this theory, which JND Kelley has worked on in some detail, the principle is reflective of Paul's statement that Christ is the second Adam, and that through his love for us, he "became what we are, so that we can become what he is."

There is much to this discussion, one that warrants a close reading of Placher's posthumous essay. But I think it warrants our consideration because the Scriptures require it of us, if we're to take them seriously, and our relationship with God with one another also requires it of us.

I don't find either moral influence nor penal substitution effective or acceptable explanations. Both are medieval in origin, and have major moral flaws in them. Christus Victor has an ancient pedigree, but it too falls short, as does the scapegoat theory, for while it taps into biblical themes, we've yet to come to a point where we've abandoned scapegoating the innocent.

So, the discussion continues. But we must continually ask ourselves, how does my doctrine influence my actions?

Herbert L. Willett -- Disciples of Christ Bible Scholar

I received as an email this brief essay on the life of Herbert Willett, one of the most important early Liberal Disciples of Christ leaders. Ted Parks notes the controversy that surrounded his appearance a century ago at a gathering of Disciples in Pittsburgh. Disciples will gather again this summer, but the cracks already present a century ago have long since led to division in the ranks of a movement of unity. But was there any other course of action?


The Dean Of Liberal Disciples
The theme of the Centennial Convention where Disciples scholar Herbert L. Willett (1864-1944) addressed a packed crowd in October 1909 was "The Union of All Believers." But some at the historic gathering may have been happier if "All Believers" had not included Willett.
Herbert L. WillettThe 1909 convention drew more than 50,000 Disciples to Pittsburgh to celebrate the one hundred year anniversary of Thomas Campbell's Declaration and Address, the 'Magna Carta' of the Stone-Campbell movement. Willett was among those who sought to move Disciples into the mainstream of culture and theology and thus became, as Eugene Boring described him, the "first liberal Disciples Bible scholar."
After graduating from Bethany College, Willett entered the pastorate in Ohio. He reached a turning point in 1891, however, when he decided to enter Yale Divinity School. There he came under the influence of renowned biblical scholar William Rainey Harper, who encouraged Willett to serve his fellow Disciples through a more intensive and more academic study of scripture. In 1896 Willett became the first Disciple to earn a Ph.D. in biblical studies. From Yale, Willett entered the University of Berlin to study with Adolph Harnack and Hermann Gunkel. Eventually he was called to the University of Chicago where he taught and served as the first Dean of the Disciples Divinity House.
Facing a time of dramatic social and intellectual change, Willett refocused the Disciples plea from restoring a 'normative past' to working for a progressive future. When he began to write the weekly Sunday School lesson for The Christian Evangelist, Willett drew heavy criticism, especially from J.W. McGarvey, author of a regular column in the Christian Standard. Issues like whether or not scripture should be interpreted literally and how exactly to achieve unity in God's kingdom separated Willett from McGarvey and many like him. Efforts to disinvite Willett from speaking at the 1909 convention failed.
An important voice in the top tier of American biblical scholarship in the early twentieth century, Willett served as an intellectual pioneer for Disciples. Brite Divinity School's Leo Perdue called him "a prophet of transformation shaping the Disciples of Christ into a modern expression of mainline Protestantism." Now at our two-hundredth anniversary, perhaps we can take inspiration from one of our own prophets and once again strive for a progressive future that calls all people to the oneness dreamed of by Christ and championed by Thomas Campbell.
Written by: Ted Parks
Associate Professor of Spanish
Lipscomb University, Nashville, TN
Celebrate Our Bicentennial. Learn more at
To learn more about your faith story, please visit the Disciples of
Christ Historical Society's web site at:

Friday, May 22, 2009

Two Ways of Seeing America's Future

Diana Butler Bass writes today, in a Progressive Revival essay, a response to yesterday's somewhat oddly juxtaposed speeches about America's national security. Rarely do you have the President of the United States answered just minutes later by the recently departed Vice President, and yet that's what happened. Obama speaking from within the National Archives, surrounded by our founding documents spoke eloquently to the rule of law and America's moral foundations, which he believes (rightly in my view) have been undermined by the recently departed administration. Dick Cheney has been on a nationwide circuit arguing vociferously not only that Obama is wrong in his policies, but that the Bush-Cheney policies should be seen as the proper response to challenging circumstances.

Yesterday I heard part of a conversation about the dueling visions -- on one hand we have a long term vision (Obama's), while Cheney argues for dealing with short term issues. In many ways, Cheney has embraced with a passion the situational ethics that liberals are supposed to embody.

Getting back to Diana, she has written a most interesting and provocative piece for Progressive Revival, rooting her analysis in the observations of George Lakoff, who suggested some years back that the Republicans represented the "stern father" perspective of family life, while the Democrats represented a "nurturing parent" perspective." In many ways Cheny comes off, Diana says, as that stern parent, telling the upstart child that he's being naughty (my words). She writes:

He chided Obama as a parent might correct an erring child--delivering a verbal conservative spanking to the young upstart who (according to Cheney) doesn't understand the ways of the real world. He protected the traditions of the older generation, applauding himself for his own wisdom and insight--all the while reassuring the rest of the fearful family that his way is the right way. Stay on the course of the Fathers (Cheney and Bush) and all will be well.

Obama, she notes did speak out of that nurturing parent role, but with a twist. There is much in the speech that speaks of empathy -- much as Democratic Presidents have in the past. But the twist is in Obama's rooting of that empathy in the Law. It is the Law that displays empathy.

The entire speech, delivered at the National Archives (the building that houses our most cherished legal documents), argued that the closest possible attention to the traditions of the law would both protect us from harm and save our national soul. The nurturing parent is not an individual, policies, or government. In Obama's progressive politics, the law nurtures the American family with its hopes for happiness, fairness, community, and justice.

This emphasis on the law-as-nurturing parent helps explain Obama's own coolheaded and dispassionate nature--he is able to stand alongside an issue and analyze it through the lens of legal traditions. And it also explains his remark on wanting an "empathetic" Supreme Court justice. He wants someone who shares this vision of the nurturant law as his legacy on the Court.

Diana notes that Obama's views are rooted both in his understanding of US law, but also in the Judeo-Christian traditions that have also helped form his understandings of the world.

So, which vision of America will you choose to embrace -- that of the stern, knowing father figure that does what's necessary, or the nurturing parent who takes the long view, one rooted in Law?

Doubt -- a Brief Review

The movie Doubt starring Meryl Streep, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Amy Adams, is out on DVD, and worth seeing. It's a dark and disturbing story set in the context of a changing 1960s religious landscape. Although set in 1964, even as Vatican II was in session, it was a time when traditional Catholicism still held sway, a time when nuns still provided the educators for Catholic schools, the primary issue is quite contemporary.

Hoffman plays a seemingly liberal priest, Father Flynn, one who notes the reality of doubt and its value to faith. He befriends the children and seeks to bring the church into the modern world. He's warm and funny, and yet he has a dark side.

Meryl Streep plays a seemingly rigid nun, Sister Aloysius who seems more concerned about proper behavior than in learning. She's old school, to be sure. And yet, despite the seeming coldness of her demeanor -- the children are frightened of her -- as the movie progresses you see something else present, a deep concern for the welfare of the children placed into her hands.

The third major character is Sister James (Amy Adams), a young nun placed in charge of the eighth grade class, a class that includes the school's first Black student. She is a person of innocence, wanting to introduce her students to the wonders of history and the modern world, but she becomes the witness to darkness within the church -- the fact that Father Flynn is paying too much attention to Donald Miller, the young black student interested in the priesthood and needing a protector. It causes her great emotional distress, but she wants to believe the best about the priest. And so she's torn between what she wants to believe and what she knows is likely the truth.

For Sister Aloysius, however, the truth is quite stark. She's seen this before, and she means to stop what is going on -- not in a moralistic way, but out of concern for the children.

But, as we learn this is a different time, a time when priests have great power and are likely to be believed, even when the accuser is a nun. An abusive priest is simply transferred, maybe even promoted. For who will you believe? Times truly have changed. And doubts have crept into the church.

I'm not Catholic, and so my own response is colored by my own practices and beliefs. I find imposed celibacy for church leaders unwise and unfortunate. I believe that the Catholic Church will be better served if it opens itself up to both women and married clergy. I think on the latter there is openness on the part of the majority of Catholics, especially in the light of a dearth of qualified priests to serve the myriad of Congregations around the world, including in this nation. I realize that one can remain celibate, and yet for so many this is too much to ask. The movie doesn't go into detail as to why this happens, only that it does, and that the church is the weaker because of it. One could see this as an attack on the Catholic Church, but perhaps it is rather a reminder of our frailty as humans, the heroism of some, the darkness of others, and the fact that even the church can face corruption and hurt the very ones it seeks to help.

It is an excellent film, one that will prove challenging to faith, no matter what one's tradition might be. May we hear in it a call to abandon our innocence, so that we can protect the innocence of others. It is also a reminder that doubt is present in us all.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Barack Obama, Notre Dame, and the Question of Roman Catholic Identity -- Sightings

Adam Darlage, a former Martin Marty Center Fellow at the University of Chicago, speaks to the recent controversy surrounding Barack Obama's appearance at Notre Dame. Conservative Catholics across the campus and the country made quite a fuss about the President being honored in such a venue, because his views on abortion and stem cell research don't fit with their views. This isn't a unique flap -- Southern Methodist University created quite a stir among liberals and Methodists when it decided to host the Bush Presidential Library. I'm not sure there's much real difference here -- a vocal group rose up to protest what they felt was the honoring of someone, whose views ran contrary to what they believed was true to their faith community. That being said, it is interesting that a fairly sizable majority of Catholics either thought this was just fine, or could care less. Why is that?

Darlage's piece in today's edition of Sightings places the debate in the context of earlier debates over Roman Catholic identity. What makes for a true Roman Catholic. Take a look and offer your thoughts -- not just about Catholic identity, but about Christian identity perhaps. In fact, whatever your faith tradition, what defines your identity?


Sightings 5/21/09

Barack Obama, Notre Dame, and the Question of Roman Catholic Identity

-- Adam Darlage

Notre Dame’s invitation to President Barack Obama to give the commencement address and receive an honorary degree on May 17th met with criticism from many Roman Catholics across the nation. After all, as these critics argued, Obama’s pro-choice stance on abortion and his policy on stem-cell research are condemned by the Roman Catholic Church. The formal protests began in earnest in early May, and on Friday, May 15th, a Catholic priest, political activist Alan Keyes, and nineteen others were arrested for trespassing while marching in protest on the campus of Notre Dame. Several individuals and groups at Notre Dame have also spoken up against the University’s decision, including Father John Corapi and conservative student groups on campus.

While images of angry protesters may grab our attention, perhaps the most interesting and relevant aspect of this story lies in the different reactions among Roman Catholics. Indeed, a Amy Sullivan takes up just this question in an article posted on the Time website on May 16th. Sullivan points to the outrage among conservative Catholics in America on the Obama issue, on the one hand, while citing the approval of or indifference to the issue among many American Catholics. Sullivan also points out that the Vatican “has stayed completely silent on the matter,” arguing that papal policy has often been to let local bishops do the heavy lifting when it comes to controversial issues that could damage the Pope’s relationship with other heads of state. She adds that for the “small but vocal group of conservative Catholics, the episode has become an opportunity to draw lines between those who are genuinely Catholic and those whom they accuse of being Catholic in name only – even the head of the country's premier Catholic university.”

This question of what it means to be Roman Catholic has been around for centuries, and variously articulated around a number of “hot-button” issues. For example, in the late sixteenth century, many Catholic lords in the Holy Roman Empire felt that the only way to maintain peace in their lands was to allow their subjects to receive communion sub utraque specie, that is, to receive both the bread and the wine during the Eucharist. They feared that strict adherence to the Church’s teaching that the laity were to receive communion sub una specie (the bread alone) would impel many to join the followers of Luther and Calvin, who all communicated under both kinds. Thus, under pressure from Emperor Ferdinand I, Pope Pius IV ceded the cup to the laity in Bavaria, Austria, Hungary, and the Bohemian Kingdom in 1564.

At the time, many Catholics believed that communion sub una specie was the most important marker of Roman Catholic worship against that of the Protestants. To conservatives such as the Jesuits, the concession of the chalice to the laity signaled the abandonment of their Roman Catholic identity. One polemicist went so far as to publish a work outlining ten reasons why lords in the Empire should want to be called “Roman Catholic” instead of simply “Catholic.” Like many conservatives today, the author alleged that there were a lot of people who claimed to be Catholic but did not follow the teachings of the Church; “Roman Catholics,” however, did. Ultimately, communion under both kinds was rescinded in these Imperial territories, but in the case of Bohemia and Moravia, the return to communion under one kind did not happen until 1621.

The issues at stake today, while different, are also regarded as important markers of Roman Catholic identity. Just as one’s position on communion under one kind in the sixteenth century (or one’s stance on modern liberalism in the nineteenth century) could be used to identify someone as a “good” or “bad” Roman Catholic, it is clear that some Catholics today have identified abortion and stem-cell research as issues about which one must take a stand – but other Catholics clearly have not. Divergent ideas about what it means to be Catholic are as old as Catholicism itself, but the Notre Dame commencement controversy and the issues it brings to the fore remind us to keep our eyes on how the battle-lines are being drawn between the more conservative and more liberal Roman Catholics – and who draws them.


Adam W. Darlage is a former Junior Fellow in the Martin Marty Center and recent graduate of the University of Chicago Divinity School in the History of Christianity.
“I would like to consider why – and precisely how – attention to media might prove important for an account of religion in the contemporary world,” writes historian of religion Richard Fox in this month’s Religion and Culture Web Forum essay. Attempting to parse out the various assumptions made about media in studies of religion, Fox’s “Religion, Media, and Cultural Studies” argues – via a historical survey of Media Studies and an examination of the notion of “sacred books” in Friedrich Max Müller, Fox calls for more self-critical and politically responsible analysis on the intersections of religion and media. Responding to Fox’s work will be Stewart Hoover, Kathleen Moore, Diane Winston, and Ghada Talhami.

Visit the Religion and Culture Web Forum:

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

The Passion and Torture

We have been talking about torture, in part because of a survey suggesting that religious people seem to condone it more than non-religious people. This seems, to me, to run contrary to Christian faith. In part, because Jesus called us to love our enemies (something we all find difficult to accomplish -- loving our neighbor who isn't an enemy is difficult enough), but also because Jesus was and is the tortured one.

I have suggested two possible reasons why some Christians have supported the use of torture -- penal substitutionary atonement and belief in hell. If God is seen as a perpetrator of torture, then surely it is permissible for us. Now, not everyone who embraces either of these doctrines, supports torture. But, one could see how such a belief system could influence political/government positions. There are, of course, other reasons for such decisions, but we need to at least acknowledge the possibility.

With this in mind, I want to introduce another dimension to the conversation. Having already turned to Jurgen Moltmann, a theologian who came to faith while in a prisoner-of-war camp as a teenager at the end of WWII, I'd like to return to him. Moltmann is well-known for his teachings that God suffers in Christ as the Crucified God. With regard to the Passion and Torture, he writes:

Through his passion and his death on the cross, Christ put himself on the side of the victims and became their brother. But he did more. he also became the one who atones for the guilty. "Thou who bearest the sins of the world, have mercy upon us." It is this prayer which brings us together with the evildoers and within the divine compassion. Compassion is love that overcomes its own hurt, love that bears the suffering which guilt has caused, and yet holds fast to the beloved. (Jurgen Moltmann, Jesus for Today's World, Fortress, 1994, p. 68).

You may say, well the victims here are guilty themselves. You maybe correct, and the victims Moltmann has in mind are the victims of Auschwitz and the victims of the Argentine and Chilean dictatorships (which we supported). The detainees in Gitmo, surely they are of a different order. But are they? Are they not human beings, created in the image of God? Thus, whatever the perceived justice of our cause, are we not liable for judgment? And if so, what is the nature of that judgment -- is it to be tortured by God? Or are we able to receive forgiveness from the one who was tortured, and who from the cross offered forgiveness?

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

An Introduction to Panentheism -- Theoblogging

Panentheism – Definitions

As I continue my meandering trip through Philip Clayton’s Adventures in the Spirit (Fortress, 2008) for the Transforming Theology project, I come to Part three, which is simply entitled Panentheism. As Philip Clayton lays out his Emerging Christian theology, he places panentheism at its center. In chapter eight he introduces us to this concept that he will build on in subsequent chapters. In an earlier post I had referred to Dr. Clayton as a Process Theologian – he has responded in a comment that he would accept that title as long as I don’t hold him to any Process orthodoxy. I trust that in my comments here that I’m not assuming a Whiteheadian orthodoxy.

Chapter 8, which is the chapter under consideration here, is entitled “An Introduction to Panentheism.” We need to keep this word separate from a lookalike – pantheism. Unlike panentheism, which places emphasis on that middle syllable – en (which equals “in”), pantheism speaks of a full and complete merger of the divine and the universe. Panentheism seeks to preserve a balance between divine immanence and divine transcendence. Thus, while God is in the World, and the World is in God, God is more than the world.

In this chapter, as Clayton lays out his definitions, we’re introduced to the importance of infinity to the theological conversation. While traditional theism placed an emphasis on divine perfection, which ultimately required an unchangeable (immutable) God, a God separate and unaffected by the world. By moving our focus to infinity, new possibilities open up. In this setting, God is infinite, and the universe is finite, thus because the infinite includes the finite, so God includes the world. Clayton writes:

Thus, the essential infinity of God will require both that God include all other things within the expanse of the divine nature and that God as essentially infinite should be more than any of the finite things or sets of things contained within the divine being. (p. 119-120).

Why might we wish to move toward panentheism? One important reason for Clayton is its usefulness in engaging in a theological conversation with science. Traditional theism, which requires an interventionist God, is no longer viable. Science simply can’t abide by such an idea of an interventionism that would undermine the integrity of natural law. Panentheism also allows for a more cogent theodicy – defense of God in the face of evil.

Clayton notes that part of the criticism of panentheism is that it is too philosophically based. I must admit this is one of my own causes for resistance. It seems to impose a philosophical dimension on biblical theology, but I must admit that much of our classical theism is just as philosophically based. Perhaps it’s an issue of the starting point – sometimes it seems as if Whitehead has become the fifth gospel. That said, Clayton makes some good points in panentheism’s favor. Indeed, he suggests that it is when the concept is taken cumulatively, that is, taken together the arguments for panentheism seem to win the day.

What Clayton, and most panentheists with him, wishes to do is find a place between a strong monism (all is one) and deism, which places God so far outside the realm of the universe that God is simply not present. Once again we encounter “dipolar theism,” a concept that allows panentheists to preserve divine agency and personhood, while allowing for the concept of infinity. The analogy Clayton uses, one that he hopes is understood dialectically (two-way relationship), is a mind/body metaphor. Even as the Mind is to the Body, and the Body to the Mind, so God is to the world. God is the mind, the universe is the body. The value of this analogy – it “offers the possibility of conceiving divine actions that express divine intentions and agency without breaking natural law” (p. 128). This is key because in his attempt to imagine an emerging theology, one that can dialog with science, he wishes to preserve the integrity of natural law, while affirming the place for divine agency. Complete transcendence, would not allow for divine agency, except in the form of an interventionism that would compromise the integrity of the natural order, so by bringing into balance, transcendence and immanence, this integrity is kept in place.

I must say that I’m intrigued by this discussion, but I’m still trying to understand what it means for us as Christians. I have long found the idea of divine immutability (unchangeableness) of God difficult to comprehend. It seems to leave little room for a divine-human relationship, for God cannot be moved. While I embrace a transcendent God, it is difficult to conceive of a wholly other who remains distant from our realities. At the same time, to simply equate God and the universe leaves much to be desired. So, perhaps we have a way forward. One that recognizes the reality of emergence -- within science and in the church.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Hell and Torture

If penal substitutionary atonement might offer support for torture, might not the doctrine of hell? Going to Jurgen Moltmann for some help on this question, I find in his little book Jesus Christ for Today's World, (Fortress, 1994), a meditation on the religious foundations of torture. He writes that "hell is nothing other than religion's torture chamber" (p. 59). In this section he explores some of the theological definitions of hell that emerge in Christian thinking, including that of Tertullian who apparently speaks of "the screams of the damned in the fiery pit actually increas[ing] the joy of the faithful in heaven -- an idea which can still be found in eighteenth-century dogmatics" (p. 60).

This is a Christian dream of revenge: the heathen exulted when the Christian martyrs died in torment in the arena, and in heaven Christians will exult when, in return, the heathen are tormented in hell. (p. 60).
He continues by suggesting that hellish and earthly torture reinforce each other.

Earthly torture was supposed to anticipate the eternal tortures of hell, thereby averting them; and the eternal tortures of hell were thought to justify earthly torture. The hellish pains of torture which apocalyptic lust thought out for unbelievers and the godless are a prototype for all the ways of "making life hell" for other people. (p. 60).

This sentiment, this thrill at seeing judgment happen to one's enemies, leads to a denial of the "conquest of their enmity through love, as in the Jesus' Sermon on the Mount" (p. 60).

Now, for the kicker:
Anyone who is against torture and protests when "life is made hell" for other people must get rid of this apocalyptic friend-enemy thinking. As long as there is a hell for God's enemies -- and ours -- in religion there will also be direct and indirect justifications for torture chambers on earth. (pp. 60-61).

The point is simple -- our theology helps sustain our perspectives, including on that of torture.

Substitionary Atonement and Torture

The question is: why do Christians who attend church the most faithfully tend to support the use of torture. I've previously noted why torture is always wrong, but why do we not accept this testimony? One answer could be political -- the party that support(s)ed torture is supposed to be the more religious party.

But could it also be religious? I'm reading Borg and Crossan's The First Paul (HarperOne, 2009), and they wrestle with Paul's atonement language -- so that discussion is fitting into my mind this morning. But could it be that if one accepts the premise that God is justified in torturing (eternal fires of hell) a sinner, unless there is a substitute (read Jesus) who is able to bear the torture for us. Note that most theologies of atonement assume not simply death, but a torturous eternity for the sinner. Therefore, if God is justified in such an act then sure there is no reason why we're not justified in doing the same.

I think that we have to recognize that atonement language is present. We hear that Jesus has died for our sins, but if this true, what does it mean? Borg and Crossan suggest that our traditional readings of this matter are incorrect and anachoristic. We're reading medieval theologies into Paul.

To help us sort out this issue, Borg and Crossan suggest that the cross "reveals God's character as love and God's passion in the world." It's not substitution, but rather that he died for the sake of another. They write:

A parent risks her life and dies in order to save her child from a burning house. A soldier leaps on a grenade in order to save the lives of his buddies. One might say that the mother and the child died instead of the child and his buddies, but one wouldn't mean as a "substitute." Rather, they gave up their lives for the sake of others. They died that others might live. (pp. 120).

While Borg and Crossan don't deal directly with our current issue, I think that they're right about the implications of our theological choices. So, could it be that a theology that assumes God is in God's rights to torture, might give one permission to do the same?

Monday, May 18, 2009

Seminarians -- Sightings

This June I'll observe the 24th anniversary of my graduation from seminary and ordination (the next evening). I didn't go straight into church work -- went on to graduate school, and then more graduate school, and then some part time work, before getting the elusive academic position that I quickly lost -- long story. Anyway, the situation for seminarians has changed considerably in the past quarter century -- schools are closing or in difficult shape. Churches can't afford to hire, though for Catholics its a shortage of priests that's the problem -- a problem that a married clergy might help resolve.

With that in mind, I invite you to turn to this morning's posting by Martin Marty on the topic of seminarians!


Sightings 5/18/09


-- Martin E. Marty

Having had enough of headlines and cable television about distracting commencement events, I am planning to do a small, quiet commencement one the day before you read this. It’s at a favorite school of our tribe, Wartburg Seminary in Dubuque, Iowa, a school and a state (I lived in Iowa in the forties) for which I have affection and admiration – and, of course, concern, these being times of struggle for both schools and states. Let concern have center stage on this page, a concern prompted by readings and printouts and clippings which have to do with clergy support, opportunity, need, and possibility.

We historians are not given the gift of foreseeing, but as for seeing – as in Sightings – I learned long ago to look at trends and signs that don’t fit headlines or on cable. Thus, decades ago, while many chroniclers thought that “death of God” theology was a cosmic challenge, it occurred to some of us that “high-rise apartments and the long weekend” would do more to assault the world of Sunday Schools, church attendance, and the parish as a center of communal life. Today those trends continue, and the higher-rising of apartments and the longer-yet weekend keep playing their part. Forget the current “new atheism,” so readily reported on as an assault. Notice instead patterns of leisure like Sunday marathons and soccer, patterns of work in which 24/7 job demands increase, and now, of course, “the economic crash” that colors all prospects

. To sum up: “Rabbinic Market Tries Anxious Souls,” heads a story by Rebecca Dube in the April 22nd Forward. It turns out that plenty of idealistic and service-minded young and mid-career Jews have turned to rabbinic schools, but find the “pickings are decidedly slim” for graduates seeking first rabbinates. “This is the worst job market for rabbis in years,” says a Los Angeles director of placement. Older rabbis hang on to their posts, partly because they now fear the loss of retirement income. And many congregations cannot afford full-time rabbis, et cetera. Three Reform theological schools may have to merge into one.

“It’s the economy, stupid?” Not entirely. Roman Catholicism presents a somewhat different problem: a drastic and ever-growing priest shortage. In the May 4th America, the editors offered “A Modest Proposal”: Reactivate married priests, attract married candidates to seminaries, don’t insist on celibacy for clergy. Easy. Nothing in Catholic theology opposes this, and “married priests already minister in the Catholic Church, both East and West.” Observers see current trends leading to an almost priestless church, a contradiction in Catholic theological terms, and an inhibitor of Catholic life.

Saturday, Samuel G. Freedman in The New York Times told how “Economy Intrudes on Haven of Faith; Graduating Seminarians Face a Shrinking Job Market.” Shrinkage is caused – you guessed it – by economic hardship, demographic shifts, and more. Freedman visits a class of thirteen at Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School and tracks a dedicated graduate-to-be. Many churches are in declining rural or inner-city neighborhoods, and no economic trends favor them. Megachurches, the current alternative, work for some believers in some places, but bring their own vulnerabilities in a world of shattered markets and shuttered malls. No single pattern will serve.

I often like to cite those who say that the church and synagogue do not live by demographic trends, but they do best when they rely on the promises of God. One can overhear prayers by debt-laden seminarians, seekers of posts, or seekers of priests: “Come on, God of promises.”

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


“I would like to consider why – and precisely how – attention to media might prove important for an account of religion in the contemporary world,” writes historian of religion Richard Fox in this month’s Religion and Culture Web Forum essay. Attempting to parse out the various assumptions made about media in studies of religion, Fox’s “Religion, Media, and Cultural Studies” argues – via a historical survey of Media Studies and an examination of the notion of “sacred books” in Friedrich Max Müller, Fox calls for more self-critical and politically responsible analysis on the intersections of religion and media. Responding to Fox’s work will be Stewart Hoover, Kathleen Moore, Diane Winston, and Ghada Talhami.

Visit the Religion and Culture Web Forum:

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